Friday, March 19, 2010

Credibility: Shot.

I started to read a book today…put it down immediately…and I’m not sure I’ll pick it up again.
I was barely two pages into the thing, and it’s a book that, by many accounts, is terrific.

The book is James Scott Bell’s DEADLOCK*. It opens with a compelling scene, involving a 16-year-old who is obviously contemplating suicide. Yep. Strong stuff. And pretty well told from a 16-year-old’s mindset, too, all things considered.

Until I hit the line, “…that song her mama used to sing to her, about that girl named Billie Joe who jumped off a bridge.”

And I said, “Oh, for crying out loud!” and set it aside.

This is clearly a reference to a song that a person of my generation (and hence, this girl’s mama’s generation) would know: Ode to Billie Joe. Bobbie Gentry. 1967. I remember it well. I turned 15 that summer, and the disk jockeys went nuts over that song the first time they played it. It zoomed to the #1 most requested song that night and stayed there for an impressive amount of time. It was a huge national hit. It spawned not only a novelization, but a movie…because it was a song that posed a lot of questions and didn’t answer all of them—thus allowing for all kinds of creative license.

But the one question it did answer, and the one this author got wrong, was who Billie Joe was. Billie Joe McAllister was a boy. The girl,who told the tale of his suicide, was the one narrating the ode. But she didn’t jump off any bridges. Not even once.

And anyone who had more than a nodding acquaintance with this song would have known that.

So if you’re going to use a cultural reference like this, the very least you can do is get it right.

I can hear the protests now. “But, Janny, this book was published in 2002! That’s a long time from when this song was popular! Maybe the character just got it wrong!"

Uhh…no. Her mama used to sing it to her all the time, remember? If your mama sings you a song that often, the very least you know is if the main character is a boy or a girl. And if it’s something you’re remembering at a desperate point in your life, it’s already part of your DNA. You know the thing inside and out.

Unfortunately, the author didn’t. And his editor didn’t. And the moment that became obvious, he shattered his credibility with me.

Harsh? Too picky? I don’t think so. Not within the first few pages of a book. The place where you’re trying to reel in a reader. To get her so involved in the scene and in your story that she can’t put the book down.

In other words, this is a lethal place to make a mistake.

Readers can be very forgiving people. Readers who are also writers can be even more forgiving. We know how hard it can be to construct worlds, to spin spells, to craft a compelling read, and little things here and there don’t bother us. Even I’ll forgive an author a minor gaffe if I’m well into the book, buying the premise, and involved with the characters’ lives.

But I’m not there within the first few pages.

I’m not involved with anyone yet at that point. I don’t know this author, I don’t know his people, and I don’t know—because he hasn’t yet convinced me—that I should believe him. Hence, when he makes a mistake that is easily corrected right at the beginning of his story, he's got me wondering already—not about his characters, but about him. About whether he was misinformed, or just lazy. And mostly, about whether I can trust anything else he says.

There are a couple of lessons here.

One, of course, is to avoid any obvious cultural references. Often, this is the advice that’s safest to follow—because it avoids the problem of “dating” the work, and/or rendering lots of what might be really good lines ineffective because another audience, in another time and place, won’t “get” them.

The second one is, if you’re going to use a cultural reference—and by that, I mean a song, a movie, a TV show, a character in a book or play, or even a brand name product or a real street in a real town—you need to be absolutely fanatical about getting it right.

This means you don’t trust the first source you go to, either. You back up the source with three or four others, if you’re smart. If you really want to get the lay of the land, you go there yourself, you walk the street, and you talk to the natives. You watch that play or that TV show or that movie and make sure the line you quote is actually in it. You listen to the song—or at least read the lyrics.

Above all, you never assume you “know” it.

And never assume your editor “knows” it, either. Because more than one author has had something right in a manuscript and had a well-meaning editor change it so it’s actually wrong.

Have your ducks in a row. Period.
And if you can’t be sure of a cultural reference—maybe think about changing it to something you make up. No one faults writers who make up fake towns, fake streets, and fake TV shows. If anything, that shows you’ve got the extra little bit of creativity to truly build an entire world. And even if most people who know you also know what real town you’re talking about…that part doesn’t matter. Because in the end, it’s all fiction, you can’t make a mistake unless you forget your own details…but that’s a whole ‘nuther problem, one that’s solved with a tad more organization. :-)

Unfortunately, screwing up a cultural reference as popular as this one isn’t so easily fixed.

I don’t know if I’m going back to that book, or that author.
So don’t let this happen to you.
I’d hate to leave a horking good story on the shelf simply because you lost me at “hello."

*And yes, I could have omitted the real author’s name and the real book name…but there’s no point to anonymity, is there? It doesn't help a reader. So don’t give me grief about it.


Sunday, March 07, 2010

What Am I DOING?

