Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The nature of creativity

What is creativity?

A couple of nights ago I got a wild urge to cook dinner.  Years ago I wouldn't have been able to do that without flipping through recipes to find ones that I liked and then preparing the food as the recipes I'd found demanded.  That was really all I could do; my knowledge of spices consisted of being able to read the names off of the sides of the shakers.  I could tell you for certain that pepper was black when it came out of its container while most of the other spices were green.  As I gradually became more familiar, I could even point out that rosemary looked like broken up sticks as it came out while most of the rest looked like broken up leaves.  But I learned to follow those recipes closely.  Once I recall preparing a dish whose recipe called for 1/4 teaspoon of cooking sherry, and I misread it and added 1/4 cup of cooking sherry.  I don't remember what we ate that night, but it sure wasn't my inedible creation.

Over the years, though, I've become much more familiar with cooking ingredients and techniques, and with that familiarity has come experimentation.  Last week when I cooked dinner, for example, there weren't any recipes.  I decided to try twice-baking red potatoes as well as combining fresh chives, thyme, and lime on the tilapia.  Both worked pretty well, though the red potatoes are a little dense inside and are thus harder to prepare that way.  Bottom line is that I enjoyed eating it, and my family did too. 

Was that an example of creativity?  I doubt anyone would say no.  Was my following a recipe years ago an example of creativity?  That one is a little greyer.  My good friends at Google define "creativity" thus: "The use of the imagination or original ideas, esp. in the production of an artistic work."  Original ideas...imagination...nope, not present in cooking by recipe.  Certainly, whoever wrote the recipe was engaging in creativity, but in mimicking that I don't think I was.

That said, it's interesting to look at where that word came from...specifically, its root, create.  To create, according to Merriam-Webster, is "to bring into existence."  Simple and direct, that.  No mention of originality or imagination.  When I take a loaf of bread and I cut it, I'm creating slices of bread.  When I follow a recipe, I'm creating.  "Creative" is defined by Merriam-Webster as "marked by the ability or power to create: given to creating" which certainly fits me in the throes of my bread slicing and my recipe following.  Thus, according to my expert linguistic sources, I'm creating, and I'm being creative, I'm just not using creativity.  Got it?

Nah, I don't either.  It's a funny language we speak.  Regardless, I'm perfectly happy going back into my bubble where creativity refers to original and imagination stuff and where I don't worry about why.  I am, however, left with another fine thread of grey area: my accidental experiment with cooking sherry.  Was that creativity?  It was certainly original, in that I created something that I'm hoping the author of the recipe never, ever intended.  It was also, though, accidental, and lacked the imagination piece.  It's similar in nature to a photo I once took while driving on Alaska's north slope in the winter (no, it's not always winter up there, but that's a fun myth).  I passed by a herd of musk oxen and snapped a photo out of the window.  Keeping, um, both hands firmly on the wheel, of course...my story, and I'm stickin' to it.  In any event, when I got the picture developed (back in the days when we got pictures developed) I was amazed that I'd also caught orange-painted construction equipment in the side view mirror, thus creating an interesting and visually poetic juxtaposition of old and modern.  Created, yes.  Creative, yes.  But accidental...so...creativity?  I don't know. 

All this, then, leads me back to the topic of the blog.  Certainly I've gotten a few of my ideas from other sources including Greek and Roman mythology, but the story line, the plot, the characters are all original and imaginative.  Thus, I doubt anyone would argue with my effort's characterization as an exercise of creativity.  The first author I ever met, though, was a boss I had a long time ago.  She was beautiful and witty and powerful, and...a published author.  I was smitten.  I asked her one day, probably in an awed voice, how she'd managed to (gasp) get published, and she explained that it was easy.  She'd written to Harlequin and inquired about writing a romance novel, and they'd returned...a recipe.  She didn't get too much into the details of the recipe, but she implied that to do so would've been boring anyway.  She followed the recipe, mixing together a hero and a heroine and a dark stormy night, baked it for 300 pages, and sent it in.

Creativity?  The process wasn't, but the characters and whatever dark and stormy stuff was in the book probably were from her imagination.  So...once again, I must close out a blog post with my most common saying:  I don't know.

Enjoy the day!

Monday, June 27, 2011

To edit or not to edit?

