Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 in a Nutshell

Read an agent's blog this morning where she tallied the queries and her responses for the year. There were some sobering numbers.

In January she received 442 queries. She responded by requesting eight manuscripts, which means she sent form rejections to 434.

You do the math. (Seriously. You do the math. I'm terrible at it.) I'd guess it's in the neighborhood of two percent receiving positive response. And she didn't mention how many of those she ultimately decided to represent, or whether she was able to actually sell any of their works. And this is a newbie. She's not some established agent with a long list of authors.

Actually, that's very close to my own results for the year. Of the many, many queries I sent out for Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter, a couple resulted in requests for the manuscript and one actually decided to rep me. So I'm not complaining. 2011 was a little hard in terms of all that rejection, but I'm WAY ahead of the game. I ended up with an agent. And who could possibly complain about that? Not me!

I'm still hammering away on the revision. I've almost completed recasting the opening chapters, trying to get more action faster without losing the character development. I think it's mostly working, but it's really hard to convey progress. A word count doesn't tell the tale. In fact, I'm sort of working on an anti-word count. Eddie wants me to see if I can trim the first six chapters into three. I'm pretty sure I won't make that, but I will get it down to four. And the next couple can be slimmed down quite a bit too. Then it's pretty straightforward, smooth sailing from there.

I actually spend a fair amount of time pacing between the front door and my desk (about 17, 18 steps, but remember I'm not a tall man and don't have a long stride) thinking "How do I get around that and still make sense?" or "What's the timeline events have happen in to be believable?" and suddenly a phrase or image will occur, and I'll dash back and clean it up. This is cleaning up time, not creating. It's more nitty gritty, nuts and bolts work. But it's what tunes up the story so that it runs like a race car instead of a jalopy.

This is what the job is really about. Not the writing, but the polishing and editing and shaping. Making sure all those words I wrote are pulling their weight. Making sure it works.

Happy new year!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Did I say that was the last word? Sorry, this is

I couldn't help myself. I have one more thought to add about sequels, and then I'll shut up. Probably.

The year was 2006. We were all eagerly awaiting the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie. The first, three years earlier, had been terrific and we were all expecting a great string of pirate movies.

And then one day I ran across an interview with Orlando Bloom (Will Turner) and Kiera Knightley (Elizabeth Whatsername.) And Bloom used the three words. Or perhaps to give you the full effect he had on me, he "USED THE THREE WORDS."

The interviewer asked what the new movie would be like. Bloom smiled and said:

"Bigger and better."

And I said - "Uh oh."

Visions of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom flashed through my head. The filmmakers wanted to outdo themselves and were once again mistaking the flash for the what really made the original work – the characters and situations.

Bloom repeated the phrase later in the interview, and I knew it was a bad sign. And I was right.

Look, I get it. The PotC series has raked in almost $4 billion dollars worldwide, they don't need me to tell them their business. But anyone who's honest will have to admit none have been as good as the first. You could even argue that none has been good except the first. The third – At World's End – was so bad it actually went back in time and made me like the first one less.

Even the first one, if you think about it, isn't a pirate movie. None of them are. Sure, there are pirates in it, but they're almost innocent bystanders – as innocent as pirates can get, anyway. The PotC films are monster movies, ghost stories, in which pirates get involved almost by accident.

And that's not just my opinion. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer rejected the original script because it was just "a straight pirate movie." Like there would be something wrong with that. It was his idea to add the whole supernatural aspect because why would anyone pay good money to see a pirate move that didn't have the undead in it?

But that goes back to my point about sequels. They didn't trust that audiences would fall in love with the characters, that Depp would be so entertaining, that the relationships and the – dare I say it? – acting would capture viewers. So instead of trying to tell a story, they junked up the sequels with virtually non-stop action and explosions and monsters and some crazy shit about the East India Company.

So any way that's my feeling about sequels, movie, book or otherwise. They ought to keep in mind the elements that made the original popular in the first place, and develop those.

Now, back to work.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Unexpected Treasure Trove of Books

Some friends are moving away, and that's sad. They've lived on St. Croix almost three times longer than they'd planned to, and now they're on their way to Panama.

But in a sliver of a silver lining to this cloud of woe, they cleaned out their bookshelf and gave us a couple of dozen books they thought we'd like, including four they were pretty sure would interest me. Man, were they right!

I have already begun using one as a reference work for the revision of Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter. It's Samuel Eliot Morison's The Great Explorers: The European Discovery of America, an encyclopedic compilation of the histories of the mariners who "discovered" the New World – as if people weren't already living here and it needed discovering. But socio-politics aside, it's a great book. They're all here – not just Columbus and Drake and Magellan. The Cabots have their place here and Hudson and plenty of other mariners, with their tales of adventure. Some you've heard of, some you haven't. And it's not just that – there are great descriptions of ships, sailors, life at sea, that are invaluable to someone trying to write about this age and this world. Morison isn't just a thorough, painstaking historian and a colorful writer – he's an adventurer and a sailor himself, and the book includes many photos he's take on the scene. When he describes Magellan's fatal landfall in the Philippines, he shows you photos he took of the spot! Terrific book and a great resource.

Then there's The Oxford Book of Sea Stories, a volume of 26 short stories about sailors and the sea, written by a host of writers including Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Melville, both Foresters (E.M. and C.,) Jack London, Kipling, Stephen Crane and Peter Ustinov.

Also included were two that I have to admit that – shockingly – I've never read. Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, considered by many to be the best maritime adventure ever written, and Jimmy Buffett's A Pirate Looks at Fifty. I know! Can you believe it? I started reading Buffett's book in the library several years ago and was loving it, but couldn’t check it out that day and never got back to it. I will soon have resolved that hole in my literary history.

Anyway, we'll miss our friends – and Tori will really miss their daughter, who she taught last year and directed in Midsummer Night's Dream. She's a great kid. Four books is hardly fair exchange for their friendship. They are pretty good books, but couldn't they just have stayed put and lent them to me?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sequels - Part 3

When I wrote my first YA novel, Chance, I envisioned three books and knew what they'd be about. Their titles were obvious – Chance, Second Chance and Last Chance. (Chance is the name of the main character, by the way.) I mentioned this to my then-agent, who said not to start planning the second and certainly don't start writing it until he'd sold the first – which he never did. So instead of writing Second Chance, I started working on Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter. But the then-agent decided he didn't want to represent it – or by extension me – any more. So that was the end of that until this summer, when I got the new agent.

When I signed with him this summer on the strength of Chrissie Warren, the new agent called and we talked a little about the book. Needless to say, it was my favorite phone conversation of 2011! And then he made it better by asking. "Would you consider a sequel?"

Let me say that again the way I heard it. "Would you – yes YOU!!!! – consider writing a SEQUEL??!!!!!!!!!!!"

I allowed as how I just might. It was not an accident that I left a couple of loose ends at the conclusion of Chrissie Warren Pirate Hunter, just as I had with Chance. Not holes, the story wraps up in a totally satisfying way, and I particularly love the last line. But there's an allusion to what they might do next that leaves me plenty of room for a sequel. And the agent caught it immediately.

His suggestion is, after I finish the revision (which I'm working on and very happy with) I write out a one- to two-page synopsis of each sequel I envision so that publishers will know I have something concrete in mind.

It's definitely a double-edged sword. If they like the book and are excited about it, it gives them one more thing to love. But it also feels like I'm going to rise or fall not just on how good the book is, but how good the ideas for the following two also are.

It's a risk I'm willing to take. I love the characters – Chrissie, her father Dan, shipmates Jack and Charlie and Nathan – I enjoyed spending time with them writing their story and want to see where I might be able to take them next. Or where they take me, because not everything in the book is my idea. They did some of it all on their own. They already have histories and personalities, so it won't be like starting over. And if a pubis her wants three books – well, hell, that's three times better than a publisher wanting one, isn't it?

So I'll definitely give it a shot. And that's all I have to say about that.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sequels: The Sequel

Not all sequels are created equal.

Yesterday I started talking about sequels, and talked about reading the three books of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series backwards. It's not the best way to do it. I confirmed that last night by picking up The Girl Who Kicked Over the Hornets' Nest and read the final couple of chapters. The end of that final book was as good as I remember. Although there are telltale signs that had the author not died, he might have gone for another sequel.

There is another series of books – wildly popular, best sellers the day they come out – that requires nothing of you as a reader except to move your eyes across the text and turn the page. Actually following the story is almost optional. The books are pure Teflon, they slide in and out of your head and nothing sticks.

Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum stories (which, like Dragon Tattoo are about to become a movie soon) are unique in my experience. To my knowledge there are 17 of them so far, and more power to Evanovich for finding a formula that works so well for her.

Here's the thing. It doesn't matter what order you read her books in. If you enjoy them, you'll enjoy them regardless which you start with or which you read next. You could read all the odd numbered ones first, then read the even numbers backwards down to 2, and it wouldn't change anything. It doesn't matter. You'll love 'em or loathe 'em the same.

