Each Word Must Justify Its Existence

My new novel, “Scurvy Dogs,” will be released in a little less than two months, on International Talk Like a Pirate Day, and I am deep, deep into the final edit.

The first draft – which in this case was completed five years ago – is the creative time. Then there’s the second draft, and the third, the drafts where you figure out what the story is actually about and sharpen it and hone it until everything in the text advances that premise.

Author Anne Lamott calls those the “down draft,” where you write it down, and the “up draft,” where you fix it up.

I finished my down draft and up draft of “Scurvy Dogs” a couple of years ago. Then I put it aside to simmer, while I finished “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.”

Now I’m getting ready to release “Scurvy Dogs,” and I’m on what Lamott calls the “dental draft,” the draft where you go over it “tooth by tooth,” checking to make sure everything in it is working, there’s no rot, no cavities, no gingivitis. Everything works, and there’s nothing in it that gets in the way of the story.

This is all about the nuts and bolts.

More than any other part of the process, it’s the time you absolutely have to have a heart of stone, Every scene, every sentence, every word has to justify its existence. Is it telling the story? Is it telling the right story? If it’s not, out it goes.

Make every word beg for mercy.

One scene I took out recently was at the end, a showdown. It was one of the best – no, not one of – it was THE best combat scene I have ever written, a sword fight between two characters. It’s a terrific scene, if I do say so myself, some really good writing that was both exciting and demonstrated the inner nature of  the two characters.

The problem was, as Tori pointed out when she read the story, the wrong two people were fighting. The bad guy, Sutherland, sure, that was what the whole story has been leading up to, Sutherland getting his. But the other person was all wrong. It was one of the adults, defending his family. But this is the kids’ story, and for the story to work, they have to come up with a way to defeat their nemesis themselves. I couldn’t just switch characters, that wouldn’t have been believable. So whatever I did, I had to scrap the sword fight and find a way for the kids to win, a way that both made sense and would be satisfying, that would make a fitting cap for their story.

I did it. Yeah, it hurts to get rid of a piece of writing I”m proud of. But I’m proud of what I put in in its place. It’s better, and the story is better. Everything has to serve the story. It’s not about me. Not about the writer It’s about the story.

I still have the duel, and it’s good. It’s just not in the story. At some point after “Scurvy Dogs” has been out for a while, maybe a year or so, I’ll post it or make it available somehow, just for fun. But I can’t do it right away, because there’s a pretty big spoiler in there. I’ve skated pretty close to the edge as it is.

Anyway, there’s more work to do. And I’ve gotta get back to it.

What Is Writing?

It’s different for everyone. Here’s a baker’s dozen writers giving their idea of what writing is. But first, a bonus quote – from me. Writing is a persistent itch. Every morning you have to sit down and scratch it.

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
Thomas Mann

“Let’s face it, writing is hell.” William Styron

“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” E.L. Doctorow

“In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” Denise Levertov

“Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” John Edgar Wideman

“All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” Stephen Greenblatt

“I want to live other lives. I’ve never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” Anne Tyler

“I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” Michael Cunningham

“Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” Anthony Powell

“Writing is … that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” Pico Iyer

“Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one’s luck.” Iris Murdoch

“I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.” —William Carlos Williams

How Many Words? How Many Pages?

I allowed myself one day to be excited about the children’s book I talked about yesterday. Now I have to get back to the serious business of writing a funny horror story about Christmas – for young readers.

But I gave myself a chance to think about it and do a little research. I have read many, many children’s books. After all, as our friends say, Tori and I have “many, many children.” So I am more than familiar with the genre. One thing I wasn’t sure about is how many words. Obviously not a lot but, generally, what’s the range?

I’m not trying to be proscriptive here. You can write any genre of book, any length you want. There’s no rule that says you can’t. If you want to write a 470,000 word young adult novel, got right ahead.

