From a Certain Point of View

In Return of the Jedi, Luke confronts Obi-Wan about not revealing Darth Vader as his father. Obi-Wan responds with what I can only call thin logic that he didn’t lie when he told Luke that Vader killed Anakin, that it was the truth – from a certain point of view.

scott-eckersley-irtWpLLwRX4-unsplashPoint of view, or POV, in a manuscript describes from what character the scene is experienced. The reader is “in the head” of the POV character – what the character sees, the reader sees. Changing POV within a scene, or even a chapter, can confuse the reader by removing the perspective anchor. Referred to as “head-hopping,” maintaining what I refer to as “POV discipline” is a basic skill novelists need to master.

However, the perspective is a part of the equation. While working with an editor on the manuscript for Childhood, a novelette to introduce the main characters and situations of my upcoming novel Fatherhood, two recent revelations have revealed that perhaps I’m not as skilled in POV as I thought, and that POV can be a powerful yet subtle story-telling device.

The first example was a simple dialogue tag – “Dad said.” I, apparently mistakenly, have always avoided using Dad and Mom and other similar dialogue tags because they’re not names, defaulting to “her father” and so on. My editor made the change to Dad. I am fortunate to be working with an excellent editor. There has to be a correct reason for the change, and it tied to POV. In this scene the character POV is the daughter of the man who spoke. “Dad” is the daughter’s name for her father, therefore is appropriate (and conveys a feeling of family). “Her father” is rather stuffy. Point taken.

The second example is more subtle. My editor replaced “egg innards” with “slimy egg.” That bothered me at first, as I liked the description “egg innards.” Enter POV again though. The story is told through a young girl’s eyes, not a 52-year old man’s. While I may lob “egg innards” in casual conversation, she, as a twelve-year-old, probably not.

Can you see the connection? Going beyond POV discipline and using POV to inject aspects about the POV’s character is a powerful tool I honestly had never considered before. Editing is often tedious work, but this revelation has energized the process for me. I feel that a certain “tunnel vision” point of view has been lifted.

Photo by Scott Eckersley on Unsplash

Development Editing – Do It

I have two current Works In Progress – a novel, Fatherhood, and its prequel novelette, ChildhoodChildhood is positioned as a reader magnet, a short story offered for free to (hopefully) spark interest in the novel.

kourosh-qaffari-1144508-unsplashA novelette is shorter than a novella, which is shorter than a novel – averages of around 10,000 words, 35,000 words, and 80,000 words, respectively. Don’t let its diminutive stature fool you, though. A novelette requires the same attention to plot development and detail as a novel.

I’ve gone through the critique process for Childhood. For those unfamiliar, this involves peers (usually authors) reviewing the draft (usually first, second, and/or third) of a work before the author sends it to a professional editor for further work. By critiquing others’ work, authors become better writers. It’s a wonderful relationship that produces positive results, but is not complete. Critiques at this level only go as far as your peer group’s expertise and time.

The next step in producing a work of fiction is development (dev) editing. A professional editor will examine plot, timing, pacing, chapter structure, and other manuscript qualities to point out what does not work. This is not a cheering section; an author needs the dev editor to be brutally honest.

A few days ago I received my dev editor’s input for Childhood. In her email, she stressed I take a few days to process the comments before responding. I had no choice; I was at a conference and could not address the feedback until a few days later. But I did review the summary comments and let her know I appreciated the feedback and would be delayed with my response. She appreciated that, because, as she wrote, she wants to know that she’s provided the best service possible.

And she did. Pages of excellent comments pointing out opportunities for improvement. If I hadn’t gone through the process before, I may have been put off by the volume of feedback. But here’s the one important point to remember when receiving dev editor feedback: they want you to succeed.  Once you believe that, the criticisms become positive opportunities for learning.

Such was my experience with my dev editor for my previous novel, Leaving Darkness. I had always been sort of “loose” with point of view (POV), but that feedback taught me how important it is for the reader to produce a work with “POV discipline” (my term, if you want to use it, I get royalties!). Seriously, I became a better writer because of that feedback, and my trade will only improve with the input for Childhood.