Someone gave us about a dozen of them in June 2010, and over the course of about a month we passed them back and forth among ourselves, reading whichever happened to be free at the time. It didn't matter. The stories aren't interdependent and the characters – while colorful cliches – were amusing and the situations unlikely enough to keep you going. And since the characters and their backstories never change, it doesn't matter.

In fact I'm convinced that not only do you not have to read the books in order – I think you don't have to read the chapters of a given book in any particular order either.

But here's the catch. Once you've finished reading her for a while, you can't go back. At least we couldn't. At first read the books were amusing, fresh. A few months later I tried to reread one and just couldn't. And this summer someone gave us a newer one and we tried reading it aloud to each other. (I do a very good voice for Lula.) We made it, but it was a chore and we spent way more time making fun of the story than wondering what would happen next.

It seems the author has become trapped by her own formula – stuff happens and characters do things for no other reason than the author decides it must. Whatever the last one we read was (16? 17?) there were several scenes with Grandma Mazur that had nothing to do with the story – nothing – but exist only because the formula requires a couple of zany scenes with Grandma in every book. Most of the book involves Stephanie and Lula driving around Trenton, with Lula talking about diets. Oh that Lula and her diets.

But who am I to complain? The books are hugely successful, Evanovich has far more fans than I have hairs on my head (that's a different problem that I can't blame on Evanovich.) She clearly doesn't need my advice and would probably be a fool to take it. I'm pretty sure she's not a fool. She just has low standards about what constitutes a plot.

You, on the other hand (assuming anyone reads this and that's not likely) might want my advice. And that is, if you think you want to try them, buy a fistful and read 'em all at once, nonstop. Because if you pause, there's a really good chance you won't pick them up again.

But maybe that's just me. She must be doing something right. I just can't figure out what.

• Tomorrow I'll have the final sequel on my rambling discourse on sequels and why I've been thinking about them in the first place.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sequels: A note, with more to come

One of the five or six most beautiful words to a writer must be "sequel." It's right up there with "published," "royalties," "options," etc.

I mean, if someone wants to publish a sequel to your work, it must mean the first was successful. And it's a chance to get paid to spend more time with characters you've already created in a situation you already know a lot about. No, it's hard to see a downside to sequels.

So here is the first of three notes on the subject.

Finished – I just finished reading "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" in time for the movie. I'll tell you the truth. I don't see what all the fuss was about. Yeah, it's a good story, interesting characters, a lot better story than many, but I've read a lot better, too.

It starts slowly, and is overwritten, especially that half a chapter explaining how Swedish guardianship law works. Didn't need that. I'll bet no Swedish reader needed it either.

I'll also be honest when I admit I read them backwards. It just happened that way. Someone gave us "Hornets Nest" about a year ago, and I read it. Liked it better than the other two, and loved the courtroom denouement. Then last spring we found "Played with Fire" and so I read that. It felt weak, and someone just a few days ago told me he thought it was the thinnest of the three, just "connective tissue between the first and third." I couldn't disagree.

Then I got my hands on "Dragon Tattoo" about a month ago and finally read it. It was OK, but there weren't a lot of surprises, I already knew about Harriet Vanger, about Wennerstrom, some other things. So that probably wasn't the best way to do it.

And if Dragon's half chapter on guardianship was bad, the obsessive drumming in Hornet's Nest on the history of postwar Swedish politics was even worse – not enough to make the reader actually understand, but way too much to let the story just run unimpeded. And that was the one I liked!

Together, they don't feel like three separate books, an original and two sequels. They feel like one huge mother of a book that was just too damn big to publish, so they broke it into three. And that's definitely a lesson to be learned. Sequels are all well and good – in fact, from an impecunious author's standpoint they seem fantastic! But make sure each book is complete, stands on its own and ends satisfyingly to someone who doesn't read any more in the series. Ironically, that's probably the best way to guarantee they will read more.

So anyway, I've read it, finished the cycle, and I'm glad I did. It was pretty good.

But I don't understand what all the fuss was about.

Next – Teflon sequels.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Keeping Up on Scurvy Dogs

Chapter 9 of Scurvy Dogs!, which I read to the kids last week, was as good as I'd hoped, and they loved it as much as I'd thought they would. There's a nice zig zag at the end, and only about five of the roughly 30 kids saw the zag coming. That's always nice. (And the adult in the room didn't, so that's satisfying.)

Finished chapter 10 yesterday and was supposed to read it to the class today but got pre-empted. So I'll be reading tomorrow.

In the meantime, mostly been doing work stuff, and a lot of it. (I get paid by the story, so that's good, especially around Christmas.) And nibbling around the edges of the Chrissie Warren revision. I'll turn full bore, hard core on that next week, when school breaks for the holidays. Which works perfectly, schedule-wise. By the time school starts up again I'll be done with Chrissie. I'll send the finished (this time around) manuscript back to the agent, then be back at work on Scurvy Dogs! in time to have another new chapter for the class.

So 10 chapters done, and they work. I'm pretty sure in the final draft I"m going to want to cut these first 10 in half, but hat's a problem for another day – hopefully by early spring.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

E-books: Mistaking Content for the Container

On Nathan Bransford's blog, he often opines about the growth of e-books and the future of the "traditional book." And people always complain – rightly, I think – that e-books "just aren't the same." It got me thinking, and here's my take on the matter. I was a little surprised by my conclusion.

A newspaper where I worked many, many years ago, was converting from typewriters to computers. We had an early text editing system made up of primitive video display terminals hooked to a big mainframe. We thought we were in the future.

Inside each of these VDTs was a small speaker, maybe two inches in diameter. Every time you pressed a key, the speaker emitted a little "click." Or maybe it was a clack. Hard to recall now.

This was because the hidebound old traditionalists in the news business, the older reporters and the editors, had been working on typewriters all their lives and couldn’t deal with a machine that didn't make a noise when you hit the key. It made them nervous, edgy. So these little speakers clicked and clacked comfortingly. Those of us a bit younger (whippersnappers!) found the whole thing amusing.

The old farts (like I am now) grumbled that they weren't computer jockeys and they weren't typesetters. They said their job was writing stories or editing them, then sending the typed copy off to the composing room where the words would get set into type. They objected to the blurring of that boundary. They didn't think they're job had anything to do with using a computer.

But as time passed, people got used to the new "normal." Computers became more ubiquitous in newsrooms and in our lives. And one day one of the younger copy editors grew tired of listening to the pointless, artificial clicks coming from the VDTs. She went around the newsroom with a pica pole (another obsolete newsroom tool) and gave every VDT a "speakerectomy," cutting the wires. No more clicks! The units stopped making noise but continued to function just fine. Because of course, the purpose of the system was not to produce clicks. It was to get copy to flow from the reporter to the editor to the press.

E-books are something like that. Some – maybe a lot – of people talk about how they love the tactile experience of reading, the smell of a book, the feel, the crackle of the page. The heft of a book. They can't accept the idea of reading without those parts of the experience. I'm one of them. And I am the first to agree that a book is a desirable object in its own right. There's something about a bookshelf crowded with volumes that gives pleasure for its own sake.

But the function of a book is not to smell a certain way or feel a certain way or look cool on a shelf. The function of a book is to convey information from the author's brain to the readers', whether a novel or a textbook, an adventure story or a political treatise. Just like the clicks in the primitive VDTs, the tactile experience is secondary. It's altogether separate from the actual function of the book. It has nothing to do with reading.

When we make that distinction between e-books and traditional books, we're mistaking the content for the container. And the simple fact is, e-books have it all over traditional books in performing the actual function of a book.

Yes, I own lots of books Before we moved from Oregon to the tropics, I had to winnow our collection, getting rid of almost 3,000 volumes, and that stills leaves me with about 2,000. They are, unfortunately, still in storage in Oregon and I want them. I want them NOW. I want my copy of "Treasure Island" with the Wyeth illustrations, and my autographed "Peter and the Star Catchers: and "Empire of Blue Water." I particularly want the copies of the four "Caper" stories I wrote and self-published with Cap'n Slappy. Surprisingly, you don't find them in the thrift store here on the island.

If they were all e-books, I could have slipped them into my pocket before I got on the plane. I'd have them now and not still be sending monthly checks to the storage company.

If you've ever directed young people in a period play, even something written in the 1960s like "Play It Again, Sam," you'll find that when the character they're playing has to make a phone call, they have no idea what to do with a dial phone. They really don't. They stare at the thing and you have to show them how to pretend to use it, and even then, it's not convincing because they have to think about it instead of doing it naturally. They don't miss dial phones, or even digital phones wired to the wall, because they've never experienced them. And that also points to where books are headed. It won't be long before they are curiosities, not necessities.

