Thursday, November 20, 2014

Writing Tip: Don’t Muddy the Waters

I recently read and reviewed a 750 page, self-published novel that was written by a talented writer, and yet, I had a great deal of trouble muddling through the story. Not only was I not totally satisfied with the read, but the author contacted me after I posted my review to let me know I had missed several of the themes he had woven into the story. I freely admit that, although I caught some of the more obvious themes, several he mentioned did blow right over my head. He was very disappointed. It was a shame because much of his story was quite entertaining.

I’ve been thinking about his novel, my review of it, and the author’s response to my review for weeks now. The most prominent complaint that I expressed in the review was that the story was simply overwritten, and could benefit from cutting up to three hundred pages from the story, to tighten the storyline and focus more on the major themes.

After weeks of thought, I stand by my first analysis. I believe the main, and possibly the only, problem was the writer tried to encompass too much, too many ideas, into his story. He was so ambitious, trying to make his story grand, that many of the themes got lost in the shuffle.

I often do this myself when writing a first draft. I don’t realize what the major themes are until I’m deep into act three and all the subplots are coming together for the climax. But once the lightning bolt hits and I understand what my subconscious was striving for, then I’m ready for a major rewrite.

Once I know the premises, I write a theme statement, or two if there are multiple major themes, and I post them on my tack board over my desk. From that point on, the theme statements are my litmus test for cutting or keeping.

Particularly while writing the second draft, anything I find that doesn’t advance the major themes gets cut. Once while writing The Lonely War, I cut the first two hundred pages in half. The result was a cleaner read, and everything that was left did advance the themes.

My point is, be clear about what ideas the subtext of your story is creating, and keep the number of themes to a minimum. Two is good, one is better. In short, don’t muddy the waters by trying to do too much.

For my stories, I like to have two different subplots going on that are loosely linked, each with it’s own theme. At some point, usually deep into act three, I bring the two subplots together to pound home one overall premise. This approach is nothing new. In fact, writers have been using this technique since Rome was a village.

Again, the point is, know your theme, and cut anything that doesn’t progress that idea. Hopefully, you’ll end up with a tighter, cleaner manuscript.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Good Morning, Bangkok

Yesterday was one long-ass day. Left the house at 7:30am, with Jimmy driving us to the airport. Twenty-six hours later, we arrived at our hotel in Silom, Bangkok. Didn’t sleep on the plane, but did manage to watch five movies, one of which was terrific (I Origins), two others that were enjoyable, (Chiefs, Begin Again) and two that were basically “Hollywood” duds (Grand Budapest Hotel, And So It Goes). In And So It Goes, Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton had zero chemistry and a tired cliché plot. Keaton has done too many of these types of slick comedy/romance movies, all of which were better than this one.

The one thing I’m completely sure of at this moment is that the older I grow, the harder jetlag hits me. I soon may need to take shorter hops to get to a destination. Takes more time and money, but so much easier on the body.

I managed to get a lot of reading in. I’m reading Isherwood on Writing, which presents Christopher Isherwood’s lecture series on writing he gave at various universities in Southern California during the early sixties. After having read his diaries of that time in his life, I’m really enjoying his personal views on his writing processes, which during that time in his life were mostly autobiographical. I do love his writing, and I will need to re-read A Single Man as soon as I return to California.

Jetlag aside, I’m thrilled to be back in Thailand. Love this culture, people, cuisine. I’ll be here for two months before moving on to Burma, and then Vietnam.

To all my friends back home, I already miss you and I’ll see you in the Spring.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Knack of Packing for a Long Trip

On Monday morning Herman and I board a plane for Southeast Asia, where we’ll vacation for the next three months. We plan to visit Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, and possibly Hong Kong. All preparations have been made:

-House sitters are moving in Monday afternoon
-Gardeners and pool man are prepaid
-Bills are paid electronically
-All flight & hotel reservations are made
-Visas are acquired
-Currency has been exchanged
-Said goodbye to all friends
-Ride to and from the airport is arranged

The only thing left to do is pack the bags.

The secret for packing for a long haul vacation is to take as little as possible. Herman and I each carry one backpack carry-on that holds our computers, phones, travel documents, toiletries, books, and our Kindle. We each have one checked piece of luggage, but those are very small bags. We take few clothes, and get them cleaned at Mom&Pop laundries as often as possible. Laundry service is Asia is very cheap. A kilo of clothes—wash, iron, and fold with one-day turnaround—costs only a few bucks.

Fortunately, SE Asia is quite warm this time of year, so we need not take any heavy clothing for cool weather.  Beside what we wear on the plane, shorts, T-shirts, sandals, and an outfit for fine restaurants is all one needs in that climate.

So for the next few months I’ll be posting travel pics from Asia. Hope you enjoy.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Writing Tip: To Believe or Not To Believe

I read an interesting thread the other day on an online writers group I belong to. An author was complaining bitterly that a review she received from an online review blog was flawed because the reviewer admitted that he/she didn’t really like that genre, and couldn’t get into the story. The thing that I found most interesting was that the author chastised the reviewer for not being able to “suspend belief” and get into her story, placing all the blame on the reviewer. 