I've reached a crucial point in the efforts of Book 1...or Part 1, whichever ends up happening.  It's the point where I have to decide whether or not to shell out hundreds or even thousands of bucks for professional editing services, and if I do, to whom.  And...I don't know what I'm going to do. 

The first, and probably roughest, hurdle to cross over is the fact that the words "editing" and "editor" mean very different things to different people.  By and large, the terms "line editing" and "proofreading" seem to have pretty well standardized in meaning throughout the industry.  Line editing is the process of going through line by line (hence the name) and identifying all the spelling errors and (my personal bane) comma errors.  Frankly, I don't know how they can do that one...I can look at a comma for dozens of minutes, taking it out and reading the sentence, then putting it back in and reading the sentence.  Often the two readings have somewhat different results, but I have a hard time going from that to any judgment of "right" or "wrong."  Ah, well...an editor I ain't. 

Proofreading, meanwhile, is...um, well, it's also going through the manuscript line by line.  The difference between this and line editing was explained on one editor's page as a matter of sequence.  Specifically, line editing happens before submission to a publisher, and proofreading happens after a publisher typesets the work.  That said, an editor I spoke with last night said very clearly that she had a two-step process in which she line edits the work and then has a proofreader look it over, so...well, I don't really get it.  But then again, I'm not sure I need to in this case.  Proofreading, line editing, both mechanical in nature, gotcha.

Over and above all that mechanical stuff, though, there's another level of editing.  This one gets really muddled really quickly, because different editors a) call it different things, b) differentiate levels of service differently, c) maintain different scopes of service, and d) bring different intrinsic levels of value to the table on the service.  I'm talking about what some call manuscript analysis, some call structural editing, and some call market evaluation.  At its core, it's that "Oh, this book will do well," or, "Hey, this book is crap," assessment that everybody needs to hear.  The differentiation in scope and levels of service happen mostly in the editors' answers to the inevitable next question: "What do I do about it?"

Looked at from a different perspective, I like some books and don't like others.  That much is pretty clear from my previous somewhat-opinionated blog posts, right?  Never once, though, have I counted misspellings or comma errors, despite my surety that they existed, in my analysis.  Yes, I know agents and publishers count those things, if for no other reason than to identify the level of professionalism in the author.  But I don't, and I'm the one who bought the book.  Instead, I consider the flow of the story, the characterization, and the dialog...all the stuff that a manuscript analysis by whatever name the editor of choice uses should highlight.

Sounds great, doesn't it?  All I have to do is send the manuscript in to an editor, who will send it back in X weeks with Y red marks (or, better, Word's Tracked Changes), and once I fix those I'll be publishable.  Right?

Hold on there.  Keep in mind what I've pointed out before that much of what makes a book great, or a character likeable or readable, is intrinsic to the reader.  While the perfect editor will give me the opinion of the "audience of choice," which in my case is the massive public out there, pobody's nerfect.  Just a couple of months ago a friend and fellow author had to fire her editor.  It wasn't the mechanical stuff, but rather issues with voice, that got between them.  My friend, by the way, is a bit more advanced of an author than I am.  If you will look back through my earlier blog posts you'll realize that just a few months ago I didn't really know what an author's voice was, and I'm still not sure I can define mine.  How, then, do I protect something from the editor's red pen when I can't really grasp on to it in the first place?

There's one other itsy bitsy concern that I almost hate to trouble anyone with, by the way: money.  Editing is f'in' expensive, to put it plainly.  I'm not saying they don't earn their money, now.  I know, from my document editing efforts at work, how taxing it can be to bend yourself over a manuscript and really examine not just every word for spelling and spacing but also every phrase and every sentence for proper, use, of a. comma, or whatever! punctuation is used.  No, I think they're earning every penny they make.  Which is part of the reason I'm approaching the matter cautiously...they are all priced different.  There's one friend I've made on Facebook who does freelance editing, and was advertised as "really cheap."  Cool, I like really cheap...so long as I'm getting something good.  The other friend who was talking about her was saying somewhere around $300 to $400 for my manuscript, which is about 1/10 what a more seasoned editor would charge for 74K words.  That's really cheap.  But when I got the actual quote, I found out that the other friend was working with her on a short story, while mine's a novel...apples and, well, IBMs.  My quote came in at nearly $600.  Now I know that's not a whole lot more than, say, $300, when compared to, say, $3000, but it was bigger enough to make me say "Yeow."  My second book is longer, and if it's a proportional thing, that's over $600 for it...total of $1200.  Cheaper, indeed, than $5K or $6K for other editors for both parts, but expensive enough now that it's no longer in my mental "cheap" range.  Do you know what I mean?  "Cheap" is relative not just to other pricing of similar products, but also the size of my checking account.  If I were examining a Bentley that sold for $500,000, for example, and you showed me a Mercedes that only cost $50,000, I wouldn't say, "Oh, wow, that's cheap.  I'll take two!"

