Category Archives: Writer’s Tools

JCF TV #2: The Most Important Muscle in a Writer’s Body


Introducing JCF TV

Okay, maybe it’s not actually TV. But our culture tends to call anything with videos “TV”, just like we generically call paper tissues Kleenex and going out for a soft drink “getting a Coke.” That’s right, it’s my YouTube Channel (another linguistic pilferage from broadcast).

Either way, it’s still not an actual Television Broadcast station, but it is – or will be – a series of videos mostly featuring yours truly prattling on about all things writing. Well, most things writing.

So here is the first episode, a reading from A Death of Honor – self-promotional to be sure. But discussion of writing-related issues will follow. And if any of you out there have something in particular you’d like to see/hear discussed, drop me a line in the comments here or over in the comments section of the new, um, TV station.


Now Selling At A Target Near You

For years, nay, decades, I’ve wanted what I’ve called a pair of writer’s gloves. Basically a pair of gloves without the fingertips to roughly the first joint of the finger, I also referred to them as “chimney sweep gloves” because that’s what Dick Van Dyke wore in Mary Poppins.

Years ago – we’re talking the late 70’s here – I saw someone selling them as writer’s gloves in the pages of Writer’s Digest. I wanted a pair and never ordered them, and forgot about them.

Then about twenty years ago, we moved into a house that won’t repair itself, with it’s windows cracking and a roof held together with holes (thank you, Andy Partridge). Because the house used heating oil to generate warmth (think the price of diesel fuel minus ten or twenty cents a gallon), we keep the temperature down and wear sweaters or hoodies a lot in the winter. And it was always cold on the hands when writing.

I tried to make myself writer’s gloves a couple of times… I had an old pair of Isotoner gloves that were too battered to wear in public, and I cut the fingertips off. It worked until the tips became an unraveled mess. Ditto those brown gloves you get for like $0.99 a dozen at hardware stores.

Made for winter wear, they're perfect for you-know-what!

So a few days ago I was in Target shopping for a new winter jacket, when what do my wondering eyes does appear… but gloves without fingertips! Lots of them! A rack full of them! And of course, I snatched up a pair.

I wondered for a moment about my good fortune and why there were so many of these in different colors – including models with sewn-on mitten tips so you could cover your fingertips – and then I realized they why of the renaissance: touch screen devices. They work off of the electrical resistance found in your skin, but when you wear a pair of gloves… no dice, Charlie. The giveaway was a pair of gloves (with fingertips) that had a special conductive tip in the index finger of each hand. You know, for app-tapping.

So the needs of smart phone users everywhere has turned into my good fortune. And yours, if you work in a cold writer’s garret, you literary romantic you. Lots of colors and styles to choose from. And if there’s not a Target store nearby, I’d bet a ream of printer paper that you could find them at one of the Marts, Wal or K. Happy shopping!

And yes, I’m wearing mine right now. Not that it’s particularly cold at the moment. I’ve got them on for, you know, practice.

The Literary Spouse

The importance of the first reader Every writer has, or ought to have, a more or less special first reader. For me it is my wife. My wife is the first person to see every article I write for The Economist and every draft of my book manuscript. (I don't show her my blog posts or emails, obviously, which may explain why those are so much worse.) This is a very important and intimate relat … Read More

via The Hannibal Blog

Andreas Kluth has an entry on The Hannibal Blog about The Importance of the First Reader. It’s a great start for a study of the force that stands behind some of the greatest writers since the whole writing racket began – and it’s one that I am woefully unprepared to try and approach. But I can offer a few observations about Literary Spouses.

They can be lifesavers. Or manuscript savers, anyway. Take the case of Tabitha King. After her husband began to dispair of the manuscript he was writing, he walked through the cramped mobile home he was living in and pitched it in the garbage. Later, Mrs. King slipped over and pulled Carrie out of the wastebasket – and after some time, a bestseller was born. One of Kluth’s commenters mentions the legend of how Mrs. Nabokov pulled the manuscript of Lolita out of a bonfire. I’ve never heard that one – it’s a great story, if true.

