A Vaudeville for Novelists: Does narrative nonfiction provide a place to start?

Narrative nonfiction, I’ve learned, may be the midlist of our times.  For aspiring novelists, this genre provides the kind of security book marketers long for.   What is narrative nonfiction?  Think “The Right Stuff” or “In Cold Blood” or (for a contemporary example) “The Perfect Storm.”  Peter Rubie’s masterful “The Elements of Narrative Nonfiction,” provides wonderful guidance on this genre.

These book are (mostly) true stories that are told as if they were novels, with the familiar arc of a character’s life being set of balance, a series of challenges, a climax and a resolution.  They are built around real events and the facts that matter, and it is the selection and ordering of the facts that provide the drama.  There may also be quotes (as available or, especially for historical events, constructed) and even thoughts of some characters, where it can be justified.  Respecting the line between being true to the story and just making things up is one of the challenges.  No author wants to be the next notorious fraud.

Readers like narrative nonfiction because they believe that they are getting truth and facts.  It is a good use of their time to see a real, rather than imagined, bit of an unfamiliar aspect of life.  They still crave story, but the boundaries imposed by this genre reduce the risks of time and money.

Publishers and booksellers can more easily predict sales for nonfiction.  The categories are clear and have the kind of a track record that only bestselling authors can give them in fiction.  And the marketing is much easier since the potential buyers are readily identified.  The midlist (perhaps the most important training ground for the next generation of bestselling novelists) has evaporated because common business practices — risk management, quarterly (monthly) planning and accountability — have bent publishing out of shape.  Narrative nonfiction is an adaptation to this new environment.

In a way, this is good for writers, too.  Narrative nonfiction forces authors to research, construct and observe in a disciplined way that can enhance their fiction writing.  This genre provides a market where editors can be more trusting and less apt to meddle with the prose since audiences are more forgiving and there is less pressure to produce a bestseller.

I’ve written both fiction and nonfiction, so this seems like a natural for me.  Give me a topic that is rich enough, and I’m confident that I can create a book that fits in this genre.  My challenge is finding a topic that has a natural hook for audiences and hasn’t been done before.  It would also be good if it didn’t require world travel and lawyers to nail down the facts.  And it is essential that I have the bona fides to convince a publisher that I am the right person to write the book.  (Some topics I’d love to write about await the sudden conferring of advanced degrees or my having a track record that makes editors throw caution to the wind.)

So the hunt is on.  As I work on my extensive projects list (see my last entry), I’m jotting down notes on potential “can’t miss” books in narrative nonfiction.  Some of the more compelling prospects, I’ve found, have already been written by someone else.  Some of them are bait for lawsuits.  A few are starting to speak to me.  Eventually, I’ll try this out.


Writer Seeks Commitment

Six novels, two scripts and seven nonfiction books.  That’s what I have in development right now.  Let me tell you, it is eating every day at a cafeteria.  Too much to choose from and real doubts about nutrition.

The summer was great.  I was able to handle Lucky Numbers (and later Charm Offensive), plus a series of nonfiction projects.  Sit down.  Do a thousand words of fiction.  Open a new file.  Do a thousand words of nonfiction.  No questions about what to do next.  It was a routine I thrived on.

Things are more complicated as I head into the winter.  It isn’t clear which of the projects has the most claim on my time.  And, making things more complicated, I’m not just filling pages.  I’m also rewriting and analyzing.  And responding to critiques that come online, on paper, via email and face-to-face.

After months of knocking my characters off balance, they are desperately competing for my attention.  Their shouting, buttonholing and acting out is so vigorous that it’s hard for me to put things in order.  Is this the writing life?  Or just a symptom of attention deficit?

I’m making the projects stand in line now.  No more than two will claim my efforts on any given day, and I’m putting criteria in place.  Those with deadlines come first.  Usually, this is for contests, and my ordering is around the probability of my getting something out of the contest (such as a good, needed critique or an opportunity to get my prose in front of an editor or agent).  After that, I’m looking at chances to complete work — a proposal, a short story, an article.  Partial works suck up energy.  Completed works (even as drafts) generate energy.

Fun still comes in and one of my criteria.  My rationale is that 1) if I’m not having any fun, the reader isn’t likely to, and 2) if writing becomes a drag most of the time, I might as well find another vocation that pays better.

Have I solved my problem?  Of course not.  But I think that I am entering into a new, more balanced routine for full-time writing.  The next change will come when I start to get some contracts in place — real commitments, not ones I can change at a whim.  That will create a whole new dynamic and force me to once again reevaluate how I put together my days.  I’m looking forward to new adventures.

Odds and ends…  Finally, a bit of recognition.  In one competition, I had a synopsis come in third.  Not exactly the Nobel Prize in Literature, but encouragement is good at this stage.  Next week will be crazy, with results back on six entries in three writing contests.

Special Events — The heart of storytelling

I love verbs and I’m suspicious of nouns.  So it’s not surprising that what really attracts me to any kind of a story is what happens. And what keeps me turning the pages or glued to the screen is anticipation of what happens next.

