Shipbuilding (a.k.a. Writing and editing)

So, in lieu of writing something in my multiple works-in-progress, I am instead updating my long-neglected writing blog with another one of Jill Ciment’s brilliant analogies about writing, before it slips my mind forever.

Not dissimilar to the Jane Goodall approach to writing that I shared awhile back, it goes something like this.

When we write, we’re trying to convey ideas, a story, something, to someone else. Think of yourself on one side of a wide river, with the people you want to communicate with on the other side. Your information, your story, has to cross that expanse of water so that those people can marvel at it, and perhaps even come on board. You start by building a raft. That’s yout first draft. You work on it and think to yourself, “That’s pretty good, I can make it across.” You set sail and that booger is leaking. (With any luck you have a crew of readers and writing buddies to help you find and plug those leaks.) So you turn around and limp back to shore and you take the materials and you build a bigger vessel, sturdier and more watertight. That’s the second draft. You try again and get about halfway before turning back because it sails crooked or tries to capsize because of something you’ve added or left out. Lather, rinse, repeat, only this time, when you get about halfway across, it’s just as much trouble to turn back as it is to keep going. Now you’re getting to the finish line. There’s your potential audience, waiting on the shore, admiring your ship as she sails into port. This is when you start to market your writing, and polish up the things you discovered need attention during your maiden voyage. The book probably isn’t done, but you have a vessel worthy of attention at this point.

My point is, to keep going, keep writing, keep improving on that raft until she’s the Queen Mary. You may have a Titanic now and again, but every writer does. The point is to keep bailing and keep plugging the leaks. Get help, the biggest issues with our stories is we’re often too close to them to see the glaring errors/plot hole that is making our story take on water like she’s rammed into an iceberg.

Just keep writing.


Readers are like Helen Keller

 See that little girl on the left? That’s Helen Keller, the famous deaf and blind woman who   learned to read and speak and went on to do Great Things, with the help of her teacher, the woman on the right, Anne Sullivan.

Now, you may ask yourself, what in tarnation does this have to do with writing? I’m so glad you asked. Read the paragraph above again and then think about it for a moment. I’ll wait.

Done? Okay, in case there are some of you still scratching your heads, I will elaborate. Because if someone (my instructor and author-hero Jill Ciment) hadn’t explained it like this, I’d have never come up with the idea on my own.

You see, our readers are like little Miss Helen Keller. In the dark, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, understanding nothing, until we, in the role of Anne Sullivan, show them the way by the words we choose to write. Now I’m not saying that my stories are going to inspire someone to go out and be a great philanthropist, I’m happy if someone just enjoys what I’ve written and has a few hours pleasant distraction. But, unless I tell that blind, deaf reader what is going on in my story, how are they supposed to know?

I know, I’ve just been talking about streamlining and making sure my prose is not too wordy, but there’s a difference between describing a scene so that someone understands what’s happening and where the characters are, and a ‘filmed version’ of what’s going on. I am all too often guilty of describing the setting in great detail. I have to remember to think like I might if I were leading Helen Keller by the hand. Tell the important things, right off the bat, so the reader can get a handle on the action instead of being bewildered by the details.

Think of yourself as a diver on a diving board. You know that water is cold, but jumping in is the only way to tell the story. Bouncing on the end of the diving board doesn’t get that story told any faster or easier, it just adds extra information that the reader  really doesn’t need.

So, jump in already!

Aristotle, who knew?

At class last night, Jill Ciment, our instructor, mentioned this idea from Aristotle (you know, that Greek philosopher guy). My philosophy classes never presented the material to me like this. NOW it makes much more sense.

We were critiquing a set of stories from my fellow students (mine’s due next week, I should get cracking!). This story was a good one, but it had some details that, if interpreted one way, would make the story a cliché. If the story went down a different path, it would be much more intriguing and powerful.

Jill told us Aristotle said (and I’m looking for the actual quote as I write this) that in a story, when we get to the end we should be surprised by the ending, and also surprised that we didn’t see it coming.


That’s quite the balancing act. I realize we aren’t all writing mysteries with a whodunit plot, but in a way we are. We want our stories to have that certain something that makes readers want to read it, finish it, and long for the next part of the story, right? That means that it can’t be a formulaic series of events, interesting and unique events need to happen. Sure, you may want a happy ending, who doesn’t? (no snickering from the gutter-minded crowd) But you have to create a tension, conflict. Characters have to want something and want it bad, even if it’s just to live to see the sunrise.

