Tag Archives: rewriting

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.

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.

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?