Monday, October 20, 2014

Listening to Beta Readers -- Not Bucky Katt



I announce, with trembling pleasure, the results of the first complete beta read of Doleful Creatures.

Verdict: It needs work. Which I knew it did.

I’ll present what my reviewer says, unvarnished:

I still stand by my suggestions in prior emails. A pruning of characters and a merciless cutting of the first 23 chapters seems like a good start. Putting a much more narrow focus on your main plot for the story I think, in the end, will leave you with a much better story. This will showcase the beautiful prose you intermingle in the story. As it stands now, you have a messy glass display case and it's tough to pick out the treasure. You need to tease the treasure from the distractions by getting rid of some of the subplots, side stories, and extraneous characters that are cluttering up the treasured main plot (as painful as that may be).

I’m not complaining about anything she said – not one bit. I asked for an honest opinion, and I got it. I want Doleful Creatures to be a good book, not a mediocre one, and I believe following my reader’s advice will be good for the book.

And, frankly, I’ve had the time since this last revision was completed in June to let this book simmer on the back burner, as all should simmer, and I know it’s got its flaws. I even did a spreadsheet to help me visualize its flaws. And the results of my spreadsheet aren’t all that far off from what my beta reader is telling me, so I have to take what she says as truth since I see it myself.

Calling Doleful Creatures now a messy glass display case is an apt metaphor, and I know why:
This book started out as one thing – a relatively simple animal tale – and morphed into something else – a more metaphysical tale featuring animals – between revisions. I’ve never successfully melded the two. And perhaps melding isn’t the answer. I’ve got to pick one route or the other, and purge what isn’t fitting any more. I’ve already got an idea of what subplots and what characters are going to go – because there’s at least one subplot and two characters linked to that plot that I never felt worked in the first place. Whenever I had to go back to that plot and those characters, I stumbled in the writing. I now know why. They don’t belong in this book.

That being said, the next revision to Doleful Creatures will be a challenge – but thanks to her I have a clear road map on where that revision needs to take me.

I’m working on what Stephen King says: [W]hile it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”

I’m no genius. But I can be a good writer. Listening to beta readers will help me on that journey.


And avoiding the example of Bucky Katt will help me as well.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Writing Blips I



Introducing a new feature on my blog (one of many new features that’ll likely be around for a little while in one form or another until I forget about it): Writing Blips. These are posts wherein I look at a handful of articles about writing, my own thoughts on writing, and just about anything to do with writing.

First:

Stephen King Is Right. A few posts ago I reviewed Stephen King’s “On Writing,” form which I gleaned this gem: “In many cases, when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his own priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.”

Wouldn’t you know the next book I start reading, John Crowley’s “Little, Big” is a prime example of this boring enchantedness. Yes, this book won fabulous awards. Yes, Harold Bloom loves this book. But you know what? It’s boring. I’m 37 pages in and NOTHING has happened, except that Smoky Bramble has walked to Edgewood, been told to wear a prophylactic by a character who mentioned she had to go to the bathroom, and then been introduced to the twee house where everything – everything – id described with dripping detail. It’s dull as something very dull.

Thanks to King, I know the name of this disease now. Knowing the name and recognizing it in a book makes me want to expunge the boredom from my own books. Red pens are coming out, Doleful Creatures.

Second:

Only figurative red pens, though, DC, since I’ll be editing you (again) in Microsoft Word.
That probably makes many of my writer friends’ skin crawl. So many of them use other software for their writing. Mostly Scrivener.

And that’s fine. I just don’t see the point. I will confess to being a free writer, one who just wants to sit down and see where the story takes me. I’m not terribly organized – probably to my detriment – but I don’t see organization as a way to become a better writer. And maybe it’s a faster way. But it’s not my way. (See above; I have to learn through hard knocks by reading writing tips written by a horror author.)

Besides – Microsoft Word is essentially free. Scrivener costs $40.

I have done some organization with my current novel, Doleful Creatures. Did it with Excel, and I think it’ll help. Maybe. But I have to agree with Kay Waldman, writing for Slate: There are a lot of creativity/productivity apps and such out there – but at the end of the day, don’t you get just as far with a boring ol’ word processor?