In any event, editing services are expensive enough that I invariably come circling back to the question of whether I really need them in the first place.  I really am a pretty solid writer, mechanically speaking.  I'm not perfect, certainly, but I think I'm good enough after a revision or two that a prospective agent or publisher isn't going to be turned off by errors.  What I need help on, really, is the manuscript analysis, a task that some of my friends have already indicated a willingness to do for free (or, at least, for the cost of a mention in the Acknowledgements and a free copy of the book).  But then you get back to the question of what they bring to the table...my friends are really dang smart, but have any of them ever actually published a book?  Have any of them participated in the publication of a best seller?  No, and no.  But is that experience worth one to a few thousand dollars to me?  Eeeee, I dunno.  I'm gonna have to think on that one a little more.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Bars and their settings

I really haven't been a good blogger this week.  I mean, there are excuses galore, including a very significant event at work Friday evening that I spent most of the week preparing for.  I even had stress dreams, in fact, which are quite rare for me.  One of them was really entertaining to the friends at work whom I chose to tell about it...I actually woke up from a dream in which the graduation speaker was break-dancing down the aisle.  Sheesh.  But I've been working and working and then working more, and on my really minimal non-work time I've been trying to keep revising Part I of the story.  *sigh*  'K, 'nuff excuses. 

I'm done.  Done with graduation for this year, and done with the revision.  Both give me a significant feeling of accomplishment.  The book...Part I of The Ascent of the Goddess...is now ready for professional editing prior to being used as a query for agents.  That's a huge sigh of completion from me.  Graduation is the same. Back when I just showed up for graduation, I really had no idea what went into planning and putting on the event.  Now I do, though, and I keep questioning why I agree to do this every year.  It's tough...very detail oriented.  It, like my book, would be much easier to do if it were all I had to do. 

The funny thing about this graduation--and trust me, it wasn't really unusual--was the different feelings people walked away from it with.  I had a great many people telling me what a wonderful job we had done.  It was the best graduation they had ever attended, some said.  Yay!  From my standpoint, it stank.  The people I'd counted on to take tickets and hand out programs decided they'd rather be at the front table.  The first speaker missed his cue to have everybody sit down.  The commencement speaker went far longer and far less secular in his comments than we'd discussed.  The folks reading the names, with one exception, forgot everything I'd said about intentionally slowing it down; it became a race to get the grads across the stage.  *sigh*  Production-wise, it was a disaster. 

Nobody really cared but me.

It's funny how that works.  The performer always knows what he or she misses in the performance; the audience rarely does.  When I sang on stage in front of lots of people, they'd always tell me what a wonderful thing it had been while I'd heard every missed note.  I thought they were just making me feel better till I realized that no, they really had no idea.  It's not that they were stupid or didn't understand music...they came for entertainment, and entertainment they received.  Their bar was set different from mine.  Same with graduation on Friday, really...everybody else's bar was set different from mine. 

What will be interesting is how everyone else reacts to the book.  Will the audience's bar be set different in this case?  Only time will tell. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Voices in my head

Sorry for my extended silence, folks...I took a nice three-day weekend out of town.  I'm still, in fact, trying to figure out how to claim a trip to New York City as "research" for my novel.  It must be possible....  In any event, they made me an offer I couldn't refuse: triple points at the new hotel in Brooklyn. 

For anyone who didn't know: it's a LONG drive from Richmond, VA, to Brooklyn, NY.  It's a long road, mileage-wise, but then you also have to pass through traffic-ensnared behemoths such as Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, MD.  And then there was the bumper-to-bumper crawl on the Interstate as soon as it entered Maryland on the way back.  We stopped at the rest stop and asked the friendly(ish) cashier if she knew what the slowdown was.  "Toll booth."  Oh, I see.  Apparently it's a normal everyday thing to crawl down the Interstate at ten miles per hour or less in order to be able to pay the Great God of Tolls for the privilege to drive on the Interstate at ten miles per hour or less. 

