The Other Reason I Write

This is an exciting time. Crime Spell Books has just announced the list of stories and writers that will appear in its first Best New England Crime Stories anthology. This is the nineteenth such anthology after Level Best Books announced it was discontinuing the series last year.

Last fall two of my colleagues and I agreed that the cessation of the annual anthology by Level Best books was a sad end for a publication we all loved and two of us had worked on. Leslie Wheeler and I had been editors and Ang Pompano had published stories in the anthologies. But I had another reason for being disappointed.

I was one of the original founders of Level Best Books, along with Kate Flora and Skye Alexander. There’s something wonderful in creating something that lives after you—and doesn’t need you to prosper. That was the Level Best Books anthology.

In 2003, when we began, print-on-demand hadn’t yet taken hold and become the easy, accessible (and cheap) process that it is today. As the first editors, we chose paper, dealt with printers and shipping, and hand delivered books to bookstores and events. We advertised and promoted. And that came after reading and selecting stories, editing and proofreading. And back then proofreading meant reading the printed text against the paper manuscript, looking for errors in composition and type setting, not in the writing of the story. The process is so much easier today that any writer can put together a collection of stories and publish it digitally and through POD with or without technical help.

Creating this new anthology satisfied something in me that I don’t usually find elsewhere. I love the process of making something. Yes, I write stories and novels, and have a number of both out circulating with editors. I cannot imagine a life without writing, and indeed I’ve never had one without it since I was a teenager. But the finishing process has its own special appeal—there’s a tactile pleasure in putting together the front matter and back matter, arranging the parts felicitously. I get some of the same pleasure from matting and framing a photograph for the few times I’ve done an exhibit of my work. That form of satisfaction is probably why I do needlepoint and embroidery, and used to sew all the time. Sometimes I arrange tools and equipment in the garage or cellar for their appearance rather than practical reasons. I may end up a sculptor making assemblages or found art pieces. I love using my hands. But I’ll still be writing.

The point of all this, I suppose, is to share with all of you those aspects of my writing self that don’t often come out. I talk so much about writing—how to do this or that—that I sometimes forget that each of us who writes has more going on and other ways of being creative and finding a sense of accomplishment than the one part we talk about on line. The beginning of the resurrected anthology is one of them for me. So while all the writers are celebrating having their stories in the new anthology, which I fully understand, I’m celebrating making another object that will satisfy another part of me.

Hemingway and Me

The multi-part series “Hemingway” by Ken Burns was required viewing in my household. I was glad to learn he wrote every morning, liked learning that not every story he wrote worked, and listened carefully to how he incorporated material and people from his life. But I especially liked getting a look at his edited pages. Unfortunately, even on pause I couldn’t get close enough to read what he crossed out and revised.

Some years ago I was able to see an edited page by F. Scott Fitzgerald, where he changed two words. Two words? I had to believe that the page on view was close to the final edit, and not the first draft.

Hemingway’s edited pages grabbed my imagination because I have a suspicion that any page of mine that isn’t heavily edited isn’t finished, and is not worth reading. Over the years I’ve always wanted to write a perfect paragraph and then another and then another after that and on to the end of the story. But it has never happened. During a workshop years ago the leader asked us to write one perfect paragraph, which I did. It was so good in her view that she sought me out afterwards to talk. I still have the paragraph—unattached to anything else. Any effort to try to use it as the opening of a story has failed miserably. After literally decades, it sits “perfect” in its own little world. I don’t know why, but I suspect it is because the emphasis was on the writing and not the story. The character, whose presence is limited, goes nowhere because the paragraph isn’t about her. It’s about writing.

Every story I write, short or long, seems fabulous as I write it. Then I finish it and read it over, and conclude that it is unarguably horrible. So begins the rewrite. By the time I’m finished I’ve been through ten or more drafts and I’m still not confident that I’m really finished, but it seems time so I send it out. I confess to a tendency to send out a story too soon, but it gets it off my desk and makes me think about it. When it is rejected, as is most likely, I reread it and figure out a better ending. Endings are a trial for me, but if given sufficient time to think about whatever one I’ve settled on, I can generally improve it. I have greater confidence then, after messing with the thing for a couple of months, and send it out again. This can go on for quite a while, but each time the story gets better.

I tried to explain this once at a library talk. People nodded—they’re invariably polite at these events. But then I pulled out the edited pages—several versions—of the first chapter of the mystery I was currently working on so people could see what an edited page looked like. Their eyes popped open. They got it.

No story of mine is going to work unless it is revised and rewritten almost a dozen times. And after watching “Hemingway,” I’m glad to know I’m not alone among writers. 