And if you think about how telephones and newspaper text systems have changed in just a couple of decades, you'll realize e-books will also change so much, so fast, that in a few years we'll barely recognize today's Kindle or Nook as e-books, just like today's reporter would be baffled by those old VDTs.

E-books will replace traditional books because in the ways that matter, they offer far more benefits. They're less expensive to produce, don't consume trees, are far more portable. Soon we won't even say "e-books." The word "book" will mean the content, not the container, to coming generations, most of whom will never read or even hold a traditional book. Just like the comforting clicks of the old VDTs, the tactile experience that we think of as reading but which actually has nothing to do with what the word means, will bow to the realities of the electronic world.

Books will go on. Masses of paper smeared with ink and bound between covers probably will not.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Someone a Lot Smarter than Me (16)

Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Anton Chekov

Update: 685 words on "Scurvy Dogs!" this morning, but it finished what I think may be my best chapter ever, and brings the total for the book so far to 14,205 words.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

General Thoughts/This and That

Did some really good revision work on "Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter," the last couple of days, though there's much more to do. Did write one passage that I like very much, so I'll probably have to delete it ("Murder your darlings," as the saying goes) and the new framing device is working very well.

Today and tomorrow I'm finishing up a new chapter of "Scurvy Dogs!" because the kids don't care that I have a deadline – they want another chapter.

And it's not a pressing deadline. The agent thinks there's little point in pushing before the holidays, you can barely get publishing house editors on the phone, and you certainly can't get them to read something during this time of year.

In the meantime, there were two good blog posts today on dealing with agents when you're in the query stage. The first post is some good advice on turns of phrase that might set off alarm bells for a potential agent. (Alarm bells are bad things, of course. You want your query to set off choirs of angels or something similar.) The second blog has some advice on how not to behave with agents, written by an agent who had just had an off-putting experience. It's the sort of thing you wouldn’t think you'd need to be reminded of. I mean, real "duh!" stuff. but there you go. Some people think the rules don't apply to them, or aren't aware that there are in fact rules.

Anyway, the agent, Janet Reid (who has both her personal blog and the very helpful "Query Shark" blog, explains it really succinctly. If I may quote: "I'm astounded people think this is Undergraduate Lit 101 and I'm some sort of prof with office hours for writers to drop in and get help. This is a for-profit business and I spend my time doing what I think is going to make me boatloads of money. Shiploads would be better. Helping you figure out why your book doesn't work is not going to make me any money. It makes you feel better. Those are NOT the same things."

Books are such a personal thing, and a love of good books marks you as a sensitive individual. So sometimes people sometimes forget that the first thing about the book business is – It's a business.

As to the boatloads of money, sounds good to me. Although I'm always ready to settle for a suitcase full, as long as it's a pretty big suitcase and none of the bills are smaller than twenties.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

THIS is the fun part!

It may be Saturday, but I couldn't wait to get to work today. Not on "Scurvy Dogs!" My agent yesterday sent the revision notes for "Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter."

These are suggestions that he has, six pages of notes with his reactions to the book, things he thinks I ought to consider before it's ready to be shown to publishers. Plus a marked-up copy of the manuscript with thoughts and suggestions.

Scanning them, they fall into three categories – things I agree with completely; things I can see the point and have to consider; and a few, very few things I don't agree with. He made it clear, these are his suggestions, it's my book and it’s my call.

But c'mon. He's the agent, he's the one who will show it to publishers, he's the one who understands what they're looking for and how they think. More importantly, he's an informed eye giving me the benefit of an outside view. I'd be a fool to ignore him.

The big issue is the pace of the opening chapters. I knew some people found that problematic, but wasn't sure what to do. I thought I'd made it as solid as I could and couldn't really think of how to pick up the pace. If the book is about the change the main character goes through as a result of the action, changing from a quiet, timid girl into a courageous, active figure, then don't we have to see that timid person?

But I had one of those "Aha!" moments, literally. I was driving home from an errand, I wasn't driving more than 10 minutes and I wasn't thinking about the story. But when I got out of the car I had it all in my mind – exactly how to make it work! "Aha!" I said.

I love moments like that.

Funny thing – One of his notes is that he's not crazy about the title. "Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter." Now, as I wrote earlier, that was not the original title. The original was "The Wreck of the Gladys B." and it was the name for about two years. It took me a long damn time to come up with "Chrissie Warren Pirate Hunter," and it took a chance comment from my daughter to get that. So I don't know if I've got anything better. But I'll think about it.

And if anyone is reading this and has an idea, I'll listen.

But I've gotta get back to work. I have already written – rewritten – the first 700 new words, and I’ve got lots of work to do. This is the fun part. Writing the story is hard work. That's where you discover what the story is. This is the part where, I know the story, now how do I tell it the very best way possible so that people will want to read it? That's fun.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Thursday, December 1, 2011

"Scurvy Dogs" Update

I'm not sure when and I'm not sure how, but today I wrote about 2,200 words on "Scurvy Dogs!" This after managing just a couple hundred here and a couple hundred there the last four days. Sometimes it's nice when you can clear the deck and just plug away.

So anyway, the total is now 11,961, which isn't bad. We're making progress, it's (at a wild guess) about a fifth of the way from the end.) And the next chapter will be the best yet. I'm certain of that.

I do really like one part of the last chapter, where the squire is talking about his youth on Jamaica, sailing with Henry Morgan, and Jamie is kind of shocked. He'd known that the squire hadn't always been a middle-aged, mild-mannered man peering over the top of his glasses, but it had never occurred to him that he might have been young and adventurous and – well, of course they didn't use the word this way back in 1690s Jamaica, but – cool!

And I thought about my own folks. We never can know the whole truth about our parents, and it's hard to think about my dad as a young man, marching across Belgium with a rifle, ready to shoot other young men, some of them probably with the same last name – Baur is the Bavarian spelling of a common German name, after all. He talked very little about his experience in World War II, mostly just his Christmas story (perhaps I'll share it at Christmas) and a few funny basic training stories. Whenever, as a boy, I asked for a "war story," he kindly and gently excused himself. It wasn't something he wanted to talk about, so I can only guess. We can never really know our parents.

Anyway, after reading the chapter to the class (I added another bunch of students – the other fifth grade class – so now I've got an audience of about 40 for this) I asked them to do some homework. Go home and TALK to their parents and find out one cool or unexpected or just fun thing their mother or father did when they were young.

I'm looking forward to hearing the stories.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Be Bold!

I read a blog post in which the writer, an agent, was giving some advice on how to sell a book. Not how to write it, but how to give yourself an edge once you've written (and rewritten and rewritten) and are trying to sell it. Because, like Samuel Johnson said, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." (I'll bet if we knew the context of that quote it wouldn't be nearly so cynical as it sounds.)

Much of the material in the blog is stuff you've heard before, probably many times. Have an online presence, use Twitter, read widely, attend conventions. All good advice (except the Twitter thing. I can't imagine ever doing Twitter. That's the line I don't see me crossing.)

The most important point, and the one most applicable not just to writing but to life, is the last one.

"Don't be afraid. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Don't be afraid to fail. Neither will kill you."

Absolutely true. You try. Maybe you fail, maybe you succeed. But you can't possibly succeed if you don't try, and what's the worst thing they can do if you fail?

If you don't believe in yourself, why should anyone else? And I don't mean you have to believe you're the greatest writer of all time. I mean believe in your ability to master the skills to becoming a writer – first an adequate one, then a good one. And after that? Who knows, maybe there really is a great writer inside you.

I am reminded of someone I know who wants to write, but is paralyzed by the idea that he might be rejected. It didn't help when I tried saying, in a happy, jocular tone, "Of course you'll be rejected! Everybody gets rejected at first! That's how you learn!"

Rejection of authors who eventually become iconic figures in American letters are legendary, almost cliche. Ray Bradbury, James Thurber, Erle Stanley Gardner (who got one of the best rejection letters ever for what turned out to be the first Perry Mason mystery) and Stephen King all went through it. "The Hunt for Red October" was rejected by more than two dozen publishers before it became a best seller. Most writers say quite candidly that being rejected helped them improve to the point they eventually got good enough to get published. It's part of learning the craft.

By that standard, I should be the smartest writer ever!

But I haven't given up, in fact I know I'm a better writer because of it. You dig in. You read more. You read your own stuff more self-critically, more honestly, looking for ways to improve.

And it paid off three months ago when I finally landed an agent. (Or did the agent land me? Hmmm. Interesting question.) Now he's preparing a set of revision notes – things he think the book needs before it'll be good enough for him to show publishers. Note: I didn't say "good enough to publish." Maybe it will be, I certainly hope so. But the next step is "good enough to show publishers."

Someone a lot smarter than me – my dad – used to say nothing beats hard work. His favorite quotation was something Thomas Jefferson said – "I am a great believer in luck, and find that the harder I work the more of it I have."