Strange way of life, that.

The long trip did, however, give us the opportunity to get nearly 1/4 of the way through Jean Auel's new book on audio disks.  My wife has been a big fan of the series and can quote nearly everything that's happened.  I read the first one and enjoyed it but...well, meh.  It's not really my cup of tea, since there's no dragons or space ships to be found anywhere in the prose.  If only she'd put a hobbit or two and/or a zombie wandering around in the Cro Magnon camps...now that would be cool.  But she didn't.  It's still a good story, really; I'm just a picky bastard. Clearly others like it, as she's sold over thirty gazillion copies of her books, and that's quite a lot. 

Listening to the work did bring to light a couple of things, though.  The first lesson a new writer like me can glean is that it's perfectly possible to sell a boatload of books (and, like I said, that's a lot!) that have no plot to speak of.  After a few disks, while Heide was changing one for the next (conveniently prompted by the Voice saying "You've reached the end of Disk 3.  Please put in Disk 4," answered by my typical "Well, duh"), I asked her, "So, Love, what's the plot of the book?"  She looked at me quizzically, and then said, "Well, there isn't one.  The story is about how she learns and adapts."  Or something like that, anyway; I don't listen so well when I'm trying not to rear-end the car ahead of me on the Interstate.  "Why do people listen to the story, then?" I asked.  By her answer, apparently, people are fascinated by the details in how Ayla, and by extension the stone age cultures, learn and develop.  Hmm...OK.  So since I'm showing how Crystal learns and develops, I don't really need the plot I created?  My guess is it probably doesn't apply to me, as I haven't already sold thirty bazillion books.  That said, I'm enough of a curmudgeon to complain about it when I see it. 

Apparently others are, um, curmudgeonly (is that a word?) enough to do the same.  On one review forum a writer points out the lack of a plot in the sixth book, and a fairly limited plot development in the others.  He's met on the topic by an apologist saying, "There was more to that story than just the plot itself."  Well, OK.  In truth, it is a decent tale that draws us in to liking the characters quite a lot, so I'll let the plotlessness go for now.

The other thing that I caught while listening is how jarring the third person omniscient voice can be when used incautiously.  Some literary experts explain that the third person omniscient voice is the most commonly used, and is the best choice for "epic stories" involving many characters, sometimes separated by a geographical distance.  It's the voice in which the narrator...me, in my book, and Auel, in hers...knows everything and tells the reader everything that the narrator wants the reader to know.  It's what I've been trying to avoid in the Ascent of the Goddess, for the same reason why I don't like it so much when Auel uses it: it's jarring.  We're going along in the story learning all about what Ayla is thinking and doing, and all of a sudden we're inside somebody else's head learning what he's thinking.  A commenter on a blog about voices said it like this: "The biggest drawback of third person omniscient is that readers can get confused if the author can’t smoothly move the reader from one point of view to another. It is possible to get mental whiplash when the author is head-hopping." (http://ingridsnotes.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/five-advantages-of-third-person-omniscient-pov/). 

Granted, third person omniscient has been used very effectively in many works.  Tolkien, for example, used that voice, as did Douglas Adams, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, and Dickens.  I'm certainly not going to take a stance against it.  I will, however, caution against its injudicious use.  It's a natural choice that frees the author from the confines of "what would the main character actually know?" which is actually more of a restriction than it seems, as I've been finding in my own revision process.  By using it, then, you're free to take the readers head-hopping all you want.  Be advised, though, that some readers don't enjoy that. 

And now...time to get dressed for work.  Have a great day! 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Road signs

I was driving to work this morning and saw a disturbing sign.  It was bright construction orange, and about the same size as one of those "make sure you read the entire text of this sign because you'll need it to survive the next three detours" warnings.  But it only contained an arrow, pointed to the left.  Yep, that's it...one big black arrow, and very definitely pointed left. 

