Sunday, November 24, 2013

Front to Finish: Writing Stories on a Manual Typewriter

A very bright and sunny good day to you! It's 24º F outside. How did people wake up in the morning without coffee? That's too scary to think about, so let's move into this week's discussion.

I've collected two rejection slips for a couple of essays I submitted to The Missouri Historical Review a year ago. Each piece came with some feedback, and in both cases, they said the quality of the writing itself was good. The scope of the research is where they suffered. I knew this before submitting, since I didn't have the time or the resources to broaden them.

Still, they said my writing was good! That's what I call positive rejection. Lots of authors get rejected but the agent or editor is so impressed by what they see, they write something beyond the usual form letter. Maybe I'll revise the essays and resubmit sometime.

Last week, I finished another short story. It's the longest one I've written to date: 7500 words. The online workshop Zoetrope puts the cap at 8000. Some magazines publish stories up to 10,000. Three of my favorite short stories (Children of the Corn, Paycheck, and The Most Dangerous Game) push the envelope between 11,000-13,000. Considering the amount of ground I covered, I'm pleased with the length. It's not too long, but crammed full of dark goodies.

A lot of people ("a lot" being two or three...) are surprised whenever I tell them that I use a manual typewriter for my creative works.

"Sounds tedious," they say.

Truth be told, it certainly can be.

Hemingway revising a manuscript.

Back in the old days, authors didn't have access to scanners, laser printers, or electronic word processors. For every draft of every work they produced, there was a rewriting phase and then the retyping.

I've had to learn a lot of things about typing on manuals by trial and error. I couldn't find any instruction books or videos, so I had my fair share of accidents along the way. I've developed a process that helps me get my work done in good time while also ensuring maximum enjoyment.

So here it is! From front to finish, how ideas get from my head to the final draft.

1. Ideas and Outlines

I'm not going to talk about how I get my ideas. That's a whole post on its own. So let's fast forward and say that I have an idea and I've got a raw concept that I've molded into something that can serve as the basis for a narrative.

The first thing I do is sit down at the computer and type an outline. It's not a bulleted list, more of a synopsis, and written in such a way that makes sense to me.

Here's an example.

Working Title


What if (X) happened and someone had to do (Y)? What would that look like? Who would it affect?

Background and Setting:

(This is where I talk about everything that's happened before the story takes place, and the location. Characters A, B, and C, did this and that, which has brought them to Story Starting Point).


(This is what I actually write the events of the story. Background info is related via conversation or narration, but it is not the focus of the text. It's in the past. Characters with this Background begin at Starting Point after being confronted by X. Now what? Now I tell the story.)


(Biographies of each named character)

2. First Draft

After I've got the outline finished, I'll get the manual typewriter and peck out the first draft. My newest story took me two days to finish, which is the longest amount of time I've ever needed for a first draft of a short. Novels can take anywhere between three months to a few years. The Hammer and the Keys took me 50 days. It depends on a lot of things, and varies between writers.

3. Revisions 

After I've finished the first draft, I put it away and don't look at it for a few days. This gives me time to forget specific details. If I try to edit while anticipating every line of every page, my mind tends to skip over words and then I miss things that need to be corrected. I try to wait at least three days before looking at a story again.

When I decide to revise, I get the hard copy and mark it up with a pencil. Not only is it fun, it helps me keep track of the changes I've made. Once that's done, I'll sit at the typewriter and type a second draft with the applied corrections, then repeat the process until I'm satisfied with how the story flows.

4. Digitize

When I think the story can't be improved any more (or the story is so long I don't want to transcribe it to the computer) I'll scan the pages.

My scanner is an HP Deskjet F300. It's old by computer standards, but it gets the job done. When the pages are scanned, I save the file as an RTF, then copy it into Mac Pages (MS Word for you Windows people).

But this step is fraught with technical difficulties.

The most difficult part is making the scans as legible as possible. My Remington De Luxe 5 has a new ribbon. It prints clear as day.

Picture of a typed page. Not bad!

The quality of the printed page and the scanner will affect the digitization.


When I wrote The Hammer and the Keys, I was using an old ribbon that didn't print well. I thought the scanner would compensate for that. It didn't. It was far worse than the example above. The text was jumbled and the structure so miserably distorted that I couldn't read it.

The computer doesn't know how to translate certain characters. A quotation mark often comes out as II.  Periods and commas appear where I never intended to put them. If you compare the two examples, you'll notice that the paragraphs have been destroyed, the text is lumped together. I don't even bother with headers because the scanner doesn't know what to do with them (but I still number my pages; the "BL-2"is an abbreviated title with the number).

