Accept the Magic of Imagination

painting of a bell in rainbow clouds

Campanil Ascendiendo by Eugenio Cruz Vargas (used under Creative Commons license)

 

Ringing the Bell

When I was a kid at Saint Lucy’s Catholic Church, the altar boys used to ring a little golden bell when the priest raised the host. I watched from my wooden pew and wondered if that was the moment when the miracle happened, when the host changed from bread to flesh. Because otherwise why did they ring the bell?

They don’t ring it anymore. I know they used to because my ears still vibrate with its sound, but actually I had forgotten the bell until I went to a poetry reading at a church in Santa Cruz, and a poet read a poem about when he was an altar boy waiting for the time to ring the bell. The other altar boy, his rival, could ring the bell so beautifully that you knew it worked, that the bread for sure had transformed into the body of Christ. The action of the poem happens when it’s the speaker’s turn to ring, and you experience with him the build of anxiety as the priest raises the host, up, up, and finally at the apex he has to ring the bell, and it doesn’t make the magic sound but instead goes all wonky and wobbly. The poet gave a brilliant performance, and you really believed that he was the altar boy trying to ring the bell to transform the bread into body and failing, failing, failing, just like we all think we fail at the important things we try to do.

Maybe that’s why the Church stopped ringing the bell, because it makes people believe that something humans do is what’s changing the host, and the whole point is that it’s not what we do: that the ritual is not the magic, that God is the magic.

Now maybe you don’t believe in any god, or you don’t believe in the Catholic God, but please still listen to me because I’m not trying to convert you, I’m just making an analogy.

The RItual Is Not the Magic

It’s true that rituals for writing help us, but the ritual is not the magic. The ritual is a container for the magic: it may be necessary, but it is not sufficient (and there are many rituals and practices that can work). The magic comes from somewhere else. The magic comes from the Place. You can’t control it; you can only invite it. You can only make your house ready for it. And then you have to step back and accept that you’ve done your part. You have to relax and let the guest come in. At church, we hold up the bread, we ring the bell. But the miracle happens through no action of our own. The miracle comes from God, comes by grace, whether we deserve it or not.

The miracle of imagination is the same.

The Gift

Try this improv exercise with me.

Imagine a closed box, a gift for you. Notice its size, its shape. Is it wrapped? Does it have a ribbon? Hold it in your hands and feel its weight. Now imagine yourself opening the box. Find the gift inside.

What did you find? It’s yours to keep and use. I wish you the joy of it.

Who puts the gift in the box? Not you. The gift comes from the Place. We are surrounded and interpenetrated by love and support, always. You think you breathe all by yourself? No. The atmosphere breathes you: it’s the pressure of the air outside that pushes air into your lungs. Our own agency is nothing compared to the forces that continually support and help us.

Accept the Gift

Does the bread always change? Yes, because the change doesn’t depend on our poor skill at ringing the bell. Steven Pressfield says that this is his religion: that no matter how many times you open the box, there’s always something inside.

When you’re writing, remember this. You don’t have to “make it up;” you only have to accept what’s in the box and write it down. Sometimes you might want to refuse it, saying “I don’t know what’s in there,” or “I can’t think of anything,” but try not to be afraid. Remember that you don’t make the gift.

Imagination is not ourselves. The gift comes from the Place. All you have to do is accept it.

How do you keep yourself writing?

OK, so I have a serious question for all of you writers. I don’t do well with “structure.” If I decide that I need to write every day starting at 11 a.m., I will literally never start writing at 11 a.m.. If I decide that I need to leave the house every day in order to write in a coffee shop, then chances are I won’t be able to write in coffee shops. And last week, when I committed to spending the week working on my story, to make a great push to get it to the next turning point… I literally couldn’t touch the story all week. My brain says, “Aaaahh! Crazy people* making unreasonable demands on my time for absolutely no good reason, must turn into a floppy blob on the couch!”

The positive side was that I wrote a million and a half blog posts, and I did tons of laundry, and I made tons of food. But … I didn’t write story at all. And if I ever want to reach The End, as one does, then I need to keep writing. Obviously that level of commitment was too much “structure” for me, where structure is defined as a box that I must fit within. I’m trying to learn to redefine “structure” to mean “useful tool that keeps me heading towards my goal” of writing a lot and reaching the next turning point in my story.

So help me out: What “tools” or “structures” do you use to keep yourself writing and making progress? Do you have any “tricks”? What gets your butt in the chair?

