Southern Scotch

Southern Scotch
After the Fall 2016

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Reb MacRath is Now a Solo Act

Because of a pressing family issue and teaching obligations, Brad Strickland has been forced to withdraw from Team MacRath.  The heading of this blog has been changed to reflect this.  But earlier posts will remain as part of the historical record.  Before retiring from the project, Brad did wonderful line editing on the first eighty pages and he will be missed dearly.  But 300 pages of the novel have been 'completed', the remaining 100 pages have been roughed out--and I've reworked the pages that Brad had revised, removing his wordage completely.  The novel remains on track for completion by Spring, 2012.  And it will be all the richer for lessons learned from Brad about clarity and smoothness of style. 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Better Betas Make For Better Bets

Four of the five have responded so far, with useful and hardhitting feedback.  And since three of those four objected to the same opening narrative tack, the first order of rewriting business came home:  get it going more quickly and clearly by finding some way to portray a character who's already been killed off-stage.  His death off stage isn't the problem--the resulting backstory is.  Somewhere there's a lightning way to plant this character in readers' minds...without compromising the first person p.o.v...a way that leaves readers thinking 'Bummer, I'm really sorry he's dead."

One of the four objected to the killer clever opening, pointing out a line further on down the page that he felt was the right spot to start.  He was right.  The killer lead was cute and controversial, designed to get attention fast.  But it required too much explaining:  I didn't really mean that in the sense I know you thought, etc.  A man brooding on his client's murder  would certainly be in a much grimmer mood, best expressed in the suggested line.

Two big lessons sprang from the feedback.  First, be grateful for hardhitting feedback, expressed and in between the lines.  Betas in this instance had only a handful of pages and no outline to sketch out the story.  But enough expressions of 'This may be cleared up later' are a strong indication that things need to be clarified more quickly now.  Second, if the betas echo a little voice inside you you've been trying to ignore, then admit that you've known what to do all along:  I too had wondered, several times, about starting the tale at the line recommended by that one beta.

Oh, and make that three lessons, for here is the third:  We owe our beta readers.  Let their markers be well placed.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

I just murdered my darling--and liked it!

Kill your darlings, said Bill Faulkner--who, we should note, left quite a few of his own darlings unkilled.  This rule is grossly misunderstood and generally insisted on by those who don't have many darlings to kill.  But, like most rules that will not go away, it contains more than a kernel of truth.  Which brings me to my darling...

I'd been wanting to use a particular quip that had remained in my Pink Book of A-Lines.  And I' d decided, do or die, I really had to fit it in the book I'm writing with Brad Strickland.  With a shoehorn, if I had to.  But luckily, so I thought, I chanced on the just-perfect place:  a short scene between hero Boss and his young lover Mai  Lin.  Boss is more often away than he's not, so he's not completely up to speed on certain changes in her life.  The scene begins with him soaking in the tub while he helps Mai Lin with her American slang.

The sweet spot, or so I thought:  Mai Lin suddenly asks what it means when a boy tells a girl 'Put your mouth where my mind is and let's have some fun.'  Boss is furious and demands to know who said that to her.  She tells him, "No one.  Some boy on the street."  Boss calms down,  explains the phrase...then spies what appears to be a bruise on her arm, one she tries to hide from him.

Mai Lin has been sexually assaulted--the heart of the scene, instinct told me.  But instincts also told me--repeatedly, though I resisted--that in a short scene, such as this, the two incidents weakened each other.  Plus, Mai Lin may be depritved of sympathetic light if she's seen as attracting lewd remarks as well as sexual hardball.  Grumble, grumble, grumble:  surely I could keep the remark by having it turn out to be something the guy who assaulted her said?  Grumble, grumble, grumble:  No, if he'd said it, he'd have done it--and she'd know what it meant.

Solution:  Boss is still in the tub soaking, helping Mai Lin with her slang.  But she seems distracted...and then he spies the bruising on her arm.  This works.  It's simpler, faster and even dramatically purer.

