Draft One of ??? Complete

I actually have a complete first draft of a novel! I wasn’t sure it would ever happen. Hang on while I savour it for a moment…

…Ok. About the draft:

1) Title TBD. The story has the same main character and universe that I created in one of my short stories, but I may or may not keep the original title. I’m currently thinking not, the story has changed a lot, but I am yet to think of a good alternative so we’ll see. 2) It’s a mess. It is a first draft as Joanne Fedler describes here: The first draft and the rewriteVomit in a bucket. An apt, if gross, metaphor. But, all the pieces to the puzzle are there. What remains is for me to go back and decide which pieces to keep, which to throw away, and what needs reshaping for a better fit.   Continue reading

Advertisements

What You Can Get

I was reading an article the other day. The details of the article are not important, but as I was reading there was a line that stood out to me:

“Are you focused on what you want, or what you think you can get?”

From the outside, it may appear that I’m doing pretty well going for what I want. I’ve given up not one, but two possible career paths with which I had every reason to think I could be successful—and which would likely have given me long-term financial stability—to pursue writing . Why? Because I want to (not a satisfactory answer to the many raised eyebrows out there).

I want to know what it’s like to make my own Continue reading

Review of a Classic: The Highway – Ray Bradbury

Some time ago, I received feedback on a story I had posted on a writing forum. The story I posted, Conditioning Phase, is among the first I ever wrote, and though I’ve since gone back to the story and can see the mechanics of it leave a lot to be desired, one of the reviewers on the forum seemed to really like it and compared it to Ray Bradbury’s work.

Of course, I had heard of Ray Bradbury–a famous, 50s era, sci-fi author–and was thrilled to be compared to him. It was a good confidence boost early on in my writing attempts. But here’s a confession: With the exception of A Sound of Thunder (great story), I’d never read Ray Bradbury.

Farenheit 451 might have been on the reading list of my one university English class. I can’t recall for sure, but I remember the entire reading list was dystopian themed: A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, etc. It’s very possible Farenheit 451 was there too. The thing is, I didn’t read any of those books. I was a first-year engineering student in a class of first-year engineering students, 90% of whom were only in the class because it was mandatory (I’m assuming about 10% of the class had some genuine interest in English Literature. I could be wrong).

Luckily, the professor spent so much time telling us what we were supposed to think about these narratives, rather than encouraging anything in the way of original thought (not sure if he was like this with all students or just had a low opinion of his unmotivated engineering students) that all I had to do come exam time was regurgitate what I could remember from the hours of class I was actually awake for. That was enough to come out of it with a C (possibly one of my better marks that semester) without cracking a single book from the assigned pile. Well, that’s not quite true. I read the first page or two of A Clockwork Orange before giving up. Tricky linguistics is not my strong suit.

I digress.

Recently I was in the bookstore, browsing the sci-fi section. I came across Bradbury’s short story collection The Illustrated Man. I decided it was time to fill this gap in my literary repertoire.

Most of the stories in The Illustrated Man highlight societal trends and norms of the time most of them were published ( around 1951), often exploring the darker side of these trends. The stories don’t all end in doom and gloom, but there isn’t a guaranteed happy ending either. I like that about them.

Normally, when I’m reading for fun, I try not to analyse what I’m reading. It’s a good way to ruin a good story and start overly obsessing about how my own writing compares. However, since I went into Bradbury’s collection knowing someone had already compared my story style with his, it was hard to avoid this time.

I found myself comparing his writing to the various writing to-do’s and not-to-do’s I’ve come across since I started learning the craft. I made some observations that I think are worth sharing with the aspiring-writer community, particularly while reading The Highway.

Quick summary: The Highway is told from the perspective of a Mexican man who lives on a highway leading to the US border. First he observes that there is an unusual lull in the traffic, and suspects something is up. This is followed by a deluge of cars going by, all in the same direction, with panicked-looking passengers. One of the vehicles stops in need of water for an overheating radiator. The protagonist, Hernando, learns from the passengers that the atom war, and the end of the world, has finally come. When the truck leaves, Hernando goes back to working his field as if nothing of significance has happened. I guess this shows how differently the threat of nuclear war was perceived by cultures not directly involved in it, or how the concept of ‘the world’ differed outside the USA?—In the last line Hernando says to himself: “What do they mean, ‘the world’?”

