Friday, February 10, 2017

Be brutal in self-editing

I am into the second phase of my second draft, which is a time when I get honest and sincere. Early versions have the right story line, characters, and setting. There also are a lot of wasted words, and story and character elements that need sharpening.

My writing time this morning brought out the scalpel-wielding editor in me. My manuscript was too long (more than 98,000 words), and it needed pruning. But where? Now that I am in my third overall trip through the story, it is easier to see. How many times do I put "that" and it is unneeded? How many dangling parts of dialogue do I include? How many times do I put "I believe" or "I feel" when a punchier sentence is necessary, and those snippets are removed? Oh, I am seeing all these errors, and dealing them a quick death.

I made one major change in story structure. I had an important secondary character and resulting events buried too deep. I moved them up several chapters. This results in a better reading experience.

I take small sections of the manuscript every day and refine them. I will go through my work one more time before I will send it to my next set of beta readers. I want to have a tight, coherent novel to deliver. I will have my scalpel handy.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Welcome the "pain" of critical reviews

I read an unbelievable statement by an author last week. She said she hated the process of having friends and cohorts read a draft of her manuscript because it meant part of her creation would be disliked and often criticized. She didn't like that she might have to alter her original content. I have one message for that author.

Your material isn't without blemish, dearie.

Neither is mine, and that's why I welcome the input of my precious beta readers. My work needs to be knocked around, criticized, and then reshaped because of their astute observations. Any author who believes otherwise is delusional. As Stephen King eloquently says, your first draft always sucks.

This leads me to another major revelation. Going into a second draft forces a second, third and even fourth revision, which causes me to review the anchor points of my writing. My latest work is a solid story with good characters, and a few surprises are thrown in. I received excellent feedback from my beta readers on characters and content. I am nearing the end of my first revision to formulate my second draft, and I see the need to do a second revision. Why? I see inconsistencies (some of them highlighted by my beta readers) and a need to strengthen tension throughout the novel. I also see a need to delineate my main points better and not be wishy-washy. What happens when I finish this second revision? I might see the need for a third.

Now, I will reach a point at which I feel I have a good second draft. What will I do? I will approach three other friends and cohorts to read this draft. None of my first-draft beta readers will be invited for this phase. Why? I want fresh eyes who will look at my work as a new creation they are encountering. I don't want readers familiar with the story line and resolution to encounter sections and be tempted to skim through them. I also will ask three people who have either been beta readers for one of my earlier works or those who are intimately familiar with current literary culture. I want critics who will be honest and take me to task. Because I will be asking just three readers to help, I won't approach anyone who will fail to do the work. If they have reservations about reading during a busy work schedule, for example, I will turn to someone else.

What happens after that? I think I have a manuscript that is ready for review by a literary agent. That entails the creation of a query letter (another major component any author must do well) and a synopsis (both short ... no more than two pages ... or long ... usually no more than four pages). If an agent accepts my work for representation, there will be another round of revisions based on that agent's evaluation. If that agent sells my work to a publishing house, I have another round of revisions based on a publishing house's editor's input.

The process continues, and I regard that as a good thing. My novel is getting better with each step. Hey, we should do that with all parts of our lives. My life isn't without blemish, dearie.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The beauty of beta readers

I am in one of those necessary lulls in the development of a novel, that time when I give copies of my precious work to beta readers and wait for responses. My current major project is called The Old Man From Denmark, and I have eight friends reading the first draft. It is hard for those who have never ventured into preparing a work of literature to comprehend the value of these readers. I will try to put it into perspective.

I chose these readers for their various strengths. One is an editor of extreme skill who can catch minuscule mistakes that most people would overlook. One is a younger person with a strong interest in literature, and his interests run toward works that are off the beaten path and are more popular for younger readers. Another has a great skill of seeing the larger picture of what I am trying to achieve, but has a good eye for details that don't quite fit or need refinement. Four of them are women with varying interests and levels of expertise. One is a member of the clergy. Another is a member of a small all-women book club. One is my wife. The fourth woman is a great lover of good literature, and she knows the requirements and quality needed for a good final version. The final member of my team is an expert on German history, which is necessary for this work.

I sent out my work via Dropbox about six weeks ago. Three have finished, and another reports that she is nearing the end of the book. I need to check with the others to see where they are along the continuum. I would not be surprised if one or two readers are unable to complete the work within my desired time frame, which explains the need for as many readers as I have.

Here's why these people are so valuable. They catch my mistakes. They see my novel through eyes other than mine. It can be easy for an author to picture things in his or her mind and feel comfortable with that vision in the written words. Those beta readers can see the novel in a much different way. They report those different perspectives to me, and I use that input to shape my revisions. My expert on German history caught several small errors. I caught an inconsistency in the early life of my main character. Several caught a reaction to certain events that didn't make sense, and they made me aware of that. That reaction will be changed, and I know the novel will be stronger.

Beta readers are the refiners of a novel. They keep me on track, and begin the molding process. I tip my hat to them. I am eager to receive the input from my other readers, and The Old Man From Denmark will take the necessary steps forward.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Great stories about a great father

I don't like to be a public speaker, but my job this week was easy. I got to tell people who knew my father as a great guy stories about how great he was. I decided to tell about character traits that were obvious in Eldon Metteer's life, and where I believe he gained those attributes.

