Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Password For Today Is ...?

Some idiot once said that, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” That idiot was Thomas Edison, and as the years go by the more I think he has an argument. And, of course, he wasn’t an idiot. I’m currently writing under the light of his genius.

For years I waited for inspiration to strike before sitting at the typewriter/word processor/desktop/laptop. Sometimes it hit. Most times not. And then I was left staring at the last sentence of an incomplete story or worse, a blank screen.

In 1999 I attended my first Maui Writers Conference and heard words from Australia’s Best Selling Author Bryce Courtenay (above) that were at once funny and profound. “Bum glue,” he said. The act of securing one’s ass to the seat of a chair and write, dammit, write. No, that’s not quite accurate. The act of securing MY ass to the seat of MY chair in front of MY laptop and typing one word after another until a story unwinds on the page. I have to apply these precepts to me, you see, if I’m going to get anything out of them.

So, for me to achieve Edison’s ninety-nine percent perspiration, I need a healthy dollop of Bryce Courtenay’s bum glue.

Having really done well with the new outline for Catch a Falling Star, I’m going to now give the bum glue a chance. On the evenings of the days I work, no television. Not even a ballgame. If it’s my beloved Texas Rangers, well, they will pull my focus and I won’t write during those precious two to two and a half hours I have from the time I get home from work until I go to bed. If it’s another team, an exciting game could divert me. If it’s a cooking show, “Damn, I definitely need to know how to fuse chicken tandori chili mac with a pineapple raisin right side up cake.”

So, NO television on the evenings after I get home from work. Period. What I will use is music. The ethereal strains of Enya, or the hard pumping rock and roll of any number of bands, or whatever my mood strikes me to ease my mind into the story, because I’m starting to believe that if I force myself to write three sentences, just three sets of subject/predicates, the muses will wake up and help me fly around my inner world grabbing this scene and that sequel for the story.

I am also starting to accept that working on the story itself is writing, too. Somehow, I’ve never really accepted that organizing scenes and braiding story lines is fully as important as dialogue and description and theme and metaphor. Stephen King says in his book On Writing that he usually produces two drafts and a polish per book. I want to be able to do that. Or at least be able to come in mid-single digits.

Bum glue. It all comes down to bum glue, doesn’t it? Bryce Courtenay writes twelve hours a day six days a week seven months a year. Stephen King aims for two thousand words a day. Lawrence Block, five pages.

Given my work schedule, I haven’t expressed my goals like they did, and don’t want to now. I’m happy that I’ve written every week. Now it’s time to make that every day. Every day. Every day. And I have worked on writing every day since my last post.

Okay, I didn’t work on it much the day my aunt and I went to the Beau Rivage in Gulfport for some battles with the one-armed bandit. I lost forty bucks. She broke even. And I might have missed a little time while introducing her to the Twilight movies. But I did some work every day.

I’m going to try one thing before getting back to the story proper, and that’s to devote one page per chapter to organize the actions and my thoughts. I don’t know yet, but I think it might help add more detail and depth. I’ll let ya know how it works. Regardless, I desperately want to get back to work on the manuscript itself, and, of course to those amazing assignments given by Ariel for us Wayward Writers.

And this morning I head down to Cleburne to The Writerie and Kathy, Glenna, Shirley, and Jane. I’ll have my revisions to do from that meeting as well.

So to accomplish all of this, I have to stay in my chair in front of my laptop as much as possible.

The password for today, then is “bum glue.” Okay. That’s two words. :-)

I’ll let you know next week how I did.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Patience is a Craft

So what is the craft of writing? It encompasses many elements stated in many ways. What I’m going to try to do is to state a few of those I think I do well, and a few I don’t do so well ... yet. This post won’t be complete, obviously, as volumes have been written on each element. I own most of them.

