Archive for the ‘Process’ category

voices in my head

December 8, 2014

I read my story drafts aloud. (My wife at first thought I was having long telephone conversations with someone.) I sit at my desk in my little writing room and read the drafts over and over to hear how they sound. I listen mostly for the narrative voice, to see if it’s being consistent, or if, when I break out with a ramble or playfulness or such, it is effectively inconsistent. And I listen for repetitiveness. I hate when I find a repeated word in subsequent sentences after one of my stories is published. Repeated words seems to be one of my writing problems. (“Repeated words” in that preceding sentence I’m using as a singular subject, thus the singular verb, “seems,” but it did sound wrong when I read it aloud.)

I’d read somewhere (probably on your blog) about how nice it is to listen to an audiobook read by the author. In that way, you get to hear how the actual writer intended the words to be intoned and the sentences to roll merrily along. I can’t say that I share that sentiment. The few times I have tried author-read books, I’ve really not liked them. (Roger Zelazny about put me to sleep with one of his Amber novels.) I’d much rather have an actor, or at least a voice actor, read a story aloud. (For all their faults as stories, the Sue Grafton Alphabet novels as read by Judy Kaye are about as close to perfect in reading voice as humans can achieve I think. Judy Kay is an opera singer among other things.)

In any case, one thing I’ve learned from reading my own scribbles aloud is that I don’t always know how I intend my words to be intoned. Take this example from the end of my story “The Lonely Road.” Sad, sad Davey is having a realization that maybe his life isn’t so horrible.

“Maybe it was true, he thought, as a tear escaped his eye. Maybe she really did love him.”

I’ve read and re-read those two sentences out loud a hundred times, trying to figure out where to hit with emphasis, where to pause, what to do with them.

Here’s one version:

“Maybe it was *pause* true, he thought, as a tear escaped his eye. Maybe she really did *pause* love him.”

Here’s another:

“Maybe it was true, he thought, as a tear escaped his eye. Maybe she really did love him.”

I go back and forth on these two versions of those two sentences. (Intended word and structure repetition in the preceding sentence.) The former emphasizes the actuality of the love. The latter emphasizes the possibility of the love. I lean toward the former — the boy finds himself worthy of love — rather than the latter — the boy finds himself the recipient of love.

Regardless, I don’t want to be the reader when my fabulous collection of stories is published as an audio book.

Do you read your drafts out loud? Do you puzzle and struggle over this kind of thing?

screw it!

September 3, 2014

I’ve mentioned here (or maybe it was in the comments on your fine blog) that I’ve been stymied by a story idea that I can’t ignore and yet can’t seem to write. It’s been frustrating, as you can probably imagine, because it wouldn’t let me focus on anything else, which meant my Fathers and Sons stories have been languishing (and I really need to get those finished).

The story had its genesis probably thirty years ago. I was at a party where I saw a man I knew and respected (who was old enuf to be my father) chatting up a woman (old enuf to be my mother) who was not his wife. He looked so at ease and even happy with her that the thought instantly sprang into my head that he was about to embark on an affair with her. Did that ever happen? I doubt it. But I know the woman was not happy in her marriage, and I later learned that her son (who was old enuf to be my brother) came to hate his mother in her later years for the way she treated her husband (and that son’s father). I never knew the details of that hatred, but the fact of it dovetails with my imagined infidelity.

Couple that with a rumor going around my office in recent months of a man (who should know better) apparently carrying on with a woman (old enuf to be his daughter) in apparently not-so-discreet ways at the office. This uncomfortable situation (if it was even true) stayed on my mind. And what does a writer do with troubling thoughts? Put them in a story, of course.

But the story wouldn’t gel. I made copious notes about it: impressions, bits of dialog, insights. All about a subject that is pretty much foreign to me and unpleasant in any case. And I struggled with writing the story. I even kept the draft of it on Google Drive so I could access it at work (!) when no one was looking to try to sustain the writing effort.

Weeks and weeks and weeks of this struggle passed, and I was getting nowhere with the telling. I rearranged sentences and fine-tuned images and did little more than nothing at all during this time, feeling frustrated and confused and knowing that other writing needed to be done but wasn’t getting done.

So I finally said “Screw it.” I’ve abandoned that story. It ain’t coming. And I ain’t fighting it any longer.

And as though to reward my resignation, my Muse has visited upon me several important insights on one of my Fathers and Sons stories, an important, early story that needs to be added to the canon and that will resonate across all of the subsequent stories in the cycle.

