Category Archives: Writing

Why is Irish in my book?

My whole life has been embedded in Irish culture. The central character in Otherworld Tales: Irish the Demon Slayer, Peter (Irish) Kehoe, is named after my maternal great-grandfather, Peter Kehoe, who was born in Ireland and immigrated to this country in the midst of the great potato famine, circa 1850. Growing up in San Francisco, we lived in an Irish neighborhood. My Kehoe relatives, Irish nuns, priests and brothers surrounded me. Our high school motto was and still is “The Fightin’ Irish.” The fascinating Irish poet and IRA rebel, Ella Young, who conversed with animals, trees and even rocks, inspired the talking trees in my story. And finally, in the midst of writing the book, I toured Ireland to see the landscape where the famous Celtic warrior, Cuchulain, fought his battles and I visited Tara, where I placed the castle of Aine, queen of the fairies, in my novel.

 

Researching things Irish for the novel was an interesting adventure. As soon as Peter Kehoe became the character “Irish,” I started looking for information and accumulating books on Irish lore. I quickly discovered that a culture of oral history depicts the same event a zillion different ways. I spent about two years concurrent with my writing, digging through books that were mostly about fairies and leprechauns, cartoonish characters that did not belong in my fantasy-adventure story. I wanted the most authentic mythical characters I could find and I hit pay dirt when I discovered a treatise titled “Cuchulain of Muirthemne” by Lady Augusta Gregory, a peer and colleague of Yeats. Even her renditions were somewhat convoluted, but I outlined the stories and charted the characters in detail and used this to create my own versions of the Celtic episodes, which I included in my novel. I was able to verify my work later when Marie Heaney (wife of Seanus Heaney of Beowulf translation fame) published her book of Irish legends.

Editing Your Own Novel

Editing your own novel

Now the fun begins. You’ve completed the initial pass on a chapter or maybe the whole manuscript and it’s time to edit. I think of editing as a more creative process than a first draft. Creativity is spawned by restrictions and what could be more restrictive than an established plotline with developed characters in already carefully crafted scenes? Every change you want to make must be formed within these boundaries. Yes, it is a challenge, but it’s an exciting challenge. Or maybe you go completely crazy and change the boundaries, add or delete a character. That’s just a big edit. By the way, don’t be surprised when the edit takes four times longer than writing the original manuscript.

 

Perspective Tricks

In order to edit your own work, you need to become a different person with a different perspective. Not easy. But there are ways to trick yourself. First try reading printed hard copy of the piece. For whatever strange reason, you gain a different perspective reading words on a page than you do reading a computer screen. It’s weird, but misspells, repeated words and other bad grammatical stuff sticks out. Then try reading your work out loud. This exposes clumsy sentence structure, repetitious scenes and dialogue that is not owned by a character. The next trick is assembly. Connecting the paragraphs and chapters together highlights transitions and exposes logistical problems, e.g. things the characters know and when they know them, things the characters have with them and when they get them and memories the characters have and when they remember them. You’re almost finished. The final trick is time. You are a different editor a week or a month or a year later. Put your work away for a time, then bring it out in the future and read it with new eyes. You’ll be surprised by what you find.

 

 

What are Layers?

Each edit pass you do with a different perspective can be focused on a different element in your writing. I like to call these layers. The initial layer is plot consistency and dramatic motivation. Read through your manuscript to ensure that everything makes sense, the scenes progress sensibly and every action by a character has a legitimate motivation.  Authentic dramatic motivation makes for powerful storytelling. The best reference I’ve found for this is The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, first published in 1942. The next layer should include a verification of the story arc. In simple terms, does it follow the classic sequence of problem/issue, rising tension, climax and anti-climax? I found the best-written explanation of this construct in The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vobler. Another layer might be voice. Do each of the characters maintain their voice throughout the work? Is the voice authentic for their gender and age? Does each of the characters have an arc?

 

Paper Tools

Diagramming your work sounds like another trick, but it is really an important methodology. Maybe some people can do this in their head, but I need stuff on paper as a visual aid. Basically, it helps me to have my entire story laid out so that I can see the whole thing in a glance. This works for portions of a novel, but is most useful when you have the whole first draft manuscript complete. A story board is a form of this where each scene gets a 3 x 5 card and all the cards are pinned to a big wall somewhere so you can see the whole novel and move scenes around. I don’t have a big enough wall, so I use a computer. First I write a detailed outline of the novel. In my scheme, every chapter is described in a paragraph of a few very terse sentences. Events, characters and actions are listed. I print out all the paragraphs, one for each chapter and paste them together into a single long sheet that is about ten feet tall. Then I use colored pencils to connect the flows, all the appearances of the characters (arcs), all the occurrences of magic (logistics), and so on, until I have a successful picture of the story movement, and I’m satisfied that nothing will interfere with the dream state of the reader. A hidden benefit of this methodology is the ability to make changes. With this view of your novel from 1,000 feet, you can move scenes around with god-like power and not lose connectivity and continuity. Whew! Finished. No. Now it’s time to take your baby to its first critique group. Good luck.

 

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Implementing Creativity

In the popular, but simplistic right-brain, left brain dominance theory, the right brain is best at expressive and creative tasks while the left brain is best in areas of language and logic. Could this be a problem for writers? You bet. Fortunately, we are able to access both sides concurrently and writers need that in order to use language creatively.

 

Creativity in writing is highly personal and annoyingly elusive. It seems to effectively sidestep a frontal approach. In other words, the more intensely you focus on being creative, the less you are. Creativity arrives from the side, much like peripheral vision; turn your head and the shadow is gone.

