Saturday, January 14, 2012
Why I Outline: A (Short) Case Study
Scott D. Parker
Thirty-six days ago, I made a commitment: write some amount of prose everyday. And, to date, I have a 36-day writing streak. Some days, I crested one thousand words, others, a mere paragraph or two. I wanted to create the habit of writing, to create that yearning to know that, even if it's 11pm at night, I still have one additional item on the to-do list. So far, that impetus has succeeded.
I also wanted to test out something: could I write a short story (or novella as the word count is expanding) with only knowing how the story starts and, more or less, how it ends. Many writers write their tales this way and I wanted to give it a go in a smaller, contained piece. While the story does feature my railroad detective, Calvin Carter, I am consciously trying something different: a more traditional style of story. Less of a shoot'em up and more of a brain thing. Who knows how it'll turn out. Maybe I'll go all pulp in the rewrite and strip out all the boring parts.
During the writing, I've struggled with how the story should play out. In the first week, I even changed narrators and that was an interesting experience. It was the only day in which I went "backwards"--that is, did some rewriting--but I have not done any since. Forward, march, as they say. More than once, I wanted to stop the writing and plan out the rest of the story. For this story, I resisted. I wanted to see how it played out.
The time to write has varied. The week between Christmas and New Year's was great. I was on vacation and each morning I'd get up at my usual work time (6:00 am), grab the coffee, and start typing. Once the usual workdays started up again, that went out the window as did the nice large chunks of word counts. I also miss my morning writing times, being forced, by all that the day requires of me, to start writing around 10:00 pm.
And here's where I get to my issue with outlining versus "just seeing where it goes." I start getting tired around that time even though I usually stay up until midnight. My day job blew up this week and has required me to work into the night, including participating in conference calls. The last thing I want to do is write a few lines or pages. I have, and it is in these times I've struggled the most.
You see, when I outline and map out the story, I put all the information on notecards. When it's time to write, pick up the next notecard and just write that scene. Easy as pie. Now, on some nights, while I don't experience writer's block--I know generally what's coming next--the flow isn't there. While I know what to write, I don't always know what to write. Yes, that does make sense. Additionally, with the structure in place, when life throws you for a loop, you can hang your writing self on the structure and use it to get your writing habit back in order.
I'll finish this story in the manner in which I started it: just seeing where the story leads me. Or: since I have this idea for an ending, I'll see if I get there or not. But I'm pretty confident that once I type "the end" on this story, I may go back to the structure that I know.
Do y'all ever try to write something in a way definitely different that your usual method? Have y'all had success?
Friday, January 13, 2012
I wanted to be an actor.
That’s the long and short of it. I wanted to be an actor. Not for the fame and the glory, but for the ability to become someone else, even if only for a short amount of time. This had nothing to do with being unhappy in who I was, but there was something about becoming someone else, of reacting to the world in a way that was atypical to the norm that I found exciting.
I only had one problem:
I didn’t like actors.
Okay, that’s not fair. What I didn’t like were people who wanted to be Actors (with a capital A). You know, they wanted the luvvie lifestyle or to pretend that they in and of themselves were interesting. I didn’t want to be in the limelight. I wanted whoever I was supposed to be to be in the limelight.
Not that I was method, or anything. No, I was something else. I quickly found that dialogue was what made acting interesting to me. The right script could sing off the page and it was like you barely had to do anything at all to understand it. You just let the script use your body in the same way a musician might use a guitar. The dialogue and the action allowed you to perform. You didn’t need to question why a character might do something. If the script was in tune, you just goddamn knew why.
Maybe that’s the other reason I never became an actor. I placed too much faith in the writer. I didn’t allow my ego to overcome the script; I wanted the script to overcome my ego.
I suppose becoming a writer was a natural extension of all this. In the back of my head, I had this idea that I could act and write. That I would become one of those people who has a finger in every pie. But the writing won out in the end because I had more control, or at least it seemed that way to me. I was not bound by a bad script or forced to read between the lines to understand a character. If I didn’t understand a character, then that was my fault and not some other guy’s (or some other gal’s). There was also the fact that as much as people seemed to appreciate my acting ability, my skill with the written word came easier and more obviously. I was at home with words. I could manipulate them easier than I could my own expression or tone.
I got the same kick out of it, too. When I’m writing, I become the characters I’m writing about. I see the world through their eyes. I gain a new perspective on things. Sometimes that perspective unnerves me. Sometimes it says as much about me as it does about the character. Sometimes it makes me rethink my own ideas about life.
