What My Work in Progress Isn’t

I’ve been sitting down the last few days with a printed copy of the work in progress, reading and taking notes and getting ready to get to work on the second draft. I’m even using several different colored markers, although truth be told the different colors don’t actiually mean anything other than “this is the pen that was at hand when I had this idea or spotted that typo.”

I haven’t mentioned anything about what the story’s is about, or even the title, which would give the whole thing away. And I’m not ready to yet except in the most general way. I wouldn’t say it’s a “bad luck” thing to talk about it before it’s ready, but it sure doesn’t feel right. So I’ll keep my lips sealed about that, for now.

But I will discuss what it is not, and why.

It’s not a pirate story. Not because I don’t like pirate stories or have abandoned the pirate community, or have no new ideas for pirate stories. Far from it. I have one all but finished, as a matter of fact. I thought I’d have it out for Talk Like a Pirate Day last year, But there’s a problem wth the story and I haven’t figure out yet how to solve it. Something doesn’t quite work. Otherwise it’s a good story. One day I’ll pull it out, look it over, and the answer to the problem will be so blindingly obvious that I’ll rush it out. So I’m not out of the pirate game at all. (See below.)

But the work in progress is not a pirate story. It’s a contemporary story about three kids – two boys in middle school, troublemakers, and the high school sister of one of the boys who is grudgingly along for the ride (since she has a driver’s license and they don’t.) They’re in a very, very bad situation and the fate of the world rests on their shoulders. I’m aiming at a very specific market and the reaction I’ve gotten from reading the chapters to Tori’s sixth grade class tell me I’m on the right track.

It’s an idea that has been floating around our house since 2010, and where it came from I’ll discuss when I’m ready to reveal the book. But first I have to finish it, and that means a second draft, and a third. You just never know.

There’s a very real, very practical reason for doing this, for writing an adventure story that’s not in the pirate vein. First, it has the potential for being a series of books, and I like the idea of a steady stream of income. Second, I would very much like to sell my book to a publisher.

I had an agent who tried for a year and a half to sell my first young adult pirate adventure, “Chance.” Nobody said there was anything wrong with “Chance,” it was well written, a good story, great charactes. A friend – a retired college professor – read it for me and said he’d expected it to take about a week but he was done in two days because “I just couldn’t put it down.”

Chance made it to the last pre-publishing meeting at one of the very big houses. I would have been thrilled to be picked up by that publisher. Any writer would have.

But –

“No one is interested in pirate stories,” they said. “No one’s buying pirate stories.”

And other houses gave similar responses. “Good book, but we’re not looking for pirate stories.”

When I finished “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter,” it was even better than “Chance,” and “Chance” was good. Not “pretty good.” Good. A new agent was very excited about it, and tried for another year and a half before telling me, “No one wants a pirate story. It’s not the writing, it’s the pirates.”

So I decided to prove them wrong and self-publish “Chrissie.” I had a sales number in mind that I was pretty sure I could hit, and it would show the “know it alls” at those publishing houses that they were wrong. That people DID want pirate stories.

And you know what? The publishers were right. I have received a lot of great feedback on “Chrissie,” and sold a lot of copies, but nowhere near what I’d hoped, nothing like a number that would convince a publisher to take another look.

So I thought I’d give a try crafting a story I want to tell in a genre publishers think will sell. I’m having fun with the story and the reaction from Tori’s kids tels me it works. They laughed where I’d hoped, even showed me places where it was funnier than I knew, prompting me to double down on those bits. And they really get into the peril.

More importantly, by their reaction (or lack thereof) the kids pointed me to places where it needs work. I have a bunch of notes for the second draft based on their reactions.

But first I took April off for two other projects. Both of a pirate nature.

One is a podcast idea Tori and I had a year ago that will amuse us, even if no one ever listens to it. And yes, it’s a pirate story, of a sort. The other is a proposal from a friend in the pirate community to collaborate on a couple of projects that are exciting and different for both of us, and I was only too happy to take him up on it. They’re both his ideas, so I don’t want to get too far ahead. I got a good start on it during April.

I’m still in the pirate game. But the work in progress has taken me in a different direction, and it’s a good book. It’s a book that has a good chance of being published. I’ll be back with a pirate story sooner than you think.

First Draft of WIP Is Done

reading to Tori's class 04252019Finished reading the work in progress to Tori’s class today (spring break got in the way) and it was great. The ending is really good, cliffhangers and payoffs and heroic sacrifices and laughs and everything. All in three chapters, a space of a few thousand words.

I had their attention, and I kept it.

