Category Archives: Writing
General discussion about the craft of writing, the business of writing, and the marketing and promotion of writers and their work.
I have lost all respect for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
In eight previous stellar seasons, they’ve only awarded the CBS smash hit TV show HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER Emmys in technical categories (cinematography, editing, makeup, etc.).
They’ve never ONCE nominated the show for a writing award. Not once.
How is this possible?
The only above-the-line (ie, creative) person who has consistently earned Emmy nominations is Neil Patrick Harris, for playing the irrepressible Barney Stinson–and even he has never won. (Seriously, people, what’s up with that?) As a die-hard HIMYM fan, I know he’s deserved to–multiple times. (It’s especially sad because he’s won Emmys for HOSTING awards shows–just not for, you know, being an actor. Unbelievable.)
So if the (cough, cough) esteemed Academy (along with lesser lights such as the Golden Globes) can’t seem to get excited about the writing of a hit show that’s run nine amazing seasons (and why do shows like that run 9 amazing seasons???)–then why am I talking about it?
Because, writers–THE WRITING IS AMAZING. For my money, it’s the best television writing today, and among the top TV writing of all time (I’d put it a half-step below I LOVE LUCY for best TV writing ever–and no, I’m not kidding.)
And I don’t need the Emmys or the Golden Globes to prove me right on this.
If no one else is giving them kudos for writing – well, okay, ALMA (whoever they are) apparently awarded ONE writing award in 2008 for a specific episode (thanks, ALMA, she says grudgingly)–then I’m awarding them the kudos. Because HIMYM is in every way an outstanding example of great series writing.
Consider the following:
1) They use flashbacks.
Flashbacks, as every screenwriter who breathes can tell you, are one of the biggest screenwriting no-nos out there. YOU DON’T FLASH BACK because it disrupts the dramatic flow of a scene, often is completely unnecessary, and almost no one knows how to use them effectively.
Well, try this: HIMYM–the entire show itself–is ONE BIG FLASHBACK. The whole series is a story told by a much older Ted Mosby to his teenage children, starting with his coming to New York in 2005. And each episode is part of the epic story of his search to find true love–along with the growing and changing relationships of his four best friends over a period of years.
Not only that, but they use flashbacks in EVERY EPISODE, multiple times–and they WORK. They flash forward in time, they flash backward, they even (this is stylish) flashed to a full epilogue recently, telling us what happens to our favorite minor (guest-starring) characters in the future – and they DIDN’T EVEN WAIT TILL THE END OF THE SHOW, or even the EPISODE, TO DO IT. You gotta love it.
2) They created their own culture.
If you watch the show, you know what The Bro Code is. What The Playbook is. Who says, “Suit up!” and why. You may even have thought about whether you’re too old for some of the items on The Murtaugh List, or whether you’ll be one of the ‘2 out of 3 times’ that the Naked Man ploy works. You know the secret of Robin’s shameful past, and the name of the bar where they hang out (don’t make me say it for you). This comes not just from funny lines or moments, but from the repetition of said points, often in episodes far removed from the original episode where the stuff was first coined. Episodes further on refer back to episodes that have aired previously. It keeps you watching. Keeps you connected. Keeps you CARING.
In addition, there are ongoing characters who do NOT appear in every episode, but who have appeared often throughout the series. Ranjit the driver is one great example. He’s been with the gang from the beginning, through to their wild New Year’s Eve celebration several seasons back, to Ted’s first attempt to court Stella with a five-minute date (SO charming!), straight through to Ted’s touching advice to Robin in the back seat of his limo on the night his building is officially opened as part of the New York skyline.
How about Brad, Marshall’s friend from law school? He shows up to pair with Marshall when Marshall’s lonely for couples things to do, now that Lily is (temporarily) gone. He shows up again as a down-and-out guy Marshall takes pity on and gets into a job interview at his law firm. (BIG mistake!) It gives the actors a chance to do a lot of different things with the same character.
3) Each episode has an uplifting moral.
Yes, an honest-to-goodness moral–mostly derived from two separate (but equal, of course) plot lines. Or the A story and the B story, for you TV writing purists. Since the story is, after all, directed at Ted’s two teenagers, Ted makes the point to them often about things in life they could forget, discount or overlook. So the end of each episode is not just an arc for characters in the show, but also for the teens listening to the story.
My favorite, I think, is “The Best Burger In New York City”, in which Marshall finally tracks down what he remembers as the very best burger he ever ate in his life–but as it was his first week in New York, he got lost trying to find the place where he’d eaten it. Ted at one point tells him, “Buddy, you’re going through a tough time now. I get that you want to find this burger, but Marshall, it might not be the same burger you remember–or it might really not have been that good to begin with.” Because all of us, let’s face it, when we’re in a tough situation, like to remember something as possibly more wonderful than it was, if only to lift ourselves out of the dull gray routine of now.
Know what I love about this episode? They do finally find the burger joint–and the burger IS as good as Marshall remembers. I’d have been disappointed if it hadn’t been–and I think the writers knew most of their audience would have been. So they let us know that sometimes, life really IS as good as we remembered it. That’s a lovely thing to know.
4) It has moments of being magical.
Some who read this who won’t think much of this point–but I think the idea that life can be–and often is–magical, is a great lesson to teach your kids.
In one especially beautiful episode, “Miracles”, Ted points out that just taking a random step or two in one direction or another can be a life-changer–and that those small changes can lead to extraordinary things. What’s even better is how the seemingly random connections of early episodes will lead us–and Ted–inevitably to the moment where he meets his soul mate. The seeds for this are planted several seasons ago, and are just now coming to fruition. And that leads to perhaps my favorite point:
5) The series has a wholeness, a continuity and a unity that most others seem to lack.