First thing is to set the scene, and I think I do that pretty well when I take the time to walk through and experience it in my imagination. Night is best to do this. I just put on some music to establish an appropriate mood, close my eyes and envision a castle, a bar, a jungle, whatever and write what I see, hear, touch, taste, smell as concisely as possible.

That’s the ideal.

Where I go wrong is when I don’t spend as much time in the location as I should. What I try to do then is overwrite it. This leaf blew to a spot just beside the third largest of the seventeen bulges of the root system of the oak tree, that dandelion set two inches from the dividing line between the Carson’s Victorian house with all of the shutters in place, and the ... you get the idea. When I spend enough time in my location, I can pull out its essence and throw it out there in a few sentences that hopefully resonate. And it only takes a few sentences, because most times only a couple of the senses are engaged at a time. More importantly, though, I’m not necessarily trying to get the reader to see the exact image I’m seeing. I’m trying to get her or him to see something similar that makes sense.

THAT’S what I have to always keep in mind. Use the reader’s imagination. Tap into that amazing, wonderful resource. I got this notion from the Australian author Bryce Courtenay who recommended this very thing, but in different words. He said that in a romance, do we really want to give our hero blonde hair and blue eyes? What about women who swoon over brown haired men with those wonderful chocolate browns? What about the red haired, green eyes lovers? If we just capture the essence of the man, the readers imaginations will fill in the details that s/he wants and be totally enthralled.

Of course, he also said that in a mystery, we may need to indicate that someone has blonde hair and blue eyes. So the level of description depends on the type of story. Need to know basis.

The next element I think I do pretty well is dialogue. I do this using a touch of schizophrenia I acquired from my acting days. In a two person scene, I take on both parts and speak the dialogue out loud. If it makes sense and sounds like the character I’m trying to create, then I go with it. Again, I close my eyes and try to get a sense of who these characters are and what idiosyncrasies I can exploit. Because each of us has his or her own speech patterns. Unique speech patterns, when blended with body language. Like a character might wipe his or her forehead before delivering bad news. Or a character might have a particular speech quirk. He or she might start, then pause after a couple of words, then start again when delivering bad news.

Where I get in trouble with dialogue is when I get lazy and make the characters sound like me, or, worse yet, the narrator. I’ve been known to do both. When this happens, the characters come off flat and one dimensional. There are many great creators of dialogue, but the best I’ve ever read for making speech patterns unique to the characters is Dickens. As the Harry Potter novels moved on, I thought J. K. Rowling really came into her own using dialogue to distinguish characters. Great dialogue just enhances a great story and gives it depth and breadth and character.

My biggest challenge for improvement is organizing the plot and subplots into a logical upward movement to the climax. With all of the detail, I literally can’t see the forest of the trees. Forest? What’s that? Story? What’s that? I can only see this Jerry and Christine scene. Or the one between Shirley and Croft. And that’s it. My challenge was to get into a plane and fly over and look down. Ah! Forest! So that’s what it looks like!

I did this by taking letter size legal paper and dividing it into four columns, one for each of my viewpoint characters. Starting with the prologue, I put a one sentence description of the scene in the column for that viewpoint character. The next scene goes on the next line under that character and so on. I was amazed by what I saw. Oh, wow! So poorly structured. The beginning was fine. The ending was fine. But the subplots went up and down like a boat in a confused sea all the way to that ending. I needed a build of each of the subplots to a where the climaxes occurred fairly close together. Like one huge wave breaking on shore. Like fireworks. The flight to the sky (build), the explosion (climax), the fade away (dénouement).

I’m slowly getting a handle on story structure, and am focusing on this in draft thirteen. On this, I can’t get in a hurry which would be my nature. Get to the writing! Go for it! NO! I have to outline from start to finish. The emotion and character is there. I have to cultivate the patience to outline. Once I finish this, I have so many other wonderful stories to tell.

Yes, I can summarize the solutions to my challenges in one word.


Patience is a craft.

