Friday, August 30, 2019

Writing: It's A Lonely Business

Anyone who's been in an allergy course I've directed may find it difficult to believe, but I'm an introvert. When it came time to face 250 or so attendees, I often said, "Time to put on my game face." At that point, I was an extrovert. But at other times, not so much.

Writing is like that. We sit down in front of a computer and imagine words that we might not say out loud in real life. We imagine people in situations that are made up of whole cloth, saying words that we pluck out of the air, and keep on doing that until we've filled our allotment of pages for the day. And when it comes time to send our manuscript forth into the world, we "put on our game face." However, instead of facing people for a limited amount of time, we're going to  put our words out there for thousands (we hope) to read and comment on for as long as the book is in print. 

Some people like to use a critique group for the exchange of ideas. Others prefer to do it solo. As one author of my acquaintance says, "No one reads a single word I've written until the manuscript is sent to my editor." Whichever way a writer prefers to do it--whether with others contributing ideas and reacting to what's written or by never sharing the manuscript until it's completed--ultimately the responsibility for what's going down on that paper is the sole responsibility of the author. And that's a scary thought.

I love the quotation that I sometimes use as a signature line. "Some people hear voices when no one's around.  They are called mad, and sit in a room all day and stare at the walls. Others are called writers, and they do pretty much the same thing."  I may not have the words exactly the way writer Meg Chittenden said them, but writers will know what I mean--and nod. How about you?

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Wheel Of Fortune

It comes to us all. Life is like a wheel, and the further it turns, the more we notice. I'm reaching the point in my life where I occasionally groan when getting up. I don't hit a golf ball as far as I used to. When writing, I sometimes sit for several minutes before the computer searching for a word that used to spring to my mind almost instantaneously. Am I frustrated? Well, yes. But am I glad that I've lived long enough to get this way? Definitely.

I doubt that most of my readers have reached the stage where you say that you're not as young as you used to be. My statement is "I'm not as young as I used to be, and probably never was." And I always add the thought (if not the actual words) that I'm fortunate to have reached this time. So long as I'm able to dress myself and take nourishment, as the saying goes, I count myself fortunate. How about you?

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?