Thursday, March 27, 2008

Advice Column: Ask the Abbot of Writing by Robert W. Walker

Rob Walker can be a tongue-in-cheek kind of guy. His humor is unique and his opinions are never hard to decipher. He's written some of the best historical mysteries on the market, and knows more about writing than I can ever hope to learn.

Graciously, he's offered the following to Suspense Novelist.

Robert W. Walker, a graduate of Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois is the author of forty-five novels and six series detectives, including Inspector Alastair Ransom of the critically acclaimed City for Ransom, award-winning Shadows in the White City, and City of the Absent (HarperCollins between 2006-7). He is best known for his Jessica Coran ME series, the 11-book Instinct Series. Along with Rob’s 4-book Edge Series featuring Texas Cherokee Detective Lucas Stonecoat and psychiatrist Meredyth Sanger, he’s been busy with an array of eccentric late 19th Century characters debuting City for Ransom.

The City series refers to Chicago 1893 and the rough-hewn police inspector Alastair Ransom, a Prairie City pioneer in police science. The City series has garnered high praise among Robert’s peers and critics alike, included Chicago historians and twice featured by the Chicago Tribune, which called it “a mix of Twainian witticisms, the social consciousness of Dickens, and the ghoulish atmosphere of Poe.” City for Ransom was also selected as Poisoned Pen’s Pick of the month for January 2006. Rob has also recently negotiated publication of 12 titles being brought from the coffin of OP’s to E-book format with FictionWise, and these are: 4 from his Decoy Series, 4 from his Chicago ME Dean Grant series, 3 from BloodScreams, his Abraham Stroud archeological-horror series, and a stand-alone entitled Brain Stem, a book that goes between occult and police procedural when Detective Dennis Spears is possessed by the beautiful victim’s spirit. It’s “mod 70’s noir” when computers still used cards for input, and the oversized machines spat output on printers with an irritating noise.

Robert was born in Corinth, Mississippi, grew up in Chicago, and currently resides and teaches in Charleston, West Virginia. In between teaching, lecturing, and book touring, Rob is busy tackling his next several novels, which are looking for homes – *DEAD ON, a noir PI novel coming from Five Star Publishing coming early 2009. For a sneak peek at Dead On, contact Rob at inkwalk at sbc global dot net. Meanwhile this prolific author is also marketing several other novels—The Dirty Old Harry Squad, Cuba Blue, PSI Blue, and Flesh War, Visit Rob at his gas-lit, windswept, flashy pad at RobertWwalkerbooks. Finally, Rob offers online courses —Find Your Voice and Write to Sell. To work one on one with the maestro simply query.

*Also query for the copy that sold Dead On to learn how to sell an idea.

Advice Column: Ask the Abbot of Writing

Dear Abbot at Acme Academy
-- by Abbot Robert W. Walker

Query #1:

Dear Father Rob aka Abbot Author at Acme Authors -- “I've written so many versions and revisions of my opening chapters (one and two) that horror of horrors, I just don't know which versions now to go with, and it's driving me nuts. Help! What can I do to get clear?” – Confused in Connecticut

Quick and Dirty Answer from the Abbot:

Burn the thing as possibly Satanic, my child. Belay that! Just kidding, of course. Monk humor…not for everyone. This may sound outrageous but it is a choice: Submit each version on a rotating basis to as many agents and editors as you like, my child…and when one version gets a positive rejection as opposed to a really nasty one—a rejection that does not hate it—go with that version. You can do this with friends and co-authors as well. You need a cold eye to come down hard on yourself when in such a stew or at the academy here mush.

Contemplative Monk Reply:

My advice if you are writing and rewriting those first 2 chapters and have got yourself into a confusing bind or conundrum....couple of things you can do: Put these chapters away. (All that work?) Yes, sit down and rewrite from page one from your head....from your memory, which is more active and powerful than you give it credit. That memory is as good as any computer's memory when it comes to the broad strokes. It is like recapturing a dream and retelling it to someone. Think chapter one is organic and out of it grows chapter two, from which sprouts chapter three. (Yes, you can write as you go). Imagine if your computer drowned or was fried or was blown up by your kids in a strange, weird experiment. Rewrite from the beginning to recapture the story you had always meant to tell. Start fresh. It’s a helluva challenge but your mind is capable of it.