Whatever, it’s the getting inside someone’s head that provides me with the thrill of writing. It’s getting to be someone else, even if only for a little while. That’s what I became addicted to.
That’s what makes me keep hammering out fiction, telling stories about people who I could
never be, or even who I would never want to be.
Would I ever want to try acting again? Sure, I think I would. I don’t know that I’d be anywhere as good as I am at writing. It’s one thing to communicate character through words, another to do it physically. You can be good at one and not necessarily the other. But I do think the disciplines can attract the same types of people. Certainly, I get the same thrill from one that I did from the other.
You can call me a frustrated actor if you like. In one sense I suppose it’s true.
In another sense, since I abandoned the spotlights and the greasepaint, you could say, in all honesty, that I have become a satisfied writer.
Thursday, January 12, 2012
To Blurb Or Not To Blurb
Something that writers start to think about, when we get all writerly an' shite, is blurbing.
Bit of a silly word, right? I think it's Klingon for fake word. Or Welsh for the wind through the mountains and valleys on a spring day. Some say it was the pagan festival of writers, others that it was a creature that resembled a cross between a dragon and a pig. Whatever it's ancient meaning, today it means pimping ma book.
Here's the deal; You ask a bunch of your favourite writers to say nice things about you in small quotes. When they turn you down, you then ask some best sellers to do it. There's a bit of back and forth; which authors best suit the book? Which names will draw the right crowd? Who owes us a favour? How far will these illicit photographs get us?
But me? I'm ambitious. So I say, go right for the best. So I went and got a testimonial from the greatest crime writer of them all. Enjoy.
Having long since shuffled off my mortal coil and retired hence to my Elysian repose, I have been some amused at the evolution of my reputation since – some good fellows of my acquaintance making bother to assemble such works of mine as did survive, and those becoming, over the course of lengthy decades, a kind of bible for the tweedy types who camp in the dank rooms of university campuses and touch themselves in private during their special meditations on Ophelia. Why Ophelia, I cannot say, as I did pen many women more bawdy in their appetites, but I do suppose the scholarly, thinking themselves somehow elevated above their own natures, try to wrap their animal congress in some cloak of innocence and pretended feeling that they may call in themselves love what they damn in the unwashed as lust.
I say amused because I was the unwashed. I was not in life the ink-stained fetish I have late become but was instead a writer and actor both – and in such capacities not admitted to the more polite strata of society but instead relegated with my fellows to the rougher districts of Shoreditch and Bankside, the liberties outside the City proper’s Puritanical regulation where I did ply my trade in the company of the whores, the bear-baiters, the vendors of ales and sack, and of those rougher fellows who made prey of the fattened purses of the Lords and Ladies who would visit our district in search of such entertainments as they could later revile as unholy on their return to their safer and more sterile climes.
But such districts did feel home to me, as my first home was not London (though its foppish dons have since made great pains to claim me for its borders, ignoring that in life they banned my art from them), no, the home of my breeding and formation was Stratford, in the dark Kingdom of Mercia.
My father was a glover and a sometimes merchant in hides, so in my youth it was the skins of the dead that kept my company, not the moneychangers or nobles of the City, and I did oft scrape and tan hides, and cut them to shape and otherwise work my hands in fashions unknown to the scholarly who now make my worship. What sense of place and story I have comes as much from such rougher environs as it does from such finer places I did know in my later life, and what sense of truth comes from there more fully.
As in my own day, London does still seem think itself England entire, that the quaint or rougher districts elsewhere are backdrop only to its glories. And yet the lives there lived are as real; the pains there suffered hurt as deep; and the dreams there crushed oft make a bitter vintage as they die unripened and the product of a vineyard long ignored and left to life’s margins. I have watched proud Mercia rise and fall. The Midlands serving granary to my day’s appetites and later furnace to England’s empire in which were wrought those terrible engines that once did make it great, long since sore neglected, as the nation turned itself to trade in shares and bankings and the financial Leger de Main of this modern age by which the suited swells of London do greatly prosper as they, through their cheating magics, mint coin from the sweat of the Midland’s brow.
And so I recommend you to these tales, set in the Midlands most with kin streets of Glasgow and Manhattan twinned, of such desperate lives as are oft lived beyond your notice, but that are played for as equal mortal stakes as any and in such desperation that is drama’s true forge.