They can mean more to a writer than a writer realizes. Take Dick Francis, who had an extraordinary handshake deal with his publisher, who promised to keep all of Francis’ novels in print as long as he wrote one a year. Francis only missed the yearly deadline after his wife died, prompting many to theorize that Mrs. F was the one actually writing the books. No, I don’t think so. She must have been his first reader, and no doubt was important to his work. Not that his son has joined in with the writing, he seems to be producing again.

Having set some background, let me tell you a little bit about my Literary Spouse. First of all, I am not her favorite author. She will deny this, but for crying out loud – she sleeps with me. You’re going to believe her?

No, I’m smart enough to know that she adores Lois McMaster Bujold and Jean Auel and Anne McCaffery and Andrea Norton and some select others. But that’s okay. I could use the competition, and that’s pretty hefty competition indeed. Besides, I think I get a better quality of opinion because of that. I mean, if you’re an author, which would you rather hear? This:

“This is your best book since A Death of Honor
(one year later) “This is your best book since The Company Man
(another year later) “This is your best book since Desperate Measures

or this:

“I don’t really care for this book because it’s dark and I don’t care for the characters, but I can see how your writing has progressed since your first one and this really is your best-written novel.”

Next, my spouse has killer editorial instincts. She says she would hate the job of being an editor, but being incredibly well-read (worlds ahead of me), she has a great eye for what works and what doesn’t. After reading the chapter of A Death of Honor that introduced Trinina, she told me that she thought her character was neat and wanted to see what I did with her. That stunned me, because that chapter was going to be the only appearance Trinina made in the book. And, well, I didn’t want to disappoint my wife, so I started thinking about it and… what do you know? Giving Trinina more to do really made the plot of the book take off.

Which brings me to the next item on the list, I know not to take her comments personally and she knows not to take my rejection of her comments personally. My reaction to her remarks fall into three categories: I implement any changes immediately (these are usually typos or grammatical or clarity issues); other changes that I need to think about applying; and changes I reject because she can’t see my vision for the book. She’s kind of hobbled that way since she reads each chapter as I finish writing it, so sometimes she picks up on something that is deliberately obscure until I can deal with it in a later chapter. It has become a great partnership.

There are some other invaluable things that my LitSpouse does for me. She is social so I don’t have to be, and she gets me through situations where I must be. I told her that when I met her I discovered that there was an introvert in me who was dying to stay in (presumably so I could write books). She also knows what the process of trying to write a book is like, but lest I run afoul of her, I will save that story for another day. Finally, she is the mother of my children, one of whom is developing into a fine author in her own, um, right. With that, I now have a second reader, as my daughter is currently making her way through the latest draft of Drawing Down the Moon.

And naturally, this means that I get to help screen my daughter’s future first readers… if you know what I mean.

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.

The Pen

There’s one thing that every writer needs to have in his or her arsenal of tools: a pen.

No, I’m not talking about those three-for-a-buck Bic Stics. I’m talking about a nice pen. A really nice pen. One that requires more than the usual pittance of an investment to get, but makes up for the cost in substance.

Why, in this age of computers, PDA’s and voice recognition software (National Book Award Winner Richard Powers admits in this recent article that he didn’t “write” his last half-million words of published fiction – he dictates his work into a notebook computer1) bother with something so old school?

Lots of reasons. It’s tactile in a way that a keyboard isn’t2, and in my experience if you write something with a pen, you feel more connected to it (Stephen King agrees – he wrote a novel with a pen and remarked on how intimate a writing experience it was for him). If you’re doing a book signing and you pull out a Pen of Substance, it makes an impression. It’s the kind of status symbol that really fits a writer. And if you are a writer, what better way to treat yourself?

When I decided to get a Pen, I went to web sites that were the ultimate candy shop for kids like us, drooling through the window at the selection of fine writing implements. I found that “nice” pens start at around $20 and go up from there – you can easily drop two or three bills on a really fancy fountain pen (King and Neil Stephenson both wrote novels with fountain pens).

But I didn’t go that route. I ended up taking another route to get The Pen, and I ended up with something that is special in a way that the more expensive pens, as good as they are, can’t touch.