At least once or twice a season, a character asks Barney, “Really, Barney, what is it you do for a living?” Barney always answers, “Please!” and goes on to another point.
It wasn’t till a few weeks ago that we actually learned what Barney did for a living–and “Please” is an ACRONYM for it!
How can you not love this?
As a writer, realizing that these writers are thinking ahead, staying with the game plan and that each episode is part of an organic growth pattern, not just a desperate grabbing for whatever they can think of, makes the whole series so special. THEY HAD IT FIGURED OUT A LONG TIME AGO, no matter how long–or short–the series would last. That it lasted this long, IMHO, is not just about the stellar performances, the amazing cohesiveness and likeability of the cast and the great directing (along with all the other great technical stuff), but more importantly, about the underlying plan the writers had and STUCK WITH virtually to the end. (I’ll interrupt myself here to say that the opening episodes of Season Nine were, unfortunately, very disappointing. Written by writers who had not been credited on previous episodes, they DID seem stuck-on and often not very worthwhile, but fortunately for all of us, the real HIMYM came back in full force around episode 6 or 8 and hasn’t disappointed for a second since.)
This also includes the fantastic growth we’ve seen in all the characters, particularly Barney, who goes from selfish, self-centered and sleeping with any woman he can to falling deeply in love with Robin and learning to deal with committing to one woman. (In “The Bracket”, possibly my favorite episode, Barney tries to identify a woman who came up to Lily and told her to stay away from Barney, who had once dumped her. When Lily fumbles, Barney tries to help her: “Did she have dead eyes and an air of self-loathing and despair?”
“Yes!” Lily says triumphantly.
“That’s all of them,” Barney says.)
But before he does fall in love with Robin–a plotline that unfolds slowly over several seasons–we have a terrific episode where Lily, currently separated from Marshall, moves in with Barney platonically and ends up helping him drive away his one-night stands by pretending to be his wife. What she learns is that Barney is TERRIFIED of intimacy, and that’s something we need to know in order to understand his slow turn from having Robin as his ‘wingman’ when he picks up women to being the woman he proposes to oh-so-romantically at the end of last season. (Seriously, guys, I would say yes to a proposal like that.)
I’ve heard a rumor (?) that they’re actually doing a sequel–I kid you not–called HOW I MET YOUR FATHER. It’s Hollywood–why are we surprised? BUT–I’m also told the original writers will be back at the helm. If they are, I’ll watch it.
Because the lovely life lessons of HIMYM will be applicable yesterday, today and tomorrow–and when they’re written as well as this series, they’ll always be worth tuning in for.
And as writers, I can’t urge you enough to study writing like this (whether you’re a novelist, playwright, screenwriter–doesn’t matter) in order to see how beautifully good writing supports everyone else involved in a creative endeavor. Of course the great part of that kind of research is–it hardly feels like work at all. And THAT should tell you that they’ve hit on something VERY good, something well worth tucking into YOUR bag of writer’s tricks.
There’s nothing like attending a writers conference to make it clear that there’s WAY too much bad advice given to newbie writers.
Newbie writers, like newbies of all kinds, need nurturing, support and lots of encouragement. But what they need more than anything is solid, reliable information. Saying, “Atta boy! You can do it!” and pointing them in the wrong direction is the quickest way to destroy a budding talent. They use the precious time they have for writing, marketing and promotion and spend it (and often thousands of dollars as well) on plans that too often don’t take them anywhere near their goal: to publish, get known as authors and SELL BOOKS. But since they’re being given this advice by (supposedly) experienced authors and publishers, off they rush to try to fulfill all these plans, in the process exhausting themselves, alienating all their friends and often as not ending up with a product they hate.
And how can you blame them? This is all new to them. They’re told: “You need an agent, you need a great website, you need a great book cover, you need testimonials from famous people for your book, you need a presence on social media. You need to blog every week, you need to be tweeting constantly… you need… you need… you need… ” An hour or so of that and the shaky writer is questioning whether any of this is worth it–just to put out a simple book!
This past weekend, I was invited to speak at Book ‘Em North Carolina, a relatively new event that’s become a staple in Lumberton, NC and attracts large and lively crowds of aspiring authors, who are hungry for information on the nuts and bolts of writing, both the craft and the business. They come specifically to listen to successful authors and learn from them.
And how helpful is it?
Well, at last year’s event, the keynote speaker, a phenomenally successful and very talented author was speaking on “Hitting the Bestseller Lists”. Trouble was, she hadn’t picked the topic, and though the place was packed to hear her, her advice wasn’t useful for new writers. When she admitted that she actually didn’t know the secret of hitting the bestseller lists because ‘my publisher took care of promotion for me’, it was all over. She had become famous in the ’90s, when publishing was far different than it is today, and authors were essentially just expected to embark on physical book tours set up by their publishers, and somehow good things would happen. They certainly did for her–and she deserves it–but none of that is part of the paradigm for new writers confronting the writing business now.
At this year’s event, I did a solo talk and a panel talk, both on promotion. The panel talk was very general in nature (I think most writers attending could have heard much more detailed information), but what appalled me was when one of my fellow panel members mentioned that as a matter of course, she always sent out advance reading copies of her books BY SNAIL MAIL. This meant printing, binding, mailing and PAYING FOR a large number of her own books in order to reach reviewers and other people in a position to spotlight the books.
