Friday, August 23, 2019

Writing: Too Much Information?

The eighth rule for writers from Kurt Vonnegut is "Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. " As I recall, Vonnegut felt that, if for some reason it were necessary, the reader should be able to finish writing the book. I'm going to take some exception to this.

The late Donald Westlake did a pretty good job of writing mysteries. His "Dortmunder" books are quite good, featuring a guy who, if he didn't have bad luck, would have no luck at all. But they are extremely entertaining (or, at least, I found them so). He followed the plan he called "push fiction"--we'd call it writing by the seat of our pants. His philosophy was that if the writer didn't know what was coming next, the reader couldn't, either.

My wife, who's been my first reader through all my books,  got after me about keeping information to myself. Since I knew what the backstory was, I sometimes neglected to share it with my readers. I had to work to get over this, but I think I've finally done it. I've learned to sprinkle clues (plus a few "red herrings") throughout my mysteries so that I don't end up introducing a new character as the end as the "bad guy," or having the books end with "Deus et machina" (God out of the machine--used in some Greek tragedies to end them by sudden intervention beyond that of the actors).

There's a fine line in mystery between giving the reader all the information and not enough information. It's tough to achieve, but then again, that's what keeps us writing...and reading.

What's your opinion about Vonnegut's eighth rule? Let me know. I'd like to hear it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Summer's Almost Gone

Judging from the number of pictures on Facebook of children heading back to school, the summer's just about over. I sort of assumed that when my last child graduated I'd be through with all that. Wrong! Then came the grandchildren. And, for at least some of my readers, the great-grandchildren. We never really get through caring about them, do we? And it's kind of a bittersweet moment as we watch each of them grow into their own individual.

On a somewhat connected subject, are you old enough to remember when the last day of school was Memorial Day or thereabouts, with resumption right after Labor Day? The story I've always heard, at least here in Texas, is that during the summer time out of school children were expected to work in the fields, so school would be out during the season of growing and harvesting. Since the season for cotton begins in July and extends until fall, that makes sense. Of course, nowadays it's almost unheard of to see children (or adults) in the field doing what we have machinery to do.

Now school starts up in mid-August, and although we theoretically say "good-bye" to summer with the Labor Day weekend, in actuality our children, grandchildren, and the "little kid next door" will have been back in school for a couple of weeks already. Summer seems to be getting shorter each year, doesn't it?

How about you. Does the resumption of school bring back memories? Are you ready for school to resume, or would you like to keep the kids at home for a while longer? Let me hear.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Writing: Are There Rules?

Recently, there seems to be an emphasis on "rules" in writing. I've posted about this in the past, but thought perhaps I should revisit this once again. Although some people break rules with impunity, I suggest that you learn and follow them when you're getting started.

As I've said before, if you're Picasso, you can put the eyes and ears wherever you want, but I'll bet anything that you know where they belong if you wish to put them there. Translating that to writing, I think that if you have an agent and a publisher, and especially if you have a following, you can break some of those "rules," but remember that you got there by observing them.

Here are the ones I continue to observe. Don't use the passive voice unless what you're writing demands it. Why? Because passive voice slows down the reader.

Give your characters easily pronounced names that are compatible with the person. And try to avoid having two characters with names that are easily mixed up. Like the preceding suggestion, it makes things easier for the reader.

Try not to use the same word more than once in each paragraph (unless it's absolutely necessary). This is to make the paragraph read more easily. Use your talent as a wordsmith here. Your reader (and/or agent and/or editor) will appreciate it.

Keep one point of view per scene. Put the TV camera on the shoulder of one person, and remember that if they don't know it, your audience won't either. I change POVs with each scene, but some authors keep one POV for their whole book. Whatever works, but be consistent.

Whether you're a plotter or pantser, have something to shore up the middle of your manuscript, as well as a "knock-out ending" (which you should be ready to change if the story demands it). Personally, I agree with the philosophy of Donald Westlake: if the author isn't sure what's coming next, the reader sure can't anticipate it.

What rules do you follow when writing?