Sure, I’ll come back to a book or a TV show or a movie because the character or actor interests me.  But, in most cases, I’m interested enough to give them another try because they have paid off in memorable events.  In other words, I trust them because of their actions.  So story building, essentially, depends on generating good events.  Without a doubt, they need to connect in some logical fashion and it would be nice if the characters involved are sympathetic, but if nothing interesting happens, forget about it.

So where to events come from?  What makes a good event?  How many events do you need?  What makes a good collection of events?

In fiction, events come from everywhere — experiences, dreams, imagination.  They may emerge unexpectedly from seat-of-the-pants writing or they may be collected from many sources into lists.  The lists may be random or they may be aggregated around a core idea or feeling.  The core idea of “Peter’s Shell” was turning “The Cask of Amontillado” (imprisonment) up-side down (freedom).  The core feeling of “Waverley” was loneliness.

The first event of “The Cask of Amontillado” is the protagonist tricking Fortunato into coming with him.  Note that the protagonist does something.

Whichever way events are generated, many of them will be weak or useless.  I take a list, either derived from my pages of text or created as a list, and strike out anything that doesn’t interest me.  (The ones that interest me might not interest others, but I have little hope that they will interest others if they don’t engage me.)  Among those that are struck out will be some events that are needed for the story.  Maybe.  It is amazing how many times things that seem to be needed really aren’t.  Writing the story without these events usually works since readers have the ability to fill in what they need.  Some of these events may simply convey some needed facts.  The facts can often find their ways into the story by other means.  In any case, I put question marks next to these events as reminders.

The verbs — good, strong, active verbs — are at the heart of why these events interest me.  (“Trick” is a great verb.)  Can any of these events be made more interesting?  Often, yes.  I go through the list and try and push things to the limit.  In one story, a scene where a character chastised another became one where she demanded he sign a separation agreement.  Finding ways to push to the limits is not hard.  Accepting what comes out is.  It usually “messes up the story,” requiring a lot of rewriting.  It always makes things harder on the characters.  When I am being diligent, I will write the scene in the full-on way before I decide to reject it or go with it, no matter what he consequences.  In most cases, it makes for a better story.

Besides going to the limit, there are other things that can make an event more interesting.  The protagonist in “The Cask of Amontillado” uses reverse psychology at every turn.  His ironic attitude enlivens every event.  Images (such as the tinkling bells of Fortunato’s motley) can also make a scene irresistible.

So now you have a list of events with great verbs that go to the extreme, have attitude and are filled with memorable images.  They need to go into the right order, an order that will make sense, reduce confusion and build.  You may find yourself with too many or two few events, depending on what you are trying to create.  (A good rule of thumb is one event, on average, every three to four pages.  One event may occur in more than one location, especially in a screenplay.  A short story may have fewer event because there may be more narrative set up.  Flash fiction will probably have extremely compressed events, with a high average for the wordcount.)

The best circumstance is too many events.  Looking for further cuts is usually a good idea.  Not much needs to be done in a case where bigger is not a problem (e.g., turning a short story into a novella).  When length is pretty much fixed, as with a screenplay, working backward is one good technique to identify unnecessary events.  The toughest part of having too many events is letting go of those you love but don’t need to tell the story.

I’m more likely to have too few events.   Working backward, asking questions about the characters and getting other folks to read what I have can help me come up with more.  If I’m lucky, the list itself will suggest holes to fill.  If all else fails, simply working on the rewrite, telling the story from start to finish, will get my imagination going.  Each new event, of course, needs to be challenged.  It won’t help to fill gaps or pad the text with dull and mediocre scenes.

There are times when the idea or feeling for the story is too slight.  In these cases, it is best to put the work aside.  Sometime in the future, you may discover that the events really have a different focus, one that is stronger.  Or it may be that the events find their ways into other works over time.  But some events, scenes, sequences and draft books should simply be abandoned.

Almost there now.  The final question is what makes a good collection of events?  Having interesting scenes that all belong to the story and flow together is more than a good start.  But there is a danger that the sum may be less than the parts.  It may not add up to a compelling story.  Here’s where the tools of plotting, looking for motivations and architectures of acts and story design can come in handy.  Everyone from Aristotle to Robert McKee have written about construction of obligatory scenes, the climax, inciting incidents, points of ritual death, pinches, etc., etc.  If all this is a mystery to you and you’re interested, I’m happy to add references, but there is lots of help out there.

Events, however, get you most of the way.  They can provide the go/no go for people with not enough time to write.  (And I don’t know any writers who do have enough time to write.)  The characters we love — in fiction, in history and in our lives — are memorable because of events.  Arthur pulls a sword from a stone.  Hannibal crosses the Alps with elephants.  Your child is born.  We reference people by names, associations (works for, is cousin of) and physical descriptions.  But the most powerful reference is he/she is the one who did an interesting act.  This is at the core of storytelling.

