RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #35

Killing Off a Major Character

In a gathering dust “I wanna be a Women’s Rights Activist” WIP I considered killing off the major character. Which would have made her an unsung martyr, her struggles useless. Coming to grips with her self-inflicted demons was more 20th Century than suicide or murder. I also considered killing off a substantial supporting character, but even the most cleverly disguised Fairy Godmothers are unkillable. I have the feeling she would have jumped off the page and kicked my ass if I’d tried.

I have a piece now where the main character seems to be a big chunk of money. Two big chunks of money. I have considered making one chunk counterfeit, much to everyone’s dismay. An therein lies the possible mechanism for turning the story and the bad guys inside out. Maybe. Death to half the money!

There’s more than one way to lose a character, major or minor. I open a book with the main character getting a descriptive presentation of his father’s death on an offshore platform. A little later his mother takes off in a little red sports car with a greeting card designer. Two Firestarter hitmen end up being fed to alligators by a successful businesswoman. Killing off characters is more about timing and surprise, I think. Like I never saw it coming in Tishomingo Blues.

Now, let’s be totally honest. I like happy endings, even in crazy capers. There are enough stories we all hold about old friends with four personalities who wake up one day and blow their brains out, ex high school cheerleaders who can’t get enough Oxy, the girl in your English class who never came home from a Rolling Stones concert, the frat party rape victim who did a swan dive from her dorm window, the crazy crack head who raped the baby sitter, filled her vagina with lighter fluid and lit it. After forty years I asked a friend whatever happened to members of the hometown crew and learned of unimaginable outcomes for regular kids. I still hear this one lost a child in a gunfight with police, that one lost one to drugs, how those with promise and pocket money who mangled their lives recovered and survived only to die alone and lie undiscovered in their big house for weeks. Things more horrible than I could ever write, or wish to write.

How easy it would be to kill off a tragic character. To recreate Romeo and Juliet on motorcycles, to write an existential tome questing meaning in the meaninglessness of a life poorly experienced, tragically lived. Not for me.

At the beginning of this I mentioned the would-be feminist. I fell into a scene where I found the opportunity for something more substantive and illustrative than waste. A good thing, because believe me, I was about to throw her off a bridge into the river Cam or get killed by human traffickers if she didn’t pull her head out.

***

… “Run away, yet again, with unfinished work and an unexplainable child, or worse, a death sentence disease? Seventeen ninety-two, please, Ms. Collings.”

“Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Women?”

“And?”

“Definition by profession, not partner. Who we are, not who we marry.”

“Overly simplistic but suitable, for now. However, forget the work, study the woman and see the loss. In the end, she married an anarchist just to quiet the storm of her life, had another child immediately, and promptly quit this Earth. She was chastised and ignored for over a century because of poor choices and a taste for flamboyant men. An incredible waste of life and time.”

“But she wrote –”

“What she wrote is less important to me than who she was. And more importantly who she could have been. We don’t need any more well-spoken, well-intentioned passionate but foolish feminist casualties, Ms. Collings. What good are you to me? To us? As Wollstonecraft delivered the bastard child of a foreign charlatan into the home of an anarchist you may do the same because you’re intelligent and attractive and have some good reviews? Or as you might continue to behave with less sense than a stone path into a bog in your quest to spend valuable time with sketchy, depthless men who have no comprehension of your ideals or your heart? Who will take you to museums and high tea and fawn over you? The inevitability of those behaviors continued will make you an inexcusable waste of my time and Erskine’s love. When you see the gifts of Wollstonecraft, see the tragedy as well. Gender studies isn’t all flag waving and chants and posters of heroines in parlor picture books, Ms. Collings. It is full of the tragedy and misunderstanding and confusion that reside at the very core of what being female has meant since the beginning of time.”

The baseboard heat radiators thumped occasionally, Erskine the Labrador snored with a slow, airy rhythm. Deanna pulled her arm out from under Erskine, wiggled her toes in the lumberjack socks.

“I guess I should get up and get my notebook.”

