Adventures in writing

A while back, I polled some of my fellow writers about why they wrote. One of the things I (and I think they too) would admit to not love about writing is editing.

I’ve been getting a lot of up-close-and-personal experience with this less-than-joyful side of writing recently as I work my way through the final process of getting my novel, “A Dream Before Dying”, whipped into shape for submission to a real editor. Going through the pages, finding errors I should have seen while I was writing, fixing problems with dialogue or how characters interact (or even just getting the name of a character consistent!)…I seem to have seen it all in my travels back through my work.

One thing I had not done until recently was to assemble the individual chapters into a manuscript…and that was where the real fun began. I knew the book was going to be good sized, even large, but even with the two chapters I have yet to finish not included, I find myself with a behemoth that is nearly 700 pages long. That’s over 208,000 words (and counting).

So, I gotta lose some stuff….okay, a whole lotta stuff!

I again reached out to my fellow writers for advice, and they all concurred: I gotta cut a whole lotta stuff out of my manuscript!

They had many suggestions, some of them I am not sure I could follow if I tried (like outlining each chapter that I have already written), and some I know I can (like going through the material and finding ways to say the same thing while using fewer words). I tried a couple of other ideas, and the results were enlightening.

One suggestion was to read each chapter out loud while recording it so I could get an idea of how well the text flowed. I tried that suggestion with a short (not even four page) passage…and learned a new respect for actors. After all, they have to not only read a script, perfectly, they have to remember it that way too. I made several errors in my short reading, and while the resulting recording did not suffer significantly, it was enough to tell me there is no way I could do that for a whole chapter.

A related suggestion was to take the text and use a computer to read it so I could get the same effect without the potential of errors. I tried that too, but as a Linux user, I don’t have access to some of the software that runs on Windows or the OS-X platforms. That I probably could not afford any of that software is a completely separate matter. In any event, I am not sure that the results would have been markedly better than my experiment. Using GeSpeak, an open-source package that takes text file and reads them in either a ‘male’ or ‘female’ voice, I tried the first chapter. This was mainly because it is one of the shortest, but even in that short time frame, I quickly became annoyed with the quality of the voice. If you ever saw the original “Battlestar Galactica” from back in the 1980’s, you might remember the voice of the android Cylon soldiers. If you do, well, you have a good idea what the voice I was listening to sounded like. Not wanting to be tempted to destroy my computer, I decided that this was not going to be an option either.

Several of my fellow writers suggested I consider ‘breaking’ the manuscript into smaller sections and turning one book into two or more. How I can manage that….I can not even begin to imagine.

So here I am, stuck with the need to make a huge project small(er).

And you thought writing was easy? Dream on!

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Trips through the countryside

Today, my paying gig (yes, I know it will shock my fellow writers that I have a job to pay the bills) took me to Peoria. Because of where I had to go, the best way to get there was not down Interstate 74, but to take Interstate 39 down and drive cross-country on mostly two-lane roads.

I had not been into that part of Illinois before, at least not on the ‘back roads’ like I was using today, and outside of getting lost a couple of times, it was quite an enjoyable drive. I drove for miles with the Illinois River within view, dove through a lot of attractive ‘hill-and-dale’ ad saw some quite nice places. I drove past “Hardscrabble Road” between Chillicothe and the ‘hopefully’ named Hopewell. I cross Brown Run Creek which looked quite like any other small creek, and cross the aptly-named Sandy Creek that seemed to be filled with sandbars. I drove past the wistfully named Magnolia, and got lost at the tiny town of Sparland. And because of the roads I was using, I crossed the Illinois several times.

I visited the town of Henry in search of a bathroom, not knowing that several could be found just a few miles away in the larger town of Lacon. Henry was something of an eye-opener.

You approach it over a multi-arch steel bridge that soars over the Illinois, it being a major artery of commercial shipping. Even today, the river sees huge strings of barges carrying bulk cargoes of pretty much anything that can be loaded into said barges, so keeping the river available for traffic is not a small consideration. Henry fronts on the Illinois, and sports a small marina and boat ramp for people who want to take advantage of the broad waters of our state’s namesake river. It has a waterfront grain facility that, today, had a barge tied up for loading. Beyond that, the down town of Henry stands, lined with substantial brick buildings that look to date from early part of the 20th Century.

Sadly, many of those buildings are vacant, and the ‘main drag’ has a distinctly ‘down-at-the-heels’ feel to it. Perhaps it no surprise that the bridge you cross to get to it is covered in flaking paint with large and well-rusted bare spots showing everywhere. The deck, as you drive across it, has a crumbling appearance, like it hadn’t been repaved for a few decades. Henry doesn’t have a grocery story, or a convenience store, not even an old-fashioned gas station. It does have a friendly, if mostly empty, coffee shop who’s proprietor took pity on a desperate traveler in need of the use of his ‘facilities’.

Back on the road, headed towards my destination, I passed through Lacon, and the contrast was stark. Here I approached from the land side, and though the sign lists Lacon’s population as only about twice that of Henry, the town itself was bustling, even though it was not yet nine in the morning. Most of the buildings in downtown are occupied, people were out doing their business, and the feeling was of a small town that was busy with getting on with life. Leading out of town, at least in the direction I needed to go, the road again crosses the Illinois. The bridge itself is not markedly different from the one at Henry, another multi-arch steel thing that looked as though it had been run up out of a catalog. Here, however, the bridge was freshly painted and the deck pavement was as smooth as if it had been laid only a few months ago.