———

* Just for the record, the crazy people in this instance were me. Yes, even my own brain thinks I’m a crazy unreasonable person. Sigh.

Learning from Publication

Recently I wrote a short story called “Steampunk Fairy Chick” for the UnCONventional anthology. Even though the story went through many revisions, lots of beta readers, two editors and a copyeditor, when I read through my author’s copy I found there were still things I wanted to change. Nothing major—just line edit stuff, a selection of different choices of sentence structure that I think would have made the story more readable.

I can’t react to this the way I would with a draft; the story’s in print. And I don’t want to just throw these insights on the floor. Instead, I want to analyze the story and find general ideas I could have applied that would have improved the story before it hit the stands—ideas I could use in the future on new stories.

Don’t Overload Your Sentences

I am verbose by nature, and my stories are ornate by design. Because I was trying to pack a lot into 10,000 words, I tried to pack a lot into each sentence of “Steampunk Fairy Chick.” Sometimes, the sentences simply couldn’t carry the load. For example, on the first page of the story this sentence appears:

Jeremiah prepared to dart out into the food court before one of them could cry “Foreigner”—or was the word on this world “alien”—and bring the whole restaurant down upon her.

Here I’m trying to do a whole raft of things all at the same time:

  • Set the scene: Jeremiah is in a packed restaurant near a “food court,” which helps set the story in the present day.
  • Show character: Jeremiah is active, quick thinking, prepared to bolt at a moment’s notice—and she’s hiding something.
  • Provide backstory: Jeremiah is hiding the fact that she’s part alien, and she’s concerned that admitting it can get her in trouble.

That’s a lot for one sentence to do, but I didn’t choke on any of that: I choked on the phrase “or was the word on this world ‘alien?’” which made me lose my place. Why is that aside even in there? It’s because in this sentence I’m also trying to:

  • Raise a question: Jeremiah is not clear that the rules or language are the same in “this world”—implying she’s from another.

That’s great, but it’s a separate idea. So perhaps, even though it costs more words, it would have been better to separate these ideas into two sentences:

Jeremiah prepared to dart out into the food court before one of them could cry “Foreigner” and bring the whole restaurant down upon her. Or wait—wasn’t the word for “Foreigner” on this world “alien?”

This rewrite is clearer … and by removing the interjection, it serves another hidden purpose of this sentence:

  • Clarifying ambiguity: “Jeremiah” is a male name for a female character … so “Jeremiah” needs to appear with a female pronoun.

Even though that creates yet another job for this sentence, it’s important. This is a very early sentence, so it’s critical real estate for establishing her gender clearly. Removing the aside brings “Jeremiah” and “her” eight words closer together.

As a side remark, Jeremiah’s male name illustrates the gender-neutral world of Victoriana from which she came, but otherwise isn’t material to this story—and some authors question whether a story should contain anything in it that doesn’t serve that specific story. For standalone stories, this might be the case, but for series fiction I respectfully disagree. In series fiction you must respect the rules of your series even if they aren’t convenient for a specific story. A series creates its own reality, and one could no more change Jeremiah’s name to Jeri for convenience than one could change Sherlock to Sherman—or move Atlanta to Albania.

“Spoilers!” she said with a smirk.

WARNING: the next two sections contain very mild spoilers for the story. If you’re a savvy scifi reader you probably can read the following section without being spoiled because what IS being spoiled is only a minor surprise. However, if you are one of the people who HATE spoilers, skip to “Make Learning Explicit” … or run out and buy a copy of the UnCONventional anthology and read the last story in it. (Yes, that was a subtle—but entirely shameless—plug).

Pay Attention to Rhythm

Back with us? OK. Another sentence that leapt out at me was:

“You really think,” the sharply dressed man said, “a handful of steampunks armed with coffee and vodka are going to stop the zombie apocalypse?”

There’s nothing too bad with this sentence, but it still jarred me—because “the sharply dressed man” is a complex noun. I’m referring to this character with this mouthful of a name for several reasons:

  • Limited third person point of view: Jeremiah, our point-of-view character, doesn’t know his name—and therefore, the narrator, who doesn’t know any more than the POV character in limited 3rd person POV, doesn’t either.
  • Limited oxygen for limited screen time: The sharply dressed steampunk is a key but minor character, appearing in two and a half brief scenes with only a few lines. Naming him in this already complex story could distract the reader.