• Speaking of not being afraid, everyone who has seen the great, great movie "Almost Famous" knows that Goethe once said "Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid."

The problem is, that's not the actual quote, and Goethe didn't say it.

The closest thing you'll find in literature is "Go at it boldly, and you'll find unexpected forces closing round you and coming to your aid." That's pretty close and if Goethe had said it we could just chalk it up to wonky translation. But he didn't.

That was a comment from Basil King.

Who? You know, Basil King! A 19th-20th century Canadian cleric who became a writer.

Another one to file under "Everything you know is wrong."

But "Almost Famous" is still a terrific movie, probably my favorite or at least top three of the last 15 years. The "Tiny Dancer" scene? I swear, I was on that bus back in the day.

Great movie. But the line they gave Frances McDormand, while perfect for the character, just isn't right.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Congratulations to Kate!

My daughter Kate, 21, just completed her National Novel Writing Month project, and four days early! Way to go, Kate! Can't wait to read it!

Kate's taste runs toward fantasy, and she's always been a huge fan of dragons, so I expect both of those will be featured. And she has an unusual sense of humor I enjoy.

She woke up this morning earlier than usual, her fingers itching to get started. She had almost 8,000 words to go when Tori and I went to bed last night. I believe she was up 'til about 4, then got up early and ground it out!

And she understands that she's not finished. She's just getting started. Now comes the fun of editing and rewriting until it's perfect - or as perfect as you can make it.

But for now - Wow! Way to go Kate! You did it!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Someone a Lot Smarter Than Me (14)

A word is not the same with one writer as another. One tears it from his gut. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket

Charles Peguy

Monday, November 21, 2011

Almost Missed this Anniversary

I must be having fun, because time sure is flying.

It occurred to me last week that a big anniversary passed by in September and I missed it. No, not Tori and my anniversary. I am proud to say that in our 22 years of marriage I have never missed that celebration. Sept. 5 – my very best day ever..

No, this is even older anniversary. Forty years ago last September I became a reporter. I walked into the newspaper classroom at Miraleste High School in September 1971 and I've been a journalist ever since.

I'm not going to waste anyone's time – least of all mine – reminiscing about the news business. I've met some really interesting and cool people and some jerks – and sometimes they were the same person. And sometimes they were my co-workers. I covered some really interesting stories and wrote so many obits and four-graf traffic accident I couldn't even begin to count. It's been a living – barely. More importantly, it's been a life.

When I started I wrote on a typewriter, with a glue pot on my desk. You glued all the sheets together, top to bottom, to make one long take they couldn't get mixed up in composing. There were actual spikes on the editors' desks. Back in the day, when you spiked story, you SPIKED it! The editor sent the copy down to composing via a pneumatic tube.

Now I work for an online news service, The V.I. Source. I tell people we're the paper with no paper. Hell, we don't even have an office. We're spread over three islands and converse almost entirely by e-mail.

There's no big conclusion here – no epiphany or wise words. You want wise words? You came to the wrong place! I just happened to think about that the other day and thought it was worth mentioning. 40 years is a long time to do anything. And I learned a lot about writing. Had to. I know my way around a sentence, and that's a fact. Sitting down at the keyboard – whether a 1920s era Underwood or this MacBook – is not a daunting proposition.

Anyway, I thought that was worth mention.

• It's also the 40th anniversary of when I met John and Andy, my two old high school friends. We were inseparable – and undoubtedly really obnoxious – during high school and I'm still in touch with them. Andy is in Seattle and John in Ojai and we've all had interesting lives full of things we never could have imagined. What's the saying? Life is what happens while you're making other plans. They're still two of the best friends I have. Happy anniversary guys! Oh, and I saw a T-shirt Saturday that perfectly expressed us. It said, "The Older I Get, the Better I Was."

Also, and this is less than meaningless so feel free to stop reading, I attended three high schools from 1969 to 1973, and within a decade of my graduating, not one of them was still a high school. Father Ryan is still around, but they moved it to fancy new digs on the other side of Nashville. I can't imagine the old Gothic building near downtown is even still standing. We moved to California and I went to Fermin Lasuen, but a year and a half later it closed. It's now a retirement home for seniors. Oddly, so is the hospital I was born in. And Miraleste is still a school, but because of population shifts it's now a middle school. Most people go to one high school for four years and can still go back and relive the glory days. I went to three, and they're all gone.

On the other hand, there's my friend Mark, who went to high school in Seattle. About a decade after he graduated he went back to visit the old stomping grounds and found a chain link fence and a big hole where the school used to be.

Okay, enough reminiscing. Time to get back to work!

Friday, November 18, 2011

They Did It Again!

Two days ago I wrote and posted a blog about copy editors having these weird usage pet peeves that no sane person would care about.

And yesterday the U.S. Post Office brought me the new copy of Writer Magazine. And on the card stapled into the middle it offers subscribers a "free gift!"

Let me repeat, it's a redundancy. If it's not free, it's not a gift. It's like being a "self-confessed" anything. Who else could confess for you?

I don't want to start the whole thing up again. I just want to say I'm really disappointed in Writer. I'm sure it was the advertising or promotion department that was responsible, and I like to think the editorial staff whined and complained and protested, but those hacks in the advertising department held them at gunpoint and forced them to run the promo card with "free gift" in it. Those sadistic bastards!

Otherwise I'd have to reconsider renewing my subscription. Because if you can't trust Writer to know how to write, who can you trust?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Good Day's Work

That was a productive day. 1,899 words today, all in "Scurvy Dogs!"

And as it turns out, they were pretty good. Bonus! The kids enjoyed them, liked the ending, followed it all and had plenty of comments. Tri liked it a lot too. It wasn't perfect, not by a long shot. Something wasn't quite right, and I can't quite put my finger on it. And I got one litte thing backwards, in retrospect, nd straightening it out will be tricky. Well, that's why you have second drafts. And thirds and fourths and ninths.

But it was mostly good. And more to the point, it got the story where it needs to be. The two main characters – Jamie and Spider – know about the shipwreck, and they're the only ones who know where to find it. They also know that Maggie was on the ship that wrecked. Now they just have to find a boat to get there so they can claim the salvage before the pirates who are hot on their trail get there. And avoid Spider's grandfather (who once sailed with Henry Morgan.) And some other stuff.

Oh, and somewhere in here, I've got a pirate I want to call "Itchy John." Just 'cuz.

Now if tomorrow can be just as productive, I'll have some momentum going at last.

But anyway, 1,899 words today. 9,132 total so far.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Right Word

"That's rather unique," my wife said. She was talking to Kate, but glancing at me out of the corner of her eye.

Kate smiled and replied, "I'd say very unique, wouldn't you?"

"Extremely unique," Tori agreed.

This was all for my benefit – if benefit is the right word – and that's what this is about, the right word. They were having a laugh at my expense, poking a little good-natured fun at me.

Because, as I've often said, loudly and with exasperation, "You can't qualify 'unique.'" It drives me crazy when people use a modifier with the word.

Unique doesn't mean different, or unusual or rare. It means completely unlike anything else. Something can't be really unique or totally unique, a little unique or more unique. It's either completely unlike anything else, or it's not. And if it's not, it's not unique.

That's the trouble with being an editor, especially a copy editor, and I've spent a lot of my life in that job. Most people have a particular sound or song they don't like, a food or a way of behaving. Copy editors' pet peeves tend to be words and phrases that set their teeth on edge. I feel a shiver of annoyance every time I hear someone say "That's really unique," or a "little unique."

In fact, back in the day one of the first things they taught you as a journalist was "never use the word unique." Right after "Don't type on the back of the paper." Yes, that was in the day when we typed on paper.

It just happened again! A guy on a TV show just told a woman, "I've never had a gift this unique," implying that there are varying levels of uniqueness. Idiot. It's like being pregnant. You can't be a little pregnant, and a thing can't be a little unique.

And that's hardly all. I've only known one reporter who used ironically correctly every single time. (Hint: It does not mean coincidentally or fittingly.) A bank ad really got my goat the other day when it offered free gifts. (Redundant. If it's not free, it's not a gift.) Or kids when they try to excuse something say it happened "on accident." That's understandable, though no less grating. Something is done on purpose, so the opposite would seem to be on accident Except it's not. It's on purpose and by accident. I don't know why there's a difference, but there is. When the kid says, "What difference does it make?" I can only reply, "It's the difference between sounding educated and sounding like a hick."

And there are dozens more such peeves. Am I a snob? An elitist? Maybe. But what I mostly am is a copy editor.

Wasn't it Mark Twain who said something like the difference between the right word and an almost right word is the difference between a lightning bolt and a lightning bug? No one had a way with words quite like Twain. One might say he was unique – but don't.

UPDATE – Just FYI, "Scurvy Dogs!" is now over 6,000 words. Not great progress, but better when you realize I've been writing about a thousand words a day for the Source as well. And I'm finally past all the exposition so the story can finally start running.

