Sunday, November 29, 2009

The 'Moaning Chair'

I just learned a new word over at The Bilge—it’s  not just a nautical word, but also a concept:

The ‘Moaning Chair.’
I know, that's 2 words (unless you include 'the', then it's 3).

Without getting all technical on you, here’s how Mr. Left summed it up for me:

“The origins of the "Moaning chair" is the need to sit down and hold your head from exploding after you spent a day and a half doing something completely bass ackwards. Or completely undoing in 30 seconds that it took you a week to do. The moaning chair often has a cooler of beer and a bottle of rum next to it.”
Here's another great description, by Norm Bernstein.

It occurs to me that not only do boat builders need a moaning chair, but so do we as writers, especially those of us who are in the middle of the learning curve. It’s for those times when we learn a new rule, especially something like ‘don’t use Past Participle Phrases.’ Then we realize (after we do the research so we can figure out what the heck the term even means), that our manuscript is loaded with them. Now we’re paranoid about adding ‘ing’ to any word.

Or when we’ve overextended ourselves on word count—we wrote a 150K YA novel without bothering to find out that 70-80K is the outside limit. Time to kill our little darlings.

And then we start second guessing our entire premise (or a good chunk of it), our characters’ motivations, our writing skills and true potential (or lack thereof).
Oh, what’s the use?...

And I won’t even talk about when it’s querying time and all we get is rejection after rejection, and it occurs to us that it could have something to do with the fact that our ‘Women’s Fiction’ is actually Commercial/General/Literary Fiction, and we just blew our chance with a bunch of agents. (I mean really, who ever heard of Women’s Fiction narrated in first person by a guy?! [I know, I know, don’t rub it in].) Surely, it was that and not all those Past Participle Phrases…
Oh, right, that’s only happened to me…

Probably a good time to pull out the moaning chair, cry our eyes out, then take a deep breath and consider all our options (likely, with the help of that beer or rum). I think every writer’s/critique group should have a moaning chair over in the corner so that when we make stupid mistakes, we can go sit in it and think about what we’ve done.

Yes, the moaning chair is there for pitying ourselves, but it’s also there so we can rest a bit, regroup and clarify out thoughts—it’s where we decide there is a solution, where our writing buddies come over and pull us up (or share that beer), and then we get back to work.

When’s the last time you needed a ‘moaning chair?’

Thursday, November 26, 2009

'Lady Writer' at The Bilge PUB

While studiously researching at The Bilge, I recently received a 'private message' from one of the ‘Senior Members’. Now, I’m used to the bloggy way of doing things, and wasn’t sure what to do about the ‘private’ message. Who was this stranger? I had not seen his avatar on the only place I ever posted—the Question for a work of fiction thread that I started.

The message said: “For some really good stuff come to the pub. ”

Very mysterious…I mean, how would you take that?

Well, I wasn’t quite sure how to take it. What exactly is ‘The PUB?’ I wondered. Sure, I was curious as all get out, but what exactly would I be getting myself into? I was just too chicken to respond.

A day or so later, I received another ‘private message,’ this time from an avatar I recognized, Mrleft8 (he knows a lot of boat stuff). He said that over at the pub, there was ‘a little bit that might be of interest to me in describing a dive bar.’ He was also kind enough to provide directions. It is located on the seedier side of town—it is The Bilge, after all—so I was still hesitant, which, as most of you know, is much a part of my nature.

Undeterred, I grabbed my paper and pad, smoothed my skirt against my trembling schoolgirl legs, sucked in some courage, and stepped through the door. Surprisingly, it was not as seedy as I expected.

Instead, the aroma of Welsh rarebit and a tasty vegetable soup, chock full of tender bits of assorted roots, stems, leaves, and fruits rushed my olfactory senses. I could smell boneless ribeye steak, grilling to perfection over charcoal, to be served with hand cut fries, and a Waldorf salad. The special on tap was Molson Brador. Honestly, just standing there I put on ten pounds!
The crew at the Pub—including Bobby, who first offered the invite—have built a virtual pub experience...and with only words! Imagine that!

When Bobby asked, “Ok, water, wine, beer what’s your drink? Welcome to the pub,” I was still a little nervous.

Hoping no one else would hear, I said, “Okay, please don’t' mock and ridicule—I drink the cheapest and lightest beer I can find. But I'm open to trying pretty much anything.”

Well, before I could flip my writing tablet open, he placed a frosty beer in front of me with a wink. Some of the locals sat at the bar beside me and started making small talk, asking me where I was from. They were a very congenial lot, and I recognized quite a few of them. We continued to chat for a bit as I drank my light beer, but mostly I just listened.

