Tag Archives: Write-O-Rama

Our Novels, Our Children

Like most writers, one of the most commonly asked questions I get from folks who hear I’ve written more than one novel is, “Which one is your favorite?” When I got that question, I used to say, “Whichever one I’m working on at the moment.”

The problem was, people didn’t get that answer. Most of the askers weren’t writers themselves, and the concept of liking something that was incomplete was incomprehensible to them. So I switched answers. I began to say, “Picking a favorite novel would be like having to pick a favorite child.” That tended to satisfy the asker.

But now I’ve hit something that demonstrates to me that maybe – just maybe – the books we write are more like our children than we want to admit.

I’m currently working on programming The Company Man to be read on the Kindle. It’s double duty, as the cleaned-up file will also be the source of text for the trade paperback version. And as with A Death of Honor, I’m doing a little minor restoration on the file as I go, including undoing some minor editorial changes that I disagreed with – but as a professional, went along with.

Now this should be an easy thing, right? Except when it’s not. The file I’m using as the source for TCM is one that I downloaded from a file sharing system. The scan to OCR stripped out all of the formatting: italics and small caps, which I use in my manuscripts without mercy, shrunk em dashes to en dashes, and blew up accented letters in words like cafe and most of the ones used in the book’s “pidgin Spanish” slanguage. It made hash of line and paragraph breaks.

And the last time I read this novel was when it was in galley form – I don’t read my novels after they are published. This would have been in the summer of 1988… nearly twenty-four years ago. As a result, a battered paperback copy of the novel is not too far from me and my Chromebook at any one moment.

Now this should be a pretty tough thing, right? Except when it’s not. And it’s not. I still need to pick up that paperback every now and then, but I’m not having to refer to it as much as I thought. I did a lot more in the beginning, but it’s like the voice of the book, the pacing and the rhythm have all come back to me, and I’m sailing through it effortlessly.

Okay, that might be me picking up cues from things like surviving punctuation and paragraph breaks, but it goes beyond that even. Yes, I italicized titles of things and anything in pidgin Spanish, but I italicize lots of other words for emphasis. I get to a sentence where such a word was, and I think – that word right there I had put in italics. Twenty four years later during which I haven’t done much more than move a copy of the book from one shelf to another, and here I am, remembering specifics on how things were written.

It’s like I know this book as if it were one of my own children.

When I was a kid, I saw a John Wayne movie on TV that was called Without Reservations. It featured Duke as a GI returning home from the war (the film was made in 1946) who has to share a train seat with a woman (Claudette Colbert) on the way to Hollywood because her megablockbuster novel (think Gone With The Wind) is being made into a movie. She’s travelling incognito, so Duke doesn’t know she’s the author… and there’s no love lost between him and her book. They discuss it on a trip, he speaks his mind about why he hates the novel, there’s comedy and romance, and if I recall, she ends up changing the script to reflect her new beau’s preferences.

I only saw this movie once, but here’s one scene that has stuck with me all these years. Our author goes into a liquor store to get some hootch, but it’s in short supply. The storekeeper is reading her book, and she appeals to him to give her some booze because she wrote the book he’s reading and enjoying. “Prove it,” he says. She asks him what page he’s on. He tells her. And Colbert proceeds to recite, word for word, what follows from the point the storekeeper leaves off. Upshot? She leaves with some booze.

The impression I got from that scene as a kid was enormous. Wow, do authors really have to memorize their own books? As time went on and I grew up, I realized it was just a made-up scene, and no, authors didn’t have to memorize their own books.

Only now I’m rethinking that. We might not memorize them, true. But each novel we write is a journey we make, and the only company we have on the trip is… the novel itself, as it grows.

No, we don’t memorize our novels. That’s silly.

But we know these books. They’re with us as they change our lives just by the very act of being written.

So yes, oh yes, most definitely indeed yes. They are our children. Our beautiful, flawed, singularly unique children.