My doings:  I had a book proposal turned down and four contest entries have failed to even final.  Oddly, I’m not discouraged.  Within an hour the editor who turned down the book asked if I would be interested in collaborating with another author.  (I would.)  One contest returned the best feedback I’ve gotten on my fiction.  Clear and actionable.  The other had two apoplectic judges’ sheets from non-pros that trashed the work, but the one from the pro said:

“Great job!  Entertaining read, & a fresh, topical (identity theft, child pornography) spin for the plot.  A computer dude for a hero–fresh!” and “Wonderful style, very readable & very fitting with the sub-genre.  Some wonderful turns of phrase.  I felt fully immersed in the story as I was reading.”  She gave a score of 149 out of a possible 150 points and said to “get this puppy out to agents.”

I’ll be doing that later today.

No sheets yet from the other two entries.  We’ll see.

You Need a Thick Skin to Be a Writer

I bounced into October with high expectations.  The editor had promised to give an answer “soon” on the Lucky Numbers proposal (and the first draft was finished).  I got some sales of short stories.  This blog had started to pick up some followers.  I had a copy of Innovation Passport in my hands, and I was headed for Atlanta to promote it.  And I got into an online script writing workshop, where I could finally get some real feedback on Warriors.

Since then, I’ve gotten a rejection from the editor.  A sold story needed to be cut by 1000 words.  Warriors was chewed up and spat out.  Don’t get me wrong. Good things happened, too, with a few freelance checks.  But the world seemed to be saying — for fiction at least — have fun writing your 10,000 words a week, but don’t expect to sell anything until you learn to plot, edit yourself and write more clearly.

Warriors has been the locus of most of the pain.  Several attempts at explaining white hat hacking and avatars were dismissed soundly by readers.  In fact, I keep fumbling in my online script workshop — everything from coming off as too critical to getting the syntax wrong when I log my postings.  I’m definitely the problem child there.  If I weren’t paid up to December, I’d probably be invited to leave immediately.  (This could happen anyway if I can’t find a way to connect with the alien culture of Hollywood.)

Obviously, the honeymoon is over for my life as a freelancer, but so what?  As Hammett said to Hellman in Julia, “You can quit now.  It’s not like anyone would miss you.”  I won’t quit, but I’m making mid-course corrections.

For instance, while I haven’t lost my faith in seat-of-the-pants writing, I don’t think a good feeling about the work, even after a cooling down period, is enough of a basis for rewriting.  To respond to that insight, I just immersed myself in Robert McKee‘s Story (the book and the workshop), and I am putting in the time making index cards, analyzing scenes and otherwise delighting my left brain.

I have to be careful though.  I spent years doing the index cards and plotting thing and didn’t have the kind of success (or fun) I’m having now.  But it’s time for me to take a chance on adding this discipline back into my process.  Getting the balance right might take some time, but I have confidence I’ll figure this out.  I’ve already used some analysis to rework (for the fourth time) the first pages of Warriors.  They are now posted to my workshop, and I’m hopeful that better structure, along with a curbing of technobabble, will make for a solid start to this piece.  So that’s one lit candle.

As for Lucky Numbers, I’m looking for a second opinion.  And a third.  And a fourth.  And…  Well, before the ax fell, I already had various forms of it entered in eight different contests.  This feels brilliant to me now that my fingers are scorched from the rejection note.  I’ll get feedback in mid-November, and then in the beginning of December.  By then, I should have the perspective to rework the proposal and go after an agent.  So there’s a plan.  (The Charm Offensive is also out in the world of contests, with the first results due on Sunday.)

For my online group, I have a major tactic: Apologize and don’t screw up the same way twice.  It is the Anne of Green Gables approach, and it usually works.  Maybe not with this tough crowd, but who knows?  At the same time, I am hoping the rewrite of Warriors will move me from the “hopeless” category to the “not hopeless” category.  If it doesn’t, I’ll stop submitting it and move away from tech thrillers.  When I submit a romantic comedy I’m working on, I won’t worry about feedback that begins with “Nerd Alert!”

I did manage to cut the 1000 words form the short story, though it was painful.  It may be that the story is better.  I do miss the scenes that are gone, but  — to be truthful — the story still works without those words.  This kind of killing darlings is bloody and painful.  But maybe necessary.

The world is not throwing itself at my feet.  I shouldn’t be surprised.  But rather than running away, I’m sharpening my skills, mending my ways, getting work in front of people, changing my strategy and creating my own reasons for hope.  Watch.  Next week, I’ll have some good news.

Putting Writing to the Test

When I tutored executives on communications, they wanted to know how to talk people into things.  They were always surprised when I gave them practice in listening.  I mean, what does that have to do with communications, anyway?

Most writers know that, ultimately, it isn’t about just putting words on paper and being read.  It’s also about hearing what the readers have to say.  Did they have tears in their eyes?  Did they laugh?  Did it change their lives?  Did they get it?

There are intrinsic problems with this.  Most of a writer’s acquaintances will never actually read what they write (even if it is very short — too many distractions).  Most readers do not ever communicate with authors.  Most responses are along the lines of I liked/didn’t like it.  Even “I like it” responses may be just polite.

