Friday, August 30, 2013

The Telling Detail

It's the telling detail, some little thing that pulls the reader into the scene, making it real, giving them a visceral reaction.

The character doesn't wear tennis shoes, he wears black Keds high tops, and when you read that you can see them. The kitchen doesn't smell of cleaner, it smells of ammonia, or Fels-Naptha, and the acrid odor bites your nose as you read. He doesn't smoke a cigar, he smokes an Upman, or chews on a cheap stogie, and depending on which the author chose, it colors how you see the character.

It's a dozen little things like that that carry a scene, a chapter, a book. Not necessarily your brilliant writing, but your attention to details, the little things.

And just as importantly, your lack of attention can cripple a scene.

Just finished reading a mostly delightful mystery – Mr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal. Besides being a decent mystery story with the sort of plucky heroine it's hard not to like, it's set in wartime London, the homefront during the Battle of Britain and Churchill gives some of the most famous speeches ever. I'm a sucker for that kind of stuff, especially from that era.

The book is a mystery involving a young woman who becomes a typist and private secretary to Churchill right after he becomes prime minister. The story has all the requisite twists and turns and a denouement that doesn't strain credulity too hard. It's loaded with all the color and detail of life in war time London as the Luftwaffe fills the skies over England and the bombs begin to fall. Loads and loads of detail, maybe even a little too much. Descriptions of the rooms, of the neighborhoods, of the weather, of the gardens. Even with my love of the period I found myself skimming, especially when invited to look at yet another room with dark paneling and thick Persian carpets and large walnut desks and ... you get the point.

It's not the mass of details – it"s the right details.

But I was reading along and enjoying it until I came to this sentence at the beginning of chapter 33. "As the Moonbeam Orchestra played a cover of Duke Ellington's 'In the Mood,' Frain ordered champagne."

What? WHAT??!?

Duke Ellington's "In the Mood?" Is the lady high? OK, that's the sort of mistake anyone could make, I suppose, although how anyone could mistake Glenn Miller for Duke Ellington is beyond me. Yes, Ellington's was one of many bands that recorded the Glenn Miller hit, but it was Miller's song, and that's so obvious that it's hard to see how anyone could have missed it.

Am I taking this WAY too seriously? Probably. But it's a good thing the howling error occurred with only three chapters to go. I stewed over it all the way to the end, as the book came to its satisfying if somewhat predictable conclusion. If it had been part of the first time they went out drinking and dancing, in the early part of the book, I'm pretty sure it would have colored my enjoyment of the whole book. And it's the kind of thing that makes you think, "If she got something as simple as that wrong, what else in this mass of details and description did she get wrong?" I'll probably read the sequel, but I'll be watching more closely. I'm not sure I trust the author.

I'm probably an atypical case, but I'd be willing to bet that anyone who actually sought out the book because it's about wartime London would have known that and been as put off as I was.

So when you look for those telling moments, those critical details, it's probably a good idea to get them right.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Writing the Right Word

Last week I talked about words that don't work in a period piece, and my surprise to learn that both spud and smack were anachronistic for my setting in the year 1701.

But of course there are plenty of words that do work, and I don't mean just that they existed at the time, as important as that consideration is. Words that give not just the meaning, but the sense of being from a different era.

Porridge, for instance. It's more specific than oatmeal, has more of an older sound. Since the porridge in question was prepared by sailors, I could have gone a bit farther and called it burgoo, but I don't want to send my youngish readers scurrying for a dictionary every time they turn the page, for fear that they stop turning pages altogether.. The late, longtime grammar and style maven James Kilpatrick advised that you should use big words selectively, when nothing else will really do, not to show off how smart you are but when it conveys a shade of meaning that no other word does. They should be used like "rifle shots," he said, carefully aimed, and not as a linguistic scatter gun.

(And speaking of which, I had to be careful that in 1701 my characters were threatened by pirates carrying muskets, not rifles.)

Some of the right words just sound funny, which is a good reason for using them. Even if you don't know the word, context should get you most of the way to meaning. I'm proud to say I worked one of them in. I expect an editor somewhere down the line will question me on it, want it out, but I'm gonna fight for it.

When the tutor is yelling at Spider and calling him an unrefined, uncivilized fool, he calls him a "dunder-headed clinchpoop!"

Now, the first time I heard the word clinchpoop I assumed it referred to a person so obsessive-compulsive, so anally retentive, that he walked around with his butt tightly clamped. Actually is has nothing to do with constipation.

According to an article I found in the NYTimes online, clinchpoop is "a term of contempt for one considered wanting in gentlemanly breeding." A jerk, a slob, a rustic. And its origin goes back to the 1500s. So clinchpoop is in! And in the context, even if readers don't know the definition, they'll certainly understand the meaning.

Here are some other archaic terms that might be worth resurrecting, from

Groak: To silently watch someone while they are eating, hoping to be invited to join them. Origin: Unknown.