Then I told them, “I'm just going to sit quietly over here at the table in the corner. You just pretend I'm not here and talk about all sorts of boatsie things.”

I guess I didn’t make too bad of an impression, (although they speculated that I was a green apple martini, or cosmopolitan kinda gal, which I'm not).

They even posted the link to this Dire Straits, YouTube video for me, in spite of the fact that they did not get a special mention on my blog post about Researching at The Bilge.

Incidentally, the PUB boasts the most frequently visited and commented on thread over at The Bilge forum, and I consider it a privilege to hang out for a few minutes here and there.

I wonder, when doing research for your writing, have you ever had to go somewhere that made you a little nervous?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Research in 'The Bilge'

I was this close to thinking Story for a Shipwright was done. Problem was, I couldn’t quell that nagging little notion that the ending needed something more. Then a beta-reader confirmed it. So, like the good little progressive writer that I am, I began drafting out an extended ending, where I introduce a rather tense situation. To break it up a bit, I decided to have Samuel (the shipwright and narrator) engage in some boat work.

Now, this novel is not about building boats, so I haven’t gone all technical with it—in fact there are places where I think it could stand some expanded and authentic terminology. This, of course, requires more research. I do live in a state surrounded by water, but the likelihood of finding a boatyard engaged in launching a boat this time of year is, well, nil.

Of course there are all sorts of online encyclopedias out there, and I have downloaded volumes of information on nautical terminology and boatbuilding how-to’s. I also love pouring over our subscription to WoodenBoat magazine. And, they just happen to have an online forum for boat builder enthusiasts.

There were a number of forums on which I could have started a thread, but I stumbled down to the bottom of the list and found The Bilge. Honestly, I just love that word, and it seemed to be the catchall for things that don’t seem to fit 'Misc and Boat Related' (although I did end up posting there too).

In case you don’t know what a bilge is, here are two definitions that sum it up:
a. either of the rounded areas that form the transition between the bottom and the sides on the exterior of a hull.
b. Also, bilges. an enclosed area at the bottom of a vessel where seepage collects.
Slang. foolish or worthless talk or ideas; nonsense.

As soon as I arrived, they politely informed me that I had probably posted in the wrong place. I felt like a schoolgirl walking into a seedy old dive amidst a bunch of salty, seafaring bilge rats looking up over their pint of brew at the new lad (due to the ambiguity of ‘jbchicoine,’ they though I was a guy).

“Real research is done ‘aboveboard’,” they informed me, as one of the other guys pulled out a chair.

“Awe, leave the lad alone—we should be flattered that he’s even asking our opinion,” he muttered.

All at once, they seemed to realize they had a new audience and the advice came pouring in like—well, like bilge water!

Once I collected enough information to get me started, I posted my rough draft and opened it up for embellishment:

I worked the railway winch, letting out the cable, inching it along the gentle incline as Derek and Mitch walked its length, out the back exit, toward the ramp. The cradle creaked and the cable groaned as the motor whined. Metal rollers screeched on the tracks where I hadn’t greased well enough, but it crept along, stuttering here and there. As soon as water lapped its keel, I took Derek’s place. I figured that if the whole thing were going to crash on its side, it might as well put me out of my misery. At the rate this day had been going, I half-expected it.

This is what I ended up with (still open to embellishment, if anyone cares to do so). I think it's way better:

I worked the railway windlass, releasing the cable, paying it out along the gentle decline as Derek and Mitch walked the Marjie B’s length, out the back doors, toward the ramp. I had coated the cable, chains, and pulleys so heavily in grease that they couldn't screech or groan if they had to. Only the trucks grumbled on the tracks, occasionally crunching bits of gravel as they crept the length of the rails with barely a stutter. Surprisingly, the motor purred without any more misbehavior. Once water lapped her keel, I took Derek’s place. I figured that if the whole thing were going to crash on its side, it might as well put me out of my misery. At the rate this day had been going, I half-expected it.

Here’s a well-expressed response I received from one of the guys, TerryLL:

Not bad, but still could stand some tweaking. The danger in spending so much time burnishing one paragraph is that it shines like a jewel against the less-polished background of the rest of the narrative. It's often the case that the first two or three chapters of a novel radiate brilliance, thence to trail off like a dying comet, finally flickering out in some contrived ending.

The key to a page-turner is consistency, a plausible story, compelling characters, and a driving narrative. As for structure, let terseness be your mantra; pray for brevity. Words are a precious commodity; hoard them.