But we can’t just jam a twist at the end without alluding to it. Don’t use deus ex machina to solve your plot woes. Otherwise the surprise is nothing more than some Greater Power (that would be us, the author) pulling the shades back from the story with one finger and declaring “THIS IS HOW IT WILL END. SO IT IS WRITTEN, SO SHALL IT BE DONE.”


 The real art in writing (which an alarming amount of people who *don’t* do this, either by design or ignorance, still get published) is to walk that tightrope. Put your characters in awkward situations, see what they do. If you have an ending in mind, by all means, work toward that end, but don’t tell us that’s what’s going to happen. Hints, subtle and hidden within the plot, can offer hope, but don’t beat your readers over the head with it. Don’t be that puppet master with all the strings in one hand. It’s the difference between using a fishing fly or dynamite to land the big one. Sure, dynamite is effective, but it’s not necessary and tends to piss off the neighbors.
Sometimes our characters surprise us by deciding that there’s no way in hell they’re going to sit in that car and await rescue in the middle of a thunderstorm. They’re getting out and walking home, even if it is crashing with thunder and lightning, pouring rain and ten miles to the nearest sign of civilization. If your characters are like mine, they frequently thumb their nose at me and refuse to do what I tell them. Must be similar to having children.

And this Aristotle guy is full of excellent advice that applies directly to writing. Things to keep in mind:

  • Just in case you’re stuck for ideas… “All human actions have one or more of these seven causes: chance, nature, compulsions, habit, reason, passion, desire.”
  • “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

 Advice I should follow myself. Sort of like that old joke about the guy asking for directions on a New York street. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice!”

  • And, ain’t this the truth? “There was never a genius without a tincture of madness.”

Who knew Aristotle could be so relevant to my madness?

So, whatcha doin’?

Shamelessly filched from thefilter

WARNING: This post is likely to greatly resemble a Seinfeld episode. Stuff goes on, but nothing really happens.

Much like my writing.

I wasn’t a big fan of the show, but the concept is interesting to me. You see, in my writing, stuff goes on, but nothing huge happens. Nobody jumps out of a helicopter over the Vatican with nothing more than a sheet of Visqueen, lands in a fountain and lives to tell the tale. Nobody jumps out of anything. They have families and lovers and dads and they live their lives. Some yelling happens, some crying sometimes. People rag on each other and also admit they love each other. It’s life, granted it’s life that has sprung (not fully formed) from my fevered brow, but these characters that take up so much of my time and imagination are people. Even my fantasy characters have strengths and flaws.

My point? Do I need one? Maybe my point is that I don’t have the kind of imagination that produces superhero symbologists or international spies. Honestly, if I had the free time to research the information I’d need in order to credibly produce a mystery or thriller, I’d have to be of independent means. What I do know about is a smattering of topics, ranging from veterinary medicine, horses, music, quilting, gardening, to art, and other really trivial stuff. (No, seriously. I kick ASS at Trivial Pursuit.) I do want my characters to live and breathe, not be caricatures of a type, or one-dimensional. If I could do that AND write an awesome adventure/thriller/spy/police/self-help (okay, maybe not that last one) novel, maybe I’d already have a publishing contract, book deal and movie options lined up.

Still, I’m sticking to my guns. I write for me first. I can’t stop, so I might as well does what makes me the happiest.

See, there’s that happy ending we always secretly hope for in a story.


Wow, I’m a bad blogger…

So, to sum up everything that has happened since the last time I updated this, I got into the University of Florida as an English major. That was an ordeal. Now I’m in my second semester, taking an anthropology class (because the community college isn’t as free with the information that ‘our graduation requirements and those of the University will vary. You may transfer in but will still be required to take more social and physical sciences, as well as electives in addidtion to the classes for your chosen major’ as I think they should be) and a senior level creative writing class. These two classes are so much easier than the ONE class I was taking last semester. That is a saga unto itself, let me tell you.

