Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Dangers of Revision

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

--Bilbo Baggins

Alert readers of this blog may be aware that I recently finished another draft of my novel Doleful Creatures.

I realized, as I was revising, that this quote from Bilbo Baggins is quite appropriate to the revision process – once you start, you never quite know where you’re going to end up. You might end up with a draft that is, in many ways, stronger than the one you started with. It’s also entirely possible to end up with a draft that is worse.

I think what most often happens is something in the middle: Parts of it get better, and parts of it – mostly the new stuff – makes it worse. And by worse, I mean a lot of the new stuff is still technically first-draft material, and it sometimes doesn’t mesh with what was written previously.
So, where’s the sweet spot? I made this wonderful illustrative chart to help me find it.

All writers have been on every bit of this chart. Some charts may start out in the red, with a writer coming back to a manuscript thinking it total crap. But I don’t buy that. You wouldn’t come back to a manuscript if it was total yuck. There’s always going to be some green there to attract your attention.
I noticed on Draft Three of Doleful Creatures that I was, at first, careful with revisions and new material, always keeping in mind the big picture: Continuity and improvement. That works incrementally. Then that wonderful spot comes when you think you’ve got it and get back to the freewheeling days of writing that first draft. You’ve fallen in love with the story and the characters all over again.

Then comes the sweet spot. The “Danger Will Robinson!” spot.

Stop there?

Not hardly.

Go beyond that first sign of caution. This is where you go out your door. Just keep your feet and you might end up somewhere great. Your story might go in an interesting direction. You might fix that critical bit at the end, stretching yourself beyond the spot where you’re comfortable tinkering.

Or not.

How far you get swept off will determine how long your next revision will take.
Hit that sweet spot. Go a little further. Just don’t fall off. And when you do fall off – and we all fall off – just plan the next revision.

Should we be afraid of falling off? Not at all. I fell off at Revision 3 – and it’s got me pumped to do Revision 4. And I think Revision 4 will be a shorter one, with less of a chance of falling.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"He's Bonafide!"

Pardon me if I “rasp poetic.”

I am, obviously, a blogger. I was also, for about ten years, a journalist. For the past eight years, I’ve worked as a technical writer. I teach English. I’m completing the third revision of a novel, one of many I’ve written (no, I’m not published yet, but give me time). I feel the sting of typos to the point I scout my Facebook history and my blog looking for things that need to be fixed. And I fix them. And have been called anal retentive for doing so. But I will continue to do it. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication and a masters degree in English. I am, as they say in the vernacular, bona fide.

Also, I try to practice what I preach.

And one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in nearly 20 years as a writer is that writers live in glass houses. And shouldn’t throw rocks.

But that’s a lie, of course. Writers throw rocks all the time. Writers should, however, have better aim. And more polished rocks.

Here’s a journalist throwing rocks at bloggers. As I read her screed, I’m not sure how to write my own. Context, I keep saying. Context. A journalist is supposed to provide context. As this journalist rags on a blogger for not writing as a journalist should, there’s no context. No link to the offending blog so we can judge for ourselves – and bless me, we would judge – the content of said blogger’s character. The old saw goes that if your mother says she loves you, you should check it out. So if this blog is so bad, let your readers check it out. Seeing the evidence for themselves will help them believe what you say.

As it is, there is no link. No context. So we’re left to judge the character of the judger.
I know. I’m throwing rocks.

Polished rocks.

Here’s her version of events, factually laid out (at least in part) contrasting with the unlinked blogger’s nonsense:

The Caldwell police responded to calls from local residents that they may have seen someone on the foreclosed lot next to their home. The house has been vandalized in the past, so the police set up bright yellow police tape.

"We want kids and others to know they can't just trespass," said Caldwell police cheif James Bongiorno. 

In order to help the problem, the chief added, the borough is reaching out to the owners to take immediate measures to secure the house so there is no easy access.

