Every Delicious Byte

IT’S PART OF THE WRITING GAME that every word, every keystroke, feels important and deathless, at least for a while.

I don’t spend my days in a struggle to the death over every word, but there’s no doubt that’s how it feels for me sometimes. Writing can be less like Robert Browning’s “first, fine careless rapture” and more like carving words into stone with a rubber mallet. Thomas Mann said it well: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than for other people.”

After struggling in the first place to wrestle them onto the page, it’s another struggle to cut these precious words and phrases, even when I know they have to go to make room for better things.

I had a good writing week–a couple of very productive writing days and a couple of so-so ones.  Most important, I made a significant change I’d been postponing for some time in my murder mystery.

I resisted doing the deed in part because it required some confusing restructuring and editing. I hate doing that stuff because the opportunities to mess things up are rife; I even color code at-risk passages so I know which ones still fit together before doing the dreaded cut-and-paste. At times I resort to actual cutting and pasting–I print out the pages and have at them with scissors and a glue stick.

This week, the result of all this meant cutting (and not re-pasting) about 2,000 words from my tale.

I  like to know a lot about my characters; I write biographies for them and fit the details into the narrative. This is helpful to me, but the reader doesn’t need it all. Some of the eliminated words were this kind of back-story, not really critical to the action of the book.  But most of it was good material that just didn’t work.

When Word tells you to the byte how many words you’ve written so far and you know how many words you need your book to be (65,000, give or take) it’s really tough to dump the equivalent of a full day’s work with one keystroke and feel good about it.

But when I was done, and I’d written new words, I did feel good about it. The new stuff I wrote was better than the words I’d cut. Much better. The resulting passages got into the action more quickly without leaving the reader confused. They’re good.

As usual, I was sorry I had waited so long, and agonized so hard, over changes that turned out to be for the best.

Alas, this is a lesson I’ve learned many times and so I have every confidence it won’t stick with me. The next time I am poised with scissors and glue stick (either literally or virtually)  the angst will be the same.

It’s not all time wasted.  At some level the “bad” passages are due a kind of respect. They have the right to stay if they can persuade me they are value added to my book.  And persuasion takes time.

Outline Or Michigas

Thanks to my friends Graham Beattie and Lia Matera for this wonderful quote from Raymond Chandler which fits so well with my thoughts today:

“I am having a hard time with the book. Have enough paper written to make it complete, but must do all over again. I just didn’t know where I was going and when I got there I saw that I had come to the wrong place. That’s the hell of being the kind of writer who cannot plan anything, but has to make it up as he goes along and then try to make sense out of it. If you gave me the best plot in the world all worked out I could not write it. It would be dead for me.”

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IF WRITERS ARE TELLING THE TRUTH about their process—always a risky bet—then a lot of us develop an outline before we begin to write, while an equal number eschew the restraint that an outline imposes and just wing it. (Can you tell I’ve always wanted to write a sentence containing ‘eschew’? The opportunities are less common than you might think.)

For years I was a dedicated camp follower of the wing it brigade.  It felt more creative to just let things happen. I’m not such a devotee nowadays, but I still jump-start a new novel by writing a dramatic scene for my heroine without bothering with context. This isn’t necessarily the opening scene; it can eventually end up anywhere in the book. Sometimes, it doesn’t make the cut at all. But  I develop the story and characters organically using that scene as a platform. And then I reverse engineer an outline to guide the rest of the novel.

This is a result of techniques honed during my master’s degree in writing and afterwards, teaching writing to others in a workshop setting. Writers throw challenges at each other as part of the learning process: “Invent a new god for Greek mythology. Two minutes”  “Write a scene with your main character eating a meal alone. Five minutes.”  “Describe a Christmas tree. Three minutes.”

Unfortunately, when applied to a novel this method tends to produce a series of unrelated scenes, character sketches and plot lines which then have to be linked into a coherent whole.  No carefully-drawn outline survives the mishigas when the book can go off in any direction at any moment.

I’ve worked like this, (Chandler, too, apparently) but it’s not ideal for me.  It was fun and challenging in its way, but it was a bit like doing a jig saw puzzle with the pieces turned over. I had the shape of the pieces as a guide but no idea where I was headed. The “picture” at the end was a surprise to the reader (a good thing) and to me (less so).

For a murder mystery (almost always a highly disciplined type of novel) I really need to work from some sort of outline.  Sure I always have at least one corpse, which makes the dramatic center of the novel a sure thing. But it’s a good idea to know how it got that way and why and by whom before I get too far in. I can still incorporate unexpected characters, scenes and action I run into along the way.

It’s a bit like having a sculptor’s steel armature; when it’s rock steady I can be as carefree as I like throwing clay at it—the thing will stand up and hold together.

Indecisive? Maybe.

HONESTLY, THE DAY AFTER I began this blog didn’t go well for me in a writing sense.  I’d spent the best part of a day setting up the site, writing the first post, then blabbing about it on Face Book.  There was no writing getting done on the novels, but I felt as if I was priming the pump, which felt good.

