Saturday, November 22, 2014

That Irritating Employment Thing

By Keith N Fisher

At the end of a recent writer’s retreat, I asked many of my fellow laborers a question. "Did you have a productive weekend?" One of the answers was, "I wish I could’ve been here Friday."

"Didn’t you come Thursday night?" I asked.

"No. I had to do the work thing."

"Me too," I said.

The answer to my question made me think of all the times I’ve had to put my story away, in order to
do the work thing.

Unfortunately, paying the bills is a necessary evil. It has to take precedence to writing. In the past, when I filled out tax forms, I listed the day job first, and the writer thing after. A few years ago, I changed to, Freelance writer/current bill paying job.

This year, I have three jobs. I will put, Freelance Writer/Inside Salesman/Convenience Store Clerk. Even though I’m busy, I still find time to write. Of course I have to write. The problem comes when writing is going so well that I curse my other job for taking me away.

The retreat was great, but it was the first time I ever really hit a wall. Having the plot worked out beforehand helped, but I had so much time to write, I wrote myself past what I had planned. In some books, I know where I’m going, but I have to work out logistics along the way. In my current book, I had the logistics worked out to a certain point. My character took us to Las Vegas where, since I’d been there so many times, I thought I’d have plenty to write.

My character left Las Vegas before I had to chance to write her into the casino. She didn’t know where she was going, neither did I, so I hit the wall, and played Nine-Ball on the pool table for a little while.

The fact that the retreat house had a well-furnished game room and theatre, that went largely unused, is another blog.

Anyway, that’s how discovery writing goes sometimes. It makes you do other things while you think about the plot. After a while of editing my cookbook, We reached a compromise, my character and I, we moved forward into new territory, Places I never dreamed we would go.

By the end of retreat, I’d written thousands of words, got well into editing my cookbook, renewed old friendships and made new ones. Having time to write was rejuvenating. It reminded me of how I started writing, and why. I still write in spurts during brief moments between responsibilities, but I’m looking forward to the next retreat. If writing really is life sustaining, It’s too bad I have to interrupt my life for that employment thing.

Missed you at retreat. Good luck with your writing—see you next week.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Good Morning & How are You?

By Keith N Fisher

I wrote a blog, which I didn’t post last week. I agonized and debated whether it was too offensive. Like the time during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, emotions and innuendo run high. I didn’t post it, but that ship hasn’t sailed, I still might.

Today, I’m at the Authors Incognito writer’s retreat. I didn’t sleep much last night. I did get some writing done, but I’m afraid I socialize too much. This is a great experience for writers. Periodically, we have sprinting periods. Like the name implies, we write for a time then the person with the highest word count, wins a prize.

Years ago, during the first AI retreat, I was one of the instigators, but as it turned out, I couldn't go. Nevertheless I still paid for my spot. I figured it was the right thing to do. Now there are many writers in the group I don’t know.

This morning, I’m working on my suspense novel, this blog post, and my cookbook. Do you remember a few posts ago, when I talked about the manuscript being scattered across the floor? Well, it happened again. I spent more than an hour last night sorting and collating. Today, I’m cooking a new dish for the critique of twenty-two people so I can get it into the book.

Maybe I can persuade the publisher to print the pictures. It would increase sales from writers who want to see themselves in a book. Perhaps that wouldn’t work though, I don’t want to get permissions and pay for the privilege.

Anyway, that is where I am today and why my blog post hasn’t been well edited. I didn’t think there would be Internet access up here, and I’m still debating the other post. Either way, Good luck with your writing—see you next week.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Beginning, Ending, and Plot

By Keith N Fisher

We did it again. We successfully passed through All Hallowed Eve and into All Saints Day. Now, we’re running headlong into Thanksgiving. After that is, dare I say it? Yes, there are only fifty-one shopping days until Christmas. Assuming you don’t leave the family feast to get in on the big sales.

This year, as in other years, we went from October to November without incident. Many of my writer friends began their ritual. They stashed their treats and supplies and locked themselves away to spend the month in the writing marathon, called Nano-Wrimo.

From November first, to the end of the month, they write, hoping to reach their word goals. For some, it’s a chance to unleash their imaginations. To climb into the zone and start a journey with their characters. I’ve never done Nano, and there are reasons, but I won’t talk about them now.

In the comments on Facebook and other media recently, I’ve read about the drafting and advanced planning, some writers were doing. Their idea is to make a plan so they don’t get stuck in the middle of the month, with nothing to write. That meticulous kind of writing can be liberating. It can also stifle creativity.