Do the things around a town reflect the attitude of the people living in it…or do things like old bridges and worn-down buildings make people doubt the worth of a place? I don’t know, but I can’t help but wonder if the folks of Henry were to put pressure their local state representatives for a much-needed face-lift to the bridge that is the gateway to their town, it might not get more people interested in visiting. Who knows, maybe more visitors would bring businesses back to those empty store fronts, and maybe a sense of life back to their town.

Who knows what might happen next.

I do know that I hope all those fine folks find a way to bring some good fortune their way, to them and all the other small town struggling across Illinois and America at large.

Of outliers and honesty.

There is a television program that asks what people would do in a particular situation. It’s one of several that have asked the same question over the past few decades (a tendency television has to return to the same theme over and over and over and….you get the picture). People will be put in a situation where their honesty, or their compassion to some other aspect of their character must come forward to show what type of person they really are. I recently ran into a situation like that in real life, and while I think my response was a good one, the response of some others was not so good. Let me explain….

I am an ‘old school’ sort of person, especially when it comes to reading my news. I love having access to sites like the BBC and NPR through my smart phone and online, but when I really want to read some local news, I will always gravitate towards an actual printed newspaper. Yesterday, I walked uptown to buy my Saturday copy of the local ‘big city’ newspaper (the Rockford Register-Star). As I was leaving the business, I saw some paper money lying on the sidewalk. I bent down to pick it up, opened it, and counted $11, a five and the rest on ones. There was nothing to identify who’d lost the money. No one had walked past recently, but there were a couple of young women next to the business I’d exited, so I asked them if they’d lost any money. This is where things got interesting.

One of them said she had, so I asked them where she thought he’d dropped it at. She gave a location that was about a block-and-a-half away, so I told her no, I’d found the money right where I was standing. Then she told me she could have lost it there, so I asked her how much money she’d lost. She gave me a figure that was nowhere close, and I informed her as such. She asked me how much money I’d found, and I gave her the figure, whereupon she told me that was how much she’d lost. So I asked what form the sum was in, in other words, was it in the form of all ones, a mix, and if a mix, what mix. She made another guess, again completely wrong. So I told her she’d obviously not lost the money and turned to walk away. As I did, her friend spoke up, telling me to give them the money or she’d call the police on me for ‘stealing’ the money from her friend. I told her to go ahead and walked away.

I think I did the right thing. I tried to find the owner of the money, and gave the only responder more than one chance to identify it. What bothered me was the willingness of a couple of people to not only lie to try to get the money, but their attempt to threaten someone else to get such a small sum. Neither of the young women was dressed poorly, they did not look like ‘street people’ or homeless folk, they were just ordinary people.

Have we come to the point where our people feel it’s okay to do anything to get a little extra money?

I hope not, and I hope their actions were an anomaly…but I look around me, and I wonder if that hope is not misplaced. We seem, as a society, to be moving towards an attitude that allows some of to think it’s okay to do anything as long as it gets us ‘ahead’.

That’s a dark place for a person to go to, but it’s an even darker place for a society to go. Societies have gone there in the past, usually on their path towards destruction. So I will hope, foolishly perhaps, that these two young women were outliers, exceptions to the general rule, and not the first of a wave that will bury the society I grew up in.

Grace

I know people who live in places like Phoenix or similar cities in the Southwest who will calmly speak of Summer temperatures of over 100F as if they were nothing. They may not agree, but I do not think any of them would do well on a 90F hot and humid northern Illinois Summer day.

If you’ve lived here for any length of time, you’ve experienced those days, the ones where even cooled, the aim feels so thick you seem to struggle just to breath. By mid-day, being outside for any length of time, especially doing hard, physical labor, is an invitation for heat stroke. Sane people stay in air conditioned spaces, and those who have to be out in the heat use every trick they know to survive.

But for all it’s uncomfortable and even dangerous weather, Summer also brings gifts. Not the harvest of an early tomato, or the joy of a fresh, crisp pepper, but the actual day itself. Early in the morning, from just before sunrise until an hour or two past the time when the Sun climbs above the horizon, is a magical time, what I like to think of as the hours of grace.

Watching the Sun rise on a humid morning is something that has to be witnessed. Seeing the sky lighten, then the blazing rim of the Sun drag itself into view, is a joy in and of itself. Some days, especially in the middle of a long spell of humid days, the ground will hide under a layer of fog. This will tend to gather in low spots, but if conditions are right, the entire visible surface of the Earth is blanketed in a roiling white cloak. On those days, the Sun will appear to rise from a sea of white, staining it in oranges and reds of every description.

The sky itself will become a part of the show, going from a deep purple to a blue that defies words before assuming it’s more day-to-day aspect.

One of the gifts of living in a small town is the way the sound changes. Before sunrise, when most folks are still in bed or struggling to get around and get off to work, the world has a special quiet to it. The pre-dawn hour brings a chorus of bird song, as if all of the different species were trying to outdo each other in celebrating the start of a new day. The still, quiet air carries the sound so well that a bird can sound like it was next to the listener when in fact it was hundreds of feet away. The chorus dims as humans add their noise to the morning, but in a moment of silence, you can still hear the call of the jay, or the song of the cardinal.

Other animals bring their own input to the morning. Rabbits can be seen foraging in any grassy open space, and if there is dew, their passage can be traced as a black line through the shimmering carpet of wet grass. Dogs will come out and inspect a neighbor as they walk past, eager for attention in the relative coolness when later in the day they will be inside or too busy seeking a shady spot to escape the heat to bother.

But like every other form of grace, the hours of grace fade away. The heat drives away any lingering thought of marvel, humans and their noise drown out the birds, and sensible animals keep under cover and out of the punishing sunlight. So another day passes, filled with all the things our days bring to us…but tomorrow, ah, tomorrow may bring another morning of grace and wonder if we can just see it.