Gotta wonder if he’s in the biz. To be honest, they’re all rather articulate—eloquent even—for a bunch of ‘bilge rats’ (their term, not mine).

For me, hanging out at The Bilge has been the next best thing to the boatyard.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What I'm Debating

Only a few days left—then I have to decide, one way or the other. I’ve written a few short stories in the past—that is to say, I started a few, but never finished them. It seems strange to me that the idea of writing a novel felt more doable than taking on a short story.

So much riding on so few words. One shot at getting it right.

I suppose I could research ‘How to Write a Short Story,’ the way I researched writing a novel (after the fact, of course), but I have the feeling that would be just as overwhelming.

Then I read a quick post by Scott G.F.Bailey, over at the Literary Lab (sponsor of Contest). He simply said, “Something has to change in a story. You don't need to supply all the formal elements of exposition, rising conflict, inciting incident and reaction, climax and the like, but something has to change or happen or you don't have a story. If there is no event in your story, you likely have a non-story. At least that's my take on it. My minimum standards for a story are that you must have the following elements: 1. An actor 2. An action.”

Sooo, if I just operate on that premise, I won't have to do gobs of research. I’ll just write it. What do I have to loose, right?

Nothing…except that there has also been a lot of talk over there at the Lab about honesty in writing, (in fact, Lady Glamis plans to do another post on that this Thursday), and I realized that my short stories (yes I have 2 candidates) make my stomach do flip-flops when I think of anyone reading them. Oh the dilemma—do I put myself out there? Well, realistically, no one but the Literary Lab Trio will read either of them, so I’ll be safe—relatively. But what if...OOooohhh there goes my stomach again…

Of course, this post is all about talking myself into doing it.
Are there any of you other brave souls who plan to, or have submitted a short to the Genre Wars?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

How I Got Here

When I first started researching ‘how to get published’, I came across something I had never seen before. The Blog. I did not know what a ‘blog’ was, I only knew that reading blogs about writing made me realize I was a complete amateur and I could never absorb all that overwhelming information. It was months before I had the courage to look at another Website or blog on the art of writing.

It was while familiarizing myself with, and I subscribed to their newsletter, that I ran into The Blog again. Hmm, maybe the Blog is friendly after all, I thought. Why not give it another go?

I clicked on a few of the links in the newsletter—hmm informative—intriguing…
I found helpful and manageable suggestions. Too late to apply it to my entry for Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award submission, but that’s okay.

Then, as I skipped from link to link, I had a breakthrough—I read a post on The Innocent Flower directing me to the Public Query Slushpile. Since I hoped to query over the summer, I bookmarked it.

I went back to the Public Query Slushpile to figure out how it worked. I clicked on ‘Submit Queries Here’, which kept bringing me to the comment section. I had no comprehension of what commenting entailed, and it’s embarrassing to admit how many times I hit that, hoping for a different page to come up. That’s when I finally understood that I needed a Google account and a profile. (Writing the profile was a whole ‘nother obstacle.) It took weeks to get up the nerve, but I submitted my query for review. I received very helpful and supportive feedback, and Rick Daley even said something nice about the pages I submitted (even though I turned out to be a compilsive revisionist). Just what a neo-blogger/writer needs to muster courage.

I knew that when it came to my writing, I wanted—needed—help. I live in a rural area and love being at home, so joining a writers group seemed unlikely. Then I bumped into my pal Laura Martone, a fellow aspiring novelist willing to exchange critiques. I also started following Scott’s blog because, I thought, wow, this guy is going to write a novel over the course of a year, and he’s going to do it right here so I can watch. In fact, I could—get this—follow his blog so I know when he posts something new. Wow! What a concept!

I guess the rest is history. Now the hard part is coming up with things to post on my own blog. I’m just so curious. How and when did you come across the Blogshere?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Home at Last!

After 5 weeks of a location-induced blogging reprieve, I’m back from by big trip out East. I checked my Google reader and have nearly 600 unread posts! It’ll take me a month just to catch up.

Although I suffered limited internet access, I was still able to correspond with my beta-readers, and can’t tell you how much I looked forward to getting their chapters. Not only that, I received incredibly helpful feedback on my work. Thank you Scott, Susan, Bryan, and Laura.

I also want to acknowledge Lady Glamis’ post, Going Dark, over at the Innocent Flower. Michelle, I’ll miss your frequent presence on so many blogs, but I respect, no, admire your decision. I have confidence that you’ve got your priorities straight, and you’ll reap the benefits and blessing—not only in your personal life, but also in your writing.

Time to unpack...and then read, read, read...