Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Better late than never? I think not

Got a response yesterday from an agent. One of the scores I had queried in my search.

It was the usual, "Pardon this form response but we get so many that if we're going to reply in a timely manner ... blah blah blah ... doesn't fit our needs ... blah blah blah ... perhaps another agent ... etc."

I looked it up in the list I kept of every agent queried and their response. Wow. Turns out I queried this agency last June, eight months ago. I'd hate to think how long a reply would have taken if they hadn't used the form response! And that was an agency that didn't request any pages so it's not like they had a long manuscript to wade through. Just the query, which I kept under 400 words.

I thanked them for their reply and said indeed, another agent had signed me, six months ago. No reason to be any cattier than that. Karma, don't you know.

But for future reference, if more than, say, four months have gone by, you can safely delete it and move on. Because I sure did.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Finished, Again, for Now

Finished the revision of Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter that Eddie the Agent requested. I'll be sending him the latest draft as soon as Tori has had a chance to eyeball it one more time.

It's pretty good, and almost 5,000 words shorter. Some chiseled away carefully, word by word, letter by letter. Others hacked out in mass purges where I realized the scene might be very nice, might be particularly well written (usually not) or amusing or interesting, but had nothing to do with advancing the story. Again, that's gotta be one of your top rules – know what the story is and don't put in anything that doesn't advance it.

And it really amazed me a couple of times. Tori had marked a couple of places, underlining the text where she thought the writing wasn't right, the tone was off or I was wordy, or she could hear Morgan Freeman. And almost every time I realized the writing was clumsy because it didn't advance the story. It was superfluous – just me showin' off how smart I am, I'm afraid – that it stuck out like the cliched sore thumb. I was supposed t leave those underlined so she could find them again after I finished and see if the fixes worked any better. Instead, I was able to just whack almost all of them out. It wasn't that the writing was so bad. It's that they didn't belong in the book.

So she'll give it one more look, then I'll send it off to Eddie in the morning and get back to work on Scurvy Dogs! And commence waiting anxiously for his reaction to the changes. And I don't pretend to believe it's now perfect. It's much better, I really believe, but I'm not stupid. I know there's a long way to go, and probably several more revisions.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Is it Friday already?

Is it Friday already? What a week.

Last week I wrote a chapter of Scurvy Dogs! that Tori's class loved (including two great pirate names) and almost finished the revision of Chrissie Warren. This week has been almost all about the Source. Wednesday I covered two Senate hearings and Thursday I covered one all-day Senate hearing on the closure of Hovensa. The Senators were grilling company executives and apparently weren't listening to each other because they asked many of the same questions over and over. The CEO of the company had to tell them how many people he employed four different times, and that information has been in all the media and common knowledge for more than a week. And that wasn't the dumbest thing the senators said. There's a reason they're politicians, not business people.

And to make it worse, Tuesday night I somehow came down with a massive cold. I went from everything's fine to barely able to breathe in a matter of minutes, and I've been fighting it ever since. Sitting through two days of political grandstanding by our elected officials while fighting this cold practically made my head explode.

Now I'm back to work. I'll have Chrissie finished this weekend. Except my brain won't quit working. Driving home the other say I suddenly thought – Wait! What if the book starts there! Just cut all that stuff in front. I'd have to do some serious rewriting, create a couple of new ... "

I told myself to shut up. The book is good. Almost done. If Eddie the Agent still thinks it needs something, I'll suggest that. But right now it think it needs to be finished.

Hamlet. What if we cut the first couple of acts and start it with Hamlet killing Polonius? You see, it never stops.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I have to fire Morgan Freeman

Morgan Freeman is a wonderful actor, maybe America's most beloved these days.

But I have to fire him.

Not that I actually hired him in the first place. And not that he knows he's working for me.

It's all about point of view. I am writing Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter, from Chrissie's point of view. Nothing happens that she doesn't know about, and everything that does we see from her POV. Most of the time. Almost.

Last night Tori was pointing out a couple of place in the first few chapters where the POV shifted to the classic omniscient narrator. The writing also took on a slightly different tone.

She told me, "When I read it, I hear Morgan Freeman narrating, like in the penguin movie."

Then she read a couple of passages. Something you should know about Tori is she's a great mimic, she can do some of our friends so well that if you weren't looking at her talking you'd swear they were in the room. And last night she was doing it with Morgan Freeman. I could hear him saying, "It was in that guise late one afternoon in September that she passed three young men launching a skiff. She paid them no mind until she heard a voice she recognized."