I offer this as 1) a glimpse into the novel creation process for the non-author and 2) encouragement for the author. If you’re writing fiction, go beyond your crit group and contract with a dev editor. Consider it tuition towards an advanced degree in writing.

Photo by Kourosh Qaffari on Unsplash

Three Attributes Every Writer Needs

One thing I have learned is that every writer seems to have advice but there is no one-size-fits-all set of rules or guidance. Still, I believe there are three core attributes every writer must possess to be successful: authenticity, tenacity, and business acumen.

Authenticity
Whether fiction or non-fiction, I believe a reader can sense the genuineness of an article or book. The passion poured into the creation of the words transfers through the reader’s eyes to their heart and mind. Conversely, lack of authenticity, in my opinion, results in a substandard product.bernard-hermant-621390-unsplash

This isn’t much different from the common “write about what you know,” advice, except knowledge doesn’t equate to passion. I suppose this makes no difference when writing a textbook or Wikipedia article. But when the reader feels the author believes in their work it compels them to read more. I don’t think you can fake that.

Tenacity
Writing is easy. Writing well is difficult. I have painfully experienced, particularly with self-published works, examples published before sufficient polishing. It takes time to learn the trade. What is the oft-quoted rule of thumb, ten-thousand hours to become a master of anything? With my years of writing experience, I am unsure just how close I am to that mark.

There’s more. A huge mistake new authors (myself included) make is assuming once published the work is done. No, readers will not magically flock to your book. Writers speak of their platform, essentially their (mainly digital) reputation and exposure. It takes time and determination to build that. I’ll let you know when I get there.

Business Acumen
Writing is a business, even if it’s a hobby, and writers need to approach it as such. That begins with keeping detailed financial records, to track your expenditures and income and to generate information for tax filing if so fortunate (if you have to file income taxes based on your writing, you’re making money).

Then there’s marketing, dreaded more than rejection letters. You not only need determination to market, but you also have to market correctly. That can require trial and error and learning from mistakes, which in turn requires some business analytical skills to interpret marketing action results. Twitter ad analytics is a great example.

I’ve been writing for many years now, off and on (recent years more on) since I was in high school in the 1980s (this post’s stock photo is reminiscent of the old Smith-Corona typewriter I used back then). It’s only been about a year when I became serious about my craft beyond a fun hobby, which required the attributes above.

Incidentally, all three attributes above apply to entrepreneurship as well. I launched a small consulting firm two years ago and would not have achieved the success I enjoy today if not for authenticity, tenacity, and business acumen. In fact, extending that successful model to my writing life was an easy decision.

What about you? Do you agree with these? Any others?

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

 

 

It Takes a Community

Whatever endeavor in life, community multiplies the efforts providing results that cannot be achieved alone. Yesterday, this smacked me in the face – hard.

Because of a calendar mistake I made six months ago, I nearly missed an event I was supposed to be at – in this case, a technology conference (that began at 7:30) for which I was manning the booth for our company. Well, it was at 9:59 AM when I received a text from a colleague that asked if I was fine because as he wrote, “I see you did not make it today.” I texted back within a minute “Make it where?” and right after I sent it, I realized with horror what he referred to.

I had mixed up the days.

I thought the vendor portion of the conference was the second day, not the first.

I had blown it.

IMG_7563I called my colleague and he assured me he thought it would be fine to set up so long as it was before lunch. The conference center hosting the event was about a 40-minute drive – add in driving home from the office to change, I made it onsite in just over an hour and set up in a few minutes. As it turned out, the planned morning break for attendees to visit the vendor area never really materialized. In the end, I missed very little.

Had I not been active in my professional community, I would not have built up the relationships whereby someone would have noticed my absence and reached out. If I had played the game alone, I would have only realized my error by arriving the next day and finding the vendor area empty.

IMG_7568After the conference day ended I returned to my office, dimmed the lights in the common area, grabbed a beer left over from the afternoon networking event, and enjoyed the view of the old town square – all while realizing just how blessed I was to be an active participant in community.

Writing is the same. We cannot create literary masterpieces without input from colleagues, editors, and beta readers. We need each other as we hone our craft and our works, else we never reach our author potential.