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To Thine Own Writing Be True

It’s been an interesting experience getting The Mushroom Shift ready for publication.

I mean, here is a novel I wrote almost 25 years ago, and as I’m reading it, and as I’m having my Kindle read it to me as part of the proofreading process, I’m discovering something about it that I hadn’t expected.

It’s a really good book.

Yeah, authors are supposed to say that sort of thing. But I don’t say that about many of my others – not A Death of Honor or The Company Man, or the three books of the Angel’s Luck trilogy. While I can chat them up to interested readers, I don’t think they’re particularly good, largely because I hadn’t yet hit that mystical One Million Words mark.1 Of my published novels, Ferman’s Devils/Boddekker’s Demons is the first one I can page through without cringing, largely because (I believe) by that point I’d actually Gotten Good.

Yet here is a novel that was my third (written after Desperate Measures and Honor2), before I had Gotten Good – but I can mostly read/listen to it without wincing. Plus there are moments in the book that make me marvel at how good it really is.

Granted, there’s one scene in The Mushroom Shift that I have long considered one of my best pieces of writing ever – but one scene does not a great book make. Mushroom I think is a great book, in spite of the fact that my writing style hadn’t completely evolved. Why?

Well, I’ve been thinking it over, and I believe I might have the answer.

The Mushroom Shift was written for love. It was written for the sheer joy if sitting down and telling a story. It was written because the story was coming out of me, and not for any sort of commercial consideration.

The others from that period were, well, written to try and make money.

Ditto the story about Ferman and Boddekker, which was something I wanted to write for a long time, and had a great time doing so when I finally did it.

Ditto again for Drawing Down the Moon, in which I defied my then-agent’s advice and sat down and wrote it because it was a story I wanted to tell. Well, DDtM is also a great book because I think I have officially Gotten Good now, but you see the pattern forming.

There’s something to be said for tossing commercial considerations out the window and writing for the love of the process.

Need more proof?

Open up your web browser, point it at Amazon dot com, and look up the Stephanie Plum series of novels by Janet Evanovich. Check out the reviews of the early series; One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly

People love ’em.

Now check out the reviews of books Fourteen, Fifteen, Sixteen, Seventeen. Evanovich’s readers are turning on her, accusing the writer of making her books dull, boring and repetitive – basically phoning it in for the score.3 One reviewer even accuses her of milking the series after allegedly reading an interview in which Evanovich advocated doing exactly that.

I’m guessing that the one thing on the minds of all of Evanovich’s disgruntled readers right now is, “Where is the love?”

Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing bad about writing for money. But there seems to be a strange phenomenon that occurs when you do that. You start keeping commercial considerations in mind, and perhaps you start getting a little shy about letting loose for fear of offputting your readers. And pretty soon you’re doing that thing of stamping the novels out using a cookie cutter formula.

I suppose it’s nice work if you can get it.

But so much more satisfying… and a much richer legacy you will leave… if you be truthful with yourself as a writer, if you push yourself out of the box, and simply write for the sheer joy of creating, of telling a story you want to tell rather than shooting for the lowest common denominator.

Who knows? Your fans might even like it, too.

  1. Or that new iteration of skill honing, the Ten Thousand Hour mark.
  2. That’s right – those early novels weren’t published in the order in which they were written.
  3. And actually, in the interest of full self-disclosure, I found her books dull, boring and repetitive after just two. Along with highly irritating. But she makes more money writing than I do, so you can’t argue with success.

Oh, Fudge!

Where to come down on the idea of cussin’ in one’s books? I’ve gotten away from it for the most part, mostly because I’m a Christian and try hard not to use it myself. But I’ve also sat through enough TV versions of films where the language is softened, and for the most part the writing works without it (except for the moment in Heartbreak Ridge where Clint Eastwood refers to a compromised operation as a “cluster flop”).