That other story, though, still asserts itself. I’m not sure what I want to do about that. I guess I’ll keep taking notes about it. Maybe enuf of it will come together to let me write something. If not, fine, too.

epsom salts

February 23, 2014

So I managed to run 40 miles last week. That’s a new distance record for me, and while that may be a pittance for many, it’s a big deal for me. I didn’t set out to achieve that distance, and it was only Saturday afternoon when I realized that it was within grabbing distance, so I went for it.

After my long run on Sunday (9 miles, which isn’t the longest I’ve gone and which is, I’m sure, a pittance for many), I did something I’ve not done before. I took a hot bath with Epsom salts.

It was wonderful!

I thought, what a great post-run recovery tool! I wallowed in the hot water and bath salts on my aching leg muscles (those quads). And I wanted to have my laptop with me because I felt as though all good things were suddenly flowing through my brain. (Yes, it was probably just endorphins.) The writer Stanley Elkin was said to have done all of his work in the bath tub.

So I thought maybe an Epsom salts bath might be a creative tool as well as a recovery tool.

I’ll never know.

I fell asleep in the tub.

3,000 words

January 4, 2014

Is it just me, or have a lot of publications been limiting word count on short stories to a mere 3,000 lately? The last few calls for submission I’ve pursued had this limit, and I wonder if it’s the new thing (or maybe just a coincidence).

I found a magazine that put out a call with a theme that seemed to be a good fit for one of my Fathers and Sons stories, so I revisited the story (which had been simmering on my hard drive for a while) with the idea that I would submit to the theme and maybe have a shot. Of course, the magazine limited the word count to 3,000, and my story was 3,350 words. So I asked myself if I could cut out 10 percent and still tell the story I had to tell.

Turns out I could nearly do it. (I came up through journalism, so cutting superfluous words is a skill I’ve acquired.) I chopped and chopped and reworded and slashed and burned and killed my darlings and all of those things and got the word count down to 3,145. So close!

I had given an earlier draft of the story to my wife to read some months ago, and at the time she told me that the story had ended at a given point but that I had kept blathering on. I remembered that as I faced those last 145 words. So I checked how many words my ending blather came to, and they came to exactly 145 words. Truly. If I ended the story where she believed it ended, then I would make the cut.

My extra words at the end were intended to reinforce the theme of the story. (I tend to start with a theme and build a story plot to serve it.) But if my wife was correct then I didn’t really need that reinforcement. And presumably the editor would see that too. So I saved the file under a different name (to preserve my original ending) then chopped out those last bits of blather. With a little more tinkering, I got the word count down to 2,980, which I think is a safe buffer that did not comprise the story telling I wanted to do.

I sent the story in this morning. The magazine has a higher-than-average acceptance ratio according to Duotrope’s Digest, but its response time can be up to six months according to the reports. I dug a little deeper at the magazine’s site and learned that their 3,000 word limit is not some editorial preference but an actual physical limitation of the blogging software they use to post stories. So that cleared up at least one mystery.

The year is only four days old, but I’ve already submitted two stories (with reasonable hopes of acceptance) and I have a third I’m muscling to get ready for submission too.

chapter titles – any thoughts?

February 27, 2012

I realize it’s a bit premature to think that my chapter titles in Finnegans Deciphered are anything like final, but I don’t think it’s too early to ponder them and the work they can do.

The number 17 is important in the story. It happens that there are 17 chapters in my novel. I had thought briefly about making that happen deliberately for some thematic connection, but I realized that I wasn’t sure just what that connection would signify, so I abandoned the idea. Plus, though I knew I had finished up with 17 chapters in the first draft (merely by coincidence), I suspected I would be chopping one of the longer chapters in two, thus giving me 18 chapters. But I didn’t since that would have given the novel three chapters devoted mostly to a single event in the story, and I thought that was drawing too much attention to something that wasn’t that important to the plot.

But that’s not the point of this post. Rather, I want your thoughts/opinions on my chapter titles. I realize you don’t know the plot of the story, but that’s actually good for my nefarious purpose. My intent with these titles is to be both playful and intriguing. My notion is that someone might pick up the novel in a bookstore, not knowing anything of the plot, and scan the list of chapter titles. And if they are titled well, the individual will be intrigued enough to want to read the novel based on no more than what is hinted there.

So here are the titles as they currently exist:

  1. In which Greg doubts he is welcome
  2. In which Ann and Greg meet their fellow guests
  3. In which Greg has a date with history
  4. In which Ann takes a turn about town
  5. In which Ann and Greg have a pretty good lunch
  6. In which Ann and Greg have a very nice dinner
  7. In which Ann and Greg have a nice conversation with Ava and Willows
  8. In which Ann and Greg go Sunday cycling
  9. In which Ann and Greg spin and spin
  10. In which a sleepy afternoon is interrupted
  11. In which many revealing words pass among new friends
  12. In which Greg doesn’t feel very good but soldiers through the morning
  13. In which Greg misses the point but presses on regardless
  14. In which Ann holds court
  15. In which Greg grows weary of the chase
  16. In which Greg learns there is more
  17. In which Ann has one surprise left

So there you go. Based on these, do you think someone might be intrigued? Do they do that kind of work?

