26 June, 2013

Re-writing is a Glorious Bastard

Something I said on twitter a little while back inspired this post. "Re-writing is exciting when you hit a scene that you don't have to change much. That excitement is your enemy."

As many of you know, I'm re-writing my novel. My agent's feedback was generally along the lines of, "this is decent, but it should be better." I like to think she means that I should be able to do better. That interpretation is more convenient for my ego.

Anyway, there's a rant-worthy lesson in this. With every word of this post my intention is to beat myself in the face with a truth I've known for many years, that I struggle everyday to remind myself of. I know for a fact I'm not the only writer with this problem.

I'll take my own work as an example. In this draft, I don't have to change as much as before, but I should. I'm improving the tautness of the plot, essentially. For instance, one of my characters seemed a bit of a doormat and I'm making her into something more frightening. She was supposed to be frightening for being a doormat, calling my main character forwards like a siren into something I won't reveal here. But such a call is hard for the reader to hear. A siren should be active, distracting. She can be subtle and coaxing, too, but the reader must feel her ability. It's my main character who should fail to understand, not the reader. That's where the dramatic tension come from. You'll understand if you read the book, and if you don't want to buy it from anywhere traditional, I'm sure I'll accept cash.

Things in my draft are changing. The aforementioned change is quite stark, but most are subtle. Not many scenes need a re-write. Not many chapters need re-thinking. But every tweak in a story should influence the entirety of it. The best stories are perfectly molded around their own convictions.

A simple example: if I decide a character has a little more backbone, I have to examine every single line of her dialogue. Most of what she says could remain the same for the purpose of plot momentum, but not plot tension. For empathy with her, and indeed the entire book, the method of her action must reflect her motivation, even where that change appears slight. Everything begs examination.

After re-working her, every character's response around her begs examination. In actuality, I have to examine every scene that has anything to do with her, which in a good book will be all of them, if only subtly, for the simple reason that she's a vital character. I've said before that a novel is like a symphony. A short story is like a rock song. The symphony might be more complex, but each element supports each element much the same.

None of this is stuff will I have to do to make my book readable, or even good, but it's all necessary to make a book great.  I love the idea of having an advance, starting my life as a professional author et cetera, but I must love the idea of making great art more.  I have to write what I would want to read, i.e. what I think deserves to exist.

I never said I could make a great book. I have no idea. But if I don't try, what the smeg am I making art for? If I'm satisfied, by nature, to produce only that which is necessary, to just balance things until they make sense, why not be an accountant? No, art isn't about perfection. Perfection is a word with no reality whatsoever except in arithmetic. Art is about trying our best. And it's exciting coming across a section of my book that I don't really have to change. The day I wrote that tweet (I hate that phrase) I could have gone through 15,000 words of my story if I'd wanted. Instead I did 1,000, about half of what I usually get through in a day. Excitement was my enemy, so I made myself examine everything twice as hard.

I know there comes a point where you're doing this:

(I had to work this awesome image in somewhere. I couldn't find the artist's name, sadly.)

There's a point where you're recreating yourself without any regard to your intended creation. That's the point where it's time to stop, send this book away, and write a different one. I've been trying to write this book for a year, but it's my first decent one, and I want to learn the skills that I'll go on to use later. More than that, though, I want all my books to reflect my best efforts.

19 June, 2013

Standard Manuscript Format Doesn't Even Require Linguistic Evolution

Some writers will start out like this, looking all uncertain and unprofessional, poking the typewriter with a single finger, naked but socially acceptable thanks to a covering of thick fur...

Anyway, what you need is knowledge of how to submit your story to a publisher, magazine editor or literary agent.

Standard manuscript format (SMF) exists for everyone's benefit. It's simple, straightforward and known by every professional in the industry.

But our story does not end with the universal, because neither do submission guidelines. A minority of editors ask for their own specific pet peeves to be satiated, often because they find a particular format easier to read on screen, and sometimes simply in some diva-like bid for satisfaction of a power fetish. But we don't want to express annoyance with these people. We want them to fall in love with us and our work.

What I outline below is STANDARD practise. That means two things:

1) Always read the specific guidelines. If nothing else, you'll get some sense of the magazine, and you want to know if editors have their own specifications.

2) If they don't specify, send them SMF. If they don't like it, screw them.