Hm. Much, much too wordy for starters. Here’s what a journalist should have done:

Caldwell police want trespassers to know they’re watching the vacant home at ADDRESS.
“We want kids and others to know they just can’t trespass,” says Caldwell Police Chief James Bongiorno. He said borough officials are trying to contact the vacant home’s owner to ensure trespassers can’t get on the property.

Neighbors called police DATE AND TIME when they noticed someone on the lot. The home has been vandalized in the past.

We don’t need to know about the bright yellow police tape, or that the measures will be “immediate.” This journalist says she likes to “rasp poetic” and that “[a]dding in that poetic or inspirational writing is the art in journalism but not every journalist has those creative bones and can spin their words to "weave that sticky web of an irresistable (sic) news story." Sadly, either you have that poetic eye - or you don't.”

I don’t know if she counts the police setting up bright yellow police tape as poetic or inspirational, or spinning words to weave that sticky web of an irresistible news story. But it’s not necessary for a police blotter item. Stick to the facts, and keep the poetry and inspiration in the features. Police stories need to lean heavy on fact – such as the location of the house and the time and date the complaints were called in. Now, I have no way of knowing if this excerpt is the full story or not – again, there’s no context provided. Maybe she did a better job in the full story. She doesn’t provide me with a way of knowing.

Perusing other writing under her name at Jersey Tomato Press, however, shows many other examples of the poetry and inspiration getting in the way of the facts.

As my own unused (for years) AOL sends out meaningless emails to contacts - that were deleted 2 years ago - and Target takes a giant sigh of relief after their giant hacking into their systems, Michaels Stores, a fun family-friendly (sic) arts and crafts home store, announced late yesterday they had been hacked.

What’s the news? Oh, the Michaels data breach. But it’s buried under the poetic inspiration. I don’t care that her AOL account was sending out meaningless emails. And her mention of the Target hacking makes it sound like the company was hacking its own systems. And if Michaels were a grumpy, adults-only arts and crafts home store, would she put it that way?

Acting Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn A. Murray announced today that the former Glen Ridge Borough Registrar of Vital Statistics admitted to stealing $82,981 from the Borough over a three year period.

Tresor Gopaul, 30, of Montclair pled guilty today before the Honorable Peter V. Ryan, Judge of the Superior Court, to second degree theft by unlawful taking.

Wow. Three very, very long titles in two short paragraphs. Here’s what a journalist would have done:

A former Glen Ridge Borough registrar pleaded guilty in superior court DATE to stealing $82,981 from the borough over three years.

Tresor Gopaul, 30, of Montclair, pleaded guilty to second degree theft by unlawful taking, according to Acting Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn A. Murray.

Who cares who the judge was? If the judge had something significant to say about the crime, then include his name and honorable title. Otherwise, it’s unnecessary information. It’s important that the guy pleaded (not pled) guilty. The rest of the information, including his title, can come later in the story.

The story has other problems – two individuals identified by the last name of Wells – is it the same person, or two Wells? The second Wells isn’t identified by title or by connection to the case.
And if you’re going to criticize bloggers, don’t write like a blogger. This piece just oozes blogginess. A real journalist would not continue to insert herself into the story, no matter how poetic or inspiration she might be feeling. She has a significant story here. She should step out of its way.

Yes, I know it’s easy to sit here and armchair quarterback news stories for a news organization that confesses in a blog post it has no copy editor. Just as easy as it is to armchair quarterback bloggers for doing what they do without really considering the blogger’s reach (probably very small) and their motivations (sometimes like looking into an empty room, yes, but more often than not they have a sincere desire to do something, whether it’s to share the news, feel involved, shout into the darkness or write scattered commentaries on the state of journalism versus blogging). It’s all relative.
I congratulate the Jersey Tomato Press on its willingness to work hard at journalism. But invest in an editor, as some of  your commenters have said. Someone used to editing newspaper stories. Then preach against bloggers all you want, after those rocks of yours are polished.

And yes, I took a butt-first exit from the industry in 2005. I don't claim to be a perfect journalist. I don't claim to be a journalist at all now. But I have my bonafides in professional writing, and I ain't afraid to use them.

On to Round Four

Who knew the ending of Doleful Creatures was so bad? And is still rather putrid but is at least a lot better than it was a few weeks ago?