Says Waldman:

The fiction-writing app is a curious creature, because it can only sell creativity by downgrading it. It operates outside of the traditional, mystery-swathed model of inspiration, in which brilliance floods down on us from heaven, and instead reduces invention to a series of steps. In lassoing and regimenting the muse, fiction apps evaporate some of writing’s pain, but also some of its glory. Or maybe they just help us procrastinate!

I don’t need help in that procrastination department.

She adds further:

One worry with apps like these is that they will produce uninspired cookie-cutter novels. Should writing be easy? Composing by numbers, or by consulting a dropdown menu, seems destined to result in a clanky product, not a living thing.

In my experience, the only thing I’ve seen that has improved my writing and creativity is lots of time and lots of writing. The tools haven’t mattered. Well, they have a little. Using a computer and word processor have made editing and storing things easier. Time is the bigger thing: I may never have written a novel out longhand, but probably would be doing so now if I didn’t have the tool, simply because enough time and writing have passed that I see the possibilities of actually finishing a novel, let alone starting one.

But then there are things like this that make me nervous:

Eric Foster White, a music producer who helped artists like Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys reach superstardom, believes the future of storytelling lies at the nexus between technology and content. His Denver-based startup, ShowMobile, operates both a platform and content studio, producing and aggregating YouTube videos, Vines, tweets, Instagram posts and other media. But it’s far more than a social stream: ShowMobile’s primary purpose is to tell continuous, always-on stories across platforms young people actually use.

Why nervous? Because I’m a digital fossil. Yes, I plan on publishing Doleful Creatures as an ebook. But that’s about it. I may eventually come up with a book video trailer, but that might be the end of my foray into the digital crossover world.

I see stuff like this (and Daniel Handler’s web series promoting his books) and I get that ol’ corprolite feeling.

Then I start to breathe again. Is this really where books are going? The kind of books I’m writing?
I have to answer: I don’t know. I hope not. But I don’t know.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Current Events . . .



Events in the past few weeks, it seems, have brought an end to the same-sex marriage debate in Idaho, and in the nation.

The Supreme Court declined to hear appeals on lower court rulings overturning same-sex marriage bans, effectively setting the lower courts’ decisions as the law of the land.

The debate has caused me some personal concern as I attempted to reconcile my faith and my belief in the U.S. Constitution. I could see no legal means that states – or the federal government – could use to justify same-sex marriage bans. I kept coming up against the bulwark of the 14thAmendment, specifically Section 1.

This equal protection clause was used to combat laws in the later years of the Idaho Territory and the first years of the state of Idaho which forbade Mormons from holding public office, serving on juries, and even voting. Ignoring the so-called “equal protection clause” while amending state constitutions (and, effectively, the U.S. Constitution through court decision) seemed hypocritical, to say the least.
Apparently, I need not worry that my faith is in question. Messages delivered at conference Oct. 4-5 gave me some comfort, and some things to think about.

First, from Dallin H. Oaks:

In public, what religious persons say and do involves other considerations. The free exercise of religion covers most public actions, but it is subject to qualifications necessary to accommodate the beliefs and practices of others. Laws can prohibit behavior that is generally recognized as wrong or unacceptable, like sexual exploitation, violence, or terrorist behavior, even when done by extremists in the name of religion. Less grievous behaviors, even though unacceptable to some believers, may simply need to be endured if legalized by what a Book of Mormon prophet called “the voice of the people.”

On the subject of public discourse, we should all follow the gospel teachings to love our neighbor and avoid contention. Followers of Christ should be examples of civility. We should love all people, be good listeners, and show concern for their sincere beliefs. Though we may disagree, we should not be disagreeable. Our stands and communications on controversial topics should not be contentious. We should be wise in explaining and pursuing our positions and in exercising our influence. In doing so, we ask that others not be offended by our sincere religious beliefs and the free exercise of our religion. We encourage all of us to practice the Savior’s Golden Rule: “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”

When our positions do not prevail, we should accept unfavorable results graciously and practice civility with our adversaries. In any event, we should be persons of goodwill toward all, rejecting persecution of any kind, including persecution based on race, ethnicity, religious belief or nonbelief, and differences in sexual orientation.

Next, from the official church spokesman:

The succession of federal court decisions in recent months, culminating in today’s announcement by the Supreme Court, will have no effect on the doctrinal position or practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is that only marriage between a man and a woman is acceptable to God. In prizing freedom of conscience and Constitutional guarantees of the free exercise of religion, we will continue to teach that standard and uphold it in our religious practices.