I have met psychotic diva editors who not only have their own pet peeves, but will not inform writers of them. Don't worry about them. Everyone who's anyone agrees that these idiots don't deserve to exist. Interestingly, all the diva editors I know wanted to be authors back before they gave up. It's an issue of grudges.  If any of my relevant acquaintances are reading this, they know who I'm talking about. What's the emoticon for a middle finger?  oIoo  That will do.

SMF is simple.

12 point font, double spaced, usually Courier New or something else that's mono-spaced (meaning all letters take up the same amount of space) making it easier to detect spelling mistakes. Some like Times New Roman, which isn't mono-spaced. Some like Ariel. Some hate one or the other. Reading all day gives a person very strong (one might say irrationally so) preferences. I'm not certain as to whether the particular mental disorder has been named. I hereby copyright OCFD (Obsessive Compulsive Font Dictator). The nice part is, good OCFD sufferers acknowledge the need to tell you. They understand that they have a problem and they only want to be treated with respect.

Do read the guidelines. I know a guy who hates Courier New font. It fills him with rage. He doesn't know why. But he's a good chap and he's professional enough to tell people on his submissions page. If you submit in Courier, he is not only filled with irrational rage, but he knows the only thing you know about his magazine is the email address.

Back to SMF:

Do not put a double margin between paragraphs.

Indent the first line of all paragraphs in the usual manner. (1.25 is what Microsoft Word does automatically, so that's fine. Other programs do 1.27. Nobody will notice.)

In the top left of Page One, do not indent. Put your real name, address, email, phone number if you like. In the top right put your word count. Often magazines like you to state underneath that whether it's a short story, novelette or novella. Again, they read fast and churn through the slush pile quickly. They want to know what they're getting into.

Do not embellish your title in any way whatsoever. Leave it as plain font, the same size as everything else.

In the top of each page APART FROM THE FIRST should be:

Smith / Town Placeville / [page number]

Note: last name, SHORTENED title (if it's a long one), page number starting with page 2.

I use two spaces after colons and periods. Some writers don't. Some editors hate two spaces. Some hate one space. If they have a strong preference they should tell you or they can go to hell. You've noticed the theme behind this post now, I'm sure. To be clear, I'm not just a ranting writer. I'm stating the opinion of every professional, good, hard-working person in the industry. It's the editor's job to tell you. That is, tell you everything beyond the assumption that you'll know about SMF.

Note how "The Ice Man" did this at the end of his scene:


blank space
blank space

Blam!  New Scene!

At the end of the story, make it clear. Write


or some such thing. No big deal. Just signify.

There. Simple. This'll not only make you look professional, but it'll make your work not be annoying. Editors are used to this format. They expect it, unless they notify you otherwise. If OCFD sufferers or editors with any other strange compulsion fail to tell you, use SMF secure in the knowledge that they're the ones being unprofessional. You'll have your pro-groove writer clothes on, so to speak, and you'll look more like this:

Any further questions, check out William Shunn's comprehensive article.

Happy (e)mailing.

09 June, 2013

Marvel Comics and Film Noir - What they taught me about writing.

J.E. Ryder.jpgJ.E. Ryder writes plot-based thrillers with strong characters. Her debut thriller, Blood Pool is available from Amazon. She lives in North Dorset, England where she is working on her next novel, a sweeping thriller that spans the European continent, a story of tragedy, vengeance and love.  In this post, she demonstrates how the love of stories can, and should, shape you into the writer you want to be.

I knew early what I didn’t want to read. Though I longed for adventure my mother bought me all the usual little girl comics/magazines containing stories about ballerinas in pink tutus, owning a pony, or cute puppies and donkeys. Even at such a tender age I didn’t care for them. I’d rather be out climbing trees.

One memorable day, I discovered that my brother’s reading was entirely different from mine, and much more exciting. All it took was a glance at his fabulous Marvel Comics and I was hooked. The 1960s story lines, (pre-computer and pre-digital) were perhaps simpler in outlook than those of today, yet their impact was dramatic. Back then I enjoyed them at face value - superhero good guy/gals battling superhero bad guy/gals.

