Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Happy Nondenominational Holiday and/or Ethnic/Religious Celebration of Your Choice

As Chrismukkwanza rolls around, I thought I'd send out some holiday cheer, but seeing as this is a blog about writing, I figure I should skew things in that direction a bit. (Also, a boycott by Bill O'Reilly could really only boost my readership at this point, so everybody be sure to send him a traditional Channzamas falafel for me, would you?) So, without further ado, I submit to you my Three Holiday Lists, Each Consisting of Only One Thing, and in No Particular Order:

Top One Reasons to Support an Online Bookselling Megalith This Holiday Season:

1. Barnes and Noble's free 3-day shipping means pretty, pretty books for cheap.

Top One Reasons for Skipping an Online Bookselling Megalith in Favor of Your Local Independent Bookseller This Holiday Season:

1. Barnes and Noble's free 3-day shipping is a complete and total sham, which will more likely than not result in your pretty, pretty books spending their holiday in a warehouse in Hoboken.
(Incidentally, if you happen to hail from Portland, Maine, might I suggest that the local independent bookseller you support be Longfellow Books in Monument Square?)

Top One Things Every Writer/Gadget Nerd Should Want This Holiday Season:

1. The Victorinox SwissMemory USB Knife (because how many gifts would allow you to saw off your own leg were you pinned beneath a tree on a mountain hike and provide an easy, convenient back-up of your novel/short story/political manifesto?)

So that's that. Have a safe and happy holiday season. Also, Captain Morgan's Private Stock rum happens to be damn tasty in egg nog (or Silk Nog, for we lactose-intolerant), no matter what you choose to celebrate.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

"No, Mr. Modifier," he fulminated menacingly, "I expect you to die."

It occurred to me this morning that I'd been remiss of late in my blogging; you'd think with all the words I've been crossing out in my manuscript, I'd have plenty to spare here, but you'd be wrong. Apparently spending your free time eliminating unnecessary words is not exactly inspiring when it comes to sitting down and writing later.

Still, I'm nearly 250 pages into my manuscript, and I'm happy to report that, so far, I like it. An odd thing to say of one's own book, I suppose, but believe me when I tell you that my enjoying it was not a foregone conclusion. In fact, I bet there's not a writer out there that doesn't have a niggling feeling of doubt when they first crack their manuscript to begin revising it down. Down being the operative word; gone are a whole host of cliches (more than I would have thought I even knew), countless adverbs and other prose-weakening modifiers, and even one entire scene (which I imagine I'll hold onto for the DVD.) Gone are the first few paragraphs of nearly every chapter. Gone, I hope, are all my lapses into pedestrian writing, though I'll have to rely on the unkindness of strangers on that one.

I always thought that this would be the painful part. My precious words, being trimmed away willy-nilly. Instead, I find it really satisfying, and kind of fun. The pressure's off. After all, I made a novel out of nothing; rough, sure, but undeniably a novel. Making one I'm happy with out of that seems like a much smaller step.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Style-wise, These are Trying Times

This past weekend, I’d resolved myself to set aside all book-related matters and relax – having just finished the first draft, it seemed a bit of a break was in order, and I thought a little distance would help with the editing process. My wife had tracked down a used copy of Blaylock’s The Last Coin (which, unless I’m much mistaken, is out of print and not terribly easy to come by), and it’s been forever since I was able to sleep in. Instead, the Blaylock sat unopened on my coffee table, and I was up before nine, plowing through style manuals, desperate to glean whatever I could from them before diving headlong into my manuscript. I read Bill Walsh’s Lapsing into a Comma cover to cover, perused The Gregg Reference Manual, and then dove in to that holiest-of-holies, Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

The problem with my style-sheet binge (inherent nerdiness-issues aside) is that I’ve already got my share of pet peeves regarding language and grammar; now, I’ve got the added burden of (transiently, at least) carrying around those of others as well. In this age of god-awful grammar and lazy internet-speak, I really don’t need to add to my list of irksome language transgressions.

One that’s really been driving me nuts is an ad for E-Loan, in which a guy is standing beside the road holding a sign that reads, “Honk. If you don’t like getting ripped off.” Periods. For no reason. Whatsoever. Tell me that’s not worlds of annoying.

Incidentally, the title of this post is cribbed from White’s essay on style, in which he dissects Thomas Paine’s classic line, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” A beautiful, stylish sentence if ever there was one. There are plenty of grammatically correct ways to achieve the same meaning, but what kind of crappy revolution begins with “Soulwise, these are trying times?”

Oh, and a couple of points of contention with the fair Professor Strunk – according to his rules, “Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities” is correct. For my money, that’s one ‘s’ too many, and one ‘A’ too few. Dickens never wrote a book called Tale of Two Cities, and if the ghost of Strunk himself came knocking at my door, he’d have a hell of a time convincing me otherwise.