What's that mean?  After *mumbledy*-five years of driving, I've come to the point where I easily grasp the meaning of most signs.  I mean, there's the easy ones they teach us in those books that we all actually study before the driving test.  Funny, isn't it, that millions of American kids have made it through entire literature courses without ever really getting in to the text of those books they ask us to read.  Math books, meanwhile, are considered vital to read, at least insofar as the problems at the end of the chapter are concerned...but those squiggles on the pages in between are, at best, just a nuisance.  Science texts get some reading, as long as by "reading" you mean "scanning for the formulas in the boxes while looking in the margins for information to be used in the inevitable book report."  But the driving booklet?  Hell, yeah...we spent hours glued over it, memorizing details about the number of points required to lose the license we didn't even have yet, the percentage of alcohol allowed in our bloodstream once we got to drinking age, etc.  And then there were the inevitable two or three pages of pictures of signs that you had to memorize...yellow means caution, red means stop, white with a number is a speed limit sign, and so on.  And orange?  Orange is construction, and these days that gets you double fines.  Ugh.

So I crept up on the left-pointing arrow warily.  Was it a warning for a required left turn?  Or did it mean that at that spot I needed to look left?  There weren't any jumping deer or men with shovels on the sign, so I didn't need to worry about animals or workers to the left.  What, then, did it mean???

This relates heavily, of course (yes, you knew I was going there, didn't you?) to the art and science of grammatical construction.  That topic is pretty much where I started this blog, and it's where I'll probably end, and it's got several mileposts set out in the journey it describes.  I mean, writing is all about the storytelling, right?  All that matters is that you can follow the story from beginning to end, right?  But how do you do it without knowing what the signs mean?  

I saw a post on Facebook recently that claimed to describe why reviewers tend to not review self-published works in a very positive manner.  I dove right in, because good reviews will be important to me.  To sum up the article while paraphrasing Bill Clinton: "It's the grammar, stupid."  The article did a great job of explaining why it's important to those of us who read a lot that the author follows the rules of grammar.  For me, it boils down to that signage lesson.  I know when to slow down because I recognize a speed limit sign.  By the same token, I know when to stop one thought and continue with another when I recognize an end-of-sentence period.  The grammar, which includes punctuation, word usage, and other rules, means something.  Frankly, if you didn't pay attention to that part of the manual before, you really should go check out the manual again before you take off on a trip. 

So...enough about signs and grammar for the night.  Time to get back to revising.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Coffee and writing...need more of both

There are days when I feel like writing, and days when I don't.  Today is definitely one of those days.

One of which days, you ask?  Hell, I'm not sure I know yet, myself.  As the politicians of the world are fond of saying, "I'm not prepared to take a stand on that yet," or maybe just "No comment."  Two cups of coffee oughtta be enough to help give me an inkling in the matter, but it's not. 

I did manage to get my muse on last night.  After making reservations for this weekend's getaway to Brooklyn, I sat down, quieted down, and revised twenty pages worth of text.  At some point in the revising, I actually switched into creative mode and tackled one of the manuscript's thornier problems.  Some of my readers have told me, see, that at the beginning it's difficult to believe the action, and I agree with them.  I had the first scene of the book all planned out in my head when I wrote it...lights go dark, world goes cold, people are terrified, Matt shepherds them to safety after calling his future mages in through his special doorways through space.  But when I wrote it, I forgot the part about the people being terrified.  I saw it, of course.  In my own head, I knew that the crowd was following him warily, asking questions, nearly running off.  That was the whole point of some of them trying to start their cars, in fact.  I just failed to actually write it, so instead you have a scene where the lights go out, a guy stands up and makes light globes out of nothing and crafts doorways to faraway places, and the people watching it just shrug and follow.  Like zombies...hmmmm...I like zombie stories.

No.  No zombies in this book...sorry.  And no more "oooh, shiny" moments in this blog, at least not today.

Ah, well.  The passage is sort of fixed now, though I want to let it settle for a few days and then go back and re-revise.  Inserting new text is dangerous.  Not only does it need to make sense from a technical "this happened first, and the characters didn't know about that till later" kind of thing, but it also has to match the voice of the surrounding text.  In short, I don't want it to be obvious to the reader where I went in and smushed prose in to fill a gap.

Speaking of gaps...there's a big one now between the "full" line and the "filled to" line on my coffee cup right now.  Off I go, then, to correct the deficiency, and hopefully along the way to determine whether or not I feel like writing today. 

