Sunday, January 30, 2011

Does Your Story Idea have Nutritional Value?

I know, I know--what the hell does writing have to do with bodily functions?

Everybody who took basic high school biology knows that chewing and stomach action start the digestion process and that the large intestine packages the remnants for a quick exit. In between the start and finish, the amazing small intestine does the real work, quietly munching on the soft mass passed down by the stomach. It extracts most of the nutrition from food. Writing follows a similar hierarchy to digestion.

After a writer discovers a concept, one with exciting possibilities, the author-to-be immediately begins “chewing” on the idea. The story soon begins its digestive journey as initial creativity prepares the story with a first chapter, a “hook” that foreshadows everything to follow. For some aspiring writers, this is unfortunately, where the process fizzles out. Despite an exciting concept and captivating opening, a weak plot blows right through the meat of the story, leaving behind a few gas pains and some irritating bowel sounds before blowing out in a pile of literary tripe. I’d like a dollar for every time I've bogged down in the middle of a story after realizing there really wasn’t much substance to the plot. What happened to that great “smelling” story concept that I started with?

Fast-food writing, that’s what I call it; a promising beginning, followed by very little “good stuff” where it counts most, in the body of the story. The truth is, writers cannot put French Fries into the literary small intestines and expect to extract the nutritional value of a Caesar salad. A writer might get excited about a Two-Pound-Grease-Burger and super-sized Soda story-concept (okay, okay, I know it’s a cheesy metaphor for an initial story idea), but writing would be better served if fast-food impulses are resisted in favor of story-concepts with more substance in the first place. Imagine if writers had to write truthful “nutritional labels” for their stories. “My story smells great and tastes awesome! Disclaimer - some readers experience a bad case of abdominal cramps about half way through the book. In rare cases, readers are reported to have broken out in cold sweats, followed by lengthy periods of moaning.”

There is a common expression used in the computer world, “garbage in, garbage out.” It applies equally well to both digestion and to the writing process. Writers should avoid story ideas with shallow concepts. Story ideas with healthy plot potential will produce happy fans and the writing will flow naturally, almost writing itself. That said, I’m hungry. Hmmm? KFC or Jack-in-the-Box? Naw . . . think I’ll have an apple--I’m writing tonight.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Defensive Writing Skills

Sometimes, writers get no respect. Non-writers think we’re just sitting around having fun, when the truth is, writing demands concentration, deep introspection and a good supply of Cheetos.

“Honey, there’s something wrong with the garbage disposal. Can you take care of it today? After all, you’re home all day . . . uhhh . . . writing.”  They usually manage to say that last word, with a sarcastic bite.

“Sweetheart, the leg fell off one of the kitchen chairs. Can you fix it, you know, in between chapters?” Does she really know how much time it takes to repair that chair? Clean the joint. Dig through a garage full of disorganized tools. I find the Elmers glue, which I left the cap off and is now hard as a rock. I give up looking for my wood clamps in the mess, so I drop $20 at the local hardeware store for some new wood clamps and glue . . . and a Snickers I see at the checkout stand. Crap, half the day is gone and I'm ready for lunch. Screw the chair leg.

“Babe, the bushes along our entry walk need to be trimmed. You’re home all day, would you be a dear and take care of it?”  Here we go again.

You get the drill. Being a full-time writer might not command the same respect that going to a “real” job does. Stay-at-home moms experience the same lack of respect. “Honey, you’re home all day. Why can’t you take a few minutes to paint the spare bedroom? Maybe when you have nothing to do while the baby takes a nap.”

Unless you’re a Stephen King or a Tom Clancy or a JK Rowling, you’d better develop a host of defenses to support your writing career. Here is a sample of my essential writing skills:

-  Little white lie.  “Honey, I’d love to mow the lawn, but the gas in the mower went bad and the mower doctor can’t see the Toro until next week.”  You just have to make sure she doesn't know how to start the mower. She might call your bluff and that could get ugly.

-  Art of misunderstanding the question. “Oh, you meant trim the whole hedge. I thought you just meant the part by the front door.”  You can usually get away with a half-hearted effort once or twice. Don't over-use it.

-  Skill of the craftily inserted letter.  “Your note on the white board said, ‘Please clean fish tanks’ and I thought it said, ‘Please clean fish, thanks.’ Since we didn’t have any, I went fishing all day. I did it just for you!”  Gasp, choke, snicker . . . if she falls for this one, you've got a real keeper!

-  Feigned illness trick.  I learned this one from my younger brother, Jon, when he used it to weasel out of school as a kid. Take your shower before bed, but leave a thin layer of soap under your armpits or behind your knees. In the morning, you’ll have a bright rash and can point to it as proof of how “under the weather” you are. Wives are suckers for a sick husband. No chores today!

-  Compelling world conflict.  “I didn’t have time to fix the faucet in the shower, babe. I’m writing a political thriller and had to research, all day. Followed FOX news for drama and studied the latest data on global warming. Man, sweating polar bears are a sad sight. And, you’d be surprised how Russian spies hide microphones in toilets . . . works great until they flush.”  (Really played online poker, checked for latest Facebook downloads, and looked at a Where-are-they-now website featuring my high school class. Wow! They got old.

The real key to defensive writing is to stay one step ahead of your mate. Here is Rule number one (of course, there IS only one rule):  1)  Ruses always work once. Most spouses catch on pretty fast, so you have to be creative, constantly producing new defenses against those pesky interruptions to writing. Now, where did I put my new fishing pole? I’ve got a busy day of “writing” ahead!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

I Want My Shoe Back!

