And the Revising Goes On and On and…

The writing project which has obsessed me for the past six weeks to two months is a rewrite/revision of the first book in a series I’ve planned entitled A Perfect Hatred. If you go to my brand new author website to the Works in Progress tab, you can read a synopsis of each book in the series.

This is a project I’ve worked on since 1997, when I happened to be in Oklahoma City when the trial for Timothy McVeigh ended in Denver. I became intrigued by the rabid hatred of this man, perhaps well-deserved for his horrific act, but I wondered if there were more to the story. As I researched, I saw that his story of how he came to be the Oklahoma City Bomber would be a great vehicle to discuss, through fiction, a political movement I’ve long believed to be a clear and present danger to the United States.

Of course, this draft novel started out as one book, a collection of widely disconnected scenes in reality. As I researched and added my fictional version of real events and provided the transitions between scenes, it swelled to nearly 200,000 words. I split it into two books, did more revising and more writing, and ended up with nearly half a million words over three books. Too much. Way, way too much.

A writer friend told me not to worry about it because people don’t have a concept of page numbers in e-books, but, no, it was way too bloated. About three years ago, after having another friend, who is a PhD candidate in English, read it, I began another revision, starting with book one, which I pared down to about 140,000 words. Overall among the three books, I probably cut nearly 300 pages.

And it still wasn’t enough.

I further split it into four books, against the advice of the same writer friend who said length doesn’t matter in an e-book. Then, I put it aside for a full year, didn’t look at any of the four books. Earlier this year, I decided it was time to start again with a total rewrite. Instead of importing the Word file of Book One into Scrivener and editing, I split the screen on my MacBook, with the Word file on one side and a brand new Scrivener file on the other, and I started rewriting. Or maybe just writing.

A few days in, and the results weren’t promising. I had pared and cut and condensed a lot, but I’d also expanded some scenes to the point where, when I reached a particular point in the story, I’d ended up adding more than a thousand words overall.

That didn’t bode well. I went back over what I’d added. No, that was necessary because it filled a hole, but I had to resolve to be a tad more vicious in killing my darlings. Now, at two chapters away from the end, I’ve cut whole chapters, reduced lengthy sections of expository dialogue to summaries, and even done the Virginia Woolf “and then time passed” thing. It’s probably going to come in at around 115,000 words. Better, but there may be room for more cutting.

The issue is real espionage involves a lot of researching, a lot of briefings, and a lot of meetings. Even in light of all its flaws in stretching the truth, the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” is a prime example of how it works: Sometimes it takes years, and the needed intelligence comes in by accident or coincidence. Alan Furst’s books are rich in historical detail as well as the painstaking process of being a spy and not getting caught. Some people don’t like getting bogged down in those details, but I feel you do real spies a disservice if you don’t show what it’s really like.

In real life you don’t go to M for a five-minute explanation of the mission over a glass of Scotch. You don’t go to Q for a collection of implausible gadgets. You get a data-dump. As one special forces guy I know once said to me, “You read every scrap of paper you get because you never know which bit of information will save your life.”

In my drive to make my spies authentic, I’m in the tough place of making that mundane information-gathering lifestyle interesting while conforming to the vague publication industry standard that 100,000-plus words are too much.

Give up? Never. Carry on? Of course. Books two, three, and four need to lose the bloat, too.

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The Play’s The Thing–

This week I went to two performances of my one-act play, “Yo’ Momma,” which was one of six winners of Ampersand Arts “Bar Hopping” contest. The production was awesome, the actors were fantastic, and the director captured the essence of my story perfectly. I did a little drama in high school (over and above the usual adolescent angst), and this was a great reminder of how a good actor can find nuance in your words you never knew was there.

Here’s an example. The main thrust of the play is a conversation in a bar between an upwardly mobile white woman and a jive black dude. The way I wrote it was simple: Woman enters bar, sits at bar, man begins to speak. Here’s the way the actors portrayed it: Woman enters bar, sits at bar, man moves his stool closer, woman shifts purse to the arm opposite the man, woman turns so that mostly her back is to the man. Nuances, but they brought out the racial tension in the conversation far better than a thousand words could. I was blown away.

There were even subtle difference between their performance on Tuesday night and on Wednesday night, but I was excited about and proud of both. If you’re interested in seeing it, I was allowed to video it; click here to go to my Facebook Author Page. Look for the April 16 post.