"In the years that followed that was the pattern of Chrissie's life ... Her father came and went, sailing into port, staying a few weeks or months and then shipping out again. Chrissie was always happy to see him when he arrived and sad when he left. She loved his swagger, the way his eyes lit up when he first saw her and exclaimed over how tall she’d grown. She loved listening to his stories, his voice filled with mystery and wonder."

It's a little too flowery, a little too narrated. And thanks to Tori it's a little too Morgan Freeman. So I'm going to have to let him go. Which means of course that I have to rework those passages so they’re Chrissie's POV. It'll work. And it'll make the stry wrk so much better.

But when someone decides to make a movie of the book? There's one character, Nathan, an old Caribbean fisherman, that Morgan's perfect for.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Revision finished; Fear faced

How could I have thought it was done? How could I have thought it was finished before?

I completed the revision of Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter, and it's a good job, I think. I'm waiting to hear what Tori (My Trusted Reader) has to say before I ship it off to Eddie the Agent, but I think it answers all the questions and problems.

As I worked – at the end it was three solid days, hardly moving from the keyboard – I kept asking myself that question. Why didn't I see this? How could I have missed making that connection? What the hell was that doing in the story?

Eddie the Agent wanted me to compress the first six chapters into three. I did not. It seemed like almost everything I tried to trim out made the story flat, uninteresting. I shortened and tightened it a little, but the problem, I realized, was that not enough happened in those chapters. Not the right things, anyway. So I actually crammed more in, more detail, more action, before the main character makes the choice she has to make, and did it in slightly less space. Because the details tell you why she makes that choice, so how can you just throw it away? You can't.

That, of course led to other issues. The scene with her father giving her a brooch from India on her birthday was a nice one, but it didn't advance the story so I took it out. But if Dan doesn't give her the brooch before he leaves, she can hardly bring it with her when she goes to find him, can she? Things like that. How could I have gone two years without realizing that the guy she meets in the tavern on Nevis should be connected to the problem she had earlier in Hampton – they can't be two, unrelated things, they've gotta mirror each other, or what's the point of either scene?

That's the question you've gotta keep asking yourself. What' the point of this scene? How does it tell my story? And if it doesn't, cut it out. It may be the most beautiful or wonderful or action-packed scene ever written, but if it doesn't tell your story, what the hell is it doing in the book?

So the book is a little tighter, 84,468 words now, compared to the 85,086 words I had foolishly labeled as the "final" draft last year. And there may be another draft or two before all this is over, I recognize that. Who was it who said, "A book is never finished. It's eventually shipped off to a publisher, but it's never finished."

But the biggest thing – I faced my fear. I don't know if I beat it, but I faced it.

I wrote last year about a visiting author with great lessons for Tori's fifth graders – and for me. I bought a couple of his books including "Wiff and Dirty George," a chapter book for I would guess third/fourth graders.

The two boys in the book are about 9 or 10. There's also a girl of that age in the story and the boys are painfully, shyly, comically aware of her and the fact that she's a girl.

That is more sexual tension than I wrote in either of my two YA novels. And that's a problem.

Because YA readers, middle school and high school students mostly, want a little romance, want a little sexual tension. Especially the girls. Not sex, good god no! Not romance even. Just that heightened awareness you get when you notice someone for the first time. That flutter in the gut. That tingle.

And that, my friends, is my greatest fear as a writer. My Achilles heel. I'm trying to write about a 14-year-old girl noticing a guy for the first time in her life and how that makes her feel. Next month I'll be 57. I'm a guy. The flutter in my gut is definitely not puppy love.

I am not writing a passionate teenage love story. This isn't Twilight, only with pirates instead of vampires. This is the story of a girl who sets off to rescue her father from pirates, and on the way meets a young sailor who makes her kind of flutter inside and she's not sure why. I've raised a few teenage girls in my life, and I am confident they can and will fill in the blanks.

I think I handled it OK, but I'll wait and see what Tori has to say about it before I ship it back to Eddie the Agent. Then he'll try to sell it, and then I'll find out how close it is to finished.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Quick Note

Won't be blogging at all this week and probably not next, with deadline for the revision of Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter now hard upon me. It's OK, it's not like anyone reads it, or will miss it if it's gone. But for the record, that's what's up.


Thursday, January 5, 2012

Resolved: Keep Writing

I've never been a big one for new years resolutions.