So writers join together in groups to read each others work and provide feedback.  This can be somewhat helpful or it can be a disaster.  Under the best of circumstances, fellow writers can provide a encouragement or a sense that something (not always something specific) has gone wrong.  I’ve gotten beaten up on my beginning to Warriors by an online group and a face-to-face group and I think with two complete rewrites I’ve made improvements.  But most of the criticism was diametrically opposed.  If I were younger and fainter of heart, I might have chucked it all.  As it was, I groused, grumbled, cursed the gods and otherwise spread gloom with more effectiveness than a flu patient on a red-eye flight.

On Innovation Passport, I had four readers with specific recommendations and editors with even more.  It wasn’t always pleasant, but it was a certain way to get rid of flabby prose and anything that was not clear.  I’m looking at a request from the editor to cut 1000 words from the 6800 word “Civil Complaint,” but he also has some suggestions for me to follow up on.  I’m hoping for a better story, and I think that has happened along the way with other short stories.  Sending short fiction to magazines in one of the best ways to put your writing to the test, especially if the overall quality of your writing encourages editors to comment.

What about novels?  How in the world do you get a critical mass (so to speak) of feedback on a work of 50-100 thousand words?  If you can find a reader out there who actually knows the genre (thanks, Janet!), will take the time and can be articulate, you are truly blessed.  For two novels I wrote, the only comments I ever got were from my agent of the time and from one reader (who said “I liked it”).  Luck and someone who makes 10% may not be enough to get the feedback needed to avoid foolish mistakes and to become a better writer, but I’ve stumbled upon another possibility — contests.

Consider if you will the wonderful Writing Contests page of Ms. Stephie Smith.  At a glance, you get a sense of what contests are out there and what they require.  Each of these also has links so that you can get into the details of submissions.  It is an elegant and useful page, and I recommend Ms. Smith for canonization.  I’m sure she’ll get the requisite miracles in no time.

The first important point: you will not get rich from the winnings in these contest.  Almost without exception, the prizes are miniscule.  But all of them will get at least a portion of your novel in front of a judge, and, provided you rise to the top, your work will get read by a real agent and/or editor.  These people have piles of manuscripts on their desks, and the contests provide a way to cut the line and show your stuff, so this is no small thing.  And these are people who can actually help you by taking you under their wings or buying the work.  (The sales records for finalists and winners of these contests are posted in many cases and are impressive.)  But even if they don’t, you’ll get their comments back.  More on the benefits below.

The second important point: most of these contest are for romance novels.  For many people, this is an immediate problem since they don’t write romances.  If this is a concern, allow me to point you toward the Golden Heart Award page of the Romance Writers of America.  The honors here are essentially for best first novels, but lets take a look at the categories and how they’ve changed.  When the Golden Heart was established in 1983, the categories were Contemporary, Historical and Young Adult (with some attention to “series” aspects, essentially the length of works).  But look at the genres that have joined the party since then: Inspirational (’85), Suspense (’89), Paranormal (’92), and Strong Romantic Elements (’04).  This year was the first for Suspense/Adventure.  (Don’t ask me how this differs from Suspense.)  My point here is if you write mainstream, science fiction, horror, fantasy, thriller or novels about people being saved, there’s a place for you in “romance.”  Just make sure you have a love story.  (But you had one anyway, didn’t you?)  None of this should be surprising since most fiction novels — of any sort — sold are sold to women.  The romance houses have, to a large extent, just acknowledged that.  Think of them as the Borg of stories.

But what if you’re a guy — like me?  I looked through the hundreds of winners of the Golden Heart, and I found a dozen ambiguous names (Kit, Robin (2), Tracy, Pat, Kim, Bronwyn, Sandy, Angel, Jackie, Laron and Kris) in 27 years.  There was one clearly male name, Vince Brach, and this intrepid man does not appear to have published a book under his own name.  Does this mean that those with a Y chromosome should walk away?  No.  Just as for many years women who wrote SF and other genres where men predominated wrote under pseudonyms, I suspect that there are a lot of men out there writing romances under the cover of female names.  Mr. Brach became, at least for awhile, Fran Vincent, presumably without any surgery or hormone treatments.  However, for the purposes of the discussion here, this is interesting but unimportant.  Virtually all the contests Saint Stephie lists require that the authors be anonymous.  So if you keep a female audience in mind, there shouldn’t be a problem.

Aside from the direct benefits of good readers for your novel (usually just a piece, admittedly) and making a publishing connection, these contests are wonderfully diverse in their requirements, and this leads to some lessons.  Want to enter the Ohio contest?  You better learn how to write a query letter.  (And your letter will become text for all those agent queries you’ll be writing.)  If the Maine competition is interesting to you, there is only one way to win: write a dynamite synopsis.  (Again, agents and editors will demand this.  Here’s a chance to get the piece done.)  Can you grab a reader in 15 pages (Gotcha)? Or 3 (Hudson Valley)?  Want to put your first kiss up (New England) against what others can do or hook folks into a romantic comedy (New York City)?  There’s a contest out there for you.

