Monday, September 27, 2010

If it'd been an Ellison, it woulda bit me

There's an old bit of wisdom that says, roughly paraphrased, if you pick up a snake and it bites you, it's not the snake's fault.

My wife is an avid science fiction reader, but she's never been to an SF convention. When her favorite SF author Harlan Ellison was announced as the guest of honor for local convention MadCon, she decided to make that her first convention experience. We signed up for the con, including the guest of honor banquet and speech.

The banquet was scheduled for 7-9, including Mr. Ellison's after-dinner speech. To allow enough leeway, we told the sitter we'd be back by 10:30. We were lucky enough to sit with Onion writer John Krewson, which made the evening even more entertaining.

Now, for those of you who don't know about Ellison, he's legendary for both his writing and his cantankerousness (see this recent interview). I'd never met him before, but the stories that preceded him made him sound a lot like the devil, in the sense that you were better off if he didn't know you existed. Just the day before the banquet, at a local bookstore signing, he snatched a cell phone from a fan who had been filming him and stomped on it. He's that sort of extreme personality.

Mr. Ellison did not begin his remarks until about 9. Keep in mind he's both legendary and elderly, and wasn't even sure earlier in the week that he'd be able to show up. I certainly don't begrudge him taking his time and enjoying what he says will be his last convention. Hell, I got a backpat from him for being the only person in the room* who knew the source of his "Phlegm Snopes" joke. But he rambled, went off on tangents, and abused people at will (usually to their delight) until we realized he wasn't going to finish before we had to leave. Still, this was Harlan Ellison, my wife's favorite author; it seemed impossibly rude to just get up and walk out in the middle of his speech.

Then he made it easy for us.

He abruptly stopped, pointed at my wife and said "You. You're making me nervous." He added (I'm paraphrasing) that he could read body language, could tell she need to leave and that she should just go ahead and do so. She told him it was due to the babysitter, and he joked that we should bring the kids the next day so he could make them cry. Left with no other graceful choice, we departed as quickly as possible. The crowd applauded and sang us out with "Aloha ╩╗Oe," which I suppose is better than the chorus of "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye."

We laughed about this on the way home. After all, if this truly is his last convention, we may be the last people he chases from a room. It certainly gave us a great story. Still, when she asked how I'd feel if Bruce Springsteen (one of my heroes) had done the same thing, I got a glimpse of how she really felt.

I don't talk about my wife much online, but she's a very intelligent woman, at least 20% smarter than me. She's also a person of immense dignity. I certainly don't think I should've made a scene, or engaged Mr. Ellison in any way, since the evening was all about him, not us. But I'm sad for her. She has a vast collection of Ellison books, and knows his work intimately. I can only imagine how it feels to be publicly dismissed by him.

This is not an indictment of Mr. Ellison. He is who he is, and that persona is well known. We bought the tickets; in effect, we picked up the snake. That it bit us is unfortunate, but not really the snake's fault.


I want to give a special-shout out to the fan (I'm sorry I don't recall your name) who said how disappointed she was to learn I wasn't on any panels at the con. I was disappointed, too (being on panels is why I go to these things), but she made up for it. Fans, if you ever doubt a kind word to someone whose work you admire matters, let me assure you, it does. does to most of us.

*It was a room full of scholars and writers, too. Come on, people, no matter what genre you work in, you should know Faulkner. I'm just sayin'.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"The process is its own reward" *

"If you can't describe what you are doing as a process, you don't know what you're doing." --W. Edwards Deming

I get asked about my writing process a fair bit, so I thought I'd share an example of how I work, from initial draft to final revision. I'm not making any claims that this is the only way, or even the best way. It's just, as Elvis and Sinatra would say, my way.

Here, then, are the opening lines from Dark Jenny, the third Eddie LaCrosse novel due out in spring 2011.

This is how it read when I first wrote it:

Gary Bunson, Neceda’s slightly-honest-but-mostly-not magistrate, came into Angelina’s tavern accompanied by a blast of snow-laden winter air. An irate chorus demanded he close the door at once, some with pithier language that implied carnal relations with livestock.

Gary was used to that sort of response. He kicked the door shut, shook snow off his long coat and looked around until he spotted me. “LaCrosse,” he said. “There’s somebody outside looking for you.”

Things I like: the initial description of Gary Bunson.
Things I don't like: everything else.

This does describe the scene as I saw it in my mind. But the writing doesn't have any rhythm. It leaves a lot unclear, and the humor doesn't work at all.

So here's the same passage, revised:

Gary Bunson, Neceda’s slightly-honest-but-mostly-not magistrate, came into Angelina’s Tavern accompanied by a blast of winter air. An irate chorus erupted at once, some with language that implied Gary had carnal relations with livestock. Gary was used to that sort of response, and it stopped when he closed the door behind him. He shook snow from his long coat and looked around until he spotted me sitting with my girlfriend Liz at the bar.