I haven’t sent out a hard-copy ARC for ten years, and I don’t plan to ever again. When someone wants a reading copy, I either refer him to my URL at Smashwords (and give him a coupon code for a free copy of any eBook version) or send a .pdf from my own email account, which is always ready with my bio, book blurb, book cover .jpeg and buy links, in a draft email saved in my Drafts folder. I said that when it was my turn on that question, and hope the woman who had discussed the hard-copy ARC’s wasn’t offended. But if someone else on the panel hadn’t mentioned sending them out electronically, would all those people have assumed that hard-copy ARC’s were the way to go? And (heaven forbid) would they all have done it?
For that reason–and because I find myself around writers all the time, most of whom have tons of questions about writing–I have decided to make myself available on a regular basis to work one on one with writers, to offer feedback and suggestions on all aspects of writing, publishing and promotion. I want them to get information that will help them NOW, not send them running in circles. I’m also offering personal feedback on their writing: what works, what doesn’t and HOW TO FIX IT (I’ve spent many years as a story analyst and am especially experienced with issues involving structure, plot and characterization).
I’ve added a page called Coaching for Writers to my website; if you have a question about your project or a project you’re thinking of writing, I hope you’ll check it out. I want to suggest ways you can build your writing business better, quicker and more effectively. I’d like to take you from A to Z without your getting stuck at 3 and 7.
So if you’re stuck in a creative rut where you need to brainstorm or just want to figure out how best to promote your novel–I’d love to hear from you. Email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the form on my site.
After years of watching writers run around like rats in a maze, I’d like to see the writing business reduced to simple straight lines, and reduce the frustration of new writers to something a lot more manageable than what I’ve seen. Writing’s hard enough, and the writing business is humbling enough. It’s time for simple, effective answers.
Best of luck on YOUR writing journey!
Happy, happy Thanksgiving! This holiday wish goes out not only to all my American friends, family and colleagues, but also to those who may not celebrate Thanksgiving as a holiday (to be followed shortly by the ritual of Black Friday, which will make a man out of you even when you’re a woman). I believe that we need to take time to give thanks often. One day is not enough. But it’s good to have the reminder.
As writers, we need to be thankful for many things, and we need to remember how much we’ve been given. On days when we can’t think of a thing to write, it’s easy to forget all the words we’ve already written. When we don’t know how to get to the top of the mountain, we forget that we’re the ones who put up the mountain to begin with, and hey, we can move it if we want to. We can lop off a few feet or we can shrink it down to a hill, or a footpath. But we always have the choice.
We have many blessings as writers, and counting them often is a good exercise. It makes that mountain a lot easier to climb, in the long run.
This year especially I have so much to be thankful for. Every year at New Year’s I hope for the following year to be transformative. 2013 really was, and I believe my life and career will be substantially better going forward. I’m sure you have your own list of writerly blessings. Here, in no particular order, is mine:
1) My family, especially my two wonderful sons. Thank you for Colin’s scholarships to Clemson and for Kenny’s injury-free baseball seasons (all of them) and for all the time I’ve been able to spend with them, and for their forgiving me the times I didn’t. The truth is, much as you want the whole world to stand still and gape at your brilliance, there are days when you’re less than brilliant, and sometimes even less than kind. On those days (and the joyous ones as well), it helps to have people who love you and root for you. I will never forget that after Colin read the original version of FORWARD TO CAMELOT, his response was, “Gee, Mom, it didn’t suck.” I may embroider that on a sampler one day.
2) The three books I’ve published this year: STEALING FIRE and FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition, through Drake Valley Press, and REALIZING YOU (through CreateSpace). I’m so grateful they were out on time and for the wonderful reception they’ve all received so far.
3) Kevin Finn, my co-author on CAMELOT, for his patience and perseverance (especially when I argued) and for his talent, wisdom and willingness to concede on occasion (which I’m not sure I would have had the strength to do). His editor’s eye and his ability to coax me into cutting made the final version of this novel by far the best we have ever done. I believe the novel’s amazing reviews are due, in part, to the work we did this summer, cutting it down from an unwieldy 488 pages to a tighter and more manageable 382 pages. Thanks, Kevin.
4) Ron Doades, my co-author on REALIZING YOU. Ron and I struggled for a long time to create an entirely new genre, which was never easy, but his patience and optimism made the process so much simpler than it could have been. His vision for a new kind of self-help book was the catalyst for an amazing journey we both took. Thanks for inviting me along, Ron.
5) Drake Valley Press, for its hard work, prompt turnaround and endless dealings with the details. The company’s belief in STEALING FIRE and CAMELOT supported me greatly through two back-to-back production cycles. I’m not sure I could have gotten through it without their encouragement.
6) The reviews, which lifted up my heart with every line. Astonishingly, there hasn’t been a SINGLE negative review of any of the books, which is almost unheard-of. One of the two 3-star reviews of STEALING FIRE began, “STEALING FIRE is an exceptionally well written novel” and ended with “Perfect ending. Great beach read.” If that’s the worst thing I ever hear about something I wrote, I have NOTHING to complain about!
7) The cover art, which was an exercise in frustration on CAMELOT and REALIZING YOU and only went smoothly with STEALING FIRE, where I discovered almost at once the right image and already had the right color and font, so everything came together when they were blended. Kevin and I fought some of our toughest battles over the new cover for CAMELOT, and Ron and I went back and forth for the better part of a year over the final cover and cover text for REALIZING YOU. Nonetheless, they all came together beautifully, and just looking at the paperbacks on my bookshelf makes me happy. Thank you to the designers and publishers for a masterly job.
