"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Case of the Persnickety Pen

I was over at Joe's place recently (www.jakonrath.com/phpBB3/), and another writer was asking about how you plot a story, whether you outline, or just free-form it, etc. Joe said (paraphrasing here) he sets up the main character and their goal, then throws obstacles at them to keep them from reaching it. My answer was that I tried free range writing and it didn't work, so I outlined.

I suspect Joe thinks I'm a wuss.

I'm not going to tell anyone to do anything my way - except maybe fold towels. But here's what worked and didn't work for me.

My first novel is a 90,000 word story of a girl who runs away from home and discovers true love, which is not what I wanted her to do, but that's another post. The real problem with this book was that I didn't have a clear sense of where it was going or what it was going to do when it got there. I had some vague notions of things I wanted her to do, vignettes that I wanted to include. So I focused on those, and strung them together with verbal baling wire. And it shows. Thin, sparse, unbelievable deus ex machina events to get her to meet X, then Y.

Don't get me wrong, it was well-written. I can put a verb with a noun, and my adjectives are things of beauty. But it was crap. I'm using it for parts these days.

When I started writing my murder mystery, I was afraid of having any holes in the plot. I didn't want any mismatched clues. No Jessica Fletcher moments. You know, "Ms. Carline, you said in Chapter 37 that X couldn't have known Y because of Z, but in Chapter 3, X and Y are having a conversation." Ack.

So I outlined the plot - in an Excel spreadsheet, like a true former engineer. I described each chapter in as much detail as I needed, listed the clue revealed in the chapter, the characters appearing, and the day. I found, in my first novel, that I sometimes have a problem with time. My characters would do something a week earlier, then talk about having done it yesterday. The spreadsheet kept my corpses from rotting too long, and kept my characters from having full-proof alibis.

Now, I didn't always adhere strictly to the outline. Sometimes I'd stray, but I always knew where I needed to come back to. The important thing, for me, was that I felt I had a cohesive novel at the end, at least from the mystery point of view.

I'm currently working on the next book in the series and I'm outlining it. It may not be what works for everyone, and it may not work for me in the future, but it's what works for me now.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Bend me, shape me, as long as you read me

Some people may be wondering how I manage to keep my columns to their required lengths. My California Riding column can be anywhere from 500 to 1000 words, but my newspaper column must stay within a 650-word radius.

Well, now that I've been writing the newspaper column for almost 4 years, I've gotten pretty good at knowing "how much to write" and can usually come to the point around word 590, leaving me 60 words for the summation and punchline. But after the initial write, there's the rewrite...

Editing is a difficult part of a writer's job, but it is one of the most essential pieces. I learned to edit by attending Jean Jenkins' workshop at the Southern California Writers Conference (http://www.writersconference.com/). She taught a lot about the things you don't want in your work (use of passive voice, nobody "walks" anywhere, too many exclamation points!!!, etc.) but she emphasized two important steps to editing:

1. Do not go back and edit what you have just written. Let your work alone for awhile (she suggested a minimum of 6 weeks), then re-read it with fresh eyes.
2. Read your work aloud.

I can't let my columns lie about for 6 weeks; they have deadlines that must be met. But I do walk away from them and let them sit overnight. I have discovered that, in the light of morning, I suddenly have a clearer idea of how to tie my ideas together.

Reading my work aloud has enhanced the quality of my writing, oh, I don't know, by a bazillion percent. Don't get me wrong, I know how to write. I can pair nouns and verbs, spell correctly, and put a clever tale together. But until I read my stuff aloud, I wasn't aware of words I overused, sentence structures that might confuse the reader, and ideas I didn't follow through with.

I'm going to give an example, by showing you a snippet of next week's column, which is all about sending kids back to school. Here's my first pass at the first two paragraphs:

" By the time you read this, school will have started and our houses will all be settling in to this year’s schedule. Even if your children are in the same school as last year, the schedule is always slightly different.
Maybe school is going to start earlier this year, or later. Or maybe it’s the before and after activities that are different. Soccer is on Mondays instead of Thursdays, or your kids have decided that cafeteria food will kill them and they want you to get up an hour early to fix them haute cuisine in a paper bag. After all, the more things stay the same, the more they change

It's not bad, but it could be better. For example, in the first sentence, "houses" seems less personal and inviting than "families." And as I read aloud, I read the word "schedule" twice within a dozen or so words. In the second paragraph, I had already used the word school twice in the previous paragraph, and I'm talking about it starting in the future, instead of now. The last sentence is a punchline. It is one of those common phrases that I've turned upside down for fun.

Here's my edited version:
" By the time you read this, school will have started and our families will all be settling in to this year’s schedule. Even if your children are in the same school as last year, the timetable is always slightly different.
Maybe classes start earlier this year, or later. Or maybe it’s the before and after activities that are different. Soccer is on Mondays instead of Thursdays, or your kids have decided that cafeteria food will kill them and they want you to get up an hour early to fix them haute cuisine in a paper bag."