We’ve been over this ground before with the drafting versus seat of your pants debate, but isn’t Nano supposed to be about seat of your pants? Like I said, I’ve never done Nano, but I think drafters are cheating themselves.

There is a pure rush of creativity that comes from discovery writing. It’s addicting, and I hate to see others miss out on that feeling. With that being said, however, You should know, I have written books that were in my head, beginning, middle and end, before I wrote a word. Other books have been entirely written by the seat of my pants.

To place yourself in front of a blank page and write words that beget other words is like watching your child walk for the first time. Then again, we are. Aren’t our characters and stories like children? Some of them are our greatest accomplishments.

The hardest writing I’ve ever done is trying to follow an outline. When the beginning and ending is written and I must write a scene that gets me from point A to point B. I have to rein in my characters so we don’t drift from the plan.

I’ve written a couple of books that way. In one, the ending turned out different because the characters had other ideas. The other was pure labor. The lesson there is be flexible. It’s true, you might come to the end of a concept without anywhere to go from there, but most times, following your internal vision makes the plot far better.

Good luck with your writing—see you next week.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Making Yourself a Rhino-hide Jacket: A Tutorial

*No Rhinoceroses (Rhinoceri?) were harmed in the making of this post.

One of the figurative terms I've always used when talking about editing is my Rhino-hide Jacket.  It's the Weston version of "stiff upper lip" or "big girl panties". My RJ is what I use to help myself from turning into a big baby when I ask someone for a critique of something I've written. In my humble (or not-so-) opinion, every writer must have one. They belong in your tool kit - right there beside your muse and your pencil sharpener.

So where do I get one of these Rhino-hide Jackets, you ask. You can't run to the store and buy them, unfortunately. RJ's are tailor made for the wearer, and can only be made by the same. 

Here are the steps that I have learned.

Step one: Cut out the materials.
In writer language (IWL), that translates as: Write. Write your heart out. Write your fingers off. If you have no material to trim, you'll never need the jacket.

Step two: Pin your pieces together.
IWL: Your first scary part - the part where it gets really, really uncomfortable. Put your writings and a critiquing reader together. This does not mean hand to your mother. This means a reader who knows about writing, grammar, structure, etc. If you are lucky enough to have a published author who is patient and kind enough to sit down with your manuscript, LET THEM! Hand that work off to more than one, if you can.  If there are no other options, email me.

Put it out there, warts and all, to be seen and read and critiqued.

Step three: Trim where needed. Add darts, tucks and pleats.
IWL: Take a good, long listen to what your readers tell you in return. REMEMBER: you asked them to do this.  Just as if you were really sewing a jacket, if you want it to fit right, you have to be willing to adjust some things.

...And right here I will insert the best advice I've ever been given - which there is no cute way to fit into this analogy. Unless, maybe, you count it as that time in every sewing project where you poke yourself with a straight pin. Ready? Here it is:

Get over yourself.

No one - In writer language this means no one, not even Agatha Christie - ever published a first draft of a novel. You, my friend, and I - we are not ever going to write anything perfectly the first time around. And if you think you did - put it in a drawer and leave it for several months, then go back and read your own work. It will be painful, but the truth is obvious - no matter how good it started, it WILL need adjusting.

Step four: Sew it together

IWL: Use the advice you've been given, the notes of the critique, the red marks on your pages. Use them like thread.  Consider every note, at least for a moment. 

Step five: Wear it.

IWL: Mind your manners!

Don't argue anything anyone tells you about your manuscript - consider it. You have the right to use or not, but they've done you the favor of taking the time to put that note there - you owe them the courtesy of taking the time to at least think on what was said. 

If someone tells you that something has already been done, the grammar isn't correct, or is illegal - do your homework. You've been alerted, now follow up. Find out the facts and adjust accordingly. These sorts of things are non-negotiable.

If something hurts, count it as a growing pain. Move on and know that nothing that happens here is going to kill you.

NOTE: A Rhino-hide Jacket was never meant to be comfortable. It's meant to be protective, but not necessarily for you - your RJ protects your readers/critiquers from you being a beast in response to what they've done to your "paper-baby". Other times, it's your manuscript that needs it, to protect if from it's own author! Just like you can't cuddle a Rhinoceros, put the RJ on your manuscript to keep yourself from babying it right into the rejection drawer. 

You will find, though, that the more often you re-make your RJ, the easier it is to do and the tougher your own hide gets.  

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Writerly Things and Style

By Keith N Fisher

I know—I’m late—I didn’t post last week. To be honest I hadn’t done enough writing to think of anything to write about, then I had a dream and read a Facebook post the next morning. Now, I have a couple of things to say. I’ll save my comments about the Salem witch trials for my other blog.