Workout

Ever have one of those mornings when the blog topic (or any writing task) just was not coming easily? I’m there today. I thought for several minutes about what to share this morning and saw nothing but a blank wall (literally – the wall in front of me is a blank pale yellow-white in the warm dim glow of the incandescent LED desk light.arthur-edelman-745266-unsplash

Writing is like any other exercise, we need to practice it daily in order to strengthen and perfect our skills. There are some days I just don’t feel like working out, no motivation, no energy, no spark. I try to work out daily, whether it be going to the gym, running, or cycling. Today was a cycling day, the first one of the year. I’m blessed to be able to cycle to my office. Undoubtedly a topic for another blog post; I’m already running with this one.

If I succumbed to every inkling when I “just didn’t feel like exercising” I would not be quite as fit as I am today (a perpetual work in progress). But i do, and so have gleaned the benefit of a low resting heart rate and the ability to run a marathon (been a few years), cycle a (metric) century, and bench press more than my weight (my most recent met physical goal. All required dedication on a daily basis to achieve.

The same applies to writing. Why do we think we can always be up to the task? Or at least I do. I’ve found though that if I just do it, eventually the flood of words comes. Whether they are quality words is another matter and one that you, dear reader, may judge.

Thus, I turned my stare from wall beyond laptop to the pale white glowing screen and began to dance my fingers over keys, not because I have something to say at the beginning of the post but that I was sure by the end a point will have been made. The infrequent days when I don’t exercise, usually due to odd schedule commits such as traveling on a business trip, I feel “off” because I am out of my routine. I want to get there with writing and have pledged to continue to daily attack my WIP and contribute to my blog.

Some say it takes 21 days to form a habit, some 28, some claim such quantifications are incorrect and therefore meaningless, but whatever. It’s true when you change your habits, you change your life. I am changing mine one letter at a time.

Slow Down!

Slow down, you crazy child
And take the phone off the hook and disappear for awhile
It’s all right, you can afford to lose a day or two

-Billy Joel

Yesterday I wrote about discipline. A few hours later I ignored my own words. In a perceived rush, I deviated from disciplined driving and made an error that could of had disastrous results. It didn’t, but the rest of my journey I mentally slapped myself for momentarily losing discipline.zach-meaney-249436-unsplash

The funny thing is I wasn’t even running late. I was invited to speak to a class of graduate students about information security and had plenty of time baked into the drive. As it was, I arrived about 35 minutes early. Not smart.

We seem to live such rushed lives nowadays. I yearn for simplicity. Part of that involves just slowing down. Whether that be driving or anything else including writing, we sacrifice the great gift of the now when solely focused on the end goals. I’m sure everyone’s experienced driving to work with much on the mind and maybe running a bit late, and when you arrive at the office it’s difficult to remember much of the drive. Why would we remember anything? All of our focus was landing in the office.

Goals aren’t bad, rather they are like any other tool – beneficial when used properly, detrimental than not. My writing goal as I work on a 10,000 word novelette is 1,000 words per day. Today I was halfway through my goal when I wrote the line of dialogue “That was then, this is now.” Sound familiar? It did to me. That was a Monkees hit in the 80’s.

Ah, the Monkees, that silly made-for-TV 60’s group that actually churned out some good popular songs. I remember watching the show as a child, laughing at the antics of Mike, Davy, Peter, and Micky, and singing along to the opening theme (“Hey hey we’re the Monkees…). I hadn’t thought much about them recently until last month when Peter Tork passed away.

Maybe that still lingered in my mind when I wrote that line. I had a desire to stop writing (egad!) and  find the video for the song on YouTube. I did, and the next four minutes I was transported back to 1986 during their “reunion” tour (only Peter and Micky).

I didn’t need to slow down and stop writing, and certainly distractions while writing can be detrimental to progress. But we don’t need to go to extremes (another Billy Joel reference – yes!). Take a break every now and then, maybe to recharge, but certainly to remind yourself of this wonderful world around you, beyond the word in creation on the monitor.