Hugger-mugger: To act in a secretive manner. Origin:1530s.

Crapulous: Like clinchpoop, you might think this has something to do with excretory functions, but it doesn't. It means to feel ill because of excessive eating/drinking. "On March 18, after a night of St. Patrick's Day revelry, I felt crapulous." Origin: 1530s.

Firkytoodling: Foreplay. As in: "My boss caught me firkytoodling under my desk with the cleaning lady again." Origin: Unknown.

Jargogle: To confuse, bamboozle. Origin: 1690s.

Elflock: Tangled hair, as if matted by elves. Origin: 1590s.

Gorgonize: To have a paralyzing or mesmerizing effect on someone, but the reference clearly goes back to Medusa in Greek mythology. Origin: early 17th century.
Stupid, imbecilic. Origin: 1590s.

Slubberdegullion: A slovenly, slobbering person. Origin:1650s.

Callipygian: This is one of my all-time favorite words. It means, "Having beautifully shaped buttocks." I long for the day I walk past a group of people and hear one of them say, "Hey, he's pretty callipygian for an old guy." Origin: 1640s.

Fuzzle: To make drunk, intoxicate. "Don't drive if you're fuzzled." Origin: 1910s.

Quockerwodger: A wooden puppet controlled by strings. As in: "The chairman has no real power, he is a mere quockerwodger." Origin: 1850s.

So next time you're writing and feeling puckish, take careful aim and let fly with one or two of these. But not too many. You don't want to jargogle your readers and make them feel fuzzled or beef-witted.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Spinning Wheels: So What Comes Next?

 “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
Stephen King

The last words I posted when announcing I'd finished the revision of Scurvy Dogs! were "Now what do I do?" That wasn't hyperbole. I've spent two years with Scurvy Dogs! as my focus. It's done (for now.) What comes next?

I'm not referring to the next step. That's clear enough. Wait for and incorporate any of Tori's comments, send it to Eddie the Agent, wait for his thoughts. Meanwhile, wait for Eddie's notes on Chance. That's a lot of waiting.

And I'm hampered by the fact that as soon as those things happen, I have to work on those projects. Chance has a lot to recommend it, but is likely to need a lot of work. Starting a new project today that I'm just going to have to jump in and out of as other work intervenes doesn't sound appealing.

It's not like I don't have other ideas to work on, thoughts that seemed promising, which I jotted down. But at most I have a couple of weeks to work on any of them before other things will intervene.

On the other hand, I don't have time for dithering, either. I am not a young man and my lifestyle does not conjure images of long years ahead of me to do all the work I want to. I feel like the lover in Andrew Marvell's To His Coy Mistress.

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.

But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

Yeah. So I need to get to work I want to take a look at my failed third novel, The Bones in the Closet. There was something there that had the kernel of a good story, but it went off the rails really badly. Very frustrating experience, and it kind of scared me. Got out of control and made me wonder if I really could do this, despite the fact that I had written two previous books I thought were pretty good. That failure made starting Scurvy Dogs! a little nerve wracking. Although in the end, I really think it's my best effort yet.

Perhaps I have just enough time before all the various notes start coming in to look over Bones and figure out what went wrong and how to tell the story I thought I was going to before the story got lost – literally – in the forest.

If not, I've got three ideas on the list after that. The point is, I'm a writer, so I should write. It's part passion, part compulsion – and part a job, without the luxury of taking time off. But launching the next project is another leap of faith.

Like Stephen King said, "The scariest moment is always just before you start."

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Out of Time

The right word can be more than "What's the name for that thing?" Especially when you're writing something from an earlier era. Sometimes when you get caught using a word from the wrong time – an anachronism – no one will notice, and you can tell yourself "It doesn't really make a difference." But sometimes it's enough to jar the reader, if only momentarily, out of the world you've created.

About ten years or so ago some girl (I'm assuming here she couldn't have been more than 17) sent me the first chapter of her pirate romance that started with the female protagonist running in terror from the notorious pirate Blackbeard. The problem was, the story was set in 1820, and anyone who knows anything about pirates knew that by then Blackbeard had been dead for a century. It was one of those things so jarring that it was impossible to take her seriously. She was surprised when I mentioned that was a really bad mistake. What did it matter? In this case, it made it impossible to go another step in the story. She was flaunting the fact that she didn't know her subject. (The writing was also really bad, so no loss to the world of pirate literature.)

There's a difference between not knowing something is wrong – Tori just coined the phrase "Anachronistic Amnesia," where you can't remember if something is from the right time period – and not caring. Not caring means you aren't thinking about the reader, and they get sensitive, they don't like that. You have to be alert to it, and it's not that hard to check.

I've written three pirate adventures, Chance, Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter, and now, Scurvy Dogs. I have to be sensitive to word choice. For instance, I have had to guard against anyone ever saying they were OK, or okay, because it didn't show up in the language until 1839, according ot the Online Etymology Dictionary, a very handy source for writers of historical fiction.