Kate. meanwhile is kicking ass on her NaNoWriMo entry, and having a lot of fun doing it. So at least one of us will have a finished product at the end of November.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Someone a Lot Smarter than Me (13)

Write Something You Love. It may be tempting to try and chase the flavor of the moment or what the industry says is selling or the novel you think you should write, but that doesn’t work. You need to love your novel unconditionally if you’re going to finish.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Name Game

Writer magazine this month has an article on naming characters. All the usual advice about consulting baby name books and using period phone books or other resources from the era your story's set in. If the reader is going to believe your character is a specific person in a specific place, the name has to be right.

Well, I don't have anything to add to that. It all makes total sense every time I read it, and I'll bet I've read almost exactly the same article a half dozen times over the years.

Instead I want to suggest one place to look for names that I've never seen in an article. No, I don't mean the Internet. Baby name lists and historical records are all over the 'net. That's not where I've gotten my best names.

Before moving to the islands, we lived in Albany, Oregon. Just up the street, not 100 feet from out front porch, was the entrance to the Oddfellows Cemetery. It wasn't the oldest cemetery in town, Albany prides itself on its pioneer past, but it had sections that went back into the mid 19th century. We used to take our dog, Shiloh, for walks there almost nightly.

And every time I was struggling for a character name – every single time I'd walk through the cemetery, tossing a tennis ball for Shiloh to chase, some grave marker I'd walked past dozens of times would suddenly offer its name up. I needed names for two henchmen - the bodyguards of an evil, Moriarty-like character. And up popped two stones, not a dozen feet apart, Dedman and Livingood. Needed a name for a dangerous mutineer – wandered across the main marker for the Leech family.

Every time I was scratching my head, struggling over a name, that cemetery supplied exactly what I needed. And it wasn't like it was a huge cemetery, there were no more than a few hundred headstones.

And now that I think about it, how different is using a cemetery to find character names than using a list of baby names? One is from the beginning of life, one is from the other side. What you're looking for is just a datbase of names that you can mix and match to name an imaginary person. In fact, the baby name list only offers first names, while the Oddfellows Cemetery gave me more last names than first, and they're harder to come by. So the cemetery is more useful.

Baby names are online, easy to find and sort through, or in books. Cemeteries offer a marble database, searchable only by walking. So there's that.

Or, you could use a random name generator. Stand in the cemetery and throw a tennis ball. The stone it stps in front of is your characters first name. Throw it again for the last name. Voila! You've got a character – and a nice bit of exercise as well!

Monday, October 31, 2011

This and That

National Novel Writing Month begins tomorrow. Thirty days to write a 50,000-word novel, while celebrating Thanksgiving and at least giving thought to Christmas. Me? I'd have picked a 31-day month without much else going on, maybe March.

I am participating, at least in the sense that I am writing a novel and it is November. I started it last month and I don't expect to be finished by Nov. 30. I'm not ruling it out, but it's not likely. I'm sure I'll have written 50,000 words by then, but not all of them in the novel, many in the news stories I write to pay the rent. And the story is more likely to be about 65,000 words long, and if I pull that off, it'll be a first. The first draft of "Chance" was 110,000 words, which I eventually cut below 89,000. The first draft of "Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter" was about 85,000.

My daughter Kate is planning to take part, so it'll be fun to chart her progress. And my esteem for the concept has gone up quite a bit since I learned one novel that started as a NaNoWriMo project was "Water for Elephants," a great book and my favorite movie of the year.

"Scurvy Dogs" is going really well. I'm very excited about it. When I read the third chapter to the fourth graders, one asked about where the ideas come from, and whether I thought of the title first, or the story first. Actually, that last is a good question. Usually I (and every writer I've ever heard of) write the story, and the name kind of becomes obvious. There are legendary stories about authors whose desperately bad titles on great books were saved by publishers.

But with "Scurvy Dogs!" I actually saw the cover of the book – and of course the title in my head before anything else. I even made note of the typography, the font and text treatment. And the title told me a lot about the story, and the ruminating I did about it brought all the pieces together. As I told the class, I just wish I could have seen it a little more clearly and actually seen the inside pages. Then I could have read it, and writing would be a breeze, just a matter f retyping what I saw!

At the very least I wish I could have seen the back cover to see who gave me good reviews. And maybe the picture of the author (me) to see if I've lost that weight.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Interesting Morning, to Say the Least

I was planning on working on Scurvy Dogs! today but got called in on a story I had to cover. A junior high anti-gun rally. Problem was, the main speaker hadn't thought through her line of reasoning, lost control and it somehow ended up with her suggesting that when the kids go out they should make sure the gun they're carrying isn't loaded. I'm not kidding. "Leave the Bullets at Home" seemed to be the motto. Sort of like Chris Rock's advice on never going to a party with a metal detector.

She never perfectly extricated herself, but most of the kids ended up signing the anti-gun pledge anyway, so I guess it worked out. But that's how I spent the morning, instead of finishing what is an amusing chapter in which the main character is explaining to his guardian why Mr. Dawson was threatening to kill him if he was ever caught in his orchard again.

In other news, I've been reading an amusing memoir called "A Monk Swimming," by Malachy McCourt, an Irishman who came to the U.S. penniless in 1952, became the first celebrity bartender, invented the singles bar, was a well-regarded actor and ended up as a regular on Jack Paar's "The Tonight Show" spinning tales as only an Irishman can. In the acknowledgments he writes, among many thing, "To the English, for forcing their language down our throats so that we could regurgitate it in glorious colors." Which sounds like as good a description of the Irish as I've heard. It also includes this passage:

The great Gaels of Ireland
Are men the gods made made
For all their wars are merry ones
And all their songs are sad.

Yep, another hardcover I paid a quarter for at the thrift store.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Making Progress

Been really busy with work the last few days. Done a lot of writing, but very little of it on "Scurvy Dogs!" Still, I've had a little time every day, and it's added up. Finished the third chapter, and starting chapter four.

For the record, since Monday I've done 1,176 words for a total now of 3,192. Or, off the top of my head, roughly three to five percent of the book. And almost 3,000 words for the various news stories I've written.

And under the circumstances, that's not bad. You don't always get all the time in the world. Sometimes it's about making use of the time you've got.

Couple of bright kids

I mentioned last week when I read to Tori's class, and the fourth grade joined them. They're good smart kids. When we were talking about the characters afterward, I asked them what they thought of Maggie Williams. "She's very elegant and sophisticated," one of the fourth grade girls said, putting her nose in the air. Such language! And I don't mean that in the way I usually would when talking about the way "kids today" talk.

Then another fourth grader – I'm don't recall why – mentioned that I was obviously a fan of pirates because of the tattoo on the inside of my forearm. Only he didn't say it that way. He said, "because you’ve got Blackbeard's flag tattooed on your arm." Most people don't get that. I've had dozens of people ask me what it is, but no one has ever glanced at it and said, "Oh, Blackbeard's flag. The devil stabbing a heart." Even the local brew pub, on the label for its delicious Blackbeard Ale, uses the Calico Jack Rackham Jolly Roger (crossed cutlasses under a skull.) So for a kid sitting 10 or so feet away to notice it and recognize it was impressive.

These are smart kids. If there's something wrong with the story they'll find it for me.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A good day

So far, so good.

Read the first two chapters of "Scurvy Dogs!" to Tori's class of fifth graders – plus 18 fourth graders she invited in – and they liked it. Some of them were a little put off by the lack of exposition, as I had feared. But that was the fourth graders. Most of them got it. My secret weapon comes through again.

And afterward, when I asked them, "How old are these kids?" or "Where are they?" they were able to answer. And when, at the end of the talk, when I asked if they had any ideas what happened next some of them came surprisingly close, even though pretty much all we'd done was meet four characters and see a little bit of action. One of them, Ricardo, was quite close, although Maggie doesn't die as he suggested. That's kind of dark for him, he's one of the cheeriest kids you'll ever meet. He just appreciates the drama, I guess, and the biggest Harry Potter fan I've ever met.

Anyway, we're launched on the story and the kids understand that their job is to let me know what works and especially what doesn't, so I can fix it. And they were absolutely thrilled when I let them know that when – not if, but when – the book is published, their names will go in the acknowledgments.

Today – 884 words. Total words to date – 2,013.

Monday, October 17, 2011

And Away We Go!

That was fun. Enough with the plotting. Started to get moving on the story. Finished the first chapter. Didn't wrote as much as I usually like, but I've got a bunch of errands to run, so that's OK. In fact, it' probably a good thing. One of my goals is to write it a little shorter, make the book read a little faster. Sometimes my writing can get downright baroque, so shorter is good.

