Saturday, December 23, 2017

Find consistency in midst of chaos

There is no more important part of the writing process than revisions. It's nice to have a basic story line that shines through on the first draft. That won't carry the freight. What a good novel becomes is based on the amount of hammering you do to subject matter and characters, and how honest you are with your work in pursuit of your goals. Be ruthless. Have no pet ideas. Don't fear those times you know you must tear up chapters.

There is a caveat. Make sure your characters' reactions make sense as you lead them through the development of the character arc. Keep them real amid the chaos.

The best piece of advice I got from my first-draft beta readers was that one character's reaction to a major plot point didn't make sense. My main female character just had an event of shattering importance, but I had her sharing a laugh with her partner a short time later. Sorry, but that didn't fit the events, and I didn't write it as if it happened simply as an outlet for her pain and concern. It was shoddy writing and review on my part.

I am ripping into parts of my novel with bad intent. I am sharpening characters. I am tossing incidents that I tacked on near the end of the novel toward the front because the change adds a delicious richness to the story line. I have tossed out an entire chapter or two, and blended two into one in order to repair story-flow potholes. However, I strive to keep emotional consistency in the process. A character going through life needs anger, sorrow, joy, hope, setback. He or she might even find a bit of redemption, or not. But lead them in a way that makes sense.

One tactic to achieve that is to immerse yourself in the character. Put away preconceived notions based on your own life and settle into the life and reactions of your character. Hurt when he or she hurts. Laugh when he or she does. Feel the need to cover real feelings when those are too difficult to handle, if that's part of your character's makeup. Such a method is tough on an author, and sometimes to those around them. I tend to get focused as I approach AIC (Ass In Chair) time. I don't like to have my focus interrupted, but my wife inadvertently does it. I don't react well, and I need to apologize each time.

Hmmm, maybe I can work that into a character's reaction if their focus is interrupted. Happy I came up with that option. Now, in which section of my work will that fit, and how can I inject that and keep emotional consistency? Ay, there's the rub.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Wrestling with the idea of white privilege

A former co-worker was the first I saw charge that all Caucasian employees have the advantage of white privilege. I laughed and labeled it as the latest wave of thought designed to find perpetrators for victims. I laughed because of my upbringing.

I was born in The Dalles, Oregon, which isn't an epicenter of wealth and status. It's a town of about 10,000 residents on the banks of the Columbia River. It is known for cherries, wheat, winds funneled through the Columbia River Gorge, and a key historic spot for Lewis and Clark and the pioneers who ventured west on the Oregon Trail. It was a good place to grow up, at least for me. It was small enough that you had the feeling all residents were neighbors. A downside was that you were often known by who your parents were. I was often introduced as Eldon's boy, or Virginia's boy. I was the third child of three, so I also was known as Steve's little brother, or John's little brother.

It also was a town with a racist reputation. We had a neighbor who worked at what was then Harvey Aluminum (it became part of the Martin Marietta complex of companies) who said an African-American man he worked with drove to and from Portland every day because The Dalles was known as being anti-black. I remember exactly one African-American child at an area school, a boy named Edgar who attended Colonel Wright Elementary. I don't remember him being with us in high school. There also were comments aimed at Native Americans, notably the Celilo tribe that was displaced from its home and its salmon fishery east of town when officials constructed The Dalles Dam in the mid-1950s. The men of the tribe built walkways over Celilo Falls, and they dipped nets over the falls and harvested salmon. The falls disappeared in the backup caused by the dam.

Despite that white-dominated populace, I never saw myself as privileged. I wasn't the son of a physician, plant manager, or the owners of cherry orchards or wheat fields. We were far from rich, but we weren't destitute. There were, however, times when my savings bank, a plastic container from a downtown savings and loan that I filled with quarters and small change, provided the means to buy milk and bread because the folks'  money didn't stretch from paycheck to paycheck. My dad was a railroad brakeman, my mom a stay-at-home mom until I was in second grade, and then a bookkeeper. We were taught the lessons that hard work paid off, that you didn't shirk if the job was hard or you had to do it when it was more than 100 degrees, which happened often in summers.