Continuing on with the outline, and am excited about it. Come back Sunday August 1st and see how I did.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

True Ease in Writing Comes From Craft, Mr. Pope

Writing is a craft. Period. That’s the only way I can look at it and do my best. Seeing writing as more than that, seeing it as, say, art, would set me above the writing making me incapable of doing it well.

In my view, writers should never see their work as art, at least until it is on the shelf, and certainly not in the creative phase. It’s hard enough choosing the right word, the right description, the right story element to worry about that elusive something that takes a tale into a higher realm.

I am speaking of prose, here. Not poetry. That’s different. And as the current draft of Catch a Falling Star is lucky number thirteen, I’m still struggling with the craft. Thirteen drafts? Complete rewrites? What business do I have trying to cram art into it, assuming I even know what that means?

I have spoken to several writers, unpublished, who describe themselves as artists. A noble ambition, perhaps, but premature on the one hand, and downright elitist on the other. At least to me. But then again, every time I see a picture of Rodin’s The Thinker, I can’t help but feel that the dude’s constipated (see attached image). So take my view for what it’s worth.

I’m saying that art is a consummation devoutly to be wished, but in writing can only be defined in the hearts and minds of the readers. It’s the reader who determines whether a story is art, not the writer. And I believe it’s the individual reader as well. Not the reader as a collective entity.

As an example, I love Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I read it most every year, and watch at least one of the filmed versions around holiday time. To me, it celebrates the light of the human spirit by showing us the dark -- with a little bah, humbug stinginess along the way. In other words, art -- for me. Someone else may read it and say, “It’s about the redemption of an old coot.”

And that’s fine. That’s the beauty of diversity. The beauty of drunken brawls over the true meaning of existence or the shelf life of a Twinkie. A British gentleman I met in England told me that American football contains artistic elements. As an example, the long pass. “Your quarterback throws the ball,” he said as though it was taking place in front of him, “not to where the receiver is, but where he’s likely to be. When the ball falls into the receiver’s hands in stride, it’s a thing of beauty. It is art.”

I like football as much as most dudes, but I wouldn’t go that far. But it doesn’t matter really. To him, it was art. To me, not so much. Though I’d love to see the Cowboys do that a little more this year.

Bringing the ship into port, I just want to tell a good tale, and let the chips fall where they may. If I tell the best story I can, and people like it, and I make a good living off of it, that’s the absolute best I can hope for. Art is irrelevant to the process.

I’m not going to lie. One thing I dream of, and many writers dream or should, is someone writing or walking up to me one day and saying, “Rock, your story is art at its finest.” Immediately after silently questioning their taste and/or sanity, I will say something like, “Thank you. I really appreciate that.” And I will mean every word.

Because every writer wants her or his story to be read and create an impact of some sort on the reader. So, for me, there would be no difference between the above compliment, and “Dude, your stories rock!” And while the above “art at its finest” patron would see The Thinker as Rodin’s masterpiece, the “your stories rock” fan would agree with me and offer that poor man some Ex-lax.

As I’m visiting my aunt and cousins on Wednesday, I will post next Sunday’s entry Tuesday evening. And it will be on craft.

I am continuing on with my outline, and am liking it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Since my last posting, I found a couple of pictures of Dr. Dickey that will give you a better representation than the one posted. Even these were taken six years before I knew her.

I'm currently on track with my outline and chapters of Catch a Falling Star. I'll have two entrys fairly close together as next Wednesday, a week from today, I'm visiting my aunt and cousins in Hattiesburg Mississippi, and will dine on barbecue pork ribs and catfish. I'm going to TRY to eat healthy. Either way, though, I will write.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Love of the Written Word

A Shakespearean Tragedy is a representation on the stage of a protagonist of colossal proportion who, through some tragic fault of nature, is brought to destruction carrying others with him. This spectacle arises in the audience the emotions of pity and terror with the catharsis of each.

I learned to recite the above definition in the fall of 1976 for extra credit in my college sophomore lit class. The title: 231 – English Literature Survey to the beginning of the Romantic Movement.