The blog was serving one of its purposes; it was keeping my writers’ muscles flexible. And of course I got the strokes of having written and published, no matter in how limited a fashion.

But the next morning, instead of leaping to my laptop to work on one of my novels, I found myself practicing some fairly advanced avoidance techniques. On-line shopping, Face Book, gardening, checking out my first blog post in case something had changed since the last time I checked it, and then admiring how it read and how it looked on the page.  (Very cool actually.)

A trip to the drug store was suddenly imperative.  It’s important to have two extra tubes of toothpaste and some hair conditioner in case you run out. A read-through of the past week’s work to date—this is one of my best avoidance techniques—gave me another hour’s distraction.  And then suddenly it was time to get ready for a dinner date with friends and the opportunity to crow in my next blog post about how productive I’d been was lost.

The truth is, I’m at the stage with all three novels when I have to buckle down and get serious about the next stage in the action and I’m postponing the commitment. I’m facing a junction with multiple roads heading off to all points of the compass.  Almost any journey is possible now, but the next step will limit the roads I can travel, and the step after that will narrow down the route even more as I get closer to my destination.

I can’t decide if I’m excited and enthralled by the number of paths open to me, or if I’m just really, really indecisive.

In one view I’m empowered by the possibilities; in the other I’m sort of a coward, unwilling to commit, right?

Difficult to decide which.

The Art of the Deal

BEING A WRITER, and a narcissist, it feels like long past time for me to begin a blog. I write genre fiction–murder mysteries mostly (hence the blog name) and also romances, thrillers, that kind of thing.   Those of you who know me well know that I had a contract with Bantam Books a number of years ago, which was the victim of a corporate merger and the consequential cutting back on their stable of new writers. I allowed that set-back to derail me. Clearly, (in addition to being a narcissist) I’m easily discouraged.

So now I’m several months into a leap of faith: I’m taking a year off to write some new things, get a new literary agent, and see if I can get into print. The blog will be some random thoughts on how I write, what I write and (the nature of creativity being what it is) how I don’t write.  Fair warning: this won’t be the useful kind of blog which links you to all sorts of other helpful blogs. It will be mostly a way for me to chronicle my writing life and, if I’m lucky enough to have anyone else read it, to share some of my journey with you.

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Monday, May 6, 2013

I FEEL AS IF I PAY for every productive day with at least two days of wandering around the house lamenting that I’m not writing.  I envy writers who say they write for (add number here) hours a day, or until they’ve written (add number here) words in a day.  I make deals like that with myself all the time.  The trouble is, I’m not trustworthy; I renege on the agreement before the ink on the contract is dry.

A usual day for me begins with a brief work-out; that’s one deal I’m trying to keep.

My mantra is EEDD:

On days when I feel like exercising the initials stand for: Exercise Every Delightful Day

On days when I don’t feel like exercising, they stand for: Exercise Every Damn Day

I drink my breakfast, not in the old-time private eye tradition with a shot of rye, but in the New Age California tradition of kale, apple, strawberries, blueberries and anything else I can find in the fridge whipped up in the blender into a sort of smoothie that’s really closer to a sludgie, but which usually tastes great.

I feed and walk Picasso. On days when he’s feeling a bit frail this might be a turn about the garden. On days when he’s feeling up to it, we take a 30-minute walk around the neighborhood.

When we come back I have a cup of tea and a biscuit and then I have a choice: Laptop or Kindle?

When I choose the Kindle, the day is pretty much over since I often only come out of my reading coma in time for Picasso’s early evening walk.

If I choose the laptop I check my e-mail, then open FaceBook and fool around there for twenty minutes, then I check my e-mail again, delete the junk and write responses to anyone who needs an answer.

I leave the laptop turned on, as a sort of pledge that I’ll return, and go and get another cup of tea.  When I come back I check in on Face Book again. Usually something catches my eye or piques my interest and I wander around on strange Face Book pages for a while, enjoying the sense of learning something new even when the something new is just funny photos of moose up to their knees in snow in Saskatchewan.

When I’ve had my fill of moose photos and I really can’t postpone it any longer, I open one of the three novels I’m currently working on.  On a good day, this is the beginning of four or five hours of productive work. On a not-so-good day I don’t write anything new; I polish and re-write the passages I’ve already written. This is where my genius lies: I can actually postpone writing by writing.  It’s really incredibly clever.  I work at my laptop, my fingers are flying over the keyboard and anyone watching me (not that anyone is) would assume that I’m being as productive as all get-out. But they would be wrong. I know the difference.

There is a time and a place for re-writing and polishing of course.  That time is when the main body of the work is done. But I can polish and polish until the original is completely worn away.

Sometimes my ability to procrastinate amazes even me.

Time to make a new deal: No more polishing for at least another 5,000 words.

I’ll let you know how it works out.