Tuesday, June 26, 2012

“Boom shakalaka boom shakalaka” - Dictation Software

I bought the Dragon dictation software to see if I could increase my writing productivity. Hated it. I’d be dictating and then answer my wife’s question about what I’d like for dinner. Yep, my culinary choice spilled right into the manuscript page. Imagine what could happen during a romantic scene.

     Meg leaned away from him despite quivering with desire. “You know I love you, Randy. I’m not sure I’m ready.”
     "It’s up to you, sweetheart,” he said and thoughtfully stopped unbuttoning her blouse.
     Randy lifted her chin to look deep into her eyes. “I will feel the same about you in the morning regardless of--”
     She softly touched a finger to his lips silencing him. Long hair splayed across his pillow as she laid back in fevered anticipation. Her decision made, she surrendered to her body’s need.
     “Dammit, kids. Can't you hear I’m writing? Both of you go to your rooms—now!”
(That could sure screw up the moment for the reader.)

Dragon struggles with punctuation, too. You have to speak all the appropriate commas, quotation marks, periods, em dashes, etc. This gets awkward. Here's a sample dictation and the result:

Dictatation:   quotation mark Meg comma what did the pregnancy test say question mark end quote

Result:    “Meg, what did the pregnancy test say?”

See what I mean? It’s like speaking a strange language. Took me months to become comfortable talking that way. Stumbling speech patterns inhibited my creativity at first, but I stuck it out. Now, I can comfortably put 2000 words on "paper" in an hour. Revisions take as much time as ever, but I can knock out a chapter of new material every day with ease.

A headset comes with the kit. I feel like a spaceman.
"Starbase to Moon-crew one. Asteroid imapct in 10, 9, 8..."
One suggestion—I never used much of an outline before now. With Dragon, I found that a good outline helps me dictate better and keeps me from wandering in the story. I even dictate the outline!

Humor comes with the package. Dictation programs rely on word recognition, sometimes with unintended entertainment value. I dictated “boom shakalaka boom shakalaka” (from the Bill Murray movie Stripes) and Dragon gave me “chocolate chuck lockable.” So, if you make up words or use idioms, as is often done in sci-fi stories, it can get very entertaining.

(This blog was dictated in six minutes.)
Here it is in dictate-ease: parenthesis this blog was dictated in six minutes period parenthesis

Do I recommend dictation software to aspiring authors? Heck no. Y’all keep struggling to write one book every year or two . . . I don’t want competition! Hehehe...

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Two Pages of Terror (Strong starts to a story)

My literary agent, Marisa Corvisiero, offers a workshop on refining the first two pages of a story to make them compelling. Here is the link:


Why take this workshop? It’s “only” two pages. How could this possibly help my story?

Consider my personal experience. I sent my manuscript to Marisa thinking it was ready for big time publishers. Beta readers raved about the story, and Marisa agreed with my beta readers that the story is compelling. She accepted me as a client. “Whew,” I thought. “I finally made it.”

Not long thereafter, I experienced Marisa’s mastery of literature in a surprising email. She said my writing reminded her of Dan Brown’s storytelling. Then, she mentioned that he uses shorter chapters to enhance tension, but that my book carried its conflict in 22 longer chapters. Would I consider revising?

That one simple question impacted not just this story, but everything I’ve written since. My beta readers include a highly educated English teacher, two other authors, several genre-specific fans of thrillers and a molecular biologist consultant. To a person, they felt the story was excellent. Nevertheless, Marisa’s question forced me to open my eyes to a possible improvement.

I searched my chapters for logical cliffhangers and quickly expanded the book to 78 chapters without changing ANY of the story, itself. I merely fed readers the same action in smaller, faster-evolving chunks.

My beta readers were astonished at the change. The story “moved” better, tension grew--well, it became more intense. Reader’s experienced a new level of immersion into the tale. I was amazed at the improvement. The story did not change a bit; just the framework from which it is told.

Back to this workshop by my talented and perceptive agent, Marisa Corvisiero. How can a workshop about the first two pages of a story make much difference?

Maybe I should rephrase the question. How can a strong first impression impact an agent or editor’s acquisition decision?

Ah ha! That makes things more clear, but the answer--first impressions--is not as obvious as it might seem. You see, first impressions MUST be followed by quality writing. Excellent writing skills generate those two critical early pages. But, what if a great start leads to a weak story? Readers feel betrayed.

