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.

End of the Week Odds and Ends

Jambalaya Writers Conference

I’ve been asked to take part as a presenter in the Jambalaya Writer’s Conference in Houma April 2. I’m pretty excited about it. I have no idea why they asked me, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

I’ve been asked to present on marketing. I know a bit about that, although not knowing about a topic has never slowed me down before. And I will educate myself all the more in the next month. It’s not a paying gig. They’ve got a hotel room for me and my wife, Tori for the Friday night, and she gets to attend for free. Mostly it’s a chance to get myself out there, and to sell some books.

Good Will

Filled a chink in my cultural armor recently. Finally saw “Good Will Hunting.” I know, the movie is almost 20 years old and it’s not like it was a big secret. But somehow I just missed it, then never got around to catching up.

What a terrific movie. I really loved it. The story, the performances, everything. It’s not just a good story. The story about it is a good story. Two young guys trying to make it in Hollywood and not getting very far, so they wrote their own movie and somehow got it made. And it was so good they ended up winning the screenplay Oscar.

It’s a movie that makes you feel like, whatever you’re doing, you can do better. And you should. It was inspiring.

(It was also the first Minnie Driver movie I’ve ever seen. Seriously. Seen her on a couple of TV things, but never seen a movie with her. Isn’t that odd? But now I have.)

Not A Sociopath, Please

On the Killzone blog, they have a regular feature where people submit the first page of their work in progress and get it critiqued, first by one of the bloggers, then by readers in the comment section. It’s always kind of interesting, but this week’s critique had a kind of horrifying fascination. Unlike most of the submittals, this one was really bad. My rule in making any comments is to find something positive to say before I suggest any areas for improvement. It was impossible with this one.

You can take a look at it here and see if you agree with me.

It suggests a rule for writing: You should make your main character someone who, if not necessarily likable, is someone the reader at least will be willing to share a couple of hundred pages with. Failing that, at least make the character believable. A character, purportedly some kind of private detective, who slaps her client in the third paragraph for “back talk” and threatens to punch his teeth out when he refers to her as “Ms.” isn’t quirky. She’s a sociopath.

Progress and A Thought

I like where my WIP is going, but I recognize there may be a problem, the kind of problem that would get ripped up in first-page critique. No, the main character isn’t a sociopath. I save the sociopath for third chapter.

No, it’s a style thing. I know why it “breaks the rules” but I also know why I want to tell the story that way.

Anyway, what I’m thinking of doing eventually is posting the first couple of pages here and getting feedback. Not right away. Not until I’m sure that the beginning of the story is solid. Then it’s always interesting to get some insight, to find out if a reader thinks the same thing that you thought when you’re writing.

I used to belong to a critique group at the local library. But they’re schedule changed, then my work schedule changed, and it became impossible for me. Too bad, I really enjoyed it.

That’ll do for now.

I Can Hardly Wait

You know what I’m looking forward to? Writing!

The past three weeks have been taken up with editing, and editing, and editing ad infinitum. Then the last three or four days now I’ve been struggling with various services to get the book up as an ebook and a trade paperback and to set up a place to take orders for the limited edition hardcover (in time for Christmas! Makes a great gift!) Ought to be finished sometime today.

Then I’m going to take one day off. And then I’m going to start writing. Because that’s how I got started with all this in the first place, and it’s the one thing I haven’t been able to do.

And I’ve got a full plate. I have a deadline in two weeks for the serial I’m writing for Mutiny Magazine, and I have a project I want to start. I want it to go from an idea in my head to Work in Progress, but haven’t had time in months to even take notes. And there’s talk about a sequel for the book I just released. And of course the will be plenty of work to do marketing (or hyping, flogging, selling – you pick the verb) the book that’s out there.

So I could stand to get my fingers flying. But no, as soon as I finish this I have to get back on CreateSpace to make sure everything is working properly.

Oh well, with luck, by Thursday.

Well, THAT’S Encouraging!

Received the first “blurb” for “Chrissie,” and when you read it, you’ll understand why tears came to my eyes. They really did.

