Category Archives: Precious Cargo

Slowly I Turn…

So just to catch up on what I’m doing, I am currently working on the this year’s play for our Vacation Bible School program – a knights of the round table themed epic called The Secret of the Castle Omi La. I don’t think it’s going to be as big a scale as everyone expects since I have a small cast and limited budget, but I should have at least one person in armor before the show is over, drawing its inspiration as it does from both the life of Joshua and the Full Armor of God, as mentioned in the book of Ephesians. So that’s what I was working on tonight.

There’s no page count because I’m using Scrivener, a Mac-only application for writing novels that also doubles for writing screenplays, comic book scripts, TV scripts, and play scripts. It doesn’t really give you a running page count, although it is possible to get running words counts – although that doesn’t seem to be supported in an unobtrusive way when writing a play script.

No problem. Scrivener for writers is worlds ahead of the increasingly bloated current version of Word, and so far the scripting runs rings around Final Draft, which I’ve used before, but seems to be consistently buggy.

So I probably have a couple of pages on the manuscript tonight. Also worked on my continuing project of tagging and categorizing all the posts I imported – nearing the halfway mark! – and also on bringing over non-blog pages from the old web site (Precious Cargo rejoined the family tonight).

It’s all going to get there. But not much more tonight. Thunderstorms heading in, perhaps with residual tornados from the western half of the state. So pulling the plug. Now.


Literary Profiling: The First Novel

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I was tapped to read an ARC of a forthcoming CBA novel, Waking Lazarus by T.L. Hines, with an eye toward providing a blurb for the cover (providing I liked the book). Well, I liked the book, I wrote the blurb, and I’ll review it here when the publication date gets a little bit closer.

What I’d like to discuss is something fascinating that happened when I first started looking at the ARC. My Writer’s Voice-O-Matic went off the scale, telling me that I knew the author of the book. And the author of that book was none other than my friend Tom, whose novel Critical Incident I had just read in manuscript form.

Now if I were into conspiracy theories, I could have made a good one for the case that Tom had written Hines’ book. Besides the remarkable sameness of technique in structuring the book, there was the troubling notion that Mr. Hines’ initials are T.L., and Tom’s last name starts with L – T.L. – get it? Tom’s book is regionally specific to the Northeast Corner of Wyoming, and Hines’ book is regionally specific to Southeast Montana, and there’s some overlap into a part of Wyoming that’s a relative stone’s throw from Tom’s stomping grounds.

Had Tom gone off and started a career as a novelist without telling me, perhaps wanting to spring it as a surprise on me? I don’t think so. I might not be the first person Tom would tell if he clenched a book deal, but I think I would be in the Top Five.

Then I realized something. Both of these books were first novels. True, Tom’s novel is his second, but he hasn’t been published yet. Therefore, when Critical Incident gets published, it will be his first novel – and he’s still in the process of getting a grip on his writer’s voice.

Hmmm. Two first novels with remarkable similarities in construction. Could I think of any others?


I looked at my own first novel – and that’s where things got tricky. A Death of Honor did not fit the profile I was seeing at all. But my novel Desperate Measures did. And what do you know – Desperate Measures was the first novel I ever wrote, but it was beaten into print by ADoH.

Any other first novels? Well, there were things about Waking Lazarus that I thought were influenced by Stephen King, and what do you know – Carrie fit the profile as well.

So what was it I was seeing? Here’s a look at some things they had in common, with the caveat that it’s been a long, long time since I’ve had my hands on a copy of Carrie:

Single Word Chapter Titles – Hines used single words like Waiting, Drowning, Burning, and Discovering. Tom used one to four words, many with the word “the” – The Fire, The Handoff, The Introductions – and if I recall, some of the titles worked as spoilers for what was in the chapter. I sat out the chapter titles, and I plead amnesia with King.

Lots of Really Short Chapters – The longest probably no more than 2,000 words. There’s something to be said for the form – short chapters make the plot race along. But I think it telegraphs the sense of a new novelist not yet comfortable with really stretching out within the confines of a chapter and letting the story lope along. King did it beginning with Salem’s Lot. Ditto for me with ADoH and every other book except for the ones that followed Desperate Measures in the trilogy, since they had a form they were bound to (and in Precious Cargo, I had one chapter that was one sentence long). Nowadays my chapters lope along at a length of 3 to 5,000 words. It seems to suit me well.