If the profanity is taken out and not given a ridiculous substitute, most writing functions surprisingly well. I’ve gotten along without it nicely for a couple of novels now, although in Drawing Down the Moon I resorted to some comparatively minor epithets during a couple of moments when the emotional tension was ratcheted up so high that it seemed the scene couldn’t exist without the kind of expression that exists when you call someone a son-of-a-bitch.

One thing I don’t think most writers consider when using profanity is how it is perceived by the reader. Folks, most readers ain’t looking at it the way that a lot of us do. For example, John Grisham has been praised for years for “not using profanity” – but he does. The thing is, he uses it ever-so-sparingly.

This tells me that in minuscule amounts profanity becomes overlooked as part of the story and doesn’t even enter the reader’s consciousness. There’s not enough to alert the reader’s radar, so it flies under it naturally.

Unlike when I went to see Dog Day Afternoon once upon a time a long time ago. A bunch of us from college went, and one girl who was unenlightened about “cinema” (as opposed to “movies”) became bored with the plot early on and began to count out loud the number of F Bombs dropped by Al Pacino. And you know what? Thinking back on it, it was distracting. Not the girl’s count, but the fact that there were so many that it demanded counting. How else do you account for people tallying the number of F words in films like The Big Lebowski, or pretty much any movie in which Joe Pesci or Robert DeNiro are allowed to do some ad-libbing? It’s like there’s a saturation point for this particular epithet, and once you pass a certain number of uses, it pushes the meter from “Useful” to “Tolerable” to “Offensive” and into “Self Parody.”

Oddly enough, this didn’t seem to happen in The Commitments, but then the word wasn’t flowing exclusively from the mouth of one particular character – it same from everyone, as if it was a part of the street argot. And it worked that way.

My take is to use profanity infrequently and only when emphasis is needed somewhere. I’m not so sure I buy into the whole “it’s part of the character” thing anymore because it has become so over-used (see below for an exception).

While there was profanity in A Death of Honor, there were only two F-bombs – one in a confrontation with a jackbooted version of that universe’s police, and an expression of disgust and dismay near the book’s end. My editor called me up to talk about this since Del Rey wasn’t known for that kind of language, but what’s interesting is that she was concerned with the second instance of the word – almost as if the first hadn’t existed. I guessed that was a sign that it felt natural in the first application, and seemed gratuitous in the second – although I would have traded the first to keep the second, which is where I really felt it belonged.

Interestingly enough, there was almost no profanity in Honor – at least not in the traditional sense. When I initially wrote the first chapter, one of the things I postulated was that language would change in the future, so I used a different, odd word as a profane expression. However, since Honor was only the second novel I’d written, I lost my courage to see that part of the book through and used common contemporary cussin’ instead. But I kept the idea in the back of my mind… and when the time came to write Ferman’s Devils I had a lot more confidence… and that’s why the characters there say “ranking” all the ranking time. It’s up to readers to figure out why it’s a cussword (and no, I don’t give any clues – but it was accepted).

Incidentally, “ranking” is almost the only cussword in Ferman. There are two others, used only once each – “bastard” and “ass”. The only reason I used them is because I heard them used in actual TV commercials while I was writing the book, and put them into the advertising universe to make a point.

For the most part I think profanity is a spice where you err on the side of less is more. That said, there are exceptions. Right now I’m in the process of coding my unpublished police novel for the Kindle. It’s based on what I observed when I worked as a Sheriff’s Dispatcher, back during the Ice Age. It’s thick with creative profanity because that’s what I heard. Some time after I wrote it, in a moment of idealism I decided to rewrite it without the profanity. But when I started doing that it just wasn’t the same book. Taking the profanity out ruined the whole tone of things. So I decided to leave it in.

Ultimately, it’s the decision of each individual writer to make. Just keep in mind that your readers are more involved with the story than you think, and if you’re gratuitous with the language, it may push the aforementioned Profane-O-Meter into Self Parody faster than you think.