It's a day, like any other. If you couldn't stick to a diet on August 17, why do you think you can on January 1?

And people – all people – are notorious for not keeping resolutions longer than a couple of weeks. Partly it's what they resolve. "I'm going to quit smoking." "I'm going to lose 30 pounds." "I'm going to finally read James Joyce's Ulysses." All are do-able, but you need more incentive than "I said it on Jan. 1, so by golly, I'll do it!" If you need more incentive to quit smoking than "I don't want to die sooner than I have to," the date won't help. Tori and I quit last year, but she did in March and I did in April, closer to April Fools than New Years.

Or they resolve something like, "I'm going to be a nicer person," or "I'm going to eat smarter. Both are fine sentiments, but how do you measure whether you've been nicer? You can't. And "eating smarter" is a nicely vague phrase, also unmeasurable, that could include loopholes such as "Well, really, eating that tub of chocolate pudding was the smart thing to do."

And then there's this category – My resolution is I'm going to get an agent. I'm going to get published.

Those are all great goals. But you can't really resolve to do them, because they are all outside your control. At the end of the day, it requires someone else to do something, decide to represent you, to publish you. You can't control that. You can't MAKE them do that.

All you can do is the best you can do. Hone your craft, make sure your book is as good as you can make it, make your query razor sharp. Do the things you can do and don't waste time worrying about things you can't control. What if the agent is in a bad mood, or doesn't like first-person novels, or the editor is about to lose his job and decides to take it out on me? Or the agent/editor is simply bored. Or just doesn't like my book?

Well, what about it? What if? All of those things are outside my control, so I don't bother with them. You've got to focus on what you can d something about.

Years ago, I decided the problem with new year's is people make resolutions that are too hard to keep. Quit smoking? Yeah, tried that a couple of times. Didn't work. I quit when I was ready to quit, not on New Years. Lose weight? Not so much. So you don't keep your resolution and spend the rest of the year feeling like a failure.

I switched it up. I made a resolution I was confident I could keep. I resolved not to wear a tie. And I did it. For a whole year, no hempen halter. I was a success! Tori said I need better problems in my life, and she's probably right. She always is. The next year I resolved to ALWAYS return my shopping cart to the cart corral instead of leaving it in the parking lot. Again, mission accomplished!

Last year it was to switch my writing journal from a notebook to a blog. A year later, more than a hundred entries, about the same as when I kept the notebook.

This year – I'm focused. That's all. Just focused on making Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter as good as I possibly can. Publishers might pass on it anyway, I know I can't control that. But if at the end of the year the book doesn’t have a publisher, it won't be because I didn't do the best I can. And I'll do the same thing with Scurvy Dogs. And the next project. And the next.

It's what I do. I'm a writer. So I'm resolved to write.

(Oh, I know in my last post I said I'd discuss my biggest fear as a writer. I'm still wrestling wth it, so I'll get that Friday. Monday at the latest. Son, anyway)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Eddies in the Time Stream

Spent all day Monday working on Chrissie Warren. Well, OK, most of the day, and some time watching the Rose Bowl. Great game. Go Ducks!

But I'd say a good nine hours revising Chrissie, and it was time well spent. As I mentioned, Eddie the Agent suggested the story really doesn't start until Chrissie gets on the ship, and wanted me to see if I could trim the first six chapters down to three. Couldn't. I mean, it's not as if that stuff was just throat-clearing. There was a reason I put it in. But I was able to condense and still keep the flavor. I now get her aboard Skipjack in four chapters. (Plus a new prologue that adds a little something that readers will totally love.) So that works.

Around 5 p.m. I began worrying, wondering if I was being clear. I could no longer tell. So I had Tori read it. She's what Stephen King calls my Trusted Reader. She won't just nod and say, "gee, that's very nice." She'll tell me if it doesn't work, tell me when it sucks, and because she was an English major in college and now teaches fifth grade, she knows what she's talking about. And she could tell it wasn't working. It was close, the things that were happening worked, but the telling was confusing. I was using flashbacks, and it was getting messy, my timeline was getting fouled. (What novel's this from? "Eddies in the time stream." "Really? Who's Eddie?") She spotted the problem and helped me square it away.

By half time of the Fiesta Bowl (also a good game, though I was rooting for Stanford and they came up just short) I had it fixed. It works now.

Have 10,797 words down. About 12 percent. But the rest will be comparatively easy.

Except that today I have to face my greatest fear as a writer. I'll let you know how it goes.