Friday, October 24, 2014

Writing: More Than A Painting

I wish I could recall who our pastor was quoting when he talked about reading the Scriptures, but whoever it was, the words started me thinking about their applicability to novels.

Some look upon novels as being like paintings. They can be appreciated for their art, for the way they portray events and scenes, pulling us in like the seascape in the illustration. But if that's all our books are, they aren't fulfilling their potential. If we read them and move on, we're like people who don't pause in front of Rembrandt's The Night Watch and study the characters, the composition, and even the message. I think our novels should be more than paintings.

Novels can be mirrors. Author and writing teacher James Scott Bell refers to a scene, generally toward the center of the book, as a "mirror moment." He likens it to a character looking at themselves in a mirror and seeing something they haven't perceived before--a needed change, a shift in direction. Likewise, the same thing can happen to a reader who has identified with the character having that epiphany. Ideally, a novel should hold up a mirror to the reader and say, "Look. Is this you? Do you know someone like this? What does this say to you?"

And finally, our novels can be windows, through which the reader can view the lives we create. How many of us have unabashedly watched people in restaurants, airports, and other public places as they interact? The view through the window our books open should ultimately give the reader impetus toward a fuller understanding of themselves, a change in their lives, or a desire for something more.

What novels have you read that have served all these functions? Writers, do your own works have these characteristics? I'd like to hear.

(Painting by Kay Mabry of Sugar Beach in Maui).

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Is Chivalry Still Alive?

One of the nicest compliments I've been paid recently was being called "a true southern gentleman." My mother and grandmother taught me some things that have stayed with me for the rest of my life. For instance, a gentleman opens doors for ladies and lets them precede him through. A gentleman pulls out a chair for a lady and gets her seated before sitting himself. A gentleman tips his hat (if he's wearing one) or even removes it when he meets a lady.  Those of you who've reached my age are probably familiar with these and a few other bits of what Mother would call "the manners of a gentleman."

Today, on my morning walk, I met three ladies (of varying ages). I touched the brim of my baseball cap and said, "Good morning." One of them responded. I've noticed the habit of opening doors and pulling out chairs seems to be observed more in the breach than the actual performance. And that leads me to today's question.

Am I totally out of touch? Did the movement for equality for women (and I'm totally for it--glass ceilings have no place in our modern society) make chivalry obsolete? I wonder how many of the readers of this blog still observe what I was taught to be good manners. I'd like to hear from you.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Writing: It All Counts

Some writers think only book-length work is valid. Others are content to engage in writing meditations, short stories, contributions to collections, novellas, and other forms of writing. Before getting my first contract for a novel, I had a number of meditations and articles published, and I think the experience I gained was invaluable. I still recall the advice I got when I first started writing: It doesn't matter if it's an online post or a grocery list. Flex your writing muscles regularly.

I've been working on a book--it will be my tenth published novel when it's released in the spring of 2016--but I've also been writing what will probably be a novella, one that takes up the story and characters from a previously published book. I've found it to be easier than I thought, keeping up with two stories at once. And if I get stuck on one, I simply shift to the other for a bit. Then there's this little voice that keeps reminding me it's time for me to produce some meditations and submit them.

Writers, do you confine your writing to one type of material or try several? Readers, do you think it's important that a writer be versatile? I'd like to hear your opinion.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Is Truth Stranger Than Fiction?

I recently took advantage of the reduced price and downloaded the ebook version of Catch Me If You Can, supposedly based on the exploits of con man Frank Abignale, Jr. I found the book fascinating, although it was hard to believe that a young man (he was in his teens when he began impersonating a Pan Am Airways pilot) could do all that. Of course, at the end of the book he was arrested and sent to jail, but I still had an uncomfortable feeling that his illegal and hedonistic exploits were glorified throughout the first 80% or more of the book.

Then, after reading the notes at the end of the book I searched for more and found a post by him that explained a lot about the writing of the work. According to Abignale, the writer met with him only four times, changed a number of the exploits (I guess we'd call it "literary license"), and glorified the criminal and what he'd done--because that's what it would take to sell the book (and later the rights for a movie). In other words, the truth was not only stranger than fiction, it wouldn't sell.

All this made me wonder how much truth is in some of the so-called autobiographies and memoirs by well-known individuals "as told to" or "with" another writer. There's a saying among writers that fiction must be believable, while real life often isn't. Do you think that's true?

Image from Wikipedia.

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Friday, October 10, 2014

Writing: "The Deadline Cometh"

When I meet with readers’ groups, the questions I’m asked are generally pretty predictable. “Where do you get your ideas?” “How do you name your characters?” “How do you get an agent?” “I have a nephew who thinks he wants to write a book? What’s your advice for him?”

But the question I never get asked is, “What’s the fuss about an author meeting a deadline?” And that’s pretty interesting, unless you’re the person sweating over the computer keyboard, casting an anxious eye toward the calendar, and telling the family they’ll have to order pizza for dinner because you’re going to be chained to your desk for the evening.

The time between submission of a manuscript and publication of a novel is generally about a year. There are exceptions, but a year is pretty standard in my experience. The reason is that the original manuscript undergoes several revisions before it’s ever ready to be printed (or formatted for e-publication). First, an editor at the publishing house does a macro-edit. That is, they look at the big picture. Their suggestions are generally transmitted to the author in a letter or email, and often cover several pages. I’ve been asked to change the names, sexes, or races of characters. Some of my colleagues have had to make drastic alterations in their plot lines. The macro-edit is the tiger behind the publishing door for a writer, and has caused more sleepless nights than a cup of double espresso. But let me hasten to say that, in my experience, the suggestions always make the work better.

After the macro-edit and subsequent rewrite, another editor performs the copy edit. That’s the one that takes out and puts in commas, suggests different (and hopefully better) wording, and fine-tunes the work. The author is, of course, free to ignore every suggestion, but most don’t. Again, I’ve found that it’s a good idea to pay attention to these professionals. However, they’re wrong just often enough that it’s necessary to go over their suggestions carefully, instead of accepting them all blindly.

The final stage is a review of galley proofs. These constitute the book in its final form. Any significant changes here can cause consternation at the publishing house. Although an editor will check them for errors, it’s the ultimate responsibility of the author to make sure everything is correct. One of the worst enemies of authors is autocorrect. If we misspell a word, and autocorrect tries to clean up our mistake, for reasons known only to Bill Gates and people at Microsoft our computer can decide that we meant “rate” when we tried to write “hate.”

By now you must be saying, “I thought writers did it all themselves.” Nope, although there is one famous writer in the general market whose contracts, legend has it, call for his books to be printed exactly as he submits them, with no edits. Of course, I stopped reading his work a few years back, although some of his latest ones make pretty good doorstops.

And that, gentle reader, is why writers have to meet deadlines. Sometimes the publishing house will build in a little time, and deadline is a “soft” one. But in most instances, these things are timed out pretty closely. And the author who consistently fails to meet a deadline may find himself/herself without a subsequent contract.

Do you have other questions about writing and publishing? Leave a comment, and I'll try to answer them in a future blog.

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