But if you want to be published, you have to understand that publishers are risk averse, they like to do what they know and what their experience tells them will sell. The book business is, after all, a business. That doesn’t mean something wildly out of the norm won’t sell, but unless you’re James Patterson (don’t we all just hate him?) or Stephen King or a celebrity, they’re not likely to give you a chance to see if you’re the exception to the rule.

Don’t you want to stack the odds in your favor? That means giving publishers something they recognize, that they think they can sell and make money on, and part of the equation is fitting into general length guidelines.

There’s a lot of information about this available online, and I got the answer I needed. If you’re interested this one has a good discussion and this one was kind of funny.

And they agree on the main point.

So I’m looking at writing the story in about 500 to 600 words. And you might think, “Hey, only 500 words? That’s easy!” And if you said that to me I’d spit in your eye.

Write a 110,000-word epic fantasy and yeah, that’s a lot of words. You’ve got plenty of room to play around with. You can take all the time you want to describe the dragon, scale by scale, or explain the physics of your fictional universe that allows a ship to blast across the galaxy in a heartbeat.

When you’re limited to 600 words, every word has to count. Let me say that again. EVERY WORD HAS TO COUNT. Which means you have to know exactly what the story is, exactly what it’s supposed to mean, and then be able to convey it in that 600-word span. And, by the way, they need to be short words that kids know. You can’t use the 2 bit words, like proscriptive.

So the three rules (so far) are:

– Know the story.

– Know the audience.

– Make every word count.

And, it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway – NO RHYMING.

Seriously, I don’t know why people think a little kids book has to rhyme, or even should rhyme. In fact, most publishers and agents won’t even look at a book that rhymes. Nobody likes rhyming books that weren’t written by Dr. Seuss. When you’re as big and famous as Dr. Seuss, then you can rhyme to your hearts content. When I was reading books to my kids, which I did a lot, I HATED reading rhyming books, except of course, “Green Eggs and Ham.” (By the way, my reading of that one is classic.) But that wasn’t a big problem because we had very few rhyming books in the house. Those stilted rhythms and bad rhymes used to drive me nuts.

People who think it’s easy to write a kids book, you  know, just pick up a pen and knock one out, full of rhymes, obviously have not done any research. Look at the library. Look at the local bookstore and see what’s selling. I guarantee you publishers are looking at what’s selling and basing their decisions about what to publish accordingly. How can you have the nerve to try writing a kids book if you don’t read kids books? And I don’t mean back in the day. I mean yesterday.

OK, let me just step off my soapbox now (yes young ‘uns , a soapbox is a thing. Along with the rotary telephone and the horse and buggy. Look ’em up on Google.)

And speaking of word counts, let me finish with a memory I hope is amusing.

When Mark and I decided to write our first book and had interest from an agent he asked me, “How many pages do we have to write?”

I said, “About 40,000 words or so, I’d guess.”

“But how many pages is that?”

“It depends,” I said. “How big is the page? How small is the type? We only have to write one page, if it’s big enough to hold about 40,000 words.”

It took a couple more passes to get the point across, but eventually we got to work and cranked out 40,000 words of funny.

And now, back to work. I have to make sixth graders excited and a little scared. And it’s gotta be funny!

The Brain Can Be a Funny Thing

Odd how the brain works. At least mine. I’ve got plenty on my plate, but my brain keeps handing me new stuff.

I am working away on my project, a middle-school holiday horror story. And it’s coming along. And another idea has been percolating in the back of my mind which has potential.

But a couple of days ago, while I was in the shower, when I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular, I got hit, hard, by a way to solve the problem with “Chance.” That as my first novel. I really liked it. My then-agent was extremely enthusiastic. A friend had gone over it and said he had thought it would take him a week or so to read it but it took two days because “I literally couldn’t put it down.” It was at Little, Brown for nine months, worked its way up the submission process until the final meeting. And they decided to pass. After nine months.

Anyway, my agent (who has since parted ways with me) sort of lost heart, made a few more desultory efforts to get the book sold, and finally told me, “Chance is dead in the water.” I will never forget those words. “Dead in the water.”

Two days later I started the book that became “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.” Which is a better book, I think.