Well, I did. I knew it when I wrote it. So tackling it as a special part of my third go-through of the book was going to be a challenge.

Here’s where I left it: After Revision 3 was done, I’d added just over 10,000 words and 35 pages to the book.

With Revision 3.5 done, I’ve now added nearly 17,000 new words for a total of 56 new pages.
That’s a lot of end of the book revision and addition. But the book needed a better ending, and I think I’ve provided that. At least in part. Still, some testing . . .

So, what’s next?

On to Revision 4. But It’s not going to be me doing it.

I’m on to beta readers. I may have found at least two willing victims in my current FDENG 101 English class, where I’ve got a good crop of budding novelists and one student who works in acquisitions for a small publisher (don’t know yet if there’s a good fit with Doleful Creatures and my book, but I’ll be darned if I’m not going to find out). No stone unturned, as Jarrod might say if he spoke in cliches like that. (I won’t say he doesn’t speak in clich├ęs because I’m not that good of a writer, but I have yanked a few out. Probably put a few in with the new additions, but that’s life.)

Saturday, April 19, 2014

New Wordle

Here's an interesting thing.

Back in November, I did a "Wordle" of my novel Doleful Creatures. A wordle, for the uninitiated, is an analysis of the text to see which words show up most frequently.

I'm now in the tail end of the third revision to this novel, and decided, on a whim, to do another wordle. Here it is:

Interesting things to see here, if you care to compare the new wordle to the old one (found here).

Thing No. 1: The villain's name shows up a lot larger in this wordle than in the first. What does that say about my treatment of the villain back in November? To be fair, that revision was an amalgamation of something I'd written years ago with new ideas, with the villain among the new stuff. As I read through the novel this time around, I noticed that the villain was missing in parts where she should have been, so I put her in. Here's a good reason to revise, folks.

Thing No. 2: My main character's name is also larger. Who knew that was going to happen?

Want to make a wordle of your own? There's a link to the wordle generator I used on the linked page above.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Archy, the Vers Libre Poet, Does Better in Rhyme

The irony of Don Marquis’ The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel isn’t that a vers libre poet’s soul has transmigrated into the body of a cockroach – but that this vers libre poet’s structured, rhyming bits of verse are the best bits of poetry in the book.

Now, that may be my own biased ear’s longing for rhyme and structure coming through, but I’m tempted to think I’m more right than my prejudices might allow.

Consider the following:

Some natural history

the patagonian
penguin is a most
he lives on
and his tongue
is always furred
the porcupine
of chile
sleeps his life away
and that is how
the needles
get into the hay
the Argentinian
is a very
subtle gink
for when he s
being eaten
he pretends he is
a skink
when you see
a sea gull
on a bald man s dome
she likely thinks
she s nesting
on her rocky
island home
do not tease
the inmates
when strolling
through the zoo
for they have
their finer feelings
the same
as me and you
oh deride not
the camel
if grief should
make him die
his ghost will come
to haunt you
with tears
in either eye
and the spirit of
a camel
in the midnight gloom
can be so very
as it wanders
round the room

Here we have a bit of delightful nonsense verse that plays well with the tight structure it follows. It’s readable. It’s memorable. It’s fun. It’s not like Marquis’ “vers libre” throughout the book, mushed together and mostly forgettable, even as it tells the tales of archy the cockroach and mehitabel the alley cat.

It’s quite possible I’m reading these poems the wrong way, or that I expect poems to rhyme. I freely confess that I’ve written both structured and free verse poetry, and find the structured poetry oh so much more memorable. It’s too easy, I think, to ramble on in free verse, but with a rhyming structure to meet, the writer has to show more discipline, more creativity, and more storytelling to pull the poem off.

Next: Round Three-Point-Five

Round Three is over.

And Doleful Creatures still isn’t ready.

Oh, it’s more ready. The last month of reading and writing haven’t been wasted. But there’s still more to be done. Either more to be added or more to be taken out, I’m not sure.

But again it’s time to put it away for a bit. Let it simmer.

