Writing

Wordless

The thing about both gardening and writing is that when doing them, one isn’t doing other things, like blogging.

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A happy spring combination — perennial candytuft (Iberis sempervirens), flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) and pasque flower or meadow anemone (Pulsatilla vulgaris)

Forging the Draft

In a recent post I moaned about how hard it is to undertake the enormous job of imagining a novel and turning it into readable prose. Since writing that post, I’ve also written several thousand words of my work in progress — new, freshly imagined stuff. At this stage, forward motion is crucial. This isn’t the time to worry about choosing the right words and avoiding the wrong ones, the niceties of grammar or whether elastic bandages were used in 1962. I have to keep that pen moving, writing down what I see my characters doing and saying, as though I’m transcribing the action in a movie, while maintaining the intended narrative voice. Anything I need to check or go back and work out later, I note as such and keep going. Quick, dirty and fast.

This first trip through my plot is like walking a tightrope across a chasm. Standing around admiring the view isn’t going to get me to the other side.

Once I have the bare bones laid down, I’ll go back and fill in, rearrange, add and delete stuff, and generally whip that scene or section into shape. But at this point I don’t intend to get mired in trying to achieve perfection. It’s more important to move on to the next scene or chapter, keeping the goal in mind: finish the first draft.

In On Writing, Stephen King says to write your first draft behind a closed door. Don’t show it to anyone. After it’s done, stash it away for a couple of months before you look at it again. I’ve seen similar advice from other writers and indeed, that’s pretty much how I wrote my first five novels.

For some reason, I haven’t managed to do that with the current work in progress. Maybe it’s because I’m no longer using my subterranean (i.e., basement) writing room. My current writing spot has way too many distractions that make it too easy to avoid the tough work of intense imagining with pen in hand.

Manuscript SWCF

Pen? Yes, I still write the first draft with a pen, on paper. My semi-legible scribble makes it hard to start fiddling with stuff I’ve just written, almost inevitable when the words are displayed in stark clarity on the screen. But I don’t consider a chapter or scene to be properly first-drafted until the completed handwritten pages are transcribed — with changes, of course — into electronic form.

Contrary to King’s excellent advice, I’ve resorted to sending freshly written chunks of my WIP for discussion at my critique group’s monthly meetings. Why? To create an external deadline and a sense of urgency. So far, it’s working. This work has been “in progress” for more than two years, with no progress at all until the past three months.

There are other ways to induce writer urgency — the Write or Die app, for example. I haven’t used it, but I understand you can set it to nuke whatever you’ve written if you don’t keep banging those keys until you achieve a specific word count. (So don’t indulge in too much liquid refreshment during a writing session).

Post header image courtesy of Pixabay

 

Making Mind Movies

I’ve started writing another novel. Along with short bouts of actual writing, I’ve been reading all kinds of stuff and peering at images and maps on my computer screen.  I’ve been dumping the facts, ideas and impressions harvested from books and other sources into the brain mixer and sketching out scenes.

This time I’m paying attention to the process of novel-writing, as well as the substance. Scenes are the key elements of a novel. A novel is a series of scenes, in which characters and situations are introduced and developed, leading to a climactic scene or scenes in which the situations are resolved and the characters transformed in some way.

Writing goes best for me when I envision compelling scenes — just like a good reading experience, curiously enough. I need to see the elements of my story like a movie in my mind before I can render them into words that will invoke a movie in the minds of my readers.

That’s it! That’s all there is to it!

It sounds easy. But just try it! Especially when the scenes don’t arrive ready-made from some magical studio of the imagination.

Deliberate, sustained imagining is hard. It strains the brain. Like physical exercise, it’s too easy to quit before much progress is made. There are so many elements to be created and/or assembled — the over-arching theme of the novel, the characters with all their quirks, characteristics and emotions, their actions, their thoughts, the setting, and possibly external facts and realities that must be accurate. The writer has to juggle all this stuff in the brain, and then select words to convey it — the right words, and enough of them to do the job, but not too many.

That’s to create one scene — a few thousand words at most, possibly less. Many more scenes will be sweated out to trace the entire story arc. And all those scenes will have to be put into order and glued together with suitably sticky words to make a complete first draft.

