The Process, or My Process

I just completed the fourth draft of my historical crime fiction, two days in advance of attending the OWFI Writer’s Conference. The last-minute finish has turned my attention to the processes I used on this particular work.

First, the story idea came from extended conversations with my wife’s uncle who lives in Arkansas City, KS. He spoke about a town often referred to as “Little Chicago” and underground tunnels. These tidbits were too interesting to pass up. (It was similar to the discussions I had with my brother-in-law regarding the judicial and penal systems that gave rise to my second novel, The 9 mm Solution.)

This was to be a historical crime fiction which basically caused me to strip away all forms of technology as well as my understanding of how things work today. Language, transportation, police procedural — all these things are not the same as they were in 1934 in rural Kansas. So, after creating an outline of characters and basic plot, I found websites for gangster and jazz-age slang, photos of vehicles and guns, and images of Arkansas City, KS in that time period.

The next thing to do was write. It was like blazing through a jungle with a machete and clearing a path for myself that lead, hopefully, to the other side. There were times when the story got muddled down but I pressed on until, about three-quarters of the way through, an epiphany came that showed me the ending.

The second draft was a grammar and language clean up, making sure tense stayed consistent, removing any modernisms of speech that had sneaked in, removing redundant expressions, confirming logic in terms of time frame and directions. It was like cleaning up the mess from a project.

But then came the third draft. This was like being a mortician and making the corpse presentable for viewing. (Strange comparison, I know, but the first thing that popped into my head.) I’m not excessive when it comes to description. This is, after all, hard-boiled crime fiction. Analogy works better than description in this style. It as important to give the readers the sense of time and place and to enhance the emotional content. This was the part of taking the bones of a good story and smoothing out the flesh.

It was then I stopped. Briefly. Four beta readers later resulted in the fourth draft. Enhancement of two small aspects based on feedback. It was nothing that altered the story and required any major plot revisions. This was like adding an appetizer and a dessert to the overall meal. With those minor elements added, I completed a final read through, strengthening a sentence here and there. In the end, from first to last draft, I went from 58K words to 65K. Of course, since I will be attending a conference, I also created a pitch. I am not as confident of that as I am of the work itself.

I am not as comfortable discussing my particular process for two reasons. First, I largely intuit it as I go for each project. There are different degrees of evaluation required based on the nature of the work. Additionally, I find too many people discussing the process from a purely academic standpoint. The semantics and the actualities are often two different things. Nevertheless, Ark City Confidential is ready to go. Let’s see how far we can take it.

The Commitment

April was National Poetry Month. I haven’t written all that much new poetry since my days in Boston over 20 years ago. A piece here and there as something inspired me. Concurrent with that, a Facebook friend sent out a challenge for a daily minimum of 10 minutes worth of writing. I came up with a poetic idea and accepted the challenge, feeling guilty that it wasn’t fiction and, in some cases, I wrote such a brief amount. Nevertheless, this was worthwhile.

Inspired by Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, my idea was called “A Month of Sundays in Stevensville.” It was to be impressionistic snippets of what Sunday meant to me, in the distant past as well as the present. I found that it became increasingly difficult as the month went on. But I succeeded and paid homage to National Poetry Month while motivating those within the Facebook challenge.

I used to participate in NaNoWriMo and found it to be entirely useful in motivating a daily writing goal. I know these sort of things are important, especially if you find yourself in a position where “real life” is encroaching too much on your creative life. I have also learned how to integrate both which is why I do not create daily writing goals.

This does not mean that I am not motivated or that I am not committed to my efforts, regardless of what others on social media may think. You can be committed to writing every day. There is Stephen King’s famous quote about that. However, like NaNoWriMo, simply putting words to paper (if you’re Old School) does not mean a novel is finished after X amount of words or pages.

When I do sit at my laptop, I am investing my all into the work at hand, becoming annoyed at an interruption, discarding thoughts of food or anything else from the outside world. I have stepped, like Alice, into my own personal Wonderland and that is where I must be.

All I have described is my personal preferences, how I work and prefer to work. The most important thing is to be committed to your writing in a fashion that suits you. The commitment is everything.

Do Something

There has been a lot of talk that 2016 has been a bad year with the passing of so many popular and talented people. Today’s death of Prince at the age of 57 reaffirms that. (Heck, I’m 54 this year so it’s not THAT old.) One consideration is that there will be no more from them. No more songs or books or movies from all these talented folks. The entirety of their output is complete.

The thing to remember is that they provided us with something lasting and memorable. They are gone but their works remain. Hearing a song from years ago puts you back to a moment in time that signifies an aspect of your own life. The many songs and stories and movies are signposts that mark our own passage.

