Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Tidy or Messy?

Someone once told me they had read a study that said people are more creative if their surroundings are neat and tidy. I think I might have to test that out in another lifetime.

I like to keep my house in good order. I’m not obsessively tidy, mind you, but I do like to clean up when things start to get out of hand. I like to have enough order so that I can find things when I need them. It makes me anxious if my house gets too messy. So how come that doesn’t hold true in my workspace? It’s a disaster area. Occasionally I can’t stand he disorder anymore, so I go into a frenzy and clean up my space. Good, right? Not really. Ten minutes after I sit down to work, it’s messy again. It’s like magic. I get out an article I need to read for my WIP, and when I’m done, it falls where it may. I print out something and fling it wherever it lands. I get a phone call or an email and make notes and then lay the note down “wherever.”

Right now on my desk I have two partially drunk bottles of water that have been there for weeks. I have old notes to myself, a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology that I took out a few weeks ago to look up something and never put back. Half-read books, bookmarks, a half-finished crossword puzzle, pencils with no lead, receipts from my last conference that I have yet to file…

What’s going on? My best self believes that a messy desk is a sign of a messy brain. But tell that to the imp who doesn’t put things back. I’ve come to the conclusion that as tidy as the rest of my house is, my study is never going to measure up.

Since this has been going on for a long time, I have a suspicion that there must be a reason for it. I’d like to think that the messy desk signals that my mind is creating order out of the chaos of ideas that tumble around in my head. But maybe I’m just lazy.

I’m curious to know how others handle this. In many polls, you’ll find that half of respondents do things one way, half do it another way—and sometimes they are passionate about their of doing things. Best example I know is the divide between plotters and pantsers.

So I’m taking an informal poll here. Is your desk tidy or messy? And why?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Editing for "fun"

I don’t know about everyone else, but I’d rather edit anyone else’s work than my own. When I read another person’s WIP, I am clever, astute, and forthright. I can give terrific advice, and know that I’m helping someone write a best seller.

When I tackle my own, on the other hand, I’m something of a dullard. But that is only true when I actually sit down in front of the draft to start editing. Before that, in my head I’m turning turgid, bloated sentences into elegant, dare I say “poetic” prose. My characters, who for the past 90,000 words have hidden behind corners refusing to join me, leap off the page with just a few brilliant key strokes. Plot lines that are as tangled as a Gordion knot suddenly reveal themselves to be masters of ingenuity.

Humph. Daydream all you want, honey, the first go-round of edits will barely get you headed in the right direction. Your characters will begin to wake up and stretch, laughing at your attempts to goose them into action. You will read your plot in the next two books you pick up, not to mention that it will happen in real life and your plot will be revealed in a series of newspaper articles. That poetic prose? Pedestrian at best.

You will wonder why you thought you could write scenes set in a city you not only don’t know well, but have never visited—in fact that you never even wanted to visit. You’ll wonder why you didn’t set your book in Paris or Florence, or even New York City—places you actually love. Why Kabul? Or Minsk? Or Ames, Iowa?

Why did you think you knew anything about hacking computer code? Or about the intricacies of banking—or that you could make either of those things interesting? How did you think you could get into the mind of a 30-year-old woman when you left your thirties in the dust a long, long time ago? In your you write successfully about a geezer, so how does that give you confidence that you can get inside the head of a forty-year old man?

In the first go at a draft, I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not a work all done; it’s a work in progress. I might have to dig a little deeper to understand how a thirty-something woman thinks these days. I have to read articles and books about what it’s like living in Kabul. I have to make sure the names I’ve chosen for my Middle Eastern characters are actually workable and that I’m not naming an Afghani man a name that only an Iranian man would have. I have to check a slew of facts—and then recheck them. And that’s apart from getting to know my characters deeply, and making sure the plot doesn’t have gaping holes.

Bottom line: That’s what editing is—not the fun part you get to do when you read someone else’s WIP, where you point out a little discrepancy and then go on your merry way, but the hard grind of smoothing, rechecking, discovering, and making it work.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

My Next Book

I’m thinking about my next Samuel Craddock book. It’s going to be dynamite. Brilliant, actually. Every word of it will be breathtakingly beautiful. A literary tour de force—but also an intriguing, genre-bending, complex mystery. And the characters—don’t even get me started on the depth and breadth of the characters. They’ll leap off the page. Everyone will think they actually know the characters. I’ll get so many emails and letters that I’ll have to hire a secretary to keep up with answering them.