It might look horrible, but it saves me a lot of time. It took my printer 36 seconds to scan each page. 7000 words of a draft equalled 25 pages. 15 minutes to scan the whole thing. That's a lot faster than transcribing the whole thing word for word (for me, at least). Since Hammer and Keys didn't scan properly, I had to save it as a PDF, and am now in the process of doing just that (with a little help from my loving and insightful girlfriend, of course).

Now think about this: In the old days, a writer had no choice but to retype every page, incorporating the changes to the story, along with spelling, grammar, and watching to make sure the sentence didn't break off at the bottom of the page (what's known as a 'widow'). In the business world, using White Out to correct even minor errors was seen as a cop out and lack of professionalism. Authors have to abide by the same rules.

In one of his interviews, Frederick Forsyth said that he types his books on an electric typewriter and hands over the manuscript, with errors, to the editor. The company secretaries correct all of it for him.

Don't do that.

Forsyth spent his years in the trenches, like all beginning novelists, and earned whatever he's got. It'd be unreasonable for me to expect that from a company. But I won't lie, it'd be really nice to have a team of secretaries on speed dial.

So that's it! From front to finish that's how I get my ideas from my brain to the final draft.

Now think about THIS.

The longest published novel ever written was In Search of Lost Time, my Marcel Proust. He started working on it in 1909 and kept at it until his death in 1922.

The novel is 4200 pages long, containing over 1.2 million words.

It was published in seven volumes, first in French, from 1913-1927. The final English translation came out in 1931.

Proust, circa 1900.

Can you imagine typing and then retyping 1.2 million words?!

Some pages from one of the drafts, with Proust's handwritten notes.

But there's only one thing more difficult than typing a colossal novel.

Summarizing it!

Power to the pen!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Novel With A Key and a Good Cover

Top of the day to you!

A storm blew in last night. Temperatures went from 50º to 69ª. Too warm for November!

But that's not important. You came here to read about writing, write?

No updates on any of my submissions yet. Currently working on yet another short story. A scary one. This is taking me in a new direction. Can't wait to see the results.

I had the raw concept in my head. It was a short dream, but I didn't get the breakthrough I needed until yesterday because I was too focused on the wrong story idea. I was trying to plot another novel and getting frustrated when I couldn't come up with anything that satisfied me.

The idea was spawned from a large chunk of my own life. I've never tried to use real-world experiences for the basis of a work before, but the more I've learned about Hemingway, the more tempting it became.

My internet searching pointed me to this phrase: Roman a Clef (pronounced roman a clo)

The Roman a Clef is a literary device that was invented in France sometime during the 17th Century. The individual often credited is Madeleine de Scudery.

Roughly translated, it means "novel with a key."

Lady Madeleine herself. 1607-1701

Madeleine lived in an era when the salons were the place to go for exciting stories, usually in the form of gossip. However, since most of these stories revolved around the king, his court, the clergy, or other special persons, writing about them was illegal (especially if the document was meant to criticize or satirize).

In order to protect themselves, Madeleine and her fellow writers changed the names, dates, and places in their stories. Madeleine herself wrote a work of over 2 million words called Artamene ou le Grand Cyrus. The novel (considered one of the longest ever written) is set in a region known only as "The Orient," but the characters speak with 17th Century ideas. Madeleine's contemporaries are disguised as Classical figures, such as Cleopatra, Mark Antony, and various Greek heros.

In the 20th Century, many famous American novels have been written in this fashion. It's no surprise that Hemingway's first published book, The Sun Also Rises, was written with a French device after the young author visited Paris in 1925 with several known figures. He did this again and again throughout his life.

Hemingway's book, published in 1926.

Numerous authors have used their own life experiences and acquaintances as the basis for their stories. Ray Bradbury wrote over 600 shorts and over a dozen novels. Never sued. However, the laws concerning libel, defamation, and invasion of privacy have changed a lot. Most of the writing advice I've been given involves "basing" a story around something, but not as explicitly as Hemingway or the others.

It's a vigorous debate. Some say "just write the piece and then see what the editor thinks." Others insist that it's either too risky or not worth the potential fallout.

Defamation means you're saying something negative about a person. It's close to slander, which is basically lying. So....don't do that.

But what if you've lived a story that you are sure would make a great narrative?

Some things to think about. Life doesn't follow a story arch. Daily routines are boring. Even the most exciting events in your life are often unconnected.

And then there's the issue of putting it in writing. I found a great example on how to do this in the following article by Susan Breen.