 

But creativity can be coaxed out of hiding. I write fantasy novels for pre-teens because I enjoy the process of creating worlds, characters, obstacles and resolutions. Not only does creativity exist on the level of plotline, it’s in chapters, paragraphs, sentences and even word usage. What fun! But what if a character confuses you?  What can you do if the plot line for the story stops and you don’t know where it’s going? Is this writer’s block?

 

I claim it is not. It is an important part of the process. I know what’s missing will reveal itself if I let it. Ray Bradbury said these problems go to ground in the unconscious where they process and ultimately give up their resolutions (my paraphrasing). He’s right. I step away from direct action. Yes, it’s hard to do, but I do it. I walk our road, cut wood for the winter, or sit on the deck swing with coffee and a muffin. I do something physical away from the story. Sometimes I take an alternate tack, extract an outline from the finished chapters, track character arcs, or create a synopsis. Of course the outline and synopsis will be wrong, but they will both give me a view of my work from a different perspective, from the side with my peripheral vision.

 

I said this was hard to do and it is. It’s hard to let chaos reign; it’s hard to deliberately live with confusion; it’s very hard for us type A, self-actualized, inner-directed writers to set our work aside and let our unconscious do its thing. But your work will be better for it.

 

 

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Critiquing Fiction

I like to receive the critique piece as a MS Word doc several days in advance of the critique meeting. It should be no greater than approximately 15 pages, double spaced. Then I read it at least twice. I first read for storyline. Who, what, where and why. I need to assimilate all of this before I have any opinions or do any commenting. However, before I read this first time, I enable the tracking function in MS Word so I can easily document the minutia I hit along the way: tense or number errors, misspellings, incorrect word choices, even some copy editing. I see these minor errors on the first read and often miss them the second time around. I do this first read and correct minor problems without interrupting the dream state, the mental scenes created by the author as I read the manuscript. If there are places that stop me or take me out of the story, I identify them and note them.

 

Depending on the pressure of time, I take a break and think about the characters and the flow of the piece.  Sometimes I’ll come to a conclusion in general and note it, but most of the time I let the piece gestate—but not for long. About fifteen minutes works for me. I have an internal checklist: Did the logistics make sense? Were the characters consistent? Were they developed? Was the voice of the character(s) authentic? Was Point of View (POV) consistent? Was the back story, narrative and dialogue equally distributed? What about the pacing of the story elements? Did the piece conform to an arc of problem/conflict, rising tension to resolution, climax, then anti-climax. If any of these questions get a ‘no,’ then I list my concerns in a separate place to discuss later, in person, if possible.

 

When I sit down to read the second time, I already know the story so I’m not distracted by the dream state associated with fiction, I can focus fully on the details: scenes, description, dialogue, sentence structure, voice. And since I now know the end of the piece, I can determine whether the earlier parts support it.

 

As I work through the piece a second time, I comment two ways. First, I highlight a word, a sentence or a paragraph and insert a comment that does not interfere with the original manuscript text. I can use this technique to suggest changes, ask questions or indicate whether or not something should be removed. Second, I actually edit the manuscript. With tracking enabled, additions are colored (I choose green) and subtractions are strike-through and colored (I choose red). The transparency of these changes is important so the author knows exactly what has been suggested. The author always has the option of accepting or rejecting my change. This may seem intrusive, but it is the simplest way to communicate an area that may need work with a constructive suggestion for change.

 

All of the above occurs before actually meeting to do the critique. At the meeting, it isn’t necessary to go over the minutia unless it’s important to explain some detail. It’s a lot more important to discuss the more general issues you have already noted in a separate place (I use a list on a separate Word.doc). Since the discussion will not usually cover the minutia, you can email the marked up manuscript back to the author in advance.

 

One advantage of an in-person critique meeting is communication. You can cover a lot of territory face-to-face that would take reams of writing time. Second, everyone can benefit from a shared critique. It’s an educational process. Third, consensus on a problem in your manuscript by others means it very probably needs work. Fourth, diametrically opposed opinions can point out an interesting piece of writing, but it basically means the author has the option.

 

Since a critique is essentially adversarial, it’s really important to choose to work with members who are compatible, thoughtful and still open to criticism. There is seldom a lot of time for praise and that’s okay, because the point of the process is to make the manuscript clean and effective. To achieve that, the author must know were the problems are.

 

Finally, what’s amazing to me is that, even after I work through someone’s piece carefully, I still miss major issues. That’s why it’s so important to have a group of four or five people doing the critique. What you miss, they find and vice versa.

 

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Overwriting

On a good day, the manuscript flows from my fingers and appears in some nice format on the screen. The problem arises when I return to those good words to edit out the extraneous stuff and achieve a level of compression that succinctly creates the images I want, the scenes I want and the action I want. For the most part, the unwanted expansion happens in dialogue, primarily because conversation, real conversation between consenting adults, includes a lot of words that are not necessary. Another way to say this is that we don’t speak the way we write, and we shouldn’t write the way we speak. Now, that doesn’t mean that dialogue on the page needs to be so terse that we loose meaning. Rather, it means that written language does not need the recapping and repeating that occurs in lively conversation.

I’ve heard a few learned folks at the lectern speak in the concise way we should write and it’s a pleasure to listen to them. It’s also necessary to pay strict attention because there are few if any repetitions.

One of the values of a good critique group is there ability to identify overwriting. It would be wonderful if we all saw this in our own writing, but it seems to have an invisibility quality when we read our own work. However once found, it suddenly stands out as the wasted ink that it truly is.

It is possible, I believe, to catch much of this overwriting ones self. It requires concentration and memory. Concentration is necessary to carefully discern the meaning of each sentence and memory is necessary to compare what you are saying with what you have said. As simple as this sounds, it’s quite difficult in practice. I’m working on it, and I hope you are, too.

 

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