Tori, who is reading the final draft of Scurvy Dogs! while visiting our daughter and son in New York this week, caught me in two more that I never even thought about.

I have the agitated cook peeling potatoes, "really hacking away at those spuds." Turns out the word spud goes back to the 15th century, but at that time it only to describe a kind of knife. It wasn't applied to potatoes until 1845, in New Zealand. Now I could argue that modern readers would know what I meant and that's what matters, but if the story is told in the first person in 1701, there's no way the character could have used it. So it's out.

I also have the character, 14-year-old Jamie, say that if he ever ran into the Roman poet Virgil, "I'd smack him." How could that possibly be wrong? It's onomatopoeia, right? Except it's not. The word existed as early as the 1500s, but it only described a type of boat. Surprisingly, it didn't mean "hit with the hand" until the mid 19th century.

Would either of those hurt the story? Almost certainly not. But why take the chance? I can find ways around both of those. The last thing I want is some know-it-all clucking his tongue at me, deciding I don't know what I'm talking about, and tossing the book aside.

You want your reader to follow the story eagerly, willingly. You want it to flow, carrying the reader with you. Every time you do something that might slow the reader, if even for a moment, just a hiccup, you're creating unnecessary roadblocks. If you interrupt the flow too many times, the reader may decide not to get back in.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

It's 4 in the Morning, and I'm Finished

I thought I was almost done around 6 p.m., when I turned the computer over to my son Max, and got up to make dinner. Then, while sitting in the armchair after eating, something occurred to me that I should have thought of two years ago. I jumped up. Literally, I jumped out of the chair and almost touched the ceiling. I've gotta be careful, my hamstrings aren't as tough as they used to be.

It made total sense. Itchy John's knife. Bring it in again at the end. And if Buck had known about the squire and blamed him, that would bring that whole thing full circle to. It's like the old play writing maxim, if you show the audience a gun in the first act, it has to go off in the last. It applies here to. There's no point putting something in that doesn't have a payoff later. It's just wasted words. And you can't put in a payoff at the end if you haven't set it up in the beginning.

So I went back up into earlier chapters to set those things a little more firmly. Then I tossed about half of what I'd written today and got back to work.

It's now 4 a.m. on Aug. 21, so technically I missed my deadline by a day. But since I haven't been to bed since I started working this morning, I'm calling it one writing session. The last for Scurvy Dogs!, at least until Tori checks in, and then Eddie the Agent, and then whatever publisher buys it.

As Jubal Harshaw says in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, editors like the taste of the coffee better after they've pissed in it.

And now I'm done. I wrote 4,538 words today, a little more if you count the stuff I tossed overboard.  Scurvy Dogs! is complete at 64,911 words, which is right about where I always thought it would be.

Now what do I do?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Well That Sucks! Elmore Leonard Died

What terrible news. Elmore Leonard died.

Leonard redefined crime writing, specializing in the fringe characters and the oddballs in circumstances spinning out of their control. If you read at all, you've probably read some of his stuff. Freaky Deaky. The Hot Kid. Get Shorty. Maximum Bob.  Maybe his best skill, beyond his off-kilter stories and amazing characters, was his ear for dialogue. Pick up any of his books, even the not really great ones like Be Cool. The dialogue crackles with authenticity. That's the way people talk.

In the movie version of Get Shorty, the screenwriter had rewritten some dialogue in the scene where Chili Palmer (played by John Travolta) goes to the coat check and finds his jacket has been taken by his nemesis, Ray Barboni. Travolta knew that the key to a character like Chili Palmer was not just what he says, but how he says it. So he got the exact working from Leonard's novel and told the director, "This is what I'm saying, not that."

The screenwriter thought Chili should say, "Where's my coat? You'd better find it. It cost $400."

The way Elmore Leonard wrote it – and the way Travolta delivered it – was this:

"You see a black leather jacket, fingertip length, has lapels like a suitcoat? You don't, you owe me three seventy nine. You get the coat back or you give me the three seventy nine my wife paid for it at Alexanders."

You see the difference? The first example is information. The second is character.

Leonard is well known for his 10 Rules for Writing. In his honor, I'll quote them here.

  1.  Never open a book with weather.
  2.  Avoid prologues.
  3.  Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
  4.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
  5.  Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. 
  6.  Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
  7.  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9.  Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
  10.  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
So long, Elmore! Thanks for the great reads and great advice.

Wrapping Up Scurvy Dogs!

Didn't make my amended deadline, but I have no doubt I will finish Scurvy Dogs! today, and since that's my original deadline, I'm calling it a success.

If our family were better at planning, I probably would have made it. Tori is flying to New York today to visit our son Ben and daughter Millie. And everything was left to the last minute, as per usual, plus she had to spend about four hours at the DMV – about which I have plenty to say, but not here and now.