8) My author photo on STEALING FIRE and CAMELOT (same pic), which was beautifully shot by photographer Vicki Faith. I knew what I wanted to look like but wasn’t sure all those qualities could come out in a single image. She managed it, and bonus–it looks great on both book covers and every website where the image is displayed. Thank you, Vicki. You made me look glorious!
9) The readers who have already bought it and enjoyed it, and those who will in the future. The deep dark truth is, I don’t really write for readers. I write because I have an impulse I can’t resist. It makes me want to get it down on paper and it’s impossible to deny. The pleasure of crafting the story as I see it and then seeing it finished, as though by a force outside myself, is the greatest joy of my life. That others actually want to read it–and enjoy the experience–is the greatest bonus on earth. I am thankful for that impulse and the process that draws others to my work, and with all my heart, I pray it continues for the rest of my life and beyond.
10) Most of all, my heart goes out to God with thanks for the gift He has given me. It is so easy to think that what you can do, what seems to come naturally, is of no value–or that everyone else can do it too, so it’s not that important. If I’ve learned anything worth knowing this year, it is that this gift is only given to a few, and those who are given it are expected to use it constantly and wisely. It’s not for me to say whether I have used it wisely, or whether my efforts in the future will count as wise. I do know that this time, these last few years, are the first time I have felt I knew what I was doing as a writer. Whatever my shortcomings and whatever other writers can do that I can’t, I can still do what I’ve done this year. I’m very, very proud of all I’ve accomplished, and it’s clear to me that the only way forward for me is with my writing and with what I will learn through each new project.
My best wishes to everyone within reach of this blog, for the happiest of holidays, and especially for those writers who are struggling, for a way to find your light in the darkness. I promise, no matter how it seems right now, it’s there.
On this November 22nd–the 50th anniversary of the most notorious murder of the 20th century–let’s take a quick look at some of the–how shall I say it?–lighter conspiracy theories. While I firmly believe a conspiracy was at work in Dealey Plaza in 1963 (and for some years afterward), some of these notions strain all credibility and provoke little beyond stares of stupefaction and laughter. And since JFK’s own wit and joy for life were two qualities that his friends remembered about him always, I think he of all people would get (sort of) a kick out of the following theories on his own assassination:
1) The Secret Service shot him.
In this theory, seriously advanced some years ago and still popping up today, it was a Secret Service agent I won’t name, on the side of the follow-up car behind the Presidential limousine, who accidentally fired the fatal head shot at the President after hearing other shots in Dealey Plaza. Got that? He had a rifle in his hands and wanted to fire (I assume) at the source of the gunshots he heard, so of course he fired right at the President, who he probably suspected of trying to commit murder on himself in the motorcade (ok, I made that last part up–but if you follow the rest of it, it’s logical).
While I certainly will not be pinning any medals on the Secret Service for the job they did on November 22nd (except for Mrs. Kennedy’s own protection officer, Clint Hill, who deserves one), I never could buy this. If an SS guy could pick up, aim and fire a rifle in the motorcade while in a moving car in front of hundreds of people–why didn’t ANYONE in Dealey Plaza see him or photograph him doing it? (As far as I know, no one did.) And it would have been impossible for him to have performed such a feat without witnesses. (Of course, if Oswald could run down several flights of stairs after supposedly shooting the President without being seen by two witnesses who were on the stairs at the time, why is this a surprise?)
2) There was no conspiracy–just TWO lone nuts!
This one comes from Norman Mailer, who wrote the novel Oswald’s Tale, and it’s my personal nomination for ‘Funniest Non-Conspiracy Theory Ever’.
Mailer apparently could not get away from the idea that the final shot that killed JFK–the head shot–had to have been fired from the front, but he also was too in love with his postulations about crazy obsessed loser Oswald to let go of him so easily.
So he came up with a truly novel (no pun intended) suggestion: yes, there were two shooters in Dealey Plaza, Oswald up in the Texas School Book Depository, and another unknown shooter on the Grassy Knoll.
But–wait for it–they just happened to be there together on the same day, firing independently, and they didn’t know each other.
Any mathematicians out there want to even attempt to calculate the odds?
Wow. If Kennedy had lived through the ambush in Dealey Plaza, I suspect he’d have died laughing at that.
3) It was Oswald acting alone–but he wasn’t aiming for Kennedy.
This one was absolutely new to me, though I’m told it’s been around for awhile. I first learned of it only last week (see? The more time goes by, the more we learn about the assassination … )
In this one, which is the subject of a new book, the author states emphatically that there’s no such thing as a conspiracy. (Got that, Julius Caesar?) Conspiracy theories are nonsense, and conspiracy believers are nuts.
Oswald did it alone. Clearly. So says the author.
But … Oswald did say repeatedly while in custody that he had nothing against the President, and the author believes we should take him at his word. (Wow. You think?)
So … what happened was, he wasn’t actually aiming at Kennedy. You see, Oswald’s Marine Corps discharge had been downgraded to dishonorable while he was in the Soviet Union, and when he returned to the U.S. sporting a dishonorable discharge, he found it difficult to find work. So among other measures, he got in touch with John Connally (Governor of Texas on November 22, 1963 and sitting in front of JFK in the Presidential limousine). At the time Oswald reached out in 1962, Connally was Secretary of the Navy and would have been the person best positioned to help Oswald upgrade his discharge from dishonorable to honorable.
Apparently, Secretary Connally had no idea who he was dealing with–because he apparently never answered him or did anything to help him. Shame on you, John.