Back to the to-do’s and not-to-do’s. From various sources, I have read writing tips warning against the following:

1) Trying to establish a character’s foreign origins by throwing a few words of their native tongue into dialogue of otherwise perfect English, particularly using the simplest words, which would be the first English words any foreigner would learn. ‘Sí’ and ‘Señor’ are given as specific examples to be avoided.

In The Highway, Hernando’s English has a few grammatical flaws, but nothing that screams ‘Spanish accent’. His first language is identified by his use of Spanish words. And the only Spanish words used in the entire story are, you guessed it, ‘Si’ and ‘Señor’.

2) In dialogue, using speech tags other than ‘said’. More often than not, avoid other speech tags—screeched, divulged, questioned, pontificated, etc—as the familiarity of ‘said’ will allow most readers to gloss over it and focus on the dialogue itself. Also, don’t weigh down speech tags with redundant adverbs, adverbial phrases, or unnecessary adjectives. In fact, avoid these in general, in dialogue or otherwise.

Quote from The Highway: “Oh, please hurry!” one of the girls cried. She sounded very high and afraid.” An exclamation mark, a descriptive speech tag, and follow-on clarification of her tone of voice. I’d say it’s more than clear that this girl is freaked out.

3) Scenes/stories where nothing actually happens. Example: An entire story going on in the head of a protagonist sitting on the bus. What characters are thinking and observing certainly matters, but for the most part the reader is interested in what is happening to the protagonist and what they are actually doing about it.

In The Highway, the entire story consists of the protagonist becoming aware of a situation–the ‘atom war’ has started. Then the story is over. Short stories do have some leeway compared to novels when it comes to what is considered a complete story arc, but the entire emotional impact of The Highway seems to depend on the statement: “It’s come, the atom war, the end of the world!” having a significant effect on the reader without any description of what this end-of-days actually looks like.

I suspect in 1951, when the story was first published, the hint alone of atomic war was enough to give readers chills. However, even though have as good an idea as the next person what the implications of dropping a nuclear bomb are, from the perspective of someone who didn’t grow up in 50s USA, convinced a bomb was going to fall on me at any moment (I know, lots of countries have nuclear weapons and it’s possible they will use them, but I don’t spend much of my day worrying about it), this particular story didn’t resonate with me all that much.

None of these observations are intended to paint Ray Bradbury as a bad writer. He was a great writer. It says something that A Sound of Thunder has stuck in my head (in a good way) since I read it in high school. And there’s a reason people are still reading his stuff.

My point is, he was making all the same ‘mistakes’ the rest of us do. Given his stories are still in print decades after they were written, I find that encouraging. There’s hope for aspiring writers yet. A good story can overcome a few imperfections, and perfect writing doesn’t make for a good story.

The Edit Loop

Aside from Dosterra, I am also working on a novel that I actually plan to complete, edit and refine before subjecting anyone else to it.

I started it over the summer, got about halfway through, didn’t like where it was going and started again. I did make some progress. This time, I made it a little farther than halfway before getting stuck. As I discussed the other day being unsure what to write next tempted me to get into the editing process. Bad idea.

I resisted the urge for a little while and actually think I know now where I want things to go next. Unfortunately, in the meantime I read How Not to Write a Novel  and now I know how many mistakes I’ve been making.

Tug-of-war over, I’ve tipped over the edge. I’m going through it from the beginning…again. Though I’m hardly starting from scratch, it feels like I am. Still, I just can’t leave what I’ve written as is. I’m trapped in the edit loop, and it may take a miracle for me to  get out and finish this thing—the danger of working without a deadline I guess.

Buddhists say it is impossible to love and hate something at the same time. I beg to differ. Maybe tomorrow I’ll work on a short story instead.

How Not to Write a Novel – Review

20131104_135339[1]

To all aspiring novelists out there—to all writers period—I highly recommend reading How Not to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. Between them, these two authors have lots of experience with writing, editing, teaching, and reviewing. They’ve seen a lot of good and bad writing come and go.

