Writer’s Cramp is the blog and site for B. Jenne’ Hall, writer, genius, and pathological optimist. She’s written her first book, is working on her second, and she’s trying to get published. Which from all accounts seems to be as approximately attainable as the gift of flight, but who doesn’t love a challenge?


Wordcount update

I haven’t mentioned it here until now, but I recently contracted with Jen Violi for manuscript revision services. I met her at a workshop at Wordstock in October and I’m thanking my lucky stars that I signed up for her email list.

I’ve made no secret of how much I’ve been struggling with getting my word count down on my ms, and the frustration it’s engendered has been downright stultifying. When I began, I had at least 50,000 words to cut, which is about 20% of the book. Careful revision word by word resulted in only 20,000 words cut, which meant that something much bigger was going to have to go. And I proceeded to spend a year banging my head against that particular brick wall.

I don’t normally struggle with revisions, even when it means removing something I dearly love (but know needs to come out). The thought of removing something significant wasn’t what stopped me cold, it was trying to figure out what to remove. With such a complicated story involving multiple plots, themes, and primary characters, and everything integrated, everything I came up with seemed like it would break the story to a point that I’d basically have to rewrite the damn thing. I’ve done that once already, and although it was liberating, the thought of doing it again just made me want to pull the covers over my head and never come out.

The thing is, it couldn’t be just removing words for the sake of some magical word count. The primary focus is and always must be about making the story better. I know this. But I worried: if I remove this major character or that major plot line, and very carefully tug all of the related threads out of the story and change it all around so that it doesn’t leave a glaring hole in the story, have I chosen the right thing? Will the story be tighter? I needed to refocus, get a 30,000 foot view of the landscape, so to speak, but how to do that when I’ve been immersed in this story for years? Every direction I tried, I felt like was just sucked down further, like I’d plunged into a tar pit and was doomed to die trying to get out of it. I knew the story could be better, but I needed someone else’s input on how to do it.

That’s where Jen came in. A month alone with my book, including two read-throughs and copious notes, and she came back to me with eight glorious pages of incredibly helpful feedback: what was working, what wasn’t, what was distracting from the main plots and characters, what needed tightening and trimming. What she gave me was not a map that showed the starting point and destination and everything in between, but an aerial shot that helped me see the lay of the land and decide where and how I wanted to change the topography. (And now that metaphor is soundly beaten to the ground….)

I have some major reworking to do. I’m ridiculously excited, a wee bit daunted, and gigantically relieved. After mulling over her feedback for a few days, my first day spent working on the ms — trimming the low hanging fruit contained in her suggestions — resulted in over 4,000 words cut. As of today, I’m officially down by 10,000, from a word count of about 230,000 when Jen got the ms to just below 220,000. I feel like cracking open a bottle of champagne! (Or in my case, sparkling cider.)

Another 20,000 words to go, but I’m not so overwhelmed by that damn number any more. I’ve gotten my focus back on the story, on what needs to be done and what I want to do to make it better. I have every confidence that the word count will continue to fall as a natural result.

Putting Makeup on Dead People(Aside from her amazing powers for single-handedly keeping a desperate writer from committing ritual seppuku, Jen has also written a book called Putting Makeup on Dead People, which was just announced as a finalist for a 2012 Oregon Book Award. We have an embarrassment of riches in Oregon when it comes to writing talent so to be a finalist for these awards is a significant achievement. Huge congrats to her! Oh, and you know, you should totally read her book.)


I do not think that word means what you think it means

Came across these old articles discussing the misunderstood meanings of “bemused” and “nonplussed” and I admit, I felt vindicated after reading about the shifting meaning of both.

Perplexed by “Nonplussed” and “Bemused”

Nonplussed about nonplussed

I reached my 30s before finding out the traditional meanings of “bemused” and “nonplussed”. Imagine my disappointment when I learned that the former meant “confused or puzzled”. Not only did I have to do a find/replace in my massive nearly-finished first book, but I felt like I’d lost a useful word that conveyed the perfect mix of detached amusement, particularly in describing a character. When I discovered that nonplussed didn’t mean, as I’d always thought, “unperturbed”, but rather, “perplexed”, I was doubly dismayed. Another useful word eliminated from my toolbox!

