Maybe My Characters Need an Analyst

I’m stuck.  Not with writing.  I’m basically keeping up with what I promised myself when I started writing full time.  Come what may, 10,000 words a week.  But one of my treasured projects, with the first draft completed and a lot of the first part done a number of times, isn’t going where it needs to go.

This is a full-length play called Timing and Balance, and it takes on the experience of being at a post-Columbine high school.  How do you keep things secure and still allow kids to be kids?  I’ve worked through to find answers, but my characters seem to be from a film, not a play.  Getting to that next level in the dialog isn’t easy.  I’ve learned that a lot of my approaches won’t work.  Sort of a Tom Edison version of progress.  Not especially satisfying.  Later this week, I’m going to try to reimagine the play as a radio.  Since I have a lot of action in it, this will force me to focus on what people have to say to each other.  It will be an exercise. (Don’t you love exercise?   No?)  If that doesn’t work, I may need to interview my characters, put them on the couch or even resort to waterboarding.  I’ll losing my patience.

Magic Numbers is now Lucky Numbers.  Part of the story takes place in Las Vegas, so it makes sense.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed that is it a change for the better.  I’m absolutely delighted at what is happening in the collaboration.  Having someone take your ideas and develop them into something that is bigger and more enchanting is a bit like having a house full of elves that do your work while you sleep.

By the way, Sniplits has created a fan page for me.  And I actually got a question – do I prefer writing short stories.  Being me, I responded with about four paragraphs.  I think it took me as many words to answer yes as it took for me to write some stories.

And I made a discovery.  A web site I created as part of a course still exists.  Writing for Publication draws on my many years as a nonfiction writer to provide a guide for those who want to try it themselves.  I did not complete the site, but I may do so now that it has been rediscovered.

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Magic Numbers, collaboration, winging it and rewriting

I’ve spent most of the day working on Magic Numbers.  It is a collaboration with Susan (who introduced a great new character a few days ago).  This novel is interesting in a number of ways.  First, I haven’t done a prose fiction collaboration in decades.  (It’s fun!)  Second, it allows me to revisit characters from the screenplay Warriors (though they are mutated beyond recognition).  Third, it is the first story from an outline that I have done since 9/11.

My whole approach changed at that time.  I wing it, with no attention to markets, being deeply serious or the risk of painting myself into a corner.  I write for the love of writing, and I let the results end up as they are meant to.  This means I constantly surprise myself (or, rather, the characters surprise me).  The whole experience is better for me, and I think it is better for readers as well.

It was not easy for me to choose to write this way.  A lot of what I write doesn’t go anywhere.  Is it wasted?  I don’t think so.  Since the whole experience is enhanced, I think those words are part of the tribute to my muse.  Do I lament the time lost?  In part.  When you steal time to write fiction, you really want it all to count.  Alas, this is not to be for me.  But I do write a lot more than I did before I made this choice.  So finished output is not diminished, and I take some solace in that.

A word about rewriting and winging it.  It’s about the same.  I need to push words around, tease out images, kill my darlings and go back to the drawing board about the same amount no matter what approach I take.  Rewriting is not my favorite part of writing.  I actually like the blank page.  And it doesn’t get easier as I get older and as I write more.  But I think the results of rewriting are improving with time.  I hope they are.  Best lesson: Don’t rewrite immediately.  I get much better results when I let the piece cool down for a month.  I hate waiting, but it seems to be another part of the process.

Getting back to Magic Numbers, will the… er… magic be lost as I work from an outline?  I don’t know yet.  I suspect collaborating will inject a different feeling into it, and that might help.  Also, it feels so far like my winging it writing.  Will the rewriting be different?  That, I think, will be better.  I’m rewriting nonfiction now with a collaborator, and all the stupid stuff I can’t see gets fixed without my lifting a finger.  Rewriting with a collaborator, as long as the collaboration is working, is much less of a drudgery.  I wouldn’t want to do it that way every time, but it feels like a vacation.  We’ll see.