I won’t have enough shelf space for all the awards this book will win. It will fly off the shelves. An overnight sensation. TV and radio interviews. Speaking engagements, audio contracts, movie deals, foreign sales will fall into my lap. Other writers will read the book and say, “Well, I may as well close up my computer and take a course in how to be an electrician. No way I can compete with her wonderful book.” It’ll sell at least a million copies. I can already start spending the money. It’s a sure thing.

Ha! Ever had these thoughts before? Yeah, neither have I. May I suggest that a little pill called Percoset might have something to do with this fantasy? Yep, that’s where the high-flown thought came from.

Maybe we writers could use more of this kind of feverish self-confidence when we sit down in front of the blank page. Instead, I get this:  I? Write a book? Are you kidding? The others were flukes—this time I’ll crash and burn! My characters will be wooden, the prose forgettable, the descriptions trite, the plot indecipherable. Blah, blah, blah.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have that bit of fantasy to spur us on? Not at the cost of taking a drug, it isn’t. At least not to me. I’ve been taking it for pain, and I can’t wait to stop. Give me plain old reality over this drug-induced grandiosity. Maybe I’m too invested in the Puritan work ethic: the goal isn’t worth achieving if it doesn’t involve some struggle. But somehow I feel that if I don’t have to put in some hard hours, the book will be forgettable at best, atrocious at worst.

Sure, I have some moments when I feel exhilarated, when I’m thinking, “I think that paragraph worked,” or, “Hmmm, that character is finally coming to me.” It’s a reward I get for rewriting the paragraph ten times, or for obsessing about a character’ background and motivations. In cold, hard reality, that will have to do.

So I’m the fantasy aside and getting back to work. Oh, yes, but first I have to write a list of actors I think would play Samuel Craddock in the movie.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

E.L. Doctorow and Me

First an apology. I didn't post on my blog last week. The complications from shoulder surgery ended up creating a lot of pain and there were any things fell off the wagon. It wasn't that I didn't get around to writing a post--it was that I didn't think of it at all until Friday. So forgive me, please.

I hope you enjoy reading about what Ed Doctorow taught me.

When I had newly decided to become a writer, I signed up for a writing conference at which a member of the faculty was E.L. Doctorow. He was a congenial man with a ready laugh, a sparkling wit, and best of all for fledgling writers a passionate interest in teaching the craft of writing.

At any conference you find those in the faculty who for whatever reason don’t make themselves available except in staged opportunities—giving a talk followed by a question and answer session. These can be well-done talks that make a true attempt to provide useful information to greenhorns, or they can be light, entertaining “feel good” talks. And then there is that rare breed of natural-born teachers who mingle and make themselves available for one-on-one questions. I recently attended Thrillerfest and found David Morrell a wonderful example of this later type. Nab him in passing for a question, and he’ll answer in full.

Doctorow was like that and during the course of the workshop he provided one of the most valuable lessons I ever got at a writing workshop. Each evening one of the faculty would give an hour lecture on the subject of his or her choice. When Doctorow’s time came, he said he was going to give us a gift—he was going to read at length from the first draft of his work in progress. For the next hour we were dazzled by sparkling passages of prose. It was intimidating hearing what this man thought of as “first draft.” To me it sounded polished and ready for publication.

Later, at the bar, he asked me what I thought of the reading. I told him that I was intimidated and thought he had been showing off. He was taken aback and insisted that wasn’t his intention at all. He wanted to illustrate the random nature of what comes out in first draft—the little riffs you go on that really have nothing to do with the story, the playing with words and ideas, the exploring of a character or situation to see where it will lead.

Only when the book, Loon Lake, came out did I understand fully what he meant. What survived from all those golden words he read that night were a few sentences—because those were the ones that actually meant something in the book.

I’ve just written a 100,000 word first draft, and my writer’s group is wondering when they’ll get to see it. I told them it would be quite a while. The draft is full of those rambling asides that in the end will not make the cut, so why subject them to reading that? There may be perfectly good passages of prose in the draft that won’t make the cut because they have nothing to do with the book itself. It would be a waste of time and energy for readers to wade through things that I know won’t make the cut.

Learning to recognize what belongs—what is important to the book you want to write—is one of the hardest editing lessons a writer has to learn.  Doctorow gave us a gift when he put his raw words out on the page. Whether we accepted the gift was up to us.