So I was, as I said, vindicated in reading these articles. According to linguists, both words are undergoing the evolution of meaning that is the natural process of a living language. These alternate meanings are even starting to appear in dictionaries.

But now I’m in a quandary: do I start reusing these very useful words in my writing again in the way I’ve always understood them, reinserting them where the substitutes I’d replaced them with just weren’t as perfect? And if I do, am I risking a potential agent’s or editor’s derision for incorrectly using these words in the same way they’d deride me for, say, misusing “between” in place of “among”? Or worse, risk confusing a reader, who has a different understanding of their meanings than I do?

According to Garner’s, I should avoid such words altogether:

When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another — a phase that might take ten years or a hundred — it’s likely to be the subject of dispute. Some people (Group 1) insist on the traditional use; others (Group 2) embrace the new use. … A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. The new use seems illiterate to Group 1; the old use seems odd to Group 2. The word has become “skunked.”

So even though history and the inevitability of change are on my side, in order to avoid confusion, “bemused” and “nonplussed” must be purged from my vocabulary entirely. Boo hiss to that, I say.

This is the same problem that happens with the old rule about not ending sentences in prepositions: the rule isn’t so hard and fast as many people were taught, but if you buck tradition and end a sentence with “for”, you risk your grammar skills being called into question by readers who didn’t get the memo that the preposition rule is bunk.

Sigh. I am a lover of words at heart, but sometimes they test even my patience.


What a piece of work is man!

I can’t settle on a favorite — I love them all.

I started following the mystery of the paper sculptures created from books that started appearing in Edinburgh a few months ago, and they immediately sparked my creative fires, stoked to an extra brightness by curiosity. Who was leaving these hidden treasures? No one knew, no one saw them being carried in or put into place. How? How was this possible?

Aren’t they wonderful? I love this kind of guerilla creativity! Crafting something so amazing and delightful just for the sake of it is what the art of creation is all about, and it’s a desire I think we all have, to share something of ourselves with the world. Such important reminders that even though humanity can sometimes be a scourge, we may not be past redemption.

According to the update at the end of the post, the local paper claims to know the identity of the artist behind this whimsical mystery. But I’m with those who say they’d rather not know. That’s part of the charm, isn’t it? We need more mystery and delight in our daily lives.


Judging a book by its cover

The old adage about books and their covers is sage advice when it comes to people or houses or pretty much anything, even books. But wise or not, if we didn’t actually judge books by their covers, the book industry wouldn’t spend a signficant amount of time and treasure trying to concoct the perfect alchemy of design, subject, and layout that will get a potential buyer to actually pick that book off the shelf.

For all that time and treasure, you’d think there were extensive marketing studies to determine what sells and what doesn’t. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. Every book that makes it as far as a bookstore shelf already faces ridiculous odds actually being sold, so it’s truly mystifying that publishers don’t work harder to help themselves when it comes to the cover art. This recommendation is particularly brilliant, especially since it comes with the authority of someone who has that firsthand experience with book selling.

So here’s what I propose to help save yourselves money: create a group of power-indie handsellers, folks with years of experience who know their business cold and excel at recommending books to readers.

I mean, right? It seems so obvious, yet the idea of consulting the people who actually, you know, sell books is apparently a revolutionary thought in the publishing biz. Which means that for every cover that entices us to pick up a book, there are dozens more that are utterly forgettable in their sameness. Or worse, make us cringe. What gives, publishers? Sure, a good design takes some work, and the design that has that something special can be as elusive as a winning lottery ticket, but surely some missteps are avoidable?

Science fiction and fantasy are some of the worst culprits, by the way. I love sff almost as much as I love my cats, but the cover art for a fair majority of books in this genre seems to wallow in a special hell of awful. I’m not even talking about the pulpy-type of covers, which have a so-bad-it’s-good kind of appeal, but the kind of covers that scream, “I’m a socially-challenged teenage boy who spends way too much time playing WoW and making design schematics of ships on Star Trek.” (Or worse, the kind that scream, “CLEARLY I HAVE BEEN EXPERIMENTING WITH HALLUCINOGENICS SOMEONE TAKE AWAY MY AIR BRUSH.”)