Man, I’ve gotta get back to my book.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Angels' Share

Thirteen months ago, on a sunny Sunday morning, I sat down at my computer and started writing a novel entitled The Angels' Share. Today, at 12:04 to be precise, I finished.

To be honest, it took longer than I expected; but then, at 110, 850 words, it is longer than I expected as well. Which is good, I think. Elmore Leonard may have the skill to leave out the boring bits, but the rest of us have to (hopefully) remove them before the story sees the light of day.

Of course, it needs a good polish as well as a trim, but I recently discovered (much to my surprise) that I really enjoy the editing process. And besides, whatever else happens, I can never again say that I hope to one day write a novel. Yesterday, The Angels' Share was just an idea, bobbing incomplete around my head. Today it exists, in some form, at least. Now the trick is to make it the best version of itself I can manage.

So, in two weeks time, I will sit down, red pen and notebook in hand, and begin the editing process. In the end, I hope to have an 80,000-90,000 word novel that is taut, polished, and ready to let out into the world.

Tonight, however, I am going to have myself a drink.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The More I Ignore You, the Closer I Get

So. This ending thing. Turns out it's taking longer than expected. Every time I sit down at the computer, I think to myself only twenty pages to go. Then I crank out a bunch of pages, only to say the same thing the very next day.

So, with apologies to Morrissey for mangling his title, and to my throng of devoted, um, reader (hi honey), I've decided to take a little time off from the blogging.

That's not to say I'm walking away – I just think that this site is here to support my writing, and not the other way around. So, barring The Toll Collectors being accepted for publication any time in the very near future, the next post you'll read will be me (quite possibly drunkenly) declaring that I've finished my first draft. Keep checking back; if all goes well, it won't be more than a couple of weeks. Wish me luck.

Until then, I'm goin' dark.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

On Tense

Miss Snark, whose blog is as entertaining and enlightening as it is vicious, recently posted a letter from an editor who lamented the fact that nearly every submission she receives these days is written in the first-person present tense. The post sparked a flurry of comments, many of which echoed the editor’s apparent disdain for the first-person present tense, while others worried that their first-person present writing was a waste of time, or possibly an indicator that they lacked talent or originality. My immediate reaction, having spent the last year working on a FPPT-narrated manuscript, was CRAP CRAP CRAP CRAP CRAP. Not because I feel I’ve made a horrible mistake in writing the novel that I’m writing and wasted a year of my time in the process, but because I believe that the voice that I chose is truly the right one for the story that I’m telling, and now I’m going to have to work all the harder to make it stand apart from the sea of bad FPPT submissions.

In his essay The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler says that “the good detective story and the bad detective story are about exactly the same things, and they are about them in very much the same way.” Similarly, all first-person present tense narratives sound very much the same, be they in the service of the story or merely a misguided attempt to glom on to a passing trend. The trick, I think, is to write well, and to be able to defend the choices you make in the service of doing so. I can only hope at the end of the day that I have written well, but defending my narrative choices is another matter. My story hinges upon both an understanding of the mental state of my narrator and the immediacy of the situations she finds herself in; for that reason, I believe first-person present tense is the best narrative voice to tell my story.

Of course, that may all be bluster, no more than panicked self-justification in the face of overwhelming odds against publication, but I don’t think so. I think that the debate about the propriety of FPPT is missing the point – it makes no more sense to say that FPPT is always a bad choice than it does to say that never in film should you resort to a jittery hand-held shot when a smooth dolly shot would do. Present tense is a tool. Use it when it’s called for. Don’t blame it when it’s not.

Think I’m wrong? That’s fine. Think I’m right? Even better. Either way, let me know.

UPDATE: It seems that Miss Snark herself has weighed in on the subject. Here's an excerpt:

Those commenters who've pointed out that tense must serve the story are saying exactly what Miss Snark thinks. Bright Lights Big City was a wonderful novel and telling it in second person was a stroke of genius. It doesn't have the flexibility of first or third, but when it's right, it's just right.

You can read the rest here. Though I suspect this debate is far from over, it's nice that someone with a rather large pulpit happens to agree with me. Oh, and the rest of you? Just plain wrong. (Hey, it is my website. Fair and balanced I'm not.)

Monday, October 10, 2005

The "F" Word (no, the other one)

In The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, Douglas Adams writes of a best-selling author whose primary qualification is that his first name happens to fit perfectly above his last name when placed upon the cover of a novel in the usual way. While I hope that there is more justice in the world than to allow that to be a deciding factor, I’m forced to wonder just how much an author’s name matters when querying an agent or selling a book.

