Wednesday, February 13, 2008

In the Dark During Bowl Week

Copyright © 2007, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.
( Originally written 27 December 2007 )

Okay, I admit it. My time spent writing has been almost non-existent during the holidays. I’m not one of those “up at 4 a.m. and write for three hours” kind of superheroes you read about in author interviews. It’s Christmas, after all, with shopping, wrapping, cards, sugary cookies (zzzz…), and a slippery, snowy drive across the state and back. Am I expected to pour out paragraphs while creeping across the pass in second gear at 10 mph?

Oh, and now it’s Bowl Week. How am I supposed to work on deep character development when BYU and UCLA come down to a last second, failed, chip-shot field goal? Or when Boise State ties East Carolina on a miracle fumble recovery with 90 seconds left, only to lose by a field goal with zero left on the clock? I’M ONLY HUMAN!

Maybe it’s the dark, short, gloomy days. Yeah, that must be it. The weather sapped my creative energy and drowned me in winter’s funk. It raps at my window with big wet drops and whipsaws my trees more than I think they can stand. Can I really write when a huge cedar may crash into my house at any minute? Plus, there’s moss spreading all across my yard….

Then I look at the schedule of literary contests coming up in the new year. A whole bunch have January and February deadlines, and me with nothing to submit. So, do I quickly slap something together, throw it into the pile, and hope that my possible competitors were ... let’s see ... watching BOWL GAMES? I’d really hate to just write off (so to speak) these early 2008 contests.

Oh, Oregon State and Maryland are about to kick off. Let’s see, if I just get up tomorrow morning at 4 a.m....

I'm In a Blue, Blue Subjunctive Mood

Copyright © 2007, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.
( Originally written 13 December 2007 )

I recently had my Linear Descent manuscript critiqued. A number of my sentences were marked for incorrect grammar. The problem involved use of the word “was” when “were” was the correct usage. I had descended into a bad subjunctive mood. Now, I must admit, I do often get moody, but I never realized my subjunctiveness was so out of whack.

Usually, the use of these words is obvious. For example: “The clown was squeezed into the tiny car”, versus “The clowns were squeezed into the tiny car”. This is a singular versus plural past-tense usage, where the proper word to use must match the subject “clown(s)”. Although, I do sometimes have trouble with phrases that seem ambiguous, such as “The pair was up to no good”, versus “The pair were up to no good”. Hmmm....

And then there are phrases that describe situations that depend on probability or likelihood, such as “If I was a rich man ...”. However, “was” is grammatically wrong. The correct phrase is “If I were a rich man...”, even though “I” is singular. Why?

This is an example of a subjunctive clause. A verb is in the subjunctive mood when it expresses a condition which is doubtful or not factual. In this example, I am not really rich, so the verb “was” - normally the singular past tense of the verb “to be” - is really in subjunctive tense. In English, the subjunctive past-tense of “to be” is “were”, not “was”, and the plurality of the subject “I” is irrelevant. “If we were rich men...” uses the same word, even though the singular “I” has changed to the plural “we”. It is still subjunctive mood.

So, as I slog through my latest manuscript looking for occurrences of this error, my mood quickly turns blue, blue, blue.


Copyright © 2007, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

( Originally written 11 November 2007 )

Having nothing better to do one evening, I watched a television program on people who take part in an annual crossword puzzle competition. The speed with which these contestants whizzed through them was truly amazing. During the program, it showed bits and pieces of clever clues and their answers. Now, I’m not interested in expanding my small universe of skills to include competitive puzzle solver, but it got me thinking whether tackling the daily newspaper’s crossword puzzle might prove useful for a writer. As writers, we are constantly confronted with the need to find different ways to say the same thing in order to avoid word repetition. For many puzzle clues, this kind of thinking is exactly what is required. For example:
  • “Promised to give up” -- Swore Off
  • “With wisdom” -- Sagely
  • “Cast a spell over” -- Enchanted
Beyond that, you can just plain learn new things you never knew before.
  • “Brine-cured cheeses” -- Fetas
  • “La Vie en Rose singer” -- Piaf
  • “City on the Rhone” -- Lyons
So, if I were to do the crossword every day, would it make the words, phrases, and cultural references in my writing richer and more varied? Other than taking up a little bit of time (they get harder through the week), it seems as though it might. Who knows, it may even help with those frustrating moments when I get stuck, grasping for ideas on how to move the story forward. Putting on my hat as an engineer, though, I doubt there is any effective way to actually measure any benefit from doing this unless, of course, my story’s plot would turn nicely on some brine-cured cheeses.

So, Ya Wanna Get Published?

Copyright © 2007, Steven E. Houchin
( Originally written 6 December 2007 )

Last month I heard new local author speak at Third Place Books. In addition to telling us about his novel, he spoke bitterly about the process of getting published. His experience was so frustrating that he stated he has no desire to write another book.