Friday Fictioneers LogoThis week’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt was challenging, but I decided to go for the nuances and not be literal. First Contact stories are some of my favorite science fiction tropes, and, unlike Star Trek’s interpretation (a peaceful encounter with Vulcans), most first contacts end badly. “One Small Step” is my interpretation. As usual, if you don’t see the link on the title above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, and select the story from the drop-down list.

 

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New Author Web Site

For the past several years, I’ve combined my author website (which every social media advisor says an author must have) with my writing blog (another apparent must for a writer) right here on this site, Unexpected Paths. It worked well in the beginning, but now it’s a bit of a muddle. Hence, the decision to create a separate web page which contains my bio, publishing history, contact info, events, etc. Though the new webpage is published, it’s still a draft as far as I’m concerned, and I’ll be making changes and enhancements to it in the next few days.

Click here for the new website.

Unexpected Paths will continue to be the site for my writing blog and for publishing my Friday Fictioneers and Flash! Friday stories, in addition to blog posts about writing, writing conferences, and, well, all things writing. It’s appearance may change somewhat, but for the most part the change will be seamless.

I’d appreciate any comments you might have on the new site–anything to make it better!

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The Prodigal Returns – 2

Friday Fictioneers LogoAs some of you have noticed, I took a long break from Friday Fictioneers, not because I’d grown tired of it or uninspired, but because I needed to re-focus on other aspects of my writing. Every week, though, the photo prompt would show up in my Facebook feed, and I’d look away because I knew if I saw the picture, I’d get distracted from what I had set myself to do.

I’ve written here before about the toll that winter takes on me–not enough light, joints which are creakier every year in the cold–and I knew I could concentrate on only one writing thing at a time; I knew I couldn’t juggle the several flash fiction events I do every week with the need to do a massive rewrite of a manuscript. So, the manuscript won out. Sorry.

But I can’t stop to think about the Friday Fictioneers stories that might have been. I’m back, and I missed you guys.

And, of course, for my first story after my hiatus, I chose dystopia and speculative fiction. I mean, what else would I write? “Memento Mori,” I hope, will make you think about all those roadside and street-side impromptu memorials which crop up after a tragedy. As usual, if you can see the link in the title a couple of lines above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab; then select the story from the drop-down list.

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The Prodigal Returns

It’s been over a month since my last substantive post here–on the first day of AWP. It’s not that I haven’t been writing; I have. Mostly re-writing. I haven’t been writing my political blog; I haven’t done Friday Fictioneers; I haven’t done Flash! Friday. I’ve not put my finger on quite why, other than the obvious: winter doldrums, lingering nasty weather, and overall write-on-a-self-imposed-deadline burnout.

So, here’s a summary: AWP was great; I had story selected as a finalist in a national contest; the agent loved my writing but decided my novel wasn’t for him; the Virginia Festival of the book was wonderful (though I’ll confess I wish I’d been a panelist instead of in the audience); I had a story rejected for an anthology about a week after an anthology appeared with one of my stories in it; I had an editor solicit a story from me “for consideration;” and we’re about ten days away from the staging of my ten-minute play, “Yo’ Momma,” which was a winner in the Ampersand Arts “Bar Hopping” Contest.

Then, on Sunday, I got tagged in a Facebook post: “Name 15 authors who’ve influenced you and who will always stick with you.” Once I started thinking about that, I began to jot down names and decided this would be a much better blog post than a comment on a Facebook post.

I’m back!

Here are the fifteen authors who’ve influenced me with a brief explanation of how and why, divided into women and men but listed in alphabetical order so as not to give away who is/was the most influential.

Louisa May Alcott - She embodied for me the woman writer’s struggle to be accepted for what you are by society and family.

Margaret Atwood – She shows the world that dystopian fiction can be intelligent and well-wrought, and that makes her worthy of emulation.

Jane Austen – For her time, she wielded a sharp pen of sarcasm, feminism, and egalitarianism, and, damn, but she could turn a phrase.

Charlotte Bronte – She showed me that romance and happy endings aren’t elusive after all.

Ursula K. LeGuin - She is a pioneer in one of my favorite genres, science fiction, and I first heard “write what you want to write” from her.

Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters – She taught me that romantic pairs as protagonists can carry a series (or several series in her case) and that the romance doesn’t detract from a good mystery story.

Sara Paretsky – She showed me your female protagonist can take care of herself and not be dependent upon a man and still be popular (and don’t let editors tell you otherwise) and that plots suffused with liberal politics can be, too.

Kate Wilhelm - She showed that female writers could write “hard” science sci-fi stories and be respected by her male colleagues, even the stodgy ones.

Honorable Mentions: Marion Zimmer Bradley, Octavia Butler, Shirley Jackson, Doris Lessing, Flannery O’Connor,

Isaac Asimov - As well as being one of the most prolific authors of the twentieth century, he showed me you could tell a story and educate people at the same time.

Harlan Ellison - As well as being an ardent admirer of LeGuin, he showed me that you could and should go into the dark areas of the mind and write about them. He also spent fifteen minutes with me once and told me to never, ever give up writing.

William Faulker – He showed me what every writer from the south needs to accept–our history is both full of joy and worthy of embarrassment.

Thomas Hardy - I love this man’s prose. He can take pages to relate a nanosecond of plot, but you don’t mind.

Stephen King - He showed me that when you write about the horrific, at least do it in a way which elevates it.

Boris Pasternak – He showed me how an artist should stand up for the integrity of his or her work and that an epic should truly be an epic.

Kurt Vonnegut - He showed me that a good story is worth spending weeks, months, even years to perfect.

Honorable Mentions: Mikhail Bulgakov, Fredreich Engels, Seamus Heaney, James Joyce, V. I. Lenin, Karl Marx, Vladimir Nabokov, William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Leo Tolstoy

Now, fifteen of the writers who read this need to do the same. ;)

 

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Book Sales and Signing

If you’re in Virginia this week for the Virginia Festival of the Book, stop by the book fair on Saturday, March 22, 2014, at 1000. I’ll be selling copies of Fences, Blood Vengeance, Spy Flash, and 1x50x100 (an anthology featuring one of my stories) at the Virginia Writers Club book table. Here’s the information:

March 22, 2014, at 1000
Book Sales and Signing
VA Festival of the Book Book Fair
Omni Hotel
Room: Atrium
212 Ridge McIntire Road
Charlottesville, VA
Virginia Writer Club table

I hope to see lots of writer friends there!

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AWP Report – Part 1

Before this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, I’d been to Seattle four previous occasions, all for work. I stayed in government-rate hotels near the airport or the Boeing complex. At my agency, if a group went to a locale for the same event, not everyone got approval for a rental car. If you weren’t the one with a car, you had to beg for a ride or rent one on your own. On my first trip, I couldn’t accept that I was so close to Seattle and might not get a chance to go there, so I rented a car on my own and drove downtown. I paid an outrageous price to park the car for the day; then did all the typical tourist things. I continued to blow my personal budget with a dinner at the Space Needle’s revolving restaurant. That was on my bucket list before I ever knew what a bucket list was.

Seattle is a gorgeous, bustling, clean, artsy city, which now is one of the greenest in the country. Gas cars are being phased out as cabs, replaced by hybrids; many city buses are also hybrids; and every place you enter has recycling and composting bins–even the hotel rooms have a recycle bin for plastics. Seattle has a decent literary history and several top-notch MFA programs, but it has long been a refuge for artists. It’s famous for its blown glass artists and sculptors, but this week it’s hosting probably more authors in a single place than anywhere else in the world. I hadn’t been in Seattle for six years, but the city’s vibe and energy were still there, and I arrived a whole day early to reacquaint myself with the only other city in the U.S. I could imagine myself living and working.

Unfortunately, Pike Place Market seemed a little seedier than it used to be, and there are a lot more street people than I remember, which could mean the city government isn’t dealing will with some people’s needs; but this isn’t the political blog. Seattle also now has one of those ubiquitous, over-sized, ugly Ferris wheels on its waterfront, but, overall, though, it’s the same lively place which got me hooked on Starbucks twenty-plus years ago.

I started Thursday, the first “official” day of the conference with a panel called “Structuring the Novel,” moderated by Summer Wood and featuring Melissa Remark, Jennie Shortridge, and Tara Conklin. This was a standing-room only event, and I was glad to have arrived early enough to get a seat.

