Monthly Archives: June 2010

Pleasantly Surprised

A little while ago, as I said here, I received my free proof copy of something I wrote during NaNo last year.  Its final wordcount comes in at 300,010 words, and according to my records, I wrote it in the last 8 days of the month. The organization of it is both structured and chaotic – there are fifteen points of view and twenty sections. Within each section is 1k from each of the POVs, in a random order (no, really, I used a randomness generator) assigned before the month began. This comes out as snappy and head-jumpy and a little disorienting.

To be honest, I hadn’t actually looked at since November 30th, when I closed the file and went downstairs to jump around in celebration, have a SoCo and lime, and watch House (f’reals, that’s what I did). But when it came to the decision of which one I wanted to make into my free Createspace book, this one won out. The trilogy I wrote was slightly better organized, but much more poorly written, and the other two were only 50k apiece. By the time I finished this one, I knew that it would require a massive overhaul and probably wouldn’t even resemble the finished product. I told myself that I would read it before sending it off to get printed and bound, but somehow I never got around to it (my laziness astounds me.)

When I actually got the copy, I figured that I should probably read it, if only for shits and giggles. The last 50-some thousand were written in under 24 hours, and as it was the last thing I wrote that month, my brain and my good sense were fairly well worn out.

So I sat down with it. (For the record, the binding held up remarkably well, and the interior looks nice enough; the paper is thick enough that it doesn’t feel like it’ll tear anytime soon). I started to read.

You know what?

It’s actually not that bad.

To be fair, the first 20,000 words – when I was still figuring out who all these characters were – are mind-numbingly boring and disconnected. The next 40,000 words or so, when I was trying to get the plot moving towards something that approached progression, are only marginally better. But after that, when the characters start actually doing things and interacting with each other, it’s not so bad. There are surprisingly few grammar/spelling goofs, and I didn’t run spelling/grammar checks before sending it off to Createspace.

The ending isn’t that hot. I think I was in such a rush to get the last bit done with, that I sort-of forgot the ending that I’d been building up to and sidetracked from it by quite a large margin.

Most of the characters are interesting enough, though there are a couple who shouldn’t be nearly as boring as they come over. I mean, I have a serial killer movie star, a propaganda director turned film director turned propaganda director, an egomaniacal Congressman, and a television evangelist, to name a few.

Some of the plot lines fizzle out because they simply weren’t as interesting when I was writing it as others (there are about four or five through the course of the book), and so they got less attention and less care.

Right now, it ain’t close to publishable. Even if 300,000 words were acceptable for a first novel, I’d still have to beg people to slog on through the first two sections of the book before there was even the promise of something good happening, and they’d probably skim the boring parts through the rest of the book as much as I did – unless they just got tired of the constant head-hopping and threw it against the wall.

Before I reread it, I wasn’t sure that it was even salvageable in anything like its present form. It’s exactly the sort of story I like to write, though, and I held onto some glimmer of hope as I started to reread it. Now that I’m done, I think it really can be saved. I even think most of the characters will stick around, though I’m going to have to figure out how to streamline things a bit more effectively unless I want the next draft to be even longer. (Or maybe I’ll just save this one to be my fifth or sixth novel, when perhaps I’ll have more clout with my publisher…[hah, I wish!])

But for now, I’m just going to be happy.

(and, uh, get back to Burning Eden revisions).

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Your Tools

Can anyone imagine the following scenarios for me?

1. One morning, you wake up and decide to be a doctor. You find a white coat and jack a stethoscope from someone. Striding into the hospital, you make it into the doctors-only parts. Once there, you barge into an operating room, shoulder aside the surgeon, and say, “Okay. I’ve always wanted to be a doctor, and here I am! Now, someone just give me the scalpel and tell me what I need to do!”

2. One morning, you wake up and decide to build a house. You go out to a hardware store and buy a whole bunch of lumber, some nails and a hammer. The guy helping you out at the store says, “Have you ever done this before?”

“No,” you happily reply, “but how hard it can be? It’s a hammer and nail. It doesn’t get any more basic than this, does it?”

Of course you wouldn’t think of doing either of the above. I mean, you might still in the back of your mind want to be a doctor, but the rational part of you knows that you’ve got to go through a decade of school beforehand. Yet, simply because we’re raised speaking and writing English, there are those people who seem to think that this makes them eminently qualified to write a novel.

It doesn’t. Just because you went through school, wrote some essays while you were there, and use the language every day, does not mean that you’re going to be able to sit down and pen the world’s next bestseller.