Rather than try to explain what makes good writing good, as most writing how-to books do, this book explains instead what makes bad writing bad. Going through the major points of plot, character, and style, it gives detailed examples demonstrating the various traps most new writers fall into, send their precious manuscripts to the trash can—sorry, recycle bin.

Some of the tips you will have seen before, though probably worded somewhat differently, if you’ve ever read anything on writing. And yet, you probably still make these mistakes from time to time, and another reminder wouldn’t hurt. For example: “Fuck You!” He Said Profanely: Where the author uses adverbs to no purpose.

Others will be new, at least they were to me, like: The Joan Rivers Pre-Novel Special: Where clothing is given too much prominence.

Though written with the novel in mind, the majority of these blunders are not unique to novel writing. The examples are often woefully exaggerated for humour’s sake, but also clearly make their point. As essential as examples of the ‘right thing’ are, examples of the ‘wrong thing’ are valuable too. It’s a lot easier to find mistakes in your writing when you know what the mistakes look like.

Also, the book was simply fun to read. Not a hint of textbookiness to be found. I will warn you, however, unless you are most impeccable writer in existence (in which case, what are you doing on my blog?) it will at times be painful when you see hints of your own writing peeking out from the what‑not‑to-do pile.

Though I’d like to think none of my writing is quite as bad as the comical passages in this book depict, there was lots of ‘yeah, ok, I might do that sometimes.’, and ‘Crap, I’ve definitely done that.’, going through my mind as I came across the traps most applicable to me. I’d list them all, but there are too many (feel free to read any of my writing and I’m sure you’ll find a few on your own).

Here and there, I got to think ‘Phew, I know I’ve never done that.’ Usually when the error described in no way applied to the kind of writing I do, like: Gibberish for Art’s Sake: Wherein indecipherable lyricism baffles the reader. I have been accused of confusing my readers in the past (Dosterra Chapter one), but certainly not with lyricism.

How Not to Write a Novel also includes: The Crepitating Parasol; The Whatchamcallit; and “Yo, Charlemagne, how dost thy big war?”, to name a few more intriguing subtitles that make it impossible not to wonder, ‘What’s that about?’ If you’d like to know, pay a visit to Amazon, or your local Chapters.

What to do, What to do…Tug-of-War

I’ve got a few things on my writing to-do list right now: I’m working on a novel–aside from Dosterra, which is also a work in progress–I have a flash-fiction piece set aside for future editing before I decide where to submit it, and of course there’s Letter From Your Girl, which requires tweaking, but as I mentioned yesterday I’m giving it a few days, maybe longer, for my maturity and professional detachment to kick back in after the critique I received set off all of my defensive alarms.  There was a time when I didn’t take feedback personally…before I became a writer. 

Anyway, I decided I should work on my novel.  It’s been a few days since I’ve tackled it, and leaving it for too long can cause me to lose the flow. Problem, I’ve hit a little wall as far as what I think should happen next. There is no magic solution to this. Normally it’s just a matter of sitting down and starting, and eventually something comes even if it’s only a place holder until a better idea replaces it. This time when I sat down, I was overcome with a very persistent urge to go back to the beginning and edit what I’ve already written. My rationale being, by the time I finish doing that I’ll know what I want to have happen next.

Sounds logical. The thing is, any site where you can find writing tips advises against this. They say ‘write first, edit later’ for the very simple, and true, reason that the write-edit-write-edit cycle can become an endless, inescapable loop. I know this. Still, half of my brain wanted to progress the story, the other half wanted to edit.

The tug-of-war came out a tie. Result: neither story progression, nor editing occurred. I wondered over to youtube for a while, played my guitar a little–yes my life is very tough these days–made some lunch, played with the cats, and the curser on the page didn’t budge.      20131030_231920[1] 20131030_232020[1]

Finally, in danger of wasting the entire day, I gave up on the novel and abandoned the official to-do list all together. Instead, I went to my unfinished-stories folder and picked out another piece I had started a while ago, but abandoned, and managed to move that story forward by a few hundred words. Not much, and I have no plans for what I’ll do with it when it’s finished, but some writing got done and that makes for a good day.

 

 

On The Premises Take Two

The online fiction magazine, On The Premises, has a contest every few months based on a specific premise that must somehow be incorporated into the story. As I discussed in a previous post , the first time I entered one of their contests (the premise was ‘Innerworkings’), I didn’t make the final round of judging and opted to pay ($15) to have my story critiqued.

