Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Yet Another Writing Book

Ecclesiastes 12:12 says it very well: "Of the making of many books, there is no end." It sounds as though the writer of this Old Testament book might have just returned from a writers' conference, laden with books purchased at the book store and a long list of others to be ordered, all of them guaranteed to improve his writing. There are lots of them, aren't there? Well, here's one more. This one was recommended to me by the managing editor at one of the Christian publishing houses, and since he was also reviewing the manuscript of one of my novels, I sort of thought it might be prudent for me to read the book, maybe even try to glean something from it that would make him look more favorably on future submissions.

The book is The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers. The author, Christopher Vogler, builds upon the study of mythic structure in which Joseph Campbell pioneered, adding a smattering of the psychology of Carl Jung. If this sounds too deep for you, don't get your adrenaline level too high over it. What Vogler does is to take a premise--all novels and plays can, in some form, be said to conform to the structure of classical myths and fairy tales--and expound on it, with both instruction and examples. His examples, by the way, come from a wide variety of novels, movies, and plays.

I must admit that I was a doubter until I looked at the first few steps of Vogler's "Hero's Journey" and discovered that a number of books, including my own novels, do indeed show these characteristics. Vogler says that a hero starts in the ordinary world, is called to adventure, often initially refuses, is encouraged by a mentor, crosses the first threshold, encounters tests, finds allies and enemies, approaches the innermost cave.... I won't give you the rest of the journey, but perhaps you're beginning to see that maybe this does all sound familiar.

This isn't the absolute best book on plot and structure I've ever read, but it certainly taught me some things and reminded me of others. I would encourage you to check it out.

In the next couple of posts, I'll give you some other suggestions for writing books that I've found helpful. Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Looking For The Right Word

Are you stumped? I mean, are you baffled, bewildered, blocked, challenged, confused, foiled, mystified, nonplussed, perplexed, puzzled, stymied? Does the thesaurus that's a part of MS Word fail to meet your needs? Is it unsatisfactory? That is, is it disappointing, inadequate, inferior, insufficient, unacceptable? Then do I have a writing tool for you.

I was first introduced to The Flip Dictionary at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, when Dave Talbott gave away a copy as part of his lunch-time antics. "Hmm," I said to myself. I sort of put it on the back burner until I got back home, but the next time I was stumped for a word I broke down and made Barnes and Noble a bit richer by purchasing a copy. Since then it's been front and center on my desk, and I daresay I've used it more than any writing reference I have.

Check it out. We all know that you're not supposed to use the same word repeatedly--especially not within the same paragraph. Want a synonym? Looking for another word. Just consult your copy of The Flip Dictionary. I think you'll agree that it's useful, beneficial, contributive, handy....

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Writer's Ambivalence

I'm about two-thirds of the way through the book, Writing The Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass, and I already have a love-hate relationship with it. For those of you who aren't writers, Maass is a highly successful literary agent and this book is considered a classic in the "how to write" genre. I'd been meaning to read it for some time, but my agent heard Maass speak recently and strongly recommended the book. So I bought it and started reading, and it's changed me already.

When I go to a writers' conference, I always end up alternating between feelings of "Yes, let me get writing. I'm inspired!" and "There's no way I can ever measure up to that standard." Well, magnify that a dozen times, and that's the way I feel after reading each chapter by Maass. I'll do another post later, commenting on the salient features of the book, but the short version is he encourages you to take everything to a deeper level--the conflict, the plot, the characters, even the setting. He does it through gentle instruction and pertinent examples, and every time I put the book down I want to run to the computer and work on my next novel. Then, when I compare what I've written with the examples of breakout works he quotes, I feel like Woody Allen at a World's Strongest Man competition.

But, I guess that's part of writing. So, I'll keep on reading and keep on trying. I hope you'll do the same.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Austin Boyd

I've watched Austin Boyd's progress from an attendee at the Mount Hermon Conference to an award-winning author and faculty member there. He remains the same quiet, dedicated, thoughtful man he always was, and I'm proud to call him friend. His travel schedule has been extremely hectic and we haven't been able to connect for a formal blog interview, but I did want to give you a little background on him and give my personal endorsement to his latest book, The Return. Austin's story is an inspiration to everyone who is still struggling to see their words in print.

