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.

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.

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.

Summer’s Over, Back to Work

Summer is over. It’s time to get back to work.

Sure, for you – for most people in the northern hemisphere – that’s old news. Summer for most people, at least as a state of mind, ends on Labor Day. For me, it’s a different holiday – International Talk Like a Pirate Day, every Sept, 19.

I’m not very productive in the summer. I’m just not. (Obviously, the includes blogging.)  And the two and a half weeks between Labor Day and Talk Like a Pirate Day I’m even busier. As of the two guys who started the holiday and then took the idea way too far, the buildup is a little like I imagine mid-December would be in Santa’s workshop. Not just getting my own schedule together but dealing with our newsletter – The Poopdeck – and the website and interviews, it all gets a little hectic. It’s slowed down some these days, the holiday has taken on a life of its own. It’s reached critical mass and doesn’t need Cap’n Slappy and Ol’ Chumbucket. It’s reached critical mass. Ten years ago we would do more than 80 interviews in a 36 hour period, radio stations all around the world, starting in Australia and New Zealand and following sunrise around the globe. This year we did a handful, and that’s fine. If something happens to me or Mark, the holiday will go on without us.

I’ll talk a little more about this year’s holiday in a later post this week. (No, seriously, this week.) For now, I’m thinking over what I’ve got to get onto.

I’ve got to keep pushing on. I’ve got three projects lined up in a row, that I’d like to have cleaned up and ready to go in the next year. One that’ll be finished in ten days, one to complete by Dec. 1, and then one to have finished by summer.

It’s all a question of being organized, making a schedule and sticking to it. So far, I’ve got the “making a schedule” part. Now for the “sticking to it” part.

Yo Ho Underpants!

DSCN2354
Ol’ Chumbucket works the young crowd – and the young crowd’s parents – at Red Canoe Bookstore.

I entered Baltimore’s Red Canoe Bookstore and Cafe in full buccaneer gear last Friday. A three-year-old looked at me and said one of the things no pirate wants to hear.

“Are you Santa?”

Well, sure, I was wearing my scarlet shirt and my big boots, and my hair and whiskers have gotten a tad – what’s the word I want to describe the color of my hair? Ultrablonde! – that’s it, my hair is ultrablonde. And yes, my waist these days is, shall we say, more than ample – but I’m working on it! But still, didn’t want to hear that.

I growled at him. “Does Santa carry a pirate sword? Does Santa wear a pirate hat? I’m a pirate!”

He laughed and said, “Yo ho underpants!”

Because of course, to a three-year-old boy, underpants is far and away THE funniest word in the language. And that was an important reminder for me, because he was hardly the last kid his age I would see that day.

I had booked the appearance about two months earlier. Red Canoe is a really nice neighborhood institution. I really loved the place, the ambience, the neighborhood, everything about it. It was great. But in retrospect I have to say it probably wasn’t the right venue for me. I knew the store was oriented towards kids books, but I thought a reading of “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter” would not be inappropriate. Thankfully I had made alternative plans. Because as discussions went back and forth by the owner and myself, I realized this would be a kids gathering, not a teen or young adult. And even then, the audience was a lot younger than I had expected. And fortunately, I had alternate material.

First and foremost, I was going to have to switch books. “Chrissie” is a great book and something that kids as young as 11 or so can really enjoy, and kids as young as 8 would enjoy hearing a short scene read aloud. But it’s way beyond a three year old. Cap’n Slappy and I had put together a whimsical ABC book called “A Li’l’ Pirate’s ABSeas.” We have always proudly said it’s not the book for perfect parents to buy for their perfect children. It’s a book the perfect children should get from their drunken bastard uncles so the kids won’t grow up to be insufferable little prigs. And even better, in our book, “U” is for “Underwear.” So that was obvious.

And I have a stock of material that is adaptable, so I felt pretty confident.

But kids that age have the attention spans of fruit flies. Ever try to keep a three-year-old focused for five minutes? I had a deck full of kids, the oldest of whom was probably four and the average age younger than three. And I worked them for more than an hour, by keeping these simple rules in mind:

The first of course, is “underpants.” I was a pirate so I didn’t feel the need to be perfect and polite. In a pinch, I could always get a laugh just by shouting “Yo Ho Underpants!”

Keep things moving and mix it up. I started with a song. Shifted to a bit of pirate schtick. Another song. A bit of reading from “ABSeas.” Another bit of schtick. A little sleight of hand. Another song.

There’s no way to keep that many kids focused for that long – But I could always play to their parents. Each was accompanied by at least a mother or father, some by both. I could and did play to them, and they in turn made sure their kids got the joke.

And I kept in mind why I was there. To sell books. So we spent more time on reading “ABSeas” than any other single thing. And I saved the best for last.

As I was winding up after an hour and 15 minutes, I gathered all the kids and told them I was going to teach them the single most important pirate phrase, a phrase they had to learn by heart and repeat over and over. That phrase was:

“Mommy, I want the pirate book. Buy me the pirate book mommy!”

They repeated it several times under my coaching. And we sold some books.

Another thing that paid off was that in the weeks preceding the event I had posted several reminders of my schedule on social media, and invited pirates and fans from the area to show up. I really wanted to meet them, because that’s always fun. And a couple did show up, and it was a joy meeting them and talking about how they celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day and incorporate pirattitude in their lives. And god bless ’em! They, too, bought some books, including several copies of “Chrissie.”