One last important point: when they say only unpublished writers are eligible, don’t give up.  Romance writers in my experience are a nice bunch.  There are competitive types, of course, but the culture is more nurturing than that of most cadres of writers.  Yes, most of the competitions for unpublished works are “closed” to published writers, but they provide wiggle room.  For many of these contests, you get your virginity back if you have not published in five years (and sometimes three).  And if you just happen to have a contract in hand for a Romantic Suspense, this usually is not an impediment to entering a Young Adult or a Paranormal.  It ‘s like being an Olympics amateur today instead of in 1960.

If nothing else, all these contests provide deadlines.  Lots of deadlines that tell writers, when no one else is marking up their calendars, that the work has to be done by a specific day.  My own deadline is a shrinking bank account, but perhaps contests deadlines will be incentive for some of you.

Keeping Lovers Apart

All the energy of a romance comes from the tension created by keeping the lovers away from each other.  Once they are really, finally committed to each other, the story is over.  Think of all those TV series that A) explicitly ended with the man and woman getting married or B) shot themselves in the foot (unintentionally ending the series) by bringing the lovers together.  (I have grave worries for Big Bang Theory on this account.)

Everyone seems to believe in the happily ever after so much that whatever love has joined together may break apart, but there certainly won’t be anymore romantic moments.  Not true, but how do you fight that?  As I recall Cheers did an interesting turn where the consummated love was in the summer, off screen, and the new season began with everything in tatters.  Which is an interesting way to renew things since it is less and less believable that people will be dancing around love for years.

Luckily, I’m not facing the challenge of a TV series.  But even in novels and movies, some things don’t play the way they used to.  Domineering fathers who stand in the way of love ain’t what they used to be.  The old standby , one lover caught in a loveless marriage, has lost its punch since most marriages end in divorce.  I wanted to understand what the options were, so I did some analysis.

There may be fifty ways to leave your lover, but I found, just off the top of my head, forty ways to keep lovers apart.  This was way too many to absorb, so I sorted them according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  (A need jerk response.  I expect to end my days going to cafeterias and sorting the vegetables according to Maslow.)  This worked well.  Physical reasons why people were separated included distance, time (in various forms such as Lake House), disease (Fifty First Dates) and death (Ghost).  Safety brought in war, addiction, mistaken identity and crime (Some Like It Hot).  Social included all those stories where friends, family (Romeo and Juliet), taboos (like age differences) or culture stand in the way.

Status/Esteem is trickier.  While there is overlap when I look at stories on every level, teasing status out is trickier.  Perhaps the purest play here is when someone is perceived as trying to climb the ladder of success at the other person’s expense.  Dirty Dancing and Working Girl come to mind as possibilities.  It Happened One Night might fit in.  The biggest lesson, looking at these, is the doubt/trust dynamic.  It is present in the other levels, but it seems to be in high relief here.

The last step up the Maslow pyramid is Self-Actualization.  The level is all about becoming all that we should be, and I thing “becoming” is necessarily not set or stable.  In Ghandi, it (as a grace note in the movie) seems to take the hero out of love, where he at last eschews the marriage bed in his search for a more spiritual life.  The reverse might work in a story (such as those torrid tales of women luring priests into their beds), but love bringing someone away from self-actualization feels negative.  Perhaps Casablanca, where Rick becomes who he is supposed to be and creates a deeper, truer bond of love because he has moved up the pyramid is a good example.

Anyway, either I now have a powerful tool for keeping lovers apart or I successfully managed to avoid writing for half a day.

Other doings

I went to Atlanta to do some promo work for Innovation Passport.  The conference was not exactly how I imagined it, but that was a good thing.  I was forced to listen more, meet more people and create opportunities.  I had very good practice in questioning people about their work, and I think this will help me to promote in a less me-centered way than I might have if there had been more opportunities for me to be the center of attention.   I also was able to observe another writer promoting her books.  She has a poster, fliers, a box of books, rounded the price to an even $20 and worked her way over to a good table for selling and signing.  The only bet I saw that she missed was not having her picture on the poster.  I’m sure there were folks who would have bought the book from her if they’d been able to spot her.

I also entered portions of Lucky Numbers and The Charm Offensive in contests.  This is mostly dog work.  Every competition has a different format for text and different entry forms.  All of them want headers and RTF copies (which kill Word headers).  Lots of page-by-page reworking of manuscripts.  Ugh.

Good news. Phase Six is now available on Hypersonic Tales.  It’s a free read.  I also sold Civil Complaint, which will be on the Electric Spec site October 31.  My About page has links for these and other stories.  I’ve now sold all the short stories I had written and circulated prior to digging into Lucky Numbers.  Time to write some more.

Life and Death Titles

Was Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds really inspired by Julian Lennon’s drawing of a classmate?  I don’t know, but I can believe it.  Great titles come out of other people’s mouths all the time.  They may come from bible verses (The Sun Also Rises), a character (David Copperfield), something in the text (Catch 22), a random search or out of thin air.  Getting a great title for your article or story is more important than giving a great name to your baby.  A kid can rise above a forgettable name.  Your writing might not.  For your work, selecting the right title may be a life and death decision.

Folks seem to like my titles, so I thought a few words on how I come up with them might be worthwhile.   (You can see several of my titles on the About Peter Andrews page.)  What makes a great title?

