Apr 21, 2014

Revising the Novel: On Sewing, Surgery, & Equations (Part 1)

I made a big push on the novel revisions this week, through the wee hours of Easter Weekend and into Monday morning. It felt invigorating; thrilling, even. I was immediately reminded of my time on the road when I was able to reside in this state of uninterrupted focus for weeks at time while supported by a residency. I've been posting word counts or snippets of thought in a small social media group of writers and been observing the members' word counts a lot, lately. It has forced me to look at my own word counts and, rather than feel swayed by high or low numbers, what it taught me is all those little stitches into the sentences that I'm making along the way really do add up.

Add up to what, you might ask? As I've reverse outlined and found my way back into my old scenes, teaching myself how to accordian them out, I've been cutting useless words or untrue sentiments and adding sensory detail, line-level metaphor, and place-based depth. I've been trying to create natural tension between the characters on the page by making them talk just a little bit more, or by making them express one thing (but really desire another). So far, these moves have felt surgical to me, like conducting minor alterations that no one will notice by name, but everyone will notice by feel or by some sort of general energy shift and change overall. Perhaps a better analogy is quilting. At first glance, I don't think you can really see the differences. But a closer look reveals an intricate, hand-crafted pattern. Even I don't know what that pattern will look like when it's all said and done, but it does have a bit of its own internal logic...

...Which brings me to another analogy: math. Equations, to be more specific. I've always felt that revision is like balancing equations, but I've never tried to articulate this analogy before. Each sentence has a certain weight and feel and can be balanced or unbalanced depending on the needs of the plot and characters at the time. There's the internal structure of the individual sentence, and there's also the overall balance of that sentence within the context of the paragraph in which it resides. Micro and macro math; tiny decisions with weighty implications. If it's all sounding a little abstract right now, that's because it is (and because I'm sleep-deprived). But I have a hunch that more than a few readers out there know what I'm talking about. Writing is mathematical, for much of its drafting, and I'm enamored with that part of the process. It's absolutely satisfying to feel the imbalance and make it right. Conversly, to feel where an imbalance would produce greater dramatic affect, and to refuse resolution of the equation (and therefore of the emotion, of the tension) on purpose.

In the coming posts, I'll look for verbatim sentences of this in my novel draft to try and demonstrate what I'm talking about.

Apr 17, 2014

Foreword Review's 2013 Book of the Year Finalists Announced

READERS: I'll be on air at 10am Alaska time, 11am Pacific, 2pm Eastern TODAY with Radio Free Palmer. Click the link and then click the tab that says "Listen to FM Stream."

Today's post is a reprint of the press release published this week by Foreword Reviews, announcing this year's Finalists in this very honored competition...including Flashes of War listed as a Finalist in the War & Military Fiction category along with 8 other authors! Winners are announced in July -- let's celebrate and also hold our breath, cross our fingers, and our toes. This one's a biggie for my little green-pea-of-a-book. Feels good...


TRAVERSE CITY, MI, March 13, 2014 — Foreword Reviews, the only review magazine solely dedicated to discovering new indie books, announced the finalists for its 16th Annual Book of the Year Awards today. Each year, Foreword shines a light on a small group of indie authors and publishers whose groundbreaking work stands out from the crowd. Foreword’s awards are more than just a shiny sticker on the front of a book; they help connect the best indie books to readers eager to discover new stories written by previously unknown authors.
In the next two months, a panel of over 100 librarians and booksellers will determine the winners of these prestigious awards. A celebration of the winners will take place during the American Library Association Annual Conference in Las Vegas on Friday, June 27 at 6 p.m. with awards in over 60 categories, cash prizes for the best in fiction and nonfiction, and widespread recognition.

Ready to read the best indie books of the year? Here is the complete list of Foreword Reviews’ 2013 Book of the Year Award Finalists.

Apr 7, 2014

In His Own Words: A Veteran Listens to Flashes of War

Last month in Alaska, I had a few readings in the smaller towns around Anchorage. Little did I know that, when the dates were booked, it was the first weekend of spring break. Add crystal clear sunshine and five inches of powdery snow to that glitch and suffice it to say I had a few events that were very slimly attended. But if I've learned anything on book tour, it's that no matter who comes or how many people make it to your event, you always learn something from the experience. It was my honor and privilege to meet one veteran in particular while I was there, writer and radio personality Dan Grota. Here's what he has to say about his experience with Flashes of War at Fireside Books in Palmer, Alaska--his first time attending an author reading.

At the Bookstore on Flashes of War
by Daniel D. Grota, Retired Army, Operation Iraqi Freedom '04 & '05 Veteran (among many other tours)

Earlier this month I was in Fireside books for some R&R after my Thursday stint volunteering at KVRF Radio Free Palmer. I go there to unwind a spell, talking to the staff about the shared love we all have for anything about books. Dave Cheezem was there, as per usual. The tiny store was quiet as Dave came up to me bearing a book.

"You should be here this Sunday. I'm having this author here for a book reading," he said. Dave held up a book with a dark green cover. The image of a plastic Army man toy (like those I played with as a kid) graced it. I took it, trying to hold it at arm's length so I could read the title (my glasses were buried in my pack at the time). Once things came into focus, I could read the title print which read "Flashes of War-- Short Stories by Katey Schultz."

Dave pointed out a round, yellow label on the cover saying, "Check it out. She won the 2013 Book of the Year from the Military Writers Society of America for Literary Fiction."

I replied, "Really Dave? Cool."