Fortunately, the same skills learned to build a strong beginning can be applied throughout the entire manuscript. After all, every story is nothing more than a series of little stories running together. Marisa can teach those valuable skills. It might be the best $80 you ever spend as an aspiring author.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

repost - A Note to Dad

Hi Dad. Wherever you are, I hope you’re happy. I’m not sure if there is a heaven, but if there is, I know you’re helping somebody in need, like you did throughout your life.

Every Fathers Day, I get to wondering about the afterlife. What if Buddhists are right about reincarnation? I could see you coming back as a single daffodil, picked by a small child who runs to her mommy with her prize--you, bringing a moment of happiness to both child and parent. If Einstein is right, then you belong to the universe. I like to choose one star out of the night sky and say hello to you. Sure, I know it’s really just a ball of burning hydrogen, but it makes me feel good to think that your essence, your love and all those memories, still exist in that bright spot in the sky.

Miss you, Dad.
I didn’t always think of you with such admiration. Your leather belt scared the hell out of me as a child. Discipline was swift and simple. You taught me right from wrong. And, I hated it when you and mom argued. It made me feel insecure. Even when I left for Vietnam in my late teens, you tried to hug me, but I pushed you away in my youthful anger. Guess I was still too young to appreciate you for the lessons that molded a man from a boy.

Before my twentieth birthday, something extraordinary happened. You changed. Wisdom filled your voice when I called you from the USO in Vietnam to share my fears. You said I'd be okay. Do you remember that three AM phone call? You told me you had great confidence in me, as a man, and that you would stand by me no matter what happened in Nam. Your strength, and your confidence in me, carried me through some tough times. I found strength knowing that you respected and trusted me. Then, I realized, you didn’t change a bit. I did . . . thanks to you.

I tried to apologize when I got home, for my stupid behavior before I left for Nam. You rebuffed my effort, saying no regrets were called for. Turns out, you had similar angst when you were young, and it took you many years to grow up, too. You always knew the man I would become, because I am just like you. You saw my potential, instead of my failings, and you made me the man I am today.

Thanks, Dad.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Catching Squirrels (Getting published)

An old almond tree in my backyard feeds a chubby little gray squirrel who acts like he owns it. One day, Zack-the-epileptic-Dachshund, barked loud and long at the nut-gatherer in the tree above. As long as I can hear barking, I don’t worry, but things suddenly got quiet, so I peeked out back. Zack stood beneath a tree limb, shaking his head violently. On the lowest branch right above him, the puffed-up squirrel twittered angrily. You should know that Zack HATES water. The squirrel was pissing on him with amazing accuracy--right on my dog’s head.

Every time the squirrel runs along the top of our fence, Zack chases him the full length of the yard, barking fiercely and leaping high . . . well, as high as a miniature Dachshund can get off the ground.

I wondered, “What would he do with that squirrel if he ever caught it?”

Then, it dawned on me. I have a similar dilemma about writing. I chased the Holy Grail and I caught her. After signing a representation contract with a well-known literary agent, I shouted, “Eureka! I’m almost published.”

To my surprise, the conquered squirrel turned out, instead, to be the master. It started with the agent’s manuscript review. She liked it very much but offered a few suggestions for me to consider. I struggled with her recommendations for a grueling three seconds, then promptly began writing the changes. Things were perfect when I sent it back to her, or so I thought.

I had caught the squirrel, but, much like Zack would probably behave, I didn’t know what to do with it. What happens when your dream suddenly becomes reality? Your manuscript, synopsis and blurb are actually going to be presented to decision makers at legacy publishing houses. The classic life conundrum hit me like a ton of bricks. Doubt roared in. Is my author platform up to scrutiny? Is it too late to edit my story one more time? Should I shave off my beard? I found myself in a quandary about what to do next. Instincts failed me. Prior experience did not exist.

Good fortune seems to strike me on the head when I least expect it, and I often do not feel I deserve it. My literary agent, Marisa Corvisiero, gathered me up like some kind of lost child and gently, confidently, guided me into this frightening world of “Holy crap, what do I do now?” She gave me suggestions and waited patiently as I polished my story. She helped formulate my platform. She and her assistant, Stacey Donaghy, crafted a pitch package and began selling my work to mainstream publishers. Last I heard, one of the biggest publishers in the industry is actually reading the whole manuscript. There is a chance I could join some of my favorite authors on a highly recognized label.

I did it, caught the freaking squirrel! I’m down to the last step in the process and hope to make that final cut. Having made it this far, I know my writing satisfied some nebulous industry standard. If I actually sign a major publishing contract out of this long process, it will signal the beginning of the next chapter in my life. It’s that big of a deal for me. And, having survived this test, I know I can do it again. I hope all of you get to experience the thrill of catching your squirrels!