Major surgery could fix the problem: make the character more prominent and introduce him formally; cut the character out; give the line to someone else; come up with a shorter epithet. But there’s an easier trick to solve the problem:

“You really think,” said the sharply dressed man, “a handful of steampunks armed with coffee and vodka are going to stop the zombie apocalypse?”

The point of the dialogue tag in this sentence isn’t just to identify who’s speaking. It’s to break up the rhythm of the sentence so it reads the way it ought to be heard. The sentence is a secret in-joke, a riff off this line in Mortal Kombat:

“A handful of people on a leaky boat are going to save the world?”

Interjecting the dialogue tag into the sentence breaks up the reading, makes the reader pause in hearing at the right moment to make the quotable quote stand out. But the action that’s happening is speaking, and throwing a four word noun into the sentence completely derails the rhythm.  Why? A clue can be found from an earlier sentence with a very similar structure which did NOT disrupt my reading:

“This is a trick,” the sharply dressed man said. “Some kind of neon—”

The initial scrap of dialogue here—“This is a trick”—is a complete sentence. A reader knows it is speech from the quote marks, and expects to find a noun describing a speaker. But in the offending sentence, the initial scrap of dialogue—“You really think”—is NOT complete, forcing the reader to keep what the character said AND the character’s name in their mental buffer until the dialogue tag appears.

A better solution is to make the ‘said’ come first, easing the reader down off “You really think” by confirming that the reader has just read speech. Putting the verb first in this case reinforces the already existing expectation that the reader will encounter the name of a character, followed by a resumption of the dialogue which will complete the spoken sentence started with “You really think.”

Grammatically, switching the verb and the noun in a dialogue tag is almost always allowed, but it is not always recommended aesthetically. Consider:

“Give me a break,” he said.

versus

“Give me a break,” said he.

Ouch! If you don’t have a rhythmic (or other) reason to change the order of the dialogue tags … just stick to “he said.”

Stick to your guns

In several places in the story, the editors suggested I could get rid of dialogue tags to make the text shorter, smoother, and punchier. Here’s an example:

She brought this down on us.” Jeremiah stared into the wires feeding in to Jackson. “That big vacuum-tube enhanced brain of hers holds secrets of time travel not even the Scarab managed to discover in over a billion years.”

That paragraph works well, delivers its punch … but doesn’t sound like me. I want sentences to draw pictures with words. And for a sequence of actions, a sequence of short sentences without connectors can do that well:

Jeremiah darted forward. The nearest zombies stirred. Jeremiah shoved them aside. The remainder started to turn. Wayfarer sprayed them. Zombie eyes began to glow. Jeremiah reached Jackson and fumbled at her corset. The zombies raised their hands, crackling with power.

But when someone is speaking, action and speech are happening at the same time. The montage effect above works less well, perhaps because the dialogue lives in quotation space and the action lives in normal narrative space. That’s why I’d strongly consider changing the first paragraph above back to:

She brought this down on us,” Jeremiah said, staring into the wires feeding in to Jackson. “That big vacuum-tube enhanced brain of hers holds secrets of time travel not even the Scarab managed to discover in over a billion years.”

This weaves the action and the speech together so it’s clear they’re taking place at the same time. Your mileage may vary; there is nothing wrong with the version the editors recommended, and you could delete dialogue tags more extensively through the entire story without a fault. (Anthony waves to his editors, who did a great job!) But when I reread my own story, these dropped dialogue tags didn’t sound like ‘me.’

I find the very best edits are the ones that seem perfectly natural: the editor suggests it, and it goes so well with the story the words feel like your own. Sometimes this happens because the editor has nailed your voice; sometimes it happens because you have internalized the editor’s lesson. BUT, if a change doesn’t work for you, I think the right thing to do is say “stet” (Latin for “let it stand” and writer-editor jargon for “revert to original”). Trust me, editors are big boys and girls. They WANT authors to push back as much as they push authors, because the end result is a story that benefits from both the editor and the author’s best ideas.

Make Learning Explicit

You may agree or disagree with the recommendations I’ve made above. “Switching ‘said’ and ‘he’ for effect?” you might say. “Adding extra dialogue tags where none are needed? Adding extraneous material to a story at all? Heresy!” In fact, a few years from now, when I’ve grown more as a writer, I might say the same thing. But there’s a more general principle here which you can take advantage of even if our aesthetics don’t agree: use publication as an opportunity to make learning explicit.