I seek out critiques of my work and comments as much as possible because for all the research on ‘how to write effectively’ I could ever do, the only way to know if I’m succeeding is to hear what people think about my final product. Preferably people who aren’t too close to me to be honest, and who are better writers than I am (which I admit may be a lot of people, but not everybody). Getting feedback from editors who have seen a lot of good and bad writing come and go is very useful.

Unfortunately, most ezines I’ve encountered don’t provide feedback unless they accept your story and the expected editing process begins. OTP, however will critique any entry if asked, and the contests themselves are great writing prompts. If you’re looking for feedback on your writing, it’s worth considering OTP as a place to submit your work. The feedback I received the first time around was thorough and helpful, so I decided to give it another go.

This time the premise was ‘Instructions’. Stepping away from my usual sci-fi/speculative comfort zone, the story I submitted was a WWII, historical fiction narrative inspired by some letters my grandfather wrote from 1944/45. I kept the historical details as close to reality as I could, putting my protagonist in the times and places my grandfather would have been—give or take—but all the characters were fiction.

I didn’t win a prize this time either 😦 but I did make the top ten 🙂 and as a reward received my critique for free.

The thing about critiques is, well, they’re critical. In this case they did start by saying:  We consider “Letter From Your Girl” one of the ten best stories that we received for contest #21. You might be able to sell it to another market without changing a thing.

This statement should have made me feel wonderful and put me in a mind set to take the subsequent comments in stride, and it did—for about ten seconds. Then I went on to read about all the weak sentences and confusing points they found in my story, how they had trouble feeling the emotions of my protagonist, and so on. The knowledge that a) they liked my story better than most they received, and b) I asked for this feedback, became totally irrelevant while my guts were being gouged out by a carefully-sharpened pencil.

Was that a bit dramatic? I thought so too. So, I took a deep breath and realized, a) most of their observations were not that bad, certainly not impossible to fix before I send the story elsewhere, and b) they were right.

However, there was one thing in the critique I took issue with. You can make your own judgment about what it says about On The Premises staff (or about me). And feel free to comment and tell me I’m making an issue out of nothing…or that I’m not.

Here are some sentences taken directly from the story:

“…sharing the New Brunswick birth place had created an automatic bond between them.”

“The troop train rolled into the Moncton station…”

“…he was sure he could hitch a ride the rest of the way to Saint John.”

“Someone who’d been back in Canada for some time, no doubt.”

“…celebration at the sight of the Canadian troops and tanks.”

Here are some sentences taken directly from the critique of my story:

“Why this family decides to adopt an American soldier…”

“…when he gets back to the USA…”

Do we see a problem here?

I can understand how the mention of two Canadian cities might escape notice. I can’t claim to know the name of every American city. I could even let the misunderstanding of New Brunswick go. It is one of our smaller provinces, and there does happen to be a city called New Brunswick in New Jersey, as well as a Brunswick, Georgia. There were also multiple mentions of the Staghound armoured car used by commonwealth forces (not US forces) during WWII, but that is a reference I probably would have missed myself until recently.

However, I have some trouble reconciling that I could refer to Canada directly twice—and we’re talking about a short story here, not a novel—not to mention, the abbreviation ‘cdn’ appearing about half a dozen times in letter excerpts throughout the story, and yet the judges for On The Premises made the assumption that my protagonist was American. Maybe I’m just nitpicking, but it’s hard to believe my work was being given even a fraction of the reader’s full attention.

Actually, on first noticing this oversight, images of my story being read at two in the morning while working on bottle of wine number two ran through my head. My impulse was to be incensed. Why should I listen to what they have to say about my writing when clearly they weren’t even awake when they read it? Do they even know there were countries other than the USA in WWII? I wonder if they’d be shocked to learn the war started before December 1941.

Oh dear, being dramatic again. I took another deep breath. This lapse does not mean their other comments on my writing do not deserve my full attention. For now I’m putting both the story and the critique aside. Sometime later, I will read them both again, fix my story as best I can, and submit it elsewhere. In the meantime, will I enter the next OTP contest? Probably not, but maybe the one after that.