But I still like “Chance,” a lot. And I’d like to resuscitate it, bring it back to life because there’s some really good stuff in there, some great characters and action.

Problem is, I cannibalized a few pieces to use in the early part of “Chrissie.” The whole getting aboard a ship under a different guise, early days learning the ropes. So I have to come up with a different opening and transition, it’ll change a chunk of the story and I have to work out how.

And then, in the middle of the shower, it all came to me. I wasn’t thinking about it, it just jumped into my head, fully formed. How to get him on the ship, how to get him with the pirates. All of it. Actually a little better than it was. I’m looking forward to getting to work on it.

And then I was having a conversation via email with Mark – Cap’n Slappy – my friend, partner in piracy and writing partner. We were talking about my son Jack, my eldest, who with his girlfriend Casey in about six months will make me a grandfather. (Very exciting!) Anyway, he asked if I was wanted to be called “gramps” or “Pop-Pop.” Neither. “Gramps” is a little “Beverly Hillbillies” for my taste, and “Pop-Pop” is insufferably cute. I am not a fan of cute.

No, I said. I’m thinking Grampa will be just fine.

And then I started thinking about my dad. When his first grandchild was born (my niece Jenny) he decided he wanted to be called Gandalf. An interesting choice, because Dad didn’t like “The Lord of the Rings,” didn’t understand what the fuss was about. (One of the few things he was ever wrong about, but I guess it’s a matter of taste and “Degustibus non diputandum est,” in matters of taste there is no arguing.) He later decided, nah, that’s kind of high falutin’, I’ll just go with grandpa. But by then to the kids, he was Gandalf and that was that. And it fit. To his grandchildren he was the wise old man who knew everything and could tell stories better than anyone, (And they were right.)

(By the way, his birthday passed just a few days ago. He died 15 years ago, but there’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t think of him. Happy birthday, dad.)

And I was thinking, yeah, it’d be neat to have a cool name like Gandalf. But that was taken. So I’ll be more than happy with grampa.

Of course, I’m a pirate. SO maybe something a little piratical. Like – Oh, I don’t know – And then it hit me.

Oh my god! Not only is it a great grandfather name, but it’ll be a great title for a book I’m going to write as soon as I wrap up this project. A children’s picture book that I WILL finish before the baby is born. (Although I’ll have to figure out about the illustrations, *I* sure won’t be drawing them. You don’t want to see my drawing.)

So thanks a lot brain. Like I wasn’t busy enough already? But I have to admit, those were both great ideas.

The Power of Failure

“Failure is not an option.” Ed Harris in the movie, “Apollo 13”

Sorry Ed, but it turns out failure not only IS an option, sometimes it seems to be almost a prerequisite to success.

I got four books for Christmas. One was Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” which is so good I can’t even begin to tell you. I mentioned it before, when I had just started reading it. I finished it a couple of weeks later and it was every bit as good as the first chapters suggested. Great book, beautifully written, easily the best book I’ve read in years, maybe decades, and I read a lot. “Born to Run” is deeply personal and moving, yet sometimes hilarious.

One of my favorite passages is when, as a high school student, he rounded up a couple of other friends who could play a little and formed a band. After their first big gig – an unqualified disaster – the other members got together and voted him out of the band he had formed.

Wouldn’t you love to get those guys together now and ask, “How does it feel to be the guys who fired Bruce Springsteen from a band?”

I’m now reading Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Walter Cronkite, who for almost 20 years in the 1960s and ’70s was “the most trusted man in America” as anchor of the CBS Evening News. In this – shall we say? – strained political climate, it seemed appropriate to revisit a time when the media were not only trusted, but some of its members were revered. Cronkite, you may recall, was known as “Uncle Walter” to a devoted public. If Cronkite said it, you could take it to the bank.

In one of his first jobs in the 1930s, Cronkite was the news announcer for Kansas City radio station KCMO. In fact, he was essentially the entire news staff. One day the station owner rushed to Cronkite’s desk with a scoop. The owner’s wife had just called to say City Hall was on fire and three firefighters had been killed. He ordered Cronkite to get on the air right away to issue a news bulletin.