Let’s face it. Some questions, you never stop asking. And some you should never stop asking. How am I with God? is one of those questions.

But another one of those questions is also the title of this post. It’s something I think we, as writers, especially need to ask ourselves. And sometimes ask, and ask, and ask again.

Because if we stop asking it, we can get way off track.

Case in point: my recent posts about being sidetracked into writing things that I didn’t necessarily start out to write, didn’t necessarily believe in, and didn’t find I could carry off for any sustained amount of time. The “inspiration” for such projects tends to flare, get fed by others’ enthusiasm, and then fade when one is by oneself with one’s Muse wondering How I Got Into This Predicament, Anyway.

And today, I caught myself on the edge of doing it again. But I think I’ve pulled myself back in time. :-)

I have a story I’ve just begun. I have 15 pages or so, not counting a couple of pages of scrap and/or material that may go in another spot. (When I write, I always, always, always have a “scrap” folder. ‘nuff said.) These 15 pages started out very businesslike. Very clear. Very cogent. Very competently written.

But they weren’t “story.” At least not of the kind I was trying to tell.

My crit partner got a hold of them, suggested things to make them muchmuch better. After I stopped banging my head on the desk, I rewrote them muchmuch better as a result.

But this story’s still a baby story. I don’t know all of it yet. I do have a “climax” scene in mind for it, what the whole thing’s going to “point” to. But what I don’t have…yet…is a middle. Or a firm idea of word length. Or even, heaven help me, any kind of idea how to “categorize” it.

And that’s what almost got me into big, Muse-bruising trouble.

Because, you see, there’s this wonderful contest I was thinking of entering with this story. I could do it, if I wanted to. I’ve got the contest-length entry of 15 pages, and given a few more hours of work, I could come up with the optional one-page synop that an entrant can include to give the judges a little idea of where the story goes.

The only problem is, this idea originally came to me as a short story. This may be God’s way of keeping me creative on the smaller bursts of energy I have of late; the jury’s still out on that matter. But that aside, this particular story, as I know it right now, isn’t broad enough in scope or complexity to be the basis for a long book. Maybe it’s a novella. That’s certainly possible.

Only this contest I was thinking about doesn’t have a novella category. It’s longer books, or it’s nothin’.

So what did the Wise Catholic Writer Chick do when she realized that dilemma?
Did she smile, shrug, and tell herself that when the time was right, she’d look for a short story contest or a novella contest at which to aim this work eventually?
Uhhh...not exactly.

What I did—which I still don’t understand!—was start thinking of ways I could “expand the word length.” And find a category for it. And find the best judging team for it. And...

I started thinking of deeper places the story could go, places that were deeper than anything I’d ever had in mind for it in the first place.

Not more emotional, mind you—the story as I’ve conceptualized it so far is gonna have plenty of emo for the taking. But just places that were more complicated. More detailed.

I started thinking in terms of adding characters, putting in a “way the story can come full circle.” A way extra people could get involved way beyond the scope of what I originally dreamed the story could be. (I literally did get the concept of this story from a dream…just so we’re clear.) Before long, I was mulling over a connection from the heroine’s past, and then a hunky guy who could challenge her...

...and my little short story started turning into a romance novel.
And I started thinking in terms of “how many plot elements” I’d need to make it 50K words.

Then, suddenly, I hit a wall.
Because in my heart of hearts, I realized...
I’m not writing a 50K word romance novel.”

Or, as my crit partner’s fond of saying, “That’s not what happened!"

I realized this sometime this afternoon. When I was in the 3-p.m. doldrums of a Sunday on which I felt tired and not at all willing to sit down and “try to come up with more” for this story, to “try to polish” an entry for the end of March, to “try to figure out how to make this” into...whatever kind of box I thought it might be fun to fit into.

Something in me finally rebelled, and said no.
And I heard a little voice whisper, Writing isn’t supposed to be “trying to come up with more.”
Writing’s supposed to be...creating. It’s supposed to be...telling what’s written on one’s heart.

And I very nearly lost sight of that again for the sake of a blasted contest.

If I hadn’t been suffering from fatigue...I would have surrendered yet another story idea to a grinder from which it might never have recovered.

I would have sat down and “tried to make” this story something that it might not be, instead of just writing from the crazy, wonderful warm feeling I took away from the dream and wanted to put down in words.

That, ladies and gentlemen, would have been wrong.
And it would have broken my spirit and my heart…yet again.
And I would have wondered why I couldn’t bring myself to finish yet another story.
And I would have doubted my ability...yet again...when ability isn’t the issue at all.

But thank heaven, I was tired enough, over-“thought" enough, and daunted enough by the prospect of trying to do all those “usual things” that, instead of sucking it up and being a good solider, I just looked in the mirror and said, “You idiot. What are you doing? Why pressure yourself to do something like this for a deadline again, something that’s not even what you started out to do in the first place? Why don’t you just write what you want to write…and then see what happens?”
There are times it’s good to be an idiot...if you catch yourself before you go too far with the idiocy in question. This is one of those times.