After dozens and dozens of rejections, he put the book away for a few years. It was ultimately published due to a chance meeting with a book critic who spoke at the UW bookstore. The critic read his manuscript and put him in touch with someone he knew in the publishing business. Eventually, the author signed with a small, on-demand publisher who put out his book in paperback. “On-demand” means that the publisher can print his book in units of ones and twos if needed, rather than traditional publishers who must print thousands at a time. Getting published had taken five long years, which he was told is about average.

With book in hand, he visited a local Barnes & Noble, ready with his best speech to convince them to stock his book. The B&N person turned to the inside back page and examined the bar code, then promptly told him they couldn’t accept it. The code contains an identifier that shows it was print-on-demand, and they have a corporate policy to not handle them. Same story with Borders. Why? Because they can’t return the unsold extras to on-demand publishers, who don’t carry inventory. So, to market his book, he can only count on independent bookstores and online sellers.

I suppose this is something else we need to add to our list of Bewares for the industry.

Web Musings #2 - A Tangled Web

Copyright © 2007, Steven E. Houchin
( Originally written 21 November 2007 )

While writing my first two novels, I did a lot of geographical and historical research using the World Wide Web. A couple of incidents served as a reminder how cautious and skeptical one must be when dealing with online information.

In the first incident, I had scoured the Web for the names and descriptions of various county sheriffs who held office during 1889. After I found them, I wrote their characters into my story. But I wanted to know more about them. So, little by little, I continued to dig. In three out of five counties, I ran into a troubling problem: new sources named a totally different person as sheriff for that time. I was right back at the beginning. Who really was the sheriff? I would think it ought to be a simple, knowable fact. But, in today’s world, there are facts... and then there’s The Web.

I figured that local brick and mortar libraries in each individual county must have the answer. But, did I really want to drive down to Tacoma or fly to Duluth, Minnesota? What I discovered instead was that many libraries have an e-mail address for their reference librarian. So, I sent messages explaining my dilemma. Both Tacoma and the Duluth were incredibly helpful, quickly looking up old records and replying with specific information -- no charge. Sometimes, we exchanged rapid e-mails back and forth, sorting through facts to find the right answer. I think the researchers may have become as curious as me. However, not all libraries are so open and helpful over the Internet. For example, Spokane’s library requires you to have one of their library cards before you can submit a question. So, I went there in person, which is actually the best option if you have the time or are already in the area.

Once I found the truth, there remained the problem of the inaccurate websites. I could just ignore them, but then I’d feel like a heel. So, I decided to spend time researching who to contact to clean up the online mess. In one case, the offending party was our own Secretary of State’s office, whose online biography of our second Secretary of State, who had been Pierce County Sheriff in 1889, contained numerous inaccuracies. Another offender was the Sheriff’s Department of St. Louis County, Minnesota, whose own list of sheriffs for the 1880’s was wrong. In both cases, I contacted them with my facts. Neither has yet completely fixed their sites.

Another incident involved geographic research. In my first book, I placed the law offices of one character, who is a sleazy attorney, in a particular historic building in downtown Pittsburgh. Recently, while doing some additional research, I discovered that the building had converted to condominiums a few years ago. Ooops! I changed my story to use a fictitious office building.

The bottom line is, if you can’t have your boots on the ground where your story takes place, it’s not too hard to get into trouble with information gleaned exclusively from the Web.

A New Craft

Copyright © 2007, Steven E. Houchin
( Originally written 10 July 2007 )

I recently attended a dinner meeting with a small Seattle area writer's organization. The guest speaker for the evening was a prominent local mystery writer, whose remarks two years earlier about her craft inspired me to begin my own journey as an author (see my earlier post entitled Liberation). [As an aside, I had the opportunity to mention that story during her Q&A session.]

The talk she gave essentially focused on the writer as a salesperson. She related personal anecdotes about situations where she had been invited to speak, but her would-be hosts were unwilling to allow her books to be available for sale at the event. When you're a published author, she said, you're in the business of selling your books -- not to freely give away your time for speeches. Therefore, no sales, no speech.

While on the face of it, this may seem obvious. But still, her practical presentation of the subject was very enlightening. I intellectually knew that, at some level as an author, I would need to peddle my works. But she brought home the point that basically everywhere you appear as an author, you need to be prepared to sell.

It's a fact: some people know how to sell better than others. The guest speaker has a background in the insurance industry, and thus had been trained to break down potential customers' inclination to say "No". Thinking about it later, I remembered that, in an earlier life, Tom Clancy was also in the insurance business. Does this mean that people with formal training and work experience in sales have a much better chance at long-term sales success as an author, versus somebody from another field, such as homemaker or engineer?