I’ve heard a lot over the years about the reader needing to “suspend belief” in order to enjoy a story, and I must say that I think it is pure bullshit. It’s as if the author expects the reader to flush all his/her experience and knowledge, to be able to enjoy the tale being presented. 

I feel that it is not the suspension of belief that needs to happen, but rather, the author needs to make the reader believe. It is the writer’s job to skillfully pull the reader into the story, by making the reader believe what is presented is real. The writer must make it so convincing, that the reader has no choice but to go along.

Admittedly, no writer likes even a mediocre review, let alone a bad one. And of course, there are hordes of reviewers posting reviews who don’t have a clue about what makes a good read. But blaming the reviewer is the tool of an amateur writer.

If an author receives a negative review, it is up to the writer to evaluate the comments and determine what could make the story better, thus turning it into a learning experience. In my humble opinion, a writer should always be looking for any feedback in order to hone his/her craft. 

That said, I recently finished reading/reviewing a novel for a fellow writer at Dreamspinner Press. The story was somewhat interesting, but all the way through I kept seeing numerous issues that novice writers make, convincing me this was his debut story. I kept thinking, this is not a bad story for a first-time author. But as I finished the story, I read the author bio, and realized this author had written at least twelve other books! It became clear to me that this author is either a slow learner or he has never bothered to try to improve his craft. 

I believe each writer should spend as much time learning their craft as they do writing. How else can we become accomplished writers? And getting back to negative reviews, they are feedback on what didn’t work for that particular reviewer. That should be a clear signal as what areas the writer can concentrate on improving.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Palm Springs Pride

This last weekend, Palm Springs held its annual Gay Pride celebrations. They blocked out the main street of down town for a street fair for the weekend, and a two-hour parade on Sunday. It was a fun, colorful, celebration of equality. Below are few snapshots of the parade. Enjoy

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Death By Gridlock

I’ve had an interesting last few days. I leave for SE Asia in a week. The plan was to spend two months in Thailand, then fly to Mumbai, and spend four weeks traveling around India and Nepal.  The flights to Bangkok are set, and can’t be altered without significant extra costs.

Herman and my problem was that our passports were sitting under some stack of other paperwork at a third-party company the Indian consulate uses to process the flood of visa requests it receives on the West Coast. They had had our paperwork and passports for the last four weeks, and nothing seemed to be getting done. After numerous phone conversations with their “Help Line”, which was no help at all, we decided to drive up to San Francisco (an 8 hr. drive) to cancel our visa request and retrieve our visa, as we were running out of time for our departure.

The negative side was that we will have to postpone our India plans. The positive side is we will leave for Thailand on time and visit Vietnam and Hong Kong instead of India (both countries we can get a visa upon arrival.)

So we made the long drive up Thursday, stayed overnight at a friends apartment, and was at the third-party company by 8am the following morning. When we arrived, there was already a long line of about two-hundred people, some of which had been waiting since 6am. By the time the doors opened at 9am, there were another few hundred people in line behind us. We braced ourselves for a long day.

It quickly became evident why nothing had happened with out visa requests over the past several weeks. They had a system (everyone was handed a ticket with a number on it, and then three people they had at help windows began calling out those numbers) but the system was soon abandoned to the help staff helping the loudest angry voices as impatient people demanded action. The process they had in place turned into shear pandemonium.

The problem? Too few workers trying to hold back the tsunami of people who needed attention.

We waited patiently, expecting to be there all day, and not knowing if we would get our visas. The longer the chaos went on, the more our doubts grew. We did, however finally grab someone’s attention and submitted out paperwork, and an hour later we were handed out passports. We spent a total of five hours getting something that should have taken five minutes. I felt sorry for these harried, overworked, underappreciated help staff.

But the more curious thing happened after we left the building, trying to make our way out to the Avenues for a very late lunch. What I saw, particularly down town, was the whole city seemed to be in the same condition as the third-party company. Too many people fighting for too few resources. Traffic was almost at a standstill. Angry motorists were driving wildly and rudely in attempt to get past roadblocks. People on the streets yelling and fighting each other. All the people on the streets and in their cars had the same harried look of those few help staffers in the third-party company.  The feeling was very tense.

I have loved San Francisco for all of my adult life, but this is the first time I wanted to flee that city, and I frankly have no desire to go back. I became grateful that I live in the slow, relaxed pace of Palm Springs, where most people still smile and say “Good morning,” and wish you a pleasant day. I don’t know if San Francisco was always that tense and angry and energy-zapping, and I’ve just gotten used to a more tranquil setting, or, as I suspect, overpopulation is making all big cities harder to live, simply because there are more people than resources.  Will our cities become dog-eat-dog environments where getting from one day to the next is a constant battle?  I hate being so negative, but I also can’t help thinking that’s what we’re creating.