First, a good title arrests attention.  A friend in marketing said that if the initial impression your ad in a magazine doesn’t stop someone from turning the pages, nothing else matters.  The (now defunct) David Higham Prize winners list includes Black Faces, White Faces (controversy), A Shadow of Gulls (poetic), A Scientific Romance (contrast for all but SF aficionados) and Continent (a word that sounds vast, no?).  There are only a few clinkers in the list, and I invite you to scan through it and see which ones intrigue you, startle you or stop you.  Which ones would you consider reading?

Second, a good title is a promise.  It should be evocative and, if possible, emotional.  In the context of SF, my Crossing the Blood Brain Barrier tells readers this one speculates on something that can get into people’s heads (probably something bad).  Zombie Chic better be funny.  Last Contact evokes many stories about first contact with aliens and raises the question of why the relationship ended.

There is a caution.  When you make a promise to readers, you’d better pay it off.  By the end of What Makes Sammy Run? there has to be an answer to the question.  Which brings up another point, the title is a promise about you, the author, as well as the story.  It makes a promise about your wit, your poetry and your credibility.

Third, a title — especially for a book — should be memorable.  How many times have you heard an interview with an author, wanted to buy the book and had no idea what the title was five minutes later?  That’s a problem.  Neil Simon’s approach with his first play was to go with something that was already familiar, Come Blow Your Horn.  There are also rhetorical tricks, such as alliteration (The Great Gatsby) and sets of three (Bell, Book and Candle).  John D. MacDonald used a color in each title (The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper).

You can train yourself to create great titles.  The first step is to collect them.  You can start by writing down those that really hit you from the Modern Library list.  Once you write them down, you might strike out those that you’ve read or that have just become part of the wallpaper of our lives.  I say “might” because you should keep any you have a strong emotional attachment to.  If it hurts to take it off the list, don’t do it.  Once you have your starter list, keep adding to it.  Look at titles in anthologies, bestseller lists, etc.  The point is to sensitize yourself to good titles.   It will help you to pick up on one next Julian Lennon opens his mouth or you’re looking through your prose for poetic phrases that says it all.   Once you feel like you have a knack for recognizing great titles, keep a file of those that have not been used.  You might need them someday.  And don’t hesitate to just sit down and generate lists of titles (good and bad).  Add the best to you files, dump the rest.  Finally, test your titles on friends and families.  Would they read the book or short story?  (By the way, if they have a strong negative reaction, don’t assume that’s bad.  It may be very good.)

Titles become selling tools and calling cards, but they can also become starting points.  When I started writing Zeitgeist Rangers and Ice Parrots of the Himalayas, the titles were all I had.  Sometimes, the title gives you everything you need.

What else is up? Primarily, Innovation Passport seems to be off to a good start.  There’s a discount on the IBM page and the changing rankings tell me that people are buying copies.  Amazon, like summer camp, seems to make sure that everyone gets a trophy.  Going several levels deep into their bestsellers lists, I’ve managed to hold an unlikely position in automation (automation?).

I finally got some kudos on the start to a play.  It’s a romantic comedy, something way outside my usual work, and maybe that helped.  I’m only one scene into it, but it was good not to fall on my face.

Rewriting Is Hell

In the lab, I used to love to tweak a process or to grab a hint from nature and then go crashing through a repeat of the experiment.  While working on ibm.com, it was always fun to take a Web page, move the images around, change the headers and otherwise reinvent it to make it clearer and more attractive.  Why doesn’t this translate into rewriting fiction?

Why don’t I enjoy fleshing out a scene or finding and filling the gaps in the narration?  Why don’t I love to get the red pen out and rework those limp sentences and convoluted thoughts?  Why does editing feel like root canal?  If I can figure this out, I might be able to make big chunks of my day more pleasant or at least less tedious.

Thinking about the lab work, a big difference from rewiting is that all the action takes place in three dimensions.  All the senses are involved.  Rewriting prose, on the other hand, is very linear, start to finish, with a set course.  (As I think about this, there was a big difference with scripts when I used to plot them.  Moving card and Post-Its around and making timelines and maps was fun.  And, perhaps, it resembled lab work for me.)

When I think of my days working on the Web (early 90s), I can identify another difference.  Back then, I couldn’t get it wrong.  There were no standards and the examples were limited.  But when I write a short story, I inevitably am comparing myself to Poe, Harlan Ellison, Eudora Welty and dozens of others who mastered the craft.  Rewriting provides ongoing reminders of how I come up short.  I know I should turn that nasty voice in my head off, and I do a pretty good job of that while writing first drafts, but I’m not sure how you rewrite with the Critic bound and gagged in the corner of your frontal lobe.  The Critic is there for a reason, after all.

What does all this mean?  Well, for me, it provides some ideas on how to make rewriting more fun (and I’m convinced that will make the work itself better).   Less linear?  Maybe shuffle papers or draw some pictures.  I’ve already begun to use titles and subtitles in the rewriting process.  (I love to title things, so this is a spoonful of sugar for me.)  And perhaps I can keep the Critic at bay by breaking things down (creating specific assignments, like “describe the heroine”) or resorting to pencil and paper (when words are not in print, they are harder to compare to those that are).