I wrote the above from memory. My notes from 34 years ago have been lost a long time, probably on some move or other. That’s fine, though. I’ll be able to recite it as long as I have a memory. Just as I’ll remember the professor who wrote it on the chalkboard all those years ago.

Her name was Dr. Imogene Bentley Dickey (later Mohat), and she had been on the English faculty of what was then North Texas State University since 1943 (at that time it was known as North Texas State Teachers College). From then until 1968 she also served as Dean of Women and was known by the students as “Big Red.” When she left that post, she returned to teaching full time. Indeed, she was quite tall and regal and had auburn hair (though with distinguishing gray when I knew her), hence the nickname. Her demeanor was of someone considerably younger.

Dr. Dickey was idiosyncratic. Despite the subject range of the course, she also required us to read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Dickens was from the Victorian period in the nineteenth century, and Lord of the Flies was published in 1954. Her rationale?

“No one should escape an English class without reading a Dickens novel,” she said. “And I just read Lord of the Flies for the first time last summer and loved it! It is my privilege, then, to foist it onto you.”

She didn’t stop there. She often quoted Dorothy Parker, Edward Arlington Robinson, Mark Twain, all Americans, in this Brit Lit course, so much so that I went out and read their work, though they weren’t required. I’d never read Life on the Mississippi until this British Lit course. Never heard of Parker’s amazing wit, or felt the emotional wallop Robinson delivered throughout his three Pulitzer Prize winning career.

I didn’t just read the half dozen assigned Shakespeare’s sonnets. I memorized those, and read them all. Didn’t just read Othello and King Lear, I devoured all four of the major tragedies plus the major comedies and a number of the histories. All during this semester.

Watching and listening to her enthusiasm for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (particularly the fabliaux ... which she called “bawdy, but so much fun”) infected me and everyone in that room on the third floor of the Auditorium Building, southwest corner. Not to mention her enthusiasm for Milton. And, let me tell you folks, if you can make Milton interesting, you’ve DONE something.

What she desired most for us was to learn how to think.

She once admonished me in class, “I know what the critics think, Rocky. I want to know what you think.” I was nineteen years old. I didn’t know what I thought. Didn’t believe it was important, anyway. She understood that, too. And the whole class walked out after the semester knowing better how to think. Myself, included.

And now, here I am trying to tell wonderful stories with great characters keeping those lessons in mind. What’s wrong with tossing a little Lord of the Flies with Shakespeare? What’s wrong with a topping of Dorothy Parker on a cone of Beowulf? Not a damn thing, in my book.

Our final exam was an essay. I don’t remember the question, exactly, but it was one of those topics on which volumes could have been written and had been. “You don’t have to complete it,” she said. “Just write for one hour, and I’ll know what you know.”

Whoa! They don’t make teachers like that anymore. I don’t believe they will again.

Dr. Dickey retired in 1979. Passed away in 2000, just short of her 92nd birthday.

I’d loved stories since childhood, could sit and listen to good yarns well into the night. Can still do that. But it was the inspiration of Dr. Dickey and that survey class that took me by the hand and led me to a love of the written word.

So those times when I “go without the meat and curse the bread,” I can fall back, not just on story, but on lovely words spliced together to make a sentence, a paragraph, a page until at the end something wondrous and beautiful is born.

Thank you, Dr. Dickey. I’m learning everyday how to think for myself, and to give less credence to the critics. And after all these years, I still have your definition of a Shakespearean tragedy memorized, though I have long since forgotten most things from other courses. I think the reason for that is what you told us at the time, “Just do it in the spirit of fun.”

Fun lasts.

I worked hard this last week, though I was sick a lot of it. I’m farther along on my outline of Catch a Falling Star, and I created a kinda fantasy story of about 3000 words. It would actually be a cutting from a novel. I like it. I think it has legs. We’ll see what the Wayward Writers think. They’re the ones who have it now. Fingers crossed.