If this LEAP of faith solution terrifies you to the degree you simply can't attempt the exercise, then go back to the chapter you have, do rewrites that POUNCE on any of the LY words. If you cut out most or many of the Adverbs and Adjectives, you will streamline the story; it will move more clearly and quickly—not Patterson like but Hemmingway like. Or maybe I should have simply said FAST. Also examine every prepositional phrase, phrases beginning with in, out, up, down, over, under, back, to, with, etc and make sure the sentence can/cannot stand with/without these -- especially ending a sentence with one of these like the phrase "TO ME.” Often it can be said without adding “to me” or whatever tacked on. Prepositions are like tack-ons. Tack on more info and often it is UNDERSTOOD, and what editors chop out as wordy!

OK....having done this, you may find that there are also scenes you've TOLD--sometimes in flashback, sometimes in the NO'W story that could easily be rewritten as a DIALOGUE scene, and any time you can get your characters TALKING and interacting with one anther (as in a film or play script, see?), the main characters are defining one another and character is being illuminated, and the plot may well be pushed along by said dialogue as well. More and more I rely on dialoguing that scene. Don't TELL me, show me, and you can do that far more often than you realize in taking said block paragraphs of description of a person, place, or thing (info-dumps, which can become static if you stop your story to carve out a block of descript) and instead turning them into give-and-take dialogue lines. Speaking parts while your characters are digging up a body or planting one. Action does not have to stop to illuminate character or push the plot along or describe a setting.

Query #2:

Dear Father Rob aka Abbot at Acme – “You know what kills me, Father Rob? I'm great about editing and/or giving feedback on someone else's manuscript, but when it comes to my own, I'm completely lost. Guess I cannot see it objectively. So how can I become a better editor of my own work?” –Clueless in the Forests of Verbiage

Quick Dirty Reply from Abbot Rob:

If you are having pain in the joints, stay outta them joints. In other words, don’t read your own work. Just kidding, of course. Read it aloud!! Also read the reply above as much of it applies here…

Thoughtful Monk Answer:

Put the pages away for a goodly time, my child…at least a couple of weeks, maybe more. Go do anything else. Pay your bills. Go on a shopping spree. Go fishing or on a vacation. Get out of town. You may even want to literally “freeze” your manuscript; that is place it into your freezer as if hiding it from a thief—YOU. You need to get away from it for a ‘wittle’ while. Return from that vacation and “thaw it out” and look at the manuscript with a COLD EYE. This you can do because time has made you a better writer already these couple of weeks or this month, and you can look far more objectively at your “product” as belonging to that guy or young lady who created it some time ago, and now you are far more equipped to see and HEAR the problems. Any sentence can be written in any number of ways. Sentences you stopped with a period will scream to be attached, compound sentence will scream loudly to be rewritten so as to use a fragment at one end, folding or combining sentences come to the forefront of your mind. Or . . . or a sentence demands to be reversed so that the end phrase becomes the intro phrase. Complex sentence may demand to be redone as simple sentences. Simple ones may morph into complex ones. This is where you polish, spit, shine, re-think which all equals rewriting and at Acme Academy Writing is ReWriting. You get your best work done in post-production . . . in the rewrites.

A final word on rewrites – this is where you can identify all the scenes that slow the book to a dull murmur instead of having “heat” on every page. Here you can and will find whole sections that are telling instead of showing in such lines as: She knew she wanted to let him down easily, but she also knew she didn’t love him, and if she didn’t love him, she couldn’t go through with the marriage. That’s not only static, but filled with constructions of the sort where pronouns proliferate. If it’s first person it’s such constructs as: I knew I….or I felt I….or I sensed that I….and if second person it’d read, You knew you…you felt you…you sensed that you….and if set in third person it’d read just about as badly as: He felt he…she thought she…John knew he or Sarah thought she is an improvement….but another major sin authors fall into is too much reliance on the pronouns in first person – I, me, my, mine, myself until we get a “whiney tone” going. Pronouns overused in third person: He, his, him, himself can fall into the same sort of problem.

Make a checklist of items to seek out and destroy and the checklist should begin with overuse of pronouns, prepositions, adverbs (let the verb do the work), and adjectives (let the noun do the work). A common exercise to see how badly writers can write is to take any paragraph of Hemmingway and attach LY words to all his sparse language, to add to the verbs and to the nouns. Instead of – He rolled over in the ditch…He quickly and efficiently rolled over in the muddy, weedy ditch.

It was Mark Twain, speaking of “additive” words who said, “When in doubt, strike it out.”

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Rob, my thanks to you for providing this post——and more, for helping me see bits and pieces of relativity in writing when you don't even know you're showing.

(And wouldn't everyone like to know what the puppy is wearing and why?)

It's all better with friends.

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