“If you like pirate yarns, adventure tales, wry humor, or just books, chart a swift course for Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter. Talk Like a Pirate Day founder and renowned pirate scribe John Baur’s first stab at young-adult fiction features top-notch characterization, breathtaking battle scenes, and as much plot as your favorite Rafael Sabatini and Hunger Games novels—combined. What’s more, Baur layers in maritime verisimilitude as well as anyone since Patrick O’Brian. You will taste the salt air. You will feel the four-pound cannonballs whistling past. You will not be able to wait to set sail with Chrissie Warren and her crew again.”

– Keith Thomson, NY Times bestselling author of Once a Spy and Pirates of Pensacola

Thomson’s book, “Pirates of Pensacola,” is one of my three or four all-time favorite pirate stories, so this meant a lot coming from him. You can read more about his at his site, http://keiththomsonbooks.com/

I’ve got nothing else to say, after that. Damn near took my breath away. Now, back to work.

When is a Book Like an Elephant?

You have heard the old joke, I’m sure, about the sculptor who was explaining how easy it is to make a statue of an elephant. “Just take a block of marble and chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.”

That’s what I just did with “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter,” and boy, that is one pretty pachyderm!

As I said earlier this week, I had been looking at my manuscript with such a close-in view that I was losing sight of the big picture. When I stepped back, I realized I had some problems with the flow of the story. There were places – sometimes a few sentences or paragraphs, in one place a whole chapter, that didn’t advance the story. They were fine, interesting, had some nice bits. But “fine” is the enemy of “great.” They were nice pieces of marble, but they weren’t really part of the elephant I was trying to sculpt.

So Tori and I spent three days making one last pass, going over the manuscript with a sledge hammer rather than a scalpel. I’m very happy with the results.

Two whole chapters came out, chapters that didn’t advance the story at all. A total of 5,000 words. Almost 7 percent of the book. What’s left is leaner, tighter, and much more satisfying. The story – the STORY – comes through better.

At one point Tori complimented me on being so open to suggestions and questions, even at this late date. She was a little surprised I wasn’t arguing over a word here or a whole scene there. I told her, “It’s not about me. It’s about the story.”

I’d rather readers get excited by and remember the characters and what they do, and completely forget me. I don’t want people to read it and think, “Wow! That John Baur sure writes a nice sentence and interesting scenes.” Hell no! Ideally, the author should completely disappear. I want them to put it down, maybe sigh, then say, “Great story! Wish it just went on and on! I want to spend more time with Chrissie!”

Say that again – It’s not about me. It’s about the story.

Note: The ebook will be available online this weekend, the trade paperback early next week. And I’ll begin taking orders for the one-time only hardcover soon after.

Thanks Mr. Speltz! – or – Paralysis by Analysis

For the last three weeks we’ve been going through the manuscript of “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter” with a metaphorical magnifying glass and a scalpel. Every comma, every period elicited a short debate. It was honed as finely as my wife Tori and I could make it. It was ready.

And then we took one more pass through it. Very, very little left in the nit-picking department. But suddenly we were taking a wider view.

“Chapter 15. What is that about? How does it advance the story? Why is it there?” And suddenly I saw it not as a nice transition from one scene to another, but an anchor, dragging the whole thing down, slowing the pace. Sure there were a few good bits in there. But did I need them? Or was I showing off?

Same with half of chapter 26, and all of chapters 30 and 31. There were some good bits in there, but I can save them or toss them, incorporate them elsewhere or delete them forever, and the story will be better.

I set aside the scalpel. Tomorrow I’m taking one more pass at the book, with a sledge hammer.

I was reminded of when I took geometry in high school. The teacher was Mr. Speltz (David Speltz, who became the star of my first creative endeavor, and my first exploration of anarchy, a comic strip I called “Super Speltz!” But that’s a different story.) He was talking about a line AB, with A as the beginning point on the line and B the final. If you want to travel between points A and B, you have to cross a point halfway between them, call it point C. And to get to point C, you have to cross a point halfway between it and A, call it D. And so on into infinity. Because points are not real, and take up no space, there’s always an infinite number of points between you and your goal. Which suggests to the mathematically challenged, such as myself, that it’s impossible to travel at all, because to get anywhere you have to cross an infinite number of points, each of which is separated by another infinite number of points. Paralysis by analysis.

And that’s what I was trying to do – show everything that happened between Point A, when Chrissie’s father walks aboard the ship and sails away, and Point B, when she’s standing on the cliff over the ocean, battling for her life against the pirate captain. And of course I can’t do that. It’s not just what you put into the story – it’s what you leave out. Or, as I said when I read chapter 15 – Who cares??!?

