Saturday, January 27, 2007

Meet Ben Merrick

Well, the final revision of my first novel is on its way to my agent, Janet Benrey. I've polished it to the best of my ability, and now I get to gnaw my fingernails up to the elbow while I wait for her to read it and return her comments. Meanwhile, I'm starting to do the same with novel number two. The writers who read this blog know the drill: tighten it, raise the stakes, improve the flow, make the characters more real....

While I'm waiting for the fruits of my labor to be evaluated (yet again), I thought I might introduce you to my protagonist. Some of you from my critique groups at the Mount Hermon Conferences may recall Dr. Ben Merrick. But for the rest of you, I'll tell you that in college he was just good enough at playing baseball to get a minor league contract, but not good enough to stick in pro ball. He re-enrolls in college, completes his requirements, and applies for admission to medical school. It's a tough process, and he really sweats getting in, especially since his surgeon father declines to pull any strings to help him.

The following scene should help introduce you to Ben. I hope you enjoy getting to know him. There's a lot more ahead of him, and if a publisher likes what I've done, maybe you'll have the opportunity to read about his further adventures.
* * *

"Mr. Merrick, have you made up your mind whether you want to play children's games or make something of your life?" It seemed that the cold, blue eyes of the white-haired man sitting across the desk were staring directly into Ben Merrick’s soul.

The stress of the moment drove the words of Ben’s carefully prepared answer from his head. He froze, silent and immobile as a mongoose in front of a cobra. His gaze skittered over the diplomas and certificates that covered the wall to his right, then scanned the loaded bookshelves behind his questioner, but they gave him no clue to what he should say. He stared, mute, at the man across the desk from him, the man who might very well hold the key to his future.

Ferdinand C. Duncan, MD, FACS, the Dean of the Southwestern Medical School, leaned back in his chair, clasped his hands over his vested and ample belly, and looked at Ben over the tops of his half-spectacles. His expression was composed and serious, a perfect poker face.

“Well, Mr. Merrick?” The question hung in the air.

Ben swallowed hard, but the lump in his throat didn’t move. "Sir, my days of trying to play professional baseball are over. I didn’t have the talent to play, even at the minor league level, and now I’m ready to move on.”

“So you’re sure you want to be a physician?”

“I'm absolutely certain that I've been called to the practice of medicine.”

The dean removed his glasses and gestured with them to emphasize his next point. "Young man, medicine is indeed a calling, and a high calling at that. However, I trust that you aren't basing your decision to enter medicine on some perceived divine ‘call.’”

Ben mentally kicked himself. Apparently, he’d just classified himself as some kind of religious nut in the eyes of the man who stood between him and admission to this prestigious medical school. He certainly didn't think of himself as religious. Sure, he considered himself to be a Christian. At least, he’d said all the right words at the time. But the feelings he'd experienced then had enjoyed a pretty short lifespan. Besides, there wasn’t time or space for religion in the fast-paced, science-driven world of his pre-medical studies.

As for his calling to medicine, there had been no disembodied voice saying, "Ben, become a surgeon." It was more a feeling that this was what was expected of him. Expected by his father, by all the folks in his hometown. Certainly not by God.

Ben tried to redeem the moment. "Sir," he replied, "this is a decision that I've made after a great deal of careful thought. I haven't experienced any sort of divine call, but I do believe that we are given the ability to reason and make intelligent decisions. I've done just that, and medicine is where I belong.”

The dean just nodded, so Ben decided to unload the second barrel of his shotgun approach. “My father is a physician, a surgeon. I know the work that goes into becoming a doctor and practicing medicine, and I'm prepared to put forth that effort, given the chance."

The faintest trace of a smile flitted across the dean’s stone face. "Oh, yes. You're Robert Merrick's boy. Robert was in the first group of students I taught here. I never saw anyone with such a knack for anatomy. Finished in the top of his class, as I recall. At least we know you come from good stock."

Ben flinched at this, but managed a small smile of his own. "Thank you, sir." He wiped his sweating palms on the legs of his trousers, jerking to a stop when he realized how this betrayal of nervousness might be interpreted.

He took a deep breath and forced himself to lean back and assume a relaxed posture. He could hear his pulse pounding in his ears as he waited for the dean’s next words, telling him if he’d made it.