See what she did there? She wanted to tell the story about her relationship with her mother.

But fiction can't just be about that. She threw some other elements into the mix, significantly altering the characters and circumstances to the point where it wasn't really her story anymore.

And that's the whole point. We're back to the notion of "basing" your story on something.

Even Madeleine's gargantuan novel mixed it up. The female characters were used to perpetuate the idea of women's equality and arguments for why they should be allowed to participate in literature and political discourse.

So while my novel idea still borrows considerable detail and feeling from my life, it won't, in all probability, be a roman a clef.

While researching the subject matter for this post, I came across several vintage book covers. Those things are great, aren't they? It's how you sell the story to readers. I've always been a huge fan of simple designs. Today, most book covers look like the artist tried to paint the Sistine Chapel in a space that's not even six inches across.

You've seen 'em. Sweeping landscapes. Multiple character designs. A giant title that's been lavishly painted onto the front. And of course, the obligatory reminder that this work (or the author) was a NY Times Bestseller

In ye olden times, most books didn't have covers at all. They were sold as loosely bound bundles of pages. However, around the 19th Century, dust jackets became popular. This paved the way for illustrations on the cover itself.

Vintage book covers, to me, do more to encourage reading. You only get a glimpse. The story is only hinted at. As if the book says, "You want to know more? Well, pull up a chair and crack me open."

I've thrown together a list of ten covers that I absolutely love. Ten. Because it could have been a lot longer. I thought about adding my own comments on the artwork, but I think you get the idea.








Power to the pen!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Lucha Libro


Due to circumstances beyond our control, this week's episode of "How To Get Everything You've Ever Wanted Right Now," will not be shown.

Instead, we present this blog post that was hastily assembled at the last minute with no budget or product safety testing. We apologize for any inconvenience or discomfort, but we ain't liable. In fact, we'll probably laugh.

This week has seen more rewriting and submitting than creating new material. I've got two stories entered in two different competitions. I won't know the results until next year, but it feels good to be doing it. Both contests make room for several honorable mentions along with the top winners.

For most American writers, winning a competition is a great way to pad their publication credentials. It gives them exposure, prestige, and valuable experience. However, many successful writers have never entered competitions.

But for the people of Peru, they don't have much of a choice.

Take a look and see what I mean.

Is that hardcore or what? There have been days when I'm working on a novel or other long term project and I struggle to make the daily quota. It's usually no less than 1,000 words. But a whole short story in just a few minutes, and a book contract at stake? Talk about pressure!

Peru has been through some really bad times, like many South American nations. But that's no reason the voices of her people shouldn't be heard. However, as many American writers are beginning to learn, money troubles equals book troubles. Publishers get really protective of their assets and only publish material they are convinced they can sell.

It's a business, and in a nation like ours that enjoys unprecedented riches, we tend to forget that. The editors and agents have to feed themselves and their families. They might love your work, but if it won't sell, then we can't hold it against them for rejecting it.

I got you in the ring for three minutes. Three minutes of play time!

Peru's example shows how a little ingenuity can keep people's dreams alive. I predict that the writers who participate in this contest year after year will have razor sharp skills.

Something else I talked about last week was using real life and casting it in fiction. I mentioned Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Kerouac. But someone I didn't mention was Ralph Ellison, author of "Invisible Man." The book has been consistently rated as one of the most influential novels of the 20th Century for its portrayal of race relations.

I found this video where Ralph talks about his work and a number of things (including a book in progress which he never managed to finish, it would be called "Thee Days Before the Shooting").

I found it interesting that he used a tape recorder to test the feel and rhythm of his words. Just goes to show that you ought to stick with whatever works. If any of those recordings survived, I imagine they're very valuable.

My final thought this week regards the "banning" of certain books. I remember when I was in 7th grade and the Harry Potter series was published in the U.S. People were up in arms over "that story about witchcraft." They were sadly disappointed when their kids didn't turn into blood-drinking pagans. My generation proved that kids (or any reader) aren't stupid. They can invest a lot in a story without confusing it with reality.

I don't know what half of these words mean, but they speak to me...

Books are usually banned for a variety of reasons. They might challenge a social norm. They might contain profanity or other questionable content. They might attack one of our society's sacred cows.

In an interview, Kurt Vonnegut once gave his opinion on why people get offended by works of art. To paraphrase, he said: People are conditioned by advertisements. These ads always tell them something nice because they're trying to sell things. Art doesn't appeal to what you want. It speaks a message that you may or may not like, but that's not the point.