And to your scholars touching yourself to Hamlet’s soft muse I say take care with your emissions, for the pages of my works grow sticky, and I do take affront.
As related in liquored séance and fevered channeling to Daniel O’Shea
That O'Shea fella is a serious talent. I'm reading through his forthcoming collection, Old School, and it's a cracking read. Something I look for in a writer is someone who takes chances, someone who gets out of their comfort zone. To me, that's where the art of writing lies. Somewhere between what Dickens said, "the writer that is natural has fulfilled the rules of art," and what I say, "get your ass on a fucking high-wire and take a risk," is the key to writing something good. And O'Shea has written a crime novel narrated by William Shakespeare. How's that for getting up on the high-wire? It's called Rotten At The Heart, it's out for submission now and, if you're a publisher, you need to take a look.
Now, has anybody got Dickens's email address? Steinbeck's skype handle?
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
For your reading pleasure
Review of Owen Laukkanen's THE PROFESSIONALS
This book is one of those rare accomplishments -- a believable thriller.
Totally engaging. Fast-paced. Intimately focused with characters you care about.
Owen Laukkanen is the real deal, folks.
At a bar with my agent and she wouldn't shut up about this book. Which made me unhappy. "Talk about my book, crazy lady," I thought. In fact, it's rather possible I mouthed that to her. But the more she talked about this book from Owen Laukkanen, the more I wanted to hear. The more I wanted to know. Then the more I wanted her to shut up and hand me the book. Finally, I got my hands on the book. The characters are drawn with such precision and depth that you can't help caring about them. The action gets moving and never lets up. A great read.
Now I kinda want to ask about his next book, but I don't want to sit around waiting for it. I want it now.
A couple other books you need to check out:
SATAN IS REAL from Benjamin Whitmer and Charlie Louvin
Mr. Whitmer himself gives you the information on it here, but you need to be sure to order the hardcover. It's an absolutely lovely book on the outside and a helluva read on the inside. I'll have more when I finish.
And I'm currently reading CITY OF THE LOST from Stephen Blackmoore. It's that crime/noir stuff we all love with a loving dose of the supernatural. Fantastic so far.
Of course, he was here last week talking about the book, but be sure to see what he says over at Mr. Scalzi's place.
Also currently reading Dan O'Shea's unbelievably wonderful short story collection, OLD SCHOOL. More on that when I'm done.
And the Sword and Laser gang prepare to read/chat up Adam Christopher's EMPIRE STATE.
Feel free to share your current read here. Thanks
Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Jeff Shelby Talks to Jeffrey Allen... or Himself
I’ve recently ventured off in some different writing directions, trying my hand at both a stand alone and a cozy series, after writing three books in a series. I thought this would be far more interesting if I interviewed…myself…because, a lot of days, this is really how I feel when I’m moving back and forth between different books that I’m working on…
Jeff Shelby: So, this is kinda weird.
Jeffrey Allen: Why?
JS: It’s like I’m talking to myself.
JA: You are.
JS: Oh, right. Anyway, why’d you write one of those cozy things? That isn’t very manly.
JA: Look, there are guns in it, okay? And toupees. Those are manly.
JS: If you say so.
JA: Whatever. I thought it would be fun to get away from all that serious crap you write and write something funny, something that might make people laugh. So I took my/our experience as a stay at home dad and turned into something Chevy Chase might star in. And there’s a midget.
JS: You know there aren’t many dudes writing cozies, right?
JA: That’s the point. I’m unique. And so is the character.
JS: Sure. Legend in your own mind.
JA: Yours too, then.
JS: Awkward. So what’s Stay At Home Dead (that’s so PUNNY!) about anyway?
JA: Stay at home dad Deuce Winters finds the body of his old high school rival in his minivan and is accused of murder. In order to clear his name, he must deal with: a pint-sized detective, some ferocious PTA moms, a toupee wearing Elvis lookalike who wants to build a shooting range for kids and a whole lot of other goofy things that might pop up in a small town in Texas.
JA: No, seriously. That’s the book.
JS: Wow. Someone’s publishing that?
JA: I know, right???
JS: Well, that’s impressive. What was wrong with using my/our real name?
JA: I thought you might be embarrassed, you being a serious crime writer and all. Those Noah Braddock books tend to be a little bit more thoughtful. I didn’t think you’d want anyone getting us confused.
JS: Good thinking.