But instead, like Saint Peter turning to a new chapter in his record book, Dean Duncan simply closed the folder in front of him and opened the next one. Without looking up, he said, "Please send in the next applicant."

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Learning From "The Closer"

What can I say? Kay and I have become hooked on a TV show: "The Closer." We caught a few episodes last season and loved it. We even used our NetFlix membership to rent the DVD's of the first season so we could catch up, and now we can hardly wait to sit down and play the weekly episode that we TiVo. It's a high point of the week, even though we end up going "Whew" when it's all over.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, obviously a TV show, specifically a drama, has to do pretty much what the author of a novel has to do, but in a different medium and using different tools. By the way, if you're interested in the comparison, check out Robert B. Parker's book, Parker On Writing (out of print but available from some used book sources--my children gave me an autographed copy for Christmas and I love it). But it's fair to say that when I watch each episode, I pay careful attention to the way suspense builds, to how scenes shift to maintain interest, to the way in which character development proceeds, and the points at which humorous touches are inserted to lighten up things.

We usually just go through the episodes, but we had some extra time the other night so I suggested we watch the added feature, "Police Notes." It turned out to be out-takes from the show. These are scenes that were filmed (or video'd, I guess) but not used. When I've seen out-takes in the past, they were scenes with bloopers or mistakes that caused them to be left on the cutting room floor, but these were scenes that could just as easily have been left in the finished product were it not for the constraints of time. Seeing what was cut and what scenes were shown proved to me that every writer--whether working in a print medium or a visual one--has to develop an eye for when to bite the bullet and trash something he or she has created. The dreaded "delete" key. The writers of "The Closer" do a good job of it, and I'm trying hard to develop that talent, as well.

And for those of you keeping score at home, I've cut, deleted, slashed, rewritten, juggled, and filed off the rough edges of novel #1, and it's going to be on its way to my agent by mid-week. Then it's on to doing the same type of major rewrite on novel #2. But, of course, I'll take time out to watch the next episode of "The Closer."

Monday, January 15, 2007

Trimming The Manuscript

It seems as though every pass I make through my WIP (work-in-progress, for those of you just tuning in) has shown me more areas that I need to improve. After the last such pass, I'm pretty sure that I've done as much substantive writing as is reasonable. Now it's time to trim it.

Blaise Pascal said it very well: "I have made this letter rather long, because I did not have time to make it shorter." It's a great deal easier to pour words pell-mell onto a page than it is to be concise. One of the axioms that Karen Ball drilled into her critique group at the Mount Hermon Conference was "RTE!" Resist the temptation to explain. Don't say, "Jack was angry. His face showed it." Just say, "Jack scowled." And if something is going to be made clear in another twenty or thirty pages, let the reader wonder about it until then. That's called suspense.

While I wait for the final set of suggestions from my mentor (it's OK--he doesn't read blogs, so he won't know I'm talking about him), I've revised and re-revised the novel. I think it's about as good as I can get it, and obviously I'm proud of every word of deathless prose that I've put down. Now it's time to take off my author's beret, put on my editor's green eyeshade, and cut several thousand words.

So if you hear a loud sobbing coming from this part of Texas, it's probably just me, bidding good-bye to words and phrases to which I gave birth. Now it's time to let them go, perhaps by putting them in what I call my "recycle" folder for use in a later work, possibly by using the dreaded "delete" key.

In sports, when a player is cut from a team, managers often say that it was for the best, calling it "addition by subtraction." I hope I can achieve the same effect in my self-editing.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Heigh, Ho...It's Off To Work We Go

The holidays are truly past, with only our VISA and Mastercard bills to remind us. My family celebrated together on Epiphany, since the weekend of January 5-7 was the time we could all get together. But now it's time for me to take down the decorations outside--thank goodness, Kay takes care of the inside stuff--and get on with things.

I'm currently in the process of what I hope to be the final revisions of my two completed novels. I've had significant interest from a publisher about them, as well as my almost-completed third one, but they want me to tune them up, raise the stakes, make the reader care more about the protagonist...those of you who are writers know what I mean.

