Sunday, April 27, 2014

The trap of self-editing...

I don't mind self-publishing -- my Abigail Massey at McAdam Station stories for children are self-published and they've done very well; this blog is self-published, come to think of it.

What concerns me is not so much the self-publishing as the self-editing.

(maybe I'll write about the overuse of underlining and italics to create emphasis someday... but not today [which might lead to an entry on the overuse of parentheses {uh oh... I'm trapped...}]).

Self-editing is, in my opinion, one of the greatest chasms into which a writer might fall (including the placement of a preposition at the end of a sentence, which I narrowly avoided there [only to get myself caught up in another one of these parentheses spirals]).

Case in point. I finished the draft of my Abigail Massey Christmas novella in December of last year and, over the course of January, went over it at least five times, revising, rewriting and editing. I consider myself to be pretty good with grammar and punctuation and all that so I felt pretty good about editing my own work.

Fine. So, at the end of January, I sent the revised and refined (might I say "perfected") manuscript off to the graphic designer with whom I work (my sister, Lynn, who is as fine a designer as I've ever met [and I'd say that even if she weren't my sister {uh oh, more brackets}]). I was confident that it was in finished and final form.

Enter the trap.

Lynn did her usual amazing work over the next three months, coming up with an absolutely gorgeous cover design, an equal amazing title page design and a beautifully laid out, easy to read book. Wonderful.

Now it's mid-April and Lynn sends the design back to me for review. I'm blown away by the beauty of it. Who cares about the writing? This thing will sell itself.

I want to be a careful, detail-oriented publisher, however (did I mention that, when you self-publish, you are writer, editor AND publisher?) so I figure I should read the entire novella again, just to make sure no sentences got cut off in the design process, no paragraphs got shuffled, no pages went missing.

Crash and burn. Lynn made few, if any, mistakes, to be sure. Her work was practically perfect: I think I found three paras that weren't properly indented and one extra period at the end of a sentence. (and I'm not sure those weren't mistakes in my own draft). Other than that, perfect.

But, who the heck edited this thing? Who was responsible for making sure the writing flowed smoothly, the diction was appropriate and the story consistent? Whoever it was did a terrible job.

Despite my very careful revisions throughout December and January, I still found in April that I had some significant revising and editing to do.

For example, I still had characters going back in time: at one point early in the story Abigail looks at her watch and sees that it's 9:50 a.m.; five paragraphs later, she squeals "Oh Golly, it's half-past nine..."

How does an editor miss that kind of thing?

And how does he miss the fact that the author used the word "up" three times in a single sentence and then, one paragraph later, "mirror" three times in two short lines?

Luckily for me, the three months Lynn spent working on the book gave me time to gain a little objectivity and perspective on the writing. Time, plus the fact that it was now presented to me in a completely different layout and format, allowed me the chance to distance myself from the story and see it for what was truly on the page, not for what I had intended to write.

I ended up sending Lynn about 40 edits that should have been caught in the original review and editing process.

But that is the trap of trying to be your own editor: you can't see your work clearly unless and until you put some time (three months or more) and some distance (provided through reading it in a new format) between the author and the written piece.

With time and distance, you regain the ability to read what is actually on the page, to see the problems afresh and to lose your own egotistical love for your own writing.

Self-publish all you want. But self-edit with extreme care and caution.

Friday, April 25, 2014

A rubber haddock... hilarious

As I may have mentioned before in this space, I've been thinking a lot lately about how to write funny.

And I have been paying close attention lately to passages in other people's writing that make me laugh to try to understand what techniques and strategies they employed to create a comic effect.

My thought is that, by studying how other people manage to be funny, perhaps I will hone my own skills in that area.

And that's about as un-funny an introduction you can get to how to write funny!

Anyway, I'm a big fan of the Harry Potter books and I think that J.K. Rowling is a wonderfully creative, effective writer so it came as no surprise to me that my first new lesson in how to write funny came from her.

The lesson for writing funny I got from J.K.? Be specific.

The second lesson for writing funny I learned from J.K.? Some words are funnier than others.

