While floating about the blog flotsom a few minutes this morning, I discovered this:

“Whenever I want to write a book, I am obliged (by contract) to submit an outline to my publisher first. My editor reads it, decides if she likes the idea, the premise, and the story I describe in a 40 or 50 page outline, that is supposed to include the characters, plot, and details of the book, broken down by chapter. The fact that I have to do that always surprises people. They assume that after all the books I’ve written (107 to date), I can just write whatever I want, send it off, and my publishers are thrilled. That’s not how it works in real life, or not mine anyway. (I used to have to submit several sample chapters or even half the book. Now I just have to submit the outline). The editor then calls me or writes to me, and makes lots of comments about what they don’t like, want changed, or what doesn’t work… After that, with their notes well in hand, and my outline, I write the book.”

That’s a pretty honest assessment of being the author of a specific genre. Genre work can be reliably warm and connecting, but also very scrutinized and monitored by protective publishers who know (or believe they know based on the numbers) their audience very, very well. The author goes on to discuss personal editing in an equally frank passage:

“Re-reading it is like looking in a huge magnifying mirror where you see every pore, speck and flaw on your face. And then, finally, I send the book to my editor, and the real worrying begins…”

I think I must have read some of these books as a kid, holed up in hot summer breezes behind ruffled white curtains in my grandmother’s pink arm chair sorting through towers of hardbacks, sifting for the action. There’s always action in any story, of a kind or another. Some prefer travel tales. Ladies prefer bodice ripping and shaggy-shouldered gasps of air. At least, that was my general impression at the time. Then I discovered the stash of “Lady’s Magazines” unassuming and innocent looking as they collected rumpled circles beneath the mid-day tea glasses. You can either be a grandmother, retired and catching up on the revolution through these conveniently covered issues touting baking bits and health elixirs, or you can be a seven year old picking up basic anatomy through the letters to the editor pages. I’m sure both are equally divine.

The very thoughtful Noah Lukeman has created a free how-to book available from Amazon.com here. I haven’t sampled it yet, as free things are best shared first. Hopefully he’s god’s gift, as the further heavenward talent gets, the easier it becomes to share the golden eggs that drop through fingers from on high.

In other events, I finally downloaded the pilot to Pushing Daisies. Had me in stitches. The wittiest I’ve seen in a long time.

According to series creator Bryan Fuller from his IMDB Profile, “I got into writing to become a ‘Star Trek’ writer. I was a rabid fan …I couldn’t have imagined a happier career. But after writing for ‘Star Trek’ for four years and bumping up against the parameters of the storytelling, which sometimes were very restrictive because there was always that magical reset button and you could never carry story arcs over the episodes because they were so heavily syndicated that it simply wasn’t allowed, I began to get itchy…”

It’s really too bad it’s cancelled. I’m assuming there was some shark jumping involved, or else it was a case of networks’ collective fear of attracting an audience too intelligent to speed dial every Flowbee and Hairigami to blue screen of death across the infomercial hour on the Summertime re-runs. God forbid we find a better business model. You know. Like the internet. Hail, the Long Tail Theory.

I read one of the best defenses of writing for social causes this morning. The old adage swords are swift but quills sharper and easier to work with when you’re eating the morning toast comes to mind. At several pages it’s a real bit of actual writing, and is a deliciously thoughtful memoir by none other than author Neil Gaiman. He gets into the gritty of why edgy writing can ultimately help speak out about the realities people face, and in allowing possibly derogatory writing to exist, we generate the potential for a society which must face and react to it.

Gaiman argues (in a rather valiant effort) that by taking charge of our own preconceptions during the reactionary process of absorbing shocking art, we are ultimately growing into our own social responsibility. We’re allowing ourselves to become accountable as a society for much more powerful human experiences we may not have ever been presented with before. These things challenge us into understanding and forming an opinion on them. They make us think and decide and draw lines and ultimately solve the problems they highlight, and that’s a very good thing. At least, I think that’s what he’s saying.

