Fish Pah

The title for this post, “Fish Pah,” is ASL for “finally finished.” Yes, the book is done. I’ve edited until I can edit no more. Now it’s time to put it out into the universe.

The current question is: traditional or self publishing? Call me vain, but I’ve decided to try the traditional route first. My biggest issue with that choice has to do with writing a query letter.

Tensile Strength is a complex story, taking my main character (now renamed Blu Jay Byrd) through many life stages. The first part gives a backstory about growing up as a hearing child in a dysfunctional deaf family. Then, in sequence, he becomes a disillusioned Marine before and after 9/11, marries a Colombian woman to be able to live off-base, has a son, divorces, and sees his son disappear when his wife forges the divorce papers and takes him out of the country.

The second half of the book follows Blu Jay’s journey back from the depths of loss.

The conflict is always the same — a quest for normalcy and acceptance. The problem is cramming the larger picture into a single, well-written page.

Enter Writer’s Relief, a service that will, hopefully, help me write that query. After that, they are supposed to help me submit packages to agents for representation. (You can Google them if you’re interested in more information).

So, as Blu Jay’s journey ends in my word-processing program, my journey begins.

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Way Down the Line — Ramblings

It’s been a while. Since my last posting, I’ve been writing, editing, rewriting, editing, adding a chapter here, taking out a beloved word/sentence/paragraph/chapter there. Outsiders call this “honing my craft.” I call it hard, painful work.

I’ve become accustomed to waking up at night, my head filled with ideas. To this purpose, I keep a pad next to my bed. Another pad sits at the ready in my purse, now filled with phrasing or little details in the story I need to check. Timelines have become the most common demon in this category.

Yes, I still go to my critique group. I’ve learned to sit and nod when others tell me what I need. At the end of each person’s time slot of criticism or praise, I say, “Thank you.” Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re completely off-base. But I’ve learned any speed bump must be reviewed. Then I decide whether to change things or, as the editors say, “stet.”

It’s also been a long journey for my main character, Royal Henry King, who will soon become Blu Jay Byrd. His brother will also go through a name change. He’ll be dubbed Hugh Fraser.

As for the idea of the beta read, it’s exactly that. an idea. I’ve sent the book’s file out to several volunteers. None have ever gotten back to me. Instead, I’ve decided to depend on a few friends in town, begging them to be honest, promising them I won’t get upset if they are brutally honest. We’ll see.

Finally, how much longer? Ah — that’s the mantra. At some point I will have to declare my work “done.” Twelve more chapters for my Saturday critique group to go over and five more for my smaller, Sunday group. Maybe another half year? If I’m brave, perhaps less.

Meanhile, Stay tuned!

Getting Unstuck

All writers get stuck. Call it writer’s block, ennui, frustration, or anything else, a break in the writing process can make you feel as though you might never find a way to write another coherent paragraph. I hope a few suggestions might help.

My daily dose of writing takes place in two blocks of time. In the morning, I like to (excuse the expression) “vomit write.” This means I just sit down and start typing, usually on a topic from my book’s outline. For example, yesterday I did a great deal of research on Video Relay Services (VRS), since that’s where my main character is going to be working. Today, I sat down and wrote about Roy at work. Six hundred and some odd words later. . .

This afternoon, when my brain is more engaged, I’m going to go back to a different section of my draft to edit and revise something. I find my mind flows more freely first thing in the morning, engaging for better editing skills later in the day.

I printed out the information regarding VRS and began highlighting the information I want to incorporate into my scene, a habit I’ve clung to since my high school and college years. Among all the cold, hard information, there were sparks of insight I could connect to Roy’s character and what’s going on in his life:

“I typically chose a cubicle that was further away from the place where interpreters may congregate to discuss schedules, wait for a station to become available, or read the various notices posted on the wall.”

Perfect! In my story, Roy has just been traumatized and is in no mood to socialize. I’ve just been handed the spark of an idea regarding how I can depict this, seamlessly integrating it into his new job.

Another example of a spark:

“Every interpreter, indeed every person, uses closure skills, meaning the drawing on of previous knowledge and common sense to fill in gaps in understanding.”

Again, something I can employ to link Roy’s situation and his work. I’ve also picked up an interesting phrase, “closure skills,” to use.

One final example:

“. . . interpreters are regulated in such a way to produce a non-person who acts as a go-between for the deaf and non-deaf person”

For me, that phrase is like hitting the jackpot. I’m going to take it and run with it. In my book, at this point, Roy has become a “non-person.”

Inspiration sparks can come from anywhere. Even a radio show, totally unrelated to your writing, can act as a stimulus. I love listening to NPR in the morning. They ask wonderful questions I can apply to my story. I also love eavesdropping on people’s conversations to pick up phraseology, interesting vocabulary, and tone. 

And, of course, read. Read as much as you can, both within your genre and outside your comfort zone. Read fine literature for style. There’s a reason it’s considered great. Read bestselling pop authors and figure out why they’re so popular. In other words, read books that will elevate you and read books that might sharpen your storytelling.

In other words, when you’re stuck, expose yourself to something new. You never know where inspiration lies.

Style

Style: it’s more than fashion. In fact, the concept of style covers many aspects of writing and publishing. What type of grammatical rules will you follow? How does punctuation work (especially those darned commas)? How are you going to present numbers in your writing? With digits or words?

I’ve been looking at two different style guides recently, to make those very decisions for myself. One is A Pocket Style Manual by Diana Hacker and the other is Webster’s Standard American Style Manual.

