Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Sunshine, Rain, Cartwheels and Pain...

…the moment a name is given the disease, the whole thing is changed: fright ensues, and horrible depression, and the life that has learned its sentence is not worth the living. Medicine has its office, it does its share and does it well; but without hope back of it, its forces are crippled and only the physician's verdict can create that hope when the facts refuse to create it.
Mark Twain—Letter to Dr. W. W. Baldwin, May 15, 1904

Sunshine and rain, cartwheels and pain. I didn’t make up that title. It’s my daughter’s concoction of words to describe what she’s going through in her life right now.

As I told you before, my son-in-law, Mike, has been diagnosed with lung cancer. He’s very young. He’s almost 35.

On September 1, Mike had surgery to remove a tumor from his brain. On September 27, he will begin radiation for some smaller tumors on the brain, as well as chemotherapy treatments for the lung cancer. The brain surgery was a success, and he did remarkably well. Had the surgery on a Wednesday and was back home on the Friday of the same week. If you could not see the scar on his head, you’d never know he’d been through such a major procedure.

My daughter, Lyndie, has been an extreme optimist during this part of their life’s journey. She’s courageous on the outside as well as inside. Of course she sees the negative possibilities—I know, we’ve spoken about it. In fact, she’s been one of that small army of very young wives who’ve had to take on the daunting task, with her husband, of making out a living will which was a stark thump on the head to the very real possibility of the unthinkable—Mike’s NOT surviving this illness.

Lyndie has always been an optimist. You know the type. The ‘glass half-full’. Me? It’s just a damn glass. Half-full, half-empty, it’s still just a glass. I’m not negative, not positive, just somewhere in between. Life just IS.

That being said, now I find myself clinging to my daughter’s positive spirit. Damn, that optimism comes in handy at times like these.

But I was hurt for Lyndie when someone made these comments to her—on a VERY public forum—regarding her cheerful spirit in dealing with Mike’s illness: You’re delusional. What’s it like to live in Lyndie-land?

Nah. I take that back. I’m not hurt. I’m angry, crazy angry that—at this traumatic time in my dear daughter’s life—somebody, anybody, would take the opportunity to lash out their own bitterness to her, to attempt to kick her legs out from under her.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing this person for not being optimistic. Believe it or not, I’m not even knocking them for resenting my daughter’s bright personality. There’s no rule that says we have to like everybody, that we have to like every type of personality.

It’s just the timing, the cruelty of the timing. And, comically, it reminded me of Dracula’s cowering at the sight of the upheld cross. To see such hatred displayed to a person, just because that person is a perpetual optimist, reminds me so much of that old scene where the vampire hisses and crouches at the symbol of good.

But to this person who chose to unleash their bitterness at this time—this time when my daughter is drawing from her own reserve of whatever it is that gets her through her husband’s extremely serious illness—I thank you. Yes, I thank you.

Your expression of resentment has caused ME to look deeper, to see just how much I DO appreciate my daughter’s strength. She’s one damn strong woman, no matter how bubbly and cheerleader-like she may seem. That’s just on the outside, baby. Inside that very pretty, glowing persona is a woman who has been through the fire, has MADE it through the fire, and who come out on the other side as strong as steel. And who is now stepping into yet another fire, the biggest fire of her life.

If my daughter—or anyone for that matter—chooses to see the damn glass half-full or filled-to-overflowing, then let her, damn it. You drink from whatever glass you see fit, and let others drink from theirs.

A dear friend of mine is dealing with cancer also. His approach is practical, and my approach with him, toward HIS illness, is also practical. Because that’s how he wants it. But he’d be the first to say that you must let the persons dealing with the crisis handle it in their own way. And so it is with Mike and Lyndie.

This Lyndie-land that my daughter has chosen to live is her choice, and it gets her through this, and gives her the strength to walk beside Mike during this trial. Lyndie-land may sound all gingerbread, cotton-candy and peppermint sticks. But let me tell you. It only SEEMS that way. In reality, it’s a tough impenetrable fortress that houses a strong, strong woman. A woman I’m so proud of I can hardly bear the huge pride.

Lyndie refers to it as sunshine and rain, cartwheels and pain. That about sums it up. So, in spite of her cheeriness which this person has found so annoying…my daughter also knows the pain. And she’s handling it much, much better than I ever could. With courage and grace…and a smile.

Here’s to you, Lyndie.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

The Lightning Bug and the Lightning...

My last blog addressed editing—specifically the letting go of precious words for the integrity of the story.