“That was today’s session, Ms. Collings. ‘The Hope of Feminism as Tragedy.’ Let the light from the windows become longer and your toes warmer and show that dog your elbow when he snores. Tea will be served in just under two hours. Until then I want you to think of your home and the young man who understands how your clothes should fit. Of Mary Wollstonecraft’s life and how her behavior left us all an impoverished legacy that could have been so much more brilliant. Of your own potential that you are trying to usurp from yourself and how your journey has led you to be in this room. For tomorrow afternoon you will have those thoughts prepared for me in six to ten pages.”

“Yes ma’am,” Deanna yawned. ‘Full sheet typed. None of your loopy longhand in a composition booklet nonsense’.”

“Perhaps there is hope for you yet, Ms. Collings.”

 

And hope is something we’re short of in entertainment these days.

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RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #34

Curb Appeal

I am recusing myself from this talking to cover designers issue. When I need an artist, I can find one. Talking, communicating with them is a whole other universe.

To stand out from the oatmeal we need to be different. These days that’s write better, think art.  Read on if you wish.

I have read a number of Indie books. They all have the same glossy covers from Harlequin shirtless underwear models to photo collages to prop staging you dee on the shelves. I gave a friend of mine a copy of  Elmore Leonard’s Touch I picked up at Half Price Books. The cover not all that dissimilar from the stacks of “new” books by authors I never heard of. I was in the Dollar Store picking up ‘grandkids build a diorama day’ stuff. There was a hardback, with a decent, watercolory cover about murder in the Bahamas or somewhere. I did the same thing in those places that I did when I picked up a Baldacci, all red dust-cover hardbound at Barnes and Noble for under $5. I opened them. Anywhere in the middle third. And I got treated to the same thing. Abysmal call and response dialogue, oatmeal style blonde curls bouncing like tulips in the wind hair tossing tags paragraphs in circles. I put them down.

Not unlike popping open a preview on Amazon. All the same four or five motifs only in thumbnails. What’s inside is what matters. And there’s a lot of oatmeal out there.

The indie community is all part of that. And why there are so many shiny covers in the cut-out bins, complaints about this is my 37th novel and nobody cares. Has anyone considered, and I’m talking to people in this blog hop as well, being more concerned with our content than a shiny cover? Spending a little money and a lot of time on Richard Lanham’s Revising Prose instead of the perfect cover to wrap our amateurism in? Or spend money once or twice on an editor who will bust our chops, show us our shortcomings and bad habits, whether we agree or not, instead of a great cover?

Am I a grumpy old fart? Probably. But I spent my life in creative for $. Art directors, videographers, photographers, graphic artists, dancers, musicians. What I learned dealing with everyone from Van Halen to Herbie Hancock, Bob Moog to Kurt Vonnegut – half-assed doesn’t cut it. Professional content creators pretty much leave the covers to someone else and spend their time on content.

Before any of us spend any more time on covers we should all spend two more weeks editing out all the elliptical sentences, winding road paragraphs, lengthy useless descriptions and out of tune “clams” we can find in our work. And then find a cover that is different.

The only way to stand out in a crowded field of oatmeal is not to be the same ol’ same ol’. Until we are the modern Vonnegut or Leonard or even Baldacci that people buy by name, not cover we need not just be pretty, but good.

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RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #33

Are Audio Books Reading?

1 – Personal Short Answer for technical and/or informational/self help/historical/magazine use – yes

2 – Personal Short Answer for entertainment – no

1 – Backstory – When dinosaurs were busy turning into butane for disposable lighters I worked as the audio guy in a video production company in Houston. We made hard hat movies (safety films) as they were mandated for certain industries, like petrochemical refining, by OSHA. We were the only game in town. We got sincere, authoritative types with non-nap inducing voices for voice talent, usually local newscasters and radio personalities. The guys who ran the place were from one of the biggest FM stations in the US during the 70s album rock heyday. They knew how to modulate their voices for a given audience, and who to hire when they needed to. But that was on-camera and VO for “Don’t Sniff The Benzene” at the refinery, how to run the cash register at Safeway or spot shoplifters at Neiman Marcus stuff, not fiction.