I started in his birthplace, Antelope, Oregon. Yes, Antelope is as small as it sounds. Let your mind work as you hear these facts. Antelope is on the dry side of Oregon, but there is adequate grass for a few cattle ranches and many more sheep ranches. It is about ten miles from a wide spot in the road called Bakeoven, but you have to travel a long way to find another town of even moderate size. The town has dirt streets that become mud streets when it rains. There are only a few hundred people who live there. The commerce is done mainly by people who cater to the ranchers, or provide goods for those heading east to Oregon's gold country. It is the kind of place that has a kid named Cabbage Murphy. My dad told me many stories about Cabbage Murphy, and how you could identify him because he was smoking a cigar, and he smoked stogies since he was five years old.

But I concentrate on another colorful character from Antelope, an older gentleman named Farquhar McRae. He was known for three things: He was a big drinker, he swore often (although he never did either of those around children because they needed good examples), and he had a heart of gold. If someone needed help repairing a barn, Farquhar was there early in the morning. Need help loading up a wagon? Farquhar was there. Pictures of him show Farquhar in a battered hat, dusty shirt, dusty pants, dusty boots. Farquhar was a common visitor to the Metteer homestead. My grandfather, Elmer, worked at a big cattle ranch, and my grandmother, Olive, had to take care of the house and her family. Farquhar was familiar with sheep ranching, and he served as foreman of some of those ranches. The story my dad told me centered on Farquhar showing up one day and asking my grandma what she needed. She said they were getting low on meat, and some mutton would be nice.

My dad was about five or six years old when this happened, and he tagged along with Farquhar as he did the task. Farquhar then had a large amount of fresh meat for the Metteers, and he brought it into the kitchen. My grandma asked him what she owed. My dad remembers Farquhar's reply like this: "M'am, if you happen to make a mutton stew, one bowl would be a right fine payment." That was the kind of statement you expected in Antelope. People didn't expect much because they didn't have much, but you took care of others and followed Farquhar's lead and went the extra mile.

What did Dad owe Antelope? Be tough-minded because this is a tough land, and care for others. Those lessons were part of Dad's way of doing things throughout his life.

The Metteers pulled up stakes and moved to The Dalles, a town about 80 miles northwest of Antelope on the banks of the Columbia River. They lived on a homestead outside of town for several years. Eldon was educated at St.Mary's Academy, The Dalles High School, and headed off to the University of Portland. He returned to The Dalles after his college years. Now, think of this next story as something out of the movie It's A Wonderful Life. Dad is walking down the street and a car pulls up beside him, and the driver bangs on the side of the door and says, "Hey, Dach, I have someone I want you to meet." (They called Eldon Dach, which is short for dachshund, because he was tall and slender.) The speaker was good friend Ernie Fagan, and he wanted Dach to meet his niece, Virginia, who was in town from Los Angeles. Well, Virginia saw Dach and thought he was a handsome dude, and Dach thought Virginia was a cute young woman. They dated, and they fell in love, and they were married on August 22, 1941. That meeting on the street started a 73-year relationship between Eldon and Virginia, and that's another attribute of my dad: intense loyalty and love. One picture on his memorial page shows Eldon tending to Virginia during the final few days of her life. There's Eldon loving on his girl, and taking care of her to the very end.

My dad also had a work life, and he took those earlier characteristics into his work. He heard the Union Pacific Railroad was hiring, so he headed 80 miles west and went to the railroad's Oregon headquarters in Portland. He was told there were no jobs available. What did the tough-minded kid from Antelope do? He waited in the office through the rest of the morning, lunch hour, and the entire afternoon. The district manager came out of his office to head home, and the secretary pointed out this young man who waited all day. The manager told Dad there were no jobs. Dad told him he was getting married soon, and he had to have a job so he could take care of his wife and any children they might have. The manager called Dad into his office, probably heard stories about growing up in Antelope and The Dalles, and he hired Dad on the spot.

Dad worked for the Union Pacific for nearly four decades, but that was only part of his responsibilities. He also was a union representative, and he often defended employees the company wanted to penalize. I remember many times when Dad would come home from a road run into far Eastern Oregon, and he would be dead-tired. He might nap for an hour or two, but I would see him carrying a big stack of papers down the hall. He spread those papers out over our dining room table, and Dad would spend hours going over railroad handbooks, union guides, and papers he prepared for other cases. He would jot down his thoughts on a legal pad, and he was more than ready by the time he showed up to take on company officials in what were termed "investigations". My dad had a lawyer's mind, and he carved up the company's arguments in the vast majority of the investigations he handled. Can you see those life attributes at work in that union job: tough-mindedness, caring for others, intense loyalty?

Dad also was true to his faith. He not only gave a mental approval to Christianity, but he put those foundations into action. He was active in church food programs, visitations to the elderly, and healing ministries. He was the kind of guy who would go the extra mile to take care of others at the prodding of this revolutionary from Nazareth.

I am a journalist, and I could go on and on with things to say about my dad, but I leave the final words to someone else. That man is Ace Brown. Ace was one of those Union Pacific officials Dad locked horns with during investigations. I ask forgiveness from the pastor doing Dad's service for my next statement, but I said Ace got his ass kicked by Dad on more than a few occasions. Well, I worked on the railroad during three summers in my college days. One year I headed to Spokane, Washington, and who is the district manager there? Ace Brown. I passed an oral exam before Ace that was required even if I had previous experience on the railroad, and Ace had me sit down after the exam. He asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and I told him I was attending the University of Oregon and studying journalism because I wanted to be a newspaperman. He said the railroad was looking for good young people, and I told him I didn't want a railroad job. Ace then leaned forward and looked at me. "No matter what you do, if you get later in life and are as good a man as your dad, then you are a complete success." Those words were from a guy who often was Dad's adversary, but Dad earned Ace's great respect.

I will say this in response to Ace: If I am half a good a man as my dad, then I am a complete success. I thank God for the 99-plus years He kept Dad with us. We were blessed beyond measure.