I attribute a lot of this to the American I-can-have-whatever-I-want mentality. But I also attribute it to the fact that in mainstream American public education, we are not taught English grammar. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about English grammatical cases. On the other hand, I can tell you that there are six grammatical cases in Russian, three genders, and some really rather strange spelling rules. People who learn English as a foreign language, they learn English by its grammar, because English has really screwy grammar. When Americans learn a foreign language, they learn it by their grammar. I can whip out either my Russian or Arabic first year texts, and while they do start with basic vocab and alphabet, the grammar starts sneaking in very early.

I freely admit that there are a lot of English grammar rules that I don’t know very well. At least, I don’t know them to the extent that I could sit down and comfortably diagram a sentence, or explain why something is grammatical or not grammatical. I like to think that over the years, I’ve started to get a feel for what looks like it’s right and what doesn’t. It’s not spot-on,  but it’s served me fairly well. (I’m still working on getting dangling participles under control).

If you want to be a writer, words are your tools. They are your scalpel, your hammer and nails. You cannot write a book without them. And just like with my first two examples, if you don’t know how to use them well, the end result is really not something that anyone wants to look at. Sure, you could get lucky and not kill the patient, or put up enough support beams that the house doesn’t fall down, at least not right away. But the finished product is still not going to be all that it could be.

If there are gaping gaps in your grammatical knowledge, go out and buy a workbook at your local bookstore. This has been something that I’ve considered doing for a while, if only so that I can codify my knowledge. If you’re still in high school, pay damn close attention to your English classes. They don’t teach particularly awesome grammar, but you can still learn a thing or two from them.

Read books, too. Yes, there is bad writing out there on the market for you to read. But there is also beautiful writing, sentences that are flawless and constructions that add an extra dimension to the story. This is only something that has come to me recently. I recently got a shipment of books from Amazon; one of them is a fantasy novel, the other is a literary novel. Now, I enjoy both genres for radically different reasons and I certainly don’t feel that either is emblematic of their respective genres, but I only have to read a couple of pages of each to tell the difference in the writing styles. The fantasy one continues to read clunky, yet even when the literary one has sentences that drag on for an entire page (or more), the construction is still so flawless that I’m not left dragging behind wondering what the fk just happened. I feel that when you’re able to tell a well-written paragraph from a poorly-written one, that you’re starting to get more of an instinctive handle on grammar.

Forget your characterization.

Forget your plot.

Until and unless you have a firm grasp on your basic tools, nothing else is going to matter.

EDITED TO ADD:

I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t write until you know some grammar; what I really meant is that until you have a firm command of the English language, the other aspects of your writing aren’t as important.

To go back to my fairly overused analogy, when you start at med school, your first use of a scalpel is on a cadaver. You can muck that thing up pretty badly, because the person is dead and you’re just learning. Only after you learn how to use the scalpel on a dead person do you move to ones that you could actually kill.

Write to learn how to do it right, then worry about writing the next bestseller.

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Book Review: American Wife

[Sorry about the lack of blogging over the past bit. I don’t even have a good excuse for it, except that I didn’t do it. If it’s any consolation, up until today, I’d only written 3k words the entire month (I’m currently going on a hardcore writing binge – 10k days for as long as I can sustain it)]

Today’s offering: American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld.

This is a novel based loosely on the life of Laura Bush. I don’t know a great deal about the former First Lady, so I can’t comment to the accuracy of the fictional portrayal. The most blatant difference, of course, is that the couple have been moved from Texas to Michigan.

The story opens well before Alice Lindgren/Laura Bush meets Charlie Blackwell/George Bush. Essentially, it’s a biography from Alice’s early childhood through to being the wife of the president in the middle of his second term, well after his approval ratings plummeted. Alice is a democrat, though that’s more because those are the philosophies she’s always been imbued with rather than any real political leanings (if anything, she holds few positions, later in life, on many important issues simply because she can see good arguments on either side of the issue).

The book is broken into four parts. The first is Alice’s childhood, up until a tragic accident for which she can never quite forgive herself, and which sets her onto her ultimate path. The second is after she has left her small hometown and has taken up a job as a schoolteacher, when she meets the ne’er-do-well Charlie, already an inveterate drunk. The whirlwind romance is like nothing she could ever have imagined, and they marry within a few months. The third part details their married life, and Charlie’s increasing alcoholism and drug use as their marriage wears on, until she leaves him to make him shape up. It works; they get back together. Abruptly, the fourth part skips many years to the time when they’re in the White House.

I appreciate the skipping over Charlie Blackwell’s campaign for governor, and then his campaign for president (though both are alluded to in the final section) – those sorts of political machinations really aren’t the focus of the novel. The focus is on Alice. The focus is always on Alice and her internal struggles to live with killing a classmate as a teenager, the abortion she had to keep secret (before Roe v. Wade), the contradiction of marrying into a hardcore Republican family, and the personal sacrifices which she has to make because, above all else, she loves the man that she has married. For all his flaws, she loves him. If I had to boil this book down to a single idea, it would be that: the internal struggle of Alice Lindgrem to come to terms as who she is as a person, and the sacrifices she must make in the name of those convictions.

