When Some is Not Good

Yup, the title was meant to be confusing. But after you read this post, it will be somewhat clear, or sort of understandable, or a bit less confusing. Kinda. Sorta.

We, Maddi, are working on the last phase of our second book; the final scrub. Think cleaning grout. This includes finding and eliminating some extraneous words, like “some.” A search for the work “some” revealed 281 instances in the latest draft, including someone, sometimes, something, somewhat, somewhat and Somerset Sidebottom. Okay, that last one isn’t in this book. (Maybe Book 3?) I don’t know how we’d manage without the Find command, although I suppose we’d figure out “some” other way.

In addition to “some,” words common in conversation that too often slip into our writing include a few, a couple, sort of, kind of, very and really. (We did not, we are pleased to say, violate the 11th Commandmant: “thou shalt not say ‘very unique’: it is an abomination unto the Lord.” *) Even when we find these words in the conversation of our characters, we want to be careful about how many we leave in. For instance, it is easy to imagine one of our young characters saying something is “really interesting” or “really cool.” Leaving in the “really” indicates, if you didn’t already know it, that the character speaks in the common vernacular. But even if the character uses the word in every sentence, do you as a reader want to see it? No. After reading it once or twice, you get the idea and don’t need to be bombarded with it. The same applies to like, you know, umm and sorta.  

If searching and replacing extraneous words isn’t exciting enough, think of the joy of ensuring that spacing is correct. We admit (at least one of us does) to having learned to type pre-word processor when the protocol was to leave two spaces after a period to improve ease of reading. Hardly necessary today, when word processing programs automatically space letters and punctuation to improve readability. Old habits die hard, or in this case, aren’t dying; we will at time still double hit ye old space bar after periods, question marks, exclamation marks and closing quote marks. (The 12th Commandment, if anybody cares, is, “thou shalt not capitalize the start of thine independent clause after the use of a colon – what ist thou thinking? What idiot starteth this heinous trend?” **) 

Let us not forget the overuse of adverbs, which is common among writers. Oft-repeated advice is to review all adverbs (or if lazy, search for -ly words) and excise 90% of them. A controlled adverbocide, if you will. Clearly one should not automatically remove all adverbs, but carefully scrutinize their use to determine if they can be eliminated without dramatically changing the meaning. Indubitably, adverbs are frequently used by writers in lieu of writing action or movement into the narrative. They are often not necessary if you did your writing job correctly:  “Darryl, I just love your provocative low-cut loafers,” she said flirtatiously. (Darryl, it should be said, was hoping for more compliments on his tight T-shirt, given he just got pectoral implants in hopes of cherchez-ing more femmes.) 

Now that we are enjoying ourselves, we can take on the ‘easy’ word issue. These are words that easily come to mind when you’re writing that you throw into the narrative so you can continue with your brilliant thought. They survive draft after draft after draft. When cleaning up the story, you realize that this word appears … everywhere and adds almost nothing. Try eating no-calorie chocolate. Are you satisfied? That’s what these words are like. An example: looked. She looked in purse, then looked up and saw the man at the bar looking at her.  Look at how many times we used the word, look! (“Made you look!”) Our offenses are not that egregious, but the herd of “looked” (over 200 appearances at last count) has to be thinned. It’s time to give gaze, searched, examined, glanced and other worthy words (available through your on-line thesaurus) a chance. No leering, though — Emma isn’t that kind of girl. Even if Huw does look — er, appear — mighty fine in a wetsuit. Yes, indeedy. 

So if this is the last phase, you might ask, “When will the book be available?” We are hoping, but not committed to, the end of September. While this may be the last phase of writing, the publishing process has just begun. Decisions about book size, font, artist to use for the cover and more have been made (see the first book). But, our artist will not complete the front cover until mid-August, we have to put the manuscript in book form, check for widows, orphans and waterfalls, proof everything again and more. That process may take two month, or it may take longer. We’ll let you know how we are progressing and the fun we have along the way. 

 *Because “unique” means “one of a kind.” You can’t be “very one-of-a-kind,” yet this expression gets used all the time. Ick.

** OK, God does not actually talk like the King James Bible. He doesn’t sound like Charlton Heston, either. We are pretty sure He is a good grammarian, though, and uses proper English — er, proper Hebrew, Aramaic and Koinic Greek. You don’t see “whatever, dude” in the Bible, do you?



