“The days are long but the years are short.” –Gretchen Rubin
Not bragging, but in high school I scored a role as one of the lusty muleteers in The Man of La Mancha. For those of you who know me, this is totally out of character. For those of you who don’t know me . . . er . . . take my word for it. But I was good in auditions. Really good. For every show, I was the guy throwing a kicking-and-screaming Aldonza over his shoulder and hauling her off-stage. Great fun, discounting make-up and tight pants.
I have one, not-so-fun memory about that production though. I was supposed to play a song on the lute and sing a solo with it. I had a lute. (Dad.) And a decent voice. (Mom.)
But every time I looked at the sheet music and thought about bar chords, time signatures, and picking, I got intimidated. With two weeks to spare, I confessed to my drama teacher that I wasn’t going to be able to play and sing at the same time. She was mildly disappointed, but shrugged and said we could use the pit orchestra, and that everything would be fine. No big deal.
But that moment stuck with me. It wasn’t talent or time that beat me. It was intimidation. This is a lesson I keep learning—one that keeps coming back for second helpings.
Earlier this year I told a potential agent that I’d have a rewritten novel manuscript to him by mid-March. It’s taken a lot of work to make it this far, and I continue to get positive feedback from other writers and editors, but my confidence went way down every time I looked at the forward work. “I’ll never be able to do all that, let alone before March.” Comparing the few spare hours I have each week for writing with the enormity of project left me emotionally bankrupt. How can I even start on a project that “will never be finished?”
Our brains are wired for quick pay-offs. If you don’t believe it, check out the research by Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School, here or here. En bref, the quick reward of finishing something today is more important today than the promised reward of finishing something large and meaningful several weeks down the road. For the less ambitious, Tim Urban does a funny Ted talk about what happens in the mind of a chronic procrastinator.
When I was complaining about my lack of motivation, my wife suggested, “Why don’t you make a paper chain link for every hour’s worth of work you think it will take. Then you can cut off a link every time you do an hour of work and measure your progress?” I was dubious about the motivational power of paper chains, but with cheap subcontracting (my son), I got a chain suspended in my office in no time. It started at 178 links or 178 hours. A bit of depression sets in when you realize your 10th draft needs more than 40 hours a week for four straight weeks. (Obviously, I’d need more than four weeks to make up the time if I was to keep my regular bread-and-butter job and have a family.) But the kids keep begging to cut links for me, and now I have to scramble to keep up with them.
And the exercise made writing therapeutic again. The project wasn’t Mount McKinley on the horizon anymore. It was 178 day hikes spread out across as many days as needed to do it right. The real value didn’t come from the begging children, as cute as they are. It came from chunking out the work, parsing it into one-hour units. It came from breaking down the problem into constituent, achievable parts and identifying which pieces could be done anywhere with a red pen and a shade tree, and which pieces need two or three quiet hours in front of a computer screen.
Suddenly it was much easier to do a few pages each day, and seeing the redlines materialize on the printed page gave me that small kick of accomplishment I needed to do a little more.
I still haven’t learned to play that Man of La Mancha song on my lute, but I’ve made some serious progress on the manuscript . . .
What are tricks do you use to get motivated on challenging projects?
“We edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”
Last week, I started building a metaphor between writing and shaving. In my example metaphor, I had irregular hair patterns after knee surgery that kept drawing the wrong sort of attention in public.
In fiction, anything that calls undue attention to itself is a problem. The secret to a captivating story isn’t just artistic words and phrases, but the camaraderie that exists between them. Every time a reader comes across a misfit word—even a beautiful one—their suspension of disbelief risks being damaged. I tried to read The Fellowship of the Rings in second grade, but I spent more time in the dictionary than in the story. Granted, I probably should have been reading something else at that age, but . . .
One priority for fantasy and science fiction authors is transporting us from our reality into an alternate reality. Words that break that magic, by being inauthentic, confusing, or awkward, should be cut. Even a gentle reader will become a critic if they get bumped from a story one too many times.