More pertinent to this discussion, I was taught by Eldon and Virginia that the color of one's skin had no bearing on one's value. African-Americans were respected although I didn't have ways to show that because they were few and far between for me. That value also extended to the Celilos and other tribal people. They were more likely to be the targets of racist talk, being referred to by some as braves or squaws. But I also knew the children of the tribe, and I never used those demeaning words. I worked at a grocery store back when boxboys took paper bags of purchased foods to the cars of customers. On early Saturday mornings particularly, I would perform that service for Native Americans. I loaded groceries into the back of a pickup or station wagon, and there was the pungent smell of fish because the family had taken part of their catch of salmon and sold it to local restaurants or other outlets before going grocery shopping.

See, I didn't have any trace of privilege. I got where I got in my career because I worked hard at it. I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth. To me, Old Money meant finding a potentially rare coin in the change I received. No one bought me cars, and they didn't furnish me with my first home as a way to get Junior an influx of cash to start an adult life. I worked during the summers to make enough money to pay tuition at the University of Oregon. No one gave me anything. I earned it.

It's only when I look back at my career do I see evidence for white privilege. I was a journalist, and I worked at newspapers in Oregon, northern California, and Colorado. Some of my stops were in small Oregon towns where there were no African-Americans, so it made sense that no African-Americans were on the news staffs. But that lily-white dominance in the newsrooms continued until I reached The Denver Post, and that was more than 30 years into my career. None in Baker City, or Bend, Oregon. None in Santa Rosa, California. None in Eugene, Oregon. I don't remember any African-Americans in my upper-level classes at the UO School of Journalism.

Maybe I was privileged by the color of my skin. It was nothing I was aware of, or sought to exploit. I don't know why no African-Americans were in newsrooms. I was in position to hire at some of my career stops. I had an African-American candidate at only one place, and that was the YourHub sections of The Denver Post. I hired that candidate, Hugh Johnson. I didn't hire him for the color of his skin, but for his hunger for a chance to write and become a reporter. The sad part was Hugh's hiring dovetailed with another wave of job cuts. I sat with Hugh and other members of the Douglas-Arapahoe counties team in the morning, and I pitched business names to Hugh so he could get established in one part of his job. Soon after that meeting, I was notified by higher-ups that the job class Hugh just stepped into was being eliminated. I had the terrible task of notifying five community managers that they no longer had jobs. It was the most gut-wrenching day of my career. I remember needing to take a long walk down the 16th Street Mall because, frankly, I needed to cry. The group of five who just lost their jobs were still standing in the lobby of the building, and it was difficult for me to look them in the eye. That was especially true regarding Hugh. I muttered a soft "I'm sorry" as I passed the group. One of the workers put her arms around me and told me she knew it wasn't my fault. I'm glad she understood, but that didn't make me feel better.

To the credit of those at The Post, Hugh was hired for another job. He was a good worker there, but he recently moved to the Colorado Springs Gazette to do sportswriting. I wish him well. He has a young family, and I know he has that fire to write, and write well. I am happy I hired him, but it isn't because of color. It's because he's a helluva fine person with a strong inner drive.

Still, that onus of white privilege shows up. I wrestle with the facts of being a small-town kid who wasn't handed anything, but I worked in all-white newsrooms for almost my entire career. Why? It wasn't my choice. Whose was it, and why did it happen?

If there is one problem I have with those proclaiming white privilege, it is that those who proclaim it loudly are white, and they are privileged. Each had or have jobs that pay well above the average. My fight with their position is that if they believe what they say, they would direct that venom at their own situations. If they believe so strongly in the debilitating effects of white privilege, they should walk up to their supervisors, resign from their jobs, and tell the supervisors to hire minority candidates because they are disadvantaged in the job market. Well, we know that isn't going to happen. There are moral standards, then there is keeping a good-paying job. Personal economic factors win out each time. Maybe that perpetuates white privilege. Isn't that ironic?

Thursday, November 30, 2017

I'm infected with journalism-itis

I was trained to be a journalist, using those pillars of the profession such as the five W's, the inverted pyramid style and the effective use of quotes. I just used one journalism trait called for in The Associated Press style guide. That's the omission of the Oxford comma after "style". Many copy editors and not a few literary agents throw their hands up when they see the Oxford comma omitted, but that just accents the gap between two worlds.

My favorite task when I was a reporter was doing a feature story. I loved having the leeway to dive into events that shaped several people, or getting to know people who were just a tad off the standard line. The story I liked best as a young journalist was a feature on a photographer who worked along the Russian River near Guerneville, California. His business name was Tintype Gordon, and he took antique-looking photos of people, putting them in period dress so they looked like they stepped out of the 1880s. The best part of the story was Gordon's recounting of his past life as a mid-level manager with a major computer firm, and how he junked it all to work along the river and live on a quiet, tree-shrouded road south of Guerneville.  He packed up all his tintype photography gear and headed to places where he could get more customers, and everything was done on a walk-up basis. I wrote about a 35-inch story, which was standard length for most newspaper feature stories.