It’s an excellent explanation for why writers must be at the forefront of shocking ideas – it becomes the responsibility of the writer to explore and make the reader aware of that which is hidden, shied away from, and instinctively rejected due to the limits of social propriety. I’m not saying embraced, but acknowledged, and accounted for in that human realities are not always (read: mostly never) what’s on the cover of the storybooks. The pat interpretive simplicities we are raised on give us the flat terrain of early childhood to enable us to grow into adults and that’s the point – growing into adults who can feel practiced enough on the bunny slopes of ethics to finally go after a few black diamonds in our broadening horizons. They offer space to place new steps of change.

Reach out for those diamonds, kids, for they shine the longest and are worth more than all the riches of any writing that came before.

After reading an enormous amount on writing and the craft of story-making, the following are my best picks for writers who want to cut to the chase.

Boring Yet Essential (I’ll keep it a short list.)

“The Elements of Style” – Strunk & White, 1918 There’s a reason this book is still around.

“Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” Just be aware of what punctuation is actually supposed to be used for and you’ll be ahead of the curve, I assure you.

BTW, public service note: If your local library doesn’t at least keep one spare copy of EoS on hand, feel free to make them feel they must have failed in their civic duties and leave particularly suicidal-looking, preferably muttering wide-eyed about what happens to the ducks. This is for the benefit of all the other aspiring writers in your district. Heroic things can’t be argued with. Any librarian worth their salt will get the ducks commentary immediately and not feel too bad about your crafty ruse. They will however, be reminded to stock a copy of EoS every time they see a book cover by J. D. Salinger. Your job as patron and patriot will be complete.

Useful Plot Mechanics Guides

The awful truth is that screenwriters have been generating more of the good stuff on writing technique in recent years than any other subgroup of the species. Rather than scoff that you, my dear madame, are a real writer, (etc, etc.) instead take a dark pair of sun glasses, keep them permanently dangled from your shirt collar and be willing to read the commercialized reasons for why stuff works at the production studios. Publishing houses are a lot like production studios. They like what sells. While you don’t have to write what sells it doesn’t hurt to be aware of what in fact might get published. Just an idea.

“Story” by Robert McKee: Easily one of the most essential resources on the market. Hang your canvas on a well-built frame.

“How Not To Write a Novel” – Consider it the Mystery Science Theater or RiffTrax of novel reviews.

“Save the Cat” by Blake Snider: A clinical case study that references the myth cycle in terms of modern movies that have become part of the cultural cannon – a cannon you are probably borrowing from whether you realize it or not. Face this fact head on and embrace you inner movie affection-ado. It will save you some law suits further down the road and help you revision your idea from a uniquely untried perspective.

Just kidding. Everything’s been tried.

Inspiration on Learning The Craft

“The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers” by Betsy Lerner: A seasoned editor throws the writer on the couch and keeps him there until all the inner workings of why he writes are clear. Interesting analysis of not only why writers write, but how they can learn balance.

“On Writing” by Stephen King: Aliens and shape shifters may not be your thing, true. But King’s inner workings provide practical advice on how to take your fleeting ideas and apply them well to the genre of your choice. He narrates his own audio book, for the commuting inclined.

“Steering the Craft” by Ursula K. Le Guin: Why give you a speech when I can give you a sample? http://www.ursulakleguin.com/SteeringCraft_57B.html

Useful Writing Exercises

To be truthful, writing exercises stated as such are mostly touchy-feely research experiments by the head writer more than they are a genuine help to the young writer who is looking to gain something useful from a course.

Rather than exercise, just start treading down the miles of your marathon – as soon as possible. Even now, in fact, I’m hurrying through this god forsaken post so that I can shed the Betty Ford white robe of choice and go down stairs for some brunch and an uninterrupted afternoon with my latest project. [edit: will spellcheck ever come prepackaged with euphemism cross-reference? Otherwise all my allusions will have to be about Barry White?]

With that being said, this is the one book I’ve found as an excellent toolkit for the blank page:

“The Writer’s Book of Matches” by the fine folks at Fresh Boiled Peanuts.

Literary Journals

Since we’re bringing up literary journals, there are two good literary magazines that are worth at least a flip through at your local bookstore:

1. Fresh Boiled Peanuts (of course.) http://www.freshboiledpeanuts.com

2. Brick http://www.brickmag.com

3. And so I’ve heard: AND THEN literary magazine.

All the rest of course, are rubbish. You know one person can possibly know all the good books and magazines out there. My coffee table might fool some, but I cannot possibly know them all.

