Saturday, August 19, 2017

Revising an Older Story

Scott D. Parker

How do you know when you are learning how to write better? When you read something you wrote in the past and know with no doubt you can do better today.

My August novel is a revision of an old western I wrote last year, maybe two years ago. I honestly cannot remember when I first drafted the story. I like the story and always had it pegged for publication this year.

In my mind’s eye, the story was pretty decent coming in around 16,000 words long. I thought it a tad too short to call it a novel, so I knew I wanted to revise it, expand it in places, and thicken up the prose.

I read through the draft as it was, making notes along the way, but did little in the way of refining the prose. I wanted to get a good pass through it, see how the story played, and remind myself of how my past self wrote the story. I saw the holes in the story quite clearly, and, most importantly, I knew how to shore them up.

My technique for re-reading an old story might be unique. I have a paper copy in front of me. I have a notepad and a pencil. I mark up the draft along the way and make notes of things to do. But I also am hooked up to my dictation software. Every time I finished a chapter, I would dictate the action of the chapter. By the end of the draft, I not only have a marked-up hardcopy but I also have a new outline of the tale complete with extra notes. All with little effort on my part (because talking is much easier than writing it all out).

Finally, it came time to start to go through the draft and add in the things the story needed. And here is the crucial lesson I learned in this process: I ended up rewriting each chapter from scratch.

I had two screens up: one was my current Scrivener file and the other was the original chapter in a separate window. Instead of reading and adding words here or there, I ended up typing the content over again. In this manner, if my 2017 brain started going off on a tangent, adding more detail or different bits of dialogue, I would just go with the flow.

I found it incredibly liberating. I had my original, but I was creating something almost completely new, albeit with some words I had previously written. All chapters were edited and revised, some more than others. I’ve already written three brand-new chapter. The story was only seventeen chapters to begin with. I’m halfway done and and I’m already up to twenty-one.

But what made me feel good as a growing and learning writer was to recognize how my old prose didn’t cut it in 2017. I frowned at a few passages and winced at others. Why? Because I am a more seasoned writer.

Now, I fully expect Future Scott, in 2027, to read this book as it will be published this year and find a few passages in which he will wince. But he’ll be a more seasoned writer than I am right now.

Because writing is an ever evolving profession.

When y’all revise an old story, do y’all rewrite from scratch, rewrite using the old words, or merely hunt and peck certain passages, adding words here and there?

Friday, August 18, 2017

I thought we all agreed...

I started my first novel when I was fifteen. I was frustrated with a lot of things, and had run ins with skinheads around my local punk club, and started a story about a woman who's life was ruined by Neo-Nazis.

I became obsessed with research. There was a time, over the twelve years I shelved that project and came back over and over again, I knew more about Nazis than anyone really needed to know. The one novel turned into two. I revisted both again and again over the years as my research became more in-depth and my anger grew.

Neither of those books will ever see the light of day. In part because a writer in their thirties cannot possibly go back and edit the things they wrote in their teens/early twenties and have it come out smooth and making sense, and in part because the moral of both stories was a little weak.

Nazis are bad.

I thought that was ground that had been pretty well covered. A novel I read during those years, handled it fairly well (at least in my mind, at the time. I haven't revisited it).

Don De Grazia's novel, American Skin covered how easy it was for frustrated white people to turn to hate, and how hard it was to turn away. And it covered the moral of the story: Nazis are bad.

So did Indiana Jones, Marvel Comics, American History X, and a hundred other pop culture items. All my friends agreed. Jesus, Nazis are bad, right? Fuck yeah, they're really bad! 

The state where I live has more hate groups than any other state. I lived right in the middle of the Confederate Seat (on Fort Lee, right outside of Richmond, VA). I ran into the occasional skinhead. Once, a skin in Richmond saw me in the history section picking up research for the above-mentioned projects and attempted to recruit me. His father saw us and joined in. They were massive Confederate Skins with their own press. This was clearly something they liked to do. If they saw someone in a bookstore looking at Confederate or Nazi history, they would come and tell that person all about how biased the books were (the books leaned on, Gee, aren't Nazis fucking bad?).

