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!