And be cautious when I finally release The Mushroom Shift for the Kindle. The language really is terrible, and some folks don’t ranking like that.

Exclamation Point Points

After thirty years of my wife insisting, I am now reading Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel. And it’s a wondrous thing. For a first novel, Auel created a rich world based on sound (at the time) scientific speculation, bent the rules within acceptable parameters, expertly manipulated plot twists and turns for maximum effect, and created a modern classic that can be read as a great adventure or as something much deeper (I could make a great argument for its being the ultimate feminist novel). It’s a Great American Novel.

I only have a few minor quibbles with what she’s done with the book. I’m wondering if the dialogue is a little too rich for being sign language. She ends one chapter too many with antagonist Broud plotting to get even with heroine Ayla (as my wife puts it, it’s almost like he’s twirling a mustache while he thinks these things). And Auel uses exclamation points in action scenes on occasion.

Not a lot. I’ve noted two or three instances. Not enough to drag her down into L. Ron Hubbard pulpdom, but enough to make me think about the subject.

My policy on exclamation points is that I never use them in narrative:

The cars collided.
– not –
The cars collided!

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, when you put an exclamation point at the end of the sentence, it adds an enormous amount of emphasis on what is being said. It had better be darn important if you’re going to do it!

Second, when you put an exclamation point at the end of narrative, it feels final. Like there’s nothing else that needs to be said beyond that point. You’ve made the ultimate statement on the subject!

Back to our car accident description above. If I dared to write The cars collided! I would not follow it up with anything else. The emphasis would all be right there in one sentence, which, like haiku, had better say exactly what you wanted to say on the subject since you punctuated it thusly.

However, without the exclamation point, I would go on, perhaps turning the accident into a ballet of broken glass and bending metal:

The cars collided. The grille of her car went first, shattering, blowing back against the wall of the radiator, which bent and burst, hemorrhaging sticky green fluid across the asphalt road. The hood crumpled up, bending into a tent as it was pushed up over the engine. Then the windshield webbed and gave way into thousands of jagged pieces, spraying in on her as momentum carried the car forward. By this point the airbag on the steering wheel was just a memory, having caught her head as it whipped forward, collapsing as the seat belt caught her and threw her back.

Now go back and imagine that with an exclamation point after the first sentence. It breaks breaks up the rhythm of the words, too much of a full stop to allow anything else to proceed.

I should note here that if you’re writing a novel for young readers, all bets are off. Exclamation points in narrative bring a different tone and add a sense of excitement to the proceedings. That’s probably why, when I see exclamation points in narrative, it comes across as having a juvenile feel.

On the other hand, I have no problem using them in dialogue – just not all the time. Again, it has to do with the rhythm of the words. There are times when I might want to write:

“Get out of my house,” screamed Kate.

and there might be times when I want to express it this way:

“Get out of my house!”

To me, either is acceptable. It just depends on how you want the dialogue to flow.

So my advice is don’t use exclamation points too often!

Little Moments

SPOILER ALERT!
Do not read this entry if you have not read A Death of Honor.

Payne caught up as a uniformed man with a megaphone announced that boarding was closing to check for last-minute cancellations. Trinina looked harried. The steward guarding the path looked stern.

He handed her Nathan’s suitcase. “What’s the problem?”

“He won’t take this paper,” Trinina sobbed.

“It’s torn,” the steward said in a thick accent. He studied Payne and cocked his head.

“You see this?” Payne shouted, touching the cloth around his head. “Somebody tried to kill us for these papers. You’re telling me that she can’t get on because somebody made off with the corner?”

“It’s your paper,” Trinina said weakly.

“Those are the rules,” the steward said.

Payne put his hand between Trinina’s shoulders and shoved her up the path. “Go!” he shouted. “Go!”

She looked at him, eyes wide.

“Go!”

“I love you, Payne.”

Go on! Get the hell out of here!