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Life Is Like An E-Book

Maybe I'm the only person who does this (although I doubt it), but I sometimes flip forward toward the back of a print book to see how it comes out, or at least where it's going. This usually occurs when I'm trying to decide whether I'm going to invest more time reading it. Recently, I was reading a novella written by one of my friends, one which I ordered on Kindle, so I couldn't skip ahead. Oh, there are ways to go from one chapter start to the next, but there's not a mode we can choose ilike we can in n a print copy, one in which we can turn ahead to see where the story is going before we proceed in reading it.

I see a similarity in the way we live our life. We don't know what's around the corner, and we can't skip ahead to see if we're correct. With an e- book, the only thing we can do is trust the author and figure that it's all going to end all right. Life's like that. And really, if you believe as I do, then that's all we need to do. There's no reason to wish we could skip ahead. It's all going to come out right in the end. And if hasn't come out right so far, it's not the end.

Ever had that feeling? I'd love to hear about your experiences.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Writing: Novel vs. Novella

One of the questions I'm sometimes asked is, "How do you decide whether you're going to write a novel or a novella?" Everyone has their own definition of the two writing forms, but for me I picture a novella as having 20-40 K words, while a novel goes from 60-90K. True, some novels have well over 100K words, but I run out of steam long before I reach that. (I use K to indicate 1000 words--hope that's not confusing for anyone).

When I was writing under contract, I wrote novels. Period. No question. I started with a premise, populated it, determined how to keep the reader engaged through the "sagging middle," and tried to make everyone guess the outcome with what Jim Bell calls a "knockout ending." My first and second novels came in at about 70K words, and I found it comfortable writing that length. Every novel I wrote subsequently was about that long. So, that's what my contracts called for and that's what I wrote.

After so long a time, I decided to dip my toe (or perhaps my pen) into the self-publishing waters. I wasn't ready to go it alone, though, so I chose "agent-assisted" publishing. To get into this, I chose to write a shorter form--a novella. I've now had six off these published, the last being my latest, Bitter Pill. I've found, by the way, that it's harder to write these shorter works than a full-length one. I've also heard (yes, I read the reviews) that my readers really would like these to be longer. (My response is, "Hey, I was lucky to get that many words together").

When, through no fault of either the publisher or me, my contract for my book, Cardiac Event, fell through, I had enough experience with indie (or actually, agent-assisted) publishing to allow me to see if I could survive without a publishing house behind me. My intention was to do a novel, then a novella, then a novel, etc. I've already deviated from this once in order to get my current novella out there, but I'm back on track now. I'm half-way through my full-length novel (working title, Critical Decision), and hope to have it ready by late this year.

So, that's how come I have written some novels and some novellas. I had a plan, but all plans--including this one--are changed as time goes on. Do you have questions about publishing? I'd be happy to try to answer them.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

It Touches Everyone

Some of you have read my novella, Surgeon's Choice, and commented that I write as though I know a lot about drug addiction. The answer is, "Yes, unfortunately." And I suspect that many of you all know about it, as well. Not that I've ever had that problem myself. As a physician, I've encountered it in others, so I have a passing acquaintance with the disorder. But the kicker is that, like some of you, I've had a family member who found himself in the thrall of narcotics. In his case, what was originally given as  necessary medication led to addiction, and eventually he ended up taking his own life.

This was brought to mind again a few days ago with the death of a young man, the son of a man with whom we had come in contact because of this problem. Another death related to addiction. It's real, folks, and don't think it will never affect you. It can.

I've said it before, and will repeat it now. We've all been touched by addiction, in some way or another. If there's a need for information or referral, try this help-line or check local resources.  I was surprised to see that assistance is available via the Salvation Army, for instance. We're not used to looking for help, but when we do, we usually find that it's readily available.

We can either ignore this menace, or do our best to fight it. I choose to do the latter. I hope you will join me.

Friday, August 02, 2019

Writing: Why A Blog?

Writers are told we "need to have a social media presence"--perhaps even more before we're published than afterwards. But rarely does anyone ask why. As a multi-published author, both via conventional publishers and self-published, let me give my frank opinions. (And you realize, if you've followed my Random Jottings for very long, that rather than a love/hate, I have a tolerate/hate relationship with social media).