That discussion led me to another level in editing, in addition the cutting of unnecessary words: making sure the words I keep will give the story as much impact as possible.

I’m sure we never intentionally write in a weak voice. In fact, I’m betting that most, like me, sincerely think our writing is powerful. In my case, I’m sincere, just often sincerely wrong.

I get a rush as I write certain scenes, they are so dynamic. Well, in MY head they’re dynamic. I often find—when a more experienced eye than mine peruses my writing—much of my word choice doesn’t quite hit its potential.

I know, I know. We’ve all been trained to avoid passive voice. Instead of ‘he was walking’, use ‘he walked’, etc. And that is, by the way, one of the most crucial elements of writing.

But what I’m referring to is something even beyond passive verbs. I’m talking about matching the right words to reflect the power of emotions for individual characters. It seems as though that would come naturally for us, doesn’t it? After all, these are OUR characters. Who would know them better than we do?

Yes, we DO know our characters better than anyone else and only WE know how they would react—whether our guy would bust another guy in the chops if he was insulted or if he would sit down and cry. If our heroine would claw her boyfriend’s eyes out if he talked smutty to her or jump in his arms and kiss him.

This is not to say that, even though a hero is a big, fearless man, he would never break into a crying jag. He CAN. I’m not talking about whether the actual emotions are true to the character or not, but whether we always use the right words to reflect those emotions.

An example? In my WIP, my character was about to be told bad news. He told the bearer to just spit it out, quit stalling.

I had originally written it like this:

I really didn’t want him to just spit it out. I knew, my soul knew, that Jesse was about to tell me something that would hurt me. But I was the “pull the bandaid off fast” type…

We all know what it means to pull the bandaid off fast. He wanted the news fast, no beating around the bush to soften the blow.

A friend of mine, who is a writer and editor, saw this sentence. She knew my character already. She knew he was an urban tough guy. Virile. Gritty. Afraid of nothing. She wondered if a man like this might express himself more boldly, that maybe pull the bandaid off fast seemed weak for him.

I thought about it and agreed. One hundred percent. Although the bandaid wasn’t actually wrong, it still could have been stronger. To get a bit tougher with the thought was an opportunity to enhance the scene, to give the reader a bit more of the image I had perceived for my hero.

Now it reads:

I really didn’t want him to just spit it out. I knew, my soul knew, that Jesse was about to tell me something that would hurt me. But I was the “just give me whiskey and cut the fucking bullet out” type…

See the difference? Although my writing itself might be crude, the image is stronger.

I’d never concede to thinking another person would know my characters better than me; however, I WILL gladly open myself to an idea from a more experienced eye which might spot weaknesses such as this. Not a weakness in my characters, but a weakness in my choice of words to illustrate them.

To be honest, my friend coaxed me to think even deeper, to tighten and make the whiskey-and-bullet reference even more powerful. And I will do that eventually. But, even as is, there is a vast difference between the band-aid and the bullet.

In time, I’ll be keener to choosing the most powerful words to express emotions. To be able to know the words that deliver the closest image of what I really want to paint takes practice. For me, anyway. But it’s such an adventure, forcing my brain to THINK about the choices.

Mark Twain said it much better than I ever could:

The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter—it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

- Letter to George Bainton, 10/15/1888

Those words give me chills. How very powerful.

Experienced writers already know this secret. I’m beginning to understand it. I don’t know if the knack for knowing the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning or the bandaid and the bullet comes naturally for some or if, like me, it has to be learned. I do know one thing. Once you DO know the difference—even if you have to struggle with it as I do—it can become one of the most dynamic tools in your writing.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Bye Bye, Wordie!

Work-in-Progress, Word Count:
7:00 p.m., Sunday:    1,335 words (Yes!)

8:15 p.m., Sunday:    1,570 words (Progress, sweet progress!)

9:00 p.m., Sunday:   1,733 words (Closing document for the day, satisfied with progress, going to bed, smiling—Queen of the World!)

12:38 p.m, Monday:  1,000 words (Not smiling)

1:00 p.m., Monday:      933 words (Growling, not crying yet)

1:32 p.m., Monday:     481 words (Believe or not, grinning from ear to ear)
I just lost 1,252 precious, blood-bought words of my manuscript.
Yesterday evening, I zoomed along at breathtaking speed. The words literally flowed from my fingertips to the keyboard to the screen. Good words, strong words. Indispensable words, every one. Would I write any OTHER kind?