Power to the pen!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Impossibility of Writing

Greetings, and welcome November!

The week began in drudgery and ended with enlightenment. How did I manage to do all of that?

I'm glad you asked.

This week began with my full intention to take a break from writing. I had some school work coming up near Thanksgiving and I decided to blitz and get it done rather than procrastinate. Several article readings and three papers later, my mind was thoroughly deflated. Then I got an email from Writer's Digest about their upcoming short story competition.

The challenge: 1,500 words. Submit by November 15.

Yikes! Better get started. Which I did. My mind spun round and round trying to think of an idea. Of course, the golden standard I kept going back to was Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants." How could I possibly pull off something like that? I turned out a draft of a story that I thought had a good premise, but wouldn't work with just 1,500 words.

Once again, my beautiful and insightful girlfriend came to the rescue. "Why don't you do something different in your routine?"

I figured it was worth a shot. I went down to a local park and sat, reading a chapter from "Twilight For the Gods" by Ernest Gann. After which, I took out my typewriter and pecked out four pages. And what did I write? Well, a vignette, more or less. The story is about a protagonist (me) trying to find something to write about. He thinks and thinks and thinks, but can't come up with a premise that satisfies him. The story ends with him opening his eyes and realizing that something to write about was there all along, waiting for him to discover it.

It was one of those "ah ha!" moments followed by a "you dummy, of course that's how it's done" moment. I've never written anything that was explicitly based on anything that happened to me in real life, though authors like Hemingway became famous for it. His first published book, "The Sun Also Rises," follows his journey to the artistic community in Paris almost verbatim. He offended various acquaintances throughout his life because of the way they were portrayed.

I'm not going to discuss "how" one should use their own life experiences to make fiction, but this little episode was very enlightening. And the enlightenment continued. When I got back to the house, I watched a lecture given at Yale by Dr. Alberto Manguel on the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges. It was entitled: "The Impossibility of Writing."

Here's the video. 

If you don't have an hour and twenty minutes, let me summarize the main points.

Borges was an Argentine writer who almost lived through the entire 20th Century. He wrote poetry and non-fiction before turning to short stories and novels. This lecture was the first time I'd ever heard the man's name, and I doubt many American readers know him. You might notice the quote that I put at the bottom of my blog from his work Dreamtigers.

In essence, the lecture deals with the limits of the human language. Words are incapable of completely conveying the true and full nature of something because language is an imperfect creation used by humans, imperfect creatures.

Jorge Luis Borges, 1899-1986

Therefore, it is impossible to write a conclusive or comprehensive work of literature because the language and mind of the writer are inherently flawed. That's not to say writing is useless or shouldn't be attempted. Borges, in one of his many articles, declared that it was the opposite. He illustrates by mentioning the golem. The most famous account of this mythological creature is from the 16th Century.

In Prague, a rabbi forms a creature of clay and brings it to life by writing the word "emet" which means "truth." The creature was formed to protect Jews from pogroms, but it soon slips from the master's control and begins to wreck havoc. The rabbi destroys it by striking the first letter from "emet" and changing it to "met" which means "death."

Borges comments on the legend by saying, "The rabbi looked at the pile of clay that his creature was, but no one can tell us what God felt as he looked upon his rabbi." Borges felt that all human writing was imperfect, but the closest work that came to perfection was Dante's "Divine Comedy." And yet, Dante himself admits this in a way because his love, Beatrice, escapes him after casting a fleeting glance in his direction, which he said no man or poet could ever hope to portray with language.

We have a number of expressions in our modern time for this feelings.

"Words fail me."
"I can't put my finger on it."
"I'm getting a vibe."
"I'm going with my gut."

So, does that mean that writing is a waste of time? Hardly. Borges said that the act of writing a story (or participating in any facet of the arts) was "the imminence of a revelation that never takes place." As Dr. Manguel elaborated, "To accept this paradox is to reject the temptation of the serpent, that man can be like God. Instead, we are content to reflect His creation back to Him through luminous pages that show His world."

Deep stuff.

James A. Michener also touched upon this idea in his work, "The Novel." Two of the characters are literary critics that are disheartened by the rise and dominance of commercial fiction. In their minds, the only true form of fiction is that which converses to another author or reader some higher ideal. They believe that no matter how many works might come about with their cheap thrills, boring characters, and overused plot devices, a vanguard of "real" writers should continue the conversation.

A final example is what Stephen King and many other authors have said: the act of reading a book is taking part in a two-way conversation between the author and the reader.

Bill Waterson's thoughts on the subject.