On topic – I tried audiobooks on cassettes. I had a music industry road rep Product Specialist/Artist Relations/Sales gig. And I tried. Really. On those long drives through two-lane nowhere and I just couldn’t get behind them. Partly because they were rarely edited for VO, and mostly, for me, it came down to the old adage about not putting in too much detail describing characters, let them belong to the readers. I suppose a History of World War II by some newscastery type is OK. That goes for anything in that vein, or as above, in the Benzene fumes will turn your brain into Jell-O content.

2 – But a character-driven book, whether serial or one-shot? Finding the proper one “voice” for those is almost an impossibility for me. Whether it’s Spenser or Travis McGee or Laura Levine’s fluffy Jaine Austen, I know what they should sound like to me. And the TV series bunk? When PBS took on Tony Hillerman’s Navajos? Puh-leeeze. Elmore Leonard’s Justified? Okay, until he died. Then it lost itself, sunk like a rock. What did they expect?

I realize I am not the audience for most audiobooks. But who is? Do they even bother to run a few focus groups? I mean, swear to God, if I had to listen to an authentic Bostonian read Spenser I’d throw whatever was playing it out a window. I’m sure the same holds true of a real southerner reading James Lee Burke or Faulkner aloud for a Californian or New Hampshire Yankee. I know that because I had a boss in NorCal who told me (I was fresh from Texas) to please write my reports because all he could see when I talked was hillbillies and outhouses. I wanted to tell him all I heard when he talked was nasally tenor gameshow hosts, but I liked my job. So…

Sidebar – If they were to dress audiobooks up like old time radio shows? Say, Torchy Blane or Star Wars without the film? Hell yeah. And sign me up for Foley and sound design duty yesterday!

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RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #32

Organization – What?

I am not an outline person, notebook person, longhand person. I sit down, the story starts to play, I try to keep up. Sometimes I need to backtrack, see where or what or who did what when. Then –

Scrivener. I am not a shill, huckster, or compensated spokesperson.

Scrivener. Because I write in chunks. Scenes. Bits. I have the characters, they’re playing it out in my head. I try to keep up. I see their story. However, dialogue, ideas, peripheral characters may hit me anywhere. I tell my phone, I scribble, I make mental notes. I may have what I consider a good bit, sketch it out.

Scrivener. I can see the whole project at a glance. Chapter by chapter, scene by scene. I can purge, reorganize, cut and save for something else…all drag and drop.

Scrivener. Because once you watch a couple of videos and figure it out you can export it to almost any doc/epub format known. Page numbers, TOC, done.

Regardless of where you are in a project you see how it relates, where the holes are, where the junk is, where you lingered and where you skated. I realize that plot holes and time collapses are all the rage as trickle down from screenplays but they drive me nuts. Scrivener makes them glaring.

Did I mention it’s inexpensive, the customer service and support materials are excellent and it rocks an iPad or iPhone as well as your desk/laptop?

It saved me from going nuts trying to see and number docs in a Word folder.

Simple is better.

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RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #31

Get Out of the Way

In my unchosen role as tantologist against excess BS, the phrase “The story is already there. It will tell itself if you’ll sacrifice the urge to be writerly and get out of its way” is on an infinite loop.

This is masterful storytelling. Beautifully dynamic, outside and close to the ground. No pianistic insertions for the sake of them being there. Play the song, tell the story that is in your fingertips waiting to be free.

Both are always there if we’ll just listen for them. Have a wonderful weekend.

Special Thanks to Thom at The Immortal Jukebox for reminding me.

 

RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #30

Ethics in Publishing

Oxymoron?

Unfortunately for all concerned from both the talent and admin sides of the publishing business, the wheels are off their paradigm with no fix in sight. The days of Clive Davis types are gone from all aspects of the corporate entertainment content complex. In their old role publishing houses, like record companies and movie production companies actively searched for new talent. If they found some but had no immediate use for them they’d put them on retainers, give them make-work assignments, rent them out to other content creation facilities. Creative sweatshops, Tin Pan alley, pulp magazines are where we got Gershwin and Carole King, Vonnegut, Hillerman,  Elmore Leonard. The list goes on. Hey, who knows how many “famous” authors cranked out work as Franklin W. Dixon or Carolyn Keene?

