Saturday, June 30, 2012

Trimming the Fat, round 4


Words axed:

Starting word count: 149,284
Ending word count: 124,682

Hot DAMN.  I know that that bar up there is 398 words shy of the 25,000 I swore to after the fact - I will work on that, and do one more quickie run to tweak a couple of the world-building particulars.  But for now, on the last day of the month, let it be recorded that I did what I said I was going to do, on time and at goal. 

I totally failed at all the other stuff, though.

So, new targets for July:

1.  E-mail the Agent of My Dreams to see how she'd like the manuscript sent (the website's grand but kind of vague on this point.)

2.  Finish, suck it up, and hit SEND.

3.  Avert slow descent into nail-biting madness by finishing promised critique and *starting a new thing*.  Maybe a short story.

More interesting content forthcoming.  I actually have about fifty awesome topics I want to rip into, but the sandman cometh.

We did it!  We did it!  We did it, yay!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Trimming the Fat, round 3

End of week 3!  Delete-o-Meter says:

Here to celebrate are five reasons why trimming the fat from your manuscript beats trying to shrink your own personal flab.

1.  Deleting excess words is way easier than deleting excess donuts.

2.  Butt-in-chair is the solution, not the problem.

3.  Eating does not have a Ctrl+Z function.  (Well, it does, but it's icky and very bad for you.)

4.  No fat person has ever been split into a trilogy.

5.  You can't revert back to a saved copy of your gut. 

Good luck to everyone out there who's working on either front, and remember: just say no to purple prose and pork sweats!

I'm not fat, I'm fluffy.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Adding the Egg

Gentle readers, let me tell you a story.

It's a story about cake.

In the latter half of the 1950's, sales of commercial cake mix flatlined.  Which was a real stumper for Duncan Hines et al: they'd enjoyed barnstorming sales numbers in the ten years since the first high-quality, shelf-stable mixes went on the national market. 

During this time, cake mixes had been marketed overwhelmingly for convenience.  Here's an example from 1955:
"So simple you CAN'T go wrong."

So General Mills dispatched a fellow named Ernest Dichter to get to the root of the problem.  As Laura Shapiro reports in her excellent book, he came to this conclusion:

After interviewing women and exploring the emotions that surrounded cakes and baking, Dichter reported that the very simplicity of mixes - just add water and stir - made women feel self-indulgent for using them. There wasn't enough work involved. In order to enjoy the emotional rewards of presenting a homemade cake, they had to be persuaded that they had really baked it, and such an illusion was impossible to maintain if they did virtually nothing.

The solution?  Give the baker more to do.  In microcosm, this could be as simple as adding an egg to the mix, transforming the process from menial dump-and-stir to 'real' baking.  But in the bigger picture, this idea took off in the form of cake decorating.  Marketing emphasis shifted to what the baker would do once the cake came out of the oven: a whole explosion of creative and often labor-intensive cake-crafting how-tos ensued, next to which the 'indulgence' of using a prepackaged mix was nothing.

"Try one of the happy ideas on these pages and just listen to the praise you get!"

Y'all know where I'm going with this, right?

In fiction writing, the idea of "leaving the reader something to do" works on almost every level.  It can be as small as saying that John slammed the door, and leaving the reader to understand that he's left the room.  It can be as vast as writing a story about some talking farm-animals, and prompting the reader to draw in the real-world politics and human nature behind them.  But if you do everything yourself - if you explain and describe like a manic entomologist, if your characters feel all the necessary feelings and reach all the necessary conclusions and wax philosophical about What It All Means - then eventually your reader will get the idea that the story can get along perfectly well without him, and check out.

Sure, the whole DIY angle has its downsides.  Betty Crocker knows, some fool will use bad eggs or forget to grease the pan or try to frost it while it's still hot, and then get pissed at you when it doesn't turn out right.  (And as my patient and forbearing beta readers have taught me, it DOES help if you actually include some directions.)  But anytime you feel tempted to idiot-proof your story, hold fast to the sacred tenets of our man Ernest Dichter up there: good fiction, like homemade cake, is about helping the audience enjoy the emotional rewards of their work.  And they can only do that if we give them work to do.