Photo by Zach Meaney on Unsplash

Situational Awareness

Last night I did something dumb. I left the gas on one of our stove’s burners. No flame, just a low leak of natural gas. Fortunately my wife realized it a bit later, and after airing out the house just to be sure we resumed our normal lives.vidar-nordli-mathisen-544139-unsplash

Except that I have a fear of dementia. I don’t have a family had the history of it but I wondered out loud to my wife if this is how it begins. We talked about it for awhile and eventually chalked it up to absent-mindedness.

I tend to be absent-minded those times when I’m distracted, either externally (such as with the case of the stove) or internally (if I’m thinking about a plot twist, for example). These are normal situations that we all live with and through. Yet I had another epiphany at the gym yesterday that makes me think more is involved.

I was near the end of my workout, sitting on the triceps machine, staring at my phone, reading some article on some news site I don’t recall. I spent the time between sets reading random stuff because I had forgotten my headphones. My usual distraction is to listen to a podcast, talk radio, music (80’s or Christian usually), or an audio Bible. I couldn’t do that, so I filled my head with random reading.

I  had a sudden desire to put the phone down and just soak in the atmosphere at my local YMCA. I was a bit surprised how crowded the workout area had become since I had started about 45 minutes earlier. Our veterinarian was on a rowing machine. Who else was there that I may know and ignored?

I think that in the age of having constant information on our hips we have lost some of our situational awareness ability. Like any muscle or skill, if you don’t use it you’ll lose it, to a point. Perhaps my situational awareness skills have atrophied to the point where minor distractions can prevent me from noticing things such as a stove top burner not shut off properly.

Perhaps this also affects writing. Is it possible that we can fill our brain with so much garbage information that we affect its other functions, such as creativity?

I don’t believe I’m experiencing early dementia, but rather the effects from letting my situational awareness skills weaken. I plan to reverse that, meaning less reading about subjects that I really cannot influence much and cause great stress (such as politics) and more just staying in the now, soaking in the environment I’m in at any and every given moment. Maybe, just maybe, that will help my writing as well.

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

How (Not) to Write a Novel

My second novel is a prequel to my first. Therefore, I already had an end to write towards, and the only major project restriction was certain characters, times, and events must transcend the gap between the two works. Otherwise, I was free to explore the backstories with relatively few limitations.

I welcomed the writing scope freedom, and began to construct the novel quite differently from any I have worked on before. I opted to try a new concept (to me), the “Stream of Consciousness” method. I do not really know if others have written on this method (I suspect they have), but if indeed such guidance existed, I did not seek those resources. I developed the process on my own.

Here is how it works: Write. Then write more. Then write more. Do not follow a structure, just imagine you are telling a story, and then tell it – except in this case you make it up as you go along. I thought this approach would bring more authenticity and likability to the plot than if I followed a more structured methodology (outlines, sticky notes, and so on), and I suppose, in some aspects it did. Without any guardrails, I could place my characters anywhere, doing anything, with anyone. I could develop new characters on a whim and flip a plot 90 degrees if the urge hit. I brought my characters down interesting paths of lust, betrayal, struggle, discovery, anguish . . . there was a lot going on!

Then I encountered problems.

Was this character’s actions actually “in character?” How plausible is it for the protagonist to be at that exact place at the exact time when it flipped the story arc? Why is this offshoot relevant to the eventual ending? What was the story I was trying to tell, anyway? Novels have endings, of course, but an ending does not make the art. It is the last piece of key lime pie after a seven-course Thanksgiving meal.

What was I cooking?

The result is much of the branches, while excellent and fun to write, ended up in the deleted folder. Those that were merely stubs of a few hundred words ended up deleted, hidden from anyone else’s eyes forever.

Can I state with any conviction that time writing dead ends was wasted? I believe so – to an extent. Had I created better (or even some) guardrails besides just an ending, I would have not traveled so many spurs. As I prepare for beginning my next novel in a month or so, one decision is finalized – I will, as I have with other works previously, draft an outline, sketch the major players, and thereby guide the stream. Yet the boundaries shall be looser than before – somewhere there is (for me) a perfect balance between structure and free form. I just need to discover that sweet spot.