In the meantime, I’ll continue with the outline, creating new scenes for my characters, deleting others. Come back next week, and I’ll let you know how I did. And thanks ever-so-much for reading. It means a lot.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Art of Handling Rejection

Behind every art is a craft. Period. At least in my view. But for the life of me, I can’t see it where handling rejections are concerned. People talk like there’s a craft to it. “Paper your walls with the rejection letters.” “See them as badges of honor.” “Picture the senders naked.”

Okay, okay, the last technique is for someone delivering a speech to plow through the nerves. It works, as long as you don’t laugh.

But as for the other two, I only have a 990 square foot apartment. I quit counting rejections at three hundred several years ago. Badges of honor? I must be one of the more decorated writers over the last sixteen years, assuming you have to take all of them down after you receive an acceptance.

Are there really ways to handle rejections? Or can we only cope with them?

The truth is, even after all the years of acting and writing, I don’t know how to handle all of the rejections. Particularly with no successes to show for it. I am human. I feel. And every time I send out a round of submissions, I brace myself for the backwash. I cast my fishing net into the ocean, only to be trounced by the returning wave.

And it hurts to be told that your creation is not wanted. That the world can live without the song you’re singing from your soul. That, when you die, nothing you’ve done will have mattered.

I cope. I know how to swim when the wave hits, but that’s all folks. But the ability to keep from drowning isn’t a way to handle the situation. It’s a way to keep from paying the ultimate price. Handling it means, to me, that we somehow gain control. Coping means we fend off the consequences without disaster. And, ultimately, maybe that does mean handling it.

Sometimes I still don’t know which is worse, the kind of rejection I referenced last week that says, “It’s almost there, but not quite enough,” or the kind I got twenty-five years ago that was essentially my query letter with a circle around my name and a line drawn by the editor to his written words, “not a chance.”

I have enough distance from that one to laugh, and regret having thrown it away in a fit of pique.

During what my late grandmother (Mama Drue) called, “them there olden days,” an agent or editor would take a writer under his or her wing, helping them hone their craft until the result transcended the dialogue and conflict and structure into spun gold we sometimes call art.

No more.

We live in a time where agents and editors no longer have time to do that, with rare exception. They require a manuscript that is all but ready to be published. It the NOW factor. It must be salable NOW. It must be publishable/marketable NOW. And that’s a crying shame, but it’s become the reality of the business.

I would do exactly the same thing in their shoes.

I’m bringing all of this up because I received a couple of rejections this week, one from Glimmer Train. I found out by logging into the site, checking the “My Submissions” page and seeing the word “Completed” next to my entry. In Glimmer parlance it means, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

That’s the bad news.

The good news, of course, is that I am submitting.

More bad news is that submissions summon rejections by a factor of almost one to one.

The good news is that I have learned how to swim even if I haven’t learned to dodge the breaking waves.

Back to the term “almost one to one.”

I haven’t seen it yet, but some day, starting with a single submission, the wave won’t break. The sunshine of publication will replace it, and my eyes will create whatever water is there.

Until then, I have to brace myself after each submission batch and struggle through the churning water.

There is no art or craft for handling rejection to my mind. The only way to truly avoid the disappointment is to not walk down that road or cut oneself off from all feeling. Neither produces good and published writers that I’ve seen. Neither is the way to live life.

This last week, I began the new outline for Catch a Falling Star up to and including working out scene/sequel for the prologue/chapter one/chapter two. My goal of completing draft lucky 13 is more than doable. And I will proceed along those lines during the holiday weekend and through the week. I am also going to play around some more with my MacBook Pro, transferring some old files and drafts.

And, later today, I will go see The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. I’m a sucker for stories of misfits finding their world, and for those who don’t see the story that way, I understand. I just ask you to understand that this is what I take from The Twilight Saga.

Have a Happy Fourth of July, everyone. I’ll let you know next week how I did.