I had my formula: solid opening paragraph or two, ranking facts in importance from truly noteworthy to merely supporting material, and cementing it all with good quotes properly placed. Those quotes were much like mortar a mason uses while building a wall.

Now take that formula and translate it to my current task of writing novels. If I were writing about Tintype Gordon for a novel about life along the Russian River, I would take time to note multiple details. I would start with Gordon standing on a Guerneville street, then talk about things such as his thick glasses and gray in his beard, his old-time looks with a vest and striped shirt, and maybe the way the sunlight reflected off his cuff links. I might take 15 inches to list those details, and not even get to a quote until I finished that section.

My problem in writing novels is that I revert to my journalistic training too often. I compress the story. What gets lost are rich details that make characters and settings come alive.  I realize that as I go over my material and take into account the input of my beta readers. That is one of the two main problems with my current novel, the other being my injection of too many side issues so the story line doesn't have a consistent flow. Those areas will be corrected. Those corrections are what beta readers and revisions are all about. It's a challenging and often vexing part of the writing process, but it is so necessary to the production of a proper work.

(By the way, do you get the feeling I compressed that story to fit the blog format? Lol.)

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The joy of starting revisions

I spent the past two writing sessions tearing apart my latest novel. I've heard that your novel is like your child, but I've never treated any of my children the way I treated these words. I know I must change things, and I am hammering away to bolster several areas of the story.

I must expand and deepen certain characters. I must heighten tension by injecting events with more life. There must be more peril. I must tighten my writing by eliminating unneeded words, phrases and sentences. The copy editor side of me loves doing that.

One more beta reader has to send me a final set of reviews, but the section I am working on isn't affected. He already gave me information on the first two-thirds of the novel, so I am blending some of those recommendations into the work.

I will do probably three more versions before hitting a work that I can use to approach literary agents. I apologize to, but thank profusely, those who gave their input on my first and second drafts. Your visions are more important to me than you know.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

More of the Southern lifestyle

I am six months into living in South Carolina, and there are interesting lessons to learn. Here are a few more:

There are a lot of redheads around here. I'm not talking about redheads made that way from a bottle. I'm talking about redheads with milky white skin. I noticed several while going to the gym near us, and I figured it was a minor matter. I learned, however, that this was more than chance. The Upstate of South Carolina has the largest number of those with Irish or Scottish heritage. Said so on the news. What's notable is that's the same fact author J.D. Vance talked about in describing the hillbilly culture of eastern Kentucky. Those folks are fiercely loyal to each other and have a bit of a combative streak. Vance noted that the Hatfields vs. McCoys was sparked by this demographic.

There is a lot of black skin around here. I'm going to sound rather insular here. I never lived in an area with as many African-Americans as Anderson, S.C. That's understandable. I grew up in The Dalles, Oregon, and I remember one African-American student at another school. My elementary and high schools didn't have any. I went to the University of Oregon and was around several African-Americans, but never on a friendship basis. The majority of media outlets at which I worked had no African-American employees. Sure, The Denver Post had more, and I worked closely with Anthony Cotton, Chris Dempsey, Thomas George, and others, but I was rather shielded in my earlier days. My living arrangement now is quite different. There are eight apartments in our little cluster, and three have African-American families. Guess what? They're teaching me lessons.

Little things make me feel more at home. The longer you live in an area, the more little tricks of the locals you learn. I try to avoid Clemson Boulevard whenever possible. It's the one street in this town that can have a version of gridlock. Locals learn ways to get around the Boulevard Backup. There is the Ollie's Cut-through. I drive by the strip mall that is anchored by Ollie's Bargain Outlet near our apartment, and I get to a major route I use, the East-West Parkway, without having to get on the boulevard. Returning from our son's home could involve going on the boulevard except for the Canterbury Route. This drive takes you through lovely residential areas, and through one of the most beautiful forest edareas I've seen. My Eugene friends might understand my analogy of this route being like going around Nectar Way if there were fewer homes there. The forest is so untouched that you'd never guess you were a minute's drive from well-traveled roads.