“There is no hope in individualism for egotism. When a man is at last brought face to face with himself by a brave Individualism, he finds himself face to face, not with an individual, but with a species, and knows that to save himself, he must save the race. He can have no life except a share in the life of the community; and if that life is unhappy and squalid, nothing that he can do to paint and paper and upholster and shut off his little corner of it can really rescue him from it.”

– George Bernard Shaw, The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891)

“Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.”

– Lance Armstrong

“There are thoughts which are prayers. There are moments when, whatever the posture of the body, the soul is on its knees.”

– Victor Hugo quote

In other news, Woopie Goldberg gives an interview on the meaning of words from her September 28th interview at the Oxonian Society. http://fora.tv/2008/09/25/Whoopi_Goldberg_Defends_the_N_Word

For those interested, Fora.tv’s got a whole archive of intriguing chats by authors here:
http://fora.tv/channel/Books_Authors

There’s an incredibly good book that does a much more entertaining rant than I ever could about how not to drop your pants amidst the most common blunders of writing. It’s called, aptly enough:

“How Not to Write A Novel.”

Normally I don’t shill things that cost money in the spirit of blogging and free information. However at a whopping fifteen bucks, or free if you dare to find a comfy chair at your local chain store and deftly ignore the smoldering stares of the baristas, this is one of those reads that can hand you your soul back a bit at the end of a long day.

In includes classic writing wisdom like “Revenge is a dish best served in public” and “Oh Mr. Sandman? On Second Thought, Bring Me A Gun!”

Trust me, I mean if you actually do (then the joke’s on you, isn’t it?) you will enjoy every righteous backhand snark this little paperback has to offer the very characters you were just beginning to think weren’t half bad. Well they are, now get over it. And get better!

“Yes, thought Brainiac, stroking his tarantula, Henry IV… now was the time to convince the mayor of his lies…”

In a meeting this weekend to go over some scene construction, the discussion came around to how do you best transition a scene while keeping the present behavior of the character active and interesting? This is pretty fundamental, but often lost, and easy to add.

The key is often what’s known as a closed transition, or in the case of an introduction to a new character, a closed entrance.

In step one, you just have to define their point of reference in the scene – ie. what is their state? You can think of it almost as “what color are they wearing?” or “what emotion?” What’s their chord?

Indiana Jones has his hat and his stoic sense of watchfulness – he was always on to something, doing something and caught in the middle. In class he was already at the chalk board / interacting with students. In an action scene he was planting his whip on some tropical tree branch / yelling directions.

Multitasking has to be kept simple, but if used well it does three big things to enhance the experience of the introduction. The first is simple: It sets the character within a scene instead of awkwardly out of the ether. It closes the entrance like a camouflaged army unit strafing in an unrecognized pattern across the field. As the audience or reader, you’re never quite sure when you began to notice the character from the meaningful visual explanation of the backdrop, and that leads to a very realistic scene that doesn’t seem as contrived as it might otherwise.

The second enhancement of the closed entrance provides the needed connection with the image system. If you haven’t read or downloaded, or been to the McKee Story Seminar yet, then you really should. But if you have, you will be familiar with the metaphorical connection good films have to their mythologies – an often poetically unique substructure of meaningful metaphors that tie in external imagery to the internal motivational and emotional states of the characters.

The image system is an invisible, common bond between each character, who will react differently enough each in turn to the same symbols such that the audience is treated to a double layer of camouflage through the entrances and exits of the characters, and the meanings behind their actions. This is also the layer at which sub-plots arise, as mini-narratives that human beings will intrinsically find more narratively cohesive and will work to piece together on the sidelines as they maintain their interest to the main plot arc of the story.