The reason for trying to be done by the 19th was so that Tori could read it on her Kindle on the plane. Now she can read all but the last chapter on the plane. I'll send her the wrap up tonight.

As it is, I basically finished the story and just need to tie it all up. Then give it another quick read through and call it good. If it meets Tori's approval, it'll be off to Eddie the Agent on Wednesday.

Friday I wrote 1,379 words. Saturday was an exciting 1,609 as the kids finally had to deal once and for all with Itchy John and his henchman Bill Dedman. And Sunday was exciting as hell, the return of the duplicitous (but funny, I hope) Carlton Lowell, and the final showdown. I wrote a sword fight that I really think is good. I found I got quite worked up and was pounding out the words as fast as my fingers could move. It's funny, at least to me, that when I write action my fingers fly. I get caught up and it just takes off. Suday I wrote 2,228. 

Scurvy Dogs! is at 60,227 words, with the final chapter (maybe two short chapters) still to come So right about exactly where I hoped it would be.

And it will be wrapped up today.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

That Was Fun

Wow! That was exciting!

When you start writing an action scene, you have a general idea of what's going to happen and how it's going to end – you certainly don't expect your main character to die, right? – but you don't really know how it's going to play out exactly.

And when it's multiple characters it's even harder to foresee because it's not always clear to you beforehand who is going to do what, or how these characters you've created will react in a life or death situation.

So I felt like I had a front row seat as the four kids – Jamie, Spider, Johnnie and Maggie – and the grandfather, Buck faced off against the pirates.

It played out great. Each character got to show of his or her grit, personality. It was, I hope, fairly dramatic, but not without some humor. While I have completely reworked the story, I made sure I kept one of the things that got the biggest reaction from the first test audience, Tori's students. The first time it showed up in the story it got a big laugh, the students loved what Johnnie, the 8-year-old girl, had done. They actually cheered her. And when I referenced it later, they always laughed. So that stayed, and I gave it a much bigger payoff this time around. Any of those kids who eventually see the final version will be surprised how different the story is, but they'll sure laugh at what Johnnie does.

So that was 1,379 very satisfying words, bringing the story to 56,161. I have to go back and put two little things in there, then it's off to dealing with the treacherous Mr. Lowell.

Three days to go before my deadline.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Can't Wait to See What Happens

Note to myself – Keep going!

Put down 1,548 words yesterday, for a total of 54,000+, then got buried in errands and stuff for Talk Like a Pirate Day, which of course comes every Sept. 19. The online store (Get your TLAPDay T-shirts and coffee mugs here!) was a mess, and it needed a couple of hours of work to straighten out. And probably an hour a night for the next week or so. The holiday's almost here, it just can't wait for me.

But I've got four days to finish and I'll make it. Have a very exciting chapter to write today, the final showdown between the kids and the pirates that will be completely different than originally written, but have at least one thing will be the same – Someone bonks Itchy John on the head with a shovel. Saturday (In between shooting a TLAPDay video and working for the Source) I'll deal with the treacherous Mr. Lowell.

That leaves me two days for wrapping it up. Will they find the treasure? I really haven't decided yet. Seriously. There's arguments to make either way. I can't wait to see.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Facing an Unpleasant Memory and Using It

Tough day of writing Wednesday. Managed to pound out 1,003 words, so I hit my mark, but after days of doubling that it felt like running through molasses.

If I had to guess, it would be the subject matter. They're trapped in a cave, trying to find their way out. I kept flashing to my Boy Scout Days, when our troop took the guided wild tour of Cumberland Caverns in Tennessee and slept in the cave. There's nothing darker than cave dark, let me tell you. The wild tour took about an hour through narrow tunnels, or through slits in the rock where you had to brace arms and feet against opposite sides of a narrow passage and cross through a crevice that narrowed down to nothing below you. You had no light except your flashlight, which suddenly looked pretty feeble, I'll tell you. There were probably 100 kids on the tour, and at one point while I was crawling through an opening maybe three feet high, the line stopped. Just stopped. I couldn't go forward, couldn't go back. It was scary for a minute until we started moving again.

I won't say I'm claustrophobic, but I don't think anyone likes to be confined, in a tight place. Trapped, even if not really, and only for moment. And I had to write through that memory of panic and use a little of it.

But it sure slowed me down. Also the various work and family chores that always come up through the course of the day. But I'm not blaming that, that's just a thing called life. I'm putting the blame on some uncomfortable memories that I hope help the story.

Having that target – 1,000 words every day – and deadline also helped. Can't afford to slow down now. I couldn't let myself quit until I hit the target.

Today should be easier. They just got out of the cave. It feels lighter, freer, just writing those words. Now all they have to do is defeat the pirates, evade the Spanish Garda Costa, find the treasure and get off the island. Piece of cake.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Value Given, Value Received

I went to my first critiques meeting of the library fiction writing group Monday, and I was nervous.