She turned and ran up the path.

Yeah, I have to get used to putting spoiler alerts up now since hopefully lots of new people will be reading Honor in the near future.

My wife and I were proofing this book last week to make sure all the formatting was where it was supposed to be. I was having her read the first and last word of each paragraph to make sure they had all been broken up properly. Nearing this part, she was reading, “Payne, stern. He, problem. He, paper. It’s, head.”

She got to Payne’s line, “Go, here” and I stopped her.

“This is my favorite line in the book,” I said, having recently discovered that during an earlier pass throught the book – when I was scanning it, I think. “‘Go on. Get the hell out of here.‘”

My wife asked, “Why?”

I said, “Because this is the moment when Payne becomes a human being.”

“Sacrifice,” she said.

“Yeah. For the first time in the book, his actions aren’t all about him.”

Which is true. Payne becomes a human being at this moment in the book, which incidentally, was being made up on the spot by yours truly. At this point in the story, the mystery is solved. However, as I was writing I said to myself, “All they need to do now is get on the boat and leave.” Then I stopped typing and said, “Boy, that’s really boring. Let me see what I can do to spice up that ending.”

But the whole point of this exercise is that Payne’s humanity came back to him not in a bang, but in a whimper. In a little moment. There’s no blood rushing to his head, the jetty to the boat is not spinning around him, there’s no white-knuckled grip on Nathan’s suitcase. There’s no interior monologue debating the wisdom of his next action. It happens naturally. And that’s the way I think it should be.

I think there’s a tendency among us to overplay big moments, but I’m starting to realize that they’re best underplayed. For one thing, the reader has to think about it more, and I’m always for that – which is why I tend not to reveal everything about the world, its circumstances, and the people who inhabit it. Readers have thanked me for this.

There are times when it’s appropriate. However, since life itself is made up of little moments, I think revelations like this seem to ring truer when they’re not so broadly played.

My wife and I were watching The Blind Side again the other night, and there’s that moment in the first football game when Michael Oher grabs his coach and pulls him away to keep him from decking an unfair referee. Oher looks at him and says, smiling, “That’s okay, coach. I’ve got your back.” That’s the moment when you know that Oher has come to understand not just the game, but the fact that he can trust his coach and teammates and sees them as family. There’s no clap of thunder, no reverbed words ringing in his ears. It just happens.

Welcome to life. It’s full of stuff like this.

So the next time you want to show that change is in the air, turn off the thunder machine and draw a line through the histrionics. Turn the volume down and let it whisper.

It’ll be loud and clear to the reader.

Piracy on the High E’s!

I’m not sure where you come down on the issue of piracy. Not the Somalis in a speedboat with some vintage Soviet RPG type. The new-fangled method of copying intellectual property that has been the bane of folks from the members of Metallica to J.K. Rowling.

And to show that nobody is safe, even I have been pirated. That’s right. No sooner were the Angel’s Luck novels in print over in Russia than somebody with a scanner and some OCR software gutted copies and converted them into files for the RocketBook – a late 1990’s eReader that is so vintage that there’s almost no information on them out in Internet land… not even on Wikipedia. All I could find is this rather odd video.1 Apparently it never took off here, but was popular in Europe, judging from the accents on the video (and the Russian piracy).

It’s probably also worth mentioning that if you’re Russian, you can also read the Pembroke Hall series online – here and here. More wonders from scannerland. I suppose if you’re a dab hand with cut and paste, you could bring up the pages and put them piecemeal into one of the many online translation apps out there and read yourself the books for free. Sorry, I can’t guarantee it’ll be an effective use of your time, but the many quirks of online translation are guaranteed to make the story more amusing than it already is.

So where do I come down on the side of such hijinks?

It doesn’t bother me. Maybe if I were an impoverished musician like the members of Metallica, I’d have a different attitude toward it – after all, what do you do when your “loyal” audience is cheating you out of the money you desperately need to feed your family? But in the case of a writer, the objective is to be read – and judging from the glowing reviews Ferman/Boddekker have gotten, Russians are reading the books.