Nevertheless, respectful coexistence is possible with those with differing values. As far as the civil law is concerned, the courts have spoken. Church leaders will continue to encourage our people to be persons of good will toward all, rejecting persecution of any kind based on race, ethnicity, religious belief or non-belief, and differences in sexual orientation.

The issue has also percolated through to our state officials. Says Idaho Gov. Butch Otter:

I continue to believe that the federal courts are mistaken in abandoning the sanctity of traditional marriage and in undermining the will of Idaho voters and each state’s right to define marriage," Otter said in a brief emailed press release. "But we are civil society that respects the rule of law. We have done all we can through the courts for now to defend traditional marriage in Idaho.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Three (Really) Cluttered Pigs -- And Angels Dancing on A Pin.



NOTE: This is a little something I whipped up for my BYU-Idaho students this week.

A few of you have asked me privately to comment on your individual attempt to declutter that now-famous Three Cluttered Pigs assignment. Rather than do that, I’m going to provide a classwide example of two ways I’d do it, then discuss each way (both the good points and the bad points).

First, the original paragraph:

Upon hearing that the local indigenous predator was in the neighborhood in the act of prowling and in search of food, the oldest in age of three pigs made the decision to make some modifications to his domicile. While his male siblings perpetuated their inactive lifestyles by experiencing all sorts of fun activities like dancing and ice hockey, he maximized his efforts and worked hard to rebuild his house with bricks. His efforts were the cause of much laughter for the other two pigs. His house was mocked by them over and over, repeatedly, but he refused to give heed to them. When the time came and the wolf appeared, the other two pigs, who tried to hide in houses of hay and sticks, received an unexpected surprise and quickly became fast food for the hungry wolf, who hadn’t eaten in days. But the wolf, continuing to experience hunger, was not satisfied, so he made the decision to visit the third pig as well and give him an invitation to join him for dinner. The wolf was not aware that the pig had been diligently and faithfully working to fortify his home. When the wolf tried to gain entrance by using his nose to blow the house down with a huffing and puffing action, he quickly became the victim of a depleted supply of oxygen to his cerebrum and lost all sense of consciousness. The pig was triumphant in the end and beat the wolf with the use of a hard work ethic and a big, large stick.

The eyes bleed reading this. It’s hard to decide who is doing what. There are a lot of extra words that get in the way of the story. And it’s 258 words long.

So, you could just edit the thing, like this:

Upon hearing that the local indigenousWhen he heard the local wolf predator was in the neighborhood in the act of prowling and in searching for of food, the oldest in age of  of three pigs made the decision decided to make some modifyications to his domicile. While his male siblings perpetuated their inactive lifestyles by experiencing all sorts of fun activities like danceding and played ice hockey, he maximized his efforts and worked hard to rebuild his house with bricks. His efforts were the cause of much laughter for the other two pigs. His house was mocked by them over and over, repeatedly, but he refused to give heed to them. When the time came and the wolf appeared, the other two pigs, who tried to hide in houses of hay and sticks, received an unexpected surprise and quickly became fast food for the hungry wolf, who hadn’t eaten in days. But the wolf, continuing to experience hunger, was not satisfied, so he made the decision to visited the third pig as well and give him an invitation to join him for dinner. The wolf was not aware that the pig had been diligently and faithfully working to fortify his home. When the wolf tried to gain entrance by using his nose to blow the house down with a huffing and puffing action, he quickly became the victim of a depleted supply of oxygen to his cerebrum and lost all sense of consciousness. The pig was triumphant in the end and beat the wolf with the use of a hard work ethic and a big, large stick.

Better, right? A lot of the redundancies are gone. Some of the big words are now smaller words. And it’s now only 201 words long. Improved, right?

But it’s still a little awkward.

Take that first sentence – who is doing all this action? The pig, right? But we have to swim through a lot about the wolf prowling to get to him. That’s making us work too hard. And I don’t know about you, but I’m a lazy reader. If I can’t figure out who is doing what in the first read through, I might read a second time. But I’m also as likely to skip over what didn’t make sense and keep on reading – hoping further light will come.

So I continue reading. I see at first (if I read that first sentence right) that the pig is modifying his home. Later on, he’s rebuilding his home. Then he’s fortifying his home. Modify. Rebuild. Fortify. Can he do all at once? I’m having a hard time figuring out what he’s doing to this shack.