They were both huge men, and I was alone in the bookstore, my friends somewhere else in the mall. So I made an excuse, left my books on the shelf and left. 

I tell you that to tell you this: I've always known we had Nazis in the US. I knew about the Bund in World War 2. I knew about Neo-Nazis. I knew they were out and about and open with their hatred. 

But my assumption, when it came time to shelve the novels and move on, was  that everyone aside from them just knew inherently that Nazis are bad.

I've heard a lot of people, especially those in marginalized groups, talk about how frustrating it is to see people surprised that these hate mongering assholes exist, or that they exist in such numbers. I share that frustration. We've been talking about this for years. Decades. For awhile, it was in vogue to talk about it. There were 20/20 specials and movies with Ed Norton. The general populace was engaged with the idea that neo-Nazis, the White Christian Identity Movement, the KKK (smaller, but not insignificant) existed, were a threat, and were bad. But like most social issues that come into focus in the mainstream, the world moved on. It became about terrorism and school shootings and the general public forgot about Nazis. When they forgot about them, I guess they thought all the Nazis had disappeared.

Of course, they hadn't. 

Now they're doing exactly the things they talked about doing when I was reading their message boards in the early aughts. They cleaned up, got suits and fashy hair cuts (but not shaved heads!), separated their "intellectual" movement from the skinhead gangs, and weaseled their way into colleges, Men's Rights Groups, and all the places people didn't generally associate with Nazis. They played a huge role in the election. They march openly in the streets (looking like idiots in polo shirts with Tiki Torches, sure - but open).

And I see a lot of debate.

I woke up the morning after Richard Spencer's now infamous punch to the face and realized - I went to sleep thinking we all agreed that Nazis are bad, and woke up in a world where that's clearly untrue.

I spent so many years mired in the worst these assholes had to offer. Before Reddit. Before Identity Evorpa and The National Policy Institute. I saw the front page of a Neo-Nazi website turn to flash animation celebrating September 11th only an hour or so after I learned of the terror attack.

I thought I didn't have it in me to be ankle deep in that shit anymore. I thought if we could unite against anything it would be literal, flag waving Nazis.

Now it seems the choice isn't mine. They're in the streets, they're in the news. And even the "progressives" want to debate about how bad they are, how big their numbers are, whether we should respect them or not.

It's not fiction anymore. Of course, it wasn't when I was writing those doomed novels. But it wasn't like this. I still had the comfort of believing that the only people who didn't hate Nazis were flag waving Nazis.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Writing on the Nature of Hate and Evil

It's a lesson writers are taught early: very few villains think they're the villain. Oh, there are some who revel in depravity, all right, but they are rare. I find the ones who feel wronged, or sincerely believe they are doing the right thing, or at least fulfilling "the way things work," in their minds, are the most interesting, because we're more likely to run into them.

Plumbing that mindset, or at least expressing it without reverting to cartoonishness, can be tricky. And there is always the problem of making evil sympathetic. How much motivation do we need? I like Thomas Harris for this example. In Red Dragon, we learn what made Francis Dolarhyde into a monster, and the story is better for it. He's somewhat of a pawn played by Hannibal Lecter in his revenge against FBI profiler Will Graham, and we can be sad for the tormented child he was while still loathing the man he became. On the other hand, I didn't want to know any of the origin of Hannibal Lecter, especially what was revealed in Hannibal Rising. I haven't watched more than a few episodes of the series. He was perfect as the cunning and effete cannibal, and I didn't mind seeing him out in the world in Hannibal the sequel, if I forget that ridiculous dinner scene. For me, Rising was a mistake. We saw too much. I wouldn't have minded a small aside, perhaps in Clarice Starling researching his past, that hinted at what happened to his sister. But I'll use his own words:
"A census taker tried to quantify me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone. Go back to school, little Starling."