If you want to create a funny situation, use specifics as much as possible.

For example, in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, Rowling gets me to laugh simply by describing Harry as standing there holding a "rubber haddock". Not a "rubber fish", not even a "rubber cod": a "rubber haddock".

It's funny because Rowling identifies the specific kind of fish he's holding and she chooses a specific kind of fish that has a funny name.

"Haddock" is funnier than "Cod" which is funnier than the more generic "fish".

The third lesson for writing funny from J.K.? Build toward absurdity using a series of realistic steps.

She has already established that Ron's brothers are inventors who hope to open their own joke shop when they graduate school. She has provided us several examples of the kinds of innovative products they have already developed, including a line of joke magic wands that turn into different rubber animals (mostly chickens) when used. She has also let it be known that these wands are popular at the school.

So it is no surprise to us that Harry would be found with a fake wand that turns into some form of animal.

The surprise... the laugh is that Harry turns up with a "rubber haddock" in his hand. Not a rubber chicken, not a rubber fish... a rubber haddock.

Hilarious. And, in writing this analysis, I completely ruined the joke. Sorry.

Monday, April 21, 2014

How to be a successful writer....

Everything I read about how to be a successful writer tells me I have to spend time writing every day. Every single day.

It's the only way to be productive, I'm told. By writing at least an hour every day, I can create a rhythm and get into a groove. My writing will be better, more consistent, more resonant, more creative.

My only question is: WHO, other than a professional writer, has time to write EVERY DAY???

Certainly not me.

I have time to sleep every day. Because if I don't sleep, I die. Same with eating. And with certain bathroom chores.

And, of course, I have time to go to work five out of every seven days. Because, without work, I can't afford the payments on the place in which I write, the machine upon which I write, the electricity that powers the machine, the food that powers the writer, etc. etc. etc.

I spend at least some time every day with my partner and our dog. I don't think those times are negotiable, do you? And the household chores are a part of life I can't avoid, aren't they?

So where do I find time to write every day? Honestly, where in the day do I find an hour or so for my writing?

I read these books and articles that tell me serious writers find time to write every day and I think... that's crazy. Life just doesn't allow it.

Yes, I agree, those times when I have managed to carve out time to write pretty consistently every day have been my most productive times. I once wrote an entire 300-page legal text book in the space of just three months. My editor was delighted and the book has sold well.

But I was single back then, living in a basement apartment, eating Kraft Dinner and little else, spending the minimum eight-hours a day at my fledgling and not very busy law practice. I spent three hours every evening at the computer (a 286 with a monochrome monitor, if you remember those dinosaurs) writing from 6:30 to 9:30.

It worked very well. I was productive, ridiculously so.

But life doesn't allow that now. I spend a great deal of time on other, very important aspects of my life. I spend, to be honest, a lot of precious time trying to make a name for myself as a writer, promoting myself and my already completed works. That's time I could be writing.

But I'm writing blogs, recording podcasts, designing and updating websites, making appearances at schools and other events, selling the books I've already written.

Reading books and articles on how to be a successful writer.

I guess what they are saying, in essence, is this: Stop reading this book and get back to writing!

Message received. I will read no more books telling me how to be a successful writer. But wait, what if one of these books actually has something helpful to say? I don't want to miss that.

And I do think I can continue to learn from Writer's Digest, don't you?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Sometimes, I break the rules....

In my experience, writing is unique in how much devotion (to the point of obsession) some practitioners show to rules they were taught early in their careers.

You've probably run into these kinds of people; perhaps, in fact, you yourself are one of these people.

You took a writing course in your youth, taught by a successful author who became something of a mentor to you, and you learned a hard-and-fast rule of writing that you have committed yourself to every since?

I've heard a bunch of them:

  • Never use adverbs;
  • Never use more than one adjective before a noun;
  • Never use passive voice;
  • Never use any verb in a dialogue tag other than "said";
  • Never use semi-colons;
  • Never use an ellipsis;
  • Never use "very";
  • Show, don't tell;
  • etc. (ohh, don't use "etc." ...!).
Don't get me wrong: I think these kinds of rules are useful. As guides. As things to think about as you review and revise your work.