Also took a bit of a gamble, Instead of establishing characters and place and time, all that exposition that "has to go somewhere," as Diana Rigg says in "The Great Muppet Caper" (my favorite Muppet movie, not the least because it features Diana Rigg) I just have these two young characters being chased. I want to see if I can make that interesting enough that it captures the reader right away, and lets me do the exposition a little later. I do a little to set it up, but it's mostly just action.

And I must remember Steve Swinburne's rule no. 1 – Active verbs! Tumbled, not "fell." Pelted and raced and streaked, never "ran."

Anyway, it's started And away we go!

Today – 801 words. Total so far - 1,1,37.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Growing Plot and National Novel Writing Month

The plot for "Scurvy Dogs!" just keeps growing, getting more fun, more complex, more interesting, and the inspiration is coming from all directions, which is the exciting part. A couple of days ago I was playing a Wii game, "Sid Meier's Pirates," when an image from the game stuck in my head. Thought about it for a while and finally it was there, full grown, how to make it work in the story, and make the story I was envisioning much better. It requires two new characters, both of whom I'm delighted with. And it seems to work even better than what I'd thought of before.

Of course, now that I'm ready to write, you can never be sure what the characters will take it into their heads to do. That's really true. If you write the characters as honestly as you can, make them as real as possible and not victims of your plot – you know what I mean, characters whose actions are motivated only by the exigencies of the plot and the needs of the author – you will find them doing things that you hadn't planned, but you have to admit are right.

That's when writing gets really fun.


Next month is National Novel Writing Month. For 30 days, participants will work their little fingers off writing the great American short novel. To meet the goal you have to write 50,000 words, which works out to 1,666 a day every day (except for one day when you have to write 1,667) including Saturdays, Sundays, and Thanksgiving.

You can learn all about it on their website. I won't be taking part for the very simple reason that I've already started my novel (the rules say every word must be written between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30.) I don't want to start over, nor do I want to be confined by an arbitrary time or length limit. But I know a couple of people who are, and I encourage them – and you, if you want to try it.

I'm of two minds about it. Anything that prompts interest in the novel and in writing, or that inspires people to try their hand at being creative, is a good thing. So mostly I'm a fan. It's probably fun.

On the other hand, it sets up some unreal expectations. 50,000 words does not a novel make, even a YA novel. And there's a sort of attitude on their website, a "Ha ha, see, this isn't so hard. What are those whiny authors complaining about" feeling, that's a little hard to stomach.

But the biggest problem I have is that the website suggests that Nov. 30 is the finish. Look at you! You wrote a novel! All done! Well, yeah, you finished a first draft, and a short one at that. The reality is the first draft isn't the end of the process, it's the beginning. Now comes the rewriting, the editing, the brutally honest reappraisal. Somebody (wish I remembered who) said, "Novels are never finished. They're eventually sent off to publishers." Because no matter how hard you've worked it, there's always something more you think you could do.

But decide for yourself. It might be just the thing you've been looking for to get started, and there's one of those online communities of other participants to cheer you on, plus listings of writing groups all over the country where you can find fellow pensters to work with.

If you want to knock out a novel next month, by all means do. Start your planning now (no rule against that) so you when you roll out of bed Nov. 1 you have some idea what you're up to. And get to it.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Someone a Lot Smarter than Me (12)

"Repeat the mantra: Writing is when I make the words. Editing is when I make them not shitty."
– Chuck Wendig

As usual, Wendig says it more pithily and more pungently than most.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Busy But No 'Scurvy Dogs' Today

It hasn't been the day I'd expected, anything but that.

First, we took Millie to the airport where she left for L.A. and the start of her great adventure we call life. Very exciting, but we miss her already.

Then I was off to a meeting of the Elections Board, which of late has been surprisingly contentious. Today it took them forever to get a quorum. When they finally got one, it turned out they had no business to take care of. They did nothing, and they did it really slowly and politely. Then they lost their quorum. That as my morning.

This afternoon I was hoping to get work done on "Scurvy Dogs." Instead we had one of those stories that took all hands to the pumps – and it's not over yet. Federal agents raiding a V.I. senator's office. Because I happen to be home I'm the one taking info from people and rolling it into the story.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Plot Thickens!

OK, first of all, sorry for that last one, the post last week on dialogue. What a pedantic pile of crap. The point was good. I just wish I hadn't sounded like a horse's ass while writing it.

Now, on to better stuff. I'm starting to hit my stride with "Scurvy Dogs." I'm in the plotting-it-out stage. That's what I did with "Chance" and "Chrissie Warren," and for me it worked. If I'm driving cross country, I'm gonna bring a map so I know more or less where I'm going. I don't have to stay on that road – I can take scenic detours and short cuts as the mood strikes, but I want a feel for how I'm going to get to the end of the journey.

Similarly, when I write – especially when I wrote "Chance" – my plot outline is, as Barbossa says of the code in "Pirates of the Caribbean," "more like a guideline." It was a rare week that I didn't go into the plot and amend it as the story took unexpected twists and the characters insisted on doing things I never expected them to. That necessitated either figuring out how the story could eventually get back on the map, or were it would go instead. The point is to not become so attached to the plot outline that you don't give the characters free rein to ignore your best laid plans, if that's what they insist on doing.

So anyway, I spent the last week working on the plot for "Scurvy Dogs." Started a little slow – I knew generally what the story is going to be, but hadn't really thought about the details, all the things that happen along the way to give it depth and texture.

And then all of a sudden, it started happening. I'd be driving somewhere or washing dishes and suddenly something will occur to me – "Of course! Buck has some land that he'll lose if he can't come up with cash!" or "Of course! Jamie is being taught by his uncle!"

It always feel like "Of course." It's a great feeling. Sometimes you don't even realize what was troubling you, or that something was troubling you, and from out of nowhere, when you weren't even thinking about it, there comes an answer, sometimes an answer to a question you hadn't gotten around to asking yet, but as soon as the thought occurs you realizes it solves a problem. They won't all pay off. I've got a note about deus ex machina that I'm pretty sure will seem too contrived when I get to the writing. But I write it all down and see if it can fit somewhere.

As the ideas occur, I dash off a note to myself and later work it into the plot which is growing excitingly now. I'm almost ready to start writing in earnest and looking forward to it. Because the "Of course moments" feel great, but they're nothing compared to the "Ahas!" that come when writing.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Tone Deaf

I am reading a book written by a woman with a tin ear for the way people talk.

I'm not going to name the book or author. It as mailed to me for review, and I make a point of not panning books I don't like. I don't lie and say I think it's great. If anyone reads my reviews they can be sure I really am recommending the book to them. If I don't like 'em, I just don't review them. As I think I've said, I know how hard writing can be and I honor the effort even if I don't like the result. Suffice to say for the purposes here that it's a self-published novel by a first-time novelist who has apparently never listened to people talk.

The story isn't that bad, I suppose, although it's a romance, and that's not my thing. But the dialogue is so painful that I can't read more than a page or two before tossing the book across the room.

Here's a small sample (but it's no better on any randomly chosen page.) A small girl thanks the main character for a gift. "Captain, thank you for my doll," she squealed. "She is so lovely." ... "You are most welcome, Rianna."

Seriously? A girl young enough to be pleased with the gift of a doll says, "She is so lovely?" And the reply, "You are most welcome." Is that the way we're supposed to believe this woman pirate captain talks?

Dialogue is not easy to write. People get self-conscious and it becomes almost too stiff and formal.

I think I write pretty good dialogue. Of course, I'm sure the woman who wrote this book thinks so, too. Maybe I'm kidding myself as badly as she is. But others have mentioned it, and it feels right to me.

And that's probably a key. There are no rules about dialogue, other than "How does it feel? Does it sound real?"

But there are some things we can do to improve. The first and most important is to go out in a crowd and listen to people talking to each other. You have to train yourself to ignore the content, the what they're saying, and listen to how they say it.

Obviously different people from different backgrounds or "stations in life," as the Victorians said, will talk differently. And two people who know each other well talk in a verbal shorthand (married people practically speak in code) while strangers talk in a slightly more formal style.

But use your ears. Listen. For one thing, people in conversation don't use so many adverbs and adjectives, and they use contractions. They stop and start, use fragments as they edit themselves in midstream. "She is so lovely" in a real conversation would almost certainly come out as "She's beautiful." (Don't know why, but I don't trust "lovely" in this context. Sounds wrong for a kid.)

Where are some places you can eavesdrop in conversations? Not because you're nosey, of course. Public transportation is good, malls, restaurants. You just have to be close enough to be able to listen without being noticed. Try not to be obvious, and don't take notes. If they notice you, they won't like it. And they won't be mollified when you explain you're working on your novel.

There's a downside. You'll find yourself at parties, eyes half closed, your mouth possibly agape, as you try to tune in to the sound of an argument from across the room.