I’ve noticed more than the usual viewings of my blog.  Is the link in the blog for M-Brane SF the source?  Possibly.  I’m in the roster of authors, even though my story, The Charisma Plague, will not appear until June 15 with issue #5.   The editor accepted the story despite the unreliable narrator that disturbed other editors.  (Some wanted me to rewrite it into a conventional story.  Ha!)  Anyway, if you got here that way, welcome.

I’ve been busy… writing

It has been almost 18 months since my last post.  I’ve got the best excuse of all… I’ve been writing.  Today, one of my personal favorites was published — if that is the right word for an audio rendition — on the Sniplits website.   Just search for my name, the over 30 minutes entries or “Single Pickle Day.”  Wonderful reading by Ben Dooley, but it will cost you a buck to listen to it.

Looking through past posts, a number of the pieces I was working on are now in print.  And I got paid for each of them, though not enough to get rich.  I’ll say a bit about them and the markets in general in upcoming posts.

Since I chatted a lot about the drama group in previous posts I should say that I took the plunge a wrote a play, “One Box at a Time.”  It has been performed in two venues, most recently as part of the Strawberry Festival in Manhattan.  I’ve gotten more ambitious since then.  Let’s just say I may be discovering my limitations.

Finally, nonfiction continues to be a good thing.  My book Innovation Passport is getting final edits.  It will be published by IBM Press in September.

I hope this is good news is received as encouragement to other writers, rather than bragging.  Mostly it is the result of persistence.  The story published today?  It was rejected 8 times and took almost 5 years to get there.

Oh, and you won’t have to wait over a year for the next post.  I promise.

Recalled to Life

I feel like I had the great welcoming into the drama group on Monday night.  I’d met a few people in the other sessions, but everybody made a point of introducing themselves to me this time.  I’ve been working very hard at providing useful criticism, and I make a special effort to understand what the writer intends with the work, rather than what I would do with the same material.

It’s all about respect, which can be scarce in drama groups, given the egos involved.  By giving respect, I’m getting it.  I think you learn a lot more from listening than from getting your point across.  And three people actually came to me separately after we broke up to ask me to bring some of my writing in.  (They mean plays, and I don’t have any plays at the moment.  That’s a hard thing to confess.)

Anyway, the six lines topic was one I introduced, “That’s a great question.”  People worked wonderful twists on this (including setting up “To be or not to be” as the great question.  With my own topic, you’d think I’d score big, but I didn’t pull out anything.  I’d done three scripts with very strong situations (death of a politician as explained by the son who is running against him; drunk, naked, newly tattooed kid explaining his situation to his dad; breaking the bad news of where we are to a new arrival to hell).  Unfortunately, none of them were well-written.  And in a night of really enchanting stories, they would have branded me as a loser.

Oh, and I’m recalled to life because, as Anne Shirley would say, “My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes.”  I’ve had more rejections since my last lamentation.  Including two no comment ones from markets that usually give me encouragement.  But today, I pulled myself back together and sent out two and put Waverley into the Baen mix.  (The Charisma Plague is still being chewed on, so version four is not posted yet.)  I’m always better when I rise up, shake my fist and take some steps forward.  Once I got a rejection notice with instructions on how to fold it into an origami swan.  Now those were the days.

Putting work out there is important, but actual writing separates the writers from the wannabees. The work does continue.  In addition to getting big chunks of Charisma done (mostly added scenes I don’t feel I need by the group says I do), I have a complete draft of Whinging.  It does everything that a story needs to do, in my opinion.  Now it needs some rewriting.   Something new?  I’ve got a time travel police piece (say that five times).  It’s on hold at the moment while I get some research from cops.  But I won’t wait very long.  My goal is always to be working on something new and something old.

Best news of the week was from an artist friend.  We talk weekly about writing.  He told me that he has pinned a note up in his workspace, “It’s supposed to be fun!”  It’s a mantra he credits to me, and it’s quite an honor to be quoted by a successful artist.  Take inspiration from wherever you find it.  (And you can quote me on that.)