While we're still looking for that agent who says "I'll represent you" or that editor who offers a contract, we're blogging because we want to be able to say, "Yes," when asked if we have a social media presence.It's even better if we pick up some potential readers along the way, people who will say, "Yeah, I've seen his/her blogs. Maybe I should read this book." But honestly, before we're represented, before we're published, we want to see our name in print and know that we've taken that big step forward.

After the big day, whether we've gained representation by an agent, signed a book contract with a publisher, or even are celebrating the launching of our first book, we want to be able to share the news. And what better venue for that than our blog, where the readers will be able to see the culmination of our struggle. (And, in case you're just now thinking of writing a book, it is a struggle--but hang in there).

As each book comes out, we can mention it on our blog. If there's a pre-order or other special, who better to tell about it than our blog readers. Doing an interview, especially if there's a giveaway of your book? Let it be known by posting it on your blog. And occasionally you may even be able to work in the title of your book or something about it on one of your posts. But please don't make every offering sound like, "Please buy my book." That gets tiresome after a while, and will cause people to turn away from your blog.

Finally, and I think this is very important, your blog, your Facebook and Twitter posts, your participation in Goodreads or other social media sites, will allow readers to get to know you. And ultimately, that's the best things about a blog from an author. What do you think?

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Mea Culpa

I'll never forget the time I forgot about a patient. It was in the days when the person was admitted the evening before, had surgery the next day, and was discharged the day after that. Some of you can't remember that far back, but I can. I saw the man the evening before, did the surgery the next day, and promised to see and discharge him the morning after that. But I forgot. Of course, I discharged him the next afternoon, and he never complained.

I never forgot another obligation after that--until today. Sorry. I'm still dealing with some "stuff" and--as we say in Texas--"plumb forgot" to prepare a post. Here it is, later than I usually get them up, but better late than never.

I promise to have my regular post for you Friday--unless I forget.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Writing: When Life Intervenes

We've had a visit from all my children this past week, and it was good to see them. Just about the time they left, other family duties called to me. Meanwhile, I didn't write a single line all week. How do you handle this?

To begin with, you have to realize that I'm what Lawrence Block called a "Sunday writer." I don't depend on my writing as my sole means of support. I've decided that "retired" means, among other things, that there's no "have-to" in my writing. If you read my post last week, you'll know what I mean.

After you decide what your own writing represents--an annuity, a hobby, or an occupation--then you can decide how to handle a break from it. For me? Family always comes first.

I should be back next week, but in the meantime, feel free to discuss where you are on the spectrum I've referred to. I'll be interested to know.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Spinning Beachball of Death

I was first introduced to computers many years ago, when I discovered a small company in the mid-cities that manufactured the machines. I had no idea how to use one--still don't fully understand everything they do--but I bought one. That was when I was in solo private practice of medicine, so purchases were up to me, rather than having to "go through the system." I carried the box into my office and my assistant at the time says I dumped it on her desk and said, "Learn how to use this." I don't know if it went exactly that way, but the computer did become indispensable to me as time went on.

In retirement, when I've exchanged one profession for another, I've come to depend on my laptop as I write. I also use it for email. Other than those functions, plus sometimes checking out news stories or doing research, that little box on my desk remains terra incognito for me. But I do recognize what some people have called "the spinning beachball of death," the little emoticon that pops up when an app is somehow delayed. And I've begun to notice it occasionally.

As time has gone on, and I've gotten used to faster and faster responses from my computer, I dread the day when I need to replace my faithful laptop, which I purchased some years back. When I bought it, I got one with a memory amount that was high enough that I figured I'd never run out. Now I see that I'm using a large proportion of that memory I thought was enough. Times change (but I'm not thrilled about it).

I'm not asking for tips on what to do. I'm well aware of all of them. Rather, I'd like to know if you've become dependent on your computer, as have I. What is your reaction to seeing that "spinning beachball of death?" Dread? A sense of impending doom? Or another day at the office? Let me know.