And then we were on the road to the next stop.

Discovering the Bookends that Help My Story Succeed

This may seem an odd thing to say, but I recently discovered that my novel, “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter,” is a better book than I thought it was – and I thought it was pretty damn good.

Last month when we were at the Jambalaya Writers Conference, one of the presenters mentioned a book that he had found very useful in plotting. It’s “Save the Cat,” by Blake Snyder. It’s about writing screenplays, not novels, but there’s an awful lot of good advice about story and how to make it work that can be applied to novels.

“Save the Cat” is a rather calculated view, one might even say cynical. It’s not about just writing a movie, or even a “great movie,” whatever that is. It’s about how to write a successful movie, successful by Hollywood standards.

But there’s a lot of craft that goes into making a successful movie, and what’s wrong with commercial success? There’s a lot to be said for a movie that people want to see. You, as a writer, have a story to tell. Don’t you want to tell it to as many people as you can?

You may rebel at the notion of there being rules. You, after all, are an artist. Rules don’t apply to artists. Snyder acknowledges this and says you can write any kind of story you want, any way you want. But if you want it to have success in the marketplace, you have to recognize there are things that work and things that don’t.

At the very least, you ought to have an idea what the rules are, so you can enjoy breaking them all the more. But if you don’t understand why they work, you aren’t doing yourself any favor.

Anyway, that’s the gist of “Save the Cat,” (Save the Cat, by the way, is one of his rules for screenplay writing and it’s a good one. But it’s not what I’m writing about here. Buy the book.) A lot of what he has to say about screen writing applies equally to writing novels. It’s all about finding the most effective way to tell a story.

In talking about structure, Snyder says the opening scene and image are the first taste the audience (or reader) gets in discovering the world you’ve created. It’s usually a glimpse of that world before the chaos of the story knocks it all apart. And the ending scene, after the story has been resolved, shows a glimpse of the new world going forward, how the character and the world have been changed by the action that has taken place. (And if there is no change, there is no story. That’s maybe the most important thing to remember as a writer, whatever your medium.) So the opening and closing scene are sort of a question and answer, telling the reader in shorthand what the story is about.

“They are bookends,” Snyder says. “Because a good screenplay is about change, these two scenes are a way to make clear how that change takes place in your movie. The opening and final images should be opposites, a plus and a minus, showing change so dramatic it documents the emotional upheaval that the movie represents.”

And if you have read “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter” (and if you haven’t, why not?) you may recall that I have those bookends, although I never thought about it that way at the time or did it on purpose. Both the opening and closing scenes take place at a table. In the first scene Chrissie is with her family in Hampton, Va., celebrating her 13th birthday. “She’s become a woman!” her father exults. The final scene takes place at a table in Roadtown, Tortola. Chrissie is surrounded by the family she’s created at sea. And when she says she needs to get into a pair of honest trousers because the dress she’s forced to wear is driving her crazy, Charlie slaps her on the back and says … Well, he says what he says. Don’t want any more spoilers than that. When I wrote it, I thought it was a good line. I didn’t realize at the time it wasn’t just a good line. It was a summing up of what story is about.

Now, I had never heard of the notion of the bookend scenes. Wasn’t aware that’s what I had done. But I sure did. The opening and closing scenes are perfect bookends, the closing scene echoes the opening scene in a way I had never even thought about, they are mirror images, neatly encapsulating the the change Chrissie has undergone through her voyage.

It’s not anything readers will notice, hell, I didn’t and I wrote the darn thing. Maybe one in ten thousand would get it, and that one’s probably a college English major. (And oh, please, may I have ten thousand readers. Please.) But it really makes the story work, it’s the cap that makes you sit back with a sigh of contentment, even if you aren’t really aware of the technical thing that brought about that feeling of completeness. In retrospect, I can’t think of any other way the story could have ended that would have worked as well.

Something to think about. NOT, I would add, to obsess about. Trying to force a story into a formula isn’t going to feel right. But at the very least, when you’re writing you should keep in mind “what is this story about?” and focus on taking the reader along on your main character’s journey. A journey has a beginning and an end, and those opening and closing scenes are your chance to make that journey complete and memorable.

(One amusing note. “Save the Cat” was published in 2005, and the subtitle is, “The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need.” Since then there have been two sequels … which you apparently don’t need. Still it’s a good book, and if you’re looking for something to help with a writing problem, especially if you’re trying your hand at screenwriting, I’d recommend it.)

Playing the Angles

Serendipity today. I thought I was done with the subject of flogging – I mean – promoting your book, when this came in the mail.

The Writer magazine has a monthly feature, “Where in the World is The Writer?” It’s just a little thing in the front of the book where people send pix of them reading the magazine in various locales – along the Nile, on a ski slope, top of the Empire State Building, that kind of thing.

At the start of the summer we were in Florida for vacation and we brought a copy of the magazine with us. Tori got a picture of me and Max (on the left) perusing the magazine with some of the local freebooters at the Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival.

The October issue came out today, and there it was in all its glory!

How could they resist? You just can’t resist pirates, am I right?

This is called: Playing All the Angles. You might not looking putting yourself forward, but you’ve gotta take every chance you can to get attention to your work. Of course, it helps if you’re a pirate!