Any Way’s The Right Way

When one of us took her first fiction writing class, the instructor wrote on the board of the very first lesson, “any way’s the right way.” His point was that there is no formula for how to write a story or, more broadly, a novel. It’s whatever works.  Another writer, Annie Lamott, wrote a book on writing called Bird by Bird that includes a chapter entitled “Sh-tty First Drafts.” (Her point being, just get stuff on paper, because you are going to rewrite, and rewrite and rewrite before your story is done. It’s OK to write “sh-tty first drafts.”)

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some “helpful hints for self actualization as a novelist” that might include how long a story needs to be to be called a novel (rather than a novelette or short story), the fact that novels usually have one or more subplots, and so forth. But in terms of the actual writing, there are no rules. Or, to quote one of us who as a naval reservist defeated (more correctly, “whupped”) active duty Marines in a field exercise by smuggling in night vision scopes (an action that was, strictly speaking, against the rules of engagement): “Rules? There are no rules. This is war!”

“Any way’s the right way” is an apt description of how we write, especially since we each have different ways of writing. One of us is a plotter and planner, and the other is more a “just start writing” person who writes scenes, then figures out where they go and how they get glued together. Which method works the best? “Yes.”

Take Book 3, which is as yet untitled (though Blue Scream of Death might be a winner). The current construction of Book 3 resembles nothing so much as the Winchester Mystery House (for the uninitiated, the widow of William Wirt Winchester, he of “Winchester rifle” fame, believed that if she stopped building, she would die, which is why her house has rooms with no discernible purpose, halls that lead nowhere, and so forth: they were just stuck there to keep the house going and growing. Eventually, we’d like the Winchester Mystery House of Book 3 to magically morph into something grand like Kedleston (a particularly lovely neoclassic house in Great Britain and a particularly fine example of the work of architect Robert Adam).

As of today:

We know most of the story takes place in Hawai’i.

We know Emma is working on some kind of financial system implementation – and she hates financial system implementations – at a to-be-decided military activity in Hawai’I that has an acronym nobody understands except a few people in the Navy. But the name ends in “PAC” because every Navy activity in the Pacific area ends in PAC. (Like ComNavBaskRobPac, the Baskin Robbins concession at Navy bases in the Pacific. OK, I made that up.) We know that the military has “different” requirements for systems that causes Emma to be more interested in the assignment than would otherwise be the case (e.g., ships deploy, submarines submerge, and you don’t always have wireless or other connectivity when you want it).

We know Emma gets a lot of surfing in and also spends a lot of time in traffic jams on the H1 (doesn’t everybody?)

We know that Hawaiian culture plays a significant part in the story, both “true” Hawaiian culture (Hawaiian language, lua (Hawaiian martial arts), hula, and so on as well as ‘fun stuff about Hawai’I’ – pidgin, tiki drinks, etc. not to mention strange tourist apparel. (And is there ever strange tourist apparel in Hawai’i, starting with the number of people (men included) who really, really should not be wearing a thong. A burkha would be a public service. I’m just sayin.’)

We know Keoni is back on the mainland going to graduate school, and he hates surfing in the cold, sharky waters of northern California (doesn’t everybody?) after the warm, perfect waves of Hawai’i.

We know that Emma’s mom comes to visit and helps her investigate. Oh boy.

Oh, and we know we have a dead body. Or pieces of one, eew (you’ll have to read the book).

As it stands, Book 3 has a lot of sections written where character’s names are XX and YY, we haven’t developed backstory on those characters, and we haven’t quite figured out the timeline (that is, when does chapter 1 take place, chapter 2, and so forth), in short, we have the literary equivalent of Mrs. Winchester’s halls that go nowhere. But we are going through the existing chapters, creating a timeline, fleshing out the plot – including subplots – and making sure that we follow through on character quirks from other books (after all, our characters are getting older, even if slowly). And lastly, while we are not quite to the point of “literary liposuction,” we do practice “flesh out and flush out.” We flesh out dialogues, descriptions, scenes and settings that need “more detail and a sense of place and time.” We “flush out” because, as much as we love turning a clever phrase, no matter how entranced we get with a section – a character, dialogue, a scene, whatever – if it does not work or does not advance the story, it gets flushed. (Sometimes we cut cute sections and stick it in a Word document for possible resurrection in another book, another form, another scene.)