I added just over 10,000 words, just over 35 new pages to the book in Round Three. Most of the additions are good, and help the entire story be more coherent.

But there are still weaknesses.

The ending, as I feared a while back, is too abrupt. Or maybe the explanation of the ending comes too far from it. Or maybe I’m just full of hooey.

So the book will sit for a while. BUt not quite yet. In completing Round Three, I've come to the conclusion that the final five chapters or so need quite a bit of punching up. So I'm going to work on them. Call it Round 3.5. Then I’ll begin Round Four.

Round Four, however, is going to have to involve more eyes than mine. Again, the call for beta readers goes out.

UPDATE 4/18/14: Round 3.5 is going well. I've added another six pages and 2,000 words. More importantly, the ending is making a lot more sense now. Tying a lot of loose little things together.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Here's Why I'll Register as A Republican

If the Idaho Republican Party wants me to register as a Republican in order to vote for Republican candidates in the May primaries, so be it. I won’t let the extreme wing of any party take away my right to vote as I see fit.

Here’s what’s going to happen, right-wing Republicans, at least as far as my vote is concerned.
I will register as a Republican, to be sure. Here’s theprocess for those of you who are interested. You may declare a party affiliation as you sign the roll to vote if you are currently unaffiliated with any party, as the majority of Idaho voters are.

Go here to find out if you’re affiliated or not. (Click on “Am I Registered” and enter your full name and birthdate.)

There’s the method. Now, on to the madness:

The current right-wing candidate, Bryan King, seems determined to label Rep. Mike Simpson as a Republican in Name Only – a RINO. That’s well and good. He and the right wing of the Republican Party are entitled to their opinion.

What they’re not entitled to is preventing unaffiliated individuals such as I from voting for RINOs if we want to. I will register as a Republican at the primary, declaring out loud as I do so that I register “under protest.” I will vote for Rep. Mike Simpson, the so-called RINO. Your attempt to keep out the mudbloods will fail, as far as my vote is concerned.

I am an independent voter. I do not wholly identify with either of our two major political parties. I sag in the middle, you might say. I lean to the right on some issues, and lean to the left on other issues. That is how I am and no attempt at party purity from any party will sway me from my views.

And Democrats, while I think it’s admirable that you’re keeping your primary open and allowing anyone of any political stripe to vote for whomever their conscience dictates,  that openness doesn’t fix the problem unless both sides in the sandbox want to play. Registering as a Republican allows me the full slate of candidates to choose from, allowing me to keep my independence as a voter intact.
How is that, you may ask? Aren’t I selling part of my soul by registering under protest with a party with whose views I don’t swallow wholesale?

No. It makes more sense than remaining unaffiliated and casting what surely will become nothing more than a protest vote. And I’ve cast plenty of protest votes. I’ve voted for Ralph Nader for president, for heaven’s sake.

But that’s my right, as an independent voter. I can throw my vote away ANY WAY I WANT TO. And if registering as a Republican gives me access to an additional trash can, well, so much the better.
Yes, this tactic labels me, in spirit, as a hated RINO (and worse, given what I’ve just said about Obamacare). And maybe it labels me as a spineless sellout in the eyes of some Democrats and fellow independents. Funny thing is, I’m not in this whole voting thing in the first place to chum up to any party or any bloc of voters. I’m in it for me. I want to vote my conscience, the way our nation set things up.

If the Republican Party wants a slew of RINOs now on the books as Republicans, that’s their business, not mine. RINOS will vote no matter how much the right wing of the Republican Party thinks they can maintain that blood purity.

If the Democrats want more independents to vote for their candidates, they need to do more than set up a weak appeal to voters who want to remain unaffiliated.

Democrats have represented us in Idaho’s second congressional district before (including by their current candidate Richard Stallings who beat Dane Watkins in a run for the House of Representatives in 1988, which is a pretty good reason in my book to vote for Mr. Stallings). I have yet, however, in this election cycle to hear from the Democrats why I should vote for their candidate. But there’s still time to convince me. I’m an independent voter, after all.