The ending fizzles a bit to me, though it connects well to the prologue. (Look for a blog in the coming days/weeks about the importance of beginnings/endings).

But the writing style captivated me. First person writing can occasionally be annoyingly tedious.  In this case, it wasn’t; it was somewhere in the pleasant divide between good writing and good conversation. There aren’t a great many books that I pick up and spend hours at a stretch reading, and neglect other things (my own writing, for example), in order to finish the book.

A word of caution – there are some fairly graphic sexual scenes scattered throughout the book. I’m not quite sure how much they add to the narrative, but they are there.

Rating: 4/5

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Createspace!

The back-cover copy:

Enter into a world where you are defined, restricted, and segregated by what your ID card says you are. But it’s a system on the verge of collapse and Cameron Alman is losing control as his pseudo-democractic Congress tries to gain more control for itself. As Cameron is already something of a folk hero, the leader of the Congress makes plans to kidnap him and make him confess all the atrocities committed during the revolution so no one will have any respect for him, and then Connor Haney can take over. but when the plan is actually carried out, things go from bad to worse as everyone tries to get a piece of pie, from the Alman Loyalists to the Church. Meanwhile, the mysterious prison camp on the border of the city contains a terrible secret, one that might bring down the whole country, if onyl someone can get in and out again without getting killed.

So, I know it’s not the same thing as having a book published and stocked on shelves everywhere. But I’ve had a stupid kind of day filled with idiots, and getting this in the mail today boosted my spirits considerably. I’m not going to put it up for sale on createspace as it’s not something that I’m proud enough of to want to splash my name all over. And yeah, I’m aware that my last name is up there; it’s also on that contest link over yonder to the right. Hell if I care. Have fun stalking me. (*grin*)

Next interview tomorrow; book review will also go up tomorrow.

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June Goals

May wasn’t a great writing month. I hope to change that up in June.

1. Finish editing Part 1 of Burning Eden and start editing Part 2

2. Touch up query letter for Burning Eden

3. Rewrite/edit/finish my story for the Secret Santa in July swap

4. Write an alien short-ish story that came to me a while ago and which I have outlined; it time-jumps madly and I’m fairly sure that it won’t work. I won’t know until I write it, though.

5. Start either the time travel novel idea or the fantasy novel idea

There. Five. Five is a good number. So Kate speaks, and so it shall be done!

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End of May

So, at the beginning of May, I posted some goals:

Edit the first part of Burning Eden. I’ve already got a notebook-page full of good ideas about what it should look like in the next go-around. I think quite a bit will have to be rewritten, but I think the changes will make it a considerably stronger opener. Also, I plan to cut it in length by at least a few thousand words, maybe by as much as half.

I’ve made a start on it, and I’m about halfway through so far.

Write the first draft of the Challenge/Secret Santa story I’ve been given over on Absolute Write. It’s not due until the end of June, but if I can get a couple of drafts in of it, it’ll actually be presentable and stuff by that time.

This is done, though it’s a mess and I’m not quite sure how I’m going to wrestle it into reasonable shape anytime soon. Of course, I will, because it’s a challenge, but it might not be pretty at the end.

Blog. Three times a week. Every week. That means eleven more entries this month. I’ve already got some ideas for them, so it’ll just be a case of making myself sit down and actually write them. That’s always been the real problem, I think, rather than lack of ideas: when there’s little for me that I *have* to do, I tend to go a little on the lazy side.

This went pretty well, aside from the me-getting-sick thing. In all, I only missed two entries. Not bad.

Think about getting one of those job things. I am very nearly a year out of university and it’s incredibly depressing to still be unemployed (and unemployable, apparently).

Well, go in for an interview tomorrow, so we’ll see how that goes.

**

In terms of how much I wrote, this was not a good month for me. Of the 31 days, I wrote no words on 13 of them. Only on five days did I wrote 4,000 or more words. My total wordcount for this month was: 67,946. That sounds fairly high, but to stay on track for milwordy (not to catch up on the words I’ve missed, just to stay on track), I need to write 84,000. As you can guess from that, I’ve fallen behind. At the beginning of the month I was 104,604 words behind. As of right now, I’m 113,688 words behind.  I just hope next month will be better.

No post tomorrow, as I’ll be in New York most of the day, and too exhausted when I get home. But June goals on Thursday, and Avatar commentary on Friday.  (4 blog posts for the price of 3!)

Ciao, lurky readers.

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