Another fascinating tidbit that our speaker mentioned was the idea of focusing your early career sales efforts in your regional market. This allows you to build up a following without the time and expense of a national travel schedule, and still show your publisher that your work is viable. If you continue to have a real job to support yourself, this kind of strategy seems especially appealing.

The transition in one's life to become a writer is a definite learning experience by itself. We accumulate bits and pieces of knowledge about our craft and constantly roll them into our work, refining every page and every word to be just right. But once we've written that great novel or how-to book, there's a new transition waiting for us out there once we are published; the role of salesperson. If we haven't been there before, it's a whole new craft to learn.

Web Musings #1 - Is Everything Online Now?

Copyright © 2007, Steven E. Houchin
( Originally written 11 April 2007 )

The amount of information on the World Wide Web never ceases to amaze me. I was reminded of this again recently while doing research for my second novel, Double Fire, I needed to know who held the position of Sheriff in certain counties of Washington Territory during the late 1800's. As far as I can tell, there's no neat, clean database of this information. I found that persistent digging with various search engines would eventually produce the answer on some deepy obscure site. In addition to the sheriff's names, I was startled to find photos of these men - sometimes more than one - and biographical sketches! Two of the sheriffs of particular interest had gone on to higher office in the new State of Washington. In two cases, I found the names of their spouses.

I also discovered some surprising items, such as details of a visit to Washington Territory by the poet/novelist Rudyard Kipling. This small factoid allowed me to work him in as a minor character who crosses paths with my protagonist and helps solve a puzzle. For a historical novelist, this was a welcome, delicious morsel to stumble across in the cupboard of my nascent plot ideas.

Another example has to do with a long-departed hotel in old Tacoma. I wanted to describe it, at least minimally, to my reader, but only had its name. Again, through persistent digging, I actually found a site with a postcard that contained a color rendering of the very hotel, accompanied by a description of its location.

I have been able to find all of this information, and much more, without ever having to part company with my trusty (if aged) computer. But, as with any reserach, I have to remind myself to double check the facts with other sources. Mistakes (and misinformation) are sadly all too common on the Web. Eventually, I will make that trip out of the house - squinting at the unfamiliar bright sunlight - and pry open the musty old books and papers that await in the region's libraries and historical societies.


Copyright © 2007, Steven E. Houchin
( Originally written 18 January 2007 )

Writing fiction is for "real writers" who have studied for years under the great masters, and have stacks of credentials from prestigious universities. Isn't that right? People who have those credentials may, indeed, become great writers. The rest of us who have a good grasp of the language and dream of writing ... well let's be realistic here. Writing is for the pros.

The problem with this is that average people do become fine writers, and even make money and gain some measure of fame. They become pros. Is it possible that the "only real writers write" syndrome inhibits most of us from pursuing that dream? For far too long, that was the case with me. As an avid reader of fiction and non-fiction, I always said to myself, "I would love to write something like this." That sentiment slowly evolved into, "Gee, I ought to be able to write this stuff." But then, I wasn't a "pro" and didn't know how to take that first step. Where would I get a story idea? How would I turn it into a book?

One evening four years ago, I attended a short talk given by a famous Northwest author. Someone asked her, "How do you go about getting started on a new book? Do you first make an outline?" An excellent question -- one that had been nagging me. The "pros" create elaborate outlines and "story arcs". I didn't have anything approaching a full story in my head -- just a couple of bits and pieces. And I certainly didn't have any intention to sit down and grind out an outline.

The author's answer stunned me. "I don't outline," she said. "I just don't have the patience for it. I just sit down and start writing." How could she say that? She's a "pro", isn't she? The proverbial lightbulb went off in my head. You mean, I can just start writing a novel and not know everything about the story beforehand? Yup. At that very moment, I said to myself, "Well, hell ... I can do that!"

It has been said, "Write what you know about." I know genealogy, among a few other things. I thought, "How can I possibly make genealogy be interesting ... or even suspenseful?" I had a small idea and began writing. I wrote a lot, and the story just flowed from my brain through my fingers. Characters and subplots popped out of nowhere. The pages and chapters piled up.

But, I had made a mistake . Writing fiction is a definite skill which must be learned, like any other. It's more than pouring out sentences and dialog. It's more than writing alone in a vacuum. I found that out when I began attending a writer's critique group. My writing needed lots of polishing, and I'd broken many of the rules of good fiction writing. Thus began endless rounds of critique, rewrite, cutting, and editing. I took classes and attended workshops. I discovered what I'd done wrong, and began to learn what to not do wrong in the future. It has been a process of incremental improvment of my craft, which has enhanced the sheer, liberating, enjoyment of writing fiction.