So some vaguely interesting scenes of shipboard life, or way-too-detailed descriptions of how Chrissie sneaks into the pirate camp, are going by the board. The book will be a little shorter than I’d thought, a little tighter, and much, much better.

I don’t regret having written them. But I am sure I’d have regretted much more leaving them in.

Picking the Last Nits

When I say we’ve been poring over every word of “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter,” over and over, I really mean it. This photo shows the detritus from the latest, and final, round.

Fortunately, what we’re seeing in this last go-round is minor, a missing space here or there. Tiny stuff. And we laughed every time something was found. “Got another one!” my wife, Tori, will say. I’ll pretend to groan, although really I’m relieved as I go in and root it out. One less thing to annoy a reader.

Writers, especially writers who are about to self-publish, are encouraged to hire editors. Sometimes it’s just for copy editing, or line editing as it’s called in the publishing world, sometimes it’s someone to take a look at the story and plotting and make suggested revisions. Those can be very helpful. Hiring an editor is a very good idea.

Here’s why I didn’t.

First, I’m an editor. I’ve made my living as a news writer and editor all my adult life. News editing and the kind of editing a novel needs are different. My novel is NOT written in AP Style, which has been my Bible for more than 30 years. But I know my way around a sentence and can pick the flaws out of bad grammar better than most people I know. Those of my acquaintance who are better at it are almost all newspaper copy editors.

Second, I also married one. Tori isn’t a professional editor. She’s a middle school English teacher, so she knows her stuff. She was an English major in college, and those two things combined give her both a deadly eye for spelling and grammatical errors and a keen nose for sniffing out problems with plot and story. (Plot and story are not the same thing, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Look, there’s only so much money. I’m spending quite a bit of money on the cover. I paid for the editing by taking my wife out to dinner lasat night. It was a very good deal, and a very good meal. (Drago’s Seafood in Metairie. Char grilled oysters. Mmmmm.)

Still, I am not denigrating the value of a good editor. When my friend Mark Summers and I had our book, “Pirattitude,” published by New American Library, our draft was turned over to an in-house editor, Cherilyn Johnson. The poor woman was really good at her job, and didn’t know what to make of us. She sent sent us reams of questions and suggested corrections, stuff that had never even occurred to us. After all, we made up a bunch of the “facts” and words, starting with the title, so line edits and fact checking seemed sort of superfluous. For instance, she really wanted us to come up with a consistent, standardized spelling for “Aarrr!” But the whole nature of the word, which can mean almost anything depending on how you say it, fights the concept of standardization. It’s not so much a word as a sound indicating a state of mind. So she had to give in on that one, but we put in a note at the end of the book absolving her from all blame.

With “Chrissie” I’ve also had the help of Eddie the Agent, who picked it apart twice, calling for rewrites and closer editing before he finally started pitching it to publishers. It also went through someone at his agency, who offered some trenchant observations that I adopted.

Whether you use a critique group, hire an editor, or marry one (I recommend it!) having multiple sets of eyes on your final draft is important. There’s not much that ruins a book more than a host of typos and grammatical errors. Readers have to trust you. If they get a few chapters in and start thinking, “My eight-year-old writes better than this!” you’re in trouble.

The Never-Ending Battle

Tori is making a last pass over the manuscripts and found more words that I can’t use in “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.” One of them I should have known better. In fact I DID know better, just didn’t think about it. Can’t call Davy Leech’s eyes mesmerizing. First used in 1829, the word refers to the German hypnotist Franz Mesmer, 1734-1815. So that’s out. So is hypnotic, which existed as a word in the 17th century but only in the sense of “sleep-inducing,” which is sort of the opposite of what I mean.

And I can’t let Jack Farmer call himself “a real spellbinder” in 1718 if the word didn’t exist until 1808. So I figured I’d just switch it to raconteur, a great word – which unfortunately was first recorded in 1828.

And I can’t replace it with the obvious “yarn spinner,” because the first use of “spin a yarn” to mean “tell a story” wasn’t recorded until 1812. Yes, in a nautical setting, but almost a hundred years after my story.

