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Assisted Development

Anyone who’s written anything of considerable length –  whether it’s a novel or a report for a class in college – knows that it’s a solitary pursuit. In fact, if you ask most writers what they like least about their craft, it will likely be the hours and hours they must spend by themselves to get the job done.

It’s this part that pro writers like to clarify for writing “civilians” when talk turns to the “glamor” of being a writer.

Really, sitting in a room (or coffee shop or cabin in the mountains or oceanside cottage) all alone, typing made up stuff into a computer is, at its core, actually pretty damn pathetic. Really, who would choose to do this? Especially when there’s absolutely no guarantee that it will ever pay off in any sort of fame or financial success, it seems like the work of a person with genuine social issues. After all, didn’t the Unabomber live like this?

But if we’re lucky, we writers aren’t completely alone in the process. Regardless of whether you’re a beginning writer or someone who has been successful at it for years, it’s important to have someone you can turn to whose opinion you respect to give you honest, non-judgmental feedback on your projects.

For some, this comes with a critique group, which is frequently a group of fellow writers who regularly gather to pass around their work and get opinions from others. It’s a fine idea and pitched as a perfect way for writers to workshop works in progress to see if they’re headed in the wrong direction or if there are massive holes that need to be filled.

I have to be honest – I’ve never been a part of a critique group per se, and I’ll tell you why: Sometimes there are folks who just don’t get it. You know the type (and, come to think of it, maybe you are the type). They seem to be fans of every genre but the one you’re writing in. Or, they ask questions about your piece that aren’t immediately relevant to the criticism you seek. Or, they’re jealous and will take every opportunity to tell you that you suck. The worst critique groups are filled with these types of people.

The best, though, have none of them and are full of open-minded, thoughtful individuals genuinely who appreciate the genre you write in and are focused on trying to help you make your story a hundred times better. And I’m sure there have been many fantasy stories written about the fabulous mythical land in which these groups exist.

If the critique group thing isn’t for you, consider what I’ve found to be an immense amount of help – my very own bar stool development editor. We’re lucky at Codorus Press to have possibly the greatest example of this “writing advisor” in the form of Tom Joyce. Tom worked alongside me, Codorus shaman Wayne Lockwood and Codorus author Mike Argento during our time together at the York Daily Record, and early on displayed an uncanny ability to home in on what makes a story good. (Read Tom’s blog, Chamber of the Bizarre, for more of his insights).

Part of what makes him so valuable to the Codorus team is that he’s an excellent storyteller himself (you’ll get to find out just how excellent when Codorus comes out with his novel The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report in late 2012/early 2013). His skills come from both his history as a voracious reader and a dedicated reporter and copy editor.

We in Codorus Press are also fortunate that we come from the newspaper business, where honest and forthright criticism is something you learn to accept and dish out fairly quickly. There’s no room for angst-driven whining about an element of a news story being “from your soul” or part of a larger effort to offer a metaphor about the futility of human pursuits in the vast nothingness of our universe.

That kind of talk will not only get you mocked openly by your peers, but very likely thrown out the door and kicked down the street until you enroll in a Masters of Fine Arts program and stop bothering people with real jobs and looming deadlines.

Newspaper folks simply don’t have time to plumb the depths of their souls when someone says, “Deadline is in 15 minutes and your story is two inches too long. Make it fit or I’m going to cut it.” So Tom respected that I had a skin grown thick from dealing with editors and reporters and knew that I could handle his thoughts without being a crybaby.

When Tom was working his development editor mojo on Immaculate Deception, for instance, it usually went like this: He would read a chapter of the manuscript. A few nights later, we would meet with our newspaper friends and colleagues for after-deadline drinks. When everyone else had departed or the crowd had significantly diminished, he would settle in over his second (or third) pint and, in his inimitable style, cover point-by-point any issues he found with story, character, plot, theme and continuity.

We would discuss what he thought the particular issues were. Then we would trade ideas – basically just a “what if?” session. Our goal was to work within the bounds of the story but make it better than it was, rather than suggestion something that would alter the entire narrative and require extensive additional exposition or character development. Then I would take his thoughts and recommendations, merge them with what I was trying to achieve and apply them – or not. The point is that they were always worthy of considering and never off-point.

His perspective was particularly helpful to me in nailing down an overarching theme of the narrative that I hadn’t even realized was there – that of real estate development run amok. It’s what resulted in the main character losing his job as a reporter and – thanks to Tom’s input –  eventually is revealed as the underlying motivation for the story’s antagonist.

