Looking Forward

Soon — a matter of days, now — I will have the novel finished.  And then I can begin the fun part:  revision.

No, I’m not being ironic.  I’m just one of those writers for whom generating the first-draft text is the tough part.  Revision, on the other hand, is a pleasure, because that’s when I can take the rough lump of undistinguished prose and work on it until it sings.  (Or shrieks, if that’s what I want it to do.)  At times like that, I’m convinced that the proof of God’s love for writers is that he gave us the opportunity to make a second draft.

Other writers don’t see it that way, of course.  They’re the ones for whom writing the first draft is the pure joy of creation, like God on the first day, and revision is hard, brain-breaking work.

If you’re reading this, you probably know already which kind of writer you are.  But a couple of diagnostics, just in case:

Do you keep on tinkering with your finished story or novel, rather than biting the bullet and sending it out?  Do you tell yourself, “I have to follow up one more bit of research” or “I need to tweak the last paragraph just a little bit to make it perfect”?

You’re a reviser.  Because that’s the reviser’s way of shooting him-or-herself in the foot.  Perfection is always one more iteration away, and until the work is perfect, it can’t be turned loose into the world.

Do you finish your story in a blaze of energy, then put it aside “just for a little while, to get some perspective” — only to have your attention caught by the idea for a new story instead?  Is your desk drawer or your hard drive full of completed one-draft stories, languishing untouched while you pursue the latest and brightest butterfly?

You’re a first-draft wizard.  Your problem isn’t with getting ideas and giving them form, it’s with neglecting them afterwards instead of making them wash behind their ears and put on clean clothes and show prospective readers their company manners.

Either way, there’s only one cure:  You have to learn how to do the part of the job you think is hard work, in order to do the part of the job you think is fun.

Deadline Cookery Redux

The looming deadline looms ever nearer, and tonight’s dinner is therefore dazzling in its simplicity:  Crockpot Kielbasa and Cabbage.

For which you need only a crockpot, a head of cabbage, and about one pound of kielbasa.  You cut up the cabbage into small enough pieces that it’ll fit into your crockpot, you cut up the kielbasa into half-rounds, and you slow-cook them together on low until dinnertime.  Some people put caraway seeds into the pot with the cabbage, but we’ve got at least one anti-caraway person in this household, so I don’t.

It’s hard to get much simpler than this.

Go Read This

Charlie Jane Anders, over at io9, provides a helpful list of ways to tell if the first draft of your novel is worth salvaging.

If you decide that in fact it isn’t worth revising, don’t despair.  First, just by finishing it you’ve accomplished something that most people never do.  Second, you’ll have gained some insight into your artistic obsessions and thematic concerns (“Hello, traumatic high school experience– nice to see you showing up again in yet another story!”) .  And finally, it all counts for practice, like the scales and Hanon studies and Czerny études that a concert pianist does before he can play at Carnegie Hall.

Sometimes I See Movies

Not as often as I might, because the nearest movie theater is still forty-five minutes of winding two-lane blacktop away, and some of those winding bits have moose in them, and none of them are fun if the weather turns bad.

(When the signs up here say BRAKE FOR MOOSE, they mean it.  Moose are like skunks and porcupines:  they don’t get out of the way of other things, other things get out of the way of them.  But skunks and porcupines can’t bash in the entire front of your car if you hit them.  So if there’s a moose in the road ahead of you, hit the brakes, sound the horn, and aim for where the moose isn’t.)

But I did get to see Skyfall last week, and enjoyed it greatly.  The separate parts of the globe-hopping narrative hung together well (not always the case in a Bond-franchise plot), the various extended chase and action sequences were of a proper and proportionate length, rather than being drawn out longer than necessary for pointless spectacle (more than one otherwise good action movie has been spoiled for me by the inclusion of sequences which might as well be advertisements for the video game); and the secondary characters are individuals in their own right, not just foils and mirrors for Bond.

Also, Judi Dench as M gives a bravura performance.  In a way, this movie is as much about M as it is about Bond himself, and Dench carries it off splendidly.  Even if you don’t care for action movies in general or Bond films in particular, I’d say that Skyfall is worth watching for her contribution alone.

Some Questions Answered

Q.  Do I need to get a bachelor’s degree in creative writing in order to be a writer?

A.  No.  Get a degree in something that interests you, like chemistry or English literature; or get a degree in something that will bring in a paycheck, like computer programming or dental hygiene.  Take as many electives as you can in things like literature and history and anthropology, and don’t stop writing.

Q.  Do I need to get a Master’s of Fine Arts in creative writing in order to be a writer?

A.  Definitely not.  If you truly like academia and can afford to spend the time and money, you might enjoy the experience; and if you have ambitions to write a particular kind of literary novel, you might make some useful connections that way; but most writers do just fine without needing to acquire paper credentials.

Q.  Do I need to attend a writers’ workshop in order to be a writer?

A.  No.  Again, if you can afford the time and the money, you may enjoy the experience; and (as with undergraduate and graduate writing courses) you may learn some bits of craft and technique in the class or workshop setting at a more accelerated rate than if you’d struggled to figure them out on your own.  Still, most writers do fine without attending either classes or a workshop.