Just as the right book title can often make the difference, I think good chapter titles can be a sort of marketing tool as well. At the very least, I think a writer should give them some thought even if a reader never does.

I suspect that the “In which” business might be a little cloying. It’s actually meant to mimic a writing style of old. A hundred-year-old novel also plays an important part in the story, so I feel permitted to use this format in my chapter titles. I can remember reading some old works (published in the same era as my fictional novel — which may be one of the few times a person can call a novel “fictional” and not be redundant) where each page had a unique title in the header.

Of course I can’t know that the final work would even have a page listing chapter titles, but I can’t concern myself with that possibility now. Right now I am trying to make the novel coherent and whole. I’m trying to make every component contribute and be worth its weight.

from tone comes voice comes story

February 8, 2012

I’m making pretty good progress with my story I’m calling “Superman.” This is the one I’m “forcing” myself to write rather than waiting for it to arrive fully formed in my feverish brain, only needing to be written down. I have to say I’m enjoying the process. I think just as deadlines often spur creativity, a little rigor and discipline can do the same.

That being said, I seem to possess an essential control I need to conjure this story. I have determined the tone I need to use to set it down, and that’s made the difference. It’s an elegiac tone. It’s a story of memory and a bit of regret, and by knowing that, I know the words to use. I know the voice to use. And by having the tone and the voice in hand (as well as the bare bones of the plot) I can write the story.

I’ve said before that my story “Velvet Elvis” seemed to have written itself. There are whole parts of it that I can’t recall writing, little comic bits or turns of phrase or connections that I can’t give an account for. I think that’s because I had the voice in mind as I wrote it. It was a comic voice (much like the one that guided “Moron Saturday“), which is different from the one for “Superman,” but with the voice in place, that story flowed.

And so it is with “Superman.” It helps that the story does spring more rather than less from my own life experience (as all stories must, right?). This is the story I hinted at in this old post. I said that I have the bare bones of the plot in mind, but I’ve found myself diverging from them some as I write. And I’ve realized that an exact road map is not essential, at least for this story. What I’m finding on the page is better than what I had imagined I would put there.

I suspect this can explain those “seat-of-the-pants” writers who claim they start out writing a story with no idea of its plot. Perhaps they do not have the plot (though maybe they just don’t realize they do), but they do have some other essential components: the right voice, a real character, a compelling setting, or a combination of these. And whatever the melange, the story flows naturally from it. So these writers think they don’t know the plot when actually story is already whole and just waiting to be written down.

forcing the issue

February 1, 2012

I claim that I can’t “force” a story onto the page until it is ready to be written. I’m sure you see that for the bogus rationalization it is.

Sure, my stories do need to accumulate critical mass before they will fall together, and I’m often still finding things that fit perfectly in stories long after I’m sure they’re finished, but too often I use these parts of my process as a way to not put out the effort of actually writing. Rather than sweat blood by typing words onto the screen, I assure myself that I need the story to “cook” longer, and I make a blog post instead.

Not so right now though. I’ve had a story idea, which I’m tentatively calling “Superman,” knocking about in my pointed little head for a while. I’ve been accumulating notes for it, bits of dialog, ideas for development, and such in a Word file, as is my usual practice.  And vigorously avoiding the actual writing, which is also my usual practice. Not any longer.

Despite not have a clear direction for the story’s development, I’ve been writing it. “Forcing” it out of my head and onto the screen. I’ve managed to put down more than a thousand words of this unformed story, which seems like a good thing. Actually, it’s helped me see my way through the mess of ideas and half-thought thoughts to a coherent story. The train may still derail, but at least I can see the tracks.

And I’ve found something else. In that Word file of notes and ideas for this story are a bunch of notes and ideas that no longer fit, but they do look like a coherent set of materials for a another story. It’s a story idea that’s been knocking around in my brain a little lately as well. Actually, it was never much more than a clever (if a little bit naughty) title, but all of those spare notes for “Superman” dovetail with it nicely, and I’m beginning to see the critical mass for it coalesce as well.

So my writing-avoidance rationale has doubled down on me. By not writing but merely making notes, I’ve accumulated enough notes for two stories that I need to write. I suppose it’s time to get back to work, right?


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