Even though I can’t afford it, I’ve been planning my attendance at the Authors Incognito writer’s retreat. On a side note: I would still rather attend a retreat that is planned around camping somewhere, but it’s a new generation . . . the ones in charge . . . they just don’t know how to be hippies. J

Anyway, I must’ve been thinking about it when I went to sleep last night, because in my dream, I was attending some kind of writerly function. The rock stars of writing were being housed in trailers. (Maybe it was my camping retreat?) Anyway, at one point as I entered Jeff Savage’s trailer, he came up from behind me. I told him I came to steal his morning newspaper. He was accommodating and said he would be right back.

The next thing I knew, I had fallen asleep in his trailer and he hadn’t come back. I had earned the dubious reputation of the deadbeat who fell asleep in his place. There were other authors with their own trailers and Tristi Pinkston had me come fix something in hers. I woke up before I found out what.

I don’t know what the dream meant. I do know how embarrassed I was. Then I got up and turned to Facebook.

When I first started writing I broke all the rules. To be fair, however, I didn’t know the rules. As I continued, I discovered the Chicago Manual of Style and myriad books about writing. I went to writer’s conferences, formed a critique group, and learned many of the rules.

I also learned that some of the more successful writers break some of the rules. When I mentioned that to a group of writers, they weren’t surprised. I learned that if you’re a famous best seller, you can break rules. Although I realized that was true, and their readers overlook the mistake, those readers still notice. If enough of the rules are broken, even the most avid fan will give up and quit reading.

The implication is clear. Those of us who aren’t best sellers must keep the rules. We must keep a higher standard. I get a kick out of hearing the excuses of writers who want to bend the rules. The excuses are all valid, I used them before, when I didn’t know the rules.

What is really fun, is the number of writers who self-publish, thinking they can break any rule they want. You don’t hear it much anymore, but one of the major criticisms of LDS and other small fiction was the quality of writing. If we break the rules, what does that do to our reputations?

I’ve heard many in our culture complain that with the Internet, We are losing the language. People just can’t speak properly anymore. A retired editor once told me she’d seen so many mutilations of the written language she worried about literature. Keep in mind, our conversation happened in nineteen ninety.

I’ve said it before, but when I read a book and find broken rules and bad grammar, I toss it against the wall. It hurts to be held to strict standards and find published writers who weren’t.

Write what you want, the way you want, but please don’t break the rules. Keep the language pure.

Good luck with your writing—see you next week.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Where were you when...?

*Warning: This post may not be suitable for the tender-hearted.*

I never understood the old folks.

As the youngest in my family by about a hundred years, I spent a lot of time playing on the living room floor while the old folks sat around and talked about everything under the sun. So many times I heard them talk about things that had happened long before I was born. Sometimes it was the day Kennedy was assassinated, or Martin Luther King. Other times it was some various disaster: the storm of '47 or the Chicago fire. Or the day man first walked on the moon.

"Oh, I remember exactly what I was doing when that happened," someone would say. Then they'd usually describe it, usually in great detail. Others would nod and join in, comparing the minutiae of the moment.

I was always amazed at how a person could recall such tiny, intimate details regarding a time so long past. Even down to my mother talking about the soup suds on her hands as she ran out the door.  How was it even possible to have a memory in such sharp, immediate focus?

And then...

September 11, 2001.

Did you just go back? A simple, unassuming number, that's all. And yet, you remember, don't you?
So do I.

The alarm clicked like it always did right before the radio turned on. I groaned and rolled over, I'd let my husband get the snooze, I just wanted those nine more minutes of sleep. The quilt over me was soft, and warm, but the sheets under my feet where I moved them were ice cold.

Irritated that there were voices on the radio instead of music, I wished the DJs would just shut up and play something with a tune.

Freddy didn't turn it off quickly enough, he hadn't even stirred. I knew if I wanted those extra minutes I was going to have to hit that snooze button myself. Even before I could reach it, I knew it wouldn't do any good because now I was awake enough to have to pee.

As if the words being said had somehow switched languages, like a picture coming into focus, I suddenly understood what I was hearing.

"…the Pentagon has been bombed." The voice went on, almost shaky, to describe details. "And now we're hearing that a plane has hit the World Trade Center."

"Reports are saying that this was an attack, not an accident."

The rest of me froze, but my eyes, so sleepy and blurry a moment ago, flew wide open and stayed that way. Every grain in the white spackled bedroom wall stood out in super sharp focus. Every muscle in my body went rigid, tensed and waiting for the moment to jump and run. It felt like if I moved, I would somehow let go of the string that held the world up.