Not about my work. I had submitted the first chapter of Scurvy Dogs! and I was confident in it. I'm just finishing up my third revision, pretty much a total rewrite, but the first chapter has hardly changed at all since I first scribbled down the idea in my notebook. I've tweaked a word here and there, but mostly it's exactly as I read it to the kids in Tori's class two years ago.

What I was nervous about was critiquing other's work. First and formost, I didn't want to come off as a know-it-all or an arrogant jerk. I can talk a great deal, I know that, and not everything that was submitted was, shall we say, particularly great. And I'm one of the new guys – They don't know me, and I don't know them. I haven't been there in the past and don't know the drill.

In the end, I decided not to worry about sharpshooting the grammar or spelling. I would focus on the shape of the story, whether it worked for me as a reader and what I thought the author could do to sharpen it.

That's the key, something I learned years ago when I was directing at Albany Civic Theater. It's one thing to say, "That's not good." But that's no help. What's helpful is finding a way to tell them why something doesn't work as well as it should and what they could do to solve the problem. Criticism that doesn't give the recipient something he can act on is just being an asshole.

The other thing I kept in mind was the old maxim that if you're going to say something negative, you have to find five positives to go along with it. Everytime I offered a comment, I made a point of starting with, "I really liked – " that character, or the idea of a story on choices and consequences, or the tone or a particular phrase.

Anyway, it seemed to go pretty well, even though I talked too much. The group moderator would announce the next piece to critique and say, "Anyone have any comments?" And there'd be this silence, and then me or another new guy, also named John, would start. And the discussions were good and people really seemed pleased with the attention we as a group were giving their work. One woman said, "Gosh, you guys are nice. I expected to get ripped up." Apparently some groups are all about ego. This really was about seeing the work with fresh eyes and trying to help.

My chapter was well received, and there were a few helpful suggestions, tweaks, that will make it stronger. Of course no one is obligated to take a piece of advice, but why would you not consider it? If a reader doesn't get what you're doing, no matter how much you like a phrase or thought, obviously that reader wasn't with you. Look at it more closely.

I was particularly pleased when the other John mentioned my use of strong verbs, and likened the two young characters to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn! The verbs were thanks to Steve Swinburne, and the Tom and Huck – I always try to come up with a five-word pitch for my stories, and my pitch for Scurvy Dogs! is, "Tom and Huck Fight Pirates." So apparently I hit that dead on!

Afterwards, the other John and I happened to go out the door at the same time as two other longtime members of the group. One of them commented, "Wow. You guys give really good critiques." The next day I got an email from the coordinator who said he had almost disbanded the group because no one ever talked during critiques, but that was one of the better discussions he could recall.

So it felt like there was some value given and value returned. I'll definitely comb through that first chapter one more time.

Scurvy Dogs! Update – Monday went well, almost too well. 2,836 words. Unfortunately, that was all one chapter, and I get nervous when my chapters approach 2,000. So the first thing Tuesday, I knocked out 258 – why have them discuss the escape plan if they never actually try to escape? – and, after jiggling to make it all fit, had a more readable 2,597 for Monday's work.

Tuesday I was exhausted, slept until almost noon. Then banged out 1,887 words. Didn't quite finish the chapter because work intervened late in the day. But it's right there.

Then I wrote a thousand word story for the Source and a half dozen crime briefs and called it a night.

I've got the Scurvy Dogs within 200 words of the chapter end, when they find their way out of the tunnel. Then the showdown, the second showdown and the last showdown – you might call it a series of running showdowns. Then wrap it up with the truth about the squire.The story stands at 52,228 words, and I'm right on track.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Good Weekend in a Day

I had a good weekend Sunday.

I was not propductive Friday or Saturday for all the usual reasons. Blah blah blah who cares about your excuses John?

So two days with no work on the book, and only a week to go until my deadline. I guess I like to make myself sweat.

Sunday morning I sent out the call for news budgets (part of my copy editing shift, it just means sending out an email asking everyone what they've got coming for the day,) edited and posted a couple of stories, then got to work on Scurvy Dogs!

First time I looked up, I was a little surprised to see I'd knocked out more than 500 words. Then 1,000. Kept going. 2,000. Kept going. It was easy. The words were flying.

Finished the day with 2,723 words, and some really good stuff. "There's a dead guy down here!" Good action. Ended in a great place.

So for the three days of the weekend I averaged more than 900 words a day, although all of it was written Sunday from about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Then we were off to the library.

The book is now at 47,650 words. The remaining unedited/revised bit is a little over 16,000 words. Most of that has to be completely rewritten, involving stuff that no longer makes sense with the story as it now stands. I believe it'll end up shorter than that, because the path is now much simpler and more straightforward. Probably not more than about 10,000 words.

And the story will be done. Deadline is next Monday. No more days off.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Seat of the Problem

My butt hurt Thursday.