Now, I can see I was taking subconscious writing lessons. Those superheroes had internal dramas, personal problems to overcome in order to vanquish the enemy. Each image on the page represented a moment of action, a micro-scene. Brief speech bubbles or explanatory tag lines conveyed the scene’s intent, the remainder to be fleshed out by the reader’s imagination. Enough tantalising plot information was dangled in front of us to make us turn the mental page and move on to the next image.

At the same time, another visual medium was adding to my writing knowledge. During winter weekends, when the weather was too dismal to go out, we had Sunday afternoon TV. In the late1960s and early ’70s, programme schedulers broadcast weekly reruns of 1940s and ’50s movies, all genres, romance, drama, comedy, cowboy and war. I loved the 1940s monochrome movies known as film noir - melodramas about cynical private eyes, corrupt cops, vicious gangsters and battle-weary soldiers returning from war.

Those tough leading men were more than matched by their female leads, strong women determined to succeed, dangerous femmes fatales able to convey sexual tension in a smouldering glance or commit cold-blooded murder. The scripts were spare and the dialogue crisp, often rapid-fire, coupled with fast-moving scenes that built to an explosive finale. It’s no surprise to me that fifteen of those 1940s movies received Oscar nominations for the screenwriting.

This post was prompted by a review for my novel, Blood Pool. The reviewer wrote, “Fabulous thriller…like watching a movie pan out.” I sat up when I read her words. She’d noticed what I hadn’t. The story does roll through my thoughts as if I were watching it flow across a screen. My fingers tap the keyboard and the action plays out, the dialogue crackles, the characters strut across the stage, their internal conflict and body language adding to the drama. I know what they’re thinking or feeling even when they’re out of sight, waiting in the wings for their next appearance. I’m like an all-powerful movie director. Fade in. Play the scene. Fade out.

The great film noir actor, Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957) is quoted as saying, “the only thing you owe the public is a good performance.” Sound advice. I must finish up here. I’m working on my next novel and I’ve had an idea. I must get the scene out of my head and onto the page before I forget. Step back everyone. Give the actors room to breathe. Are we ready? Lights. Camera. Action!

When Sam Shelley’s husband dies she becomes the owner of his boat yard and estates. The Shelley men have inherited the land for two hundred years. Locals want it to stay that way. They’re threatening to trace the rightful male heir.

Then an old friend, an eccentric inventor, disappears in violent circumstances. Sam will do anything for him: he’s been like a father to her while she grieved. The race is on to find him. The authorities want him for murder. Criminals want him and his latest invention, worth millions on the global market, for themselves.

Sam is determined to reach him first. Soon, she’s squeezed between murderous factions outside the boat yard and deadly rivalries within. No one is what they seem, especially those nearest to her…

03 June, 2013

Stephen King Gives a Talk at UMASS

I found this on Youtube today and thought I'd better share it with my fellow writers. If you aren't interested in watching Stephen King answer questions about the craft of writing, post your message in the comments section and I will help you find a psychologist.

This is what I do at lunch. I search the internet for online lectures and watch them while I chew. To be honest, most days it's a chess lecture, but yesterday I pretended I was a grown-up and did something pertinent to my work.


I'll add a brief personal note. What Stephen King says about plotting is exactly what made me think I shouldn't do it. I had a notion that the greatest literary minds don't have to plot. If there's one thing I love about King's book, On Writing, it's that it's written as a memoir. It's his experience. I like to believe his implication is that you'll have your own experiences. I've recently discovered that I'm better off plotting, at least for now. Or, at least, I recently admitted it to myself. So what? Tolkien did it. So did Robert E. Howard, Alfred Bester, Iain Banks (and still does) H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell... you get the idea.

I'm giving a word of warning to my younger self here, and anyone who suffers from the same malady. Just because your heroes do things one way doesn't mean that you have to. Every artist has to find their own method. It's just part of working with your own imagination, so be honest with yourself, young Luke! If you get this message back in time four years ago, you'll be a better writer by the time you're my age, and unless Quantum Mechanics theory is correct then I'll be...

I don't feel any different. Either Quantum Mechanics theory is correct, or my time travel experiment didn't work. Either way, I hope you enjoy the video. Maybe I'll notice a difference when I start writing fiction again. I'm going to click "Publish" now and get back to my word processor.

Thanks for the lessons Mr King. You are a ga-zillion kinds of awesome. One day I plan to shake your hand and get you to sign my book. (The likelihood of him reading this is minuscule, but whatever.)