No wonder writers procrastinate and agonize, writing blog posts and looking at free images on the internet instead of buckling down and making mind movies from fleeting ideas they got in the shower.

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Image courtesy of Pixabay.

A Big Read

I bought a copy of The Egyptian Book of the Dead (the translation by E.A. Wallis Budge) a couple of years ago, when I was thinking about writing a novel set in Egypt. It sat around gathering dust until last week, when I started reading it in the hope that it would pump up some enthusiasm for that work in progress, which so far consists of a measly 10,000 words.

This book was first published more than a century ago, so easing into it via a 2008 introduction by archaeologist John Romer was helpful. The intro warned me that Budge had rendered the Egyptian texts into the English of the Bible — King James version — full of  “thees” and “thous” and verbs ending in “eth.” This reminded me of my intention, some years ago, to read the Bible, which never really got off the ground. Not too promising.

But I was surprised and intrigued to learn that J.R.R. Tolkien “described the inhabitants of Middle Earth as ‘best pictured in Egyptian terms’,” with helmets apparently modeled on some pictured in vignettes from Budge’s Book of the Dead. Hard to believe, but fascinating. Another surprise was that the structure of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake follows that of the Book of the Dead. T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and William Faulkner also found something worthwhile in it; then there’s Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. All in all, it seems that quite a few writers have found inspiration in this tome.

I’ve already noted quite a few pages with exciting stuff that has made me rethink some of the fundamental premises of my barely-started WIP. I’m excited about realizing these ideas in words; to do that, of course, I’ll have to write my way to that point.

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Notes for the work in progress and the Book of the Dead

And I haven’t even started reading the actual texts. The various introductions and prefaces and table of contents total ccxliv pages. (That’s 244 for those out of practice with Roman numerals). I’m only on page cxlviii (148). When I finally get to page 1 there will be 697 more. I’ll be immersed in this antique milieu for some time.

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Parts of Chapters 26 and 27

The printing even looks old-fashioned, somehow, full of parenthetical and bracketed stuff and bristling with footnotes. I actually need glasses to read it. In his introduction, Romer advises the reader “to slide through its texts as one might read Finnegan’s Wake, marvelling all the while at the expansive scholarship, and at the lilt and span of its exotic prose.”

Indeed. I’ve never tackled Finnegan’s Wake. I hope to slide, rather than struggle.

Shower Thoughts

I actually remembered a thought that floated into my brain when I was in the shower this morning. Usually, these random ideas vanish by the time I’ve dried myself off, leaving behind at most a frustrating husk — now what was that great idea again? Lost forever, the thought is inevitably a priceless evidence of genius.

This time, I bustled out of the bathroom, grabbed a pen, flipped open a notebook and wrote this: psychopomp & psychopath. Puns, etc.

Not exactly a pearl of wisdom, eh? Let’s see…

I started by thinking (as I often do) about the piece of writing I’m working on now, which is set in Egypt. I was mulling over the concept of the soul in ancient Egypt — a rather complex composite of the ka, the ba, the akh and some other bits and pieces. At this point, the brain skipped to psychopomp, which is not Egyptian but Greek, meaning “one who conducts the souls of the dead to the afterlife.” Then I got to thinking that “psychopomp” is a rather unwieldy word. (I see the spell-checker thinks it’s not a word at all). Someone unacquainted with it would probably focus on the “psycho” part and think of serial killers. But what’s a “pomp?” Pomp and circumstance? Or pompous? A serial killer who thinks he knows best?

The main character of the 4-book series I have published becomes a psychopomp. Unfamiliar and weird, it’s useless as a keyword for book discovery. “Conductor of souls” is less mystifying, but may suggest a “soul train,” which would be totally misleading.

In a short story I published recently, the psychopomp recognizes a psychopath — two, actually — which takes him onto a difficult path, indeed. A psycho-path? I could say more, but I won’t, in case anyone wants to read the story.

To capture other, possibly more valuable shower thoughts, I think I’ll stash a notebook and a writing implement of some sort in the bathroom. That way I’ll have to hold the thought only until I finish toweling off. And if I get a notebook and pen designed to work in wet conditions, maybe not even that long.

It will be interesting to see if the thoughts captured are of more significance than these.

