Sunday, April 13, 2008
Shop Talk #5: Slow, Shaky Surgeon
I finished draft #3 of the formerly-titled The Vampire of Alpine Canyon (now called Dragon’s Ark )on February 28, 2001 and have finally grown the stones to—just kidding, it was 2008, like you remember. I didn’t shamefully hide it away like I did Mazola Party Platter that mega-hardcore porn video I produced in the 1990s—Oh! I never told that story!? Never mind!
I last discussed this book in “The Back Trails of Research” (9/16/07). This time, I have the following facts to report:
1) Draft #3 came in at 582 pages, down a pitiful 36 pages from draft #2 to around 161,000 words. Not even within cannonball distance of my goal. Am I a failure? Only if I quit.
2) My writing skills are now at the level of Harold Robbins’ Late Period (say, The Betsy). Don’t break out those ABAs yet. I keep clearing away webs of plot, story and awful writing. For example, the “vampire hunter,” still lacks forward momentum and takes too long wandering in and out of too many box canyons and dead-end trails. Until recently, I mushed around about the name of a significant geographical feature, but I think it’s settled now.
As with draft #2, once finished, I immediately set #3 aside to simmer and to fantasize about my guaranteed great success: I saw numbers so high that, to steal one from David Mamet, “dogs can’t hear it.”
But, before floating into my fantasy of how you’re all gonna buy this book or be struck blind, I made seven copies (with the assistance of my Wife’s Sister and Brother-in-Law) and gave each copy to seven selected readers (including Wife and Wife’s Sister). Some of them know each other, but others are mutual strangers. Some readers are also writers, while some are readers only: These minds are open to sheer pleasure, free from the technical worries that clutter the heads of all writers. The only thing the readers all have in common for sure is that they—I hope—read these postings.
I gave them three weeks to pound through it—no agonizing over every line and page—and asked them to focus on the book’s entertainment value: What bored them? What confused them? We like praise, yes—in fact, we need it--but learning what’s wrong is the path to keeping this one out of Border’s pulping pile.
Sometimes, “This part bored me to diarrhea, this part nearly gave me a heart attack and why don’t your characters stop changing clothes in the middle of every scene?” is all I need. Sometimes I’m only looking for confirmation of my sense that something isn’t working and maybe I’ll stumble on the reason why and—most important—how to fix it! For these issues, non-writing readers work best.
Best of all, non-writers don’t try to righteously rewrite your book the way they’d write it, a painful experience, especially when dealing with someone who’s prone to bellowing: “Fuck Shakespeare! I’m a Dean Koontz man!”
So, why aren’t I in a writer’s group?
For years, I was. In fact, I joined too many.
Once, I briefly joined a writer’s group who claimed that they read the fiction they produced solely from the point of view of “real everyday readers.”
“But that, of course, is bullshit,” as Charles Willeford so eloquently puts it.
Readers do not read like writers do, as noted above and no way can writers read like non-writers. For example, I study Elmore Leonard as closely as I read Cervantes, though I read each book in a very different manner, as I’ve lectured elsewhere. Whether it’s Ulysses or Butcher’s Moon, I’m always a writer reading. We writers process our reading in very different ways. We study the nails, the glue, the wood, and how it's cut, rather than pouring it into our heads, letting the words gush through ours souls. For us, even the most pleasurable reading is still work.
The writing group I speak of looked at my admittedly not-good-yet hit man yarn and then fell into bitter rage, as though I’d murdered their children before their eyes and then ate them in bite-sized uncooked pieces with an olive fork like Oscar Wilde, my pinkie waving arrogantly in the air.
Some of their critique may have been useful, but they yelled so loud, I couldn’t hear them . . . and I can’t hear you when you yell.
Look, Al Gore can scream at me about climate change. This here’s a fucking vampire novel fer chrissakes! Yeah, I’m striving to create the best darn one since Dracula, but trying to make me feel dumb as Dick Cheney’s gofer has never improved my work. Maybe the lazy and the deluded blossom under abuse, but my back pain and CRT-stung eyes put Yours Truly in a different class. Abuse only makes me want to quit and become a thought-starved bureaucrat again.
Another point: At best, I find writer’s groups are overrated; at worst they produce nothing but workshoppy writing that tastes like old gravy. Regarding the ones I’ve joined, I plead guilty to often trying to rewrite the other guy’s book. Most often, I got insecure and nervously wrote to avoid punishment. (“Put more of that literary stuff in. They love it! Cut that literary bullshit out. They hate it! I know! I’ll write the phone book! Nobody’ll get mad then!”) Then I’d stop writing period.
One more thing: I also found myself in trouble for liking—or not liking—another writer’s work. One group hinted that I wasn’t contributing enough to the discussion. When I started speaking up more, they hinted I should leave. Maybe I do lack guts and conviction. Maybe I was playing to the wrong crowd.
I’ve heard back from most of the readers by now. Comments are mostly positive, but, even better, some are pointed and incisive, while delivered in a thoughtful tone, as if I were a real grownup serious about making his humble piece something that readers will really enjoy. Most all agree that the early chapters are mostly a dreary info dump of too many characters, plot elements and story lines at once that eats up too many pages. One excellent point: I treated too many minor characters like major characters and that will trip up readers. An essential chapter was revealed as a major frustration that will take hours of frowning, pacing and rewriting to get right. One reader found entertaining a chapter I thought dull as C-Span. All of you said something helpful. I know you can't wait to read the acknowledgments.
Happily no one has screamed yet . . . exCEPT IN TERROR BWA-HA-HA . . . !
The comments continue to trickle in, but the three weeks are up. I’ve tossed the last gold coin into the treasure box of dreams and I’m back at it. I rework each chapter: hack, cut, carve, slice, trim, chop. A little razor work here, a roaring chainsaw there. I sit down with Patient Wife and read it out loud, search for errors and gauge her reaction. Then polish, trim cut. One reader recommended going through every page and cutting two sentences. Not as easy as it sounds, but it makes you look.
Before too long, I will type THE END. Then Dragon’s Ark will sail alone into the stormy seas of the marketplace. I'll shed a tear . . . and then start the next one.
Copyright 2008 by Thomas Burchfield