“LaCrosse,” he said. “There’s somebody outside looking for you.”

Specific changes:
Moved the paragraph break to the beginning of the dialogue.
Removed the overkill phrase "snow laden" as a modifier for "winter air."
Changed "demanded" to "erupted" to make it clear that the tavern's patrons were particularly put out.
Removed the word "pithier," because that was clear in context.
Changed "he shook snow off his long coat" to "he shook snow from his long coat," because it just sounded better (sometimes that's the only reason you have for making a change, and it's perfectly legitimate).
Clarified where Eddie was while this was happening: seated at the bar with his girlfriend Liz.

This is definitely better, but it still jars in places. So, third and final revision (and how the text will appear in the book):

Gary Bunson, Neceda’s slightly-honest-but-mostly-not magistrate, came into Angelina’s Tavern accompanied by a blast of winter air. Immediately an irate chorus erupted, some with language that implied Gary had carnal relations with livestock. Gary was used to that sort of response so he paid it no mind, and it stopped when he closed the door behind him. He shook snow from his long coat and looked around until he spotted me sitting with Liz at the bar.

“LaCrosse,” he said. “There’s somebody outside looking for you.”

This time the revisions are minor, but no less important. They include:
Changed "An irate chorus erupted at once..." to "Immediately an irate chorus erupted..."
Added a phrase to the third sentence so it now reads, "Gary was used to that sort of response so he paid it no mind..." It both clarifies the character's reaction and establishes his attitude.
And finally, removed the words that identified Liz as "my girlfriend." I want my books to be wide open, so that even if this third one is the first a reader picks up, he or she can easily follow the story. But "my girlfriend" felt awkward, and the relationship is established within the next few pages anyway.

Not every passage gets three revisions. Some get none, some get a dozen. And there's no way to tell until you start working on them. One trick that never fails to show me problem spots is to read the text aloud to myself. Not in my head; out loud, using my voice. I recommend that to anyone.

So, writers out there: how does this compare to your process?

*Amelia Earhart

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Working titles (and titles that don't. Work, that is.)

My most recent novel, The Girls with Games of Blood, was the first one to hit shelves with my title on it.

I'm not complaining, mind you. Titles are funny things, and they have to be balanced between appropriateness, marketability and simple comprehension. But I thought I'd describe the titling process as I've experienced it, since I've just settled on a working title (The Two Eddies) for my fourth Eddie LaCrosse novel. Keep in mind, though, that the whole point of this post is that the book may very well come out under a different (and hopefully better) title in 2012.

My first novel, The Sword-Edged Blonde, spent two decades under the simple title, Rhiannon. Yes, after the Fleetwood Mac song. And the Welsh legend which provided the original inspiration, and survives in the story if you dig deep enough. But my editor at Night Shade Books requested a different title because he felt the original one was too Fleetwood Mac-y. Since it was my first novel sale and I wasn't about to do anything to jeopardize it, I agreed and began listing alternate titles that combined pulp noir sensibilities with something recognizably high-fantasy (like the book itself). Between my editor and agent, I narrowed it down until we all agreed on The Sword-Edged Blonde. It catches the tone, and to me symbolizes the character of Rhiannon in the story (she is blonde and she does have two sides, or edges, to her personality).

My next novel, Blood Groove, started with the working title Oceans of Time. At that stage I hadn't settled on a 70s setting. When I did, I chose a phrase from Parliament/Funkadelic as the new title: Sadistic Groovalistic. Yeah, I know. Cooler heads, notably my agent, gently suggested a different title, something that didn't sound like a twelve-year-old made it up (that's my evaluation, not hers). Again various alternatives were considered, until she said, "I'm going to shop this under the title Blood Groove." To this day I prefer the title Blood Funky, but I can't argue with her wisdom, since the book got out there under her title.

The second Eddie LaCrosse book, Burn Me Deadly, was originally titled Lumina, after one of its characters. After the first novel established its precedent, it was a snap to come up with a new title for book two, tweaked from Mickey Spillane's Kiss Me Deadly. Everyone liked it, including me.

But I think I've gotten better at it. As I said, The Girls with Games of Blood was entirely mine, and the third Eddie LaCrosse novel, Dark Jenny, never had a different title. If there's a third vampire book, my title is Blood Will Rise (or Blood Will Rise Again, perhaps). I don't know if The Two Eddies will end up on the cover of Eddie LaCrosse's fourth adventure, or if the manuscript will even leave my desk with that title. But I have to call it something other than Eddie 4.

That is, unless I can figure out a way for him to fight Ivan Drago....