Sunday, June 12, 2011


I know I posted yesterday that revising the novel can be drudgery work, but today I really ought to point out that sometimes it's not.  To be honest, yesterday I was working my way through a scene that required significant rewriting, and while writing a scene is a joyful experience, rewriting the scene can be a little tedious.  This scene, in particular, I'm tempted to just take out of the book.  What's needed is either that, or the addition of a second scene later on to tie it into the story.  For those who have pre-read the story, I'm talking about the Atlantis scene, and it was admittedly skitchy in the first place.  I'd intended to get deeper into the scene, but midway through realized that the story needed to jump elsewhere, and so it just got left hanging, the reader asking "what the heck was that all about?"

I did finish re-writing the scene, anyway, and I'm still planning to write in the second trip to Atlantis to finish the issue off...at least for this book...later.  It's not a huge issue, though it's an interesting part of the story to me (the guy who, admittedly, already knows the story), but it's an important hook for a writing exercise I'm planning for the future.  I'll just write it and see if it deserves to stick around, I suppose.

In the meanwhile, I've gotten back to really enjoying the revising.  It's been a few weeks since I finished writing it, and if you add a few weeks to get to the time when I wrote the part I'm revising now, you've got enough space that my poor old addled brain has already forgotten some of it.  That makes it a joy to read, as I rediscovered a scene tonight that I'd entirely forgotten I wrote.  It's a nice one, I think, that shows both Matt and Crystal doing what they do best...smart-alecking away at each other. The one following is another cool one I hadn't thought about in a while, where two main characters finally come to terms with each other.  I like that scene a lot, which makes it even more fun to revise. 

I can't help but wonder if Stephen King, in his book On Writing, didn't have this little incentive in his mind when he said a new author should wait a few months before going back and revising it.  Yes, as he explained, the time between does provide for some forgetting of the text which in turn makes me more sensitive to problems while I'm re-reading the story, but it also brings a fair amount of joy once again as I rediscover the story. 

And so...back to the revising/rediscoveries. 

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A long week and a good book

I hate to have another three-day gap in my blogging, but in times like this I can kind of forgive myself.  It's been a long week, with an accreditation visit on Thursday in conjunction with 8 hours of substitute teaching for an injured instructor, followed by an accreditation report due on Friday that, in the end, only filled up 147 pages (I say "only" because by this point I'm kind of numb to it...the shipment yesterday brings the total pages for just this one agency in the past year to nearly 2600 pages of reporting).  I didn't even get to the end of month reports that were technically due on Friday; luckily on those I can sneak in and do them tomorrow when nobody is around, and most likely won't get yelled at. 

*sigh* the life of a Dean....

Anyway...the writing life of The Other Stephen King hasn't been all that exciting either.  Revising a story is entirely different from writing one, and so I've been slogging through seemingly endless pages of prose tightening up the language, cutting down on my use of synonyms for "said," finding adjective phrases to do the job better than jarring adverbs, etc.  It's productive as heck, and I think I'm pretty good at it, but the title of "editor" certainly isn't one I want anytime soon.  Those of you who do editing professionally, my hat's off to you.

At least my reading has been interesting.  I finally picked Water for Elephants back up from where I put it down several weeks ago. Part of the reason I put it down was that I had a lot of interesting books in the same stack to read, but the other part of the reason, the one I'm not sure I should admit, is really just jealousy.  I keep thinking of it as "the five million dollar book."  That's not precisely true, of course.  Sara Gruen did receive a five million dollar advance, but not for WfE...it was for the next two books after that.  And she received it in part because WfE did very, very, very, very well.  And that was because, as I'm learning now, it's a very, very, very, very good book.  Damn good, in fact. 

I'd read the prologue before I put it away in favor of the Darkover novel and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.  I have to say that the beginning scene didn't do an awful lot for me, mostly because I'm not much of a circus guy.  But I went to the next part a couple of days ago...and almost put it down again.  I'm not much of an old man scene guy either.  Yes, I know that some day I, too, will be forced to eat tasteless mush...if I'm lucky, that is.  But Gruen's description of the decision between eating corn on the cob and having sex was delightful, and she really does seem to have a good sense for what drives both old and young men. 

All that said, she knows how to characterize.  I think that's probably the biggest, most important thing I can say about the book.  After a little while--a very little while, in fact--I find myself laughing along with the main character, and feeling his pain in the appropriate places.  This experience, if nothing else, shows me how crucial it is to get the readers to know the characters in the book...unless, that is, it's a book about a pretty vampire and a well-built werewolf, but that's a subject for a different blog.  In any event, I look forward to continuing to see how the writing develops the character, and once I'm done, it'll be interesting to consider how the characterization process is different in first person versus third person writing. 