So on November 22, 1963, knowing that Connally would be in an open car passing right under the high windows at his workplace (by sheer coincidence, of course), Lee Oswald took his cheap surplus Mannlicher-Carcano rifle with its badly misaligned scope up to the 6th-floor window, waited for that snake Connally to pass by (instead of firing as the car came toward the building as it drove straight on Houston, a much easier shot) and knocked off three shots in 5.6 seconds (which is virtually impossible), managing to wound that rotten Connally badly, but–oops–unfortunately killing the President at the same time. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
Sorry, Mr. President. You’ve heard of collateral damage, right?
And the last word on funny JFK theories comes from great playwright David Mamet, and his wonderful movie WAG THE DOG: “Truth? What’s truth? I read the first version of the Warren Report. It said Kennedy was killed by a drunk driver.”
In keeping with the theme of laughter, let’s also remember today that Kennedy’s death should not be his defining characteristic: his life and his words should be. Here are a few of those to remember this still-vivid and fascinating man:
When asked by a young boy how he became a war hero: “It was absolutely involuntary. They sank my boat.”
When asked a long, rambling and technical question while he was lecturing in the Navy as a young lieutenant: “I’m very glad you asked that question. There’s a man coming in a few weeks who may be able to answer it.”
On a group of Nobel Prize winners at a White House dinner: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House–with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Reading what he said was a telegram from his father at a 1960 press dinner, during the presidential campaign: “Jack–Don’t buy one vote more than you have to. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.”
While Kevin Finn and I were writing Forward to Camelot, I experienced a great sense of loss when the final manuscript was sent to our publisher. It happened both in 2003, with the delivery of the original novel, and this past summer, on delivering the 50th Anniversary Edition to our new publisher, Drake Valley Press. Like many authors, I grew very close to my characters as we wrote, though in this case the characters I felt closest to were President Kennedy and Lee Oswald, each of them major players in the novel. For a day or so after delivering the manuscripts each time, I felt a sense of real loss, that those men who had perched on my shoulder for years during the writing were now receding from me. As this 50th anniversary of the actual event arrives, I feel that same sense of loss–for who they were, for who they could have become, for what we could have become as well.
Rest in peace, Mr. President, and Lee. We didn’t have you for long enough, but our world is better for your having been here.
Here’s a post I wrote originally for the lovely and talented Marni Graff, who runs the Auntie M Writes Blog – don’t tell her I borrowed this, okay? It’s about a subject I loathe… cutting down your manuscript:
You would think that cutting your manuscript was relatively easy. I mean, compared to getting the words down on paper in the first place, cutting what’s already there should be a snap. Didn’t Michelangelo say airily, “I just took a chisel and cut away everything that wasn’t David”?
Well, that sounds simple enough. You drop an extraneous phrase here, a flabby sentence there—and suddenly your manuscript is ten pages shorter and a million percent better, and you’re all ready for the next step. Nothing to it, right?
I hadn’t realized how much I needed to do it until I began a much-needed revision this summer on FORWARD TO CAMELOT, the 2003 time-travel thriller I co-authored with Kevin Finn. We had both loved the book as written, but with a 50th-anniversary edition about to be published (commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, which is the subject of our novel), we felt it was a good time to fix some of the usage and grammar errors that had slipped by us the first time, and especially to tweak a couple of small historical points that had bothered me for ten years.
That was the intention. Make sure the quotation marks are facing the right way, check the history and turn in the book to our publisher.
Then Kevin and I began to look at what we had, and we realized there were other issues we wanted to address. What started as a simple fix became a much more complex, line-by-line scrutiny, and what we were eventually looking for were the words, sentences and even paragraphs we could cut to bring down the length. Our publisher, Drake Valley Press, explained gently that a book as long as the original version (almost 500 printed pages) would cost so much that we might not see any profit on it at all in paperback, and it could affect eBook sales as well. But if we could significantly reduce the word count, we would do a lot better. And besides, the narrative really did have its flabby moments. Keep the story, by all means—just make it, you know, a lot shorter and simpler.
I began to feel as though I had an “Everything Must Go!” sign on my computer screen.
While I began the historical fixes, Kevin began streamlining the manuscript, pulling out sections he felt could safely be cut while maintaining the pace, the plot and the flavor of the original. While we both resisted cutting entire scenes—we cut only one full scene, and that one only reluctantly—there were certain scenes that we also knew we wanted to rewrite; we hadn’t got them right in 2003 and we had another chance now.
But when I finally saw Kevin’s long, meticulous, detailed (and did I mention long?) document listing all the changes—which ran about 30 pages—I almost cried. Then began the bargain-with-your-partner phone calls: “Look, we have to keep the hunt scene at the end.”
“But it’s ten pages; that’s way too long.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll cut it way down, as long as I can keep the gist of it.”
“You can have the gist. Just get rid of the gristle!”
Thus began the slash-and-burn portion of the rewrite, where I began incorporating Kevin’s notes. (“Did you realize you write everything twice?” he asked me. “If you could cut it down to one telling, we could really cut through this manuscript.” By this time the word ‘cut’ or ‘slash’ made me queasy.)
We argued, and we both agreed to accept less than what we wanted. Kevin let me keep almost all the scenes intact, as far as intent; I swallowed a good deal of bile and pride and slashed away at anything that wasn’t strictly necessary.
Within a couple of weeks we’d brought down the 488-page original manuscript to a lean-and-mean 382 pages, cutting 100 pages (25,000 words) in the process. It was still the longest book either of us had ever written, but the word count was at least in the ballpark.