JA: And I wanted people to know that I could come up with more than two words for a title.
JA: Killer Swell. Wicked Break. Liquid Smoke. Mix in an article once in awhile, why don’t you.
JS: My titles are fine.
JA: Says you.
JS: And, as a matter of fact, I DID just mix in an article.
JA: Oh, here we go. Yes. Your little ebook.
JS: It’s not little.
JA: What size is it then?
JS: It’s the size of a book.
JS: Thank you.
JA: I’ll begrudgingly admit, I like the title. Thread of Hope. It’s good.
JS: Thank you again.
JA: But it’s kinda serious.
JS: Well, while you were goofing off writing your midget book, I was trying to write about a former cop whose daughter was abducted and never found. Now he looks for other people’s kids.
JA: Dude. That’s…serious.
JS: And when his best friend is accused of a crime and the teenage accuser goes missing, it’s up to this guy to figure everything out. Even as he’s still dealing with his own daughter’s disappearance.
JA: OMG. Stop. I’m gonna cry or something. Tell me a joke or something.
JS: What do you do for a sick sheep?
JS: You give him SHEEP P R!!!!! HAHAHAHAHAHA!!! Get it???
JA: Um, yes. I get it. And I think you should stick with the serious stuff and I’ll stick with writing the funny stuff. That work for you?
JS: SHEEP P R??? IT’S HILARIOUS!!!!
JA: I can’t believe I’m you.
JS: Me either! You’re so lucky to be me!
Jeff Shelby is the author of the Noah Braddock PI series, the Deuce Winters stay at home dad series (under the name Jeffrey Allen) and the standalone Thread of Hope. He is a high school English teacher and basketball coach, but not the same caliber of coach as Mike Rice, head coach at Rutgers University. (Told you I’d work it in, Dave.) He lives in Dallas, TX with his daughter. You can find him talking with himself regularly at his websites, www.jeffshelby.com and www.jeffreyallenbooks.com.
Monday, January 9, 2012
Was 2011 the Year of the Novella, a new Spinetingler Award, and other stuff
So why the closet imagery above? Because some novellas would still make it to the market in recent years but you would have to hunt them down. They would appear in some print magazines (Needle published The Hitter by Chris F Holm) and anthologies and collections.
Some UK publishers have been ahead of the curve with lines or entire press' dedicated to the novella. Two that come to mind are Pulp Press and the Crime Express line.
In the US Tom Piccirilli has been on the forefront of not being constrained by exterior pressures to makes works longer. Over the last couple of years he has been writing “noirellas” and finding small publishers to publish them.
Now with epublishing it is easier then ever for a writer to have an outlet for a novella. I would also argue that with busier lives readers appreciate the novella more because you get more depth then a short story and the satisfaction of finishing a longer work that explores more themes.
My original intent for Snubnose Press was to be an American equivalent of the UK novella presses. I wanted to publish crime novellas. But the realities of the submissions became apparent and we became open to longer works also.
I read 40+ mystery/crime novellas that were published in 2011. Far more then any other year. From thrillers to mysteries to crime to noir to literary there was a wide range of novellas published. Some were great and some weren't. Some I can't wait to read again and some I couldn't finish. One had the potential to be great but the editing was so terrible that I ultimately wished that it had been submitted to Snubnose instead of self-published because with a little polish it could have really shined.
Because there were so many strong novellas published in 2011 I would like to announce that Spinetingler will launch a Best Novella award on January 16th. There will be 10 nominees and a poll that will be open to the public. Voting will take place until the end of the month.
For now the award will be kept separate from the main awards because I don't know if the novella trend will continue. If it does (and I hope it does) then it will be folded into the the main awards.
-This great quote is for people who just can't find the time:
Once upon a time in the dead of winter in the Dakota Territory, Theodore Roosevelt took off in a makeshift boat down the Little Missouri River in pursuit of a couple of thieves who had stolen his prized rowboat. After several days on the river, he caught up and got the draw on them with his trusty Winchester, at which point they surrendered. Then Roosevelt set off in a borrowed wagon to haul the thieves cross-country to justice. They headed across the snow-covered wastes of the Badlands to the railhead at Dickinson, and Roosevelt walked the whole way, the entire 40 miles. It was an astonishing feat, what might be called a defining moment in Roosevelt’s eventful life. But what makes it especially memorable is that during that time, he managed to read all of Anna Karenina. I often think of that when I hear people say they haven’t time to read.