End of next week I embark on the rewrites. Maybe a lot. But I don’t think it’ll be too bad. The ending is really good. The beginning is good, needs a few tweaks, not much more than that. The middle is perhaps the most problematic, I’ve got to come up with a few more “events,” close calls and peril and a bit more humor. Nothing in the middle is “bad,” there just needs to be a bit more going on, and it has to drive harder towards the conclusion.

I know this because I have the kids’ reactions (and sometimes lack of reactions) to tell me so. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I don’t see how anyone can write a book for middle school aged kids without having a classroom full of them to bounce the story off of. The kids in Tori’s classes were, as always, invaluable.

I am not starting the second draft until May 1, because I’m in the middle of a project that is a real change of pace for me, and a lot of fun. But that draft is almost finished and then it’s back to the novel. I think I can have something to show agents by summer – when everything in the publishing industry sort of goes on hiatus. Oh well, it is what it is. I warned the kids that it could be a year or more before I know if there’s any hope of the book getting published by a traditional house.

It was funny, I talked a little about the whole publishing process and the kids were aghast. Why would anyone intentionally go into a business as dicey as that, where everything takes so long and your fate is in the hands of other people?

As I told them, sometimes you just can’t help it. You write, because writing is what you do. You’re a writer.

Another Classy Morning

Just spent another invigorating morning with Tori’s sixth-grade ELA students. I honestly think I get more out of it than they do.

I started by telling them what author James Scott Bell had to say about story. Sometimes writers fall in love with their characters. They don’t want them to have any dark spots, any flaws. They don’t want anything bad to happen to them. And that’s boring. As somebody or other said, “No one is going to go to a movie about ‘Another perfect day in the village of happy people.'” Story, Bell tells us, is taking some characters and getting them stuck in a tree with hungry wolves circling below them Then you throw rocks at the characters. Then you set the tree on fire. Then you let them figure out how to get out of the tree.

In our story, the one I am reading to them a couple of chapters at a time, we just got the characters up the tree, I told the kids. Now we’re starting to throw rocks at them, and pretty soon the tree will be on fire.

As I read the next two chapters, I could see them react when something I’d set up earlier suddenly “paid off,” To me that meant they were getting it, not just the narrative of the story, but the technique.

But the real fun part came after I was done reading the two chapters. Tori had them get out paper and write for 10 minutes. They were supposed to write dialogue with the characters from the story. What might happen next? What are they going to do?

It wasn’t about them guessing what I have in mind, wasn’t about them “getingt it right.” I kept telling them, “This isn’t a test. It’s the first draft, it doesn’t have to be great or even good. It just has to be done.” It was just about them writing for 10 minutes and exploring what THEY would do, and usinng the conventions. They struggled a bit at first, but suddenly you could almost read by the light of all the bulbs going off over their heads. At the 10-minute mark, many of them were eager to read what they’d done, and others we coaxed. It wasn’t bad at all. And I played on my bad hearing. Made them read out, they got stronger as they went along.

And a couple of them DID get what I plan to happen next. Not the way it’s going to happen, of course, but the general idea.

Towards the end one girl asked me the classic – “Where do you get ideas and how do you put them together for a story?” (Apprently she’s hooked on the writing thing!) I went to the back shelf and pulled a couple of books from the class library.

“Where did Judy Blume get the idea for this one? Where did Dav Pilkey get the idea for “Captain Underpants?” Just an idea, a thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if … ? That’s really all it takes to start. J.K. Rowling wondered, ‘What if a boy who thought he was normal went to wizard school?’ Just ideas. ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if?’ ‘You know what really scares me?’ ‘What if a middle school student ran for president?’ What interests you? Your ideas are just as good as theirs. Even as good as J.K. Rowling’s. That’s where ideas come from. You just have to learn how to take that ‘what if,’ and then the next one and the next one until you have a story.”

I guess this is all good for them, good for them to see the process, to get excited and to practice writing and to learn the conventions of how to write dialogue. But in all honesty, I think I get much more out of it than they do. Their excitement is contagious and I’ll be coasting on it for another week. And there were one or two little things they wrote that I very well might steal. (I mean, be “inspired” by, of course.)

So back to work, got two chapters to write before next Thursday.

Why I Threw the Book

Had to throw a book across the room the other day. Had to.

It was not something I did lightly or without thought. I love books and respect the effort required to write them, even when they let the reader down. This was only the second time I have ever done it.

But boy, this book deserved it, and it felt good.

Most nights I read to Tori when we go to bed. It’s relaxing. The only problem is that my voice is apparently so soothing, my dulcet tones so soporific, that she’s usually asleep within a couple of pages. On occasion we’ll make it through a whole chapter, but she’s more likely to fall asleep within a few paragraphs. It took us something like six months to get through Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book” that way, and “Good Omens” took us almost a year.

