Sunday, August 19, 2007

Shop Talk #3: A Long Long Trail A-Winding

The last we visited this subject, I’d just finished Draft #2 on that upcoming smash-through-the-roof bestseller you are—of course--all going to read, The Vampire of Alpine Canyon. By the time of posting, I was ending a mini-vacation from writing and was starting to comb through the manuscript to see what hell I had wrought upon the computer screen. Here’s what I learned:

1) Draft #2 came to a total length of 618 pages, or around 174,000 words. At least 130 pages,or around 35,000 words, must go.

2) As far as writing—execution, style, control of narrative, spelling—your correspondent is still attending the Danielle Steel School of Keyboarding Your Way to Bestsellerdom. Misspellings and bad sentences abounded like repeated stakes through my heart. I found no howlers—I really wasn’t looking for them—but there was plenty to roll my eyes to the ceiling in search of that lightning bolt that God fires down on all bad writers (or should anyway). Discontinuities remain: I’ve only settled recently on the name of a significant geographic feature—not the eponymous canyon—while a couple minor characters changed monikers throughout. Is there a cat in this book, or not?

3) However, I did detect significant improvements. The plot and story are much more clear, focused, and coherent now. The time and place are set as are my major characters and most minor ones. I have all the basic plot I need, and may even be able to snip away a few knots and strands and sew together a few others to spin a swifter, more graceful yarn. As I read Draft #2, I started grading each chapter, A through F. I gave myself mostly Cs, a couple of Fs, and more Bs and As than I expected to find. At least one chapter had leapt from a D-minus to a B-plus, simply by radically rethinking a character. The ending still pleases me though, of course, I might be wrong. Some of you may get to tell me.

4) Research: One of my major characters is a rural professional, but don’t expect a Tom Clancy novel with entire chapters of step-by-step instructions on doing whatever; nevertheless, in those scenes when my character practices his profession, I want it to ring true, not in only in terms of basic procedure, but also in terms of his role in the community. I’ve purchased several books on the life of rural professionals and have been in contact with at least one. Wikipedia has also turned out to be helpful

5) Other research: I have a supporting character who is a county official, so I must learn more about his business, too; another supporting character is a fanatical sports enthusiast,so at least some reading must be done to capture the experience and some—but not too much—of the lingo involved; still another is a character who lives on the dole, so how does the welfare system operate in such situations? And then, there’s all that wonderful flora and fauna.

About research: it’s not my tip-top, number-one strength. The reading part I’m one hundred percent on, but, like a lot of writers, I cringe when it comes to actually approaching strangers and asking questions. I feel like Ken Tobey opening that door in The Thing (the good version). What waits on the other side? “None of your goddamn business!” or “Ohhh, I get it! You’re gonna put me in your stupid book and make me look like a buffoon! Here’s my middle finger! How’s that for information, asshole?”

Interesting note: one of the greatest genre writers ever, Donald Westlake, has claimed he hates research and actually hires out for it! I have mixed feelings about that. I also tend to fudge a little regarding what my book is about when talking to people. As any of you who have written supernatural fiction might know, of all genres, outside of pornography, it can elicit the most hostile reactions, no matter how many allusions to Shakespeare, Poe, or Nathaniel Hawthorne you toss around (“A vampire novel!? Uh-uh! No way! Step back, or I’ll break your nose with this door!”)

I’m already up to Chapter 7 of Draft #3 and seem to be making good progress. The characters and their world now seem to be knit more tightly than ever. The people act more decisively with deeper, stronger emotion and clearer purpose: less like hapless stick puppets, more like flesh and blood characters. I can already see saying good-bye to several chapters that fail to do anything but cure insomnia. A couple things still seem too long and I feel like I’m sometimes packing too much information into too small a space.

Another field trip disguised as a camping excursion to lovely Alpine County, California, lies just ahead, next week. If I can avoid certain Vile and Dangerous Diversions, I may be typing “The End” before I know it!

And then the next step: taking this baby on the road for a spin. Presenting it to a select sliver of the reading human population—both writers and non-writers--and seeing what gives: seeing if I have successfully painted the world and its creatures that exist in my head into the minds and dreams of those whom I offer entrance.

There’ll be more about that, later.

A Vile and Dangerous Diversion! (Photo by Elizabeth; cat by Flo!)


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