Here are a few issues I see often in the manuscripts I read:
Overly Dramatic Adjectives
Overt attributions of emotion/drama (e.g. merciless army, breathtaking vista, furious opponent) should not be used in place of more descriptive narrative. A reader should feel these things through the actions taken by characters, rather than by getting beaten over the head with the word itself.
Example: “The merciless army advanced upon our breathtaking city.”
A reader can tell if an army is “merciless” independent of the word if the author has already shown (1) the body count, (2) a city in ruins, and (3) a parent so desperate to protect her daughter as to consider killing the child in advance of the army’s arrival. All of these things do a better job of casting an invading army as “merciless” than the word itself.
Sesquipedalian. Pontificate. Prognisticate. It’s fun to show people how smart you are, but words like these score way more points on a Scrabble board than they do in a manuscript. There are exceptions—a character that uses big words to annoy your protagonist (and readers), perhaps?—but generally, if it isn’t an everyday sort of word, think carefully about using it.
Example: “As he ran, Vance cursed himself for not being more perspicacious.”
One of my beta readers marked this word out in bold red strokes and replaced it with the more pedestrian word “clever.” This alters the meaning slightly, but works better for commercial fiction.
These are expressions that get in the way of the story. They often stem from an author’s desire to be poetic, or say things in a new way, but they’re more trouble than they’re worth to the average reader. If the average reader has to spend too much time decoding a book of idiosyncratic (unusual) expressions they’ll get irritated. (And editors have an even lower tolerance for awkwardness.) It’s okay to use conventional language.
Example: “The stillness halted his feet with fear.”
This is an awkward way to say, “He stopped walking when he noticed the eerie quiet,” or “He halted, suddenly apprehensive in the unnatural silence.” Feet don’t feel fear and stillness won’t halt them . . .
Obviously there’s more to revising than just shaving out these little indiscretions, but if you find beta readers, agents, and editors looking at your manuscript funny, it might be time to go hunting for dramatic adjectives, smart words, and awkward expressions. And if you are getting weird looks, pat yourself on the back. It’s a sign of progress. It means you have a knee worth shaving.
I feel a bit like I’ve been riding in two saddles all week long: working the day job, writing at night, and finding time for family. Here are some of the highlights. Check out the interview if you can. 🙂
1) SWORDS hit 28,000 words, triple the length of DARTS.
2) I gave my first interview.
3) My kids played well at their soccer games, and then a friend gave us Dynamo Tickets.
4) Claire signed on for the translation of RINGS. (Les Anneaux)
5) I stayed up too late. Again.
Humans like to share. We like sharing our money, our time, or our ice cream, but we like sharing our ideas and advice even more. It makes us feel cool and important. It’s why we build libraries, publishing houses, and PTAs.
But based on the number of blank stares I get when I offer unsolicited advice, people don’t like receiving information nearly as much as they enjoy giving it. When the catchphrase around the house becomes “Why are you telling me this?” perhaps things have gone a bit far. Or perhaps not. . . Maybe we just need to be more clever about how we do it.
This is certainly true of fiction. I burned through The Hobbit as a second grader and put The Fellowship of the Rings down after 30 pages. The first novel trickles information to the reader as part of the action, while the second forgoes action in favor of large passages of infodump and side-helpings of scenery.
I’ve been thinking about this lately, especially after a brutal revision of Plague Runners. (This is the same manuscript I took to New York in March.) I had to cut roughly 30,000 words from the manuscript (length of DARTS+RINGS) to correct pacing problems and make room for plot essentials. I had to stripthe story of unnecessary backstory and scenes that were cute but didn’t tie in with the larger plot.
Fortunately, I got some good advice from an agent and a professional editor, and Plague Runners has improved dramatically.
