Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In Which I Explore Chapter Titles

Revising a manuscript is like repairing dry rot from the hull of a boat. The deeper you dig, the more you find that needs work

For example, chapters. I am a notoriously fast reader (not just famous; I'm INfamous) and many times will not even consciously notice that I've crossed into a new chapter. This may explain why only now am I realizing how many ways there are to signal a new chapter. (I don't mean a scene break, for which I usually employ two hard returns).

Chapter 1

Chapter 1
The Harrowing of Edward Deane

The Harrowing of Edward Deane

Chapter 1
Edward is chased; his flight through the forest; he comes to a strange place; what befell him there.

Chapter One: In which Edward is chased through the forest.

Chapter 1
Twelve leagues he fled
the forest bare
His trail was red
His eyes they stared
from the Lost Book of the Sudmark

Okay, I KNOW it's doggerel. Point is, once I started playing around with chapter titles, it was as if I'd fallen down a long well with no bottom. I've settled on the simplest version:

Chapter 1
The Harrowing of Edward Deane.

Adding in fictional epigrams can always be done later. Which reminds me of my favorite, from Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat,perhaps the funniest book I've ever read:

"I forget I am steering. Interesting result. Strange disappearance of Harris and a pie."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Soothing words

There, there. Night-night. Rest your head on the pages of the book and...





No! Bad! Soothing words are for lullabies and corporate memos. I don't want my writing to put people to sleep; I want to scare them, galvanize them, make them weep and laugh and stare, shaken, into the distance. I want to keep them awake at night, reading under the covers until, red-eyed and lost, they stumble through the next day.

Stories have power; let us not anesthetize them with soothing words.

What do I mean by soothing words? Well, self, I'm glad you asked. This morning I half-seriously did a search of my manuscript for:


In some cases (like deliberately simple dialog), these are okay. In many (of my) cases, they are not. They are soothing! Drip by morphinic drip, they anesthetize and ... uh ... lull reader to ... to...uhh... zzzzzz.


My challenge, now that my manuscript is peppered with florid yellow highlights of these energy-killing words, is to replace them when possible. The scary thing is that I had no idea how often I fall back on them. I think most writers -- certainly including me -- are tired, or intimidated, or lazy, or confused, or insufficiently committed during the first draft. That's okay.

The problem comes when that uncertainty, and its attendant uncertain words, carries through into revisions.

We all have words we lean on like crutches. First drafts need crutches. But for a good story: stand up straight, hurl away your leaning stick like Odysseus in the great hall, and shake the reader out of the complacency of every-day life. Isn't that why we read?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Stringer gluing continues. I think I have nine or ten of the sixteen needed ... though if any more snap when I try to bend the complex curves I'm going to need more than sixteen.

First lesson of boatbuilding: plan for failure.

With this recent spate of warm weather it's been hard to make myself scrape glue in the shop instead of frolic outside. More frolicking, less building.

Second lesson of boatbuilding: it will get done if you work on it. If you don't ... it won't.

One of the things taking me away from stringer gluing is book revisions. I keep saying this, but I mean it this time! I think I'm in the home stretch.

Third lesson of boatbuilding: balance it with other hobbies.

Right now I'm outlining, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, every section of the book. It's generating a large spreadsheet that, even as I build it, is letting me see the rhythm of scenes (choppy? languid? tense? relaxed) and the balance of points of view, energy, and emotion. I only wish I'd stumbled across Anita Nolan's "The End is Only the Beginning" sooner. Because this outline method -- laborious as it is -- is proving to be incredibly useful.

In fact, sometimes I think the difficulty of something is the best indication that it's helpful.

Fourth lesson of boatbuilding: hard is not bad.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I Nearly Forgot the World

As I swim through the quicksand slurry that is revision, I have found that it's time to further flesh out (not "flush out," as current corporate speak would have it) the world that embraces the story.