Poor thing. What happened? you ask, sympathetic. Computer crash? The old accidental deleting of a document?

No. My critique partner happened, that’s what.

After I turned the document over to her, she came back with the dreaded diagnosis: repetition, too much dead weight, this scene is not moving the story along. The writing, she said, was good. Actually, the scene itself was good, too, but was just a repetition of mushy feelings of the characters—simply huggy-kissy emotions that had already been explored many times in previous chapters. Dead weight.

I will admit that, before I got the edict back from her, I sort of knew in my heart that the chapter WAS full of junk. I will also jokingly admit that I sometimes think I attempt to produce words, any words, just to keep from winding down to the end of the story, to actually keep from typing The End. Sounds silly, but it’s true; however, that's another story for another blog.

Humor aside, though, I wonder if I’m the only writer who sometimes feels relief when a keen eye DOES spot dead weight in my story and DOES suggest snipping wordage.

I don’t know how to describe the feeling I get when I drastically slice a document, when I set the story free of useless baggage. Is it frustration? Only a tiny bit, only at first. But after the initial disappointment, it’s mostly a feeling that could only be likened to losing unwanted body weight. Good, refreshing, empowered.

A practical description of the unexpected rejuvenation that comes from trimming a document is to compare it to film edits. Have you ever watched the special features in movies—the deleted scenes? I love to do this, especially with producer commentaries. I’ve watched some of the lost scenes and wondered why they were relegated to the cutting room floor. They looked really good to me. In fact, they were sometimes, in my uneducated opinion, the best scenes in the film.

But, upon hearing the commentator explain why the scene was not a fit for the film, why it had to be dropped, it made sense. I saw their reasoning. And usually the explanation they cited was that the scene did not add to the integrity of the movie, it did not move the story along. When I looked at the big picture through the film editor’s eyes, I saw it as well, and I agreed that the deleted scene indeed would not have contributed to the film and, furthermore, may have bogged it down.

The result, most of the time? A better film. A tight, smooth story.

It’s the same with editing of our writing. I’m not saying that a critique partner is always right. Of course they aren’t always right. But the bottom line is that they are readers, whether they are writers or not. And they know when they’re tired of reading the same sentiment over and over again in a single manuscript, which was the case with mine. They know when they’re bogged down with unnecessary detail.

A step further is the publisher’s editor. They have an eye for these inefficiencies in our work as well. And, no, editors are not infallible. No, writers don’t always agree with them.

Mind you, before you stop me and say, But wait!, I’m only referring to true unnecessary wordage. I often hear writers tell of instances where they refused to budge with critique partners and editors on certain scenes. One author in particular told how she fought for a particular scene in her manuscript, against overwhelming disapproval from her betas. She was warned the scene would ruin the story. She held fast to the piece—not driven by vanity, but her gut feeling that this part of the story needed to stay. The result? The author was correct. The reading public unanimously agreed.

Sometimes we really do know our stories better than anyone else and we DO have to stick to our guns by refusing cuts of scenes or words that we just KNOW belong. I suppose, at those times, it comes down to pure, passionate instinct.

But—when the betas or critique partners ARE correct in their diagnosis of our work, and it truly is a chapter chock full of debris—then, as crushing as it seems at first, it truly is for the benefit of the story. If we step back and see it as if through they eyes of the cutting room chief, then we probably will be relieved to shed the unwanted weight. Our story will more than likely be tighter, have more impact, our words will get more bang for the buck. And our stories will sigh and thank us.

I wonder about your experiences? Do you see the improvements when your betas, critique partners or editors catch the impedimenta in your story, even if it means losing hard-earned word count? How often DO you have to chop fat from your manuscripts? Have you had scenes that you fought tooth and nail to keep? And, if you did—were you right in holding on to them? Did you ever have that scene that you DID fight over, that the readers’ positive responses assured you that you’d made the right decision?

I’d love to know.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Apparently There is Nothing That Cannot Happen Today...

Enzio Rinaldo stopped at the door and thrust his hand to Salvatore, “It’s been a pleasure, Giancomo.”

The snarl on the capo’s lips, the fury that flashed in the deep-set eyes, sent prickly heat to the back of Salvatore’s neck. Hesitant, knowing the man rooted for trouble, he met Rinaldo’s gaze and took the proffered hand.

The meaty claw slowly tightened around Salvatore’s hand in a vice-like grip, so tight that Rinaldo’s hairy knuckles turned white.

“That really hurts.” Salvatore smiled through gritted teeth.