That simple. I'd spent so much time Wednesday glued to the kitchen chair covering on the web that Senate meeting from hell that when I tried to get to work Thursday it was just too uncomfortable. Could not sit still. Back on the island I had a nice desk chair, which got left behind and my behind regrets it. We recently got some new kitchen chairs around the table, and they're better than the old ones they replaced. But they're still not ergonomic desk chairs, and my rapidly aging body resents it.

So I took the day off. Dangerous, I know, with the deadline looming. But with so much of writing is keeping the butt to the chair until the day's quota is met, it really wasn't an option. Tori told me to take the day off, and I did.

But the day wasn't a waste.

I had a phone conversation in the afternoon with Eddie the Agent about Chance. He was encouraging, but realistic. And he had advice that made sense.

When the old agent had it out at a handful of publishers, the one common critique I heard was "it starts slow. Get to the pirates faster." I understand, and I sure tried, taking repeated hacks at the first third of the book until it was about the first 20 percent. But they still passed.

Eddie saw it completely different, and his advice makes total sense. The problem, he said, wasn't that the pirate didn't show up soon enough or that the action dragged, the problem was that the title character, 14-year-old Chance, was the only young character in the whole first half, and one of only two in the whole book. It kind of made it an adult story observed by a kid – a bright kid, but the only kid. Young people like reading about the adventures of people their age, they like books where they can imagine themselves in the action, or their peers. Good food for thought.

So, while there needs to be interesting action and rising stakes, it's not about "getting to the pirates faster." Eddie was able to point me to the real issue, and we discussed ways of addressing it.

We tossed around a couple of other ideas, and I asked some questions about a couple of other things I'd thought about. He's going to send me some notes, but I probably won't get them until September.

We also talked about Scurvy Dogs! and he sounded really excited. I've been promising it to him for months and months, but explained that these new ideas keep occurring to me, I've been seeing ways to ratchet the tension and raise the stakes and make the backstory more effective.

And the best thing, in terms of our earlier discussion, the main characters are two 13-year-old boys, a 13-year-old girl and a 9-year-old girl. There's also a drunken bastard grandfather, and a vicious pirate and a snooty tutor and a dog – but the story is about the kids. Totally about the kids.

And I told him something I’d just written the day before, which had surprised me, didn't see it coming, and it illustrated just how really bad the bad guys are. And Eddie said, "Oooooh!"

So that was good.

I also finished reading a really excellent YA novel called Paper Towns, by John Green. Max is into his work, and Max is right. Green is terrific. I had read his earlier An Abundance of Katherines, and my god, the guy can write! He's writing about contemporary teens, and any teen would want to be in that car, be at that party, know that girl or that guy. I hope I can make my characters from 300 years ago as interesting as Green's. Anyone trying to write YA needs to read him. Anyone who likes a good book needs to read him.

I also did an interview with a reporter from a London magazine. It's approaching that time, International Talk Like a Pirate Day, when we got inundated by requests for interviews. We enjoy doing them, and more importantly, you've gotta feed the franchise, gotta build the platform. I know I'm mainly considered "somebody" because I have that on my resume, one of the two guys who created Talk Like a Pirate Day. We've got the website, we've got the Facebook page, we keep spreading the word. Millions of people around the world know of us. We are constantly amazed that people think we're interesting, and want to talk to us. But talking is something both I and my friend Mark do very, very well.

People often ask how long we're going to keep it up. We always say, "As long as it's fun."

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Day Lost in the Trenches of Journalism

Wow, that was as bad as I was afraid it would be.

I was stuck in the chair Wednesday, listening to the V.I. Senate on the web, from 10 a.m. to about 7:30 p.m. Then I had to convert the 6,300 words of notes into a story. I think I was finished with everything around 11 p.m. I apologized to the editor by paraphrasing Clemens – I'm sorry I wrote such a long story, but I didn't have time to write a short one. The story is here but you don't want to read it, trust me. Although the part where the senator started singing "I Will Survive" was kinda funny.

I did get a little Scurvy Dogs! work done. At one point the political jpalaver was driving me crazy so I finished up the chapter I was working on. Didn't miss a thing.

Today will be better. I've got some interruptions coming during the day, but I expect I'll be able to get some work done on the book.

I've got a reporter from some magazine in the UK calling at 11 for a Talk Like a Pirate Day story. It's that time of year again, when they start calling. It begins with the print media, which have longer deadlines, then switches to radio in early Sepatmber. Two years in a row, Cap'n Slappy and I did 80 radio interviews in a 30-hour stretch.

And Eddie the Agent is probably calling sometime today (he didn't specify a time) to talk about Chance. His email said it needs a little editorial work, but he sounded nervous about my willingness. I blame myself. I told him when I sent it that had been stripped of a lot of the changes I had done for the old agent and a couple of publishers who ended up not buying it. I wanted it to be judged on the story I thought it was, not the story other people had. But I have no problems with reworking it. I know there's a good story in there, and I already know some of what he's gonna say.