Did I enjoy the process? Losing all those threads of story, no. But on some level I did like examining each paragraph and finding a way to cut straight to the heart of what we were trying to say. It’s a process writers need to go through all the time—understand what we want to say and say it as effectively—and as simply—as we can. We can never afford to forget that part of our process, especially writers who become very successful, and whose editors then seem to somehow mysteriously evaporate (or more likely, are intimidated or overpowered by the author at that point).
I know I’ll do the same process from now on: I’ll look for stuff I’ve said twice and hack away at it, along with everything else the reader doesn’t absolutely need to know.
And maybe that snob Michelangelo was right: when you finish slashing with your machete, what you end up with looks a lot less like a flabby ‘before’ picture and a lot more like that glistening David in marble.
That alone makes it worthwhile.
Good luck with your own machete …
Here is another post dealing with the Kennedy assassination, the subject of my latest novel, FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (with Kevin Finn). As this is the 50th anniversary of that tragic event, I will write one blog post about it every week through November, as I did in October. (See the Archives for more.) Here’s today’s:
Last week I mentioned five troubling facts about the JFK assassination, some of which few people actually know.
Here are five more, which certainly indicate that there was more going on than one lone-nut assassin with an agenda, who got off 3 quick shots and somehow luckily managed to fatally wound the President while also badly wounding Governor John Connally and nicking a bystander named James Tague:
1) Immediately after the assassination, on the direct order of new President Lyndon Johnson, the special Lincoln limousine in which Kennedy rode–the crime scene itself–was washed down, fixed up and refitted, including the windshield (which supposedly had been cracked by a bullet). To say this is bizarre, in the normal course of crime-scene investigations, is an understatement. That limousine probably contained more clues to how many shots had been fired and where they had come from, than any single piece of evidence we had. Yet it was completely sterilized and all clues were destroyed, on the orders of the new president. (Try that with a crime scene yourself some time–and see if you don’t land a jail sentence.)
2) Governor John Connally, who was nearly killed himself on that day, and who was experienced with gunfire, insisted to the very end of his life that he had not been hit by the same bullet that hit Kennedy. This is critically important, because in order for the Warren Commission’s thesis of three shots fired by Oswald–all that could be fired by one man in six seconds–to hold up, one bullet had to account for seven wounds in two men. According to the WC, the first bullet hit the president in the back; the second caused multiple wounds to Kennedy and Connally (then emerged on a stretcher at Parkland Hospital looking almost pristine, something no one who understands gunfire would believe for a second); the third was the head shot that blew Kennedy’s head off. So the second bullet had to account for all the other wounds. There was no other way for the Warren Commission thesis to work.
Except Governor Connally insisted that it didn’t happen–and he was in a position to know. He heard the shot that hit Kennedy–and he knew that the one that broke his wrist a second later was a different shot. BTW, Connally died with some of the original bullet fragments still in his knee. Researchers have wanted those fragments extracted and weighed to compare it with ‘the magic bullet’, because if the weight of the material in Connally’s knee plus the weight of C-399 (the magic bullet) add up to MORE than the weight of the original bullet, it would be another sure proof of conspiracy.
BTW, another irony of history is that the man who invented the single-bullet theory was a junior counsel on the Warren Commission. His name was Arlen Specter, and yes, that’s the same Arlen Specter who was the U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania for so many years. Amazing where these people end up, isn’t it?
3) There were no fingerprints on the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle that the Warren Commission claim was used by Oswald to shoot the president. Okay, that’s understandable; the dumbest assassin would wipe the weapon clean, right? The rifle was sent to the FBI lab in Washington, D.C. on the evening of November 22nd, and it was subjected to rigorous tests. Nothing. Afterward, the rifle was returned to the Dallas police. Only after that did Dallas PD show off a palm print!
Consider that at the time, the FBI lab was the state-of-the-art facility for fingerprint testing. And this was the crime of the century–the murder of a sitting president. If there was something to be found, they were going to find it at the FBI lab.
But they didn’t. Yet a couple of days later, the Dallas Police Department (who had not covered themselves with glory in the way they handled the assassination, including the murder of Oswald), discovers a palm print that matches Oswald’s? Could it have been taken in the morgue? The funeral director at the funeral home that handled Oswald’s body said they had noticed black dirt under his fingernails after they had prepared his body. How did it get there? And could it have been from the fingerprinting process?
4) A female witness who gave a deposition to the Warren Commission was disturbed about the alteration of her statement as printed in the Warren Commission Exhibits, and she discussed it with New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison when he began to investigate the case in 1966. She had seen a man in a pickup truck parked with its wheels up on the curb on Elm Street, in Dealey Plaza, a couple of hours before the shooting. The day after, she went to police headquarters and positively identified him from photos they showed her. The man she’d picked out was Jack Ruby, a full day before he killed Oswald on national television. But though she signed a statement to that effect, when her statement was re-printed in the WC Exhibits, it was altered to say that she had not been able to identify the man she’d seen in the pickup truck, and the signature on that statement was not hers. In addition, there was a notary signature and stamp on the statement, though she told Garrison there had not been a notary present during her questioning at all.
How could Oswald, who by that time had been dead for three years, possibly be responsible for this? And if he wasn’t, where does the lone-assassin theory fit now?