Maybe a mystery, I thought. That might keep her interest piqued enough to battle off Morpheus for a chapter or two. So I brought home from the library what is referred to as “a cozy,” a subgenre of the mystery field in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.

This one had “beignet” in the title and I figured it must be set in New Orleans, since beignets are a particularly New Orleans thing. But no, it turns out the story is set in Middle of Nowhere, New Mexico. So strike one.

There’s a smugness to the cozy style. They apparently tend to feature amateur sleuths who work in quirky, trendy jobs. The kind of jobs that people in Hallmark Channel movies seem to flock to. In this one, the woman had just gone through a divorce and had opened a beignet and coffee shop in a small town. Because small towns deserve beignets too, I guess.

The author, who has apparently quite a lot of success in the “cozy” genre, has a peculiar style. If you or I were writing dialogue, we might choose to write it in a coherent, chronological fashion. He said this. I said that. He asked me a question. I answered it. You know, a conversation.

Not in this book. In this book, someone would enter the shop, approach the counter and say something, often just one or two words. Then there’d be two paragraphs of exposition and/or a completely irrelevant digression, then the other person would answer with one or two words and you’d have to go back because you couldn’t remember what the question was.

For me, the crowning example was when the a character walked in and asked, “Am I too late?” What followed was FOUR PARAGRAPHS about the javelina, a pig-like animal that runs wild in the American southwest. Four paragraphs. 223 words. On javelinas. There was also a bit about a local artist, but it was mostly about javelinas. Then the main character asks, “Too late for what?” and I have to flip back a page to remember who was talking. For my money, the ONLY way this makes sense is, after the murder eventually takes place, it turns out that the crime was committed by a pack of javelinas. Or the mystery is solved by them. Or something.

One of Elmore Leonards’ “rules” for writing novels is, “Try to leave out all the parts readers skip.” By that standard, this book is a failure by page 11.

Tori was more taken with this passage, when the dreamboat of a local, unmarried sheriff walks in. “His brown suit and tie were dull, but his M&M brown eyes were as scrumptious-looking as the candy-coated chocolate morsels.” Seriously. At least Tori wasn’t sleeping. The ridiculousness of the book had her attention. (And I have to point out, scrumptious looking should not have been hyphenated because it’s not used as a compound modifier. If the author had written “his scrumptious-looking eyes,” yes, that would have been correct. So the author is both ridiculous and not quite as smart as he thinks he is.)

But neither of those were what prompted the launch of the volume across our small bedroom. It was two pages later. The hunky sheriff says he’s going to some Halloween party with a woman who appears to be the arch rival of the book’s hero. She and the sheriff are doing some kind of matching Victorian costuming. The following ensues.

“‘Like Lady Audley?’ I quipped,” … (Seriously? “Quipped?” Just say the line and let the reader determine if it’s a quip or just more useless information. But I digress.) … “in reference to a Victorian-era novel called Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. I had read the sensationalistic story in my downtime between clients while working as a hairstylist over in Phoenix. The lurid novel had made an impression on me.” Apparently so, since the next paragraph – 42 words – offers a precis of the plot and why it would be a good comparison to the sheriff’s date.

There really is such a book, I looked it up. It was published in 1862 and it’s impossible to see how this presents any information that will be helpful later when the murder occurs. But I’ll never know, because that’s when I snorted and threw the book across the room. Tori applauded. It was the most entertainment we’d gotten since we’d cracked the damn thing open.

I have to keep in mind that this author is very successful. Lot of titles in several different series. That doesn’t excuse such a – there’s only one word for it – ridiculous book. It’s kind of maddening.

So why haven’t I given the name of the author or the title or anything? Simple. I made a vow a long, long time ago that I would never directly pan a book or attack an author’s work. Life’s too short and karma’s a bitch. I know how hard writing a novel can be, it’s hard bloody work, and I honor the effort that goes into it, even when the result is disappointing, or in this case, ludicrous. And hell, it’s not even the worst book I’ve ever read. That was a pirate novel sent to me by the author to review about a dozen years ago. It featured as nonsensical plot, a main character who was so unpleasant that her best character trait could charitably be called pigheadedness (Pigs? Javelinas?), and significant, almost hilarious historical inaccuracies. And if I never named that one, I’m not going to do that now to this absurd waste of paper and ink.

Just know that it has beignet in the title and it’s set at Halloween in New Mexico. You’re on your own.

One other way you might be able to tell is, if you are looking at the Jefferson Parish Public Library, there might be a slight dent in the spine – where it collided with my dresser.

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!