This is my third AWP, and at each one I’ve heard the discussions that it’s getting too big to fulfill attendees’ needs. Indeed, the panels are being held among three buildings, all within two blocks, but, still, with only fifteen minutes between panels, getting from the far end of one building to the far end of another is problematic. But I digress.

All the members of the novel structure panel described how they personally structured their works. Conklin’s novel The House Girl has, what Conklin herself calls, an innovative structure–two timelines alternating every fifteen to twenty pages and incorporating sections other than narrative. Conklin advises, though, if you use an innovative structure, “you have to have a reason, it has to draw out or fit the themes in your novel.”

Shortridge indicated her structure issues are pretty typical of most of us–she gets a strong beginning and a catchy ending, but the middle “is a muddle, is soft, and needs structure.” She shifted her thinking and writes the middle with the end in mind. She also advocates the “four-act” structure: setting up, seeking, engaging, denouement. Sometimes, she says, she borrows from other genres; e.g., “If I’m writing an action sequence I model it after a thriller.”

Melissa Remark, a recent MFA graduate who has a background in script writing for film and television suggests we find the “present” thread in any uniquely structured novel and start with that. Pacing can also develop structure; e.g., a fast-paced middle and a lagging ending can thwart any attempt at structure, innovative or otherwise.

Long indicated that once you find the “deep structure or soul” of your story, the structure comes naturally. The soul is a set of connections which matter but they have to be intertwined, revealing the story beneath the story, or what you intended to write in the first place. Long also indicated that we should trust our instincts, that our “subconscious communicates our values to our conscious mind,” but if we don’t pay attention to it, it becomes writer’s block.

After that panel, I spent some time in the book fair, where I once again got the itch for an MFA, even though I’ve been told I don’t need one. I probably don’t. I don’t want to teach, but it would be nice to have a bigger writing community. Considering the expense, I really don’t think one is in my future. However, I discovered there are a lot of literary journals I can submit to, and I spent quite a bit of time at the Sewanee table, discussing the workshop I’m going to apply for.

The next panel was the key one for the day for me–”Writing Unsympathetic Characters.” My female protagonist evokes diametrically opposite opinions in people. Some like her as a strong, no-nonsense woman who has a deep sense of justice. Others find her brash and profane. At a critique group session recently, one person said, “Does she have to curse?” (Well, yes, she does; when you’re kicking ass you don’t watch your language.) I was hoping this panel would give me some insight on how to keep her as is but make her more universally appealing.

But when moderator Irina Reyn opened by saying, “Often readers don’t want to spend time characters they couldn’t be friends with. Well, I say, if you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.”

Panelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz said, “Unpleasant characters are the most memorable, but the writer has to care about what that character is doing. Only then will the reader read on to see how the character ends up. If the writing is good, the reader will finish regardless of the character’s likability.”

Hannah Tinti, the editor of “One Story,” used markers and a sheet of paper tacked to the wall to illustrate her point that we should approach unsympathetic characters as if they were super-villains in a graphic novel:

  • a costume (the physicality of the character)
  • a superpower (what the character is good at)
  • the kryptonite (the character’s weakness)
  • the back story (the character’s past)
  • a quest (the diabolical plan, i.e., what does the character want, what motivates everything he/she does?)

Erin Harris added that an unsympathetic character who has no motive is a problem. “The reader wants to know the psychology,” she said, and that makes the character three-dimensional.

Publisher Richard Nash indicated we shouldn’t be afraid of a negative reaction to a character. What we should worry about is “no reaction at all.”

There were a lot of great points from this panel, and they gave me confidence that the way my protagonist is, is the right way.

After another swing through the book fair, I got ready for at event at a local Irish pub called Kells. I had entered my story “The Dragon Who Breathed no Fire,” retitled as “Man on Fire,” in the Press 53 Flash Fiction “Visions and Apparitions” Contest. I love this story, and I had a good feeling about its chances. So, when they read my name as one of the finalists, I was thrilled beyond belief. It didn’t win, but this was rather like the Academy Awards–you’re honored to be nominated. What was even better was meeting the judges afterwards and hearing how much they loved the story. “Get that story out there and get it published,” one judge said. I’ll do just that.

Continued in Part Two

 

 

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