 

 

 

Another Supplement, and Imminent Price Changes

Recently, I’ve written and published three short fiction supplements to the Herbert West Series.

A fourth, titled “One of the Fourteen,” will be available in the usual ebook stores on January 1st.

The plot in brief: Dr. Francis Dexter arrives in London intending to atone for wrongs committed by his former self, Herbert West. A chance meeting in a pub leads to disturbing revelations by a veteran of the Great War, and forces Dexter to relive a terrible journey in the black region between death and life.

The intention behind the Supplements was to fill in the corners of the main series and explore some of the plot points in more detail. Readers of the story that inspired my series — H.P Lovecraft’s “Herbert West, Reanimator” — may recall that West’s reanimated corpses were all flawed, due to lack of ‘freshness’ or to imperfections in the reanimating fluid. Disaster ensued. I used this premise in a more subtle way in my novels. The transformation from amoral scientist Herbert West to wounded healer and physician of last resort Francis Dexter is the underlying theme of all four novels.

“One of the Fourteen” is set in the autumn of 1936. Francis Dexter (formerly known as Herbert West) is living in London, England, volunteering his services at a charity clinic and cultivating a willingness to atone for the misdeeds committed by his earlier self. He is given an opportunity to do this, but it’s not a simple process and results in a harrowing inner journey.

Also in the next few days: look for price reductions on a few of the ebooks of the Herbert West Series, and wider availability of the first three Supplements — which, incidentally, will be priced at Free. Look for them in the B&N, Kobo, Apple and other ebook stores, and don’t hesitate to inform Amazon of the lower price.

Image designed by Audrey Driscoll, with Canva.

Why a “Box Set?”

“Box set.” An unwieldy term, by any standard — two nouns that jostle along together without anything to link them into a meaningful concept. But, for some reason, that’s the term used to describe a set of books or music recordings with something in common (author, composer, performer, theme) issued together as a special edition.

“Boxed set” actually makes sense, referring to the fact that the separate works are contained in a box or slipcase especially designed for the collected edition. But it looks like “box set” is here to stay, for a number of excellent or dubious reasons.

Another term I’ve seen applied to collected editions is “bundle,” but that sounds blunt and indiscriminate. Does anyone really want books that come in bundles, like lumber? Or “omnibus,” which I’ve seen on single-volume print books containing a number of separate works? That sounds clumsy and menacing.

So box set it is.

The publishing trajectory that culminates in a box set goes like this: an author writes and publishes a novel. Then they write and publish another. And another, forming a trilogy, or even more novels, forming a series. Once the series is complete, the author goes on to create other novels or series. They gather a following (maybe), and eventually it makes sense to make the trilogy or series available as a set — a box set.

The box set may include a bonus of some sort, a story or two not otherwise available, or even the beginning of another novel. This is a good idea, because it may entice purchasers who already own the separately-published books. So might a new, striking cover image for the box set. Readers may not be able to resist the look of a spiffy new package to replace their dog-eared copies, and some new writing from an author they already like would be icing on the literary cake.

Ebooks are often sold as box sets (without an actual box, of course). A new, purpose-designed cover image is essential here. Taking the easy option of pasting reduced versions of the original covers together results in a muddled mess, not an eye-catching novelty.

Box sets may be something besides a collection of works by a single author. Several authors writing in a specific genre may contribute books from their backlists to form a set with a common theme — cozy mysteries or supernatural thrillers, for example. Box sets may also be created to support a charitable cause, in which case all or part of the proceeds go to that cause.

I have to admit, I always thought box sets (the physical kind) were a good idea that didn’t quite work. Anyone who really liked an author’s books would have them all anyway. Buying a box set for a friend would be a risk if they weren’t a fan and superfluous if they were. The only motive to buy a box set would be the spiffiness factor.

But here I am, about to publish a box set of the Herbert West Series. It will include all four novels, along with the first chapter of a new novel intended to be a sequel to the series. “Intended” because so far I’ve written only that first chapter. Putting it out there will give me incentive to write and publish the rest. That’s the idea, anyway.

The Herbert West Series Complete will make its appearance through Smashwords and Amazon, in ebook form only, on November 7th — Herbert West’s 130th birthday.

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Image designed by Audrey Driscoll with Canva