But as laws sent down from on high never to be broken???

No way.

I was once in a writer's group where the only contribution one member would have to the review of another writer's work was to stroke out all of the adverbs. ALL OF THEM! She would quietly await her turn to provide feedback and then, when her time came, she would push a copy of the work in question across the table toward the author and say, very proudly, "I stroked out all of the adverbs. They're not necessary."

And that was it. She said no more. She had done her great service to the craft of writing.

Wait. Sorry. "She would, in silence, await... and say, with pride in her voice..."

You know what? She was probably right ... seventy per cent of the time. It is very likely that seven out of every ten of the adverbs could be removed from the piece without reducing its impact. In fact, the deletion of these words would likely strengthen the work.

But remove all of them? Without thought or consideration as to what they achieve, why they are there in the first place? Give me a break.

When I write a first draft of anything, I just write. I connect my imagination directly with my fingers and let things flow.

When I go back to review and revise, I keep that list of rules in my head. I look at all the adverbs, the adjectives, the examples of the passive voice, the appearances of "asked" and "called" and "yelled" and "whispered" and "rasped", the semi-colons and ellipses, the sections where a character or the narrator tells what happened rather than the author showing the reader what happened, and I ask myself:

Do I have a legitimate purpose for including this here? Am I breaking the rule for a reason? Is this more effective as I have written it than it would be if I followed the rule?

And, if the answer to these questions is "no" in a given situation, then I revise and follow the rule.

But I am at least open to the possibility that breaking the rule is the right thing to do, the effective thing to do, the creative thing to do. And, if it is, then I break it.

And I don't look back once I've broken it.

Writer without a cause, that's me...

Monday, April 14, 2014

The elements required for writing funny...

I've been doing a lot of reading lately about how to go about writing humour. Or "writing funny".

(Which, itself, sounds funny. Writing funny. "Hey, you're writing funny." What does that mean? That I'm holding my pen with my nose? That I'm hitting the keys on the keyboard with my toes? That my cursive script looks odd on the paper?)

Now, I consider myself to be a pretty funny guy in person. I like to believe that I have a quick wit and use language effectively in the back-and-forth of casual conversation.

In fact, I have often thought about trying my hand at stand-up comedy. But then I realise that I'd probably be better at the improvised-conversation-with-the-audience part than I would be with the prepared material.

And that worries me. It is a very different thing to be funny in prepared material, in writing, than it is to be funny in day-to-day life. Writing, by definition, takes time. And there is a time lag between when you write and when your reader reads. There is no interaction, no back and forth, no reading off your reader's reaction and moving off into a new (and with luck funny) direction.

Without the free-flow of a conversation, I am not so confident that I can be consistently funny.

On the other hand, I write a monthly blog for my work on Privacy and I pride myself on how funny it is. People actually watch our workplace's website for the next entry on that blog and, when it gets posted each month, I can hear people laughing out loud as they read it in their cubicles.

So maybe I can be funny in writing. At least in short bursts. But can I be funny over the course of an entire novel? Hmmmm....

I am planning to write a comic novel and I have already charted out the main points of the plot and developed most of the primary characters. It's a good start. But I find myself putting off actually sitting down to write because of my fear that I cannot be funny for that extended period of time... in writing.

I think I need to be in the right mood. I generally dash off a blog post on the spur of the moment when the mood strikes me. I have to be happy, and excited, and energetic and stuff like that.

To write an entire comic novel, I think I'm going to have to be all those things. And perhaps a little drunk. In fact, I'm already planning to spend evenings this spring and summer out in my back yard, with a tall G&T and my netbook, writing funny. I think I could be successful under those circumstances.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Twisting the rubber band....

My first issue of Writer's Digest includes an excerpt from the book Comedy Writing Secrets, 2nd Edition, by Mel Helitzer, with Mark Shatz. The article is entitled, "Realism & Exaggeration: Really, Truly Funny".