Dave smiled saying, "I think this is right up your alley. It's about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Can you be here this Sunday to meet her?"

I mulled it over for a bit. "I don't know Dave, I work on Sundays. When is she going to be here?"

Dave looked at me through those thick glasses of his. "About 2 o'clock. Does that work for you?" He asked. 

"Sure, I get off at that time and it is only a five minute drive from work to here. So yeah, I'll be here Sunday a little after two." I put the book back on the shelf and headed out the door of Fireside Books waving goodbye to all. Bundled up for the cold chill of winter that was still on at the time, I headed out to my car for home.

Sunday rolled on in. A quiet day at work with little to do.Time dragged on until the appointed hour of two pm. The painter showed up at the last minute for some work inside the building. After making sure all was ok leaving her there to do her thing, I left late and in a rush for downtown Palmer. Lucky for me, there was parking right in front of the store, free. It was still quite cold outside as I got out of the car. My Army OD Green field jacket was zipped up. The darn thing is beginning to look a little on the worn side, matching the owner's looks on wear and tear. With my Army logo hat, I looked every part of an old veteran grizzled and grey. A proud one at that too.

Once in the store, a tall young woman with long brown hair in a blue down vest greeted me with a warm smile. She was standing next to Dave along with another woman. The woman in the vest was Katey Schultz. She was talking to the other lady who was leaving before turning towards me.

"You must be Dan. Dave was hoping you would be here. He has been telling me all about you," she said, warmly shaking my hand. I smiled and apologized for being late, while giving Dave the "What did you tell her about me?" look at the same time. Dave, trying to look innocent, could only shrug and smile. Katey went on tell me that these were a series of short stories about GI's, their families, and some of the people in the caught up in the middle of the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. And they were all works of fiction. "Would you like to hear a few read to you?" she asked.

Well, after all, this was a reading--my first, by the way--and I was more than intrigued at what this soft spoken lady from North Carolina could write about war. Dave and I sat down in the little alcove just off to the left of the front door of the bookstore. Katey sat across from us and began to read out loud from the first of the short stories in her book.

After the first story was read, I was impressed. Really impressed. She got into her characters' heads as well as the environment of life in the war and at home after it. The characters were so real to me I asked if she interviewed GI's for her stories. They walked and talked like most GI's did. She said no. It was based on her research and her imagination. She went on to read a few more and I began to tell her some of my stories. Pretty soon we were swapping tales like two old soldiers telling war stories. If someone could have walked in on us they would have sworn it was all real. Except hers were works of brilliant fiction, mine born from a hard reality. No wonder her book won that award.

And it wasn't just stories about GI's in her work, but family members of those that served and even those natives caught in the middle of wars lighting up in their back yards. Katey wrote from the heart and a vivid yet very realistic imagination. A rare thing; a civilian who truly gets it.

At the end of reading session, I had Katey autograph a copy of her book for me. She asked for a photo of the both of us with Dave trying to work the digital camera she had. Now we have a picture of me with a goofy grin in that old field jacket holding the book in my hand and Katey standing next to me with a smile. It was later posted on all our Facebook pages for all to see. I read the book from cover to cover in short order. A good read altogether; worthy of the award it earned.

Apr 3, 2014

Revising the Novel: Logistics on the Screen

Earlier in the week, I discussed the logistics of drafting the novel on paper. When it came time for my second pass-through on the work, I was screenward bound! Even though I wrote by hand, I had also been going back every few days and typing my handwritten pages into the same document in Word and saving it. After some time and space away from the work, I went back to this document and took a long, heavy breath. Time to get messy...

The second pass through kept me working with that same, original, single Word document. In retrospect, maybe that wasn't the best choice--as a lot can be learned by retyping (and inevitably changing) lines. That said, I felt I was under pressure to produce a draft or at least a strong first fifty pages, and so I forged ahead. My revisions were mainly at the line level and dealt also with section breaks, chapter breaks, and parts of the novel. In other words, I was making large-scale structural decisions and constantly tinkering with the table of contents to keep it updated. (Again, here's where Scrivener might have helped.) I did not question the major premises of my characters or plot at all, which was also a bummer. But you can only hold so much in your mind at once, and perhaps this is why novels take so long to write.

Then I sent out that fifty pages to a few kind folks, and those kind folks told me it wasn't ready yet but that they really cared about the work and would truly, honestly be waiting for it when I had it more fully developed. Oh, kind folks. Thank you for existing. And I'm sorry I sent you what I did--I didn't know what I didn't know, you see, and therein lies every novelist's struggle.

Much more time passed. Months and months and months and a lot of my book tour for Flashes of War, in fact. Finally, I came back around to make a third pass on the novel, and this is the process I've been documenting in posts this year. This time around, I did not work in the same, single document in Word. Instead, I opened the main document and then a new document, and literally typed each new word and sentence from the beginning. I did not cut and paste and I still refuse to do so. I work with both documents open side by side on my screen, like this:

I'm going painfully slowly, working scene by scene, line by line, looking for windows and openings where before I had breezed over something. I'm thinking critically about structure on a small scale, the level of scene once again, and tearing without hesitation into later parts of the novel to bring them forward, forcing action and reaction sooner. I'm opening, I'm closing, I'm cutting, I'm adding. It's surgical and intimate and that feels right--and for the first time in a while, it's also exciting. Is it also hard? Hell yes. I don't think that will ever go away.

I couldn't be doing this without all the work I did on paper after that second pass through but before this third pass. What work? This work, and this work here.