Tag Archives: organizing writing

Getting to the Third Level of Writing

The writing I love. It’s literature I can’t seem to get along with.

In 10th grade, the final essay question on our test for “Catcher in the Rye” directed our attention to the final passage where Caulfield speaks longingly about his desire to serve as a kind of life-guard for children playing in a meadow- literally, the title of the novel. The question posed to us was “What did Holden REALLY mean?” I wrote a full response arguing simply that he didn’t mean anything- it was a job he had thought of and he really wanted to do that. Because hey, that was a great job! The teacher and I got into a rather furious argument- I know for a fact, she told me exactly what she thought about the true underlying meaning of the speech, but I couldn’t remember one word of it an hour later. Still don’t.

That stuff never meant a thing to me. I still struggle to get there, this third level of writing. Coming up on six years of formally chronicling the Lands of Hope, I begin to see, just dimly, a distant… something. It’s not something I do particularly well, or on purpose. But at least now I think I see it.

One more time, it bears repeating for those who just came in, I’m merely a chronicler. I have less control over what happened in the Lands of Hope than a first-time student driver on an Alpine ski slope with the brakes cut. Make it up? Puhleeze- it happens, I take it down. But no question, I can improve the way I describe it to all of you. You’ve done this yourself, right? The Lands of Hope are like a movie that you’ve seen but your friend hasn’t. There’s a way to describe the thing- concise, evocative, fascinating- you’re working uphill because every picture is worth a thousand of your words. If you get them interested enough to go see it on their own, give yourself a prize.

First level- the Plot

You need to put the events in order, they must lead to something, make sense by the end. Stories with plot weakness simply can’t work; the suspension of disbelief fails and there’s a chance the reader stops, never to start again. When I spot a loose end, or a lovely piece of description that doesn’t point to anything, it’s not fatal but I usually feel disappointed, or a bit impatient. Nowhere is this more of a danger than in epic fantasy- the world-building train so effortlessly becomes a runaway locomotive, taking the reader down a steep siding about magic forces, or the adolescent growth cycle of a gryphacorn, the alignment of the northwestern sky-quadrant… hey, where’d everybody go? Of course, fantasy carries a balancing advantage because you can have the most incredible things happen to sustain the interest level (at least temporarily).

Pretty much everyone does plot- I’ve read a lot of harsh editorials about how all indie pub is garbage, but I couldn’t have been this lucky in the stories I’ve downloaded. Personally, I have a lot of experience with story-telling: I’ve never thought that History was anything else, frankly, and I told those stories to high school students five days a week for thirteen years. I didn’t have any control over what happened in the Alleged Real World either… but I flatter myself that I got pretty good at putting the facts in the right order, having it all make some sense.

Second level- Character

Yeah, we’re going in ascending order here, this is substantially harder than Plot. You have to convey the tale through the vehicle of beings whose lives and choices the reader comes to care about. I bet there is isn’t a bad character on the internet- we authors often don’t introduce or describe them well enough, is all. That’s partly because there’s more wiggle-room: your character doesn’t have to have clear set goals, the conflict can hit them in differing ways, they don’t even have to be protagonists or antagonists in the traditional sense. But in my honest assessment, the biggest problem at this level is that the author assumes too much and shows too little. I’ve read halfway through a book before exclaiming to myself, “oh, really? This guy loves his country? That explains a lot!” or something similar. The patriotism was assumed by the author, but now as a reader I have all the work of thinking back, reconstructing everything that happened from that perspective- and I don’t want to do that, it’s already ruined.

When I try to assess my own craft, I would say again that Character is harder than Plot, but

I believe it’s the part I do best. I love and admire the heroes of the Lands, and I believe I can bring a certain depth-perception to describing them within the plot that helps inform, entertain and move the reader. In The Plane of Dreams, the intrepid stealthic Trekelny has taken it upon himself to open a cage in the enemy camp, freeing a wild tiger to roam in the nearby woods. The rest of the party catches up, and when one of them tries to reproach him for it, Trekelny coolly responds “I happen to like cats.” There is an entire story- Three Minutes to Midnight – from nine years earlier in his career to reinforce this one fact. And that’s just an example I can point to in publication. Time and again, I benefit from being able to back up a preference, or a love of something in my characters like that. I could tell you a whole story about it. Don’t challenge me on this- I will bury you.

This far I’ve been able to go on my own, by chronicling. And it’s made me rather happy, I won’t scruple to deny. Before I was telling these tales, setting my notes and memories to narrative, my brain was tenser, life less settled this past decade. The vocation of teaching gave me such great personal joy I didn’t miss out. But having a new life course, where I teach only as a pinch-hitter, plus the lack of contact with the Lands in other important ways, just made me miss it  more. So the telling has helped me tremendously.