But, if you are a writer or a musician or a budding film-maker, it is as important for you to set your own mark with your art. You may not win Grammys or Oscars or get on the New York Times Bestseller list. In the end, that is not what it is about. I consider the bravery and courage of David Bowie and Merle Haggard and Prince in doing what they wanted how they wanted. Even if “success” never came to them, they still “won” because they created a unique art that could only have been done by them.

The craft is the thing. Not as it is written in textbooks or presented by teachers. The pure essence of your own art comes through your experiences and your personal understanding. You need to get out and do the thing that compels you, regardless of finding an audience or marketing yourself. Unless, of course, that is all you are interested in.

Do something. Write that novel. Record that song. Make that film. Paint. Sculpt. Pour every ounce of yourself into an act of creation.

There is the famous quote by Kurt Vonnegut: The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.

What could be more glorious than that? You may not wind up being Bowie or Haggard or Prince. But you will find yourself as long as you just do something. They did.

Was that TOO easy?

Ok, writers, you’re all familiar with THIS scenario:

Editing and revising for the eight, ninth, tenth, umpteenth time. Maybe a year or two. Removing subplots. Adding new characters. The story doesn’t resemble your original vision. The story doesn’t resemble…a story. You’re too much of a perfectionist. You’re growing tired of this piece but you HAVE to finish it. You moan, whine, and complain on social media about the stress you’re going through (which, in reality, is the stress you’re putting yourself through). Will you ever get done?

Right?

Well, that didn’t happen to me. Not quite, anyway.

I had started working on my historical crime fiction in 2014. Got a lot of basic outlining done as well as some significant research. I ran into a snag in the fall and then picked it up again in the spring of 2015. From there, I was moving right along like a freight train. Smooth and steady. Then I let it lay for about a month. The second draft was mostly a clean-up: grammar, punctuation, syntax, logic issues. The third draft was fleshing out, word choice, enhancement, description. I worked on a chapter at a time, edited, re-read the same chapter, and saved it before moving on. Forty-two chapters. Last night, I finished. After all this time, I still like this piece. I mean, I really like it.

The “problem” I’m encountering is that I think I’m done, at least from my end before handing it over to beta readers. (My wife will be the first.) But, in all the years I’ve been writing, I’ve never just stopped after three drafts. So, rather than sweating over numerous drafts and years, I’m concerned about the brevity of the process. Either this piece was really a part of me and just easy to get out, or it completely sucks and I like it too much to recognize it.

I have a feeling the answer is somewhere in between.

Be That Thing

There’s a difference between saying you are something and being that something. If you introduce yourself at a social function by saying “I’m a writer”, chances are you’ll get various responses:

“Have you written anything I’ve read?”
“Do you know Stephen King?”
“That must be fun.”

To the first, I have no idea what you read. To the second, no. To the third, you have no idea. The other comment that comes up is “What have you published?” It’s a valid question because, to most people, you are only a pretend writer if you have not been published. Even self-published. Working on your masterpiece for the past ten years will get you little sympathy or continued interest.

There is a fine line between putting something out that is crap that will forever ruin your name and waiting infinitely for the mot just like Flaubert and not publishing until your creative offspring is the epitome of brilliance and perfection. What is of most importance is that your work be out there for review and feedback. You will never improve your craft by lingering over a sentence or a chapter or realizing that your main character is too boring to be a protagonist after your thirteenth draft.

As writers, we are story-tellers. If you have told a compelling story, it is ready for others to enjoy. By virtue of the feedback you get, you will learn how to correct and modify and tighten your work so that it is more acceptable. This is not the time to contemplate your financial worth in the marketplace. This is the time to do what you’ve said all along that you would do: write. Stop hesitating. Be that thing.

That moment. That dreaded moment.

It was last night after dinner. I don’t remember the time because I wasn’t interested in capturing it for posterity. There was a lot going on all at once, a confluence of confusion.

—I was advised by e-mail that I needed to reformat a contest entry, only to scrupulously determine it was formatted correctly, which required me to politely advise the judge accordingly so as to prevent any pre-judging prejudice.

—Going through old e-mails, I found a chain from an editor I met at a conference last year who graciously (perhaps to pacify me) accepted the first twenty pages of a novel, never communicated back with me, and then when I sent a follow-up in an apologetic tone (yeah, I apologized for not following up earlier) still did not respond. That second one was four months ago.

—Another e-mail chain, this one with an agent. Similar situation except the response to the follow-up (same apologetic tone) was that the submission still had not been read. Again, four months ago.

—Realized I hadn’t gotten back to editing my historical crime fiction that I put aside shortly before the holidays, which are over. Still haven’t started editing a very special project that I believe in for a friend who has a great idea. Don’t want to let him down after the encouragement I gave.

—Continued research on new laptop. Found one. Indication only available for in-store pick up. Entered zip code. No stores in a 250 mile radius. (Similar research produced similar results.)

