Thursday, August 4, 2016

Pearl’s Valley

Good news from the Black Lizard Lounge: I signed a contract the other day for the publication of "Pearl's Valley." “Pearl” is a longish story I wrote more than two years ago. It was a difficult story to sell perhaps because of the length, which is 15,500 words. That was a conscious choice on my part as 15,000 is about the length of some of my favorite short stories by Raymond Chandler, such as "Red Wind" or "Goldfish," or approximately one-quarter the length of two of Dashiell Hammett's finest novels, The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest, both of which originally appeared as four part serials in Black Mask.

The publisher for "Pearl's Valley" will be Dark Passages Publishing,  which says it "is a New York based imprint that endeavors to publish the best new crime novellas." They plan to bring it out as (I guess) a little stand-alone book and an e-book in March 2017. 

I've been particularly fond of this story, which I sent to about 43 prospective homes in response to which I received 39 rejections. I guess I just had to find the right home. 

Someone--John Gardner, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy or Kinky Friedman--said there are only two plots: a man goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. "Pearl's Valley" was my man-goes-on-a-journey story. “New Billy’s Blues,” my current writing project, is my stranger-comes-to-town. 

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Substantive Edits

My "substantive edit" on my first novel, White with Fish, Red with Murder, arrived from the publisher, Driven Press, at the beginning of June. There was an eight-page edit report in which the editors raise questions about a few things in the story: the characters, the character relationships, characters’ motivations--questions that they’d like me to answer in the text.

And there's a “track-changes-markup” of my 393-page manuscript in Word. It was actually pretty daunting when it arrived, but in general I thought the edit was fair and helpful. And if you’ve been in writing workshops and critique groups, you’ve seen worse than this.

I went right to work with the attitude that these people probably want to make money selling my book, and they might know what they’re doing. Six weeks later, Word tells me I spent 10,569 minutes (or 176 hours) editing the manuscript. Say I worked 36 days on it; that’s about 4.9 hours per day, which was really something I needed. I’d been spinning my wheels, losing my writing focus much of the spring, waiting for these edits and revising “New Billy’s Blues” more often than necessary. 

The edit report pointed out recurring things in the manuscript they took issue with and some general writing habits of mine they could do without. —for example, I use a lot of dialogue tags: ‘he said,’ ‘I said,’ etc. and they prefer fewer. They also had a list of words they thought I should use less frequently.

But the biggest problem was that they wanted more of the private eye/protagonist’s internal thoughts, and I was purposely writing the story with a minimum of interiority.

"could you weave in some of [Frank's] internal thoughts?"

My personal feeling about fiction is that conflict, change, and character should be revealed in action, not in some guy ruminating. However, that was only my first thought, and as I worked on the manuscript, I found I was already letting some of Frank’s thoughts come through, just not his ratiocination about the crime. 

After the first ten days, I was ready for a chat with Driven Press to clarify a couple points in the edit report. One was their lingering question about the exact nature of Frank and Vera’s relationship. They understood Frank and Vera were friends with benefits. But did Frank love Vera? Could he? Was he just using her? Or was it more of a friendship?

“Well,” I said, “I wrote two sex scenes between Frank and Vera that I cut out of the final manuscript. Perhaps I could put one back in.  Perhaps it would help clarify what the relationship’s all about.”

“OK,” said the ed. “But you don’t have to put the whole scene back in. Just pick it up from the end, after they come.”

I thought that was a strange thing to say. I wasn’t sure if I heard her right, but I was not comfortable asking for clarification.

They’re Australian, and yes, she did have a bit of an accent, but still . . . ;-)

At times I didn’t think the eds “got” what I was doing, and other times I was just thankful to have the work and effort of two editors as a resource. I spent the first three weeks going through the mark-up; then I did “Words You Should Banish from your Writing,” I went through the list and tried to cut or change as many as possible to stronger or more vivid words. Some of the culprits—‘Went’—157 times, ‘pull’—87 times, ‘put’—141 times, ‘walk’—82 times, ‘there was’--129 times. The big villain was “look” which I used more than 300 times!   “Look,” I said . . . swell-looking gal . . . I looked down . . . she looked me in the eye. This was a tiring exercise, and by the end of the week, and I needed to take a day off.

For the last two weeks, I made a second pass to see if I did a good job on the edits. For the second pass, I hid the track changes and comments and printed a clean copy and reviewed it. To my surprise, it all still sounds like my writing. I do like Frank to use a lot of three and four letter Anglo-Saxon words—sat, push, took, pull, put, etc.—as opposed to Latinate word forms. But it read well. Better than the original, I dare say, even after losing 150+ instances of the word ‘look.’

Frank Swiver has been getting to be a darker character, what with his problems in “Pearl's Valley,” and his attitude in “New Billy's”. It was good to get back to a more positive, kinder Frank in White w/Fish. However, he was still supposed to be a ‘noir’ character—a loser. Doomed. He may not die at the end but he might be better off dead. When I got to the end of the book there were three of four consecutive questions from the editors that I didn’t really understand.

  •  ‘     Show his thought process.
  •         What makes him finally dismiss the idea?’
  •          ‘Didn’t she already try to poison him, and the cat got it instead?’
  •          ‘Is all of this the truth?
  •          What is he thinking?’
I showed my wife “Why are they asking me these questions?” I said.

Tasia read the last ten pages. “Because what you’ve written doesn’t make any sense.”


Monday, March 7, 2016

Intro to Screenwriting

Last Monday, I started an online two-week screenwriting class from an organization called FutureLearn, which apparently bundles online classes from a number of European universities. It’s free, it’s from the U. of East Anglia (home of the Fighting Anglicans?) and it’s at

I’m not necessarily looking to turn from fiction to screenwriting, or to make a big financial score, and certainly Hollywood doesn’t need me while it has another crazy old man from Cleveland, Joe Eszterhas. But I have been feeling a need to sharpen the saw, and I was attracted by the idea that screenwriting is an external form, that shows us what characters say and do, but not their thoughts and feelings. In other words, none of that interiority. The screenwriter must create action that implies the character’s inner life and makes it accessible to the viewer/reader.

So far the course has been pretty good. I would like more concrete examples. The course is strong on structure. Causal, character driven . . . I’ve heard of “Three Act Structure” for year’s but I’ve finally had it explained for me. The instructors propose leaving gaps which make the audience work, and I liken that to Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, which I believe has great value.

One week to go.