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.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Better Living Through Friction

Into each life some rain must fall, or it'll be a pretty dull book.

We writers spend a lot of time creating characters. We try to make them real. We try to give them personalities that will engage readers, make the readers care about them enough to follow their journeys. Then, having created what are almost real people, real friends, we heap abuse on them, subject them to every indignity and danger that occurs to our twisted minds.

At least, that's what we do if we're smart. As a filmmaker/instructor I once read noted, nobody ever paid ten bucks to see a movie titled "Another Happy Day in the Village of Comfortable People."

But occasionally we fall in love with our characters. We like them so much we don't want anything bad to happen to them. So we set up phony problems and trivial obstacles, we stack the deck in their favor. And the result is a snoozefest.

I mention this because I was recently asked to review something, and it was just that – a cure for insomnia. Since I can't recommend it I'm gong to keep my mouth shut about who wrote it or what was written. I don't write negative reviews. Even if I hate something – and I have from time to time - I respect the process. I know how hard writing can be so I'll honor the effort even if the result was ... less than it could have been.

And this writer was clearly in love ith his character. They were facing a problem. No big deal, we'll come up with a plan. They decide on their plan and – No big deal! Here are the steps! We'll follow them! Boy, sure glad that's over!

That was the book in a nutshell. If there had been any difficulty in following the plan, if things had gone wrong or new obstacles had arisen or ANYTHING, it might have been worth reading. Danger or difficulty need to escalate. But there wasn't a real problem to solve, and solving it was easy. There was no heat. And then, just when it looked like they'd achieve their goal, they did, without any stress or ado. They were unstoppable, so I had no fear or worry that they might not make it. And that meant I didn't care.

How do you start a fire? Friction. Two sticks rubbing against each other create heat. Two characters with conflicting goals create a story worth reading, or one character chasing a goal but coming up against more and more difficult obstacles. Write your character into a corner where you're really not at all sure how he or she is going to get out of it. Then watch them struggle until they do.

If I ever get another tattoo, that's what it's gong to say, across my left forearm where I'll see it every time I sit down to write.

Put some friction in your fiction.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Rose by Any Other Name

I am generally considered by my friends and family to be a fairly clever fellow. Bit of a know-it-all, if truth be told. Pedantic even. Hell, I even appeared on "Jeopardy." Didn't win, but I was on the show. It's not everyone who knows the meaning of "Quilp."

But god, sometimes I can be so damn stupid.

Spent the day pulling together in a spreadsheet the list of agents to whom I've sent "The Wreck of the Gladys B." If I'd been doing this from the start it would have been an easy process. Instead it's been damn tedious, digging through the e-mails (I was at least smart enough to save them all in a separate folder) and figuring out who and when and if they'd ever responded in any way. (Usually not.)

But that's not the stupid part. Tori and I were talking about it, and Millie mentioned that if there was ever a movie made from it (good girl, she actually said, "when" they make a movie of it,) she has dibs on playing the lead character, Chrissie Warren. "I want to play Chrissie Warren – Pirate hunter!" And I thought – Ohmigod, I'm such an idiot!

This is where you came in. Sometimes I can be so damn stupid.

Because "Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter" is so much better a title than "The Wreck of the Gladys B."

Let's compare. "The Wreck of the Gladys B." Who's Gladys? What a stupid name. A wreck? Why would I want to read about a wreck? If it's a wreck, is everybody already dead? What kind of a story is that? This is stupid.

Now the new one. "Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter." Pirates! Cool! I LOVE reading pirate adventures. Chrissie Warren, that's a girl's name. And a girl who hunts pirates! Wow! Maybe she'll hunt down Jack Sparrow!

See, it just wins in all kinds of ways. So much better.

And truth to tell I never really thought that was going to end up as the name. As I wrote it and was reading it to the class, I always wondered what the real title would be.

So far I've sent 46 queries on the story under the original name. Gotten a couple of enthusiastic "no thank you" replies and a handful of polite nos, and a lot of silence, which any author will tell you is par for the course. It's hard, as the "no replies" pile up, not to take it as "We've taken a vote and we want you to go away and never come back."

Today we sent one out under the new title. We'll send a few more. And I know it's going to make all the difference.

And if not, something else will. Because, like the vast majority of authors, I live in constant hope

Monday, July 4, 2011

Where was I?

Hmmm, where did I leave off?

Summer means changes in schedules and figuring out how to find the time to get things done. School's out, and everyone's at home.

So where DID I leave off? Oh, that's right. Bones.

I'm sorry to say, did not work very well. I was able to find an end so the kids weren't completely disappointed, but it didn't work. And I think I know why.

I have now written three YA novels. And the first two, I could tell you what they're about in 5 words – the classic five-word pitch.

Chance – "Boy Runs Away, Becomes Pirate."

Gladys – "Girl Fights Pirates, Save Pa."

What's Bones about? Don't really have an answer. Not in five words, not in 50. And that was the problem from the get go. The first two, I started with a definite idea of what it was about, how it would be told, where it would go. Bones I had this idea that I thought I could turn into a story, but an idea isn't a novel. It's an idea, and I never had a firm enough grasp on it to make it work.

That doesn't mean it's over. No. I'm going to put it in the desk drawer (metaphorically, it's on the computer, of course) and let it ferment while I work on other projects. In six or so months – maybe more, maybe less – I'll take it out and see if anything occurs to me. It won't have changed, of course, but maybe I will have.

Then I'll either get back to work on it, or put it back in the drawer and work on something else.

So, lesson learned. I'm not saying the only way to write is to know exactly what you're going to do before you do it. But for me, having a good idea of what the story is and how I want to tell it is important.

And I've already got a start on my next one. Scurvy Dogs. I can tell you what it's about in five words. And I know how I want to tell the story.I know generally what happens, have "seen" a couple of scenes. I'm going to save that information for now., but I'll be sharing it as we go along.

In retrospect, most of my journal for the last few months most sound sort of pathetic. Flopping around trying this and trying that to save Bones, when what it needed was not some clever trick but more solid grounding before I ever got going. And I did learn a lot. In fact, I may have learned more from this setback than I did from the two that went so well.

Anyway, summer's here. Got some writing to do.