And because he is Tom – friend, colleague and fellow fan of many of the same genre titles – we had a shared language and reference points to use in our discussions. He was also familiar enough with my work and my personality to not be surprised by some of the other themes *cough*sex*cough* that ran through the novel. Try throwing your over-the-top adult material into a critique group full of grandmas who just want to write a family history for their grandkids and see what that gets you.

So if you find that your experiences with critique groups just aren’t working for you, I’d suggest perhaps finding one person among the group who does seem to get you, take him or her out for a beer, and set up a regular story workshopping session over a pint or two. It might prove to be far less painless (at least thanks to the beer) and a whole lot more productive.

Keep It Short

I’m proud to say that I’m a member in mediocre standing of a great writers’ group, the Brandywine Valley Writers Group, that regularly features great and informative guests at its meetings. My mediocrity stems from only being able to make about half of their monthly meetings thanks to my wife’s rotating work schedule.

So when I was able to attend the November meeting with no elaborate scheduling shifts or kid hand-offs required, I was pretty excited (of course, it might have also had something to do with the meetings being held at a great Irish pub with Guinness on tap, but that’s neither here nor there).

The speaker that night was Dennis Tafoya, a writer of modern noir who lives in another part of the Philadelphia area

Dennis Tafoya, author of crime thrillers

and whose novels include Dope Thief and The Wolves of Fairmount Park. The vibe at BVWG meetings is pretty informal, much like a dinner party where one guest is allowed to hold forth and everyone else gets to eat, drink and be educated. Dennis was very gracious in sharing with us his process of writing, his literary philosophy and what drives him to do what he does.

One thing I found particularly interesting was that his success in mainstream publishing can be directly attributed to his having short stories published with a few online journals, then discovered by a West Coast film agent who steered him in the direction of an East Coast literary agent. It’s that magical publishing kismet that you sometimes hear about, then hate having the knowledge that this apparently really happens to some people.

My first response to this was surprise that Hollywood folks, who only seem able to rehash old crap or generate new crap these days are actually trawling through online fiction journals looking for great stories and their authors. My second thought was, “Wow … I’ve really got to up my short story game.”

That would be, at this point, a game that doesn’t really exist. Approximately 20 years ago, I managed to bang out and finish a nice little story that was published in the University of South Carolina literary magazine, Portfolio. Please ignore that it was at the same time I happened to be the fiction editor. Really … that had nothing to do with it. I swear.

Anyway, that story won an honorable mention in a statewide competition, which was very cool. Since then, though, I’ve been stuck. No nice little awards – not even honorable mentions, mainly because there haven’t been any stories.

See, my trouble with short story writing is that A)  the things I begin working on intending them to be short stories morph into full-scale novels that end up taking 20 years to finish (please see Immaculate Deception), or B) I have great ideas that I get started on but never actually finish.

As I speak, I have between 10 and 15 half- or 1/4-complete short stories sitting in a computer file awaiting my attention after months or years. If they were people, they would have given up and moved on long ago. Even though they’re just stories, I still imagine them tapping their feet and looking at their watches impatiently, wondering when I might return.

Yeah, me too, guys.

I try doing a little self education every so often, attempting to get myself into the short story groove by re-reading collections like William Gibson’s Burning Chrome and Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things, and even the hefty (especially in paperback) collection of Mark Twain’s shorties hoping that some of their excellence at brevity will rub off on me. I like to think that rather than soaking it up right away, I’m slowly processing and absorbing it in the hopes that at some point it will blossom within me and I’ll be able to easily crank out some stellar (and short … and entirely complete) piece of fiction.

So far, though … nothin’. Well, that’s not true. I did start something the other day, but if I had a nickel for every time I started a story I didn’t finish I’d have … um … it looks like about 75 cents.

Something Cinematic

Commercial motion pictures didn’t exist until the 20th century, and it’s a pretty safe bet that since then it’s been tough for writers of prose to ply their craft without those pesky images from a darkened movie theater encroaching on their work.

I know that in my brain there’s an ongoing battle between what I imagine is original and what’s already been done. There’s a scrawny hipster of the old video store variety living up there who’s constantly second-guessing my creative choices as derivative hackery cobbled together from43 years of pop-culture immersion and ravenous movie watching.

But in retrospect, writing “cinematically” – that is, while imagining the events played out on the page as a running visual narrative in one’s mind’s eye – was likely happening long before putting images to celluloid was even considered. After all, the primary element of our human capacity to imagine is to see things in our heads, whether through dreaming or conscious effort, as if they were really happening. Plus, acting out stories onstage predated film by thousands of years, so the art of rendering a story with actors playing established parts had plenty of precedent.