Following Lots of Characters Around Through the Plot – This is a well-established stylistic form, but all four firsts juggled viewpoints through their casts of characters. Hines probably had the smallest cast, but jumped characters to build suspense. Tom jumped around to show the different effects that firefighting had on its practitioners. King and I both fell into the suspense category, and we both had comparatively large casts. Nowadays, King still wanders from character to character. I tend to focus on following one person around (which has led me to kill off some perfectly suspenseful moments for the sake of maintaining narrative continuity), and in the Pembroke Hall books I “took the plunge” (as my old college English professor said) and went First Person.

Odd Narrative Devices – I’ll cite King here first because these all started with his use of italics, caps, exclamation points and other punctuation to stress supernatural urgency IN!!! A!!! VISUAL!!! MANNER!!! LIKE!!! THIS!!! or (sometimeslikethis). Hines uses it supernaturally in a more low key manner, which reflects the difference between his growing style and King’s (which has seen many moments of overkill). I was somewhere in between, using italics to convey the inner thoughts of a character who literally had another person running around inside his head. Tom sat this one out, almost to distraction, showing the thoughts of others in quotes like dialogue. But his editor will sort out those things according to the house style when the time comes.

A Choked Ending – In the race to the end during the final act of the book, there’s a tendency for a new author to falter. There’s a number of reasons for this. They could be still trying to convey information that was better off delivered as exposition in the first two acts, or because (speaking from personal experience here), the words were rushing out so fast and hard that something had to give. I’ll excuse King here because 1) as I said, it’s been many years since I looked at Carrie, and 2), his book had been through an editor by the time I saw it. I’ll cop to this in DM although you won’t see it in print – suffice it to say that the original version of the book was probably 50,000 words longer than the finished product. Hines’ book, which has been through an editor, seemed to have some narrative gaps in the race to the end, but that may have been because the hour was late and I was devouring pages. Tom is the worst offender here, but it’s a draft and hasn’t seen an editor yet, so he’s excused.

Now, granted, not every first novel falls into this pattern. The first exception I thought of was John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, but on the other hand, it’s arguably his best novel, and what he’s come up with since have been pale imitations. And there are many more debuts that don’t fit this criteria. However, let’s factor in that these were the authors’ first published novels – who knows how many drafts of same or other finished novels are sitting crated in their basements because they didn’t make the cut, because they were still honing their craft?

This is not a sure-fire guide to detection of a first novel. I just thought it was fascinating that so many freshman efforts all took so many of the same elements and put them into the same place at the same time. And for the most part, carried that manuscript across the publication goal line.

It could indicate that there’s some kind of hive mind mentality to what we do, or that many of us start in the same place. Or we all saw the same elements as a secure starting point for that first story that we wanted to tell.

It’s by no means a warning. After all, Stephen King got better. His next novel was the redoubtable Salem’s Lot. I got better – my second novel would be my first into print, and it bore not much resemblance at all to the first. With Critical Incident, Tom got better, and no doubt his next will be better still. And there’s no doubt in my mind that T.L. Hines will get better with his next novel, too.

So take heart. Even if you fit this pattern, the road is wide open ahead.

And Tom, if you are T.L. Hines, then we need to have a talk…

The county sheriff had a hairlip
Louisiana’s pride and joy
He said politley as he cuffed me
“I never busted an English boy”

(via iPod Shuffle)

Foreign Affairs

I was killing a little time by egosurfing, and I came across this review of my work from a German website. I ran it through Google’s translator to see what it was all about (“Faust” is the German word for “fist,” which the program translated literally):

Joe Clifford fist customer reviews

The books of the Joe Clifford fist have all together a completely certain Flair. It understands it to lead around the reader at the nose and to bring new idioms again and again in the Plot. Here one can know really only end the conclusion, what is now really before-pleased. That keeps the readers.