The following is abstracted from Austin's web site: On a West Virginia farm in 1971, young Austin W. Boyd felt the call to become an astronaut. In 1982, Navy pilot Boyd entered his first application to join NASA’s space program. He would submit more applications than any other naval officer in history. In 1990 he made the cut for the first time and became a semi-finalist. He was cut in the next round. Again he became a semi-finalist in 1992. Again he was cut. At age 40, late in the game for many pilots, he made it all the way to Houston as an Astronaut Candidate Finalist. Twenty were interviewed, one was selected.

Age 42, again, semi-finalist. At age 44, Boyd was ready to give it one last shot. He had made enough connections, and fulfilled all the requirements. He had the dream application. This was his time.

And then he called it off. His wife, suffering through the stress of fourteen moves, three wars, and eight astronaut applications, was sick.

Boyd had walked the daunting path to become an astronaut, but decided at its pinnacle that his calling was first to his family—to a journey, not the destination. In 1998 he began writing The Evidence, the fulfillment of his astronaut dream in print, if not in life.

“There’s one thing that writers and astronauts must both possess in great quantity,” Boyd says. “Tenacity.”

He moved to Huntsville, Alabama—Rocket City, USA—in a job as a spacecraft engineer and began to write.

A second mortgage on his house and dozens of rejections later, he finally succeeded. I'd encourage you to check his web site for the full story of how he achieved this, but eventually Austin had a three-book contract from NavPress for the Mars Hill Classified series. The first book, The Evidence, was hailed as a new entry in the genre of Christian fiction—technical thriller, space suspense, and romance all rolled into one. Austin's second book was The Proof. The final novel in the series, The Return, was recently released, and I was privileged to provide a quote for the back cover copy for that book. Like its two predecessors, it's an excellent book, and I highly recommend it.

Austin is currently working on an exciting project, but I don't have permission to release the details. Nevertheless, it's a great continuation of the success story of a dedicated author and fine Christian. Congratulations, Austin.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Can't Avoid The Tag

I have read enough blogs to recognize the current fad of "tagging" someone, challenging them to reveal seven things about themselves. This is a form of "meme." I had to look that one up: "An Internet meme is a piece of digital content that spreads rapidly, widely, and organically from person to person on the Internet. The term is a reference to the memes as virus-like self-replicating packets of information." (from Wikipedia). I actually was tagged a couple of months ago and posted my seven random things. I've tried to maintain a low profile since then (sound of muffled laughter in the background from my wife, who knows better), but I haven't been able to avoid being tagged once more--this time by my friend, BJ Hoff. So, using the questions BJ proposes, here are the answers to seven questions about me.

1. What's the one book or writing project you haven't yet written but still hope to?
Stories I Couldn't Tell Until I Retired From Practice (And Checked With My Lawyer)
2. If you had one entire day in which to do nothing but read, what book would you start with?
I know I should say The Bible, but it would probably be Robert B. Parker's latest book--whatever it was at the time.
3. What was your first writing "instrument" (besides pen and paper)?
A manual Royal typewriter that my father and mother managed to find the money to buy for me when I was in high school
4. What's your best guess as to how many books you read in a month?
As few as four and as many as eight or ten
5. What's your favorite writing "machine" you've ever owned?
My current Mac iBook G4 (PC, what's a PC?)
6. Think historical fiction: what's your favorite time period in which to read? (And if you don't read historical fiction--shame on you.)
The 1930's, as chronicled by Raymond Chandler
7. What's the one book you remember most clearly from your youth (childhood or teens)?
Treasure Island

It's customary to "tag" other folks after having been tagged yourself. BJ has already tagged some of the folks I would have involved, but there are plenty of others. After almost no thought, I have decided to pass the buck to Kristy Dykes, Alton Gansky, Rachelle Gardner, D'Ann Mateer, Lena Dooley, Mary DeMuth and John Robinson (John, you need a new post on your blog, anyway). And I hope these folks will consider the consequences of breaking the chain.

Chain letter? Why, yes, now that you mention it, it is sort of a chain letter. Matter of fact, I know an author who broke the meme chain--his contract fell through, his computer crashed, and his publisher was bought by a European consortium and is now printing all its books in Swedish. But you don't have to respond if you don't want to.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Juggling Act

Today's blog entry from my friend, D'Ann Mateer, talks about handling the responsibilities of family life while still finding time to write. When I took up writing (almost four years ago), I figured that it would keep me busy. After all, I'm retired--what else would I have to do?