So I ain’t gonna stop asking that question—every time I catch myself stepping onto the idiot course—until the answer makes me smile again.
And I’m gonna let the enchantment come first...before I polish it, box it up, and get it ready to be shown off.
It has to come in that order, or it ain’t gonna work for me.

And in the long run, that’s how it’s supposed to be, anyway.


Wednesday, March 03, 2010

10,000 Words to Say "Hello"

The best answer I ever heard to the question “Why don’t you write short stories instead of novels?” was, “I can’t write short. It takes me 10,000 words to say hello.”

Some of you out there are laughing—and clicking on another screen to open a blank document and start another short, snappy piece that you’ll complete in a few days, if that long, and prepare to pitch somewhere. The longest time periods you spend in writing are those spent waiting for editors or publishers to say yea or nay.
However, I suspect more of you are laughing…and nodding.

 You’re not alone. You know it. I know it.

Now, to a person, professional freelancers will tell you “short” is key. That people lack time to read long pieces, for one reason…and for another reason, the more “short” pieces you have out at any given time, the more possibilities you have for someone to buy one of those pieces, or several of them, and give you more work…doing more short pieces. Hence, you fatten your bank account in a shorter period of time, you become self-supporting, and all those other wonderful things.

While those of us who write lushly detailed, lovingly crafted novel-length stories…well, we work a lot of other day jobs. Most of us would love to be able to support ourselves with our writing, but without learning how to change hats and write lots of short stuff, we don’t reasonably expect to do so. It’s a shame, but it’s a reality.

Some of us do both kinds of writing and succeed. I think most of us can have modest success with a foot in both camps. But there are also those of us who, when left to our own natural devices, just…write long. As in, write everything long. And I, I have to admit, am a repeat offender in this category…because even my blog posts are longer than the “experts” tell me they’re “supposed” to be.

Did you know an “ideal” blog post is under 600 words?

600 WORDS? How do they expect me to say ANYTHING in 600 FREAKING WORDS???

(Sorry. Got a little bit…er…emotional there for a minute.)

So the question remains: why do some of us naturally “write long”?

In my case, I think that natural tendency has a couple of origins.

First, I love words. I love working with them, tossing them in the air and catching them, finding new ones, learning the meanings of words I’ve seen but never really caught onto, figuring out words form contexts…and word origins? Don’t get me started. There’s a reason dictionaries have the etymology listed next to each word, sometimes in agonizing detail for those of you who only want the definition, thanks, or the correct way to spell or use the thing; the reason for all the Middle English derivations of the Old French adaptation of the original Latin? People like me. :-)

The second reason is connected to my personality, which by nature is both observant and creative, both down-to-earth and contrarian. Meaning?

Someone tells me something they claim is a “fact”—and I say, “How do you know this? Where did you get this information? What do you have to back it up?”

Someone presents a character acting a certain way—and I say, “Why? Why this action, and not another one? What’s brought this on? What motivates this?”

...and so on, and so forth.

Without a doubt, I believe in simple, clear communication. But “simple” and “clear,” by my way of thinking, are not synonyms for “brief.” True communication gives the reader everything he or she needs to know—without skimping, without making unfounded assertions, and without leaving the reader thinking, “But wait. What about—?”

Hence, when I write…I write not only through a subject, but I touch on the fringes of it and the peripherals as well. Because I hate loose ends.

You can see, then, how this style of wanting to cover all bases is, on its face, in conflict with “brief.” For me, the shorter I have to make something, the more convinced I am that Something Important To The Story, Dammit, will be sacrificed…and I’ll have some reader scratching her head saying, “Well, it wasn’t a bad story, but I wish she’d have explained_________ better. I didn’t get that."

Me? I don’t ever want a reader not to “get” my story because I didn’t tell her enough about the details of it.

Just like I don’t want my blog readers not to “get” my point because I don’t explain it completely enough.

Painfully obvious is this, I should think, by now. :-)

So can I write short? Yehhhhs...I can. When I have to.
Is it harder to write short? Yehhhhs…without a doubt. Not so much because when I write short, I have to distill, condense, and narrow my subject matter ‘til it (and I) want to scream...

But because no matter the length of the blog post, the short story, the e-mail, or the novel I write…I will inevitably think of more detail I could have said to make it even better. To make it sing. To make it clear as ice crystals on a pristine lake.
To get it right.

And getting it right is, in the end, what all those words are about. For me, anyway.



Monday, March 01, 2010

Quote For the Day

To be let down by the Church is not a reason to leave her, anymore than to be let down by your family is a reason to give up family life and move to a desert island.

--Fr. Benedict Groeschel, in Arise from Darkness: What to Do When Life Doesn't Make Sense

More to come!