Monday, February 25, 2013

Continuity, Clarity, and Crispness

I’m making my last revisions to the print version of Jenny's Revenge, A Steve Dancy Tale. I want to share my goals for a final pass-through for any of my books. After I have the story the way I want it and falsely believe that I've caught every error, I do another revision for continuity, clarity, and crispness.

In film, a script supervisor makes sure the placement of furniture is consistent from scene to scene. Novels need similar scrutiny. During this revision, I keep an eye out for characters getting up from a chair more than once or magically changing rooms, clothing, or weapons. I also review each character’s dialogue to make sure what they say is consistent with their character. Last, I review the timeline to make sure I haven’t excessively compressed or expanded time.

Oftentimes an author knows exactly what he intended, but a reader goes, “huh?” Making things crystal clear alternately means adding a bit of explanation or deleting extraneous description that might lead the reader down a false path. Clarity also means making sure the reader knows who is talking. This can be especially confusing when there are more than two people in a conversation.


Good narratives move crisply. Sometimes this means deleting a sentence that interferes with a smooth flow, but it usually means deleting superfluous words. I think of this process as removing speed bumps and filling in potholes. As Mark Twain said, "Substitute 'Damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be." Ideally, every word, sentence and paragraph should move the story forward.

I said ideally because I always fail. Despite my best efforts, the manuscript comes back from the editor with marks on every page. Sometimes they fix errors, but most of the time they suggest ways to improve continuity, clarity, and crispness. Thank heaven for editors. 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

John C.H. Grabill, Renown Western Photographer

"Branding cattle" Six cowboys branding cattle in front of a house. 1891

Last week I posted "Preserving Western culture through photography."

Don Schimmel takes beautiful contemporary photographs that help preserve our Western culture, but John C.H. Grabill was actually there to take photographs of the real Old West. The Denver Post has 66 of Grabill’s photographs posted on their website. He submitted 188 photographs to the Library of Congress for copyright protection. Grabill’s subjects included cowboys, native Americans, trains, stages, wagons, landscapes, and towns. The contrast between Native American encampments and frontier towns is interesting. He is especially renowned for his photographs of Deadwood, South Dakota and the Wounded Knee Massacre.

 Washing and panning gold, Rockerville, Dak. Old timers, Spriggs, Lamb and Dillon at work
Since the characters in my Steve Dancy series are miners, I found the mining pictures helpful, especially the heavy equipment used by the big operations.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

robertpeecher Reviews The Shopkeeper

Robert Peecher is a journalist and author of  the Jackson Speed Memoirs. He has posted a blog article about indie-publishing and included a review of The Shopkeeper. Peecher has said some very nice things about my book and I appreciate it. Here is a brief excerpt:

"The Shopkeeper is great on content. Best’s characters are well-developed, his plot is unique and engaging. At no time reading his book did it cross my mind that I was reading a book by an indie author. I found myself caught up in the story to the point that when I got to the last few chapters I abandoned all other plans for the day and just read until I finished the novel."

This link will take you to the full article.

Read some of his other postings. Peecher writes engaging articles with a generous dose of self-deprecating humor.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Characters Matter

Frank. A true black hat villain.
Characterization is a crucial aspect of fiction. We know this because it's drilled into us at school, in workshops, and in all the how-to books and journals we read. The protagonist must come across as real and interesting enough to pull the reader all the way through to the end of the story. A common mistake, however, is to focus too much attention on the protagonist. When you read a great book or watch an outstanding film, it's usually the antagonist that lifts the story above the ordinary.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Preserving Western culture through photography

There are many ways to preserve our Western Culture. I prefer books, of course. I have no visual or musical talents, but I still appreciate Western film, music, and photography. Schimmel has a talent for catching a mood. Take a look at his site through the link above and enjoy some great photographs.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

I Hate Punctuation

I love editors. The reason I love editors is they save me from embarrassment. I make errors and typos with punctuation and seem to miss them when I self-edit. This is especially true for commas. I just can’t seem to get them right. I think I have them figured out, but when I get my edited manuscript back, I learn that some savant surreptitiously changed the rules ... again. Or at least I prefer to think the rules changed, rather than I remain befuddled.