And there’s still a lot of weird vocabulary here. Maybe I ought to try again:

“The wolf is coming,” the third little pig said, “and my house won’t stand against him.” Wolves are always hungry, he thought. This one won’t stop at the doormat if he knows there’s pork behind it. He kicked his wooden door and it fell to pieces. “No,” he said. “This won’t do.”

He found a book on house-building, left in a pile he inherited from his father. He found in town a man willing to trade him bricks for wild strawberries. Bricks and strawberries. Strawberries and bricks.

His two younger brothers laughed at him in his mania. “You’re missing all the fun,” the first little pig said. “Besides, who wants to live in a rock pile when you could live in a house of hay or of wood? The hay smells sweet, and the wood is smooth! Not like those awful, rough bricks!” They danced as he gathered his strawberries. They played hockey as he laid his bricks. And every night they went to bed in their little houses built of hay and built of wood, laughing as their foolish brother attempted to lay brick by moonlight.

He didn’t listen to their scorn. He kept his ears cocked for other noises, far off in the night.
Then, the night after the final brick on the chimney was put in place and the final bit of slate was in place on the roof, the first little pig heard the noise he feared: A howl, quite near, followed by clacking jaws and the drip, drip of drool on the cobblestones.

The wolf.

“So hungry,” the wolf whispered to herself. “So –“ she sniffed the air. She sniffed again, puffing her chest out until the ruff of fur tickled her chin. “Mmmmm,” she thought, licking her lips. “Pork.”

She put her nose to the cobbles and swiftly darted through the night, tail whisking through the air. She found the house of the first little pig and without a word blew, knocking the house of hay to bits. With a leap and a clack she had her meal.

“Still hungry,” the wolf said through a burp. Nose back to the cobbles. Nose to the house of wood. Nose through the rubble and nose to the air, howling after another morsel.

“So hungry,” the wolf said. And because it had worked before, she put her nose to the ground and followed the scent of pork and sweat and wild strawberries. She ran faster, anticipating the feast, and bruised her nose as she ran it into the brick steps of the house of the third little pig.

“The line, the line,” she thought to herself. Then howled: “Little pig, little pig, let me come in!”

“Not on your life, sister,” the little pig shouted.

The wolf stood aghast. “There’s protocol here, pig. Lines to say, you know!”

“I know,” the little pig said. “But I shaved my chinny-chin-chin. You’re NOT coming in.”

The wolf drew a deep breath and blew. Windowpanes rattled, but the bricks stood.

The wolf drew a deeper breath and blew. Cottonwood fluff flew through the air, but the bricks stood.
The wolf drew a deeper breath still. Coughed. “Oh, oh my,” she said. “I’m a little – “she staggered on the doorstep “dizzy.”

Under the moonlight, the wolf collapsed.

The little pig peeped out his front door. From a stand in the corner, he pulled out a shotgun.

Crows darted from their nests in the trees when the shot rang out.

So, in one way I screwed up. This is 578 words long. Much, much longer than the original text. And, yes, I cheated. I added details to the story that aren’t there before. But did I change the meaning of the text? I hope not. And, I hope, I made this more enjoyable to read. Sometimes clearing clutter isn’t enough to make a text worth reading.

Here’s the rub: Sometimes you’ve got to rebuild a text, much like the little pig rebuilt his house. The pig could have used additional wood to reinforce his house, but fundamentally it would have still been the same house underneath.

I know this is a different kind of writing than what we’re used to in an academic setting. This is creative writing, not essay writing. Well, I don’t believe the two have to be mutually exclusive. There are plenty of essays out there where writers use details and dialogue – the foundation of creative writing -- to help make their point and to help the reader through the story to that point.

ALSO IT SHOULD BE NOTED: This is not the one correct way to do things. This is one way to do things, and whether it is correct is in the eye of the beholder. In writing, we are all (or should be) like AlexanderCalandra’s student: Searching for many answers, not just one answer. This is how I would revise the text. This is not the only way it should be done. Each of us can come up with our own revisions, and our own justifications. If you want a subject with a right answer and a wrong answer, you don’t find it in English class.

Here’s an essay on grief in which the author uses copious details to connect to his dead father through memorabilia and old Sherlock Holmes films.

Here’s an essay on public education in which the author, C.S. Lewis, uses allegory to criticize trends in public education.

Here’s an essay on what it’s like to attend San DiegoComic-Con.