Anyway, that’s a few ideas to try.  And now I’ve managed to avoid rewriting long enough.

Other doings:

The long awaited (by me) book is available for sale, and I have a copy.  I watched today as Innovation Passport went from number 3,500,000 million on Amazon down to 60,000 and then up to 240,000.  This is hugely distracting, doesn’t sell one extra book and stops the new books from being written.

This week also brought the good news that another short story has been accepted.  “Phase Six” will be in the October issue of Hypersonic Tales.

Writing Backward to Move Forward

I just ripped 17 pages, a whole sub-plot, out of Warriors.  The script is bleeding, but it will heal.

For the first time, I’m below the magic 120 pages that a film script should be, but this wasn’t literary liposuction.  The problem was that, upon rereading what I wrote about two years ago, my teeth started to grind, my eyes darted from left to right and that little spot just under above the nape of my neck started to clench.  I could feel a massive rewrite coming on, provided anything was salvageable.  And I hate rewriting.

What precipitated all this was my signing up for John Plummer’s “The Heart of Writing for Stage and Screen.”  I’ve been banging m head against various plays for the last year and, if no one has noticed, Warriors hasn’t set the world on fire.

Great.  I’ll just force myself away from the material by (paradoxically) jumping into it in a workshop setting.  John even said he would look at material beforehand, so I started pulling together my play, Breaking Momma’s Rules, and why not the script as well?

Maybe because it just isn’t good.  Not that the idea isn’t good.  Not that there aren’t good parts.  I still love Warrior’s climax.  But, overall, what I read was embarrassing, and I didn’t know why.

My bookshelf overflows with texts on writing film scripts.  I started pulling them off.  (Of course, the one I really wanted, I couldn’t find.  Sure.)  I reintroduced myself to some analysis/diagnostic tools.  Then I went to grab some actual scripts to practice on before I did the real work.  Scripts I knew worked, like Chinatown, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Romancing the Stone.  Where I left those was the next mystery.  No luck, but I did find The Body, an early version of Stand by Me.

I got to work teasing out character needs, plot points, dramatic situations, etc. from The Body and Warriors.  Tough, time-consuming and unpleasant work, but it yielded a few glimmers.  Most importantly, the theme of my script turned out to be something different from what I’ve thought it was.  Useful.  But my problem wasn’t solved.

I went back to the books and found Syd Field (a definite plotter, not a seat-of-the-pants writer) saying you don’t know anything unless you know your ending.  While I would never compose a work from the ending back, I just happened to have the ending to Warriors at hand.  What did I have to lose?  All I had to do was write backward, right?

But how, tell me, do you do that?  Mr. Field did not seem to offer any advice, any process.  But logic told me that people know how to do this.  Haven’t I heard from high school on that mystery writers work backward from their endings?

At this point, I did what I always do, I went to Google.  Enter “Writing backward.”  You get thousands of links about dyslexia.  Not helpful.  Luckily, I’m married to the search engine queen.  When I rushed upstairs, tears in my eyes, she had a website for me before I could complete my tale of woe.

And here it is: Writing Backwards: Plot Construction Using Reverse Cause and Effect .  Jeffrey Kitchen, author of Writing a Great Movie, provides a clear, step-by-step process that begins by looking at your last scene and then uses cause and effect to allow you to work backward to the beginning.  Wisely, he recommends that you already have a story in hand, saying “it’s hard to use this process until you’ve roughed out a plot.”  (Perhaps created by the seat of your pants?)  He also points out that writing backward is just one arrow in your quiver.  Not the Holy Grail.

The amazing thing I found was how extraneous material practically glows radioactive.  This is why a whole subplot about creating a new computer game is now gone from my script.  However, there is a problem that I discovered when I tested Kitchen’s method out on The Body.  Subplots tend to look extraneous when they really aren’t.  For The Body, I put all the “unnecessary scenes” into one list.  These, it turns out, can almost be tracked back independently as their own story, with great cause-and-effect logic.  I say “almost” because the subplot only is complete with a few scenes from the plot.  Subplot and plot intersect.  Nice.

In Kitchen’s article, there really isn’t direction on working with subplots or integrating them into the main plot, so I’m having to figure that out on my own.  No script is any good without subplots, but there appear to be special limits (like not having two subplot scenes in a row).

Oh, and I did keep one subplot in Warriors.  Why did it survive while the other is now gone?  Because it supports the theme while the other does not.  But it is not just a matter of alternating plot and subplot.  The two must be woven together in a delicate pattern.  And there must be overlapping scenes.  I’ve got some real work to do.  Rewriting.

What else is up

The Amazon page for Innovation Passport has been updated, and it looks good.  At last there is a description of the book.  Now the onus is on me to get out there and promote (including writing a related blog).

Meanwhile, the Graphic Novel of Zeitgeist Rangers is moving forward.  The timeline is now actually in Steve’s hands and he is doing sketches.  My next step is to get the story going by writing “Engines of Imagination” (which I’ve already begun).