Every skill-level has its purpose, but new writers tend to rely more heavily on Level 1 and Level 2. Level 4 has the characteristics of 3 but also includes layers of utility: not only does it move the plot along and provide info to protagonist and reader, but will also illuminate aspects of a character’s personality, provide amusement, foreshadow future conflicts, tie back to subplots, and possibly build emotional connections with the reader.
It’s tempting as a writer to over-share. So much work has been put into the creation of a world. To combat this, I keep a scrapyard document. It’s a lot easier for me to move a lovely, but uneeded, paragraph to the scrapyard doc than it is to delete it completely. For the really good stuff that still needs to go, I consider using it in sequel, or making a standalone novella. For Plague Runners, I have a whole novella planned, if the content I cut doesn’t end up in the sequel. De-cluttering is a lot easier when you can loosen your grip on it in stages.
What have I learned in this process? I’ve learned that the kind of story you tell depends on how you relay information. For those you with a little more time, stick around and enjoy some opening lines of the same story, written at the varying skill levels. Then tell me (here or on facebook) which you like best.
If you’ve gotten too much information already, don’t hesitate to bow out. Everybody has a threshold, and romantic mystery really isn’t my strong point. . .Cheers!
Level 1 – Describe-and-Snooze
Mr. Suffolk was born where the greenest fields in all of England begin at white cliffs and roll inland for miles until they are cut short by the autoroute to London. The grass on the downs mimic the waves beneath the cliffs, a green mirror to the blue beneath, and the servants had been amply informed that Mr. Suffolk wanted to be buried there.
To the servants this was good news. The Suffolk Estate had prospered under his care, and as Mr. Suffolk wasn’t exactly old yet, his commitment to the location meant a good many years of meaningful service and a modest pension for the servants. To the butler, Robert, this was exceptionally good news. He didn’t fancy finding new employment as his age, though he was exactly old either, and Robert felt at home among the other servants. Mark and Mary had both been trained in the finest kitchens. Bill kept the estate trimmed to the last blade of grass, and the sound of the Bently’s wheels on gravel as Godfrey pulled up to return Mr. Suffolk to his home after a long day usually brought a smile to Robert’s face.
Robert particularly liked Anna, the maid, and her soft manner of speaking, with the sort of affection that lives unspoken in the heart, when it might better be served to speak it aloud and let fortune play its hand.
In fact, only two things bothered Robert about his current job: Mr. Suffolk’s gun collection (because guns were patently dangerous) and it’s curator, Mr. Jasper, who had a nasty habit of bringing up old grievances—the pay raise that everyone else had gotten, for instance—and picking at them until the entire serving staff felt like the cells of a festering old wound that couldn’t get a spot of antiseptic. Some days Bob wondered who would be the first to reach for Suffolk’s prized Sig Sauer, and put an end to all the complaining. Or worse.
The worst, Bob admitted though, was Tuesday. On Tuesdays Jasper disassembled a few guns from the collection, cleaned them, and reassembled them. Then he loaded them and fired a few hundred rounds to be sure each was in fine working order. As the shooting range was adjacent to both the main house and the servants quarters, with no proper sound proofing, there was no escape from the noise.
There was never any escape from Jasper.
Level 2 – Maid-and-Butler: The Unnatural Dialogue
On Tuesday morning, Bob was sitting at the common breakfast table in the servants quarters, trying to get his last cufflink hitched when Ann walked in, looking tired and old.
“Ann,” he said, barely nodding. Her presence was comfortable, like a well-worn coat, one that has hung around for so long that you almost don’t notice anymore.
“Bob,” she replied back, pouring herself a cup of coffee, eyeing him coolly.
Bob was tempted to forego the cufflink entirely. Mr Suffolk never entertained important guests on Tuesdays, and so it’s necessity was questionable. “It isn’t like Mr. Suffolk would demand it,” he muttered to himself.”
He noticed that Ann was still staring at him. “Everything alright?”
“No, Bob, everything is not all right. As you know, it’s Tuesday.”