Then
out of the blue
in my head

WHY AM I DOING ALL THIS? MAYBE I SHOULD JUST GIVE UP BEING A WRITER.

As soon as the words formed in my head, as soon as I could hear them inside me, something sharp and acidic burned them away. But there it was, for one fleeting moment, the drudgery and formalities and logistics were overwhelming. Yet, it went away just as quickly because of the one thought that profoundly yelled at me:

WHAT ELSE ARE YOU GOING TO DO WITH YOUR LIFE?

All the research, communication, queries, follow-ups, writing and revising, fitting all of this into a packed life, this is what it is about. I might never get another book published. Right now, since this is not my living (although I would very much like to make it be), I write because it is a compulsion. I write because I have to write because the stories inside me have to be told. I write to express myself in ways that I am unable to do in the “real world” and to hold a mirror up to others and, yes, even to myself.

So, judges and editors and agents, go ahead and do your thing. I’m okay with it. I’m going to continue submitting my work. I’m going to get back to my novel. I’m going to work on that project for my friend. I’m going to move on to a new, as-yet-unidentified project.

I am going to keep writing.

I am not going to stop.

Ever.

Year-End Reflections

This time last year, I was in a dull funk as far as writing was concerned. Earlier in the year, I had started work on a historical crime fiction. It was to be a challenge for me but one I deemed worthwhile. I had to deal with selling my late parents’ home long distance. The process started out rather simple then devolved into chaos and confusion coupled with unprofessional people who I needed to trust. By the time that was resolved, it was the madness of the holiday season.
But in May, I recharged, going down to Oklahoma for my fourth OWFI conference, hooking up with my friend, Nick Lyon, meeting the amazing Les Edgerton, and generally reminding myself that I was still a writer.
Well, I completed the first draft of that book and am on the second edit now. John Lennon said it best: Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. I’m just fortunate to have been able to get back to those plans.

Les Edgerton

9 mm Centerpiece

I moved to Wichita, KS twenty years ago from Boston, MA. Yet, I find this community as filled with artistic talent. I’ve met writers and poets, sculptors and artists, musicians — the gamut of what truly invigorates me. My wife and I had season tickets for several years to the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, regular attended shows at Music Theater Wichita, saw Cirque du SoleilTHREE times, and attended some great concerts over the past year at the historic Orpheum Theater.
But something makes me feel I haven’t explored as much of the arts scene as I could have and definitely should have. John Donne indicated that no man is an island unto himself. No man or no one interested in developing their art. I know I need to get out there more and meet some more people in this community who are passionate about creating something special and are urged on by a compulsion that can not be defined.

Why is it so difficult to disagree any more? Notice how I didn’t ask why we can’t get along. Personally, I think that’s overrated. But we seem to have lost our ability to disagree, civilly and intellectually. There is a pervasive attitude of “If you’re not with me, you’re against me” as opposed to “I disagree, but let’s hear what you have to say.” You see it in politics and in every aspect of contemporary culture, especially Facebook.
I went on a rant recently regarding something rather innocuous. A lady (who was a Facebook friend because she was a friend of a friend) commented, as was her right to do so. When the commentary started to become personal, I took offense. If you know me and can “analyze” me, fine. If you don’t know me, it’s best to stay away from that line of response. And I said so.
A couple of weeks later, after the rant had fully passed from my mind, I recalled with childish humor the whole exchange. I looked up the lady. Sure enough she had unfriended me. I figured it was her loss because I feel I am interesting and a good conversationalist. The real point is that she could not accept my comment on her comment and left.
Disagreement is not dissension.

I find myself more intrigued by experimental fiction. Metafiction, transgressive fiction, fonts and colors, non-linear story-telling. I still maintain my passion for noir and hard-boiled. Yet, I use the alternative styles as a playful experiment and wind up discovering something new.
I am fortunate to be friends with Eckhard Gerdes on Facebook and I follow an Experimental Fiction group. These writers are light years ahead of me but my fascination is part of the learning process. At 53, I am content to know that I am not stuck in a groove and have miles to go before I sleep.

Going forward or reaching backward?

It seems like the answer should be simple. However, depending upon your perspective, it might not be as easy at it seems.

I am currently in the middle of editing my first-ever historical crime fiction. It takes place in Arkansas City, KS in 1933-34, an absolutely marvelous time for the Depression-era American gangster. However, I have always been one to have several irons in the fire. It’s akin to cooking a multi-course meal. I’ve been dabbling with something that might turn out to be a novella or a long short story. But I really want another novel as the next project.

This brings me to the question and the decision at hand. I can either wait for the ideal inspiration, seek out something new. Or, I can revisit an old piece, maybe something that was a former NaNoWriMo that just plain out sucked after completion or a piece I started with more noble intentions that had apparently faded.