I'm not a prima donna, or even a secondary donna. (Is that a thing? It should be a thing.)

But in the meantime I'll get to work on Scirvy Dogs. Have 11 days to finish.

I'm also thinking about taking part in NaNoWriMo this year. Have an idea in mind for that that might work, but the timing has to be right. Finishing Scurvy Dogs!, then probably reworking Chance. If I have that done by the end of October – and have any brains left – we'll see.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Big Step Forward, then Work

Good day of work Wednesday, but today will be a different story, I'm afraid.

Gotta work. Gotta cover the V.I. Senate online. It'll be a long day of listening to them talk – and talk and talk and talk. Last time, a couple of weeks ago, I ended up listening for about six hours, had more than 6,000 words of notes that had to be turned into a 1,000 word story. This is potentially much worse, since the last time it was one topic. This time there's a dozen or more bills.

Fortunately, this is the final vote on them. I imagine the senators have said all they need to say on the subject. Although, being politicians that's never stopped them. Give them five minutes to ask questions to witnesses testifying about a bill, and they will talk for five minutes and usually never ask a question. Sometimes they ramble on about things completely unrelated to the topic at hand. Just once, just once, I'd like to hear the chair say, "Sen. So-and-so, you have five minutes," and the senator reply, "No, I'm good, keep moving." It would be refreshing.

But Wednesday was a good day. I worked over 4,883 words of almost three complete chapters. Just need a couple more grafs and the chapter is done with a scary discovery. Again, some of it was just tweaking existing stuff and some was new stuff, so it's hard to say how much actual writing I did. Most of it was taking out a long boring part and creating a new, interesting bridge. I got them right to the point where they're about to find the cave – a completely different cave than the one in the first draft – then stopped for the day. But the next dragon is coming.

I also had the villains do something that really makes them villains. It's the most villainous thing I've ever had a character do. Think of four or five things a character can do that marks them as a villain – this is right at or near the top of the list. There will be no mistaking who the bad guy is here.

And it gave me a nice moment with Spider, finally got a name for one of the bad guys who has been called "the big man" for far too long, and sets up something really nice for the conclusion.

I had a good day. Now I'm gonna have a long one to balance the tables.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Dark and Stormy Etc.

Winners – if that's the right word – of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest have been announced. The contest, named for the English lord who penned the deathless lines, "It was a dark and stormy night ..." has for more than a quarter century invited people to submit the opening line of a make-believe terrible novel.

You've just gotta read this year's grand prize winner. Most evocative use of the image of a pork knuckle I've ever seen.

And the long, long list of winners of the various sub-categories is hilarious.

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Useful Lesson Via Mom and Dad

Years ago – 20? 30? Quite a while, anyway – my parents went to a daylong mystery-writing seminar by author Paul Bishop. He was an L.A.P.D. detective who started writing mystery novels with the goal of being the next Joseph Wambaugh. I think it's something in the water in L.A. Everybody has an idea they think can become a movie.

That was the sort of thing my parents did. Their idea of enjoying retirement was to go to seminars and workshops on any subject that sounded interesting, or get in their camper van and drive out to the desert for a couple of weeks to volunteer at an archeological dig.

Anyway, Dad brought a cassette recorder – Does this help set it in time? Caseette recorder? – and taped the whole thing. That was very Dad. He then sent me the three cassettes. Probably sent them to my sisters too, now that I think about it. Mom and Dad were interested in everything, and loved sharing it, assuming you'd be as interested as they were. Usually they were right, but it was their enthusiasm that made it so interesting.

This was long before I had seriously considered writing a book. I had been a newspaper reporter and editor for at least 10 years, probably more like 15 or so by then, and I knew I was capable of stringing sentences together.

I wish I still had them, I'm sure they're gone, although I suppose there's a chance they're in a box in the storage shed that still holds so much of our worldly goods in Oregon. Even if I had them I'd have no way to play them now. But I can still see them, Dad's careful, engineer's handwriting labeling each one.

And I remember a lot of his lessons, have used them. 

The voice on the tape had a lot of really good, sound advice about writing. He knew what he was doing, even if (in my opinion, and I'm just one guy) he didn't do it particularly well. And there are a couple of things he said that I have picked up and adopted.

The most important thing, and one I find very useful, is about work flow. Each day when I sit down to work, the first thing I do is reread the writing I did the day before. It's still fresh in my mind, and I can clean it up, tweak it. Not any major editing or rewriting. Pick up any typos that jump out at me, maybe change a word or two. Then I'm up to speed and ready to jump into that day's writing. It's like taking a running start. The work flows much better. When I'm done with the first draft, I'll not have only written it, I'll have also given it all a cursory edit.