This is all very deep stuff, but I think every author needs to hear it because it puts them and their work in perspective. Whenever you write a story, you're not trying to reinvent it. When the Harry Potter series was published, many praised it as a wonderful coming-of-age story. That doesn't mean Harry Potter invented the archetype. We came up with archetypes because we realized long ago that artists are taking universal truths and presenting them in different ways.

Gary Larson, ladies and gentlemen!

That's why language changes with time: to accompany the readers' comprehension so they can participate in this conversation.

That's why you and I should never give up as writers. We all have something to say in our own, unique, imperfect way.

In that sense, writing is not impossible.


Ok, other business.

In addition to writing something for the WD short story contest, I've submitted another work to six magazines electronically. If they reject it, I'll submit the document to some more via hard copy.

While doing this I couldn't help but get drawn into the controversy surrounding submission fees. It seems that literary journals have come under fire for charging authors to pay money to send them their work. I'm new to the market, so my opinions are half-baked.

Traditionally, literary agents and publishing companies do not charge for submissions, even unsolicited ones. They get paid based on sales revenue.

Literary journals seem to be in a different boat. With the rise of electronic media, subscription rates have been going down, but there are now more writers wanting to be published. Even online-only publications have considerable expenses.

Most of the journals I saw that charged "service fees" want the author to use a service called Submittable. This isn't free either. You have to pay $10 a month or $100 a year. On top of that, the submission fees are usually three or four dollars, though I read a scathing attack on Narrative Magazine for apparently charging as much as $15-$20 per manuscript.

These fees do not get your work to the top of the slush pile, and it certainly doesn't mean you're getting published. As you might guess, the practice has generated a lot of hard feelings that you can explore with a quick Google search.

Contests are different. You can't buy prizes for the contestants if you don't have money and the best way to get money is to charge an entrance fee.

The thing that confuses me is that journals are charging for electronic submissions only. I could mail a manuscript to Boulevard via USPS and actually save money because I can buy manilla envelopes and stamps in bulk.

For guys like me that are in school, with no income, and trying to break into the market, submission fees don't appear very logical, especially in the worsening economy. But then again, I suppose that's why they're doing it. Even resource websites like Duotrope recently began charging members because so many people had signed up.

Until the situation changes, I'll probably be submitting to as many "free" places as possible. There are magazines that charge a fee and do not use Submittable, and I'll probably consider them.

All right, let's do something fun to wrap this week up.

One of Writers' Digest's articles encouraged its readers to "reject a hit." The game is simple: in 300 words, reject a well-known book and give your reasons. They can be actual errors you found in the text or completely absurd and made up.

For my choice, I selected "The Dogs of War" by Frederick Forsyth. Although not nearly as well-known to American audiences as Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy, Forsyth became famous in 1971 with his classic "Day of the Jackal." "The Dogs of War" was published a few years later, based on his experience as a correspondent covering the Biafra War in Nigeria.

The book has been hailed as a "manual for mercenaries," and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Having said that, here is my satirical reject of a hit.

Dear Mr. Forsyth,

We've read your manuscript, "The Dogs of War." I regret to inform you that we are unable to accept the work for publication at this time. I would like to offer a few editorial suggestions if you intend to pursue this with other companies. 

First, your inconsistent use of small arms cartridge designations made it difficult to read. Most professionals use the common form: 9mm Luger. There is no reason to write it as nine-millimeter,, 9x19mm, 7.63 millimeter, 9. millimeter, or any of the other twenty variations that you employed in the text. Pick one and stick with it.

At one time you refer to the protagonist's young lover as a Lolita. While it's encouraging to see that you are a well-read man, I am confident that no one who reads "The Dogs of War" will get the reference to Nabokov's novel. Therefore, I recommend that you replace it with something more identifiable with the modern generation. You can find countless ideas in the celebrity gossip magazines at your nearest supermarket.

Concerning the South African character. I find it highly improbable that any team of professional soldiers would recruit a member for whom they had to translate every word of conversation. The character dies, proving my point.

The biggest crux, by far, is your not-at-all friendly portrayal of western Europe. Your characters display an incredible amount of historically-informed distrust of nearly every democratic nation that they visit. Yet, they're judgements are hypocritical because they're more than willing to procure illegal arms from a company in fascist Spain. 

Really, Mr. Forsyth. We've decolonized Africa and India. I honestly believe that publication of this work has the potential to reignite international tensions that we've spent so much time trying to bury.

Cut us some slack. Nobody wants to conquer other nations or segregate people based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or political ideology. That went out of style ages ago.



See you next week! 

Power to the pen.