Cronkite reached for the phone, to the owner’s consternation. “What are you doing?” “I have to make some calls and verify it.” “Are you calling my wife a liar?” Of course not,” Cronkite said, but he pleaded the need to verify the report and get more details.

The owner fired Cronkite and went on the air himself with the breathless report of K.C.’s City Hall burning down, with three firefighters plummeting to their deaths. And of course, it turned out to be completely false. There had been a small fire in City Hall, easily extinguished. Nobody injured, let alone killed.

When Cronkite died in 2009, a blogger wrote a piece titled “KCMO: Stupid Enough to Fire Cronkite; Downhill Ever Since.”

Another of the books I received for Christmas was “The Daily Show: The Book.” It’s a conversational, chronological history of the Daily Show during Jon Stewart’s 16-year run. And of course he wasn’t fired from the gig. But as he points out in the foreword, his career until then hadn’t been exactly overwhelming.

“I was a 35-year-old New York City standup comic with a canceled talk show, an unproduced screenplay, an unpublished book of essays, and two upcoming roles in Independent Films critics would almost unanimously hail as ‘speaking parts.'”

So the common thread between the stories of these three disparate men is early failure. And of course, there’s a lot more such stories. Van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime, but he’s now considered, if not the most important modern painter, certainly one of them. Erle Stanley Gardner received a rejection telling him not only was his story bad but he should never again be allowed to write in the English language. The story was, of course, the first Perry Mason mystery. Tom Clancy’s first novel was rejected by 26 publishers before it became the No. 1 bestseller “The Hunt for Red October,” leading to a publishing success story that continues today, with a new book on the lists despite the fact that Clancy’s been dead three and a half years.

Such stories are legion, especially in the writing world where we seem to wear our rejections like badges of honor. You’re nobody ’til somebody tells you you stink.

In each of those three books – Springsteen, Cronkite and Stewart – the key was not the failure but what they did with it.

Springsteen was brutally honest with himself, both as an artist and a person. He knew where he wanted to go with his music, and he cold-bloodedly looked at his strengths and weaknesses, then did what he had to do to improve until he not only was able to make a living as a musician, but become one of the most important musicians of the last 40 years. In his personal life, at the prodding and insistence of his wife, he went into therapy and confronted the ghosts of his childhood that were standing in the way of his establishing meaningful relationships, of being the father he wanted to be. He spent years looking for a way to forge a loving relationship with the father he hated (and didn’t realize for many years that he had hated.) He turned himself into who he wanted to become by hard work and unflinching self-honesty.

There were a lot of people who looked for success in the burgeoning field of radio in the 1930s. Cronkite was one of the ones who made it – and you could argue he made it farther than anyone – by adhering to high ethical standards that he didn’t compromise for the sake of a job or a short-term gain. He also worked at his craft. He taught himself to speak in an easy, conversational style instead of the stereotypical staccato burst of the radio announcers of the day. He forced himself to read the news at 124 words a minute, while the average American speaks at about 165. That allowed listeners to really hear him, and to let the words come through so they could be comprehended. He was the master of the pause, not babbling inanely but allowing the moment to speak for itself.

And Stewart was simply never satisfied. When he took over “The Daily Show” it was already somewhat successful, and the writing staff made it very clear to him that no little failed MTV host was going to tell them how to do it. They were furious that he had his own ideas. So over the first couple of years there were fights and scenes until he was able to mold the show into something that fit , his sensibility. He never intended to create a cultural touchstone, never dreamed that someday he would be compared to Will Rogers and Mark Twain. He just wanted the show give him a chance to say what he wanted to say, to not be canceled too early in the run, and to be funny.

And funny is serious business. It’s hard work. You don’t just go out for 22 minutes a night, four nights a week, and yuk it up. You have to have a point of view. Most days, after the 4 p.m. rehearsal, Stewart, the head writer and one or two others would retire to a small room behind the set and rewrite the show in the hour before they actually filmed it. Sometimes it would just be tweaks. More often than not, they would rewrite the entire show! Because it wasn’t enough for it to be good, it had to be as good as it could be. It had to mean something.