One of us who is particularly gun shy (Winchester shy?) about organization keeps telling herself, “any way is the right way.” And so she – and we – proceed to dream about, and remember, and place ourselves in Hawai’i and in Emma’s shoes, or “slippahs,” brah. And with that, we are off to find inspiration in a Mai Tai.

Who Shot, Stabbed, Beat or Blew Up John?

One of the unexpected delights of getting Outsourcing Murder out and publicized is the email we get from total strangers. (Thus far, and disappointingly for the one of us who is single, not one of the emails has contained an offer to sweep either of us off our feet, except for the unsolicited email from the local chimney sweep, which is not really that exciting unless you like getting ash on your shoes.)

On the one hand, we don’t want to conclude that everybody who has read the book loves it, despite our mother’s pride (and despite her shilling the book at her garden club meeting, to her hairdresser, and to total strangers she happens to meet at the shopping center – thanks, Mom!) On the other hand, those who read the book and hated it don’t appear to have disliked it enough to write to us to complain. So, we will, as Johnny Mercer would say, “ac-centuate the positive” and enjoy the unsolicited and favorable emails.

One of our buddettes just wrote to say she had finished the book and loved it, and that she could hear our voices in the character of Emma. She also remembered that at least one character’s name was drawn from grade school (though I don’t believe either of us actually whacked the kid whose name we swiped with a baseball bat. At least, nobody is admitting it). She was also relieved to find that a character she decided she liked wasn’t the murderer. (He was, we regret to say, a serial double parker, which in San Francisco’s narrow and congested streets should warrant the death penalty.) Our friend also asked about other characters – what was going to happen to them? In other words, where were we going in book 2 and book 3? (Book 2, Denial of Service, just got a significant edit from Diane and clocks in at longer than book 1. We are still shooting to get it out this summer.)

It’s a good time to note that we are not JK Rowling (she of the Harry Potter franchise) who, if it is to believed, plotted out her series in a fair amount of detail before embarking upon it. We’re not that organized, but are using the time honored literary technique known as “making it up as we go along.” But, we hope that people get as attached to some of our characters as both of us are to Ms. Rowling’s (Mary Ann is still in mourning that one of the Weasley twins met his demise in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).

Now, we aren’t making absolutely everything up as we go along because ours is a series, which generally means the same characters survive from book to book (unless you kill them off, though if you write sci-fi you can bring them back as vampires or zombies or really bad Chinese food). We are, in fact, actively working on continuing various themes and characters throughout the books. For example, we plan on continuing to develop the “critter characters”: Gorgon (Emma’s parents’ dog), Edson (her landlady’s cat) and Chesty Puller (her landlady’s excitable dachshund puppy, introduced in Book 2). There are other themes we want to keep progressing with as well (e.g., Keoni’s musical group gets their CD out, we think, though they are probably not going to be Nā Hoku Hanohano (Hawaiian music award) winners just yet).

We are also thinking about how Emma progresses not only as a young professional but in her love life. Does she make partner (does she care)? Does she end up with Huw, Keoni or a rich old coot who doesn’t have long to live but who kicks the bucket after 3 months or 30 pages and leaves Emma a rich widow? (Sorry, one of us confused her retirement plan with the plot of a future book.) We haven’t decided yet. Mary Ann has her preferences as to who Emma surfs happily ever after with. (Keoni, mostly because the surfing conditions in Hawai’i alone are reasons for Emma to end up with a nice Hawai’i boy. The surf in Northern Cal has been crappy for eons, the main reason Mary Ann is leaning towards Keoni, in a nice display of “not observing boundaries between author and character.”)

But we don’t totally control the plot. Once drawn, the characters dictate their own development. As authors, we provide their voices, but we can’t fundamentally change who they are or where they are going, unless we introduce a life-altering event, like seeing the ghost of Elvis, sprouting a third eye or tripping over a dead body. Oh wait, we did that. Never mind.

As we begin plotting out book three in earnest – it takes place in Hawai’i – we will “ponder all these things.” But we are also going to have a lot of fun on the journey, and Emma, Huw, Keoni and Stacey will, too.

By the way, for those in the vicinity of Ketchum, Idaho on March 6, we will be doing a lecture/reading and a book signing at the Ketchum Community Library (on account of one of us in a spectacular act of self promotion emailed the library director to ask if we could do it, to which she agreed: thank you, Colleen). So, y’all come. The combination of excellent skiing in Sun Valley and a “literary event” is hard to beat.

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