It all started a few years ago… many years ago, actually. A white oak that sat on the farm that is my wife’s ancestral home was cut down and made into a beam. That beam was used to build a woodshed outside the house where I now live. The shed stood for about 100 years, until it became unstable. Then it was torn down by my father-in-law and one of my nephews, with some help from my daughter. Last fall I rescued a broken piece of that beam – dirty and grey from age – and sent it to an old high school friend of mine who now lives in San Antonio, Texas.

He turned it into The Pen. But it’s not just any old Pen of Substance. This one was custom made to my preferences. I wanted a big, fat pen to accommodate long writing sessions. The Pen size is called El Grande, and it’s 5/8 of an inch in diameter at the wide part of the barrel. I asked for a wax finish so I could get a bit of a woody feel, and so it would develop a patina from my handling it as years go by. The titanium fittings give the best wear. And while it’s currently inking with a very nice Hauser Roller Ball cartridge, I made sure it would hold a Pilot G-2 refill3 (one of the best writing pens around IMHO). And of course, it’s made from wood harvested 100 years ago on the farm where my father-in-law, my wife, and my two kids grew up.

Now that’s a special pen.

It was so special, in fact, that I just couldn’t keep it to myself. My wife and I worked out our Christmas budget, and we had a slightly different version (the smaller -but-still-big Cigar size, smooth plastic finish, copper fittings, and a traditional Parker style ballpoint refill) made for all of my in-laws, nieces, and nephews who have ties to the farm. And yeah, my wife and kids each got one, too. And I should probably confess that I had an extra El Grande made for myself that I filled with a red ink refill for editing purposes. Manuscripts, beware!

And now, here’s the plug. You could go elsewhere and conceivably spend more on a Pen. Or you could visit One Wood Turn, have a chat with Dennis, and work out the details of how he can make you a one-of-a-kind Pen of Substance. You’re sure to end up with something very cool and wonderful that is highly functional, inks as well as anything on the market, and has great personal meaning. And you’ll be giving business to a friend of mine who does excellent work and who, like me, spent his high school career numbered among the uncool.

So now I have The Pen (okay… Pens), and I’m extremely pleased. It’s one fine writing machine, and the 100 year-old white oak looks and feels great.

Now all I have to do is have a guitar made from all of that loose maple and cherry lying around out there…

(written with The Pen)

Listening: Kevin Ayers, Don’t Sing No More Sad Songs (Whatevershebringswesing)

1 Link courtesy Faith In Fiction.
2 And by extension, a typewriter keyboard is more tactile than a computer keyboard, which is obviously more tactile than dictating into a microphone.
3 The G-2 gel ink is acid free, archive-save, costs about one dollar for a refill, and writes like a dream considering the price.

The Reading Party, or, If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Don’t Become a Writer

It never ceases to amaze me. Just when I think I should shutter the doors on this online journal, something comes along that I realize I haven’t written about, and the blog goes on for another few weeks.

My wife and I hosted the reading party for A Father Christmas last night. I brought in five community theaters regulars, a writer-in-progress with some theater background, and my two children. And between Christmas cookies and other snacks, we managed to slog our way though the second draft of the script.

Yeah, I said slog. A funny thing about writing – you can look at a manuscript all you want and think you’ve cut it to the bone. But then something happens that makes you reassess what you’ve done and suddenly there’s stuff all over the place that makes you cringe as you reach for the red pen.1

In the case of the Christmas play, it was a matter of having a bunch of people together in one place at the same time reading the parts of the characters. Not only did I hear lots of cringe-worthy moments that made me bloody my pages with red ink – but between acts and afterwards the readers had lots of useful comments for me. It helped that one was a writer, but some of the other had lots of theater experience and were quite articulate in things they thought were wrong with the play:

  • The parents were nice… too nice… sickeningly nice;
  • But the wife was something of a cypher who didn’t really react to losing her adopted daughter (well, the play is called A Father Christmas, but that’s no excuse);
  • The antagonist was not nearly sympathetic enough. With him the way he was, the court case would have been a slam dunk in favor of the parents. Making him more sympathetic would create more conflict over who had the right to the child;
  • The antagonist also didn’t act like someone who’d been in the military, who’d seen combat. And he was a loser;
  • The courtroom scene was way… too… long…;
  • The six-year-old seemed more like a four-year-old (that’s a fair cop – my six-year-old was six twelve years ago);
  • Some of the dialogue was really, truly, cringe-inducing. No, wait. That’s my comment. Although one brave soul did tell me that one particular line “really sucks” (if I hadn’t caught it and red-penned it, it was red-penned then);
  • There was also some disagreement among the cast over the motivations of some characters. Some agreed with what I’d used, some didn’t. Lining those up for tweaking, too, to get everyone on one side – hopefully.