Sadly, even the P.D. James and J.K. Rowling burn the midnight oil success fairy tales are a thing of the past. Publishing houses are now, like their other content creation counterparts, no more than banks and are equally as conservative. They don’t gamble. The demand for their physical product has diminished, been fragmented, globalized, niched, target marketed and pirated almost to death. Their brick and mortar outlets are vanishing. What sells, or has sold, or might sell based on the name recognition of known marketability or topical niche pandering is what’s going out the door and on the shelves.

Example  1 – I know a few writers who knock out good, short stories on widely diverse subjects. Who’s gonna get their stuff published, regardless of content quality – Jim Bob, Susie Q or Tom Hanks?

Example 2 – I have books on my shelf I picked up for a buck at the library. Would anyone read, much less buy a spy/suspense/thriller novel by some woman they never heard of with a same-as-everybody glossy cover? They might if it’s presented as “JAMES PATTERSON with mary jane nobody.” Seen a lot of that lately. Along with the posthumous continuation of successful authors by iffy style clones. ROBERT B. PARKER’S SPENSER by ace atkins. Or worse, by his literary agent!

The banking mentality coupled with the arrogant, “artsy-fartsy literati” facade, blatant proven brand pandering and transparent scrambling to find a clue are the industry’s problems. Round them off and I say we end up at wholly disingenuous. I’m not sure that’s even fodder for an ethics discussion. Press releases and spokespersons at every level of government and the private sector have beaten “transparency, accountability, inclusion, diversity” into meaningless babble. Why should the publishing business be any different?

Disingenuous.

You can stop here. Or,

***

Since this is part of an op-ed blog hop, my real ethical dilemma with the current publishing industry has nothing to do with the ultimate publishers of a work. And everything to do with the creatures of the moats that surround the ivory towers. The cesspool of editors and marketers and cover designers and formula pushers and every other kind of snake oil selling hack with an opinion and/or a gimmick and/or a “certifiable track record of success” with their hands out. Telling us how they’re the golden boy/girl with just the ticket for our success. Tell me, author/expert, if you’re banking book sale money why should I pay you to enlighten me in half a banquet room at the La Quinta? Why you should get two grand plus to read stylized fiction because you have an English degree or a dozen bad books that just went Tupperware on the sales charts?* Real writers with real advice on the Elmore Leonard and Stephen King level are on YouTube for free.

Onward in the same vein – I just got an email from someone at Reedsy. A big shot marketer. Expounding on how I need to know what I don’t know and how he can help with that and how bad I’ll suck without him. All outlined in a cutesy email full of more throwaway adverbs than a C market newscast or a Nancy Drew novel. Like I totally already have a Valley Girl character who is basically, well, like actually majorly enough to make me call technicolor yawn time…For God’s sake if you can’t use the right these/those is/are possessives why are you trying to sell me your ‘professionalism?” Because you can hook me up with your stable of pay to get referrals experts? Look, I get rhetorical stance, audience, and all that. And maybe Social Media speak is cute. But so are my grandkids. Neither will help me market a book.

BUT – Some publishers want you to have 60,000 followers to even began a conversation. They don’t care about content, they care about friend farming ability. How many of us have likes and follows from people who will never or have never read our work and are only hoping we will respond in kind to their perky lifestyle coaching, living with depression or bad dental work or It’s a God Thing sites? No thank you, I need to write.

By now it’s pretty obvious I’m a tiresome tantologist raging against BS from the support cesspools surrounding modern publishing. And the sad but true banking aspect of the old line publishing houses, their egos for publishing more of the same old “NY Times bestsellers” soon to be stacked to the ceiling on the closeout tables and not giving a damn about putting boots on the ground to seek out creators of content instead of competent friend farmers. A new paradigm is required, and like outdated laws, education and other content industries, publishing is waaaaaaay behind.

Bottom line – Disingenuous. But it’s a disease shared by millions, not just the publishing houses.