That’s where the problem arises. It’s the week before Christmas and I have got some serious cooking and baking to do. I don’t ever really drop writing altogether during the holidays and I definitely want to have a new piece ready to work on once the time presents itself.

For fun, I’m going to make a brief list of ideas and see what kind of feedback I get. Are you game?

(1) “Professor Thug” – A different kind of college professor, one with perhaps a dubious background and dresses like a street thug but presents a high IQ. He gets involved in solving a murder of a former student with the help of his current teaching assistant and a naive senior.

(2) “The Stooges” – The highly ridiculous adventures of three would-be criminals who recognize their need to commit a lucrative crime in order to be solvent but have no idea what kind of caper to pull. This takes its inspiration from the great comic trio but with decidedly worse language.

(3) “12 Hours in Wichita” – An undeveloped idea for a neo-noir piece involving an enforcer coming to the city to settle a dispute between two factions of a criminal enterprise and all taking place within the confines of a fixed time period to heighten the suspense.

(4) Wait for inspiration and seek something out completely new, off the beaten path, and slightly experimental.

If you’ve got an opinion, I’d love to hear it.

The Desperate Art of Editing and Revision

I have just finished the first edit on my 1934 historical crime fiction. Recently, someone asked me what was involved in editing. Caught off guard, I provided a cursory response that seemed to satisfy him. Then I got to thinking: What IS involved?

Every book is different in terms of structure and, as such, might call for a different approach. I am definitely not the type of writer who has a cookie cutter approach to the craft. I am more of a pantser as a writer and, at least initially, the same in editing.

This first “round”, if you will, was largely a smoothing process, determining if there were speed bumps that slowed the pace down. I look for grammatical errors, poor description, in exact staging, dialogue that is too modern (keeping in mind this is my first historical piece), and logic errors. Mind you, this is a read-through a week after completion of the first draft.

There were cuts but mostly additions. I get through the first draft with the goal of completing the story. Consequently, there was an increase of approximately 2500 words. I found a scene in which I was referencing North and South and confusing myself after stating which location was in which direction. So, I stopped, drew a stick figure map on a scrap piece of paper, and cleared up the confusion.

For now, I realize I have not clarified the sense of time in the overall work despite making a few corrections. The next edit will pay attention to the time of year and the passage of time. Despite my lack of overt description, I do need more sensory details. This is not quite noir but rather hard-boiled. I will need to incorporate that kind of essence while staying true to the time period.

Even though I can rattle off a few books and movies that can give me a better point of reference (Bonnie and Clyde, High Sierra, anything by Jim Thompson), I am going to resist reading something else or watching something unless I feel I have no captured the mood and tone I am looking for.

I guess the guy who asked me the question originally might ask “How do you know when you’re done?” That’s the frustration. You either always think you’re done or never think you’re done. Both are debilitating because you want to move on to the next piece. At some point, you have to trust your instincts. Unless you get too desperate.

One size does NOT fit all

The thing that bothers me about weight loss ads is that they seem to target…everybody. Every race, gender, age. Everybody. They’re saying “Our product (or system or program) can help ALL of you.” But we know it’s not true.

Let’s extend that to writing, or any art form for that matter. I’ve heard keynote speakers and writing teachers, and I’ve read other blogs. Without disrespecting anyone, we have to be aware that what is being taught or suggested is one individual’s perception based largely upon their experience and success. As such, as they often state with financial investment programs, the results are not representative or guaranteed.

I admire other writers, especially those who have gained a measure of publishing success, who give back by identifying key points or pitfalls. I respect those who do not treat the craft of writing as some ancient text worthy of only the initiated. But writers have to be cautious of embracing the methodology of one as the singular and only protocol.

We are all aware of concepts of character development, realistic dialogue, three act structures, rising and falling actions, and the notorious “show, don’t tell.” It is acceptable to write in a different fashion. It is commendable to try a completely new approach. The only thing that counts is good writing. Of course, if the discussion is geared toward getting your work published, then a hard decision has to be made. Write like others, safe and unimaginative, and get published. Or write like yourself, in your voice, and know that their IS an audience out there for you. It just might be harder to find and take longer to do so.

I have just completed work on a historical crime fiction. It was a different genre for me but something that is mainstream enough for publication. I also have a wildly unpredictable metafiction and a novella that is within the same vein. I do not have great expectations for either. That does not mean I will not edit and revise them as fully as possible and seek to have them published. Some may ask, “Then why did you write them?” The answer is painfully simple: They were stories I wanted to tell. At the very least they are out of my brain and in a document.

As writers, we are, first and foremost, storytellers. That means when we have a story lurking in our inner core, it MUST be told. Consider publishing secondary; tell the story, in your voice and in your manner. You don’t need to fit in with everyone. That way you will stand out.

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