That's the line from the book. They changed it in the film because Amarone wasn't a well-known wine at the time. To me, it is better when he remains a mystery. Some villains don't require much depth to work. I'm reading the excellent She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper, and the villain is the leader of a white supremacist meth dealing gang in prison, who wants revenge because his brother has been killed. I don't know if Harper will explain how Crazy Craig became the leader of Aryan Steel, but I can safely say that I am not yearning to know. In Bad Boy Boogie, I have Jay Desmarteaux nearly get swept into joining a similar gang when he's a young fish in prison. Like serial killers with the triangle of pyromania, bed-wetting, and, animal abuse, those lured into hate groups lean toward a type: they are young people looking to belong, who can be told that their "birthright" has been stolen from them, that they can only get it back by fighting "the other." It has been explored by some but is not quite as well-known as the serial killer. I recommend Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead by Christian Picciolini, who went on to form Life After Hate, which helps people escape from hate groups.

We're seeing how many can be conned into believing this, on the TV news right now. And I wonder how many writers are trying to get inside those heads and make sympathetic, "likable" characters, to appease the market that will have had its interest piqued by the horror show on the tube. I am not saying don't write about racist characters, hate groups, and people consumed and misguided by hatred.  By all means, please do. If American History X had been as good as The Silence of the Lambs, we might find neo-Nazis so boring and pathetic that even sad-sack internet trolls would realize that following their ways would only lead to further ridicule and defeat. But it's a fine line. "Understanding" hate does not require pathos any more than understanding Hannibal Lecter required noshing down on some long pig with a nice Chianti. We've known how they tick for a long time.

LBJ said, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” When someone feels low, you give them someone to blame, preferably someone they already feel is below them. The other. And when they start asking how come the "others" are doing better then they are, you say they cheat and steal, and they have those sneaky other-others with all the money, the doctors and lawyer types if-you-know-what-I-mean, on their side. Then it's a conspiracy, a huge evil working against them, which is a lot more comforting to believe than the idea that you're just not as good, or didn't work as hard, as one of "them."

The thing is, all this in a background still doesn't make a whole character. And not everyone takes the same path. What kind of person did you imagine when I expounded on the LBJ quote? I'm guessing it was a working-class Southern white male. And that strategy was used against them en masse, so that's fair, but the racist marchers we saw in Charlottesville weren't working class. Their leaders were college-educated Midwesterners, too. The men toting thousand-dollar battle rifles and gear aren't living hand to mouth. The 20-year-old murderer who plowed a new Dodge Challenger into counter-protesters didn't look like he came from poor. I don't have a lot of sympathy for the guys losing their jobs for chanting hatred, giving Hitler salutes, and surrounding a black church with torches this weekend. One even had the gall to say, "that's not the real me." Then who was it?

Most racists aren't dumb enough to wave torches in front of TV cameras. I should have been prime pickings for hate groups, growing up. Working class parents divorced, and my alcoholic father skipped child support for years. I didn't fit in well, my head was in the clouds all the time and I was the last chosen for sports, and I had a lot of anger over my dad treating my mom terribly, and not being strong enough to stop him. My mother found work as a waitress at a country club that catered exclusively to Jewish people, and while she never used anti-Semitic slurs, I remember the story of one woman who kept dropping her napkin on the floor during a French dinner service, because my mother had to keep folding it and placing it on her lap. Knowing my mom, she probably made a face the second time around, so the lady decided to punish her for it. It's the kind of story that sticks with you when you're living at grandma's, never getting to see your mom because she's at work when you get home from school and still sleeping after a hard night of work, so Grams makes you breakfast.

Growing up in the '70s and early '80s in a majority Italian Catholic town, I heard my share of racist and anti-Semitic jokes. The ones that kids have to explain to each other because they don't know why they are supposed to be funny.  I'm thankful that several of my friends in school were Jewish, so I couldn't "other" them. I remember inviting a bunch of friends to my birthday party in grade school and a fight breaking out between Billy and Fred because Billy said the n-word. I just didn't understand my Billy was being that way. My father was racist for sure. He did masonry work and never got ahead because of his drinking and chip on his shoulder. Eventually a boss would rub him the wrong way and he'd make the guy fire him, after picking a fight. He was the eldest son but the only sibling who worked with his hands, and liked to offend his family's white-collar friends by being openly racist at gatherings, knowing they wouldn't stand up to him because he liked to break bricks with those hands as a party trick. A typical bully with a chip on his shoulder. I'm thankful that my anger for the things he said to my mother while I stood there, young and helpless, made me know that he was the wrong one to use as a role model.