Say you have a character who’s fundamental role in a manuscript will be the secret-keeper or handler of the insert-artifact-here. Having them come through a door that leads to a smoky back room in a casino, having just stuffed a large wad of bills into his or her purse or wallet is a closed entrance. Instantly the audience has a reason presented to them to be intrigued by the character. There’s never a sense that the character is waiting for their cue – they’re in action, moving props, body and expression. Readers need this entertainment, too, and what’s more it’s a lot easier to include actions and thinking in a novel, so they must be narrowed down all the more to make sure only the meaningful stuff is there to count. The rest can be swept away.

Probably the most important reason to write closed entrances though, is that as a writer you will need to know as you are writing what each of your characters represents. Each closed entrance is a checkpoint for the mechanics of how a character relates to the image system as well as how their state has changed relative to the rest of the scene.

Including a healthy dose of active dialogue and taught closed entrances and exits also leaves the energy of the scene all intact for the next scene change. Similar to come in late and leave early, the closed entry automatically creates just such an event, however minor, to incite a reason for your characters to relay the plot information you’ve intended.

On that note, it’s time for bed… yawn.

The NY Times did a piece on writing that is very on target for writers at the edge of becoming good self-editors. Well, if there is such a thing as a good self-editor. I can’t tell. I can only assume you’re doing something worthwhile when you go above and beyond the usual spell check. (Yes, you really have to. It’s your part of the job.)

Cheers to Bloglily for taking up the craft of writing on the train. Yes, you CAN teach yourself quite a bit shoved up between a seminary student and a juggling child actor on the way home each night.

Absolute Write has some useful looking content. Enough to keep you busy while I’m off not answering my phone calls.

As for continuing the course, there is an upswing to it. The more you read and criticize your own work, the more ideas you will eventually have for improvement that you will like better. I had another delicious idea last night. Almost had my face planted on the keyboard before I gave up and went to bed. Sometimes you write through the normal routine just to stumble upon the useful bits. It’s like cleaning out an old attic. Who knew that was up there?!

Actually… back to work. I’ve said my piece. There’s seriously enough good links in here to keep you procrastinating for eons, but at least it will be about the thing you’re not doing right now – and should be.

“In the middle of the silence in a writer’s house lies an invalid: the book being worked on.”
– Richard Eder

“The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.” – Anais Nin

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” – Richard Bach

“Will the reader turn the page?” – Catherine Drinker Bowen

“Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”
– Sidonie Gabrielle

“Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking.” – Jessamyn West

Thanks to Brainy Quotes.

I noted with some surprise today that the slight smudge on my N-key, which has become slowly more obvious in the last few weeks, is actually not a smudge at all.

It’s a dent.

That’s right, my prized G5 power book, christened by my pointy fingers some 14 months ago, is now showing my love nibbles.

The N key is in that perfect spot (well, not for it) when my index finger goes straight down. Upon closer inspection, it is trailed in damage by the M and A keys respectively. Amazing when you touch type that you can keep your finger within a 5mm target to do that sort of damage.

Oh well. We all have to sacrifice for my art. I think as a computer, it wants nothing better but to be smacked around a bit. It hasn’t gone off with any other writers yet, at any rate. Some razor-clawed romance writer – well, would I have a computer in the house that would put up with being owned by someone like that? I think not. The alternative is the death by the would-be withering emu crowd. Oh look, another post about not doing anything.

Funny Quotes has this to say on the matter:

“I tried to cut myself last night to Joy Division with my toothbrush. I was sitting there trying to peel away as many layers of skin as I could but I couldn’t make a serious dent in my arm. I kept doing it for half an hour. My mother actually thought I was brushing my teeth for that long!”

And this:

“If God exists why did He have to give me such a horrible looking body? I mean what’s the point in having nipples if you are a man? I’ve tried biting them off in the past but I doubt I could handle the pain. I don’t know what I’d say to Mother on the way to the hospital either…”

I don’t know who the writer is of this “Dan” creature. But we are friends already.

In unrelated news, Atlantis Studios has a site up now offering to take your work and map it out into a graphic novel (comic book in other words.) On the whole I try not to shill vanity publications due to the heavily associated yes men who swarm about the garbage looking for half baked ideas – works which should have become better with a little dose of reality instead of a dive for the checkbook. But hey, there’s something to be said for viewing your work in an entirely different artistic format. The art images in the previews aren’t bad. No idea about pricing. I’m far too cheap.