Saturday, June 22, 2013

Little Lesson from a Big Book

Woke up the other day and said, "Today I'm going to finish this book."

Not that one I'm writing. That is coming along, but it took a backseat for a while to the one I was reading. I woke up Thursday and I was on page 948, and still had almost 200 pages to go.

Cryptonomicon is a very large book, more than 1,100 pages. Published in 1999 by Neal Stephenson, it's a lot of things, mostly one of those international, cross-generational stories. It's got World War II codebreaking, it's got the birth of the Internet, it's got love and big-business skullduggery and buried gold and lots, lots more. It's interesting, but at that length I wish it was a bit more interesting. It was enough to keep me going, but never quite enough to drive me into one of those frenzied reading bings that let me read, for example, The Lord of the Rings in a week (eight days, actually.)

The book had been recommended to me by my son Jack, the librarian, who thought it was the kind of thing I'd enjoy. He had himself enjoyed it, but admitted there was a certain smug tone to Stephenson's writing, as if he was very proud of himself for having been around at the start of the Internet and generally being so clever. The author is almost a character along with those in the story, firmly guiding the intrepid reader down some very strange paths.

I learned a lot. Oh lord I learned a lot. Every time it seemed the story was about to shift into high gear we had to stop and take a strange detour. Like the four pages it took to explain a math problem about a bike wheel and chain (which I never did understand. I got it right away, but had no prayer of understanding the actual math, the kind of math that uses symbols instead of numbers.) Pages and pages (I didn't count) complete with sine waves, on "Van Eck phreaking," a system that allows eavesdroppers with a cleverly placed antenna, say embedded in a table top, to watch what's being displayed on your computer screen by analyzing the emissions from your video buffer. And the clever ways hackers can circumvent it. Or the six pages on the Greek pantheon and what was wrong with all those incestuous gods. Or once – I'm not kidding – three pages on the main character's perfection of the ideal system for eating Cap'n Crunch cereal.

There's a character so deeply into number theory that, when he's told that he'll be working for Detachment 2701, immediately says, "Isn't it interesting that 2701 is the product of two prime numbers which are the inverse of each other – 37 and 73?" This causes them to change the unit's number to 2702.

Allan Turing is in the book, and Douglas MacArthur, one of my least favorite figures in American military history, who turns out to be one of the funniest characters.

So shortly before midnight Thursday I finished it, closed the cover and felt, if not quite a sense of accomplishment, at least satisfaction. Gasping for breath, staggering down the final stretch, I had finished the marathon.

And I certainly learned something. Besides the little tidbits of math and computer and legal stuff I absorbed and will now try desperately to forget, I learned this important rule as a writer:

Just because you know something doesn't mean it has to go in the book. I forget who said it, one of those wits from the 1930s, but it's OK to have an unexpressed thought. If it advances the story, yes, by all means include your recipe for scalloped potatoes or a brief history of China patterns. Otherwise, leave it out. The reader will thank you.

And now back to work. I've picked up The Maltese Falcon, one of my favorite books, for my next casual read, but it won't get in the way of finishing Scurvy Dogs!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Truer Words Were Never ... er ... Blogged

Read Nathan Bransford's blog today, When It Feels Like There's Nothing Left to be Written.

There is no problem facing a writer that can't be solved with more writing. It's a weird dichotomy. On the one hand you have to be brutally honest with yourself and recognize that you're not perfect and no matter how good you are, you're writing could be better. (But that's for the rewrites.) On the other hand, you've gotta keep plugging away, trusting with almost childlike innocence that eventually all that typing will turn into writing and, with some work, you'll have a good book.

Back to plugging away.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Everyone's a Critic

  This came from the Edge, which is not only the best feature in the Oregonian, it's the best daily feature in any newspaper.

Amazon allows readers to write their own reviews of books, including "the classics." Most of the reviews of course fawn all over the works considered some of the best books of their age. But some people don't – shall we say? – appreciate great literature? 

I'm not bragging, because I don't read "great literature." Maybe if I read "Moby Dick" I'd agree with the guy who wrote, "Getting through this book was like running a marathon, where you are forced to stop every mile and listen to a lecture on running, running shoes, knee pain, Gatorade, or any other subject remotely related. Finishing the marathon gives you bragging rights, but not much more."

I might have written something just as clueless, but we'll never know, because I have no plans to read it. But these are some of the better bad reviews culled by The Edge.

The best, by far, is this reader's comparison of a 20th century classic to a reality TV series.