(Big shout-out for this post to my fearless betas and my workshop posse, who are as sweet vinegar to the dry baking soda of my soul.  Also, if this post has given you a mind to indulge, head on over to Book Binge, where Jenny Martin will hook you up with all manner of prose-and-pastry double-headers.)

Cake, and grief counseling, will be available at the conclusion of the test.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Snow White and the Festering Fairy Tale

I love my sister.  She's everything I'm not, in all the best ways.  She does this thing, where she purses her lips and makes this dog-whistle-pitched fart noise, and...

... anyway, the point is: she's great, but I do kind of want to punch her in the arm for making me sit through Snow White and the Huntsman this weekend.  It was terrible, not in a "this was a total waste of time" way, but in that much more insidious "this could/should have been SO GOOD" way.

Hell-bent to get my money's worth after the fact (well, her money's worth), I've sat back and tried to figure out what derailed my train to Magical Fantasy Wonderland.  Which got me thinking, "all right, so what separates a good fairytale retelling from a bad one?"

Here's what I got.  (Modest Snow White spoilers included; read on if you already know or already know you don't care.)

First of all, one quick political aside: it SUCKS that they did not cast any actual dwarves for this movie.  I wouldn't care as much if they were one-dimensional clownish buffoons, but the writers did a terrific job of making the dwarves into admirable, relatable, interesting characters - which I'm sure is why the casting director said, "oh, these roles are much too important for you, shorties - we'll just shrink Ian McShane & co. down to size and call it a day."  Bastards.  I love what CGI has done for fantasy filmmaking, but every now and then I wish we could go back to the '80s, when you HAD to strip Warwick Davis out of the Ewok suit and let him play Willow.  How many talented actors are missing out on a career because of this digital hobbitizing bullshit?

Anyway, okay, so movie.  Quick, what are some of your favorite fairytale films?  My short-list: The Princess Bride, Shrek, Tangled, and of course The Emperor's New Groove.  I'm sure you have others.  But I'll bet yours follow the same rule as mine:  if you're going to play by fairy-tale rules, you need to keep a fairy-tale atmosphere.  The granddad, in The Princess Bride?  He's not just there to read the book - he keeps reminding us that this IS a book, and a fairytale book at that, so that when ludicrously improbable stuff happens, we are okay with the idea of "mostly dead" or what-have-you, because it fits the story.  The Emperor's New Groove does the same thing in hilarious fourth-wall-breaking fashion, lampshading obvious plot-holes so that we can have a laugh, turn off our inner critic, and get on with the action.

One of these ladies is trying to be taken seriously.

This is one place where Snow White REALLY falls down.  It starts off magically enough, with Thor's voice-over telling the story about the rose, the queen, the fair little princess, etc.  But then we slide right into reality.  The world outside the castle is straight out of Les Miserables: the streets are rivers of mud, the people are filthy and ugly and unshaven - shoot, you can just about feel the itch of the pubic lice.  Everything about the atmosphere is oozing nasty, gritty realism... so by the time Snow White escapes her tower and swims to freedom and there just-so-happens to be a white horse literally sitting on the beach waiting for her to show up, your inner critic is screaming, Artax, what the fuck?
This constant clash of fairytale plot devices and syphilis-blistered setting continues through the whole movie.  Cartoonishly over-the-top Disney villain!  No, wait - implied pedophilia!  Magical happy fairyland paradise!  No, wait - tragic demise of secondary character!  I'm not saying you can't have "true love's first kiss" and "death by boiling oil" in the same story - I'm saying that if you're going to tie your fairytale to a ten-pound brick of gritty realism and drop it off a bridge, you'd better make sure you give it enough internal consistency (i.e. rules for magic) to make the swim.

I have more to say, but this is a good place to stop for now.  So let me turn the mic over in the meantime: what about you guys?  Did you see the movie?  What do you consider essential in a good fairytale?