There isn’t anything wrong with socially-challenged teenage boys, of course, nor playing WoW or being a huge Star Trek fan. But not everyone who reads sff falls in the center of that Venn diagram. For me personally, covers with ridiculously muscled men, scantily-clad women, and oddly stylized backgrounds of space ships, futuristic cities, mythological creatures, and alien landscapes, or any combination thereof, are more likely to induce a “DO NOT WANT” than an “Ooooh shiny!”. If a book cover makes a reader embarrassed to read it on a bus, then there’s something seriously broken in the art department.


A little pep talk before major surgery

surgical tool of the trade (image courtesy of BenFrantzDale, Przykuta [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)Dear Self:

No more procrastinating, Self. Today’s the day. I know you’re dreading pulling out that major plot thread in Book 1, but you know it has to be done. Yes, it’ll be a lot of work. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, you’re still not sure how you’re going to incorporate it in Book 2 and beyond. Yes, you still have to do it.

Focus on how much better you’ll feel when you’re finished. It’s going to put you closer to your word count goal! It solves the problem that’s had you stuck for a year, and prevented you from sending out your query letter. It may even lead to an exciting new brainstorm you can’t even imagine yet. You live for those exciting brainstorms, remember?

And as always: there’s chocolate in the cupboard if it gets painful.




This is how it starts

On my way to meet coworkers for lunch today, I drove past a wheelchair that appeared to be chained to a stop sign. I did a double-take: yep, definitely chained, to a stop sign, with a padlock and everything.

The wheelchair itself was empty, and there was no one else around, but there were well-used chair pads and stickers and bags hanging from the handle. Signs that it was someone’s primary location during the waking hours of the day.

The whole drive to the restaurant, I wondered about it. Where was the wheelchair’s occupant? Were they wheelchair-bound but not paralyzed? Had they gotten up out of the chair and walked away? And if they did, why? Why there, at that stop sign marking a low-traffic intersection, with the wheelchair parked on the edge of a high curb? If they didn’t, had someone carried them? Had they gone willingly? Had they been kidnapped? Carted off in an ambulance? And why the chain? Presumably so it wouldn’t be stolen, but why leave it there in the first place?

It occurred to me how someone who’s paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair truly is confined, without any need for walls or bars or anything. I mean, we spend millions and millions of dollars trying to keep people confined to a building with cement block walls and miles of razor wire-topped fences, but for someone whose only means of mobility is a wheelchair, it would take nothing more than a bike chain and padlock to doom them.

A snippet of a short story started to stir. A dark and gothic sort of story, one that would end with the main character, a man paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, chained to a post and left to die. He wouldn’t even have to be a criminal…. Perhaps he had crossed paths with a psychopath, one who didn’t go in for all that gruesome stabbing or strangling nonsense but still felt an urge to kill. Or he was a gambler who got in too deep, and since there was no point in kneecapping him, his bookie’s hired thugs got the easiest enforcement gig they’d ever been assigned. Maybe he was a mafia informant and someone ratted him out to the mob boss. Or maybe he was an eccentric millionaire in a big mansion with no relatives and a staff that he bullied relentlessly, and one day, his butler just had his fill of all the abuse.

Perhaps it wouldn’t have to be such a dark tale. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy, and had some family, but they were gold-digging layabouts and anxious to get their hands on his fortune. In that tale, maybe the story starts with him in his wheelchair, chained to a pole (or a tree? a fence? a broken down car, for a bit of ironic symbolism?), and it’s all about how he managed to save himself, and what he went through to survive.

Welcome to my brain. It’s scary in here.


Recognizing the difference between working and "working"

I’ve been stuck for some time on a particular plot point in Book 2. Normally when I’m stuck for too long, I step back and work on a different part of the story. Or tackle some research, or edit, or go through my notes for inspiration. Or I step away entirely for awhile, lest I make the block worse by forcing it.