Scurvy Dogs UpdateAs I suspected. Between work for the Source and work on the website I got nothing done on the book Sunday. Today was better. Managed to work through three chapters – exciting stuff, I think – totaling 4,307 words. That was between covering a teleconference with the governor of the V.I., and an errand that couldn't be put off that ate up about two hours. So progress has been made.

Now I've gotta get back to "pay copy." Got the gov's presser to write up, then at least four cop briefs. Seems odd, I admit, to be making a few bucks per story on other people's misfortune. What can I say? It's an ill wind that doesn't blow someone some good. Such is the life of a reporter.

But at this point I've got nothing on the calendar for tomorrow, so Scurvy Dogs! will be job one.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

And Then an Unwanted Detour

And suddenly I come to a pause. Not what I want to do, but other things get in the way.

I will still work on Scurvy Dogs! every day between now and my self-imposed deadline, but not as much as I'd like. Have to spend most of today (Sunday) doing some serious editing of the copy on the Talk Like a Pirate Day website. Some of that stuff is amazingly old, and really long and self-indulgent. Stop taking yourself so damn seriously! The holiday is coming up fast now, and the website is being completely overhauled, so this is the time. We also have a couple of videos we have to do.

And next week I've also got at least three long story assignments that will take me the better part of the day each time. Gotta pay the rent.

But I can't lose the momentum. These other things are things I have to do. Scurvy Dogs! is what I really want to do. So even on the busy days, I'll find a way to get some work done on the book.

Because it's steaming right now, and I don't want to lose the pressure, the sizzle. Even with the little delays, I will finish by Aug. 19 and Tori will get on the plane the next day with Scurvy Dogs! on her Kindle. By the time she gets to La Guardia, she'll be able to call and tell me if it works or not.

Quick Scurvy Update

Made it through 11,335 words today – But it wasn't writing. Mostly editing. This was the most solid part of the story, didn't have to change much at all, except for the way they dealt with the old pirate. Like the bit about Buck's DTs. (of course they didn't call it that in the 18th century.) And with that, there were still plenty of typos.

The next bit will go easily as well. Then I've got to wrap it up cleanly, incorporating the new stuff.

And of course, it rollicks.

Slight change in the deadline. Tori is leaving to visit Millie in New York on the 20th, and I want her to read it beforehand, or at least take it with her to read on the plane. So the deadline is now Aug. 19.

Friday, August 2, 2013

It Doesn't Get Any Better Than This

Does it get any better than this? At some point the story takes over, and you're so caught up it almost feels like taking dictation or something. It's as exciting as writing can be.

After I stopped for the day yesterday, I found myself getting more and more excited about getting back to work. If Max hadn't been so into his Minecraft game, I probably would have.

I spent some time Thursday afternoon with the notebook, amending my sketched-in plans for the next few chapters. Then last night, just as I was falling asleep, I had to get up and hurry out to the kitchen to scribble down another idea that had leapt unbidden into my brain, this for the end of the book. The words I found in my notebook this morning are "Ruined remains of an old dinghy." I know exactly what that means and what it gives to the story.

This morning I jumped right in. It's getting harder to say exactly how many words I've written or what progress I'm making, because I'm now working directly in parts that were already done, and I thought done well. But this is even better. I wrote 949 fresh words, deleted 1,087 including one image that I really liked that now wouldn't make sense, and when I was finished for the day, I had two chapters totaling 2,232 words where one chapter had been. So that's definitely good progress, but some of it is kind of sideways.

There's another section coming up, probably a couple of days from now, that I was never really happy with. Too wordy without much payoff, and kind of a dead end. I know how I'm going to handle it now, and have already sketched out the action. The key word here being "Action." As Leonard Elmore said, try to leave out the parts readers don't want to read.

Now I've got some yard work to do.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Moving Right Along

Another good day. 1,643 words and the story is finally flowing and coming together. Just like the kids who are the center of the story, I'm on the road and moving into growing danger – except I'm the one who's creating the danger.

I've actually made it a little longer to get them on the road, but it works. There's a dragon in every chapter, so to speak, a surprise or an obstacle, something to overcome, there's some humor, a real sense of danger much earlier. It's working.

I've talked about dragon-killing before. It's a rule I developed while reading the Percy Jackson books, something Tori constantly reminds me of. She did again today. "I wrote 1,643 words today," I said. "Is there a dragon?" Yes, yes there is. It looks a lot like a tree with one bough sawed off, but trust me, it's a dragon.

I haven't decided if the next chapter's dragon is a drunken fisherman or a cat. Maybe a drunken cat.

Still on track to make the Aug. 20 deadline.

I feel like I could keep writing today, but it's probably best if I leave a little something in the tank. That way when I sit down tomorrow, I'll be eager to hit the ground running and know right where I want to go.

Besides, Max is antsy to get on the computer for a while, so I'll let him have at it. He's obsessed with Minecraft these days. I'm either going to nap for just a bit, or put the DVD of "Finding Forrester" in and watch that. It's my favorite movie about writing.