Q.  All right, then.  What do I need to do in order to become a writer?

A.  Read.  Read a lot, and read widely.  Read fiction and nonfiction; read good books and trash.

And write.  All you need for that part is a pen and some paper, or an open computer file.

Write until the page isn’t blank any more.

Then do it again.  And again.  And….

You get the idea.

Shopping for the Writer in Your Life

It’s that time of year again.   If you’ve got a writer in your life, here are some places to shop:

Levenger’s, home of desktop porn writer’s and reader’s furniture and accessories in wood and leather and other high-end materials.  Check out their portable editor’s desk, or their cast iron combination ruler and paperweight, just for starters.

Or there’s Museumize, for all sorts of replica artwork, jewelry, and knick-knacks.   If you want a gargoyle or a pair of New York Public Library lions, this is the place to go.

Or you could get him or her the world’s best fruitcake, which comes from the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas.

If all else fails, there’s always a gift certificate from the brick-and-mortar or online bookstore of your choice.  It won’t win points for originality, but — writers being, almost invariably, insatiable readers — it will almost certainly be appreciated.

What the Eye Takes Note Of

You can’t describe everything — everything has too much stuff in it.  And even if you could describe everything, your readers wouldn’t stand for it; their minds would buckle under the weight of all the stuff there is in the world.  So you have to pick and choose.  Give your readers not all that there is about something, but two or three things about it to hang their mental image on.

But how are you going to decide what those things are?

Start by thinking about your readers.  They’re going to assume that if you’re directing their attention toward something, then it has to be something important, something that they’re either supposed to be using now or saving for later.  So don’t let them down by wasting their attention on something that isn’t one of those things.

Stuff that they’re supposed to be using for the scene they’re reading right now would include:  a detail that conveys important information about a major character (this one is left-handed; that one is carrying a pistol in a shoulder holster; the other one has one brown eye and one blue eye; and so on); details that help to establish the setting (the floor of the grand hall is polished black marble and the ceiling is painted with a fresco of the apotheosis of King Egbert the Eighteenth); a detail that moves the plot forward (the golden apple has a tag on it saying “for the fairest”; the third red lozenge from the left on the lid of the enameled jewel-box opens the secret compartment.)

Stuff that they’re going to want to save for later might be:  the left-handed man’s ebony walking-stick (which he will use for self-defense in a later chapter); the velvet-lined secret compartment in the jewel-box (which will be used in the next chapter to hide the forged identification papers); the polished black marble floor of the grand hall (where the character with the one brown eye and the one blue eye will slip and fall while running to escape the character who’s carrying the pistol in a shoulder holster.)

You’ll note that some of the details up above are doing double duty — they’re establishing something about the “now” of the story and at the same time planting something that will be useful later.  Good writing is economical like that.

(And no, I have no idea what the story might be that would involve pistols and walking-sticks and forged papers and an odd-eyed fugitive in a land ruled by the descendants of King Egbert the Eighteenth.  But I’ll bet it’s a lively one.)

A Truth Universally Acknowledged

Thanksgiving dinner is essentially a Pie Delivery System.

This year we’re having apple streusel, cherry streusel, and pumpkin.

Things I’m thankful for, as a writer:

Word processing technology, because it hands over most of the mechanical drudgery to mechanical drudges.

The internet, and in particular the web, because it lets me do research without having to travel many miles over hedges and stiles in order to be physically present in the same room as the text, or on the same hillside as the view.

Editors, because they work to make my books not just better, but as good as possible.

Publishers, because they do all the hard work of production and distribution so I don’t have to.

And readers, because without them I’d just be talking to an empty room.

Have a happy Thanksgiving, if you’re celebrating; and have a good day anyhow, if you’re not.

Peeve of the Day

The past tense of sneak is sneaked.

No, it is not snuck, except in dialogue, or in certain kinds of first-person narrative.  (The technical term for these cases is “privileged speech,” in case you ever need to win an argument with your copyeditor.)

The philologist in me is fascinated by the fact that an English word appears to be in the process of changing from a weak verb — one where the past tense is signaled by the -ed ending — to a strong verb — one where the past tense is signalled by a change in the root vowel — when usually the process goes the other way around.  But the writer in me simply bangs her fist on the table and says that snuck is wrong, dammit, and that’s that.

The Dreariest Part of the Year

In my opinion, at this and higher latitudes it’s the stretch from mid-November through the winter solstice. Right now, in other words. The days don’t just get shorter, they spiral down into darkness, with twilight arriving at 3:30 or 4 in the afternoon.

On the positive side, when the solstice comes around, it’s a real pleasure to see the days getting perceptibly longer right away — it’s obvious, in that context, why so many high-latitude cultures have got a “Hey! Wow! The sun came back!” holiday scheduled for that time of year.

(The coldest time of the year is something else. Around here it’s mid-January through mid-February, and I don’t associate that season with darkness, I associate it with the kind of bright, cold sunshine that you only get when there’s snow on the ground and the temperature is somewhere well below zero Fahrenheit. Beautiful weather, but absolutely pitiless.)

..what does this have to do with writing?  Not very much.  Except that I find it hard to concentrate on fiction when my feet are cold.