5) The autopsy of the president was done badly, sloppily and in a crowded room where the doctors (none of them experienced in dealing with wounds made by gunfire) were not the ones in charge. They were told what to do and how far to probe, in some cases not even checking for how far a bullet had penetrated into the body. After the autopsy was complete and the report written a couple of days later, one of the autopsy doctors burned his notes of the procedure. This is not done ordinarily, or innocently. Notes of autopsy cases are typically saved, to be consulted if necessary for court testimony or in case of any questions raised afterward.
Even more interesting, the doctors and nurses at Parkland Hospital who attended the dying president all saw the same thing: a huge, gaping wound at the back of the president’s head, which would indicate a bullet entering from the right front and traveling to the back of the head–ie, the gaping wound was an exit wound. Yet at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, where the autopsy was done late in the evening of the 22nd, the doctors there saw something completely different; the wound at the back of the head was small, indicating it was an entrance wound; the wound at the front of the head was much bigger.
There has been much thoughtful discussion over the years whether or not this indicated that some sort of surgery had been done to the president’s head before the autopsy officially began, and orderlies at Bethesda have described seeing two different types of coffins altogether being rolled in from two different hospital entrances, and the president’s body being wrapped two different ways.
Are you uneasy yet?
These are just a sprinkling of facts that indicate something much greater was going on than just a disaffected young man seizing a moment of glory. At the least, it indicates a serious effort by some very powerful entity to change our perception of what happened in Dallas. And where you have a change of perception, you have cover-up. And where ou have cover-up … you have conspiracy.
OK. Let’s get down to meat and potatoes. We’ve talked about the events of November 22, 1963 and the rest of that tragic weekend, and we’ve talked about conspiracy and how many Americans simply refuse to believe in it.
However, and paradoxically, consider these additional facts (and yes, they’re all documented; you can look them up):
1) When Oliver Stone’s superb film JFK came out in late 1991, it made a great impact on audiences. Polls taken at the time showed that SEVENTY PERCENT of the American public believed there had been a conspiracy in his death. The movie made such an impression that it led to Stone’s testifying in front of the US Congress, and the subsequent creation of the Assassination Records and Review Board, an act Bill Clinton signed into law. The purpose of the AARB was to review still-classified files and determine whether it was possible to de-classify them at this point in time. Hundreds of files were released as a result, some of which had explosive information in them. (But you had to know enough about the case to understand their significance.)
2) Among the declassified files reviewed by documentary filmmakers Ray and Mary LaFontaine were some that became the basis for their book OSWALD TALKED, a much under-rated (at least according to Amazon) book that presents evidence that’s crucial to the discussion of the assassination. They focused much attention on the gun-running operation in and around Dallas that Kevin Finn and I talk so much about in FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION. Why is this so important? BECAUSE THE GUNRUNNING WAS KEY TO UNDERSTANDING WHAT ELSE WAS GOING ON IN DALLAS AT THE TIME OF KENNEDY’S DEATH. The LaFontaines contend that while Oswald was locked in a Dallas Police jail cell, he knew a gunrunner who was also there, and had been arrested days before (an event we used as a plot point in CAMELOT). Why would lone-nut crazy Oswald know a gunrunner, when he was a $1.25/hour stock boy at the Texas School Book Depository? Doesn’t anyone find that strange?
3) On Thursday morning, November 21st, Dallas PD Officer J.D. Tippit (remember him? Shot in Oak Cliff, a Dallas suburb, 45 minutes after the president was shot–the second shooting Oswald was accused of?) was having breakfast in a Dallas coffee shop when a young patron at the counter made a commotion. He insisted his eggs hadn’t been cooked right, and he was so loud and obnoxious that everyone in the shop noticed him (including, presumably, the alert Dallas PD officer). That patron was Lee Harvey Oswald. Now, that’s odd, isn’t it? The man accused of killing Tippit (whom supposedly he had never met) was in the same coffee shop only 24 hours before the shooting? Can you spell ‘coincidence’? (The explanation I’ve heard–which makes a lot of sense–is that Oswald made the scene deliberately as a way to identify himself to Tippit, as is often done between intelligence agents. Consider that the next day–the 22nd–Oswald went home to his rooming house in Oak Cliff after the assassination, picked up his revolver and a jacket and headed out, but his landlady, Mrs. Earline Roberts, saw a police car pull up outside her rooming house and heard the sound of car horn.) There has been speculation that this was a prearranged signal. If so, was Tippit involved?
4) There are a troubling number of unusual or untimely deaths of people who had some connection or were witnesses to the assassination. They are too numerous to discuss here individually. The best source on this is Richard Belzer and David Wayne’s new book HIT LIST, an in-depth investigation of many of the ‘unexplained’ deaths from 1963 onward, including a very good chapter on J.D. Tippit, who has received relatively little attention in the research community. Because Belzer and Wayne go thoroughly into the details of each case, it’s possible to get a troubling overview that leaves little doubt that these people’s connection to the assassination or the relationship between Oswald and Jack Ruby is what caused their deaths to be ‘untimely’. (The mathematical odds against this number of people dying in such a relatively short time are astronomical.)
5) The Warren Commission Report and Exhibits, which total 27 volumes (the one-volume Report and 26 volumes of exhibits), show a strange schizophrenia: though the Report categorically declares Oswald the lone-nut assassin, there are numerous instances in the exhibits where witness testimony indicates clearly that there had to be more than one shooter. Consider the WC testimony of Bobby Hargis, Dallas motorcycle cop, who was riding alongside the presidential limo at the moment of the head shot, directly to the left of Mrs. Kennedy. He was struck on the right side of his helmet with the president’s blood and brains so hard that for a minute he thought he had been shot. Think about this–Hargis was hit on the right side of his helmet. And he was facing forward (check the film footage) at the time. So the blood and debris were flying at him from his right. There’s only one way this could happen–if the shot itself came from the grassy knoll.