Reading to Write

How should you read if you want to be a writer? Especially if you want to be a better writer? I got thinking about this as I read How to Read Books You’ll Never Talk About in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s blog open vein, write story. ADJ is crackling and opinionated and always worth your time. Here she gets to the roots of reading, the joy. Yes, we need to slog through some works so that we have a sense of possibilities and so we can (joyfully) expand our intellectual palates. (My wife found a rule: read 100 pages minus your age of any new book before you give yourself permission to quit.)

Anyway, ADJ puts the emphasis where it belongs then provides a telling story of the power of BS. Reading with an academic gun to your head does spoil things and fighting back with creative “allusions,” as she puts it, seems just. I absolutely believe in reading for joy. In fact, since 911, I’ve restructured my own approach to writing to put joy (or fun) at the top. But, if you write, your reading is part of your growth as a writer. So you need to do more that just read for fun.

I had a wise teacher who said The New Yorker solves your problems every week. His point was that writers constantly struggle with making material fresh, with expressing emotion through action, with pacing, with engaging readers, with explaining complex information, with using “just the right word.” Any place you find good writing, you’ll start to see your solutions. That brings up my first two points of guidance:

    • Read attentively all the time: don’t just blow through for the plot. Really read every word. And when you notice the author has achieved something extraordinary, go back and reread. This may make you a much slower reader, but the advantage comes when you write. It is amazing how often I find myself with a problem and am able to go to the exact book on my shelf and pull out a great approach. Even if it won’t be my approach, it gives me confidence that success can be had.
    • Articulate your problems before you sit down to read: since writers are always reading something, you can come across great lessons by chance. But this is only likely to happen if you have made your problem explicit. Right now, I am working on immediacy in my writing. When I experience it, I go back to see how the author made that happen in me.

      Besides having fun and solving problems, reading different works by different authors is important. The fastest way to think (and write) out of the box is to get into someone else’s strange and possibly irritating box with them.

        • Read things you don’t want to read or that weird people tell you to read: if you just read what your friends recommend, you are on the road to groupthink.

          I think it’s also important to read “bad” stuff. If you are part of a writers’ group, you’ll come across plenty of that. Finding ways to critique it will make you aware in a special way of your own failings and your growth. But don’t pick up a red pen until you have read the whole work. Suspend judgment and give the author a chance.

            • Read bad stuff sympathetically.

              This isn’t just fair, it’s useful. I often find that what was “wrong” really has a purpose. And it sometimes provides amazing insights. so what are your “rules”?

              A rejection, a second drama meeting and chewing on a tale

              Always great to open the email and find another rejection for a story.  Today, I found that Waverley, which is a sort of nostalgic/aliens/pied piper tale, didn’t make the cut.  Again.  It is one of my more personal and unusual pieces, so it wasn’t a big surprise.  Reading tea leaves?  It took three times as long for it to be rejected as is typical for the pub.  (Great information supplied by one of my favorite sites, Duotrope’s Digest.)  Of course, maybe the editor just got busy.

              Last night, things went a bit better.  I went to the drama group again.  There are some heavy hitters there, and I saw the first act of another piece by the star of the last session.  It was a death row story from two different viewpoints.  Not my sort of thing, but the dialogue was so good, it was irresistable.  I had my own work read by real actors, which was fun.  This was for the “six lines.”  I had to be humiliated first.  I had got the assignment just the day before: “You don’t know who I am.”  In my rush to complete something, I actually wrote seven lines, so I had to be told I was not going to be allowed to present, etc. etc.  They relented, and there was some appreciation for the twist at the end.  I’ve put the whole thing below.  See what you think.

