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!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Procrastination, Am I Getting Old?

By Keith N Fisher

When I was young and stupid, as opposed to just being stupid, I could multi task. As I wrote the previous sentence, I imaged all the women who would take it as satire. "No man can multi-task. That’s a woman’s job and they’re good at it," they would say.

Although it’s true, women do multi-task better. Nevertheless, I used to be able to watch television, work on my taxes, and plan my weekend at the same time. Now I’m lucky to be able to concentrate on one at a time. I’ve discovered limitations.

That is my excuse this week, for not getting more writing done. I’ve been watching Parenthood on Netflix. There are so many tasks I need to get done, including writing, I just don’t have time. Still, it’s an interest I share with my daughter, who gave up fishing with me when she discovered boys. Being able to spend time with her and enjoy the show, has been a blessing.

Have you ever seen that show? I hadn’t, until my daughter turned on the re-runs. Now, It’s fascinating to me. When I heard a Bob Dylan Song during the opening credits, it got my attention. I found myself relating on so many levels. After awhile, the writing came through, and I was hooked.

Now while watching, I try to kill two birds with one stone. I sit down with the intention of watching while writing, and my computer remains open on my lap while I live the lives of the characters in the show. Eventually my battery runs out and I shut down the computer to set it aside. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Did you ever try to edit, while your attention is ripped from the page by what you’re watching? I know. Some of you can do it, but apparently, not me—not, anymore.

So I wondered if it’s a sign of old age. Are my faculties going to disappear in the coming years? I used to write while solving the mystery on Diagnosis Murder. Now my laptop sits idle while I predict the end of each scenario on Parenthood. Those, who write that show, are my heroes. They write what is needed to tell a good story, then make it better.

So that’s my excuse. I wish I’d written that show. Of all the things I’ve learned about my craft over the years, I think I’ve learned to recognize good writing. The fact that I can sometimes figure out the plot or improve it, makes me think I’m a good writer, too.

I need time to do my writer thing and still have time to bond with my daughter.

Good luck with your writing—see you next week.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

It Was Almost Like a Novel... almost.

By way of explanation for my latest hiatus, here is the premise of the story:

A couple prays and hopes for years for a child of their own. When finally they find their son, a legal battle ensues that lasts for two years. They not only fight the negligent and suspectedly abusive birth mother, they fight for a little boy that doesn't think he wants, or needs, parents because he's been taking care of himself since he was a toddler. When the legal fight is over, and the papers signed, and the worst of the little boy's baggage under control, the couple thinks they can relax and settle into family life.

Fast forward three years, when a letter arrives on the woman's Facebook page. It is from the birth mother of her son. As she reads, she is horrified to find that the other woman believes that her children were kidnapped from her, that she was a great mother, and that the legal papers were signed under duress.

How far would you go to protect your adopted child?

She disappeared.

Every online identity she had that related to my given name was deleted: every presence, every network, every profile. Hundreds of long distance friends, professional acquaintances and online opportunities were lost within minutes, with no time for explanations. Five years of online blog, the only  journal of their adoption journey, gone. According to the internet, for well over a year that boy's adopted mother no longer existed. 

The family even moved their physical address to the other side of the city. Only cell phones, no listable house phone. Notes were given to the new school that if anyone other than the parents asked about the child, the police were to be called immediately. She doubted 'that woman' would bother searching public records - that would require knowledge, effort and money, but if 'that woman' did, this family were prepared to disappear even farther. She had grown up in the wilderness, she knew places in this old world beyond "the grid", even in this age of satellites - places where even the government didn't go for fear of what they might find. She could do it, live in the deep woods in that old camper her husband bought a while back. But for the moment, falling off the net seemed to have done the trick.

Sounds like an excellent plot, doesn't it?

Except, this is all one hundred percent actual. Add a bunch of sub-plot twists in there, and you've got my life. 

Only in the last few months have I made any kind of a come back to the world at large. Slowly, I am refinding my friends online, while apologizing to those I abandoned without explanation. 

I have another identity besides that mother described above - my life and name as a writer.  This one, too, had to disappear for a while.  It's hard coming back from something like that, and I wonder if I'll ever get back to where I was before, social-media-wise.
I doubt I will ever make up the opportunities I might have had during that year of invisibility. 

But I'm back, and I'm determined!  

And maybe, just maybe, I'll turn this into a novel someday.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Getting my writing done

By Keith N Fisher

It’s Saturday morning, September 26, and I’m in the mountains on a hunting trip. Back home, my blog posted itself. At least I hope it did. I’m getting ready to try a new dish I invented for the Dutch oven. I’ll be adding it to the cookbook.

I woke up this morning and started writing the synopsis for Star Crossed. Why aren’t I hunting? Well, I forgot to bring my hunting permit. Yes, I’m writing instead of hunting. I’m not sure why, but words just seem to flow better at high altitudes. I think I’ve written about that before, on this blog.

I’m camped in the same spot I was, when a microburst wind took the awning on my trailer in 2008. It’s freaky to relive that horrible moment. You can read about it here. The shop replaced it with an older fabric, which is coming apart. I haven’t used the awning since. Adding fuel to that fire, I need the awning to keep the rain off this morning. I tried to open it, but it won’t come down.

In the blog post today, I wrote about the driving force behind each writer. There’s something inside us that spurs us on. Well, that’s how it is for me this morning. I’ve needed the quiet writing time, and I must write. Perhaps I subconsciously left my permit at home, just to give me an excuse.

While I worked on the Star Crossed submittal papers, I realized something. I’m hesitant to send my fiction to the same editor who is waiting for my cookbook. The cookbook isn’t ready and it should be. I keep inventing new recipes and my fictional characters call to me.

This morning, I cooked an Italian Eggs brunch. I’m not going to post the recipe here. You’ll just have to buy the cookbook. Suffice it to say it is delicious. Anyway, it’s time to stop dragging my feet. This is my year.

Meanwhile, I need to put the recipe down and get back to the submittal papers, so I can get in more free writing. Oh how I love this occupation.

Good luck with your writing—see you next week.