It was first light on a warm summer morning in South Carver, Massachusetts, and I was fishing. I promised Dad I’d bring home enough bass for a family fish-fry, one that would feed all six of us. To make things even better, there was an awesome top-water bite with fish exploding out of the water on each pass of my Jitterbug lure. It was a thrill on every cast. I waded out knee-deep so I could make longer casts to the drop-off where the big fish lived.

One fish quickly went on the stringer, then two, then three and four. Within two hours, I had twelve fish on a stringer tied to the exposed root of a tree at the edge of the water. Cranberry bog drainage ponds, like this one, held lots of fish, but the bass never got very big, so I figured I’d need about twenty-five to feed our clan.

All morning long, lily pads parted, and...wham...just as the pad started returning to its position, an aggressive fish would burst from beneath to crush my lure. I was having so much fun that I lost track of time and only paid attention to my stringer long enough to add each fish.

A little before noon, I realized it was time to get back to camp and clean fish for lunch. I knew I had around twenty-five and I envisioned me, the conquering hero, striding up to our tents with a stringer of fish so heavy I had to drape it over my shoulder. Dad would be proud. Mom would be grossed out. And, my little brothers would be excited. That was the fantasy.

Have you ever tried to intimidate a raccoon? I learned that day, raccoons are not the least bit afraid of people, especially a skinny boy slapping the water with a cheap fishing pole and shouting curses at them. Nope, nasty beast growled at me while following my stringer from the base of the tree. It waded into the water and began munching on the closest bass to shore. I hoped it would be sated after one or two fish and go away, but that wasn’t in the cards. The stinking <expletive deleted> bit through my cord!  I watched helplessly, as one fish after another wriggled free and returned to the depths of the pond.

I arrived back in camp with two feet left of my six-foot stringer, no fish and a missing tennis shoe that got stuck in the mud when the pissed off raccoon chased me down the bank. Little did I realize back then, that some day I’d be a writer, struggling to build a “limit” of good words, only to have some damn editor yank the stringer right out of my “catch” with the same disregard for my feelings as that coon showed.

“This is a plot hole. Rewrite it.”
“Your pace is too slow here. Rewrite it.”
“Can’t you delete this unnecessary scene?” That scene just happened to be one of the most masterful pieces of writing I ever penned, or so I thought. Now, this all-powerful editor, this demigod of publishing, guts my painfully crafted genius from the story. That’s just not right! Editors, and raccoons, need to leave my shit alone. I say, “Let it be!”

Then again, that raccoon had teeth, some nasty looking teeth. So does my editor, but his teeth aren't the white kind. Rather, they are green...the green of money. You see, the editor controls an author’s purse strings, so I guess if he wants my stringer, he can have it. Maybe with some of that green, I'll treat myself to a new pair of tennis shoes. Hmmm...stupid raccoon...took me fifty years, but I got my shoe back!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

There’s Got to be a Better Way

Tic, tic, tic . . . days pass. You check your mail every day. Tic, tic, tic . . . days become weeks. Aha, the first response! You tear open the envelope (or click “open” for electronic mail), and it reads, “Dear author, Thank you for your submission, but I am not able to use your manuscript at this time. Good luck.”

With a small sigh, you console yourself, “That’s okay. I sent out thirty-five queries. That’s only one rejection.”

Weeks morph into months. Declinations grow, all written with that fateful “but” right in the middle of the first sentence. You’ve gotten past disappointment and fear of rejection. Anger came and went. Each turn-down is now met with a sardonic “ppfffttt” as you log the reply in your list of agents who you will never-do-business-with after you become rich and famous.

Then, doubts creep in. “Maybe my masterpiece lacks a market. Maybe the industry has all the authors it needs and there’s no room for a newbie. God forbid, it's not good enough...naw, my ego won't let me believe that. (LOL) It must be that my query letter or synopsis needs revision. Maybe I should self-publish. I've got it! I'll put my story in eBook format and open a website? If it’s not good enough for the big leagues, then maybe a few people will enjoy my story on the internet. Hell, I’d be happy with just one satisfied reader . . . well, other than mom.”

Meanwhile, your daily writing discipline grinds forward, crafting a sequel. Characters from the first novel grow larger. Some live. A few die. Obstacles for your protagonist(s) fill the sequel. Each fictional personality leads future readers through another fantastic journey. All the while, your first novel waits for a willing agent and publisher.

One day, you stare at your computer while wrestling with depression, and a subtle electronic sound announces the arrival of a new message. You ignore it--must be more spam, of course. After lunch, (and time out to cook a batch of anti-depressant-double-chocolate pudding) you resume tormenting your main characters, but that nagging you-have-mail icon catches your attention. You open it.

“Dear Mr. Sault, Thank you for your query letter and synopsis. I am interested in reading the entire manuscript. Please forward it at your earliest convenience . . . yada, yada, yada.”

Whoopee! Yahoo! Success! Months of uncertainty, ended in an instant of victory. No more speculation. Somebody now holds your fate in his or her hands and will pass judgment on your full story. Who are these gods of publishing access? As Lois asked Superman, do they “eat”? Do they experience insecurity? Who would want a job crushing a hundred writers’ dreams to find a single gem among the emotional rubble? It would drive me to drink, well, perhaps to drink more. The emotional high of getting representation is better than dope...of course, I’m just speculating about dope.  <wink, wink>  And, if the agent produces results, all those months of toiling at your craft might pay off with that ultimate achievement, satisfied readers.

After enduring this marathon process, I can’t help thinking “Is there a better way?” How could the process be improved . . . or can it? Maybe all the failures are the best way to sift the wheat from the chaff. What do you think?