Why do I care so much? After all, most readers won’t recognize I’ve used  a word that didn’t exist yet, probably 98 percent of the readers. (Well, mesmerize would probably ring a lot of bells, but other than that I could probably get away with them.) I suppose it’s because I’d know, and it would annoy me if no one else. Keeping the language period is important. You’re trying to tell a story in a real, believable, recognizable world, and language is one of your most important tools. If it causes one reader in a thousand to stop and say, “Wait, ‘okay’ didn’t exist until the 1820s, this guy is an idiot,” that’d be one too many. It’s like the very popular mystery I read last year that had a character shot down in his Spitfire over Berlin in 1940. The author should have known the Spitfire was a short range fighter that never flew over Berlin. If she didn’t, what else didn’t she know? There were a couple of other even more egregious things (Duke Ellington’s “In the Mood? Come on!) that I have never been tempted to pick up another book by that author.

I love “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter,” and can’t wait for readers to get hold of it. But I’m really looking forward to getting to work on my next project, which will be set in the present. That’ll be one problem off my back. I’ll be able to use any damn word I know!

A Voice from the Past

I was looking through the folder on my desktop that holds my MS for “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter” and, as luck would have it, I came across a file from 2011 called “notes on Chrissie Warren final draft.” These were notes my agent – Eddie the Agent – sent me after he read what I then naively thought was the final draft of the book.

It was, by my estimate, about the fourth draft and it had already changed quite a bit. What was so interesting to me was to see how much it has changed since then.

Most of his notes were about tightening it up. Places where I could trim a sentence. Places where half a paragraph could be trimmed with no ill effect. Or where an explanation of some obvious point could be disposed of.

And places where the story meandered off in a direction that just didn’t need to happen. Some action or thing that didn’t advance the story. For instance (spoiler alert!) when Chrissie’s ship arrives in Nevis, in the original version it took about three days before she and her friends left the ship. In the version that will go on sale soon, the ship arrives in port in the morning and they’re gone that night. I liked some of the stuff that used to be there, there were a couple of fun new characters introduced and a nice picture of shipboard life. But it dawdled – there’s no other words for it. The action didn’t go anywhere, the characters, while colorful, had nothing to do with the story. It dawdled.

In the rewrites that followed – and I do remember bleeding over this for the better part of a week – I telescoped it from three days in five chapters to one day and one chapter. And “telescoped” is a polite word. I beat it, hacked at it, agonized over every word. The version I’m about to introduce to the world is almost 8,000 words shorter than the version Eddie the Agent commented on, about 10 percent.

I knew that’s what I had to do to keep the pace up.

Pace. The whole thing can’t go at breakneck speed (that’s one of my biggest problems with “The Da Vinci Code.” It would just be impossible to do all they did in such a little amount of time. Don’t they ever sleep? Go to the bathroom?) But you need to be aware of the pace. It has to build, then relax slightly, build more … Each jump in the pace raising the stakes a little more, like each wave reaching a little higher up the beach as the tide comes in. And then, once you really get going, it just becomes relentless.

The original version of “Chrissie,” the very first bits of the first draft (which as near as I can tell no longer exist anywhere) was very, very different. The family was different. The situation different. And most importantly, it took forever for her to decide to go to sea, which is the turning point and needs to come in the first quarter of the story. There were some really nice scene in there. One scene – long gone – involved Chrissie walking to one of the big houses in Hampton, looking for a position on the kitchen staff. On the one hand, it really illustrated the conundrum she faced and the choice she had to make. I thought it was a well-written scene. On the other hand, it was too damn long and too much of a detour to the story. Who cares about the condition of scullery maids in 18th century Virginia? Just get to the damn pirates!

Serve the story. That’s the only rule. Serve the story. Or, as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch said, whenever you feel compelled to commit a particularly fine bit of writing, whenever you find yourself oohing and aahing over your prose, go ahead and give in to it. Write it, get it out of your system. Then, delete it. That’s what the rewrites are for. Or in Sir Arthur’s words, “Murder your darlings.” The best prose is something you don’t really notice. Good prose doesn’t exist for its own merits. That’s called showing off. It exists to move the story from your brain as directly as possible into the reader’s. The story is the only thing that matters. You, as the author, matter not at all.

It was kind of fun looking back over that old version of the story, but I don’t regret the changes I’ve made. It’s better now. A better story. I think readers will like it a lot.