I admit, I’m stuck with a rather plain name as far as the publishing world goes. Chris Holm has none of the cadence or charm of Tess Gerritsen or Harlan Coben. It doesn’t have the bad-pun-but-good-blurb-inducing quality of Stephen King or Tim Powers. No amount of squeezing makes Chris fit above Holm in a manner that suggests anything other than awkward typesetting.

Of course, none of that seems to bother Dan Brown much, but I digress.

So here I am, left with the last refuge of the forgettably-named – the middle initial. As a kid, I always wondered what was up with those authors who seemed so strangely attached to their middle names, but now I know. Google "Chris Holm" and you’ll find a geology professor, a Scandinavian metal guitarist, and an off-road unicyclist, just to name a few. Google "Chris F. Holm" and, well, you get me. Is it name-recognition? Nope, but it’s a start.

The "F" is for Frederick, by the way. Yeah, I know. But how am I gonna compete with an off-road unicyclist?

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Final Stretch and Yawn

This past weekend, I had the brilliant idea that if I were to get up an hour or two early and write before work, I could double my output – kind of a final sprint to the finish line of a completed first draft. Okay, to be fair, that same idea occurred to me roughly every Sunday evening since I began writing, but it was usually abandoned by Monday morning in favor of a plan that involved beating my alarm clock senseless and falling back to sleep. Good for the soul, but bad for the word count.

Anyways, these past couple of days, I’ve succeeded in dragging myself out of bed, sitting myself in front of the computer, and plodding away, albeit while clinging to a rather sizeable mug of tea as though it were a life preserver. The writing’s come in fits and spurts, but with a couple of side-effects – one expected, one not.

The expected is that, when the writing is done and the day job begun, I’ve been a complete zombie, clumsy and lumbering and stupid (though so far thankfully lacking in the unquenchable hunger for human brains.) I’ve gotten almost nothing done, and what I have gotten done has been done at a fraction of my normal pace.

The unexpected is that, for the first time since those early halting pages, I haven’t the faintest idea how the writing is going. I think that often, writing is rhythm, and once you find yours, you tend to get up from the computer with a sense as to how the day has gone, for good or for ill. Today, and yesterday as well, I truly had no idea.

That’s not to say the writing’s been bad – in fact, reading over some of what came out yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised. That’s still a bit disconcerting, though. It’s one thing to be surprised where your story is going. It’s something else entirely to be surprised where it’s been.

Still, there is some satisfaction in the fact that this morning, Writing won out over Not Writing, doubly impressive because Not Writing offered the added seduction of Comfy Bed to sweeten the deal. As long as my thrilling climax doesn’t consist entirely of ALL WORK AND NO SLEEP MAKES SLEEP A SLEEP SLEEP, I suppose it’ll be worth it.

Oh, and I think my alarm clock is happier, too.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Call and Response

Another post, another productive nothing to report, at least on the novel front. On the blogging front, however, something rather cool and unexpected happened today.

Dorothy Thompson, editor of The Writer's Life Magazine and all-around lovely person, had some very nice things to say on her blog about my recent post regarding my first-ever literary award, which can be read here. It seems that she had a similar experience, and reading my post got her to wonder whether all writers might not have a similar story to tell. Her ponderings were both sweet and insightful, and made me look at my initial post in an entirely new light.

I think that perhaps my favorite part of all of this (apart from being referred to as "utterly charming") is that she and I could not be from more disparate genres, and yet we share a common experience, a common history. What I thought of as a fond remembrance of a fairly peculiar event might in fact be something shared in one form or another by just about anyone who ever picked up a pen or clacked away at a keyboard.

Go check out her blog, and The Writer's Life as well. Both are entertaining, and both are informative. More importantly, though, is the fact that both of them are run by someone who could have easily just passed on through, but who instead stopped to have a conversation along the way. Kind of the point of this whole thing, I think.

And for the record, it was the post she referred to as "utterly charming," not me personally, but I'll take what I can get.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

On Writing (and little green men)

After a couple of weeks off to write, polish, and submit The Toll Collectors, I’ve refocused my efforts on finishing my novel, which means there’s little to report. There’s progress aplenty, but I suspect if I were to document it in detail, it’d look a lot like this:

Wrote five pages today. Brilliant. Utterly, utterly brilliant. Best pages ever.

Read yesterday’s pages. Crap. Utter, utter crap. Worst pages ever.

And so on. So rather than boring you with the details of slogging away at my work-in-progress, I’ve decided to regale you with a tale of adventure, intrigue, and aliens. A tale of my loftiest literary achievement to date. A tale of my first-ever award for writing.

I was six years old.