Many people think punctuation is boring … but not The Oatmeal. They even sell posters suitable for framing about different aspects of grammar. Maybe you can even get your teenager to replace their Janelle Monáe poster with one about how to properly use an apostrophe. Good luck with that.

Monday, February 11, 2013

It all depends on how you look at it—Point of View

I’m reading a thriller from a big name author. It’s a bestseller published under a Simon & Schuster imprint. Yeah, I found a few typos and stray words, but they didn’t bother me. I miss some mistakes myself, so I’m pretty charitable. What I found discombobulating were the sudden shifts in point of view. With no warning, the reader was thrown from inside one character’s head into the thoughts and feelings of another character. These were stray single paragraphs wedged into an otherwise consistent point of view. It might just be me, but when this happens, it stops me cold.

There are three proper ways to change point of view: a section break, a chapter break, or use an omnipotent point of view. (I’m not going to address tense or first, second, and third person which should be artfully reliable throughout a book.) 

Omnipotent is when the reader regularly gets inside the thoughts and feelings of different characters. An omnipotent point of view (POV) is difficult to carry off, but with a deft hand it can be done so the reader never notices. In fact, the reader should never become overly conscious of the point of view. It’s distracting.

That’s why I prefer a fourth technique. Never change POV. My four Steve Dancy Westerns and The Shut Mouth Society use a single POV throughout the entire story. This was difficult for The Shut Mouth Society because the thriller has two protagonists. I tried switching POV between the hero and heroine, but decided that it added to the mystery if the reader didn’t know what one of the major characters was thinking.

I used a different approach with Tempest at Dawn. Since this was a novelization of the Constitutional Convention, I used POV to heighten the conflict between the opposing forces at the convention. Every other chapter alternated POV between James Madison and Roger Sherman. This allowed the reader to feel the emotions on both sides of the issues.  (I first ran across this technique thirty years ago in Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer.) 

It was difficult to keep the POV consistent when Madison and Sherman were together. Revisions and editing finally scrubbed out the irregularities. In the final chapter of the book, I made an exception to a single POV per chapter. Since both men were together for the entire concluding chapter, I switched to a distant omnipotent POV. In other words, I never entered the thoughts or feeling of either man, but described scenes as if a narrator was telling a story about what he observed. This is similar to a movie, where the viewer never gets to read the thoughts of a character.

People deride the errors in indie-published books, but turn a blind eye to the increasing number of mistakes that prestigious publishers allow to get into print. Sixteen years ago, when I published The Digital Organization, Wiley had the manuscript line-edited by three different editors. They told me a single editor always missed something. I suspect that economics has forced the major publishers to cut this to a single line-editor. It’s a business mistake because this is a level of quality indie-publishers can compete against.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Evolution of a Novel

I just spent a week writing and surfing in San Diego. The writing went well, the surfing not so much. The weather was crappy for three days and I was crappy the other five. My mind tells me what to do, but by the time my body reacts, it’s too late. Surfing needs to be an unconscious reaction. When you think, you get cold water down the back of your wetsuit. Actually I had a few decent rides, but nothing to write home about.

Speaking of writing, The Return is in its final revision before professional editing. I start each day by revising what I wrote the prior day, so by the time I complete the manuscript I think of it as a second draft. Then I go through it one more time on my computer. I make revisions, but this third pass is primarily for continuity, clarity, and crispness. I've now completed this step for The Return, A Steve Dancy Tale.

My next step takes me to Staples where I print four copies. Three copies go to ornery people who will give me honest feedback. (Okay, one is my wife. She’s not ornery. I didn’t mean that. Really.) The last copy is for me. I use a traditional red pen and really scrub the printed version.

I always see odd and outright embarrassing things when I review a printed version. There is something about ink on a page that is totally different from a backlit screen. Stuff jumps out on a page where the eye glides over it on a computer. When I finish my review, I consolidate all the revisions from the four copies.  It surprises me that obvious problems are often missed by one or more of my reviewers. I’d like to think it’s because they got lost in the story, but it’s probably human nature.