Thankfully for that, I had my uncle Paul, the joke king, who calls Barry Manilow "Barry Cantaloupe," who ran gay bars in New York for the Jewish mob, and who told me tales of Betty Grable, his transgender bartender yenta for mobsters looking for gay or trans hook-ups, screening a stolen copy of Midnight Cowboy in the basement, hosting a lesbian wedding where they rode up the aisles on a Harley, and raids by the police. (Yes, there's a book in the works.) He's no Atticus Finch, either, but few are.

My mother left the country club for a cafeteria job, where the management was black. We didn't have Bring Your Kids to Work Day, but in summer we rode our bikes and sneaked in, sometimes. I met Harold and Teresa and Norman, and worked under them when I turned sixteen, as a dishwasher and night cook. I heard Harold talk about World War II, Norman about going marlin fishing, swam with their grandchildren in the workplace pool. Wondered why some people always got out of the water when they were there. Those people, unlike my father, would never use slurs openly. Only when they were "among friends," and certainly not before gophering up on tiptoe to ensure the crowd was lily white. They'd say this was for their safety, so they wouldn't "get their asses kicked," because you know, "those people" were violent. Not because they were cowards who didn't want to be known as a racist, of course.

What does this have to do with writing? I think it is important to not whitewash the racism out of life. Not every story needs it. That would be awful. We all need to escape it, and I won't judge a book as "unrealistic" if it's devoid of bigoted characters. But if we want to write about them, they can't all be torch-bearing Nazis, just like all killers can't be Hannibal Lecter. And we don't need entire books explaining why they became that way. Iago is a fine example. He says he enjoys evil for evil's sake, but then tells us that Othello passed him over for a promotion. That has gnawed at him for a long time, this outsider who has not only surpassed him in rank but thinks he is better than him, and thinks him not even worthy of a rank so far below his own. When you hear racists talk about "cutting in line" or Affirmative Action, Shakespeare knew the score. It's echoed in Roxane Gay's memoir Hunger, when she opened her acceptance letter from Yale within view of a white male peer: “He looked at me with plain disgust. ‘Affirmative Action,’ he sneered, unable to swallow the bitter truth that I, a black girl, had achieved something that he could not.”

Her book is a fine read, and a tough one. But I'll leave the exploration of body-shaming for another blog post. Some don't like reading about racist or bigoted villains; they think it's an easy way to make us hate the antagonist. Well, you don't need to make them torch-bearing caricatures, even if we know they aren't a relic of our shameful past anymore, but icons in a shameful present. Some have used the excuse that calling these bigots "Nazis" somehow makes them act out. Don't fall for that one. Evil for evil's sake, whether performed by Iago or an entitled young man radicalized by the echo chamber of hatred and conspiracy on a web forum, is self-destructive behavior. When you loathe yourself, you may permit yourself to become loathsome. You may seek the solace of martyrdom, because it's easier than the harrowing road toward the possibility of redemption.

As for whether redemption is possible, and how one crawls out of the sewer of hatred, I'll again recommend Christian Picciolini's memoir. He may never fly with the angels, but he takes daring leaps anyway. He can't take back the violence he committed, but if he can divert enough bigots from committing violence in the name of hate, his fingertips may brush feathers for one fleeting moment. If there can be life after hate, there may be life without it.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

History and Remembering

The writer George Santayana had a gift for aphorisms. There's a slew of great ones he coined, and you can look them up online.  "A child educated only at school is an uneducated child" is one I particularly like, and "Nonsense is so good only because common sense is so limited" is another. 

But I don't think there's any aphorism more quoted from anyone than his famous one about history, that "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Besides Karl Marx's line that "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce," I can't think of another quote related to history that people reference more.  And with everything going on in the US now, the Santayana one comes up again and again.  I can't recall how many times I've seen someone cite it on Facebook over the last six months. Enough with that line already!  On the other hand, why not cite it?  It's an eternally relevant quote, as overused as it is.