To be frank, I wasn't impressed with the excerpt: I found it uneven and unclear. I also didn't find the examples given by the author to be particularly funny nor effective. As a result, it certainly didn't make me want to rush out and buy the book.

The excerpt's clarity problems become apparent in its very first paragraph, which begins, "Humor only appears to be free-form. To the trained ear, it's predictable because it's structured."


I had to read the first paragraph a couple of times to figure out that the word "appears" should be italicized in the first sentence, to make it clear that Heltzer is arguing against the unstated premise that most people believe that humor (or humorous writing) has no structure. Without the italics, I read the sentence as having the emphasis on the word "only", suggesting that the only way that humor appears to exist is in free-form format.

Confusing your reader does not seem to be a great way to launch an excerpt.

That being said, I did find that the Helitzer piece helped to confirm my own impressions of how to approach a successful comic novel. Helitzer talks about the important connection between realism and exaggeration in humor, pointing out that the two must be properly balanced in a truly funny tale. You must create a realistic background, he argues, and realistic characters, to make your eventual exaggerations that much more effective and funny.

I have just started attempting to write my own comic novel, my first. In preparation for this attempt, I decided to read a number of successful such novels from the last 15 years, just to get an idea of the elements that are common to all of them.

I began with Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project, followed that with Richard Russo's Straight Man, Lazy Days by Erlend Loe, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson and finished up with two by John Green: Paper Town and An Abundance of Katherines.

All very successful and all, on the surface at least, very different. To paraphrase Helitzer, however, "These comic novels only appear to be different."

In reading them, you see, I found a number of common threads:

1. All featured male protagonists;
2. All the protagonists were portrayed as "real" people, but each had a slightly exaggerated characteristic that made him different from the norm;
3. Each protagonist, therefore, was positioned as an outsider of sorts in their communities, such that they were able to provide a slightly warped but still fairly objective commentary on the world;
4. The humor in each novel flowed from the interaction of the exaggerated characteristic of the protagonist with the people and events he encountered; and
5. Each novel featured at least one hilarious scene where a series of believable, realistic steps leads to a bizarre, ridiculously exaggerated outcome.

As Helitzer says, "You start with a realistic scenario, then bend and distort it for comic effect."

In the books I read, it is the exaggerated characteristic of the character that, in each case, does the bending and distorting of reality.

In Russo's book, for example, his character (William Devereaux, Jr.) is an anarchistic academic who simply cannot take "the rules" seriously. The result: he ends up appearing on the television news, holding a goose aloft, threatening to murder it if the University does not cooperate; or hidden, urine-drenched, in the false ceiling above a meeting room where his colleagues are deciding his fate.

In Lazy Days, Bror Telemann has an exaggerated love for the theatre... and for master chef and author Nigella Lawson. This leads to arguments at tennis courts and late night forays into the kitchen to make Nigella's favourite dishes.

My favourite is in The 100-Year-Old Man, where the main character's old-style formality and politeness lead naturally, inexorably to a memorable chase through the country-side in an old bus, with a small-time criminal, a gangster, a sexy mature woman and an full-sized circus elephant along for the ride.

John Green's characters, like the protagonist in The Rosie Project, are both hyper-intellectual, socially awkward young men in search of love. It's their intellectualism that gets in the way but also tends to lead them into increasingly bizarre and interesting situations.

In all cases, the characters are based in realism, with only slightly exaggerated character traits. But those traits cause the characters to proceed down carefully designed, increasingly exaggerated pathways to end up in hilarious places the reader could never have foreseen.

In the case of Straight Man and The 100-Year-Old Man in particular, the writing was so skillful that I never once questioned the build-up to the crazy punch-line (the professor dripping urine or the elephant in the bus). It was only when I got to the punch-line that, laughing heartily, I thought: How the heck did this author get me to this ridiculous place without me noticing or rebelling?

As I work on my own comic novel, I will remember the lessons I've learned. I will start from the realistic and allow my character's slightly exaggerated trait lead me into hilarity. And I'll have Helitzer and Shatz (and all the other authors mentioned above) to thank if my book is a success.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Much to Digest in new Writer's mag...