However, I’m sure some artists who consider themselves more pure of heart would argue that our 21st century immersion in cinema (and TV and videogames) has somehow negatively altered the writer’s art. I could see how this might be the case if all the writers out there were somehow taking everything they learned from the Transformer movies and translating blind action and idiotic dialog to the page. (Actually, that does happen quite a lot in movies, but that’s a conversation for another time).

But long before there were movies, bad prose still made it into print. During the Victorian Age, when the novel as we know it now first emerged, there was plenty of crap being written throughout Europe and America, and no one had the luxury of blaming it on Michael Bay and giant robots randomly blowing stuff up.

Great books are often defined by their standout lines of narrative or dialog. So are films. So who’s to say that “Call me Ishmael,” or “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” can’t be ranked right up there with “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” or “Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker”?

As for being derivative, no less a writer than William Shakespeare was accused by his contemporaries of the very same thing. Sure, he used tried and true plot devices and narratives that had already been a part of folklore and wandering minstrel storytelling for years, but when he took them into his own hands, he added his own unique pathos, wit and social satire to create something wholly new, immensely popular in its time, and brilliant enough to be repeatedly performed over the subsequent five centuries.

In short,  intelligent and talented writers take what they learn from personal experience, personal experience, established story structures and – yes, other art forms and media – and cleverly fold them into what they are doing on their own.

In my own case, I can tell you outright that my writing is highly influenced by films I’ve seen throughout my life, the books I’ve read and the TV shows I’ve watched. But perhaps most of all, it’s influenced in rhythm, pacing and atmosphere by the music I listen to.

The idea for SHAG, the terrorist organization made up of youth-obsessed octogenarians in Immaculate Deception, emerged directly from my experiences with the Baby Boomers of Florence, S.C., who grew up dancing the shag to Stax and Motown R&B on the jukeboxes in Myrtle Beach nightclubs.

So in crafting the story itself, these songs stuck in my head and I imagined them playing along with certain scenes in the novel. The same went for the character of Eli, who at least appears as an elderly Rastafarian surfer. That necessitated some reggae.

So in my mind, along with imagining the scenes of the novel as if they were playing out onscreen, I also had musical accompaniment. What resulted was a full “soundtrack” for the entire work, from opening title sequence (Matthew Sweet’s “Divine Intervention”) to classic reggae (“Rivers of Babylon,” by the Melodians) to beach music legends (“Give Me Just Lil’ More Time” by Chairmen of the Board). For the full cinematic experience, you can listen to the complete soundtrack here.

It’s not only a great extra element for me as the author, but it serves the readers in much the same ways as book trailers or audio books do. A novel soundtrack – born from an author’s head and laid down in electrons like a globally connected mix tape – is a way for readers to add an extra dimension to their reading experience and perhaps build upon their enjoyment of the novel itself.

Lots of folks have been very kind in suggesting that Immaculate Deception would make a great (even blockbuster!) movie, and I’d be lying to you if I said I hadn’t imagined that it someday would make it to film. But in the meantime, the novel itself will have to do – with a little bit of appropriately cinematic music thrown in.

The Love That is Linkage

I was just tipped off by Wayne Lockwood, the wise and mighty shaman of Codorus Press, that our great neighbors at the Philadelphia Book Festival gave us some link love via their blog Me Want Food.

Leigh Ellwood and Kat Lively had the booth next to us on that particular very rainy day. Leigh writes erotic lesbian fiction and Kat writes rock-themed mysteries. Both of them were very cool ladies and seemed to really appreciate some of our clever little bits of marketing (like the faux Church of the New Revelation religious tracts – specially designed to look cheap and cheesy, just like the real thing!). For our part, we really like their style and the whole vibe of their booth (which featured a sign declaring “Ass Kicking Fairies!”).

A funny story – I realized toward the end of our damp day that I had actually shared some time with their boothmates previously when I appeared at The York Emporium in York, Pa. (birthplace of Codorus Press) at this time last year for their Sci-Fi Saturday event. There’s video of my interview with Jim Lewin, owner of The York Emporium, from that appearance, as well as a reading. Check out the interview below and follow the link for more of the event (thanks to Codorus team member Tom Joyce for shooting).

Speaking of events, I’m looking forward to some other events later in the summer and into the fall, both focusing on ID and Codorus Press. As the marketing word gets out, we’re hoping to get more interest in presenting our indie publishing road-show, The Wandering Heretics Independent Publishing Tent Revival and Old Time Medicine Show, at book stores and other locations. We’re also planning for a couple of book-related events, including the Collingswood Book Festival in Collingswood, N.J., and PhilCon, the annual convention of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society.

We love interacting with fans of ID and anyone interested in indie publishing, so we hope to see you out at these and even more events throughout 2011 and into 2012.