There are thousands, maybe millions, of stories of people turning failure into success, people who don’t allow a roadblock to become the end of the line, a dead end. They know what they want, and aren’t afraid to pick themselves up, learn their lessons and keep going until, by dint of hard work, they achieve their goal or surpass it.

Thomas Edison famously said, when trying to perfect the incandescent light bulb, that he hadn’t failed. “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Being honest with yourself, recognizing what didn’t work and why, is part of charting the path to success. As Henry Ford said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

Words to Work By

It’s a little late in the week for a “quote of the week” or “work theme,” but here are today’s words of wisdom as I knuckle down.

“Keep working. Don’t wait for inspiration. Work inspires inspiration. Keep working.”Michael Crichton

Actually, that’s good advice every day, every week. “Inspiration” is for amateurs.

So get to it, John. Get to it.

The count: Yesterday, 652 words, a little behind my goal, but respectable.

Big News and Lots of Work

Bunch of things in the last two weeks – Here’s the best.

jack-and-caseyMy eldest son, Jack, sent me two photos on New Year’s Eve. One was of him and his girlfriend, Casey, a picture we’d requested a little while earlier. When decorating for the holidays we’d noticed that our family photos were getting a little dated – we like the older photos, but we didn’t have anything current.

The other was this. Somewhere in that gray blur is my first grandchild. Yeah, sometime in August I’m going to become a grandfather. Yippee!

I have never pujack-and-casey-21shed my kids to procreate. I’m not against the idea of grandchildren, far from it, I just want them to live their lives. But Tori has noticed for several years that I have been paying more attention to babies in the supermarket and elsewhere around town. Or on TV. It’s all she can do to keep me from playing with their toes. That ‘s not a good thing, touching some stranger’s baby, and I have refrained. Tori says I’ve lapsed into permanent “grandpa mode.”

What can I say, babies are cute. It seems like a pretty great way to start life.

I have friends my age who have been grandparents for 20 years or more. One who is a great grandparent. And that’s been fine for them. Like I said, I never was in a hurry for my kids to reproduce. I want them to get their lives in shape and on track, make sure they’re responsible for themselves before they become responsible for someone else.

Well, Jack is 37, a librarian in the Berkeley Public Library System in California. A respected professional and something of an authority on graphic novels and comics – he’s a regular panelist at San Diego Comicon. I think he’s good to go.

Tori and I have joked that whichever of our kids became parents first, that’s where we’d move. Well, cost of living in the Bay Area is crazy high, so that’ll take some planning (and perhaps winning the lottery. Or at least selling some movie rights.) But for the short term, it sure changes our travel plans for the year. We’ll definitely be heading to the West Coast in late summer or early fall to meet the little sprat. Can’t wait.

In the meantime, I’m working on my new project and I like it a lot. You always do at this stage. It’s when you get about halfway to two-thirds in that things start getting hard. But this is a story with a lot of potential and I’m very excited about it.

Tori is arranging a time after school when I can read chapters to a group of students, whose feedback will help shape the story. That’s the same way it worked for “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter” and it was very helpful.

I can’t even write the title here yet, because it pretty much gives the whole story. It’s not a pirate story. It’s something different. I want it to be equal parts funny and exciting. It’s a stretch for me, and that’s a good thing. What do you learn if you keep doing the same thing over and over?

Sadly, I didn’t get much work done on it that last two weeks. I just finished a 12-day stint of work for my day-job, which is a misnomer since most of it is done at night. Working desk shifts for the Source until 1 or 2 in the morning, then getting up at 6 to get Tori and Max off to school. By the time they’re out the door I’ve been kind of brain dead, so not much writing has been going on.

But my colleague is back and I’m on the job again. Looking forward to getting back to the adventure of Connor and Ronnie and their struggle to save their town from an unspeakable horror.