Saturday, November 29, 2008


The big question? Does this advance the story? Sometimes, a writer lends his or herself opportunities to explore the profound, to wax eloquent, if you will. The temptation to offer up great pearls of wisdom or beautiful passages is always there, lurking somewhere under the lines. On occasion, these would-be beautiful passages work. Most of the time, they don't. Lately I've been tempted a lot, tempted to deviate just a bit, an iota, and allow myself the luxury of that eloquence. I fight that urge with every fiber of my being, but now and again, I give in only to have to remove those lovely words during a revision cycle.

On one occasion, even my crit partner recognized such an opportunity. In the story, a man was bitten by a rabid fox. "Oh!" my partner exclaimed. "Think of what you could do with that one!" I thought about it. A grown man, writhing and twisting, unable to swallow and foaming at the mouth. Man turned to raging beast, snarling, de-evoloution at its best. I caught myself before I indulged in the passage. Big Dawg and Mumsy Dawg's voices rang in my head: "Does this advance the story?" they asked.

The truth of the matter was that it didn't advance the story. I could have gone on for paragraph after paragraph, lending my readers a vision of the horrible, the twisted, but I didn't. I snapped a quick overview and moved on. The story wasn't about rabies. The story was about the youthful nurse who tried desperately not to dispel the hope of recovery after the initial bite. "Focus," I said to myself. "Focus on the story."

The novel that holds that particular snippet is still making its way among the Dawg Pack. I haven't heard how far it's gotten, but I'm sure it'll be back from Mumsy pretty soon, covered in her indigenous purple marker. Then it'll go to the Big Dawg and finally to our sweet, little pup, a woman known only as the Master Slasher. She works in red.

Now, the new work-in-progress is formulating in my files. Taking shape. Growing those embryonic legs I talked about. The bud of the story will soon blossom, and the hindbrain will force my fingers to work faster, harder, longer, until I write the words 'the end.' During the process of development, my crit partner will receive snippets, pieces of the story. She'll sniff out things I should have seen myself. She'll say things like, "I don't think so-and-so (insert character name) would say this or do this." I'll agree mostly, because if my first reader doesn't think something holds true to character, then my second and third reader probably won't either.

Advancing. It's all about advancing the story, keeping characters true to themselves, killing those darling passages that make you feel like a real writer but do nothing to push the plot. Maintaining action. Keeping the reader with you instead of sending them off to skim through so they can say they made it to the end. The words 'the end' should never make the reader feel relief. They should never make a reader feel like they've reached the top of Everest. The words 'the end' should be reached with regret. The reader should say, 'I hate to leave' rather than 'than God it's over.'

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Giving Up

Long ago, country music star Tanya Tucker, sang, "If it don't come easy, let it go." Of course, she was referring to a doomed love affair, but the advice holds true for writers. I've been struggling with a work in progress, trying desperately to get a foothold, but continually failing. So, I let it go. Another idea lay hidden in the folds of my cerebellum. I only found it the other day, resting somewhere between the thought that I might become a medical professional and the decision about who not to invite to dinner. I picked it up, dusted it off, and thought, "Ahhh, not so bad."

I started work and in less than thirty minutes, I had about a thousand words, good words. I didn't start the story too soon, one of my failings, I didn't lose interest around the five hundred word mark, and I didn't find myself struggling to get just the right images on the page. Like old Tanya said, it came easy so I didn't let it go.

The other work in progress has changed position. It's been relegated to the bottom of my document files and may or may not be resurrected. The new WIP is coming along nicely. The only problem I've had is deciding on chapter breaks. The story exits my fingertips with such rapidity that I have to go back and make those chapter divisions as a part of revision.

With the hindbrain firmly in charge, I'm desperately trying to stay out of my own way. Another of my problems. According to the betas, I stand squarely between my writing and any possibility of getting an agent. What does that mean, you ask?

That means that I make my own life difficult. I allow myself to filter in, telling the audience what's happening and not simply showing them. I over describe, my love of words obscuring the meanings of the words themselves. I use forty words to say what one well chosen term might say as well if not better. In other words, I try too hard. A newbie mistake, I know, but the first step in solving any problem is admitting it's there. The second step, STOP! Stop standing in the way of the story. Let the words breathe, something that's a lot harder to do than you might imagine.

One of my biggest problems is those darned creative writing courses I took in college. I've talked about their one genre focus before. I'm not saying don't take a writing course. I'm just suggesting that each writing course should be viewed from the perspective of 'will this work for me.' Not every professor is truly an expert, in that some don't have the publishing credits that a good creative writing teacher needs in order to help a future author toward the goal of seeing his/her book on the shelf.