At the same time, I have to say that I also happen to like a sort of inverse quote derived from Santayana's. It too is pertinent to what's happening now, and it serves as a good reminder of how a whole bunch of people think, and have thought for a long time.  It's a riff on the Santayana line from the filmmaker Errol Morris, and it says, "Those who cannot condemn the past repeat it in order to remember it."

Yup. That sums things up pretty well.  You've got those who make a point of remembering so that the ugliest vilest things can be opposed whenever they're in danger of recurring, and those who want to remember these things so that they can bring them back. When those who don't condemn the past want to go back to what might be called a troglodytic state, others have no choice but to combat them.  Still, maybe what's most sad here (and absurd) is the overwhelming influence of the past on everything, the sense that history is much more cyclical than linear, and the knowledge that the same battles get fought over and over and over. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Genre: Not a Dirty Word

kharoung  aljorajng ajgojagn agojagnljag goagkhg ghghag ghohgga aridglmn kncoarighl wi

Nonsense, right?

Part of how we understand the world around us is by categorizing things. I have a background in education and have worked with young children with learning challenges. I've spent more hours than I care to count working with children to help them group things by association. The cows go with the farm animals. The dog goes with the pets. Dresses are clothing. Hammers are tools.

We use letters to represent sounds. Those letters are assembled into words that we learn. The words are organized into sentences that have a subject and a predicate. The sentences are organized into paragraphs...

And so on.

This is how we make sense of things. If you're a linguist or translator you may know things about the structure of different types of language so that you can look at words and identify the language. Ciao. Mes amies. Auf wiedersehen. Grüß Gott.

We would say it's completely ridiculous to try to write a novel without using sentences. I can't imagine trying to read a book without paragraphs.

We need structure. It's how we organize information. It's how we make sense of things on multiple levels.

Choosing to write genre fiction is like choosing a particular framing device for how you want to explore the world with language. ~ Clea Simon

I'm not going to dignify the latest author who denigrated genre fiction with a mention of their name or a link to the article. Any genre author who's been around for a few years knows there's a long list of authors who have criticized all genre writing as a whole simply because the works are classified in a genre.

Genre isn't a dirty word. It's simply a structural system used to help classify material so that people know what to expect. Genre does not have to limit your work. It's a foundation. On that foundation you can build a shack or you can build a cathedral. That's up to you. Genre is simply a constructive device that helps people form associations so that they can understand it, and it helps guide writers as they construct their stories.

As long as there are newspapers who run author profiles there will be authors spewing discriminatory crap about lesser writers and genre, the black sheep of the literary world. These authors come off as pretentious and half out of their minds, and they simply perpetuate the outdated notion that authors are some sort of mystical beings who channel insight that the average person doesn't have access to. Like they're special.

That's crap. I write fulltime for a living. Much of what I write is non-fiction, and I understand fully that whatever I'm writing, I write for a purpose. I'm either informing or entertaining. I have a job to do. Sometimes that involves researching information and conveying it in a way that will make sense to a specific audience. Sometimes that means building a world and characters I hope readers will care about.

In all honestly, sometimes writing genre fiction is the hardest stuff I write in my day. It's work. It takes skill.

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Especially someone with their head up their ass.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Trying Something New

Today, I’m delighted to welcome back DSD alumna Kristi Belcamino. She’s here to talk about going in a new direction in the world of publishing. And guess who’s going to benefit? Her readers! - Claire Booth