"I am obsessed with Survivor, so I thought it would be fun. WRONG!!!"
"Lord of the Flies," by William Golding

"So many other good books ... don't waste your time on this one. J.D. Salinger went into hiding because he was embarrassed."
"The Catcher in the Rye," by J.D. Salinger

"While the story did have a great moral to go along with it, it was about dirt! Dirt and migrating. Dirt and migrating and more dirt."
"The Grapes of Wrath," by John Steinbeck

"It grieves me deeply that we Americans should take as our classic a book that is no more than a lengthy description of the doings of fops."
"The Great Gatsby," by F. Scott Fitzgerald

"The book is not readable because of the overuse of adverbs."
"The Lord of the Rings," by J.R.R. Tolkien

"The only good thing to say about this 'literary' drivel is that the person responsible, Virginia Woolf, has been dead for quite some time now. Let us pray to God she stays that way."
"Mrs. Dalloway," by Virginia Woolf

"This book isn't as good as Harry Potter in MY opinion, and no one can refute me. Tastes are relative!"
"1984," by George Orwell

And another wonderfully clueless offering –

"I guess if you were interested in crazy people this is the book for you."
"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," by Ken Kesey

Thursday, June 6, 2013

One Down for Now, Plenty Still to Do

Sent off Chance to Eddie the Agent Wednesday and feel really good about it. Tori provided some valuable feedback and it's in really good shape. It's not perfect and Eddie will no doubt have some thoughts on how to make it better. I look forward to his input.

But right now I have to put that out of my mind – it's Eddie's problem for now – and get back to work on other stuff. Most importantly, time to pick up Scurvy Dogs! for it's last draft. I've let a little time flow and now it's time to give it one more whack, make it a rollicking adventure. My style tends to get a little serious, and I want, well "rollicking."

And there's the movie treatment. It's a great story, but it's coming to me in bits and pieces and I don't want to rush it. I was crazy to think I could knock it out in a couple of weeks as if that's just what I do.

I've also got a file I need to keep updating, ideas for other stories. Sometimes you wrack your brain for an idea when the well's dry. Other times they flow like the storm drainage canal up the street during a big rain. You don't want to lose a promising idea, but it's too damn easy to get sidetracked. So I write 'em down. There's two on the list that date back years – one that dates back more than 20 years, but it's stilla damn good idea. The only problem is, it's gonna take some research I'm not quite able to follow up on yet – including a trip to London to get a feel for the lay of the land. One of these days, that's just what I'm going to do. The other I still recall writing an outline for while sitting on the beach in Oregon about 10 years ago. It just hasn't been the right time to write it.

But now, Scurvy Dogs! fourth and final draft. Who knows, maybe that'll be the one that finally pays off and make possible that trip to England.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Another Person Smarter Than Me – With a Caveat

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you're doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.
E. L. Doctrow 

Very true. At the same time, all those things that Doctrow dismisses as "not writing" are still part of the job, and a lot more besides, these days. You just have to guard against  getting so caught up in the other stuff you forget the important part – the writing.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Taking a Chance

Good week. Got the treatment I've been working on about half done. That's not the progress I'd wanted, but the other half of the schedule, the editing, went very well.

It occured to me a little while ago that I had a finished novel that has been gathering dust for three years. Chance was my first, and even though my former agent never was able to sell it, it's good. In fact, my recollection is that none of the seven or eight publishers that passed on it had anything negative to say. The former agent called it "'Treasure Island' for a new generation." A friend who is a retired college professor read it and told me he had expected it would take about a week to finish (at the time is was over 100,000 words,) but he finished in a day and a half because "I literally couldn't put it down."

So it's a good book and I thought, "I can self-publish this and I'll bet I can sell it." I want to share the story with people. I put a lot of effort into Chance, it's my baby, my first. Until the day I wrote "The End" on the first draft, I always thought I could write a novel, but I didn't know it.

I've been through self-publishing before, Well Blow Me Down, and it's a lot of work. Writing the book is way easier that publishing it.) But I really believe in Chance, and I have a lot of my life tied up in it. So I started planning things out, but I decided I needed to talk to Eddie the Agent, the guy who represents me now. He has pushed really hard for Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter, and I don't want to do anything that might affect either any chance of getting it sold, or my relationship with him. So I laid out my plan, and he said, that if Chance had only gone to a handful of publishers (that's my recollection) maybe there was something he could do with it. So send it on.

That was exciting news. So I spent the last week going through it, editing, combing the nits out (my, that's an unpleasant metaphor, isn't it?) and you know what? It's as good as I remembered.

I also made a decision. I had done a lot of rewrites and editing of Chance. After I sent it to the former agent I did a revision at the request of someone in his office. Then it got sent to a very large publishing house where it was received enthusiastically – but – they wanted some changes. So I did I rewrite. Then I did another rewrite for them. Changed the story more than a little. It made it all the way to the final meeting at this house, and then they decided not to publish it. That took about 10 months and they had it exclusively all that time. After that I kind of think the former agent gave up. I believe he only sent it to another six or seven houses and didn't pursue it very hard.

Last week I went back several revisions, found the "finished" copy I had originally sent the agent and started from there. This is my story, and I want it to stand or fall on that basis, not on the revisions that other people wanted, people who in the end didn't even want the book.

Tori is giving it a final read and then I'll send it on to Eddie, hopefully later today. It's not perfect. It'll probably change a little. But it's a good book. I'm proud of it, and can't wait until people get an opportunity to read it. I'm proud of it, and excited that it's getting another day in the sun.