Plus, to be honest, if I complain about this, shouldn’t I be complaining about that grandaddy of file sharing schemes, the public library system?2

Also, I have a day job that helps me feed my family. Maybe those tapped-out souls in Metallica should look into getting one themselves. Hey, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.

The Russian Cover for Harry Harrison's "Galaxy Hero Returns"


What’s particularly fascinating about piracy of intellectual property is how it seems so boundless. For example, here’s the cover of a Harry Harrison novel that was recently brought to my attention. It’s a version put out by a Russian publisher. Looks pretty exciting – but then notice the odd resemblance between Harry’s Russian cover and this American one by yours truly.

What’s interesting is that we’re getting into a whole different field of piracy here. I’m not sure it was out of laziness (although the artist did take the time to replace the green hologram on my cover with what looks like a full color holo of what might be a pole dancer – although that image might be nicked from somewhere, too.

While I find this amusing, I feel bad for David Mattingly, the artist who did the work on my original cover. Unfortunately, like the online version of Ferman’s Devils, there’s not a lot I can do about it were I so inclined. It’s what comes from dealing with countries with a more relaxed attitude towards intellectual property than ours.

Meantime, I guess we can take consolation in the fact that it ain’t just me and it ain’t just Russia. Witness this cover spotted by my son in a bookstore in Hangzhou, China:

Photo courtesy of my globe-hopping son.

It’s for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I suspect Harriet Beecher Stowe would be amused and even flattered by this whole thing, but no guesses where Mr. Freeman or Ms. Judd would come down on this whole thing.

Oh, and three words of advice for the malnourished members of Metallica: monster dot com.

  1. Although, admittedly, I only spent about five minutes looking.
  2. Which I once attempted to satirize here… but nobody got the joke.

A Chat About Place

I’m going to try something here. A few days ago, a friend of mine who has decided to try and write a novel popped up in my chat window to ask a couple of questions. Instead of writing at length about the subject, I’m going to just put the transcript here and see what happens. If you have any questions or followup on the subject, feel free to comment:

Brian: how much detail do you put in your environments?

Brian: I sprinkle some of it here and there, but don’t go overboard

me: depends on how important it is to the story

me: the next novel I’ll be converting for Kindle [The Mushroom Shift]

me: is set in Wyoming in the winter

me: and the setting and the weather play an important part of the story

me: it’s oppressive to characters in an already oppressive situation

Brian: how do you pick cities for your stories?

me: well

me: if you’re Stephen King you stick to places where you’ve lived

me: ; )

Brian: I am going to just use this area… I can change it later if I want

me: I tend to pick places that I think are interesting

Brian: there are a million of those types of areas

me: What suits the story? The Company Man and Drawing Down the Moon are both travelogues of sorts, bouncing around different versions of the US. The shifting locales helped shape the stories.

me: Sometimes the story dictates the location – Wyoming for The Mushroom Shift, New York for the Pembroke Hall novels.

me: Then sometimes it doesn’t matter. When I wrote A Death of Honor, I deliberately did NOT mention a specific city, and have had people assume it was New York, LA, etc.

me: There’s another book I’ve gotten a lot done on that is set in a Canton-like milieu, and needs to be that way for a couple of reasons. And the UFO novel has to take place in Gillette, Wyoming because Gillette is the perfect place for it to occur.

Brian: My story will take place in a canton like area.. more rural though…

me: See? Based on what you’ve told me, it needs to set there. It’s dictated by the story.

One thing I will add that I didn’t say in the chat is that sometimes Place can be as much a character as any of the people in your novel. I’m thinking of films like Body Heat, Do The Right Thing, and just about any movie by the Coen brothers, who have taken Place As Character to a whole new level.

Have I missed anything? Grab your atlas and check.