We're promised gold, and what do we get?  Poo!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Trimming the Fat, round 2

End of week 2!  Delete-o-Meter says:

MAN ALIVE, I am excited.  Here is what is blowing my mind: I am halfway to goal, halfway through the manuscript, and I have ripped out 11,000 words without hacking up the story.  Seriously.  I haven't deleted any scenes (though I've reduced a few down from pages to scant paragraphs), haven't axed any characters (though I've turned several to nameless NPCs), and the only change to the story itself has been *adding* clarity and a sprinkling of relevant backstory to the pot.  Holy crap.

I can remember lying and telling somebody that it was 135,000 words (instead of 149,000), and thinking "yeah, it's 135,000 all right - in that dystopian mirror-universe where I've murdered two secondary characters and chopped off the beginning in a fit of Procrustean pique."  Well, let me tell you, shame-filled past self: here in this universe, the sheriff and the shopkeeper have NOT been assassinated, Chapter One is still Chapter One (because that's where the story starts and everything goes to hell, dammit!), and Spock does not have a goatee.  And I am going to get this sucker down to 125,000, or so help me God, he will eat his Vulcan hat.

To be clear: that might not be the end of the road.  That 125,000 might need to come down further.  But if I can get this thing to where the presentation of the story is as good as the story itself, I will call it a job well done and be pleased to submit it for professional consideration.

Much love to all the NaNo campers out there in the meantime: all over the world, keyboards are wearing out in the genesis of fresh new stories, and the bookshelves will be better for it!

--Thank you, Fairy Godmother!
--Just call me F.G.M.  I hate excess verbiage.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Changing Perspective

Once upon a time, I decided to write a fantasy novel.  And lo, it was anime.

Wait, let's fast forward. 

Once upon a time, I realized that the vaguely-defined, sanitary-generic medieval setting for my fantasy novel was as boring as a packet of unflavored oatmeal on a flat gray pillow, and deleted it.

"Everybody since Tolkien has been doing Euromedieval fantasy," thought I.  "What'll I do instead?"

By and by, I hit on the idea of setting it in something like the American West.  A stunning leap forward for fiction?  No.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I actually had something to say about a setting like that. 

You know, so much fantasy is about Our Heroes rallying together to beat the Dark Lord, and for me, growing up in America has basically been the act of cracking open the family album and realizing that the Dark Lord was dear old great-great-granddad, and he WON.  And that most of the privileges I grew up with are the spoils of unimaginably brutal conquests, and that their consequences are still falling like dominoes through five hundred years of history and right through the present - right into the future! - and that even though *I* didn't do any of those horrible things, I'm still a product of them, and all I have to do to help keep my ancestors' monstrous legacy alive is to complacently mind my own business and accept things the way they are.

It's some galling shit, y'all.

So I decided, "right, if I'm going to do this, I gotta get it RIGHT."  No noble savages, magic Negroes, whitewashing, tokenism, and most especially no heroic white-folks leading a bunch of good-hearted helpless brown people to salvation. 

Anyway, I've been reading up on some of these ways that reasonably well-intentioned writers Get It Wrong, and am still continually amazed at how often I am just bowled over in the process.  At some point, you understand why the stereotypes in Twilight are so immensely awful, have read all about the enormous cringeworthy problems with The Help, are actively unpacking your invisible knapsack, and reckon you're levelling up your cultural awareness.  "Man!" you start thinking.  "I am so enlightened, I should move to Seattle and start ordering my free-trade coffee in Gujarati!"

Then somebody tells you that To Kill A Mockingbird is racist, and your mind is blown.

Well, mine was, anyway.  It was an astonishing reminder of how much I STILL don't know, how readily I STILL make all kinds of sick cultural assumptions, and how much I am STILL a product of my programming. 

Not gonna lie, it's a bummer.

But it's all right, because I'm still going to educate myself.  In Paper Mario terms, my goal is to go from this:

To this:

(Granted, Mr. Mario himself is kinda symbolic: he's white, powerful, heroic, and those hapless wacky fungus-folks in the Mushroom Kingdom never can keep their shit straight without him.)