People learn when they get feedback on their actions and try to improve based on it. If the feedback is timely and you don’t actively try to reject it, learning can be almost automatic. But you can’t always guarantee getting timely feedback—so sometimes you need to deliberately create a strategy that helps you improve.

So what I recommend is: when your work hits print, get a copy of it. Read it, marking anything you want to change. And then try to generalize what you’ve learned, so you can apply it to new stories in the future.

-the Centaur

How to Run Beta Reading Cycles

So you’ve written your piece, read through it and revised it, worked on it some more, and now it’s reached the point where you’re thinking of submitting it for publication. Before you do that, consider rounding up some beta readers and having a beta reading cycle.

Beta Readers
What are beta readers? They are people who read your work pre-publication and give you feedback. The term came from pre-releases of software that go through beta testing. Where do you find beta readers? Try your writing group, and if you know people who love to read the genre you write in, ask for volunteers. If you’re writing mysteries, and your potential beta reader doesn’t like the genre, then he or she is probably not a good fit for your project.

Sometimes it’s helpful to give the beta readers guidelines, especially if this is the first time you’re working with them. This can be as simple as asking them to tell you what they like, what they don’t like, and to flag any areas that confuse them. If there’s something in particular that is giving you trouble you can mention it or not. For instance, you might say, “There’s something wrong with the ending, but I can’t figure out what.” Or you might decide not to say anything and see if your beta readers come to the same conclusion.

Planning and Managing the Review Cycle
You want your beta reading cycle to be effective. So it’s a good idea to give some thought about the kind of help you’re looking for, and to schedule your beta cycle with a specific beginning and end date. Talk to your potential beta readers to make sure they are available and that they want to participate. Only use beta readers who like the idea of participating, and plan on enlisting a few more than you think you need. That way if some get too busy and don’t have time, you can still get comments from the others.

Preparing a Document for Review
I find it helpful to save the file for the piece that is going out for review with the date in the file name. It could be something like this: title_date_mylastname_beta. That way I know exactly which version of the piece went out for review. Beta reviews can be done in common file formats like PDF or Word that you send to the reviewers (soft copy), or you can provide printouts (hard copy). For shorter pieces, many readers don’t mind reading a file, or printing it out themselves to mark it up. If you have a long piece, find out if your beta readers prefer printouts.

Note: One way for reviewers to mark up a Word document is to turn on tracking. That identifies every change but preserves the original text. If you receive this type of mark up from a reviewer, you can choose to accept or delete each change. Or you can print it and work from the hard copy if that’s easier for you.

If you’ve written a novel and your beta readers prefer hard copy, the cost of reproduction can add up quickly. So far, the least expensive option that I have found is to go through Lulu (www.lulu.com) and set up a book as a private project. A private project isn’t visible to others, and that is the default setting at Lulu when you upload a project. You can use their wizard to format your beta review draft, and then order the number of copies that you need, using whatever coupon code is active when you place your order. Lulu has online chat support during business hours and I’ve found them to be very helpful.

It pays to shop around, and you might find a better deal somewhere else, so you should comparison shop before you make your final decision about where to get your printouts produced. If you really can’t afford to have copies made, tell your beta readers and ask if they can work from soft copy for your project.

Review Comments
In a perfect world, everyone you approach for a beta read would give you insightful, useful comments that allow you to polish and perfect your work. In real life you’ll discover that some beta readers are more able to give useful comments than others. You’ll also find that they have different strengths. Some will spot issues with language mechanics, others can give good advice about plot. You’ll also encounter readers who either like or dislike a piece, or a part of it, but don’t know why. All of this can be useful, but sometimes it can be frustrating and confusing if the readers’ comments contradict each other, or if you feel the comments are not relevant to your aims as a writer. Remember too, that some reviewers will forget to tell you what they like about your work because they are focusing so much on trying to help you find any mistakes before you submit it for publication.

If you’re not sure which comments you want to follow up on, you can always make a test file. Try the revision and see what you think. Do you like the story better—or does making that change introduce a problem? If you like it better and it introduces a problem, can you fix this new problem? Sometimes revisions do “break things” that you have to go back and fix. With practice it gets easier to evaluate review comments and figure out which are most helpful to you. You’ll also learn which beta readers are the best fit for you.

Beta reviews can be a bit nerve wracking, especially when you’re first starting out, but they can also be very valuable. Being on the receiving end of comments can give you some insight about how to be a beta reader yourself. Once you start using beta readers, you will most likely hear from some of them about pieces they’d like you to review.