I made the punchline the last sentence in the column and gave it its own paragraph to call attention to it. And I tightened the rest down, made it less repetitive, and shaved off 3 words.

All because I read it aloud.

Monday, August 25, 2008

'Nuff said.

So how does a writer who has been raised in a box of 500 words pen a 60,000 word novel?
I actually read, in a writer's online group, a writer who said she had the main points of her novel written, and then she was going to go back and fill in the rest with fluff.
No. No. No. Words are not packing material. Every chapter has to go somewhere, has to mean something. If you are reading this and thinking, why, yes, I'll just put some verbal peanuts around my main points and voila - put down the pen, step away from the Word document, and take up some other hobby.
The smarty pants answer is that I wrote 500 words 120 times. Seriously, for my first novel, I had some scenes in my head, and I wrote aimless words to get me from one vignette to the next. It's not a technique that I'd recommend. As a matter of fact, it reminds me of the Beatles' movie, Magical Mystery Tour. They thought they'd put a bunch of odd characters on a bus and film it - naturally, hilarity would ensue.
Hilarity did not ensue. It may have threatened to sue, I don't know.
For my next novel, I put an outline together. I've read interviews with lots of famous authors who scoff at outlining and still produce works of art. Good for them. I was writing my very first murder mystery and I wanted to make sure I had all of my clues in a row. My outline was not particularly detailed, but I described each chapter and what I wanted to happen.
This doesn't mean that I followed each chapter to the letter. I do have a few "Soupy Sales" moments in my book. For those of you who weren't raised in the Jurassic Era, Soupy Sales was a guy with a kid's show. Every show, there'd be a knock on Soupy's door and you never knew who was on the other side. Sometimes it was a famous person, sometimes it was a film clip of an old cowboy and indian movie, once it was a naked lady (we didn't see her, but you shoulda seen the look on Soupy's face).
So I never planned for Peri to meet the apish man who works for the collection agency, or the mother of the number one suspect in Marnie's murder. But I had started the chapter with Peri in her office, and there's a knock at the door... who's there?
They actually worked in the book, but I would never rely on Soupy moments.
Mostly, I was able to stretch my writing to novel length because I was able to linger on descriptions more than I am able to do in my columns. I could fill the readers' senses with the sights and smells and noises. I could add dialogue and observances that, while not absolutely necessary, fleshed the scene out. Peri and her cohorts could, hopefully, become real people to my readers.
And no, I didn't write it in 500-word chunks.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


It's possible that I'm a blog-aholic. I have a blog on my website (www.gaylecarline.com/geeblog.html) to discuss my very first book deal and how it came about. I have a blog on MySpace (www.myspace.com/gaylesoo) to discuss random events in my personal and professional life. So why do I need yet a third?

To discuss the process of writing. My blog title comes from James Thurber's Preface to a Life (My Life and Hard Times), where he talks about how everyone thinks of writers, particularly humor writers, as being light-hearted souls with nary a worry. According to him, they "sit on the edge of the chair of Literature."

That description suits me to a T. I have read many of the great literary works and admire them. In my heart of hearts, I would love to write one of those tomes, and be remembered for all eternity as the author of the "21st century War and Peace" or some such title.

But fear holds me back. What if my efforts to be inspiring are seen as insipid? What if I attempt deep symbolism and I'm accused of presumption? Worse yet, what if I do write this mighty work of art and I start taking myself too seriously?

Which is probably why I started my delayed writing career as a columnist. It's hard to be precious at 1,000 words. My first gig was to report on horse shows, and interview horse people, which left no room for fiction, and no way to get too big for my britches. When I started writing for the Placentia News-Times, I was writing humor essays about my daily life, a la Erma Bombeck and James Thurber. Although I wouldn't call my tales fiction (they do contain moments of exaggeration), the essays had to be light and short (500 words), so I could not go Tolstoy on anyone.

But I always wanted to write a novel. In 2006, I started writing one. It was a literary masterpiece that took me over a year to write, about a young girl's struggle to define herself. Well, that's what I intended it to be. What I ended up with was a well-written piece of crap. Part of it was because I broke many of the rules that make a novel readable. The thing about successful authors who break the rules is, they know the rules well, so they know how to break them. I didn't. The other part of the problem was that I was in a writing group of two: me and my friend, Pam. I adore her, we make each other laugh, but a writing group of two is a mistake. Pam loves romances. I don't. And yet, by the time we had finished critiquing my work, I found I had written a romance.

Enter the Southern California Writer's Conferences. I had been attending these since 2006 and had been dutifully listening to all of the experts, without doing a thing they said. After my literary-romance-fiasco, I finally started paying attention. In 2007, I was able to start my second book, a murder mystery, with all of the tools I needed to make a good, light-hearted novel. Which I did. And that was the book I sold.

So I still sit at the edge of that chair, wanting to rest my back against it and write Literature with a capital "L", but I have made piece with the fact that I'd rather write light and lively works than not write at all.

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