If you're not sure about something you've written, try reading it out loud. Seriously. Read it out loud and ask yourself if it sounds real. Or you know what might work, and might be fun, to boot? Have a friend over. Tell him/her what the character is and what information you need to convey in the conversation. Then you be one character, he/she be the other, and improv it, just like a theater game. Try it a couple of times and record it. Play it back and see what it sounds like. After a few tries, you can probably improv whole scenes, and our friend does half the work for you.

That may be why (I think) I write good dialogue, or part of it. I've done theater for almost 20 years. You rehearse enough, you think about the scene and the content and the character and it starts to become second nature.

But I could be wrong, of course. I could write conversation not a whit better than the sample I gave. So let me give you this shipboard conversation from "Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter." We've established that these are all 18th century sailors, common tars. They've known each other for years.

How ‘bout a song Mickey, eh?” he asked.
The man he addressed, a tow-headed Irishman with a sweet tenor voice, just looked at Charlie, his teeth still working on his salted beef, his plate still half full.
No?” Charlie said, undeterred. “How 'bout you, Sid?”
Stevens was also still eating, and called back, “Why don’t you sing, Charlie.”
Everyone seated nearby laughed, Charlie not the least.
Me sing? While you’re eating? Well, if you don’t mind me chasin’ away all the fish and making birds fall from the sky, sure!” he said to even more laughter from those who knew him.

I did read that out loud, and it sounded right to me. It's not an important exchange, just some working stiffs killing time. Although it does lead to something, so there's that. So it's important that the reader believe these guys. If it were written in the style of that other book, Charlie might have asked, "You want me to sing?" instead of "Me sing?" I think my way works better.

Why does it matter? How we express ourselves, both the words we choose and the way we say them, are very personal indicators of who we are. Same is true of your characters. The way they talk is just as important, maybe more important, than your description of their face or hair or clothes. Get it wrong, and readers will not believe your characters. If they can’t buy your characters as real people in a real situation, they're not going to buy into your story.

Just like I can't believe that little girl with the doll she thinks is so lovely.

Monday, September 19, 2011

One Step at a Time

"How do you write?" the young hopeful asks Stephen King. The author blinks, and replies, "One word at a time."

Sounds facetious, but of course that IS how it works. Not just in writing, although certainly there. "One step at a time" is the rule for most endeavors, including selling the work you've so painstakingly written.

So I was delighted, thrilled, relieved and probably a few other emotions when I FINALLY got word that an agent wants to represent "Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter." That's a big first step on the journey.

I know. I know. It's a long, long way still to go. And the journey may never end up where I want it to. But the first step has finally been taken. I've got an agent. And he's not just enthusiastic about this book. We talked on the phone about "Chance," the first YA novel I wrote that didn't find a home with a publisher, and about the new one I'm working on, "Scurvy Dogs!" It sounds as if he's enthusiastic not just about the one book, but my career as a writer. At my age it seems silly to be talking about a new career, but hey. I don't mind.

It's been a long, sometimes painful process just to get here. It's taken more than a year and I don't want to tell you how many queries. Let's just say it'll make a great story some day.

Among the many tools a writer needs – beside grammar and spelling and imagination and all that – is a hide as thick as an elephant's. Because it's easy to get beaten down if you let it. The funny thing, to me anyway, is during that whole long ordeal, receiving message after message that, while very politely, even contritely phrased, amounted to "Go away, ya bother me!" I never once lost hope I never thought, "Hey, this many agents can't be wrong. Maybe the book isn't very good." No. My reaction every time was, "What's the matter with HER? Doesn't she want to make a lot of money?"

I know. You're not supposed to mention anything about the process, and certainly NEVER say anything bad about an agent or an editor or a publisher. Because of course, they all have computers and Internet access and Google and can look me up and find out I said things I don't want them to know I said. Or something like that.

But today is my chance to spike the football in the end zone. I may get an "excessive celebration" penalty, but I think I've earned it, just for this one day. Then it's back to work. Because the agent is interested in "Scurvy Dog!" which means I've got to finish writing it.

And read it to my wife's fifth graders. They're my test subjects, of course.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Someone a Lot Smarter than Me (10)

"The editor likes the taste of the coffee better after he's pissed in it."
Jubal Harshaw a character in Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land"

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Ol' Chumbucket's Book Club

On our Talk Like a Pirate Day Web site, I review books – but not just any books. "Ol' Chumbucket's Book Club" focuses on pirate books of course, and you'd be amazed how many there are. And more coming all the time. Right now I have six sitting on my desk to finish writing about, and the first two of those are below.

Pirate books run the gamut from history to swashbucklers to romance to picture books for the kiddies. I've read some great stuff. But I will not write a bad review. If I don't like a book, I keep my mouth shut. I know how hard the business of writing is, and I honor that even when I don't like the result. It's too easy to write a quick and dirty pan, and I won't lie to you and recommend some book I think is crap. So from me it's either laurels (translated into a scale of one to five tankards of ale) or the silence of the watery grave. I've given a couple of twos over the years, but never a one.

It struck me that, since this blog is about writing and pirates it might be a another good place to post those reviews. So, here's the first pair of Ol' Chumbucket's Book Club for this site. And you can read through the back history of pirate book reviews here.

"Pirate vs. Pirate" vs. "Pirates vs. Pirates"

Two books with practically the same title arrived on my island this summer. They're both fine tomes and they're both stories of competition between some of the best pirates on the planet.

"Blast me deadlights!" I cried. "How is a gentleman rover supposed to tell them apart?"

Well here it is in a coconut shell, mates. "Pirate vs. Pirate" is a fantastic picture book for readin' to the kiddies up to about first or second grade, I'd reckon, while "Pirates vs. Pirates" can entertain the crew in roughly the fifth grade range all the way up to adults.

"Pirate vs. Pirate" – by Mary Quattlebaum, with illustrations by Alexandra Boiger – tells the story of Bad Bart, the meanest, baddest pirate on this side of the Atlantic, and Mean Mo, the roughest, toughest pirate in the Pacific. They both want the world title, so Bart sails his ship and Mo steers hers towards each other. When they meet, it's a titanic competition for ultimate supremacy of the pirate world. But the two are so evenly matched there's only one way this battle royale can end.

There's a real sense of "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better," as man and woman pit their strength and wits and buccaneer bonafides. As contest after contest ends in a tie, their animosity turns into grudging respect, and then into something more. I don't want to give anything away, but as they say, it's a story of sharing and caring like no other. There might be an "Afterschool Special" in there somewhere.

I love the book, and yer nippers will get a big kick out of it whether they're boys or girls. But my favorite part is the illustrations. We have been told that Mary Quattlebaum and her husband are HUGE fans of Talk Like a Pirate Day and our source said "you and Slappy are 'as gods' to them." So maybe it's just a coincidence or maybe it was a subconscious thing – or maybe it was an out and out tribute – but Bad Bart looks EXACTLY like Cap'n Slappy. I mean a lot. Bart IS Slappy, if you ask me.

Anyway, "Pirate vs. Pirate" is a fine read for the wee ones, who'll enjoy the zany contest for piractical supremacy, and get a warm fuzzy all over as the rivalry becomes something else.

"Pirates vs. Pirates," on the other hand, is all about which age gave us the best pirate. Imagine a fight to the death between a Viking raider and a Barbary corsair, or a Buccaneer and an ancient Cilician. Who would win and why? And who would be crowned the ultimate one-on-one fighting pirate champion?

Award-winning author Richard Platt imagines bouts among 10 such rivals and then crowns a champion. There is no main text, it's all breakout boxes, illustrations, foldouts and factoids. It's quite a fancy package, reminiscent of the TV series "Deadliest Warrior."

Platt envisions 10 contenders from throughout the long history of piracy – four of whom would fall under the rubric of "classic pirates," a Caribbean privateer from 1580, a Buccaneer from 1610, a Roundsman (who cruised "on the round" between the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean) from 1700 and a Golden-Age Freebooter from 1720. He pits them in action in five fights (Viking fans won't be happy, their man falls to the Barbary Corsair surprisingly quickly.) Technology plays its role; the bronze sword and shield of a "Sea Person" from 1100 B.C.E. were no match for the pistol and steel blade of a privateer.

But the ultimate winner (no spoilers here!) owes as much to his tactical skills and experience as to his weapons, and those of us who say "Arrr!" on Talk Like a Pirate Day will be glad with the way this turns out. OK, so a little spoiler.

"Pirates vs. Pirates" is a good compendium of some of of the world's top seagoing raiders, with insight into their characters, weapons and history, although the author makes the point that this is about face-to-face solo fighting. The Chinese pirates' swarming fleet actions are not taken into account, or the privateers' tactics of cutting out a single galleon from the treasure fleet. This is man to man – even when they're women.

Together, "Pirate v. Pirate" and "Pirates vs. Pirates" covers the entire age spectrum.