Well, Hindbrain is calling. I must comply with its request that I return to the new WIP. Wish me luck. I'll need it. This new novel has a long way to go before it hits the beta trail.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


Last night during a discussion with the Big Dawg, I asked a question that involved the adverb "When." Much growling and snarling ensued. The 'when' word is apparently a serious no-no, even if it doesn't involve your own work. When is bad, no matter whose work you're talking about. No when's. Just patience and the willingness to wait.

According to Big Dawg, 'when' instills additional anguish in whoever you're talking to. Publishing and agenting are businesses. Business. Nothing more. It's about product, supply and demand, about giving the customer what he/she wants. When your work leaves your hands and goes to the selling floor, it's not yours anymore. That book you nurtured, the one you healed through revision, is not your baby any longer. It's just a product on the shelf. Hard to accept, huh?

After much whining from this old Query Dawg, I have to admit that Big Dawg's right. (Shhh! Don't tell, okay?) A book is very much like the child of the author. After all, just like that blastula that lodges in the walls of the female uterus, a book is a part of its creator.

An author experiences a moment of great passion, if you will. That passion is the desire to write. The idea for a subject emerges, sometimes in a burst of excitement, sometimes as the result of partial ideas merging into one. Zygote! That cell of a thought moves to the author's hindbrain and rests comfortably there until the writer formulates how to best tell the zygote's story. Time passes. With each stroke of the keyboard, the story develops, growing arms and legs, taking form. Eventually, the last stroke of the author's fingers manages a 'the end.' The story's fully developed and ready to make its entrance into the agenting world. All it needs is a little introduction.

Big Dawg says, that's where the child ends and the product begins. Once the idea and the author's talents are sold to an agent and/or publishing house, you've given your baby up for adoption. It no longer belongs to you. It's no longer a part of the family of documents in your personal files. It's product, making its way through the assembly line and heading for retail shelves everywhere. The better the product, the more often the creator of said product will be asked to produce more.

No matter how eloquent the producer is, no matter how in love with the embryonic idea, no matter what, ultimately any writer becomes Henry Ford. In the end, the goal is to create product that so entices the reader that the producer can earn a living through their creation. In other words, so that you can become a full time writer instead of a part time teacher or waiter or insurance salesman.

Art as product. We sometimes fail to believe that those singular, one of a kind creations are just shelf stuffing, but they are. Whether you're Gauguin or Grisham, art is product. If you're lucky, you don't give your babies away, you make a very good deal with Random House.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Quandry

The only way for a writer to learn how to write IS to write. Okay, so I can't come up with a novel idea (in more ways than one) every day. It's not like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Some writers have thousands of would-be manuscripts floating up there in their memory files. Others, like me, don't. I have what might best be described as the occasional epiphany. That is, out of the hundreds of possible scenarios that float through my brain in any given twenty-four hour period, there might be one that sparks my creative juices. Then again, none of those ideas might seem like something I'd want to spend weeks or months mulling over.

I envy the writers who grab onto one of the hundreds of ideas that flicker in their cerebellum and turn it into over one hundred thousand words or so. I've been working on the third book, but no matter what I try or how many times I start and restart, the words on the page look up at me through dead eyes and yawn. I have no desire to write a sleeper, or rather, to write a book that puts me and will inevitably put an agent to sleep.

While I was driving my granddaughter to school today, something flickered dimly. Ah! Cervical cancer, not my own but one of my characters. I smiled. This is it, I thought. Then I dropped the kiddie at the front door of her kindergarten and headed home. By the time, I'd made the left out of the school parking lot, the flicker went completely dead and the smile faded. I've had cervical cancer and I have no desire to revisit the surgeries and chemicals related to the disease. Write what you know, but some things you know are better left buried inside your brain.

Finally, it occurred to me that I could actually write about a whole, sane person. For me, that's an epiphany. By the time I reached my own driveway, the story I currently have in those dusty old document files had mutated into a lively, feisty woman fighting her way through the horrors of nature. There's the ticket, the ticket to the third addition to my persistent hope that one day I'll be published. The third book might work, if number one and number two don't garner the attention of an agent. Book two is far better than book one. If I hold true to form, book three will top two.

Pray for me, brothers and sisters. Pray for me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Winter of My Discontent

It's snowing, just a skiff, but snow nonetheless. I do my best work in winter. Before I started writing in earnest, I never considered myself to be seasonal. Now, I know I am. As I reread my work, I've discovered that summer, or rather, stories I set in the summer months, don't work as well as stories that include the bitter weather of winter. Why? Who knows. Maybe I've got some kind of internal descriptive clock that only ticks in high gear when it's cold.