Bob gave up on the cuff-link. “It is, Ann. It’s the day that Jasper cleans and tests Suffolk’s enormous gun collection. The Winchesters. The Sig Sauers.” Bob waved his hand to indicate all the others.
“Cleaning, and shooting, and cleaning!” Ann complained, gesturing a bit wildly with her coffee. “It makes no sense to have a shooting range next to our quarters. It’s as if Suffolk wants us to suffer on Tuesdays. And to think of Jasper over there, glowering, and aiming, and glowering again. It makes everything so much worse.”
Bob snorted. “Suffolk never should have denied Jasper that pay raise. Ever since then, things seem to be so much louder around here. . .”
Level 3: Interwoven Details
“Do you ever feel like you’re repeating yourself?” Anna asked when Bob entered the servant’s breakfast area on Tuesday morning.
Bob’s finger slipped on the crisp sleeve, dropping the mother-of-pearl cufflink onto the tile floor, cursing his unusually sweaty palms. He stooped to pick it up, but dropped it again, startled by the sudden discharge of a Winchester next door.
Jasper always started with the Winchester. Mr. Suffolk always wanted on display. Then Jasper would move on to the Sig Sauers, and then the Beretta. By the time he got to the Colts, Mr. Suffolk would be in the shooting range too, looking over Jasper’s shoulder and telling him which guns to prep for the display the following week.
“Yes,” Bob said, fitting the cufflink finally in place. “Every Tuesday morning feels that way.”
“Every Tuesday morning,” Anna agreed, pouring him a cup of coffee and adding creamer and sugar. Bob wasn’t quite sure how she knew his exact preference. He couldn’t recall ever telling her, but they’d worked together for many years already. Perhaps he’d told her once before.
It was a ritual they’d enjoyed since the beginning, the maid and the butler starting the day by sharing coffee together, trying to ignore the Tuesday morning gunfire. Today though, the gunfire felt particularly irate, as if Jasper had left the range’s doors open again.
Anna seemed to notice it too. “Perhaps you should talk to Mr. Suffolk about Jasper’s raise again?”
She raised her eyebrow gently.
“I will.” He promised. “I’ll do it at lunch.”
Level 4 – Transparent Worldbuilding
Bob awoke in a cold sweat, throwing off his covers in a frantic leap from his bed. Somebody was going to murder Suffolk.
Bob listened to the thunder of his heart and felt the grain of the hardwood floor beneath his feet. He suddenly wished he’d taken better care of himself over the last few years. His blood pressure was too high to be leaping about like this.
“It’s just a dream, Bob,” he muttered.
Around him, evidence of his nightly struggle with the nightmare assailed him. Alcohol bottles. Sleeping pills. Abandoned self-help books. His sheets were twisted around the blankets and thoroughly soaked. His pillows and bolster had fallen at the foot of the bed, and one ponderous black sock hung on the head board. God, what a night! He could still smell the shot-gun smoke from his dream, and see the blood pooling on the marble floor of the main house.
Bob blinked his eyes and drove the image away. “Just a dream, Bob” he said again for emphasis. He took a deep breath and counted to five before exhaling, and then limped into his morning routine, though it was still too early to do so.
Later, at the breakfast table, Anna looked at him from beneath tired eyelids and layers of makeup that didn’t hide the fact that she hadn’t been sleeping well, either.
“Are you feeling okay, Anna?”
“Robert.” Her gentle voice caught, and she pushed back a strand of fading brown curl.
There had been a time when he thought he’d loved her, when he thought he might ask Mr. Suffolk for one of the larger suites reserved for the married staff. During those months, she’d almost never called him “Bob,” and her shy smile at the breakfast table had been the highlight of every day.
“Anna. Are you feeling okay?” He repeated the question earnestly. Her utterance of “Robert,” and his accidental expression of caring had shattered the meaningless veneer of morning banter.
“Bob,” she corrected herself, trying to recover. “It’s nothing.”
He put down the rebellious cufflink. “Anna. I know that look. What is it?”