The laughter I hear is probably from those of my readers who are retired. I've heard it most of my life, but now I can attest to its truthfulness: "I don't know how I ever managed to work." Retired life is...or, at least, can be...quite full. And just like D'Ann and all my other friends who write, whether as an occupation or an avocation, writing just has to be squeezed into the time available.

Right now, I'm taking the advice I've given to others. Keep more than one writing project going. When one thing is going slow, go to another one. And keep those submissions going out. Today, I've sent the manuscript of my third novel to my agent. I've completed the final draft of an article I'm submitting to a Christian writing publication. And I'm polishing my proposal and sample chapters of another non-fiction book.

For the writers out there, if you're keeping more than one ball in the air, good for you. The more you write, the better your work. The more you submit, the better your chances for acceptance. So, to quote the title of Elizabeth George's classic book on writing, Write Away.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

"She Cut Off Their Tails...."

For some reason, every time I look at one of the writing "loops" to which I subscribe, I find myself humming "Three Blind Mice." That's because so many of the people who post to it can't seem to remember to--as those who are much more email savvy than I put it--"cut off the tails" of the emails before posting a reply. What happens, time and again, is that someone will reply to a question or make a comment, leaving the settings on their email utility programmed to include the previous email--which, in this case, is often a whole digest of multiple emails.

I remain subscribed to this particular digest of emails because I like to be kept informed of the things going on in the organization. However, it would be so very, very, very much simpler if I could read something like this:
(short heading): I don't understand all the "rules" of writing for particular editors. What do they want? Any idea?
(simple signature)
(short heading): I just found a great writing site: it's www.bftszlt.com.
(simple signature)

Unfortunately, what I get instead is a conglomerate of posts, long headers, complex signatures, postings that have nothing to do with the current subject, and sometimes even a rehash of the whole "digest" (up to 24 posts) in which the current material was included.

Why should I care? Two reasons, I guess. I'd like to be able to read the digest of the day's posts (usually there are two or three digests per day) without having to spend ten minutes figuring out what is wheat and what is chaff. And I'd like to think that someone who identifies himself or herself as a writer would be orderly enough and basically computer-literate enough to do a simple cut-and-paste of pertinent material to include in their post--not just throw everything up against the wall and see what sticks.

And now that I've registered my complaint, I'll remind readers of this blog that some time ago I queried a number of successful editors and writers about what blogs and email loops they read. The vast majority spent little or no time with these things. They were busy working. Which is what I'm about to do. See you in a few days.

PS: The day after posting this, I received a loop digest and everyone...I repeat, everyone...had cut off the tails of prior emails, so that I was able to skim through in a hurry. I wish I could take the credit for it, but I can't. I hope it continues.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Progress in Writing

Having survived the disappointment of getting the equivalent of a "Dear John" letter from a publishing house that had given me hope that my first novel would lead to a contract, I've pressed on with my writing (while my agent shops my second novel and we wait for the last couple of opinions on the first). I decided, about twenty thousand words into the book, to stop writing with one eye on the "rules" everyone talks about, rules that govern the Christian publishers like the tablets that came down from Mount Sinai. No, there's no profanity, no sex scenes, nothing that I'd be ashamed for my mother, bless her soul, to read. But I just opened up and "let 'er rip" as I wrote. And novel number three is now nearing completion.

For those of you who like to know how others write, here's what feels comfortable for me. I start with a premise, develop a "hook," figure out the two minor story arcs that I want to help carry the major arc to its conclusion, and then populate the story with the major characters. For me, that's not too hard, since I'm still using the same protagonist and his wife. But this one needed some bad guys and some auxiliary good guys. I had faint visions of them, and once the book got underway, they introduced themselves to me quite nicely.

Then I do what Anne Lamott calls a "$#!**% first draft." (If you've read Bird By Bird, you can fill in the blanks). This corresponds to the advice I first heard from Jim Bell: "Get it down, then get it right." I do just that by going back through the first draft and correcting obvious mistakes, smoothing out inconsistencies and making motivation better, etc. Then I spend $15 at Office Max to have the whole thing printed out. (I've figured out that this is cheaper than my buying ink cartridges and paper to print it myself). That's when my IR gets hold of it. Stephen King (see prior post) speaks about his "Ideal Reader," and (as is the case with King), my IR is my wife . I asked Kay to go through the manuscript as though she were reading one of our favorite Robert B. Parker novels, noting where things got dull, pointing out poor motivation or inaccurate actions, etc. At that point, the printed manuscript comes back to me. I've now read through it on the computer with the annotated manuscript in front of me, and have made lots of changes. In addition to rewriting a number of scenes, I cut about ten percent of the novel. I do this by cutting the extraneous scene and pasting it into a new Word document that goes into a folder I've created for the purpose. In one or two instances, I was able to reach down into that holding tank and rescue paragraphs that had merit, but, by and large, once the words are gone, they don't make it back.