The first one is a slim, spiral-bound reference. Its main audience is writers of academic papers, with information on the three most popularly accepted styles: MLA (Modern Language Association), APA (American Psychological Association), and Chicago-Style. It’s basic, easy to use, and has a great section on Clarity.

Webster’s, on the other hand, is directed more at the publishing crowd, even getting into how to present tables, illustrations, and indexes. Beyond that, it also covers design, typography, composition, printing, and binding. It’s a little less user-friendly, but its comprehensive coverage of all things style-related, makes it a valuable addition to any writer’s library.

Of the two books, I have to admit my favorite section in either is Webster’s presentation of how to make your own style sheet. I don’t have permission to quote from it. Happily, there’s a great online reference explaining it on The Editor’s Blog.

If you write, write well . . . at least, as well as you possibly can. A style guide can be a major part of helping you to achieve that goal.

Writing Critique Groups

I put myself out there. I took my “baby” and gave copies of it to a writing critique group. To be honest about the experience, I came home crushed. I put the copies with the criticism, edits, and comments aside, licking my wounds and medicating myself with a couple of New Mexico Martinis.

So you have a point of reference, let me tell you I’m writing a fictional memoir in first person, present tense. This seems to be extremely controversial, with some people telling me it’s hard to read and other people telling me they love it. I’ll simply insert a shrug here and promise to discuss that decision in a future post.

The next day, emboldened by sleep, I went back to the critiques. With the exception of one complete “diss,” which is, after all, not a critique at all, it wasn’t all as bad as I remembered.

Sure, there was still the “diss” critique. Then I remembered back to that particular person, continuously calling my protagonist “deaf” when, several times over the first page, I make it completely clear that he is hearing. In fact, the fourth paragraph is a note from the neonatal nurse saying, “Congratulations! You have a normal, healthy baby boy. And he can hear. You should be so happy!” I took the liberty of discounting his demoralizing critique.

However, upon closer inspection of all the others, there was some excellent editorial advice and I figured out a way to deal with it all. I pass it on to you, herewith.

1. When you attend a writer’s critique group, get to know the people. Are any of them published authors? Are they avid readers or do they only read books in their genre? Is their genre anywhere near yours? Do you respect their writing? How do they approach their critiques with other people’s pieces?

2. Don’t bring your work for a critique until you have answered the above questions.

3. Understand this is a critique group. As such, people are going to look for things that are wrong with your piece. I’d love to bring in an excerpt from Steinbeck to see what the group does with it. After all, if they don’t correct something, why are they there?

4. After the group, put the copies they’ve marked up aside. Sleep on your experience a couple of nights. Things you might have been hurt by might begin to make sense. You might take some other comments and realize it’s a difference in style preference. Just keep working. Don’t stop because your feelings are hurt.

5. When you’re done feeling sorry for yourself, start reading the written comments and edits. Look for commonalities. Look for things that make sense to you. I had one critic do some excellent edits on my piece, catching things I didn’t. If several people make the same comment, take that seriously. If only one person comments on something (other than a point of grammar or punctuation), take it with a grain of salt.

6. Don’t stop going. Even comments made to other writers, in other genres, can be useful.

7. Remember that cliche: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The critique group may well prepare you for a future encounter with an agent or an editor.

Me? I’m going back to the group today. I won’t be presenting anything of mine for a bit. But I did take much of the advice I was given, using it to edit and clean up the excerpt they critiqued. Maybe I’ll be ready to go through it again in a couple of weeks!

Have a great Labor Day weekend.

 

Strip It Down and Build It Back Up

This is for all you writers out there.

When I was in school, I was a very concise writer. If a paper had to be a minimum of 500 words, I was hard-pressed to write more than 400. This is still true today.

Let’s take compression and turn it into a writing exercise.

Take a piece you’ve written and delete any of the extra words. These include words such as that, however, anyhow, so, very, etc. Pare your piece down to the bare essentials. Then put it away for a couple of days.

When you take it out again, read it out loud, and listen closely to what you hear. Is anything essential missing? If so, add it back in. You might be surprised at changes in your new choice of words.

Be sure any words you add back or replace move the piece along. Often, extra words cause the reader to get bogged down in verbosity. Cleaning things up can give a better flow to the movement of your writing.

Happy writing!

Protesting a Lack of Precision

I would like to protest against the lack of precision in written language. It’s becoming more and more prevalent in our books. Unfortunately, it seems it’s also become more prevalent in our scientific journals, a trend which might have an impact on science.

The journal article to which I refer is a study indicating increased mortality on younger (<55) people drinking more than four cups of coffee a day.

While discussing this with my husband this morning, I asked, “What constitutes a ‘cup’ of coffee? Are we talking about the standard eight ounces, or are we talking about fourteen ounces or more?”

I imagine, though I could be wrong, a detail like this is important to a scientific study and, as a result, should be included somewhere in an article about the results of said study.

I can’t control what others write. But omissions like this cause me to evaluate my writing, to be sure I don’t omit important facts, causing my readers to wonder if I’ve researched my topic well.

A caveat: I did not read the original study done by the Mayo Clinic. However, the article I did read in The Guardian online, says, “There’s a huge variation in caffeine from cup to cup. Compare a three-shot monster coffee from a chain to a half-a-teaspoon weak cup of instant you make yourself; all this kind of detail isn’t picked up in this study.”