The food is different here. I enjoy fried okra, collard greens, and grits. Maybe pecan pancakes aren't exclusively Southern, but they're so good. Hashbrown casserole? It's hash browns with cheese and onions added, and it's sensational. I have yet to try chow chow, which is a tangy vegetable relish and a Southern staple. This is the home of barbecue, and this place has some good spots. I rate The Pompous Pig as the best BBQ place I've ever been, but folks here rate The Smokin' Pig as being better. I've heard you can expect to stand in line for awhile. One fact about BBQ places: Most are closed for several days a week, If you want good BBQ, plan ahead. The best little food secret I've discovered? Arden's Burgers. It's a hole-in-the-wall place with exactly seven tables. It's in a strip mall that's easy to overlook. However, it has the best Asian fusion-influenced menu. There are Hawaiian, Vietnamese, Thai and Korean burgers. The latter three come with a warning from the wait staff: Be ready for some serious heat with the sauces. You also get your choice of french fries (only Five Guys is as generous in providing portions) or Asian vegetables. Arden's has carved out a nice niche for those of us who like to try something different. It's really that good.

Side note: My previous blog entry talked about seeing only six Confederate flags during my time in the South. That number nearly doubled last week because I passed one place on our travels returning from Asheville, N.C.There is a shop called Dixie Republic just north of Travelers Rest, S.C., and it is a bastion for all things Confederate. There is a big Confederate flag in front, and two smaller ones. There are small Confederate flags by signs right along the road. Need a flag that has "Southern Rights" on it? It's there. (I checked out the Republic's website.) Want Confederate versions of state battle flags? Yup, you guessed it. Need one that says "The South Will Rise Again"? Place your order. There also are shirts, hoodies, and anything to show your love of the Old South.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Western boy adjusts to the South

I must apologize for the lengthy time between posts. You see, I have pulled up stakes in Colorado and settled into the beautiful Upstate region of South Carolina. It's more than merely a new location. This is a different culture, weather routine, foods, way of life. I am not going to be so presumptuous to believe I understand it all, but I have had time to form opinions about my new home. Here are a few:

1) The South doesn't believe in pretenses. Maybe it's different in Atlanta or Charlotte, but my new hometown of Anderson, South Carolina, is as comfortable as an old shirt. No one is expected to act one way, dress accordingly, show off the signs of status, or spend time telling people how good you are. One of our friends in our new home is Mykel, an African-American man who just moved with his wife into a new home from the apartment complex where we currently live. His reaction to his new home and car on the same day? "That's a blessing," he says. Walk down the street and you'll see people in sandals, a scattering in ties and business attire, maybe a man with hair down to the middle of his back, a woman with multiple rings hanging from her earlobes, a man with dreadlocks, a guy with sweat stains on an old white shirt. Guess what? They're all accepted, and there isn't a cross word aimed at any of them. The same goes for this West Coast guy who talks funny. I'm just part of the fabric of the community.

2) Confederate flags are not the rage. I saw my sixth Confederate flag today. It was on one of those front license plates that people in South Carolina enjoy because only legal rear license plates are required. I saw one to the east of Knoxville, Tennessee, one in eastern Alabama, and one last week in a rural area in far northeastern Georgia. The only obvious display of what I'd regard as a racist nature was the person who flew two Confederate flags on the sides of his car (the kind you see fans of athletic teams have) on the day after the white supremacist debacle in Charlottesville.

3) Race relations are improving, at least on the surface. Television stations have African-American reporters and anchors, advertising figures are often African-American, and the sight of African-Americans and whites in friendly conversation is a daily occurrence. South Carolina's senators are the opinionated and TV-friendly Lindsay Graham, who is white, and the well-respected Tim Scott, an African-American. I have seen African-American women dating white men, and white women dating African-American men. That doesn't draw a second glance. The most promising sign is seeing white and African-American children walking out of school while trading friendly talk and acting like they regard each other as just other human beings. There is a long way to go in many ways, but that is true in Seattle, Oregon, L.A., Denver, Indiana, and other areas that regard themselves as being more racially enlightened.

4) The weather can be dreadful. Heat and humidity isn't as bad as I feared, but the phenomenon of "air you can wear" is a reality. But it's like dealing with blizzards in Colorado, eight-plus months of rain in the western parts of Pacific Northwest states, and torrential rain in the otherwise calm Sonoma County region of northern California. You just have to bow your neck and get through it.

That's only scratching the surface. There is much more, and there will be more blog posts. But right now I have to say, in my best Southern manner, that I'm fixin' to settle in for the night and enjoy a little libation. Night, y'all.

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.