All of these are part of the process of writing. When I say I spend at least two hours every day writing, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m actually putting words down on electronic paper for two hours. (Although I surely do love the days when that’s what i’m doing!) It may mean the business of writing, or even just spending some good quality time thinking about the story, dedicating some mental energy to this character or that story arc. Writing is work like any other, where you spend time doing things that aren’t actually the task itself, but are necessary to complete the task.

It can be a fine line between the business of writing and procrastination, however, and not easy to recognize when it’s happening. Getting sidetracked on the internet is an obvious clue, of course, but other things, like starting a story wiki (OMG MY NEW FAVORITE THING) or learning about ancient pole weapons for your new character (who you already decided an hour ago wields a naginata, but then got sidetracked by all the exciting varieties of deadly blades attached to long sticks) blur the line between “necessary to continuing work” and “avoidance”.

Still, I think I can safely say the 30 minutes I just spent building a series of flow charts in Excel for the aforementioned plot point that prompted this post falls in the “necessary to continuing work” category. As I struggled yet again with that damn chapter a little while ago, I realized I was just too fuzzy about how everything fit together and I needed to see it. A bunch of circles and arrows later, and I feel like I’ve finally got the thing sorted and am ready to tackle the chapter again.

Of course, the additional 10 minutes I spent prettying up the flow charts with 3-D shading effects and color-coordinated text probably wasn’t entirely necessary….


Don't quit your day job

Life intruded, and has meant a longer spell away from updates than intended. It’s meant a backlog of interesting articles I’ve wanted to link, and snippety writing sorts of things to post, and blogging on My Thoughts On Matters Of Writerly Import.

“Life”, in this case, being largely my day job. It’s a good job, but a demanding one, and leaves precious little time for everything else I might want or need to do. And writing, like other artistic careers, means it’s likely to be your second job*, which means it takes a backseat to the demands of your primary job. Hence the dearth of posting….

All writers struggle with that balance, of course. Encouragingly, even many of the greats still had day jobs that kept the power on and food on the table. From the aforementioned backlog:

Vonnegut Sold Saabs: 11 Author Day Jobs

(One thing about being a writer: even your day job can be rich fodder for a story, often in surprising ways. Even though I write epic fantasy, my own jobs have provided plenty. Frequently in the form of despicable characters that can be killed off in satisfyingly gruesome ways. Kidding! I kid. No, seriously.)


*Not just for financial reasons — many writers who earn enough to live off of keep their day jobs so they’ll have insurance, especially if they have children. But you know, universal health care = socialism ooga booga, and so we’ll continue with the worst-of-all-worlds system we currently have.

Never mind that we live in a society that prizes wealth and the making of it so highly that even those who are obscenely wealthy through no skill or talent of their own other than simply their accident of birth are lauded and emulated instead of derided as the shiftless layabouts they are. Meanwhile, teachers pay for school supplies with their own money while working in schools that are crumbling down around them, libraries are considered an unnecessary luxury, and the schmoes who actually do the vast majority of the work in society are asked to work ever harder lest they lose what little security they have.

So I guess it shouldn’t surprise me in the least that artistic expression — that spark of divinity, of immortality, of the potential to transcend into something far more than this mass of cells and fluids and atoms and electric impulses — is something we’re told should be a hobby, at best. It’s not practical, produces nothing of use, contributes nothing of real value.

In my imaginary world, schools are castles, teaching is one of the most prestigous careers you can aspire to, libraries are considered as fundamental to modern society as electricity, and artists don’t have to choose between their need to create and their need to eat.

Thus concludes my Unsolicited Rant For The Day.


Rules vs. Immutable Laws of the Universe

I’m coming around to the single space after periods and colons. I’ve been persuaded that ending a sentence in a preposition won’t immediately result in a hail of fire and brimstone. I split infinitives with abandon. I can hardly restrain myself from using an em dash for parenthetical asides in every sentence I write. No matter how many dictionaries correct me, I will always spell it “judgement”.

But they will pry the Oxford Comma out of my cold, dead hand.


Plot Device

You don’t have to be a writer to adore this. Be sure to watch all the way through the credits to the end.


Plot Device from Red Giant on Vimeo.