With Lucky Numbers so far along and the calendar pages turning since the proposal was sent out, a brief letter was sent to the editor.  Just a reminder.  I’m hoping that a (positive?) answer will come soon.  If we get a yes, that will mean another blog.  And rewriting.

What Goes into a Short Story?

Short stories are a blast.  A world, a character and an event are created in about 1-5K words.  People read them in one sitting, so they’d better create a strong emotion or at least a lingering mood.

With Ice Parrots of the Himalayas, I sat down with the title and started typing.  Every twist and turn was a surprise for me, but the driving force was the first paragraph that put me into a Rudyard Kipling world of strangers and fools.  (We turned into the pass, and the wind stopped. I caught myself listening. For what? )  I knew things would not end well — for the characters, not for me.  I knew I’d have some fun.

Waverley was different.  I had a snatch of a dream to work with, but the main character really drove it.  He told the story, and I listened.  The strangest thing is that I knew nothing about the town or similar towns, but I was convinced that everything about the setting was true.  I still believe that the time and the place are authentic, and even the reactions of the townspeople to fantastic circumstances feel right to me.  This story was one where I got a visit from the muse and sat down and wrote for many hours straight.  It’s one of my favorites even though it was a hard one to sell.

When I wrote Crossing the Blood Brain Barrier, I was in a toxic mood.  My bad waking dream was transferred to paper with a lot of keyboard pounding and snarling.  The whole experience was fueled by emotion.  The original draft was relentlessly grim, like Night of the Living Dead.  Rewriting made it more accessible and humane, but it still is the creepiest thing I’ve put on paper (at least for me).

A mood, a voice or an emotion can pull the writer through a short story and the reader has little choice but to follow (if the execution is right).  But is it possible to coldly calculate a short story?  Can one be stick built rather than grown?  I think it can, but it isn’t easy.

Peter’s Shell, just published, has rational, left brain origins.  (If you haven’t read it, take a look before continuing with the blog.  I’ll wait.)  I wanted to write an inverted story, and I chose a favorite, Edgar Alan Poe’s Cask of Amontillado, as the basis.  Most stories cannot be inverted.  The plot and the structure need to be almost perfect or it turns to mush.

The best example of an inverted story is “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  The basis of that script is Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.”  Instead of a miser wanting to save his life, we have a generous man wanting to commit suicide.  Another reversal: the main character is poor in money and rich in friends.  Instead of being shown the error of his ways, he’s shown the virtue.  Etc.

Given a strong story, most people could go through the intellectual exercise of turning everything upside down.  Peter’s Shell features lovers, not enemies.  The intent isn’t murder, it is enhanced life.  The characters move toward the clouds, not deeper into the ground.  The journey is not toward disease, but toward health.  Etc.

I had all of that worked out, literally for years, before the story was finished.  If you read the odd numbered sections of the story, you can see the essential inverted version of Poe’s story.  (It even includes a bottle of Amontillado.)  The left brain had created half of the story that exists now, and it made sense.  But it wasn’t a short story.

I picked it up and read it a dozen or more times, convinced that something was there, but lost on how to take it forward.  What Peter’s Shell needed was Wendy’s Shell — the even numbered sections.  While Poe’s narrator could handle a complete story, Peter just couldn’t.

Wendy does not narrate.  I wanted readers to experience her, but not from the inside.  She’s a magical character (reversing the roles of Peter Pan), so the narration is third person.  She builds her spell with bits and pieces, and I did the same.  The child’s voodoo she practices even before she finds the shell comes from what my daughter Carol did at a similar age.  The Funny Buck (added to liven up Peter’s bit) in the lighthouse references a short story that got me into Clarion.  I walked past the sculpture shop in Manhattan on a day I was working on the story, and I grabbed what I saw.  As a kid, I used to drag Pick-Up-Sticks over the ridges of shells and listen to the music.  Etc.

I seeded the story with these experiences, emotions and responses.  I wrote snatches of Wendy’s Shell, and I found bits to play off of in Peter’s Shell.  The picture started to come together, but it wasn’t there yet.  I had to knit Peter’s Shell together with Wendy’s Shell in a way that carried the reader along.  Essentially, I did this by creating (or discovering) the kind of cliffhangers used in novels to end chapters.

When a writer does that, the next step is usually rationalization.  Parts brought together need to make some sort of sense.  Normally, this is done in a cold-blooded fashion, but I took a different route.  I put my characters in charge.  Peter’s voice and Wendy’s intuitive choices finished the sections.  When I went back to see if it made sense and was true to the original vision, I was satisfied.  I also found that the piece as a whole created a mood, a whole body affect, of exhilaration/anticipation that is both familiar and strange.  It is the feeling I have at the beginning of things, when I feel most creative.  And this inverts the feeling of Poe’s story in exactly the way I wanted it to.

Can the left brain create a short story?  The answer is no, but it can start one.  And since a good right brain story usually needs to get shaped up by some left brain logic, there is a nice symmetry here.  It is good to have many ways to get to a short story.  The important thing is to make sure it delivers the experience for the reader.  If they don’t have a blast, what’s the point?