I remember sitting on the institutional metal chair, my feet swinging free several inches above the floor. I was nervous, and I had reason to be – I wasn’t the kind of kid that got called down to the principal’s office with any regularity. In fact, I couldn’t remember ever having been called down to the principal’s office, though certainly I’d heard the stories. Yelling. Crying. Calls to parents. I wasn’t sure what I’d done, but I was sure it couldn’t be good.

The door to the principal’s office swung open, and out came a kid a couple of years older than me, eyes rimmed with red. He looked like he’d just been to war. I watched him disappear out of sight down the hall with growing dread. I was told I could go in. Reluctantly, I did.

The principal, a Mr. Hayburn, I believe, was leaning against the corner of the cheap metal desk when I came in. He told me to take a seat. He towered over me as I sat in that chair, and I was sure that at any second, he’d begin to scream, or breathe fire, or something equally terrifying. Instead, he handed me several sheets of loose-leaf paper, carefully stapled together.

He asked me if I recognized it. I did. It was a story I’d written for class, entitled The Alien Death From Outer Space. It was three pages long, and lavishly illustrated; I still remember gleefully wearing my red crayon down to nothing as I waged my epic battle between man and beast, the fate of Earth hanging in the balance. My recollection of the story is hazy, and doubtless colored by my mother’s many retellings, but I believe it went like this:

Aliens came from outer space.

They killed a lot of people.

We fought back, and killed them all.

Note the strong three-act (er, sentence) structure, the economy of prose. I’m sure that that was precisely what Mr. Hayburn had noted, that and not the violent Techicolor carnage. He asked me several questions about the story, and I answered them as best I could. I have no idea what he or I said, really. All I remember is that I was terribly relieved he wasn’t yelling. He seemed very friendly, in fact – he smiled and nodded at all my answers, and in the end he gave me a Hershey bar, and made me swear not to tell anyone where I got it.

At the time, I was sure that my story was so fantastic that I’d been called down to the principal’s office and rewarded. Now I realize that I was questioned and given a bribe in the interests of me not killing my fellow students. Either way, there’s a lesson to be learned – if you can scare the pants off of your audience, you will be rewarded. Of course, those were more innocent times; today, I’d have just been put on some sort of federal watch-list. Maybe then I’d have been inspired to become a First Amendment lawyer.

A funny post-script – when I strolled through the front door that evening, I was munching happily on my newly-won candy bar, and my mother asked me where I got it. Not one to renege on a deal, I shrugged and said nothing. She of course freaked and made me tell her where I got it. So be careful what you say to a kid – they may take it pretty literally. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up creating a writer.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Lost Highway

This weekend, I completed a short story entitled The Toll Collectors, which is as I type this now at the mercy of the United States Postal Service. With luck, it will be accepted for publication before the new year.

The Toll Collectors is a ghost story of sorts, about a man who takes an unplanned detour onto a long-abandoned stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Fitting, since the story itself was somewhat of an unplanned detour; I was researching something else entirely when I happened upon a website dedicated to exploring this abandoned stretch of road, which actually exists, nestled in the hills of Pennsylvania a little east of Pittsburgh. The landscape was so eerie, so evocative, that it seemed ideal for the setting of a classic horror story. Hopefully, those responsible for reviewing it will agree.

A great deal of the credit for getting the story out the door should be given to my lovely wife Katrina, who, apart from being somewhat nonplussed by the fact that she is apparently the worst natural disaster ever to strike our fair country, is quite charming, patient, and a damn fine editor to boot. So if you're reading this, do her the favor of saying "Hurricane Katrina." I know at least one person who would greatly appreciate it.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Going Live

So. Um. Hello.

Hmm. It seems to me that I ought to have something to say at this point. One would have thought that, having taken the time and the effort to put together a website, I might be a little more prepared in the posting-on-it front, but alas, I am not. But there you are, reading this, so here goes. Shouldn't you be working, by the way? What if your boss were to catch you reading this? You'd best check and see that no one's coming. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Anyways, welcome to my on-line journal. (I would have said "blog," but every time I type it, I have this nagging feeling that it is lacking an apostrophe, and so I thought I'd avoid the matter altogether.) My name is Chris, as you can plainly see peppered around the page, and I am a writer, in the sense that I get up in the morning and I write. I write mysteries, often (but not always) containing supernatural elements. If I were to have my pick of classifications, I suppose I'd label my writing speculative noir, though that would make for a pretty small section at your local bookstore, and could very well place me alphabetically on a shelf beside Gaiman and Gibson -- good company to keep, but I'd perhaps not fare so well in the company of giants. So I'll simply say that I write what I hope will be considered mainstream thrillers and leave it at that.

A couple of years ago, I began writing a novel. A lot of early mornings and a few hundred pages later, it's nearly done. What, you might ask, does it take to be a working writer? Stick around -- maybe we'll both find out.