* That’s an old joke from the music biz, where big sales are recognized with gold and platinum records. Tupperware was the award for tepid to abysmal sales. Hey, my family, friends and the people who attend my seminars buy my books! And I’m fifty miles from home. I must be an expert!

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Random NVDT – Writerly Concerns 4

Pardon me, your writer is showing

Here it Comes – Show Don’t Tell – My Take – For the most part a society that Googles everything from forgotten salad dressing ratios to what does guacamole taste like hasn’t got a clue. I looked it up for us. The takeaway?

“Show, don’t tell” should not be applied to all incidents in a story.

Why not? Because it would take forever to write. Or read. There are successful writers out there who ignore this and write and write and write. And others attributed to the same style write very little. Here we are again with a RULE that means nothing. Dial it up, dial it down, ignore it altogether. Properly applied I believe, as I do about dialogue, it all has to do with rhythm and pacing. Musicality.

The first of two approaches to “show don’t tell” involve using flowery, evocative language. Exercise: Put the reader in the stinky bathroom of a desert gas station. No, just kidding. To what end? To prove you can write about rust stains and dried turds and warped mirrors and peeling paint on cinder blocks and decades of dried urine in the grout for two and a half pages? Maybe, if it was a guy who got beat up by mobsters and left for dead in the desert and you want to put the reader’s face on that floor with him when he crawls in out of the sand. But to me that’s writing to prove you can.

The other approach is drop a few nuggets, let the reader fill in the blanks. Truth – You know we don’t see in color with our peripheral vision. Our brains fill it in for us based on context. That’s the iceberg concept. Hemingway, etc. So if I say to you “a porch twenty feet from the bayou on a humid summer night,” I might offer “pungent” and a mosquito swat that yielded blood and maybe a sweaty bandanna wipe but the rest of it is on you. Because there’s a story being told on that porch and all that flowery sense of place crap is background and there’s no reason to waste a John Williams theme on crickets and frogs and foley work. Personal opinion only. Unless of course you write like David Foster Wallace and then, by all means, watercolor it all together and knock it out of the park for us.

Narrative – Narrative is great to get from impact scene to impact scene, as above. Personally I shorten narrative to it’s extreme cutoff point. Example: Deanna stepped through the steam and the mist, boarded the train more homesick than she ever imagined possible. Done. She gets off the train and the story continues. Narrative is a great device to get some story told from point A to point B and is necessary to kick the story along without the minutia of Deanna brushing her teeth that morning and giving five pages of flashback about why she’s homesick. A decent author would have put us in her shoes chapters ago. Which brings me to –

Narrative excess – An equally wordy writerly option to show, don’t tell excess and a way to show off your research and waste a LOT of time that isn’t show, don’t tell. Unless you want to write about the texture of deciduous tree bark, like the restroom floor example above. Example: I have been reading this damn book that is both a good story and well written and a humongous PIA. I mean the main character gets up off the bed in a motel room from a conversation with a girl (not a sex scene, just dialogue furthering the story ) to go splash water on his face. We are treated to two and half pages of dense, blocks of text backstory. Which could have been easily condensed to a paragraph, or had it been me, three lines. It would have made a great ‘insert backstory video clip here’ in a movie. Maybe. And the whole damn book would have been at least 30% shorter had it been written in a linear time line. The flashbacks and backstory are worse than any Noir film. Like Timothy Leary moments. Exercise: Person sees reflection in sugar dispenser top. Now, jump out of mid dialogue getting the story told into deep reflective space for 600-800 words and then jump back into the convo with other person saying “Are you OK?” “Yeah, just thinking.” Just thinking my ass. Maybe the thought flew by but just reading it my coffee got cold and I’m still in a red vinyl booth in a diner no further along than I was three pages ago.

I don’t call the rules into question or try to sell them or even justify how to avoid them. All I want is for everyone to see that style is everything, and to write like we mean it. Regardless of what it is or where you find your voice. Tell your story. To the best of your ability. Every time. Turn it up. Or turn it off.  Remember, when your fluffy fill up space writer is showing…

And neither should we. Get to the red ‘Vette of your story. Leave the Volvo in the dust.