"Pirate vs. Pirate" gets 5 full mugs o' grog, I liked it as much as I've liked almost any picture book I've seen in the last 30 years (and as the father of six, I've seen a LOT of picture books.) "Pirates vs. Pirates" gets 4 mugs. I enjoyed it, but I liked the whimsy of the other book just a bit more.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Heck of a Deal!

Tori came home from the thrift store this weekend with a prize for me.

No, not another coup like a few months ago when we found a signed, first-edition hardcover of Bruce Campbell's memoir, "If Chins Could Kill." (Still can't believe we got that for a quarter.) But this was pretty good all by itself.

A pristine, mass market paperback edition of Stephen King's "On Writing."

This book is one of my very favorite books about the craft – mostly because he treats it like a craft, not an art. I don't understand the word art, or the concept. It's a slippery devil. I'm not sure how useful a word can be if no one can agree on what it means. I'm also not big on the word talent, as far as it implies some gift that some people have and others don't and there's nothing you can do about it.

I like the idea of craft or skill. Those imply things you can learn, practice, improve. If you keep your humility and accept that you don’t know it all, don't have all the answers and don't have some secret, god-given gift that know one else does, then you can grow in your craft.

The first half of King's book is his memoir. He says right at the front he doesn't know how to make a writer, he just knows what made him a writer, and tells the story. The second half, or really about the final third, is very practical, down to earth advice about how to build your writer’s tool box, what to put in it, how to sharpen your skills. He has a lot of pithy advice on dialogue. It's a good read.

She also brought home a copy of Patrick O'Brian's "H.M.S. Surprise," the third n the Master and Commander series. When I first came across that series I devoured them, all 20 in less than 10 months. Outstanding historical/adventure series, and must reading for anyone who wants to write in the genre, just to see how it's done by a master. Since I got all 20 from the library, I don’t actually own them and haven't been able to reread them.

Well, know I own two. I got the first one, "Master and Commander," about a year ago, also at a thrift shop, and now a second. On top of the King, that was gravy.

And the amazing thing is, the thrift shop has stopped charging for books. They were charging a quarter a piece, but now apparently so many have been donated that they have to clear them out to start over. So every week or so we go down, fill up a shopping bag, buy a few shirts or coffee mugs and take the books for free.

There are worse deals on the island, let me tell you.

And an update – Wrote 1,200 + words yesterday on a project Tori and I are doing together. Won't have as much luck today because I've got a story for work in the afternoon and I'm editing tonight. But I'm going to try to get at least a few hundred in as soon as I finish this.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Paradigm Shift

Talking recently to an acquaintance who had just written an article. In the course of the conversation he said something along the lines of: "I always enjoy writing WHILE I'm writing, but later when I look at what I've done it looks stupid. I start second guessing myself hating what I've done, and that spoils everything for me."

Time for a paradigm shift, my friend!

Don't throw down your first draft and think, "Man, this really sucks. I should never write again." No! The aftermath, as you call it, isn't a time for self-loathing. It's a gift! It's a second chance!

The second draft is your opportunity to say, "OK, that's a start (good start, bad, indifferent, doesn't matter. It's a start.) Now what can I do to make this EVEN BETTER?"

It's an unbending, unavoidable fact of life. NOBODY'S first draft is good enough. Even if it's pretty good, it can be better, and that means it isn't good enough. My first draft isn't good enough. Yours isn't. Dave Barry's and Neil Gaiman's aren't. Not even Bill Shakespeare's first draft was good enough. And he didn't have the luxury of a word processor to fix his. It was back to the quill and inkpot for him.

That doesn't mean that no one should ever write. On the contrary, it means writing is one of the more forgiving of the creative arts.

When you cook, if you make a mistake there's no going back. You've blown it. You eat the burned meal or you get out a box of mac and cheese. When you're a sculptor and you slip, there ain't no gluing that chunk of marble back to where the horse's tail was supposed to be. It's gone, baby. Painters can slop more paint over their mistakes, but they can't make them go away in the way hitting the delete key can.

Actors, and singers and dancers can practice and practice and practice, but if they make a mistake in performance the audience sees it in all its gory glory.

But when you make a mistake writing, no problem. First of all, it's private. No one will ever see one word you've written unless you want them to. So that's a start. One of my all-time favorite phrases is "I'll fix that in the rewrite." Aaahhh! God, I LOVE that phrase.

After all, that's what rewrites are for. The chance to make it closer and closer to perfect. Shit, even God didn't get it all right the first time. He needed six days.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Man with a Terrible Mind

Chuck Wendig is not for everyone.

He's a writer, and his blog, "Terrible Minds," is like few others. Powerfully written. Teeming with excellent advice. He does this writer's blog thing very well. But he's not for everyone.

For instance, you might not like to be insulted, which Chuck hands it out lovingly and in large, hilarious doses. Or be constantly referre to as a penmonkey. You might not appreciate some of his pungent observation in "Why Your Self-Published Novel May Suck a Bag of Dicks," although if you're being objective, you have to at least consider his points.

You might not enjoy repeated use of the word "fuck."

I'm guessing here, because it's hard for me to imagine why a writer wouldn't enjoy his work.

He has a recent post titled "25 Ways to Fuck with Your Characters" that covers the same ground I did last week in "Better Living Through Friction." Needless to say he covers it more colorfully than I do, with some concrete exmples. Such as: "6 - Deny Success With Speedbumps, Roadblocks, Snarling Tigers. This one? So easy. Whenever your character reaches for That Thing He Wants (a girl, a cookie, world peace, a leprechaun’s little hat), slap his face. Throw a tiger in his path. Chop off his hand. Thwart his every grope for the brass ring. That said, don’t let your story become torture porn. A character needs smaller iterative successes to match the longer, larger failures. 'I didn’t get the leprechaun’s hat, but I got one of his little shoes. We can use it to track him.'"

He often does lists of 25. Another recent one, "25 Ways to Become a Better Writer," was a terrific post. Inspiring. In his usual twisted, almost sick style.

Anyway, that's all for now. Just wanted to direct your attntion to Chuck Wendig, a master penmonkey showing us all the way. And writing his name ith piss in the snow while he does so. Neat trick.

Like I said, he's not for everyone.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Someone a Lot Smarter than Me (8)

I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different.

Kurt Vonnegut

Friday, July 29, 2011

Two Stories and Two Lessons

I don't much mention my reporting work for The Source, but I've had two stories recently that I think are interesting enough and how they came about instructive enough that I thought I'd write a little bit about them here.

The first is the aftermath of a tragedy. Late October 2009, a small plane crashed on takeoff from the airport here on St. Croix. All three people aboard died. I happened to be out on an assignment very near by and got to the scene pretty quickly. Got the story. Also got the story a few weeks later when the NTSB filed its preliminary accident report online.

I knew the final report would come about a year later. The process takes that long. And I knew there'd be no big announcement, they'd just post the final report in their online database the same as they'd posted the preliminary. So starting in September I started checking the database every week. In October I started checking daily. And I kept it up through November. Still nothing. And my checks to the site continued, once or twice a week instead of every day. It helped that I often drive by the site. There's a small white cross planted in the field at the very spot where I remember seeing the charred, twisted remains of the little Cessna. So that was a regular reminder to keep checking.

And finally, a couple of months ago, it paid off. I checked onto the NTSB website and in the reports for October 2009 accidents, there was the final report on the accident. Anyone who'd read the preliminary report couldn't have been surprised, but now it was confirmed. And not only did I get the story, I was the only reporter on island who did.

So there's lesson No. 1 – Persistence eventually pays off.

The second is similar. Last November the new Captain Morgan's Rum distillery opened on St. Croix. Once they use up all the current stock of the Captain, made on Puerto Rico, all the Captain Morgan's Spiced Rum in the world will be made here on St. Croix. During the opening ceremony, the CEO of the international company said they'd be spending anther four or five million to build a visitors center at the distillery. That kind of money should build a LOT of visitor center, so I tucked that away.

I drive by the distillery about a dozen times a week, mostly ferrying Millie to and from work. And every time I drove by I'd glance down the hillside and say to myself, "I ought to call and find out how the planning for that is going." But I never did. I knew the parcel of land they would be using and there hadn't been any activity, so I knew I hadn't missed anything. Still, it nagged at the back of my mind.

Finally, two weeks ago, I said it again, "I ought to call." And I finally did. Talked to the guy who runs their V.I. operation. And he said yeah, plans were well under way. In fact, he said, they''d be breaking ground the next day.

So I got the story, and again I was the only reporter on island who had it, even though I'd almost missed it too. It made it look like I was right on top of things, instead of just one lucky bastard.

The lesson from this is obvious, and more important than the previous. It's hard to beat good luck.

I'd like to claim it was my persistence or diligence or keen observation, but the fact is, it was sheer dumb luck. And you can't discount its value.

And I think those lessons also apply to other writing, the importance of persistence and the even greater value of luck. And probably to everything else in life as well.