Let me start by saying my husband is a wise man. When I told him I didn’t know what to say in this post and how to say it, he said, “Be humble, be honest, and be vulnerable.”
Keeping this in mind, I’m using this space to talk about why I’ve decided to become a hybrid author. For those who haven’t heard this term, it means I’m going to have a body of work that is a mixture of traditionally published books (through big five publishers and smaller presses) and books that I self-publish. The new term is “Indie Published.”
Here is my story thus far:
I was very lucky that the first book I ever wrote caught the attention of an incredibly talented and smart editor at HarperCollins who decided to publish it and three more books in the series.
I’ve been incredibly lucky that most of my readers are passionate about my books. They don’t just like them—they love them.
However—and this is the vulnerable part—enough people didn’t love them.
My series was dropped. The sales were not good enough for my publisher to ask me to write more. It was purely a business decision. I get that.
But I wasn’t done with the series yet. I wrote a fifth book and sent it out to some readers to see what they thought.
Their response helped me make the decision to put the book out on my own.
Next Tuesday, Blessed are the Peacemakers comes out.
Early reviewers have given me hope that it will be well received, calling it my best book yet.
Becoming a hybrid author is giving me not only the freedom to publish the books I write without anyone else’s approval, but it is also giving me freedom over creative decisions, such as my covers. I am thrilled with the cover design I came up with for Peacemakers (and had polished by a graphic designer pal). I’ve been heartbroken over the publisher’s cover designs in the past and have felt helpless and frustrated believing that a crappy cover contributed to poor sales.
And being a hybrid author means I can publish as frequently as I want.
I write three to four books a year.
Some of those books go straight to my agent. Some I will put out myself. Many publishers are reluctant to pick up a series that began at another house, so going indie with my fifth series book was a natural choice.
Meanwhile, I’m doing everything in my power to make sure everything I put out is written to the best of my ability and professionally edited. I’m also working on what I’ve dubbed “a homeschool MBA in marketing,” learning what I can about this book marketing business. It’s a lot of work, but I’m loving it.
I look at hybrid authors in my mystery genre, such as Rebecca Cantrell and Zoe Sharp, and want some of what they are having.
I can’t help but feel the future of publishing for the majority of mid-list authors (BTW, I’m pretty sure I’m a lower Low-List author) is through hybrid publishing.
It’s a gamble I’m taking.
Here is more of the “vulnerable” part my husband recommended. I am well aware that many, many, many authors in my genre will look down on my decision to self-publish.
They will see it as a failure. If they don’t like me, they will look down at me from their perch and think “Ha! She couldn’t make it with the big boys, could she?”
If they DO like me, they will look at me possibly with pity—“poor thing has to self-publish now!”
Either way, I am ready to accept that some people will not understand my decision. And that’s okay. Because as much as I love, love, love my mystery-writing peers, I’m not writing for them or for their approval. I write for my readers.
And I am still keeping my foot in traditional publishing. I know in many cases it makes sense to partner with a publisher, and I’m still interested in doing that. My agent is really, really good, and I trust her judgment and know she will find a publisher for the books she takes out to sell.
But I’m also excited to strike out on my own.
A few months ago, I asked those on my FB page if they cared or paid that much attention to how a book came out: through a big five or small press, or self-published.
The majority of my readers, the vast majority, said they didn’t care, as long as the quality remained.
On Tuesday, I will officially jump into the Hybrid Author pool. I admit I’m afraid. But excited. Wish me luck. No turning back!
Here is a little bit about my new book (out Tuesday) here:

Gabriella Giovanni has it all.
A stunning penthouse in San Francisco. An exciting job on the crime beat. A doting, handsome husband and a beautiful little girl.
So, when she complains about all the travel her husband’s new DEA job requires, Gabriella knows she has good problems.
But when her husband’s plane goes down in the jungles of Guatemala and she is told he is dead, Gabriella thinks things could not possibly get any worse.
She is wrong.
Despite the U.S. government’s attempt to find the wreckage, they come up empty-handed. Gabriella heads to Guatemala to find some answers, and hopefully, some healing.
In the deepest, darkest jungles, it doesn’t take long for Gabriella to realize she’s in over her head and putting what remains of her life—and everything she loves—at risk.

Kristi Belcamino is a Macavity, Barry, and Anthony Award-nominated author, a newspaper cops reporter, and an Italian mama who makes a tasty biscotti. 
Belcamino has written and reported about many high-profile cases including the Laci Peterson murder and Chandra Levy’s disappearance. She has appeared on Inside Edition, and her work has appeared in the New York Times, Writer’s Digest, Miami Herald, San Jose Mercury News, and Chicago Tribune. Kristi now works part-time as a police reporter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and her two fierce daughters.
Sign up for her newsletter here and get free books!