Say hello to my dead darling, if you decide to repeat her.  And think kindly of poor Reb MacRath, who had to put her to pasture.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Excuse Me While I Thunder

What instruments we have agree:  It's best not to get toooo precious in the search for ways around monotonous repetitions of  'he said' in dialogue.  Some are shamelessly direct--another form of preciousness--in repeating it even where it doesn't need repeating:
  'It's raining out today,' I said.
  'It'll rain tomorrow too,' she said.
  'But what've you got under your knickers?' I said.
  'You didn't have to ask last night,'  she said.

Others wallow in the preciousness of complete nonattribution:
  Scene:  Bill, Bob and Marylou are out having a beer before...whatever.
  "You want another, Marylou?"
  "Who was that, Bill or Bob?"
  "I don't know, I'm already confused.  Bob?"
  "Better be.  I don't feel like Marylou."
  "But what about me?"
  "Which me are you?"

These and related thoughts are on my mind as we finetune the first pages for our beta readers.  Some decent working rules of thumb:  1)  in general, stick to 'said' but set the scenes up carefully--with the odd telling gesture--so that we always know who's speaking without having to repeat 's/he said'...2) Occasionally, a forbidden adverb can bring a 'said' sentence to life:  Lawrence Sanders was a master at this and at never overdoing it:  e.g., 'he said shortly'...'he said jovially'...3)  The right verb can also do the trick:  Now and then a profane phrase in Sanders will be followed by 'he thundered'--not 'said' or 'shouted' or 'bellowed'....4)  Break the rules now and then:  Brad Strickland likes to keep it simple.  But in one sentence he has a medical examiner 'opine' instead of 'say '--and we get a flash of character that would have been lost if the line had been toed.

Back to work, I say...and Get it right, I thunder.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Are Your Book's Terrific Tatas Undone by Gross Patooties?

For  tatas, you may substitue six-pack abs or long schlazong.  In any case, the point remains:  of the thousands of books that are pitched every year, so many of them look so-o-o-o-o fine--High Concept, compelling characters, terrific action sequences--you'd swear that every one of them could be a Times bestseller, till...

Yep.   Darned right.  You know it's true:  99% of them have perfect teeth and awesome tans, but once you get past all of that, you get the backside view.  Oh, boy.  You now see a humungous BUT:
the book's too long, too short, too ineptly written, too burdended with back story, too slow, too choppy, too this or too that or too anything else that simply can't be gotten around.  You shake your head and say, Oh dear, that But is not for me.

So let's put on our helmets, gird ourselves for war...and resolve to work our Buts off!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

To Beta or Not to Beta?

In the game of American WrIdol, we have a lot in common with contestants on the 'other' show.   Our first audition--really an audition to get an audition--is the speed query letter.  Safe to say that, like the singers, we get fifteen seconds--one or two paragraphs, tops--to stand out from the sweaty herd and make the second cut:  a look at the opening pages.  Then, with luck, we're off to Vegas for a Live Audition--a look at the completed ms.

One aspect of AI and, better still, The X-Factor, that should be studied more closely is the importance of feedback and coaching to those who go the distance.  When a hair's breadth--a hare's breath?--may separate the simply irresistible from the almost good enough,  the right Beta readers may provide the needed edge.

Brad Strickland and I have decided, before we go to market, to send the first fifty pages to a carefully chosen group of five we know we can count on feedback that's clear, concise and tough.  But we'll only get one chance with them.  And we've got to be certain we're sending our best.  What if we were to send the pages first to two pre-Beta readers with a list of simple questions:  Is this clear, is it quick and compelling?  Etc.

The trick hinges, I believe, in finding Betas who can groove on our goal to be one of the five in a hundred* who do not read just just like everyone else.  If they've got that groove on, great.  Better yet, if they can groove while helping us to raise the bar and remain true to our goal.

* David Morrell wrote that 95 books in a hundred read as if they have been cloned.