Archive for the ‘Process’ category

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?

Finnegans Deciphered, and collected

January 17, 2012

I’ve passed an important milestone on my journey to complete my novel-in-progress, Finnegans Deciphered. I consolidated all of the chapters into a single document.

For me, that’s a sign that the major writing is now finished. All that remains is tinkering and, of course, wholesale editing and possibly rewriting and hair-pulling frustration and unfocused anguish. But at least the hard part is now behind me!

The final document has swelled by four hundred words since I did my first count of the “finished” novel. That’s the result of my wedging in of late revelations and plot needs, but it’s not the four thousand or fourteen thousand more words I’d feel more comfortable with. The novel barely qualifies as a novel, at least by commonly accepted word-count standards. But I won’t concern myself with such outside standards. I have to be true to the tale I have to tell. Plus, it’s possible that as I do more comprehensive read throughs, I’ll develop this or that plot point or character quirk or even monkey around with the tone and I’ll find more words that need to be said. Or not.

It’s come to seventeen chapters, and seventeen happens to be a significant number in the plot. Nonetheless, I suspect one of those chapters will be split in twain (a possible location for more words to add to the count), so that coincidence of chapter count and plot point won’t survive. That might have been fun to keep, but it also seems a bit twee. (Also, it’s only coincidence that I posted this entry on the 17th of the month.)

So now I’m at the point where I have a whole document “in hand.” That will make for more difficulty finding given places in it that I want to address, but I think I know the story well enough now to be able to navigate it. Perhaps I will print (on paper!) the whole thing and have it literally “in hand.” Then I could carry it and a red pencil to my cabin in the woods for a weekend read-through session. Sounds lovely.

Finnegans Deciphered ~ the progress thusfar

January 2, 2012

I ramble a lot in these blog posts, so maybe I’ve mentioned this before, but I think I am in the end game of my work on Finnegans Deciphered. The little revelations about this or that in the plot have more or less ceased popping into my head. I’m not getting the same understandings of how a given development in the plot ripples through the story any longer. (In fact, I’m beginning to have these insights again about Larger than Life, my fits-and-starts work in progress.) I take all of this as a sign that I’ve pretty much told the story I have to tell, and now I need to polish it. Why, I’ve even begun tinkering with a query letter for the manuscript.

I noted in an earlier post that I had no idea how many words the novel came to or whether I’d need to come up with some subplot to beef it up to “novel length.” And I’d avoided doing an actual word count for a long time because I was afraid of what I would find (or not find). But I whipped up the courage over the weekend to do the math — thanks in part to the frisson of good vibrations that a large glass of iced tea often gives me — and to face the result.

And the result is . . . passable. The word count as it stands today is 61,576, which, I think, meets the minimum for calling my novel a novel. I suspect that there is some fat in that number, that I will need to trim my florid prose a bit in my editing, and that may take me below the 60,000 word threshold, but I also suspect that in my continuous read through, I’ll also discover places where I need to supplement my words and even add bits more to the plot to help it make sense (or in some cases, make less sense since it is a mystery novel of a sort).

Part of my process is to begin a story by tumbling all of my thoughts into a Word file just to see what I have and what suggests itself. As I’m writing, I add to this file just so my stray thoughts and surprising revelations and brilliant insights aren’t lost until I can wedge them into the narrative. Plot points, character development, descriptions, reminders. I have a whole page where I have reworked every single character’s name several times. (Curiously, or maybe not, every single character in my completed novel, The Sleep of Reason, was changed from what I had at the start. Also, no news on the progress of that novel finding an agent, though I am hoping now that the holidays are past I can begin shopping it around again with more hope for attention.) The notes file I have for Finnegans Deciphered stands at about 12,000 words. And that’s just notes. I intend to read through it to see what points I may have missed (or dismissed) that might still find their way into the novel.

Another curious thing, though it retrospect it seems perfectly organic, is that my two main characters, Ann and Greg Finnegan, have taken on lives of their own. I envision a series of novels with them — that had been the goal from the start — but I’m seeing things about their character and their history that I can work in to the other novels. I’m even having a good time imagining an “origins” novel about them. Of course, long-time readers of this blog will know that this is actually my fourth Finnegans novel. The first was apprentice work, from which I intend to steal certain things. The second is a good story that needs an overhaul. The third was lost in a hard drive crash (though I think enough of it survived in email attachments to resurrect it). And now I have the fourth nearly finished. So the Finnegans exist in a world; it’s not surprising to see that they have whole lives and backstories.

So here we are at the start of a new year. I feel as though I am in a good place, which is something to be pleased about (though that might be the iced tea talking).


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