I've been fortunate to work with an independent editor in this project. Dr. Dennis Hensley is a meticulous teacher and a fanatical taskmaster who has removed so many commas from my work that I've thought about selling the surplus on eBay. He's pointed out inconsistencies, suggested alternative scenes, and in general taught me a lot. But it's still up to me to put all this into practice.

So, I'm off to work. That means I'll be posting less often--probably once a week. I appreciate those of you who check in here regularly. I'll try to make it worth your while to continue doing so.

Meanwhile, be well, and don't forget to write.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Who's Reading The Blogs?

I read blogs! There, I've admitted it. I do it for a couple of reasons. Some of the blogs I read provide me with spiritual fuel for the day. Others are just plain entertaining. And the rest help me keep up with folks whom I've met on this road to writing that I consider friends.

The blogs I check every day (or at least every weekday) are the ones that have new posts on a daily basis. Others change once or twice a week, and I try to scan them frequently enough not to miss anything. My daily reads are the Charis Connection and The Writing Life (Terry Whalin). I check the blogs of Kristy Dykes, BJ Hoff, Al Gansky, Brandilyn Collins, and my friend, D'Ann Mateer, regularly. Others I go to periodically.

Because I'm curious, I queried a number of authors and editors about what blogs they read. I'll give their responses anonymously, because you might get mad at them if they don't read your blog. Interestingly, most don't read mine (although most I consider friends), but you'll see why in a minute.

The responses vary, according to the status of the respondent. Veteran, full-time authors don't do a lot of blog-hopping. One said, "I am so behind that I don't read any blogs on a regular basis." Another said, "I don't have any 'regulars'....Some days I don't read any." A third listed only one blog: Pyromaniacs. (I checked it out, and it's great).

A respected editor said, "I read tons--way above average--but not necessarily blogs." An author and developmental editor responded with, "I never read anyone's blogs."

Some fledgling authors, either as yet unpublished or in the infancy of their career, listed from seven to eleven blogs that they regularly read. They were, by and large, by well-established authors (with the exception of one respondent, who also reads my blog).

Can I make any assumptions from this? What jumps out at me is that the busier you are writing (or reading, or editing), the less time you have to visit blogs. Whereas, when you're still learning the craft, you read lots of them.

I don't think it's bad to read blogs, so long as it adds to, rather than taking away from, your writing. And it's not a sin not to read them, especially if you stay busy with other productive things.

Bottom line? Writing a blog gives practice in writing. Reading a blog gives insight into what others think, what they do, the ideas they have to offer. Do both if it helps. Do neither if you please. But whatever you do, do it well.

Monday, January 01, 2007

New Year's Thoughts

For almost everyone, Christmas has come and gone. I say, "almost everyone," because we're having our Christmas celebration at Epiphany this year. All three of my children and their spouses will be here over this coming weekend, and we'll be exchanging presents and having our family gathering then.

Meanwhile, we've turned another leaf on the calendar and a new year is staring us in the face. In the south, millions of people will eat black-eyed peas today "for luck." This dates back to the Civil War days, when the troops moving through the south enforced a "scorched earth" policy and destroyed crops, but left the black-eyed peas, thinking they were cattle feed. I've never figured that eating them brought me any luck, but my mother always said, "But think how much worse things would be if you didn't eat them." I guess she had a point.

In my mind, I realize that the transition from December 31 to January 1 marks the passing of only one day, not a full year. Nevertheless, it's a milestone and causes all of us to pause and reflect. While thinking of what to say in this first posting of 2007, this morning I browsed the blogs I read regularly, including the postings of B J Hoff. In the sidebar, there was a message that I want to pass along. BJ, thanks for letting me borrow it, and for inspiring us throughout the year.

Have a blessed 2007.

"May God make your year a happy one! Not by shielding you from all sorrows and pain, But by strengthening you to bear it, as it comes; Not by making your path easy, But by making you sturdy to travel any path; Not by taking hardships from you, But by taking fear from your heart; Not by granting you unbroken sunshine, But by keeping your face bright, even in the shadows; Not by making your life always pleasant, But by showing you when people and their causes need you most, and by making you anxious to be there to help. God's love, peace, hope and joy to you for the year ahead." -Anonymous