Looking at this laundry list of literary sins, perhaps some of you writing aspirants are thinking that maybe my friends were a little too articulate in their critique of my play?

No. They weren’t.

That’s why I picked these folks. I knew they’d be honest. That’s what I needed. Besides, in my career as a novelist, I’ve had my share of criticism that was just plain mean spirited. It was filed under the heading “Reviews.”

See, editing is an important part of the process of creating a piece of writing, but the ability to see what needs to be edited or revised is one of the hardest things to learn. Ask someone who teaches writing at any level of education. I have even been asked to speak in classes specifically about the need to edit one’s on writing simply because the participants thought that one draft was all that was needed and that their work was perfect, say Amen and close the door.

But it’s not. It’s the very nature of our closeness to a work that we sometimes get blinded to its faults. So we do things like employ outside readers (for a general look or to look for specific things), or set manuscripts aside and work on something else for extended periods of time (at least a month works for me).

Besides, if you’re serious about writing, you understand that your work is going to come under scrutiny at some time or another. Better that you give it your own beforehand. There’s no guarantee you won’t get an unflattering review, but how much worse will it be if you realize that it addresses dumb, stupid things you did in your draft that you would have fixed had you only known about them? Besides, if the mistakes are that dumb and stupid, they will likely prevent your work from getting into print in the first place. Yeah, better to get those out of the way now, while the manuscript is young.

Which means you’ve got to get used to criticism. Which means seeking it out.

Author David Brin has an approach to using outside readers that I think should be a model for how we all approach criticism. He recruits readers to look at his work – and if they don’t have any criticism of the manuscript at all, he does not use them again.

The lesson being, the whole object of the criticism exercise is to make the manuscript better, not accumulate Yes-men who would grin and nod their heads if you handed them your novel that reads like it was carefully plagiarized from the Manhattan Telephone Directory.

On the other hand, you don’t want to continually use someone who shoots your material down just for the sake of being critical, or perhaps out of jealousy (I’ve chronicled here before about an acquaintance of mine who did just that, so I won’t revisit that here – just be mindful that folks like that are out there).

Which is why it helps to accumulate a trusted group of people you can rely on for that kind of favor. If they’re writers, you should be prepared to return the favor for them, too. And if they’re not, well… maybe you could promise them a part in the play (if you’re writing one).2 And if not, well, I usually promise an autographed copy of the book. Some people have been known to respond well to plates of Christmas cookies, too.

So don’t be fearful. Thicken your skin and seek out folks you can trust to give an honest criticism of your work. As I said, if you don’t, there are overworked editors, agents, and critics who will also point out the error of your ways in terms a lot less blunt. And if you can’t bear the thought of doing it, be prepared to accumulate a closet full of unfulfilled manuscripts.

Or else become a goth poet and do a lot of coffee house readings.

Yeah, the reading party worked really well for me. It’s a shame that I can’t do the same for a novel. I did put out a feeler – “Anyone want to come over and tackle my 800 page thriller?” – to which I got the response, “Should we bring our sleeping bags?” Guess I’ll have to stick with first readers, and letting the manuscript sit.

And in the case of And That’s The End of the News, that’s one peoject that ought to be ripe for the plucking. While going through the blog to add categories labels to all the posts, I realized that it’s been three years since I last looked at the manuscript.

I’d better get another box of red pens.

And then I heard some footsteps in the hall outside my door
The same ol’ Christmas trick my dad had played since I was four
He stands outside my bedroom yelling “Ho! Ho! Ho!” because
He knows I don’t believe in Santa Claus

(via iTunes shuffle play)

1 Yeah, I know that by tradition it’s a blue pencil. But what I’m doing is editing to get a manuscript in shape to face the blue pencil, so I use a red pen, which can be easily seen against the white page and black print.

2 But what if their comments result in you cutting out their part? Best not go there right now…