Professionally Format e-books
How long before the book is ready for the general public? Months, I’m afraid. The next step will be professional editing, and then my final review of all of the recommended changes. This is an important step because I've been separated from the book for a while, which allows me to see it with fresh eyes. Along with accepting/rejecting line-editing, I frequently make adjustments to the plot. In the meantime, a cover needs to be designed and finalized. A designer needs to lay out the interior, back cover, and spine. The back cover includes a synopsis or elevator pitch for the story. This tantalizing piece of copyrighting will eventually be the book description displayed by online sellers. After every change is incorporated and the interior layout complete, a proofreader scrutinizes the modern equivalent of a galley proof. Now, it’s off to the printer … but not eReaders. The last step is professional eFormatting.

western fiction  action  adventure
Front, spine, and back cover design

I’m involved with every step, but I prefer professionals do the design, editing, proofreading, and formatting. I’m just no good at it. I’m only a storyteller. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Author Photos ... Art or artifice

All I need is 70,000 words and a great head shot

Supposedly, a good author photo can help you connect with the reader. I’m not sure what difference it makes what you look like … or looked like, since many authors don’t change their photo for decades. Typically authors try to look intellectual, serious, hip, casual, friendly, dangerous, happy, or just pretty/handsome. It all depends on what image they want to tie to their books. If an author can’t convey enough personality in a studied pose, many just add a pet to the picture. Everybody likes a man with a dog.

Here is something to remember; the product is the book, not the individual who wrote it. Most writers are introverted and make lousy dinner guests. At least this is true for this author. My characters banter with ease, not me.

I once mentioned to Clive Cussler that the best kind of celebrity was being an author. Most famous authors can enjoy privacy in public, but only need to drop their name whenever they want to trade on their fame. He smiled and told me that was why his author shots were from a distance standing next to an antique car.

Don’t overly worry your author photo. My suggestion is to try for something natural. Write a great book and few will care what you look like. Just ask Jane Austen.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Coffee is the Real Muse

In Greek mythology, a Muse was one of the many daughters of Zeus. They presumably inspired the creative arts. I’ve read numerous articles about how a writer needs to find the perfect environment and tools to be inspired. As if a private place or the right pen or cool brand of laptop could be a Muse.  I’m not buying it.

All you need is a cup of coffee within easy reach of your right hand. As you type away and get stuck, you simply reach out, take a sip, and by the time you unconsciously set the cup back down, you’re ready to type again. Coffee is a magic elixir. When you really get stuck, get up off of that chair and pour yourself another cup. Writer’s block will evaporate by the time you pour a new cup and do the other three things you told yourself you’d do the next time you got up.

I hate to think how much coffee I’ve drunk while writing. Nine books, three ghostwriting assignments, magazine columns, journal articles, and blogging. That’s probably enough coffee to fill a reservoir. Speaking of filling a reservoir, coffee also gets you up and moving to relieve yourself. It’s hard to be creative when you’re static for too long of a period. Coffee keeps you moving in more ways than one.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Flavorwire: Bad Writing Advice From Famous Authors

writingtip writing bad advice
Hemingway ... presumably editing

Emily Temple has posted on article on Flavorwire titled "Bad Writing Advice from Famous Authors." I don't agree that in context all these tips are bad, but the article is a fun read. What it shows more than anything else is that every writer has their own pet axioms that they may or may not live by.

However, I pretty sure Ernest Hemingway lived by his rule to:

“Write drunk; edit sober.” — Ernest Hemingway

If you need more advice to get cracking on the Great American Novel, then you might try my surefire tools of the trade.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Modern Wetsuits, A wonder and a Pain in the Butt

A few days ago, I posted that I was going to Pacific Beach to get in a little surfing. The first day was blown out (windy), but I did have a great day yesterday. Sunny, with glassy conditions and 2-3 foot waves. Small, but about the right size for this old man.

The water was cold, but my wetsuit kept me toasty. The problem was getting the suit and booties on and off. What a pain. The new suits make Plastic Man look inelastic. You try to pull them off and they just stretch, and heaven help you if you get them doubled-up. In fact, I had a hernia operation a few years ago I blamed on hurrying to get my suit off.

I long for the good ol' days of my youth when we just threw on a bathing suit and shivered while waiting for a wave. 

I'm not serious. I hate being cold. New wetsuit technology is a godsend, I'll just have to remain  patient and take my gear off one step at a time. But I do like summers when a bathing suit and chafe guard is all you need.

By the way, I was the body-double for the O'Neil Wetsuit above. I also caught a double-overhead yesterday. (I write fiction, which means I lie for a living.)