As a gift for a recent birthday, I received a one-year subscription to Writer's Digest magazine. It is not a publication with which I am particularly familiar so I was very interested to get the chance to explore it first hand.

My first issue arrived yesterday and it is a pleasant surprise. Sure, I have my concerns and criticisms (I always do) but I am impressed overall with the quality of the articles and the expertise displayed.

I am even more impressed because my first ever issue, May/June 2014, is focused on "Writing for Kids & Teens", with a healthy secondary focus on "Humor Writing".

Now, when you consider that the last three years of my life have been dedicated to writing and publishing a series of stories for young people (the "Middle-Grade" market, apparently, according to WD) and that my current project involves penning a "comic novel", I think we've got a pretty good match between my interests and WD's focus this month.

I don't plan to do an article-by-article review at this moment but I will say that one of the highlights for me in this issue was Marie Lamba's interesting article on the differences between fiction for the "Middle-Grade" (MG) market and fiction for Young Adults (YA).

I have gotten used to calling my Abigail Massey stories "YA fiction" but I now learn that I have been doing my self, and my work, a disservice by using that label. Based on Ms. Lamba's article, my three volumes of Abigail stories are better described as "Middle-Grade stories" or, even more particularly, "upper Middle-Grade" fiction.


Even more interesting is the argument Ms. Lamba makes that I should be marketing these stories mostly toward the "gate-keepers" for children in my target age group (gate-keepers like parents, teachers, librarians) rather than directly to the kids themselves. Where YA readers generally choose their own books, MG readers often have such decisions made for them. They are introduced to new books and authors by their parents or people in the educational system.

I am finding Lamba's article to be both helpful and comforting. Helpful in that it has provided me with some interesting ideas to ponder as I head into marketing my Christmas novella, featuring Abigail, this fall; Comforting in that it has helped confirm that, other than mislabelling my books as YA rather than MG, I have generally gotten most things right in creating the Abigail Massey stories as MG fiction.

All in all, I'd say my relationship with Writer's Digest is off to a very good start.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Finishing novels you're not enjoying...

My partner asked me the other day, with no small amount of exasperation, "Why do you continue to read novels that you obviously don't like?"

I guess I was frustrating her by droning on and on about all the reasons I thought my latest reading project (John Green's Paper Towns) was a disappointment. It didn't help that, just two days earlier, I had droned to her about how I felt my then current reading project (John Green's An Abundance of Katherines) was itself disappointing.

The answer to her question, however, was fairly easy: I refuse to stop reading any book simply on the basis that I don't like it. No matter how bad I think it is, there's always something I can learn from it as a writer. After all, the book in question has been published; it has made it through all those vetting and testing processes (agent, submission, publisher, acceptance, editing and revision, publication) to arrive in my local book store, processes that I have yet to negotiate successfully with my own creative work.

For that reason alone, I can learn something from even the most disappointing published novel.

And John Green is a hugely successful, award winning author of numerous best-selling young adult novels. Even if I personally don't like his books, clearly plenty of people do, including agents, publishers, critics and readers. If I can't learn from someone like that (both positives and negatives), then from whom can I learn?

So I read the entire book and I make mental notes of the stuff that I think works really well, the stuff I think is less successful and the stuff I believe has made the novel commercially successful where I have been less so.

In the case of John Green, I can see much to admire in his books. He writes in a very smooth, easy, "readerly" way. He doesn't let his own cleverness get in the way of a good read, even though he makes some interesting and "writerly" choices along the way. In Katherines, for example, he includes any number of footnotes and graphs, items you rarely see in fiction, but he uses them effectively as a complement to the character of his narrator. They are "writerly" but used in a "readerly" way.

Both of Green's books I read contain scenes that I found remarkably engaging and fun and I think he uses the comic novel formula fairly effectively.

Even if I think his secondary characters (such as his narrator's best friends in each of the books) are two-dimensional and, frankly, replicas of each other (Hassan in Katherines and Ben/Radar in Paper Towns are basically the same person -- oh, who am I kidding, every character is the same from book to book, from his socially-awkward, school-smart protagonist to the street-smart, vivaciously bold female lead to the main characters' parents), I think he uses those characters well to build, in a natural way, very funny situations.