-Here is an interesting article about why does it cost the same to see a blockbuster film as an indy film (because the same isn't always true for books):
[T]he first instances of what film archeologists would actually call "movies" around 1910 featured different prices for different films. Movies were priced according to their length, stars, and popularity. For three decades until the 1940s, one theater would have the rights to each movie within a certain zone, and movies received grades (A, B, or C) that corresponded with ticket prices at those theaters. If the rules of the 1920s ruled today, Mission Impossible might be $15 and Young Adult might be $7. What changed?
Everything. For starters, the famous Paramount anti-trust case broke up monopolies between producers and distributors. Multiplexes replaced single-serving theaters. A recession after World War II coincided with the popularity of television to gut studio revenue, forcing them to rely on fewer, more expensive movies.
-Is reading anti-social?:
In our day-to-day lives, we are always trying to manipulate or otherwise act on our surroundings, whether it’s by turning a car’s steering wheel or frying an egg or clicking on a link at a website. But when we open a book, our expectations and our attitudes change drastically. Because we understand that "we cannot or will not change the work of art by our actions," we are relieved of our desire to exert an influence over objects and people and hence are able to "disengage our [cognitive] systems for initiating actions." ... It is only when we leave behind the incessant busyness of our lives in society that we open ourselves to literature’s transformative emotional power.
That doesn’t mean that reading is anti-social. The central subject of literature is society, and when we lose ourselves in a book we often receive an education in the subtleties and vagaries of human relations. Several studies have shown that reading tends to make us more empathetic, more alert to the inner lives of others. The reader withdraws in order to connect more deeply.
-Can literature replace God?:
Is it really a religious, polytheistic mindset that is required to live the good life? Or might an imaginative, literary mindset suffice? (And what is the difference between the two?) If the question is not metaphysical (does God or do the gods exist?) but phenomenological (how will we respond to the world?), why would we hold on to the experience of the sacred that the authors try to capture? Literature might, in the end, be enough.
Currently reading: Before I Go to Sleep by SJ Watson; Thirst by Thierry Jonquet
Currently Listening: Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir; William Elliot Whitmore; Eddie Veder's Ukulele Songs.
Sunday, January 8, 2012
Working through the fear
A friend sent me a message the other day that expressed concern about the current project he was writing. He’d pitched the concept to his agent. Said agent was highly enthusiastic about the project so he immediately embarked upon writing. Now he is approaching the end of the book. With each day that passes he grows a little more concerned.
What if he didn’t do the concept justice?
What if only the concept was good?
What if his voice doesn’t match the story?
What if his agent is disappointed?
Wow—do I know those concerns. I’ve been struggling with them myself especially in recent days. I mean, I have been beyond fortunate in my recent submissions. If you missed the news—a young adult project I wrote last summer sold to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt last month. I loved writing that book and am truly excited to write the next two in the trilogy. But no matter how delighted I am with the sale (and trust me I did the girly squealy, excited thing!) there is fear. THE TESTING will be the lead title in the Spring of 2013. The whole concept of being a lead title is still hard for me to wrap my brain around. The expectations for a lead title are much higher than what I am used to. So I find myself asking, “What if the next two books aren’t as good as the first?” “What if I can’t live up to the expectations the editor has?” “What if I can’t live up to the concept of the next two books?”
Yeah—as happy as the deal made me, I have lost a great deal of sleep worrying about living up to, meeting and exceeding expectations. And that is totally pointless.
I mean, if I want to waste energy I can just run around after my toddler on one of his many circuits of the living room, dining room and kitchen. Which is why I keep reminding myself what I reminded my friend yesterday—worrying will do me no good. Sure, the concept is important, but it is what I bring to the concept that makes it truly unique. Only I can tell the story that will unfold as I type. It might not be the story the editor envisioned, but it is the story that needs to be told. And that is what is important. My voice. My story. My way. The rest is minutia. I love writing. I love storytelling. I just need to hang onto the passion for the story and the rest will take care of itself.
Does that mean the sleepless nights will go away? Ha! I doubt it. I’m a worrier by nature. But knowing that the editor wants MY story makes those 2 a.m. moments where doubt is the strongest easier to deal with.
Of course, that being said, I’d love to hear your stories about how you deal with doubt. Do you wake up in the night and worry that you won’t live up to expectations—writing or otherwise? How do you survive those moments? Trust me—I really want to know!