The pressure of Rinaldo’s grip increased until the skin on Salvatore’s hand twisted and burned like a million bee stingers.

“There’s really no need for you to do this.” Salvatore maintained a calm tone although his internal pressure cooker had begun to hiss. “You’re the stronger man, obviously.” How that lie struggled to keep from coming to his lips. How difficult to restrain himself while DiPaolo studied them, sized them up like a cool Nero. “You don’t have to keep on.”

“Rinaldo.” DiPaolo finally broke his curious stare. With a sigh, he rolled his eyes and tugged the elegant dove gray coat about his slender shoulders. “Stop.”

Rinaldo tossed a sideways glance at his boss, but ignored the command. His eyes—teeming with unbridled hatred—remained fixed on Salvatore’s.

“I’m going to ask you one more time. Enzio,” Salvatore whispered.

When the clasp didn’t slacken, Salvatore took a deep breath, bored, resigned. With the speed of an adept magician, he formed a fist with his left hand and brought the knuckle of his middle finger down onto the straining muscles on top of the capo’s hand. As Rinaldo cried out in agony and sank to his knees, Salvatore grasped his fingers and bent them back with such strength the poor man crumpled, prone at his feet, moaning, grimacing.

Grinning, still clenching Rinaldo's hand in an excruciating grip, Salvatore asked, “Do you want me to let go, you son of a bitch?”
Rinaldo, his forehead pressed to the rose-and-ivy carpet, whimpered, “Please."

Salvatore released his hold, grabbed Rinaldo’s wrist and pulled him to his feet. He lent him a gentle smile and lightly brushed the lapels of the man’s coat and cooed, “Tsk, tsk. You’ve mussed your clothes.”

The above scene—very early in my writing and very rough, mind you—was…well…it was stolen. Yes, I stole it.

No, I didn't steal the words from another writer. I 'borrwed' them from a friend.

My buddy, Jay, and I hang out often on weekends in what we call Green Apple Summit Meetings. The name for these meetings came from the film, Stranger than Fiction, where a best-selling author, played by Emma Thompson, breaks a long spell of writers’ block by simply seeing a green apple roll across the street and stop against the curb at her feet.

During one of our frequent GAS meetings, Jay recounted to me a story of how he had been bullied by a fellow at a bar. He told me how he politely tried to avoid a fight as the man—exactly as depicted in the scene above, almost word for word—tried to engage him in a juvenile bout of hand wrestling. A battle for supremacy over some misunderstanding. Jay didn’t want to fight and remained calm, forfeiting his own pride for the sake of peace. That didn’t suit the drunk contender. So, when the pain became too intense to bear, Jay let loose and brought the challenger to his knees, then calmly walked away.

I listened, mesmerized, to Jay’s story. I was intrigued by his calm, quiet handling of the situation, and by his surprising strength which ultimately sent the bully crumpling at his feet. And my writer’s mind immediately incorporated this incident into my WIP. With his blessing, Jay’s scuffle with the bully became one of my favorite scenes in my story.

No matter how severe my own writer's block might be, I can sit with Jay, listen to him, and without fail will hear something--a word, anything--that will trigger a thought to clear my writing bottleneck.

I LOVE infusing real-life situations—whether they’re my own or told to me by friends—into my work. My friend Jay has lent many scenarios, words and phrases to my writing cause. He was formerly a truck driver, has been everywhere imaginable, has encountered countless colorful episodes like the one I ‘copied’ for my story. In fact, Jay shows up a lot in all my work.

And hardly a day goes by at work that I don’t overhear something interesting, something that grips me, something that ends up in my work. It just so happens that the Hispanic fellows at my job are all, in one way or another—whether it’s bits of tales they share or simply Spanish words they teach me—in my current contemporary work. They know this, too, and think it’s fun.

It happens sometimes at the grocery story, at Wal-Mart, at the park, just driving down the road. Somebody or something will cross my path and, before I know it, finds its way into a story. I love that.

Mark Twain said, "Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today." Damn, I love that, too!

Life, every little morsel of it, is and adventure, or can be turned into one. And, half the time, as with the writer in Stranger than Fiction, you don’t even have to be looking for it.

How many of your real-life experiences show up in your writing? Do your friends pop up in your stories? Do you see interesting people on the street and, before you know it, find yourself weaving them into your work? Do you overhear interesting dialogue in your daily life, even while standing in the check-out line at the store, and transport it to your book?

I'd love to hear just how much of your everyday life is reflected in your writing. How many 'green apples' roll up to you and end up on your written page?