It's his plots that really let me down. They are all build up and no payoff. And, perhaps because I am of another generation, his insistence on concluding that the key in any life is leaving your past (and your life) behind for the open road and infinite opportunity makes absolutely no sense to me.

Nor does his predilection for extremely talky, wordy plot climaxes.

And, if I am going to nitpick, I am concerned that he is rather loose with his borrowing from other writers. In Paper Towns, his main character's comment about feeling "infinite" during a certain moment of daring is clearly an uncreditted reference to The Perks of Being a Wallflower and I'm sure the Canadian rock band, The Tragically Hip, would have appreciated an acknowledgement as well.

All of that being said, I can certainly take a number of lessons from John Green and the two of his cadre of fabulously successful books that I have now completed. I just don't plan to read any more of them.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A precious moment of positivity...

Sometimes, you experience moments that make it all worth while.

Last night, for example, while out for a walk with our dog in a local park, my partner and I met up with a well-liked acquaintance who was also out with her pooch.

"Oh, I've been hoping to run into you," she told me, as our puppies sniffed each other. "My daughter was in the sixth-grade class to whom you spoke at F---ton Middle School. She came home so excited."

That little tidbit was pleasant enough, a nice pat on the ego.

But she went on. "Not only did she really enjoy your presentation, she was also delighted because she won a copy of one of your books."

Whenever I speak to a school group, you see, I bring a set of special bookmarks to give out to the kids, just so that they each have something to take home with them. What I don't tell them until the end, however, is that I have attached a sticker to three of the bookmarks and those students who find a sticker win a copy of one of my Abigail Massey books.

So this friend's daughter was one of the lucky ones.

And, better still, she apparently loved the book. "She wants me to buy the other two volumes of stories for her!" our friend told me.

It's hard to explain how great that feels, both to hear that her 11-year-old daughter had enjoyed my presentation to her class and to find out that she had read and really loved the stories I wrote.

I had a warm feeling in my tummy for the rest of the evening.

This kind of thing doesn't happen often enough, at least for writers like me who haven't been fortunate enough to get their work reviewed in newspapers and magazines or on Goodreads etc. I can feel proud of the number of books that sell but I rarely get that kind of direct feedback, that personal pat on the back.

I admit, it sounds a bit egotistical to say that but it really feels good. Writing can be something of a solitary endeavour and it is often hard to know how your work is being received by your readers.

This little encounter was a wonderful shot in the arm for me. One that will help to encourage me in my writing for the next several months at least.

Monday, April 7, 2014

A writer of middling success...

I always thought I'd be a successful writer. Ever since my grade six teacher transcribed my first ever poem onto flip chart paper and posted it in the school library, I have expected to make a living with my pen (and later my typewriter and even later my computer).

And I've had my successes. I've had a story place second in a national writing contest; I've won community newspaper writing awards; I've even authored, co-authored or contributed to a series of legal textbooks that sold quite well. And, most recently, a three-volume collection of children's stories I wrote to raise money to support a local historic and architectural landmark has done very well regionally here in Atlantic Canada.

But am I making a living as a writer? Not by a long shot.

This is not an easy business.

A friend of mine has just published the third in a series of medical mystery novels that have been well received and sold fairly well. He's a nice guy and a very good writer. I don't think his books are making him rich either.

I recent months, I've met several other people who have had their work published and all of them have to hold down a day job to pay the bills.

Unless you're J.K. Rowling, John Grisham or Stephen King, writing is no way to make a living.

So why do we write? Or, more particularly, why do I write?

I guess it's for the love of it. And for the tiny glimmer of hope that something I write will catch the public imagination (or at the very least a publisher's imagination) and give me at least a taste of what Rowling, Grisham and King have enjoyed.

And, like most other things, writing is about practice and work. So I will write this blog and keep working on my current projects. And hope that someone finds it interesting enough to read from time to time.

Because, as writers, that's all we really ask, isn't it?