Seeing the Bones

By Janis Patterson

No, this isn’t a forensic column, at least not in the physical way. No bones, no blood, no autopsies, no dead bodies. Instead I’m talking about the skeleton (again a bone reference, sorry -) of your story.

Not long ago a dear writer friend of mine and I were talking (while sitting out under a leafy tree, eating ice cream – lovely!) about writing technique. She was telling about a conversation she had had with another writer about the skills needed to construct a good, sound, readable story. She used a story she had read for an example. It was a good story (I had read it too) but it lacked something. There was a ‘mechanical-ness’ about it. You could almost hear the writer thinking, “Have I put enough emotion here?” “I should put more description here.” “Got to watch my beats and pacing.” “What is the proportion of dialogue to narrative?”

It was, she said, like looking at a hand performing a graceful motion, but instead of seeing the skin, you saw the working of the bones through the skin.

And I don’t care how carefully the story is crafted, that is bad writing.

A story (short, novella or full novel) should take the reader away, give them a different reality that is totally believable within its own framework – not a look at how the story is created. It would be like being taken for a ride in a luxurious car, but with every action a mechanical voice announces “turning steering wheel 90 degrees to the right, now turning steering wheel 90 degrees to the left to get back to straight progress” or “applying 10% brakes to slow down for approaching crosswalk” or some such nonsense. It would take all the pleasure out of the drive.

Every action and reaction in a book should happen because it is dictated by the needs of the story – the action and the characters – not because of some esoteric road map of plot shape, beats, pacing, dialogue/narration proportions and other underlying necessities of construction. Readers should see the story as a cohesive whole, unbothered by the mechanics.

The reader should see only the gesture, not the bones beneath.

It’s Finally Happened … by Amber Foxx

I have a post due, and I have no idea what to write. I got Shadow Family back from my editor, after the usual back and forth about what to rewrite and why, and now I’m going through the book for the last time with her changes. The last time before sending it to my proofreader, that is. And then I’ll look it over again once those corrections are in. The upside of all this is that I’ve practically memorized all my books from so much repeated exposure to every page. I’m not likely to forget details that could affect the next book. I maintain a file of master notes on the series just in case, keeping track of characters’ ages, birthdays,  and unique mannerisms, names of minor secondary characters, family trees, and more, but I have the file of my protagonist’s personal memories and life experiences in my head. Okay, back to work. My readers are waiting for this book to come out.

 

Perfectionism and the Cut Revision

scissors

Everyone who confesses to this fault, I suspect, is actually bragging. It’s the classic answer in a job interview. “What’s your greatest weakness?” “I’m a perfectionist.” I’m going to be contrary and confess that I’m not one.

My clothes? I have no clue what’s fashionable. If an outfit is clean and has no holes in it, it’s good to go. I don’t wear makeup, and haven’t since I quit acting. If I’m not onstage, the face I woke up with will have to suffice. My apartment and office are neither neat nor chaotic, clean but on the disorderly side. I don’t worry about it other than to move my free weights out of the living room if I’m having guests. Maybe.

So much of my life has been spent in public—acting, dancing, teaching academic classes and yoga and fitness classes—that I have spent many hours being irretrievably imperfect in front of an audience. When responding honestly to a novel situation in a classroom, I’ve sometimes said the wrong thing and couldn’t put it back in my mouth. I could only try to clarify. How many times in teaching yoga have I called right left or called elbows knees? You can’t redo live performance or teaching, only do your best and have a sense of humor.

Of course, I have higher expectations of my language skills when I can revise. While I’m not a full-blown perfectionist, when it comes to word choice and sentence structure, I can get close. One reason I do my plot analysis with a printout is so I won’t be distracted by the changes I would make if I could touch the keyboard. I indicate which sentence I should cut or revise with an orange highlight and a C or an R and keep going. After I make the needed plot changes, I do the “cut revision.” The purpose of this is tightening: consolidating ideas and examining every scene for excess lines, every line for excess words. It may seem perfectionistic to do this before I send it out for the second round of critiquing, but want my critique partners to be able to tell me if the plot is paced well without the distraction of verbal clutter. (I cut four thousand words from my current WIP.)

Another reason I cut so much is because I know my editor will usually ask me to add a few lines to clarify something. We can go back and forth several times over the best way to rephrase a sentence without either of us thinking the other is too picky. I keep double-checking my research, too, finessing tiny details. As long as it makes the book better, I don’t feel pathologically perfectionistic. I know when it’s done, and then I’m ready to let go. No matter how hard we try to make them perfect, no book ever is.Amber in tree final