Now, all that remains is for me to go through the manuscript once more--probably in printed form again--with my editor's hat on. After that, it will go to my agent, who will undoubtedly have more suggestions. Then it will be ready to make the rounds.

So, it's not done yet, but it's pretty much all downhill from here. Stay tuned for further developments. And don't forget to write. (Double meaning definitely intended).

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Lucky Day

According to my sources, the number of weddings being performed in Las Vegas today is triple the normal number. Why? Because it's 07/07/07, supposedly a very lucky day. I'd wager (pun very definitely intended) that there are more gamblers around the tables and machines today, as well.

Well, today is lucky for me. It's my birthday. As I look back at the preceding seventy years, I realize that I have so many things for which to be thankful--far too many to list here. It's a humbling experience to realize that, through God's grace, I've been allowed to live this long and do so many things. And I'm not through yet.

"What's next?" you may ask. Well, there's German chocolate cake to be eaten. After that? We'll just have to see, won't we?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Excellent Book On Writing, But....

I've just read an excellent book on writing, yet I'm a bit hesitant to post about it. I'll explain in a bit. This book is by one of the premier authors of fiction in the US. His mysteries are best-sellers, and many have been made into movies. I purchased the book, not because I particularly like his writing--actually, much of it is too "dark" for my enjoyment--but because he has such an excellent reputation as a writer. A number of authors whom I respect have recommended him. Since I'm too cowardly to read his fiction, I thought I'd read his book about writing.

The first portion of the book is pretty much an autobiography, and it's fascinating. But you soon figure out that you're going to have to put up with some pretty colorful language as you work your way through it. He pulls no punches, including telling how he fell prey to alcohol and drugs at the pinnacle of his success. Still, it was an enlightening story.

The part of the book dealing with writing starts by comparing the tools needed with a carpenter's toolbox. In the top shelf are vocabulary, and here he is quick to suggest that, although you'll enhance yours by your reading, for the most part you should use the words you have. No need to use fancy words when plain ones will do. He illustrates this with some excellent work by well-known authors, much of which contains single-syllable words!

The top layer also contains grammar, and his reference of choice is the cherished standard, Elements of Style. I could only say "amen and amen" as, time and again, he refers to the lessons to be gleaned from this work. And although most of us have already heard that we should avoid adverbs, this writer puts it more plainly: "I believe that the road to hell is paved with adverbs." Pretty hard to miss that lesson.

He got another "amen" from me with his admonition that to be a writer you must read. He admits to being a "slow reader," only getting through 70 or 80 books a year. His contention is that you have to read a lot and write a lot. The benefit of writing is self-evident. The reading should not only give you an example of what is good, it can also tell you what is mediocre and downright rotten (and we all know that some of the stuff that's published fits this description), so you can avoid it.

He lists the three elements of a story--narration, description, and dialogue--and has lots to say about each of them. And, like Al Gansky, he is fond of asking "what if," then letting the story take off. He says that once he sets the situation and the characters, they generally kidnap him and take him to the end.

So, if you can put up with some language that isn't found in your Sunday School quarterly, and you want to read a book that I think is very helpful for anyone trying to write fiction, click on this link. Besides that, if you haven't figured out who the author of this book is, you'll probably click on it just to get the answer. See, that's one of the elements of writing suspense.

Monday, July 02, 2007

My Country, Tis Of Thee....

I hope that you'll take the time to celebrate Independence Day. Fly your flag. Enjoy the fireworks. Grill outside and share food and fellowship with your family or friends. And, most of all, reflect on the blessings you enjoy because you live in a free country. Politics and world view aside, we are extremely fortunate to be in this land. I'm reminded of a poem I had to memorize in high school English--thank you, Mrs. Billie Casey--and it's occasions like this that make the lines come back to me. The poem is called "America For Me," and you can read the whole thing here. Yes, there are lots of places in the world that are really nice (and I am fortunate enough to have readers in many of them), but I can't imagine myself living anywhere but America.

If you'd like to test your knowledge of America, take this quiz. It's fun, and I'm pleased to report that I passed. Then try it on your kids and see if they're paying attention in American History.