And I think I always knew, I wasn’t getting where the really good, much less great writing went.

My daughter is home-schooled, so I overhear her mother talking to Genna about The Great Gatsby these days. And that’s what really pushed all these thoughts I’m having around the bend: I think to myself, “how could your writing ever be treated like this guy’s?” I say again, I never liked literature. The English teachers in school would gather to one side of the faculty room discussing books, even books I had read, in ways that made me feel stupid. Yet they were so engaged- gushing, really- over the deep meaning of it all. Those books had something I wasn’t noticing, a level of appreciation that maybe I’m not built to “get”, and if so, then I’m a poor guide to describe what it is to you. But a distant, misty glimpse is still something seen.

I call the third level, for now, Theme

It’s another entire strata tying the tale together, like Plot and Character, and I only guess from the clues of others and my inchoate vision, it’s the level that makes everything mean two things at one time. While all the stuff is happening, as the characters are displaying their virtues, vices and quirks, there’s just another THING that it all means. I can joke about it rather easily, even in my ignorance: pull my glasses down my nose, mimic holding a brandy snifter and say, “of course, it’s man’s struggle against himself”. Or nature, or the futility of breathing; or maybe it’s all of those things all the time, I just have no idea. Theme is the word one of my close friends advised me to consider, in the second year of my chronicling (2009). I was drafting my beloved opus, the work closest to my heart- and coincidentally the tale that’s coming out beginning this summer, at long last a trunk novel no longer. Judgement’s Tale means more to me than I can readily say, so it’s fair to describe my state as constantly heightened these days. But my close friend urged me to think of the theme of any longer work like this- what is the one thing it really means, he asked. And I could tell then he was onto something, I knew it. But I also knew that if I made any part of my work beholden to it- if I refused to continue before I answered the question- I would stop altogether, and probably for good.

Looking back, now that the novel is done and I’ve polished it seriously twelve times, I think I have an idea or two about what it means. There are some themes that run through the book. I know it would be better if I had noticed them from the start, worked them in and not settled for just letting things happen or for characters to grow and deepen in (my) ignorance of them.

But not to put too fine a point on it, that’s what writers do. Not me. My tales will either have deeper meaning for you, or they won’t. I pray for the former because I’m vain and because no one wants to do something less well than possible. But trying to describe the themes I see to you, as if some exciting movie I’d just watched, that’s where my train stops and I get off. I shall keep my counsel, for a change- but I am eager to hear your feedback around Theme especially, as you discuss the way you analyze tales.

Do you get to the third level in your writing?


Whatever’s an e-Reader For?

I came into publishing at probably the most misleading time of the last hundred years. Yeah, that sounds like a good excuse.

When I started chronicling in 2008, I was following the pure desire to make something of these tales I had lands-of-hope1bound up inside me. I identified with not just paper pub, but the traditional route to it– getting an agent, breezing through one of the Big 5, the book tour, the fame, the groupies. Forty rejections later I woke up, admitted fantasy was the genre, not the life-path. But I kept chronicling, that’s the thing. If I thought about my future as anything I had control over, it was of course going to be in all media, analog and digital, video and audio. The movie, particularly, I really grooved on that.

By the time I started publishing it was summer of 2011. What we tentatively called Year 4 AK (After Kindle). Remember? People were going to convert completely to e-readers, just a matter of months. Print was DEAD, I tell you, everyone knew that. And I had tablet envy bad. I self-published my first four tales in digital format, and figured I was done. What loser would chase paper? Paper books were supposed to be the new Betamax (yeah, I know) or like 8-tracks, vinyl records. As in, you only saw them in movies. Black and white movies. I read all kinds of stuff on my PC, even on my tiny smartphone. As old as I am, I can say with honesty I’ve gotten used to screen reading, it’s pretty normal for me now. More on that below.print-is-dead

Wha’ Hoppen?

But the revolution I expected, that lack of e-reader I was still so jealous about? Didn’t really happen, did it. Hey, not the first time I’ve been a fool. I did what many of you did, only in my case it involved less time and talent. Flogged my platform, made announcements, kept chronicling, tried new things like a trailer, blog tour, writing about cool stuff. Hoping to catch fire somewhere. But still thinking entirely in digital.