              Lastly, I’m working on version four of an SF story for Baen’s Universe.  They have an online workshop for newbies.  The good and the bad of any critique group is there, but I am working hard to make my work less “distant.”  This is a real problem with my work.  (Years ago, an editor described my work is third person, over the hill, in the next county.)  I have dug into the discussions in the workshop, and I think I finally, “get it.”  Version 3 had encouraging results.  Version 4, I’m hoping will be closer.  And I’m going to take what I’ve learned and see if it will help Waverley.

              Six Lines

              JO

               Look, Buster.  I hope you’ve gotten an eyeful because it’s time for you to move on.  Take your monobrow, your fat butt and your cheap shoes over to the snack table.  You’ve got a better chance with the clam dip than you’ve got with me.
               

              ED

              Nice.  Nice.  But I’m going to give you a second chance.  I may not look like Tom Cruise, but I am Valentino, reborn.  Five hundred years go, I was Don Juan and I gave pleasure to a thousand women.  Two thousand years ago, I was Marc Antony and Cleopatra died for my embrace.

              JO 

              Well, no one is dying for your embrace now.  They’d prefer to be dead.  You’ve got a less than zero chance with me.  Now go satisfy yourself with a bowl of nachos.

              ED 

              I like you.  I enjoy the thrill of the chase.  It heats things up, you know?  The other women here will just have to wait in line.  I’m all yours tonight.

              JO

              Do you see that rather big man near the door?  He works for me.  Once I saw him pick up a jerk, a jerk much larger than you, with one hand and stuff him into an aquarium.  I’ll call him over here. 

              ED

               Call gorilla over if you must.  I’ll keep trying.  There is a tie between us that transcends time and space.  Our hearts are linked.  Through all of history, we have known each other.  Insults and threats can never keep us apart.  You will be mine.

               
              Jo 

              I didn’t want to say this.  You’ve forced me to tell you the truth.  This will hurt you.  I know that you have been a great lover throughout all of history.  The greatest!  And we have met, the two of us, over and over again.  You always love me.  And I always love you.  You know… a mother always loves her son.

              Dramatic beginnings

              I’ve made my living by writing for decades now.  In the past year or so, I’ve ventured into new territories of fiction.  About two weeks ago, this took a strange turn when I joined a local drama group.

              Drama?  Drama?  I don’t know upstage from downstage.  I’ve never spoken a line in a theater except from a seat in the audience.   But my friend Bob, who recently had a play produced by this gang, invited me to come to one of their twice monthly workshops.

              I almost backed out.  Having been involved in numerous writing groups over the year, including a summer at Clarion, I felt I should bring some of my own work.  It can be hard to take criticism from someone who doesn’t stand up to take a few blows.  As stated, my collected works includes no plays.  I have a completed screenplay, but that seemed like overkill.  Rummaging through stuff that represented my current efforts, I found a curiosity that could work as a monologue.  In fact, more people had heard me read it aloud than had read it.

              I asked Bob what he thought  and he told me you needed to give your manuscript to the group’s guru ahead of time.  So I emailed it.  Almost by return mail, I was told that 1) I needed to go to the back of the line and 2) monologues were not appropriate unless part of a larger work.

              I read this as “sit down and shut up.” Luckily the response came in email, not face-to-face.  My wife said theater culture is different from storywriting culture.  So I took a deep breath, asked that my manuscript be withdrawn and decided to show up and see what happened.

              I’m glad I did because one of the key people there had several portions of his play read, and they were brilliant.  The scenes worked, alternating humor with heatbreaking conflict.  It was better than some evenings I’ve spent on Broadway, and I would have slit my wrists if he hadn’t said he’d been working on it for six years.

              We had several other one acts, including one by Bob that was quite impressive, and a few the did not crush my writer’s ego.  I felt like I was able to offer some effective criticism, too, which is nice at your first time at bat.

              The group also has an exercise of six lines, three by each of a pair of actors.  This was charming and apparently did not require waiting in line.  We also had a monologue, not connected with any larger work.

              On Monday, I go to my second meeting of this group.  I have some lines ready, but I probably won’t pull them out this time.  I’ll have them, though.  Just in case things get dull.