"Are you hearing this?" I whispered to my husband, aware that his body was a taut as mine.

"Yeah," he said, sounding disgusted. "This has got to be a sick joke."

I threw the covers off and ran to the living room, forgetting all together that I needed to use the bathroom. My husband followed two steps behind.

The pictures filled the screen on every channel. Smoke billowed, people running through the streets of a city I'd never been to.

Another plane headed for another tower, a billow of flame and black smoke, and the feel of the world crumbling out from under my feet. It didn't matter if it was two thousand miles away; the people in those pictures were my people. I could do nothing to help but to watch. Watch and pray. And pray. And cry.

My cheeks felt cold before I noticed they were wet.

I cried out loud in anguish as we watched the towers fall. And we couldn't watch them just once. I had to see every replay, had to prove to myself that this had really happened.

And there were voices, always voices, commenting on what was happening even though they knew no more than I did. They had the sources, and I needed to know. I needed to be there, from two thousand miles away, I needed to be there to send my prayers and my strength to the people so distant. I had to help hold the world together. I couldn't look away, or it just might fall...

Now, my dear readers, if I have done my job as a writer, you are feeling very uncomfortable right now. I'm sincerely sorry for that, but I've done it for a reason.

If your character is ever in a moment like this – what do you think they will remember in ten years, or twenty, or fifty, about where they were. What did they feel, physically as well as emotionally? What tiny, normally unnoticed details will they recall as bright as day? Did they smell the smoke, hear the twisting metal or shaken voices over a radio wave, struggling to stay calm?

It's not our job to be gentle, it's our job to write in a way that cuts down to the bone – to the cold sheets and the static-y radio station.  To put our readers right in the dusty streets with that character. 
To make them really, really uncomfortable when necessary.

It's not easy. Right now my heart is aching and tears are running down my cheeks, just like they did that morning.  And from this moment till the end of eternity, I'll be able to answer that question with the same startling kinds of details that the old folks did. I'm grateful to finally understand. Though it hurts, and probably always will, it has given me incomprehensible ammunition to draw upon when the plot calls for it.

Now, if you will excuse me, that is quite enough of that for today.  I think we should all go watch a really funny comedy.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Do Be Bo Be Doo

Years ago I saw this quote on a shirt, and I've been laughing about it ever since:

"To be is to do.     ~Plato

To do is to be.     ~Socrates

Do be do be dooo.    ~Sinatra

I've learned a lot of things over my ten+ years of attending writing conferences and agonizing over my desire to "be" a writer.  I could write pages and pages and never get through all the notes I've taken from fantastic teachers and workshops. But I think the most important thing I've learned is from observing this eclectic group of writers I've gotten to know over the years.

I have to agree with Socrates.  To DO is to BE.  If you want to "be" a writer, you can't just sit around and talk about it.  Yes, classes, workshops and conferences are well and good - (if Josi Kilpack or Jeff Savage are teaching, they might even be great!) but all the combined knowledge of the world's elite talents will come to nothing if that knowledge isn't put into action on your part.

I've had a few writers groups in my time, they are a very useful tool. Of them all, two in particular come to mind as I write this.

The first had only three members that attended. There were six of us at one point, but the only time we got all six into a room for a meeting, we spent an hour discussing Four, Five, and Sixes children.  Three talked a really good game, and could throw quotes out like the most learned professor - but she never actually wrote anything for us to read.

She didn't want to "do" the writing, she wanted to "be" a writer. It was like she expected some magic dust to settle upon her from Heaven, or Neverland, and suddenly she would be this great, famous, Pulitzer prize winning author.

It didn't happen.

The second group that jumps to center stage is a lovely group of people who I sincerely hope never read this - or at least don't recognize themselves here.

At least a dozen people were at every single meeting. Every meeting started with a potluck dinner, after which we settled into a crowded and comfy living room. Usually every single person had something to read to the group, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the readings.

The problem with it was, that's all it was.  Nobody really wanted critique of their writing, nor were they comfortable giving an honest critique to any of the others. The whole two hours was sort of a big pat-on-the-back session. They wanted to "do", but not to "be". They wrote for fun, or catharsis, or whatever reason they individually had, which is great, but not one of them really wanted to hone their craft into something publishable.

I didn't last long there. (When one of the ladies vehemently argued with me when I said Disney characters were not public domain and she would be sued for including them in her book, I decided it was time to go.)

So, where does this all put us?

Right about here:

I want to "be" a writer. I want to "do" writing! I love the feeling of working hard on something and putting it out there for the world to enjoy. It's fan-blasted-tastic!

And sooner or later, I'll be there again!