You can probably see where this is going. My publisher gets me under contract (best piece of paper I’ve signed since my marriage license), and right away she starts talking crazy. How the next book, the big one, the once-trunk novel Judgement’s Tale should come out not only as novellas, but after the e-books, also in paper.


And I thought– paper? That dead organic stuff? It was this moment that I woke up (again) and really understood what others were shouting, that the Big 5 weren’t going to fold, and that paper books served a purpose for many people. Um, in fact, the vast majority. The rest is fast becoming history. People responded to JT in print quite viscerally, and my sales are starting to count with people I regard now the way an ERB hero would discovering a lost race. Paper book reader, I presume?

Circling Back to the Future (of Reading)

Definition of irony: I have a tablet now.

A store shelf. And my book. In the same place!

That e-reader I was always chasing is now in my grasp, every day, and I still do much more reading on it than in any paper form. But I realize it’s not the predestined winner in any near future on this planet. Most of my energy these days, outside of writing the next one, is focused on what’s going to happen to my tales in paper. My publisher is taking good care of that, and this opens up a world of possibilities at libraries, book fairs, maybe signings. Meeting real folks, shaking hands and giving out business cards, letting them thumb through the pages and hearing them ask the Dread Question (“So, what’s this one about?”). Because I have books in paper, no thanks to me.

What’s an e-reader for then? As an author, how to use it to improve your reach or your art?

I have several answers for you, things that have worked for me and which I recommend:

Come to it for the Cheap

Tablets and e-readers are becoming very affordable, and if you play your cards right you can basically steal one. I got my current tablet when we took Genna into the carrier store to get her a smartphone (at long last! she’s 18). We knew that college required her to stay in touch via email, Twitter, etc. so we put her together with an iPhone5. Genna mentions to the clerk the old household joke about how her Dad has tablet envy, and he says “you know, you can get a tablet for ninety-nine cents”. Yeah, it requires a data plan, but Genna and I share 1 Gb apiece and I lock the account so it just stops when we get close. Wi-Fi, we love you. And if you take a Kindle with a year of Amazon Prime, Jeff Bezos will personally fly to your house via drone and buff your toenails, or something pretty close.

Stay for the Stuff

There’s hardly any such thing as an e-reader anymore, everything is multifunctional, including Kindles and even Nooks (though admittedly, not as much). I gauge what to bring when leaving the house, based on how cool-tablet-cartoonmuch idle time I’ll have. Laptop for writing, tablet for reading: the former weighs a couple pounds and goes in a padded case (belongs to my employer), the latter fits in my jacket pocket and I forget I’m carrying it. So what? So check your email, catch up on blog posts and reading related to your work as an improving author. Think of the cyber-things you can’t do because you’re not at your desk; even research for your next book. I have a couple of games too, of course. Because games! No worries– I know my mind is continuing to integrate thoughts on the WiP in the background.

Round Up the Usual Advantages

Just because paper books refused to do the decent thing doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from having a library in your pocket. I have free online e-book copies of everything I’ve done for my “Classics You’ve Never Read” series. A few touches to reach any book, any chapter; I know reading it in a spine is more fun but what if you just want to find that place where Jonathan Harker said goodbye in his last letter to Mina? You seriously going to argue you can do that more easily? A book on tablet has choice of fonts, and you can alter the SIZE (oh boy, that’s key for a guy who forgot to bring his reading glasses) as well as the background light (eye damage? what idiot reads in bed with the setting on daytime brightness? Two taps). You can read seven other books and come right back to where you were (bookmarks), you can tap to define a word (online dictionary), you can Copy and make notes (easier on your PC, but it’s all the same to the Kindle app). You invested a boatload of hours getting used to reading on a PC. It’s like riding a bike, you just have to spend a little time to get used to it. And watch out for trees.

The Occasional Surprise

The tablet has also proved useful to me in one other, rather sneaky way. As I became accustomed to reading on screen, I also realized it was sometimes tough for me to proof, or scan my drafts for polishing purposes. I re-read my stuff repeatedly when I’m drafting, it’s like the bobsled guys rocking back and forth in the track before the next run. But between the time when I THINK it’s ready and when it actually is… I’ve realized I can “self-pre-publish”! Just take the draft in document form and send it to your screenname @ kindle.com, and it shows up in your library!

Honestly, you won’t believe how much more seriously you take your own works when they LOOK like “the real thing”. The Kindle has become so much second-nature to me that I find myself automatically treating the draft like published work. It gives me confidence in what I’ve done well, and exposes what still needs redress even more clearly. And the PC can stay at home until I actually-factually decide to rewrite it.

Print is Dead-Egon


So long live paper. And get a tablet anyway.