The laws of physics don’t change, not even for the president of the United States. Hargis’s testimony alone proves there was a gunman firing from the grassy knoll, which means at least two gunmen, which equals conspiracy. (Norman Mailer tried hard to get around this–I kid you not–by saying that it was perfectly possible there were two lone nuts, each intent on killing the president in Dealey Plaza, but they didn’t know each other or know that the other would be there. I’d love to know what the mathematicians would say about the odds against that.)
Mull over those facts, and we’ll meet back here next week.
A writer friend recently asked me to critique the first couple of chapters of her new novel. As she’s a very good up-and-coming writer, and she’s written wonderful reviews for my novels on Amazon, B&N and Goodreads, I agreed.
I was immediately interested in the subject matter–a young girl worshipping her older brother and grieving over his death–but it surprised me that the writer, whose work was usually a lightning-quick read, had written two chapters (almost 9.000 words) and I was struggling with it.
I knew before I’d finished the chapters, and I hung my head in shame, because it’s one of my own greatest faults as well:
WAY too much back story, WAY too much unnecessary detail, and not nearly enough happening in the present time.
You’d be surprised how fast that kills a reader’s interest.
This might not sound like such a sin–after all, in the opening chapters, you HAVE to tell the reader a little about your characters and describe them, and get into a little of who they are, and what they want, and where they came from, and … watch out. That’s a slippery slope.
What’s really necessary is to introduce your story in a way that’s inherently dramatic–ie, something is happening right now, and we jump right into the middle of it. How much do we need to know to understand it? How many details can you leave out?
To me, here’s the rule of thumb: TELL THE READER ONLY WHAT’S NECESSARY TO KNOW IN ORDER TO UNDERSTAND WHAT’S HAPPENING RIGHT NOW.
And then–open with a truly dramatic situation that the readers can get involved with right away. You will hook them, they will want to know more, and I promise, they will stick around even when you tuck in bits of NECESSARY exposition here and there (and be careful; only a little bit at a time–giving exposition is like feeding a goldfish–give it too much at a time and it’ll die.)
Too many writers think if they get into tons of back story, they can disguise (or in some cases not even notice) that their opening chapters have NO DRAMATIC MOVEMENT WHATSOEVER.
In the first chapter you introduce and describe your characters (and it’s always better to describe a character through the actions they take and the words they speak, rather than giving physical description and back story). You can tell the reader REAMS about your hero if, as in a very famous instance, you show him not wanting to whitewash a fence on a Saturday morning but figuring out a clever way to get others to do it for him–and pay for the privilege. (Thanks, Mark Twain.) This is the famous school of SHOW, DON’T TELL, and one I heartily subscribe to. But that’s action, and it’s happening in the present time. We’ll like that, and we’ll stay with it.
Almost my favorite novel opening comes from Dick Francis’s THE DANGER: “There was a godawful cock-up in Bologna.”
There is NO WAY I was going to miss reading the next sentence, and paragraph, as Francis talked about the kidnapping negotiation that had gone wrong and now there were innocent lives at stake in a high-rise apartment building and the hero stood frustrated on the street. You want to talk about compelling? He did NOT get into the hero’s angst or back story, except to say that he was there as a kidnap negotiator. He saved ALL the other details (except a couple about the kidnap victim and the previous attempts at ransom) for later in the story. I devoured it, and it was grand.
I also cannot stress enough that while you will undoubtedly, as you live with your characters and your story, come up with a million different ways of showing (or telling) details about them, you need to rein in that impulse as much as you can. You might say that as long as you ‘save’ them for a later chapter, it’s okay to tell us everything you’ve ever thought of about that character.
Wrong. You NEVER need to say it (think of it as a first date–where would you be if you blurted out everything you were thinking to someone you hardly knew?) If there are 12 instances in which you intended to show your character’s greed, drop 10 of them and use the best two in the story. Your readers will appreciate it and will not feel as though they’re being bludgeoned with a heavy stick to get your point.
This summer, while Kevin Finn and I were doing the final edit on FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition, I found myself confronted with my own prose again, for the first time in 10 years, and while we did correct a few minor historical points (and I feel better for it!), the majority of the time was spent first trimming, then chopping, whole sections of the book. Kevin pointed out that I had a bad habit of saying everything twice, and I did: I realized I said something first to announce it, second, to set it up for a dramatic moment. This was obviously not necessary, and I found a lot of places to cut down–WITHOUT LOSING ANY OF THE DRAMA OR THE FLAVOR OF THE BOOK.
Believe me, writers can be among the most self-indulgent people on earth, and it’s terrible to realize how much we love the look of our words on the page. (We can be like those awful public speakers who go on, and on, and on.) Minimize it and use the strongest examples. Say little about your characters and let their words and actions (and what others say about them) tell us who they are. That’s good storytelling.
Of course, you will always find those who insist that the ‘inner monologue’ is beautiful and is the crux of a ‘literary’ novel, in which action is not nearly as important as thought. To me, a literary novel is usually one that has pretensions to being high-blown and arty, but in reality is just a story written by an author who can’t handle simple storytelling. To me, simple storytelling–getting the hero up the tree and figuring out how to get him down–is all there is, and the hardest thing in the world to do well. That’s what I’m always aiming it, and I hope you are, too. The world needs more good storytellers, and far fewer ‘literary’ artists.
But that is a post for another day …