Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Perfect Writing Day

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Look!  No Jet Trails.

Saturday turned into one of those rarest of days—a nice day with nothing to do; the perfect opportunity to catch up on my writing.

And I needed to catch up. After rearranging my character sheets for the third time, I realized I needed to get back to the actual writing. So last Monday I set up a plan to track the re-write. I acknowledge a need for tracking and meeting targets in my work because I am an expert at frittering away time. The initial draft was easy; hit a word count ever day and watch the manuscript grow like mould in a warm jam jar.

But this wouldn’t work for the re-write, so I settled on a page count. Four pages a day seemed about right to me, and if that turned out to be too easy, I could always raise the bar later.

I set to work on Tuesday; by Friday afternoon I was on page three.

So I looked forward to Saturday to do some serious catch up, hoping that, once I broke through the minefield of the first few pages (just enough suspense, not too much back ground, plausible plot, characters that make the reader turn to page four) I would begin to move forward faster and with more confidence.

With my wife up in London attending a quilting exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, I was left without adult supervision and made ready to seize the day.

First, however, there were the errands. I had suffered an eyeglass emergency during the week and this required me to devote part of the morning visiting the optician. This is because, outside of 24-Hour London (Hi, Marsha) England pretty much shuts itself in with a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit to sit in front of the telly after about 5:00 PM. Therefore, I spent half the morning at the opticians. The other half of the morning I stood in a queue at the post office because the Royal Mail branch that used to be down the road from my office was shut last year and the Royal Mail on-line postal purchasing site suddenly stopped working last month, leaving me no option but to queue up at the one open post office in the Horsham district along with everyone else in town.

I returned to my flat in time for lunch, and then retired to the balcony with a beverage (non-alcoholic, naturally; I like to keep my mind sharp when I’m writing) and a cigar to contemplate my next move. I know this sounds like an avoidance technique, but I actually find it useful to gather my thoughts and ponder plot problems. Besides, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to study the vaguely unsettling sight of a pristine blue sky—unmarred by clouds or criss-crossed with jet trails—stretching over Sussex.

This is what it usually looks like.

Once finished, I returned to the computer refreshed and ready to tackle the recalcitrant manuscript. I logged on, checked my e-mail, deleted all the ones promising to enhance my maleness and offering cheap Viagra, saw I had none left and popped over to Meg Gardiner’s blog for a quick look. This is where things went, as they say here, pear shaped.

On Meg’s blog was a humorous bit pointing to an article saying a certain type of female character, specifically written by men, should be drummed out of literature. And the character was of the same type my lead character is.

Writers, as you may know, have delicate egos. Mine is no different, and this second-hand chide deflated it good and proper.

So I returned to the balcony with another cigar and beverage—alcoholic this time.

Was I really writing a cliché? Have I invested all of this time, effort and agony only to produce a literary joke, the equivalent of a “Dogs Playing Poker” painting? I don’t mind making a good try and finding I haven’t quite made the mark—there is something admirable in that, and you can always try harder next time—but I don’t want be ridiculed.

I pondered this for quite a while, eventually coming to the conclusion that my book is different. I would have to, now, wouldn’t I? The alternative is to admit you are a hack worthy only of scorn. But the fact is, my book is different. My main character might be that sort of character, but it is a funny book, not a straight-up thriller. She’s trying to be that sort of woman, and for the same, derisive reason given in the article, but she’s making a bit of a hash out of it, in part to show the folly of that certain type of female character.

That soothed my wounded pride and after another drink and cigar I felt ready to face the pages once more.

Then my wife came home unexpectedly early (I thought those quilters would be out partying all night but I guess they all had a date with a quilting hoop and the evening news) and I wisely opted to spend the evening with her.

I felt better about the book this morning, but still haven’t made any progress on it; yesterday was the perfect day for writing, today was the perfect day for housework.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Writing in a Different Language

Nothing drives home the fact of how much you don't know about your host culture than writing a book set there featuring characters who grew up there.

My current project takes place in England and is populated with native Brits. For the most part, people are people, and I've been here long enough to know how they talk and how they go about their daily business, so I shouldn't fall into obvious traps, like having a character talk about when she was in "high school" or making reference to a "senior prom." There are, however, numerous opportunities for gaffs.

After finishing the first draft, I reread it and took pages of notes highlighting details I needed to research. Such as: you can't go visit someone in the hospital (actually, the person would be "in hospital") here and expect the receptionist to give you a room number. Patients are on wards, there are nurses, but no candy stripers and some nurses, depending upon their duties, are called "Sister" or "Matron."

Registering a car, getting insurance, all different from my American experiences. They don't have appointment books, they have "Diaries" and they don't write things like, "Nathan said 'Hi' to me outside of math class today and I have a great big pimple in the middle of my forehead! I wanted to die!" in them.

What gets me is not the amount of research I have to do to make my prose not sound like it was written by an American (for one thing, in the above dialogue, I'd have to change Math to Maths and Pimple to Spot); I'm more concerned about the things I can't know:

What is it like to go through the British school system? What TV shows would they have watched, what pastimes would they have enjoyed, how would they and their friends have behaved?

But, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, those are things I know I don't know, and I expect a combination of creative prose and research will get me over those hurdles; it's the things I don't know I don't know that are more likely to trip me up. (By the by, that famously amusing "Things we know" quote makes perfect sense if you read it carefully.)

My biggest fear is that I will spend a lot of time on this manuscript only to send it off laced with unintentional hilarity like having a Memorial Day celebration and totally ignoring Whitsun, or having a character asking for a "round trip" ticket.

At least I know enough to not have a cop pull a gun.