This gave me pause for thought. It was a long pause, and afterwards, I decided to try another translation site, with these results:

The books of the Joe Clifford fist have altogether one entirely conscience Flair. It understands it that readers to bring at the nose herumzuführen and again and again new turns in the Plot. Here one can know really first to the end, what now really before favor is. That holds the readers in the pole.

I hope this means they like my work.

For comparison, here is a translation of a blurb about the release of The Essence of Evil in Russia (italics theirs):

There appeared one additional book of American visionary- humourist, joe Of k. Faust (Joe Clifford Faust, 1957 -) from the trilogy “Angel’s Luck”. In this year already left two novels of cycle – “desperate measures” (“Desperate Measures”, 1989) and “precious load” (“Precious Cargo”, 1990). And here now steeled the turn of last part – “essence of evil” (“The Essence of Evil”, 1990).

Here is already truly “DEVILISH LUCK”! In vain named so his spaceship the desperate nezavisimyy merchant by captain James mey… Just barely miraculously rescued two civilizations – terrestrial and arkolianskuyu – from the intergalactic scandal. They just barely transferred respiration. And – THAT?! Coma, you will excuse, to the first after sending into the head clever idea it did drive in “corporations extract” soiled in the hold of the “devilish luck” of ampule with the essence of human personalities, corporations, strictly, and belonging? Who, will forgive, he managed it let go young copilot into the local bar, where it to sp’yanu produced SUCH, that also is thought terrifically?! Who, pardon finally generally let out from the field of the sight of arkoliantsa, from which eye and for the minute it was impossible it got down?! You dumayete – this already limit to everything? In vain you dumayete! Events only razvorachivayutsya… What? Read – and you uznayete!..

I like the fact that they think of me as an “American visionary-humorist,” but I can’t say the book will do all that well over there based on this description. No wonder the Cold War went on for so long.

Apparently automated translation technology still leaves something to be desired.


Two writing sessions today, both interrupted by assorted family business. Richard and K are about to break camp now, and are listening to a popular evangelist’s sermon on the radio. It’s going to serve as a springboard for character development, as it starts a conversation between them about their beliefs.

So the pre-break half of the session was spent in the lead-up to their finding the sermon on the radio, and the post-break half was spent working on what they hear, with their running commentary as they listen. I thought the sermon would be a fast write since I had a lot notes on it in the reconciled outline, but the Elder in me kept wanting to go in and refine it. I also wrote it an overly dramatic televangelist style, and had to reel myself back in at a couple of points, because my instinct was to throw in dramatic flourishes that would have made the sermon better, but weren’t really needed for purposes of acting as a trigger in the plot of the book.

I suppose that’s one thing that King and Clancy and Rowling have either not learned or forgotten in their struggle with King’s Bloat. It’s something that I learned when rewriting The Company Man; that a book doesn’t need everything you want to put into it.

When I was editing TCM, I found that I had pages of material describing the internal workings of the corporate vehicles. When I told my editor that I was taking that entire section out, she wrote me a note saying “I applaud your decision to cut the vehicle scene.” That made such an impression on me that after all these years that I still remember her words.

As a result I learned something important about writing: there are things that I need to know about the book in order to write it that the readers don’t have to know. From that point on, starting with the novel Precious Cargo I taught myself to edit on the fly, cutting things out before I even wrote them. It’s made for both faster writing time and tighter manuscripts.

I never did thank Shelly Shapiro, my Del Rey editor at the time, for teaching me that. Thanks, Shel! It’s only 16 years late.

Just for fun, Part II: Here’s the top five songs from iTunes for the past week:

1) “Ant Farm” – Eels (3)
2) “Missing” – Everything But The Girl (4)
3) “Take A Picture” – Filter (New)
4) “White Ladder” – David Gray (2)
5) “Fa Fa” – Guster (1)

Today’s Scorecard
Chapter Twelve
367 Pages (+7)
82402 Words (+1648)

(This makes me think, now I have to get chapter twelve finished before I hear back from Palm Digital Media about the PH books…)

NP – Stan Ridgway – The Big Heat

from the album:
The curtains go up and both lights go on
And Betsy’s in her birthday suit
Spinning her baton,
But I think she did it better last year
Before her boyfriend broke her arm…

– “You Can’t Stop The Show”