My first novel happens during a week in July. Good guys chase bad guys. Good guys catch bad guys. Bad guys suffer justified but horrible fate. Basic stuff. The Big Dawg in the writer's group has always liked the premise. I mean who can go wrong with good triumphs over evil? Apparently, I can.

Big Dawg says that the only characters who seem real are the bad guys. The good guys? Stick figures. Two dimensional. And the reader? The reader doesn't seem to care if any of those good guys live or die. Although I accept the blame for this failed attempt, right now I'm personally blaming it on summer. The story has been trunked to rise from the dust another day, a cold day like today when the snow is covering my back deck and I'm locked in for twenty-four hours.

Although the agent who read the first novel and requested some changes is still waiting, logic dictates that he'll have to wait for a few, long months. Rather than rush a less than adequate tale to his computer screen, it's best to let it swelter in the trunk than lose overall. Another lesson in patience. Damn that patience! He's a hard lesson to learn. Necessary but hard.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Block or Burn

A few days ago, I made much about starting the new novel. I did start, sort of. My problem? Block. That's the clever title some long-ago writer gave to explain a total loss of words. Yeah. I'm at a loss for words. For those who know me, that seems totally contradictory to my personality. I'm the one with the clever quips, the philosophical ramblings, the one who's always ready with an opinion or question. Writer's block isn't about any of those things.

Writer's block doesn't eliminate words from your brain. Those words are still there and the writer is still able to make clever comments, introduce theories and attitudes about life, and to offer an opinion on any subject. They're able to do that in conversation, but when it comes to advancing a story, developing a character, or defining a plot line? Ker-plooey! Nada. Zilch. The transfer of words from the brain through the fingertips and onto the computer screen just ain't happening, if you know what I mean.

It's not that I don't have any words under the heading "Chapter 1." I do. More than a thousand or so as a matter of fact. It's that when I reached that thousand or so, nothing I tried seemed to work. If you take a long listen to a weatherman, he'll inevitably use the phrase "intermittent showers" when talking about the iffy possibility of rain. That's what writer's block is like. It's the occasional spattering of words. They come in short bursts like a quickly passing shower or they just drizzle out, a few at a time. And like the weatherman, those drizzled words feel untrustworthy.

When block comes early on, I ask myself, "Is this the book I should be writing?" or "Is my hindbrain trying to tell me to move on to greener word pastures?" Who knows? Maybe. Mostly I think that writers are convinced that daily output is more important than quality output. I've just finished a re-write and I've written an entirely new book. My output is fine, sometimes reaching nearly 15,000 words per week. But that was the last book, and this is the current work in progress. Albeit progressing slowly.

Some writers, say Nora Roberts, can produce a new tome every two weeks or so. Some writers like Harper Lee produce one valuable book in a lifetime. I think I'm somewhere in between. Oh, I've got a short story brewing, and I write poetry. In fact, a poet friend of mind once told me that I was the most prolific poet she knew and at the same time, the most ardent revisionist.

I never thought of blogs as therapeutic, but as I write this, I'm beginning to understand the problem. My mind is still back on the second novel, thinking about what will happen when the Dawg Pack finishes their betas. Maybe I don't have block. Maybe I have temporary burnout.

Saturday, November 8, 2008


I'm starting the third book. At least, I keep telling myself I'm starting. So far, I've written almost 5,000 words and I've deleted more than half of them. Starting a book is like starting a car with an engine defect. You know those cars that grrr and grumble, the engine hinting that it might turn over more than twice but taking its own good time doing it.

I always begin with a gimmick. Never works. Then I try another gimmick. That doesn't work either. Finally, in desperation I might make it to the story, but I always seem to start too soon. I know agents prefer that sudden jolt that draws attention, but I seem to be stuck in the era when authors took time to set the stage before bringing all the actors on. I get over it eventually but only after hours of anguish. It's those false starts that kill me.

I actually started this book long before I finished the second novel. At 30,000 words, I sent it to one of my betas who absolutely hated it. I revised and sent it again, but she still hated it. I put it on the shelf to gather dust for a while and picked up something that had been floating around in my mind. I put that on the page and then took a fifteenth look at my previous effort. The beta, as always, was right. It sucked, so I deleted it (except for some very good stuff that I thought I might use in the future) and began afresh with a new title and a new premise. Only the names of the characters remained.

I will get started. I know that, but that first hump is the biggest and most difficult to maneuver. It's not as easy as saying, "Once upon a time," but believe me that's exactly how I'd like to start. I suppose my tenacity is what makes me a writer, that unfailing unwillingness to just let things lay. Without it, I'd be one of the thousands who keep saying, "One day, I'm going to write a novel." I've written a novel. In fact, I've written two and the third, well the third may actually be on its way.