So what I'm saying is, learning to see in eye-popping cultural 3D is almost certainly a lifelong and imperfect project.  The prospect of Getting It Wrong is intimidating, because the only thing I dread more than getting savaged by critics is actually, seriously hurting somebody through my own blundering ignorance.

But it's also tremendously exciting.  In many ways, trying to write fiction for a living is kind of a selfish pursuit.  You're not curing cancer or saving the rainforest or teaching orphaned kittens to read - mostly you're just trying to pursue your passion profitably enough to quit working second shift at WeenieWorld. 

This part, though - this isn't about quitting the day job or getting famous or book-slapping the naysayers in your life with a hardcover copy of the novel they said you'd never write.  This is about helping to fill in the gaps on the shelves, giving readers of all backgrounds more characters and stories worthy of them, and making your (tiny, individual) contribution towards the raising of the literary bar.

No, changing perspective isn't as easy as pushing a button - but the view is so, so worth it.

And we'll call them... 'goombas'.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Trimming the Fat

Oh, man.  You guys, I am SO EXCITED.  I read this post from Ms. Mandy Hubbard, and even though I am not a big YA person, and even though I am especially not a big "yet another pretty white girl on the cover" person, I want to read that book so bad.  I don't even know what the plot is; just the story of how it came to be is enough to sell me on it. 

If I can stand on that point for just a second: I'm just this year dipping my toes into the World-Wide Writers' Web, but so far, it feels like the default business model is "write something, peter out, trunk it, write something else, get bored, trunk it, write something else, revise it, revise it, trunk it, write something else..."  I haven't exactly done that - even though I have repeatedly deleted EVERYTHING except for a couple of character names and traits, it's always felt like reworking the same story to me - and it's surprisingly heartening to read about somebody else who did that and ended up with a stellar, first-rate work of fiction.

Anyway, she put in her time and got there.  I gotta get there too.  So here's this week's progress, illustrated by what I will call the Delete-o-Meter:

This round, the goal is to revise according to the feedback I've gotten from my readers, and also to shrink the manuscript by at least 15%.  I've revised 4 out of the 16 chapters (I have long chapters, okay - shut up!), and obliterated over 5,000 words.  I am so dang proud of that.

Maybe I'm not doing it right, because although there have been moments of "dang, that was one pretty paragraph," it's not been blood/sweat/tears at any point.  It always amazes me, how I will finish a draft and INVARIABLY feel like it's the most perfect, untouchable thing ever, and pull my hair at the very prospect of mangling it at someone else's behest.  Six months down the road, however, I'm pink-slipping paragraphs and pages and scenes like an Enron executive. 

I suppose it's all in the vision, huh?  You will snarl and snap and cling to your masterpiece, but as soon as you can visualize its superior form, you're mangling it in the bathtub with calm, fanatical precision.

Well, I hope you are, anyway.  I'll feel awkward if I'm the only one.

One pound of flesh, no more, no less.  No cartilage, no bone, but only flesh.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Throwing Down: June Edition

Listen up, June - I am officially throwing down the gauntlet.  I have cleaned off my desk, bought paper and ink and a fresh pack of highlighters, and charged the Kindle.  By the time you are over, I will have:

--edited my manuscript, start to finish

--finished critiquing my crit-partner's manuscript

--learned how to blog, tweet, and pin the way real people do*

(*specifically: I will read and implement Giving the Bird, resurrect my Absolute Write posting habits and start visiting bloggers there, and... figure out how Pinterest works.)

I will also award myself bonus points for every book I can get read this month.  Shit.  Hopefully 29-and-a-half  isn't too old to go to the library and get one of those summer reading club sheets.

So commit with me, people!  What are YOU going to knock out this month?

For this you will need one room, which you will not leave. Soothing music. Tomato soup, ten tins of. Mushroom soup, eight tins of, for consumption cold.