Anna wouldn’t meet his gaze. “Something awful is going to happen today. I can feel it.”
Bob’s scalp prickled and his recurring nightmare came back full force. “You had the dream!”
“Suffolk,” she whispered and they locked eyes. “Jasper’s going to kill Suffolk.”
They were reaching for the French doors when the first shots of the morning rang out.
TO BE CONTINUED. . .(MAYBE)
Which story version do you like best? 1,2,3, or 4?
I’ve been wondering what happens to a story once it goes through the magazine editorial process.
Some of you have written anecdotes for various alumni magazines, maybe even BYU, but until now, I’ve never had a clear picture of what to write or how much would be cut.
Now I know. From the 289 words I submitted to BYU Magazine, only 177 words were used. That’s a 39% reduction. So either only 61% of what I write is worth printing (smirk), or space is still at a premium in ‘zine print media.
I suspect the real answer is somewhere in between. And I’m not offended. I got paid for every word. . .
This week I decided to revert to pictures. Life should be fun right?
The hybrid PowerPoint drawing shows one effort to prioritize my active fiction projects and their level of completion. It doesn’t address the thirty to forty ideas fading from memory in shelved notebooks.
My friend Ralph—we met in New York at the pitch conference—wrote me a funny thing today. He’s been reviewing a science fiction manuscript for me and noticed that I don’t always do a great job delineating which character is delivering which line.
Ralph’s a bit of an overachiever, I think, because he dedicated some precious early morning caffeine (and even more precious creativity) to illustrate his point. The ‘tags’ are in red.
“You are killing me with the lack of dialogue tags!” the beta reader said, wondering if he should get another cup of coffee.
“My writing flows so much better without them!” the award-winning author replied.
“I like it, at times…” The reader trailed off.
“’Yes?” the author asked.
“Well maybe it is just me, but I get lost a little. You take the turns a little fast, and dialogue tags are like my seatbelt. I know it may not be the perfect analogy, mister author, but I’m begging you to buckle me in!”
“It is ok, simple reader. I know you are trying to keep up,” the author acquiesced, realizing the well-meaning boy would never be up to the challenge of real literature. Then again, if he was willing to put down a few dollars on the author’s next novel for the price of a few dialogue tags…
Thanks for the lesson, Ralph. This is purely hypothetical, right? I mean, the “author” isn’t usually so patronizing, is he?
I just received notification of my first 1-star review on Amazon. This is an important career milestone. I’d like to take a moment to issue my acceptance speech:
Thank you. Thank you all! I am both humbled and elated! I’d like to thank my publisher for letting me post my fiction without the least bit of professional editing, my beta readers (all twenty of you—you know who you are), and my mother, who has always told me I’m worth something, and been slightly supportive of my cheeky attitude, except when directed at her.
I’ve can’t say I didn’t see this moment coming, but I didn’t expect to see it so badly punctuated. (The criticism, not my preceding paragraph.) Bad punctuation is a disease, and it’s contagious. It also renders criticism—such as the following—difficult to decipher:
“Hard for Me to Classify…Sorry! One for rainy days…glad I did not have to pay for this one. At least, it was short! But, not enough for me!”
Those last two commas are driving me crazy. Where are the grammar police when you need them? Is my critic somehow saying that DARTS was not enough for him? That he wanted it to be longer? Did they mean it would be easier to classify, by genre, on a rainy day, when life is less hectic? Or should I take this as a compliment? Houston receives about 50 inches of rain in an average year (NOAA.GOV). That’s a lot of opportunities for appreciating my novella!
Finally, there appear to be missing words. Critics aren’t supposed to use ellipses to omit crucial words. That’s the sort of lazy trick we expect from college students. What good is half a criticism? For one thing, it encourages bad guesswork:
“Hard for Me to Classify all of these exclamation points, ellipses, and commas! Sorry! One for rainy days, isn’t it Gerard? It’s fortunate the commas and exclamation points are on sale! I’m certainly glad I did not have to pay for this one. At least, it was short! But, not enough for me!”