The creative writing class, I love it soooo much. We write little short-shorts (sounds like Daisy Dukes, doesn’t it?) of 2-3 pages and critique them in class. And I am so impressed by the level of skill that my classmate possess. I’ve gotten some good practice and great help from them and my instructor is awesome. Jill Ciment is an author and has this way of cutting right to the heart of what your writing needs to make it really come to life. I hope to have more chances to learn from her in the future in other classes or as my MFA advisor, if I ever get there.

Her advice to us about whether or not we should pursue an MFA was very encouraging to me. The majority of my classmates are typical college age, early to mid twenties. I’ve got twenty years on them and could be their mother. Her advice was to ‘go out, get a job, live life some, then, if you still really want to follow the MFA goal, then do it. There are six spots, with 200-300 applicants. I really want to do this, provided I haven’t gone postal at work and lost my Employee Education benefits. Here’s hoping I can keep it together long enough to exploit the university for all I can. God knows I kill myself working there…

How do you write with no feedback?

I must smell funny.

It’s the only thing I can think of. The online writer’s group I’ve hung out with off and on for years, small but helpful and fun, has gotten so small that I think I’m the only one posting anymore. I miss the cameraderie, the sharing of ideas and resources and just the general sense of community. The boards used to be jammed with fellow writers, all challanging and supporting one another. Nowadays I just hope someone posts something, anything, once in a while. Comments on posts are just gravy at this point.

Yes, there are other groups out there that I could join. I’ve even signed up for some of them, but nothing ever sticks. Most have lots of rules, with complex equations for calculating how many crits you can get based on how many you do. There are differing types of crits, all carefully spelled out. I don’t want to do that. I enjoy the informality and friendly atmosphere I have had.

Old Dogs should be further along. I’ve read it backwards and forwards. I still like what I read, but at the same time, I worry that it’ll never see the light of day. I worry that it’s not marketable because there’s nothing spectacular going on in it. It’s just about people, regular people. There are no explosions, nothing paranormal, no murder mysteries, no police crime drama.

I should have gotten at least one complete review from someone other than myself since I declared myself finished. I’m at a loss. I understand people are busy, so am I. It’s only that I’ve been on vacation (at home) that this has really bothered me.  In the four months since I ‘finished’ and gave it to a few, select people, I’ve gotten some comments, some great reviews, but only on the first four chapters. I have one more person reading that has offered some excellent advice, but again, only on the first four chapters and real life has interfered with further progress. I’m afraid I’m going to have to resort to one of those large, anonymous sites in order to get the feedback I need. 

Forgive me, it’s late and I’m tired and whiny. Anybody want to read a novel?


baby-warthog-stuck-in-mud-10-12-08In answer to Larn‘s challenge on the LOL Literary Forum awhile back, I decided to concentrate on Old Dogs, hoping to finish a first draft-type thingy. My goal was 100,000 words by the end of September. Now, I know it’s still the beginning of September, but I seem to be hovering around 81,000 words. The more I write and read and edit, the more I keep culling little bits and pieces here and there, thereby reducing my word count. I keep getting ideas for Valerie and Daniel, but for the story that will follow Old Dogs, not the current one.

Why the hang-up on the word count? It’s something to obsess over, I suppose, and They (the writing resource websites I tend to haunt) say 85,000-100,000 words is a decent first novel length. Less than that might make a potential reader shy away, thinking they’re not getting enough bang for their buck, while longer makes publishers shy away, afraid that it won’t sell because it’s too long and won’t hold a reader’s attention.  Who knows if trying to adhere to that will help or hurt my ultimate chances of getting published.

In other concerns, NaNoWriMo is coing up and I have two ideas to choose from. One is an idea that has simmered for years, about a woman named Molly who runs a bar near a Florida military base. I have some material already simmering in my brain for this one. Alternately, there is the dream-inspired story that leapt into my head a few weeks ago. A young woman is driven by her dreams, literally, to figure out which world she belongs in, the waking world that has not been overly kind to her or the dream world, where a silver-tongued man named Will beckons to her. The latter has those shades of the supernatural that I’m always drawn to, but I’ve been enjoying writing Old Dogs, which has nothing more fantastical in it than two people falling in love.  It may come down to the flipping of a coin which one I concentrate on.

Tomorrow will bring the rewriting of the dreaded opening scene, which I am told (and rightly so) that it reads like a promotional brochure to Small Town Florida. I shall endeavour to correct that and make it a much more appealing first look into Valerie’s life.

I hope…