I've heard -- and felt the tidal pull -- of the desire to play God, to sketch maps and outline lines of kingly descent, to chart trading routes, ocean currents, street names, economies. To build an imagined world so richly complete that it can seem more real than our own. And this is now my task -- or at least, to continue this.

But the reason I haven't done too much of this already is that I wanted to tell the story first.

Story first, quoth I! Now that that story is written I can go back and fill in the blank spots on the map. I worried that if I did it the other way around -- world first -- I'd go so distracted and fascinated by it -- not to mention intimidated by the vastness -- that I'd never get around the story.

Plus, the story called to me.

So this morning I sipped you-know-what and made up city names, roads, cosmologies. It's a task that could go on forever. After all, look at our own world, where we still struggle to catalog and understand its complexity. But in this case my guide is the story. IT determines relevance, not me. Which is wonderful and humbling.

Stringer update: #4 is complete!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Attention, stringers

Boatbuilding update:

Stringers built: 3
Stringers still intact: 2
Stringers still to be built: 14

But things are moving: #4 is clamped to the workbench as I type this, wrapped in plastic and heat clamps, curing away at a happy 86.1 degrees.

When I unclamped the last two stringers, they were long and rubbery-soft, unwieldy twenty-foot strips flopping all over the place. Kinda tricky in a 23-foot garage.

The great thing about these is test-clamping them in place to show the sheer (edge) of the boat and -- evidently -- to test their bendiness.

Breaking a stringer is a very clear signal that that particular stringer probably wasn't up to the job. Of bending. Which is the whole reason for a stringer's existence.

Luckily, although #2 is now in three pieces on the floor of the garage (after the first break I bent it again, unbelieving. It broke again. Now I believe.), #3 has been behaving much better and in fact has become a bit of a show-off, here arcing gracefully out of frame as the shattered remnants of #2 look on. See, #2? That's how it's done.

Did I mention I talk to myself while boatbuilding? What?

Finally, the GOOD stringer clamped in place. The shape of the boat is really starting to take ... shape.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Hi, remember me?

The blog? The what now? Blog?

Ah, yes. Truth be told I've been too busy working to write about working. Then it seemed out-of-scale to provide tiny updates: after so long a pause, shouldn't the next update be truly momentous? Yes, I agree: it should. So here goes!

Explosions! Dinosaurs riding flaming motorcycles! Robot cowboys shooting flaming bullets! Planetary collision! DNA collisions! Tidal waves! Wowee-wowee-wow!

In other news, I continue to watch the sunrises through a screen of black trees (if I'm out on a run) or from over a cup of Sumatra Dark and a stack of manuscript pages (if I'm editing). I've nearly perfected my warm-up-wood-so-it-can-be-glued technique, just in time for the weather to warm up and thus render my technique unnecessary. Oh, spring, how vexing you are.

Tiny nubs are just starting to appear on the trees. I heard birdsong today and it felt like waking up after a long and restful sleep. I can smell wet dirt outside. Spring is coming: warm weather, boatbuilding and FINISHING THE BLASTED DRAFT ALREADY.

Ha ha! I kid. No draft is ever finished.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

This n That

La! I am back from the frozen north after several days of cold fingers, ice climbing, and mountain climbing. It was the first time I'd done any of that, and now all I want to do is strap on crampons and climb blue ice.

The trip gave me a much-needed break from book revisions; so much so that when my dad asked where I was in the process I had to struggle to remember:

"Uh, I made a list of five big changes. One of them involved ... the ending? I think?"

It also gave me a similarly much-needed break from boatbuilding (also involving sharp things and cold fingers, come to think of it). Upon my return to the shop I found it difficult to believe that I had ripped all those fir strips. That must have taken forever. Fortunately my brain just dumped that file so I barely remember it. Thanx, brain!

So now I find myself, post-summit, with a new desk (my grandfather's), five solid changes to make to the book (it's okay now; these will make it good), and what seem like three hundred long strips of fir to scarph into twenty-foot pieces.

How sad it would be to have nothing to do!