What I would have liked from said detractor: a clear indication of what will make my stories better in the future.
Lacking that, I can only hope to untangle the riddle with time. Perhaps one of my alert readers—long live Dave Barry—can help clarify.
A few years ago I read a vampire novel by a BYU alumna that got me thinking about character development. While I’m familiar with the vampire myth as told by Bram Stoker, I’ll admit that I don’t drink deeply from the horror genre. Life can be pretty scary as it is. But sparkly vampires were all the rage, so I made a concession. And then another. Four concessions, to be precise. And I learned an interesting thing about my own writing: my characters are all robots. Medieval Robots. Sci-Fi Robots. Literary Robots. They complained to me as I wrote:
<< WE FEEL NOTHING. >>
“Stop complaining. I’m telling a really cool story!”
<< O.K. FEED US TO YOUR PLOT. >>
I thank Stephanie Meyer for opening my eyes to this, however ungently. I couldn’t turn a page without her protagonist describing the love/pain/joy/depression/excitement she was feeling. My robots began to get jealous:
<< WE ARE DEPRESSED. >>
“Impossible. You are robot characters whose only purpose in life is delivering plot points.”
<< AFFIRMATIVE. BUT WE WOULD BE IF YOU’D LET US. YOU NEVER LET US TALK ABOUT OUR FEELINGS. >>
“Umm. Okay. I’ll write something now: ‘The robot-like characters were suddenly overcome with waves of depression!’ Better?”
<< YAAY! We’re depressed! (This feels awful.) >>
There is such a thing as over-emoting, too, but my characters have never had that problem.)
Laughing yet? You should be. And you should be asking, “Why for heaven’s sake didn’t you start instead with Jane Austen’s incomparablePride and Prejudice?”
Fair question. I’ve been avoiding her assiduously since I was forced to watch Sense and Sensibility with my five older sisters, as a newly-minted teenager. (This following “infinity times” as a kid of getting Scooby-Doo trumped by Little House on the Prairie.)
Still, I shouldn’t hold that psychological damage against Jane Austen, right?
It took a thoroughly respectable friend to set me back on track. She caught me by surprise when I learned that Persuasion by Austen was one of her favorite books.
Until then though, I had only the light of Twilight to guide me. . . During this dark period, I went so far as to attend a movie viewing of Eclipse with the aforementioned sisters, though I was smarter this time and took along my older brother for protection. We’re not Twi-hards—any of us—but the movie was entertaining, especially when my brother whipped off his shirt at the end and howled at the moon of closing credits.
I followed suit.
“Team Jacob!” we barked.
Those Cinemark patrons exiting the theatre with us laughed and cheered, though some appeared concerned with the physical inaccuracies of comparing ourselves to Taylor Lautner’s band of brothers. My physique isn’t bad for a guy who only plays soccer once a week and rarely visits the weight room, but my skin gets a bit pale in the winter—say, the color of wet marshmallows. My ancestry can’t help it.
My brother has a similar skin tone, and though taller, is a wee bit on the thin side. The blinding Norwegian flash in mid-winter Tinsletown lights probably sent a myriad of mixed messages. How could werewolves get so pale and hairless? Shouldn’t those two be cheering for the vampires? Could Stephanie Meyer please write a book encouraging young men to keep their shirts ON?
Eventually we decided—you can’t tell werewolves what to wear—to put our shirts back on. Fine then. Lunar eclipse complete.
And then, sitting at my desk one day, trying to pull a miss-staple from a stack of budget documents with my vampliers, the entire of spectrum of vampire humor (mostly red) was briefly opened to my view (see picture below). In four years, not one person at NASA has ever asked me why my staple remover has the name Edward taped to it.
Career mismatch? Too few scientists interested in problem of vampirism?
I guess that’s life. Fang you all very much. And Subscribe.