All that said...I know, I said that twice, but it makes sense here...it's time to get back to slogging through the editing job.  I think I'm going to skip around a little to make the job seem a little less tedious. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Changes in tastes

I smooshed my car last week.  No, really...fact, not fiction.  It nearly made me cry.  My Hyundai Sonata that I purchased a mere seven months ago, and that was in beautiful condition, got the front all messed up.  Some lady was driving in front of me and had the audacity to stop in order to yield to the flow of traffic, and her car turned invisible and yanked out its tractor beam and MADE ME hit it from behind.

OK, that last bit might have a skosh of fiction in it.  So sue me; I'm an aspiring fantasy author.  It's what I do.

Luckily I'm old and crotchety enough that I carry good insurance.  I've been dealing with the same company, in fact, for longer than our kids have been on the planet, in part due to their amazing customer service.  The insurance company's amazing customer service, that is...not the children's.  Anyway, I got started with them back when they only served military officers and senior non-comm's, and they've always had the same strong service philosophy.  So...All gushing aside, anyway, they made it easy yesterday; I drove my car over to the body shop, they looked at it and said, "Nope, it's not safe to drive," and the good folks from the car rental company sent a driver to rescue me.  I'm now driving a rented Toyota Camry that's mine to use until my Sonata is all recuperated and healthy again. Which will hopefully be very, very soon.

From the outside, the Camry is virtually identical to my Sonata, except that it's gold instead of silver and there's no cool shark fin for satellite radio on the top.  According to the manufacturers' specs, the similarities run through nearly every dimension.  The two cars are less than an inch difference in wheelbase, overall length, and width, and they're identical in height.  Head room is close, leg room is within a few inches.  The engine is a little different, and boy, can I feel it.  Have you seen the commercial where a guy, who actually looks quite a bit like me, is driving a Sonata making all sorts of happyfaces?  Yeah, that's me when I drive my car.

I love my car.  The Camry, despite its similarities, doesn't feel right. I mean, they do the same thing, serve the same purpose, have the same parts even, but they're not the same. 

Wasn't always that way.  I once owned a truck.  In fact, I bought it brand new when Dodge's idea of putting a great big powerhouse of a V8 engine into a mid-sized truck was still a new thing.  For many years, I drove it proudly, and other trucks just didn't feel right.  Cars certainly didn't feel right.  I loved my Dakota.  Funny, isn't it, how my tastes have changed over the years.

My tastes in books are kind of the same story.  I've always had authors that I loved reading, and authors that I felt pretty ambivalent with, and authors whose work I really just didn't enjoy.  Marion Zimmer Bradley, for example, was always in the first group; at one point, I owned and had devoured nearly every Darkover book that had been printed.  I felt the same for Isaac Asimov's works...didn't matter the subject.  He could be describing a far-off civilization in a make-believe empire, or discussing real, modern(ish) conundrums in astronomy...didn't matter.  I ate it up.  Piers Anthony was an interesting case.  I absolutely loved the Adept series and the Incarnations set, but I couldn't stand the Xanth novels.

Here's the thing...they all use the same parts of speech.  Every author uses nouns, verbs, adjectives, and yes, even adverbs, to create sentences which then coalesce into paragraphs which, over the course of several chapters, tell stories.  In Piers Anthony's case, it's even the same fingers on the same typewriter.  The cars I mentioned above have the same parts, the same dimensions, different feelings...books have the same parts, same dimensions, different feelings. 

Fast-forward to today, and I'm thinking I need to go back and re-read all of what I read once upon a time.  I just finished a Darkover novel, and...I don't know how to say this...MZB is a grand master, MZB is a grand master, MZB is a grand master...whatever, I didn't like it.  Sorry, MZB.  But I've run into other like/dislike things recently.  I didn't much like The Eye of the Needle when I was younger, but I enjoyed it greatly last month.  Other books that I might have enjoyed when I was younger, didn't make it through the first disc. 

I could probably analyze the difference if I wanted to get that technical.  I don't, though I have made a quick observation.  I recognized, for example, the same sentence structures in the MZB book that I've been going through ripping out of my own book.  It used to be the way I wrote...long flowing sentences that I wanted to think carried a lyrical air.  Problem is, I've spent too long lately immersed in a world where "terse prose" is praised.  N.K. Jemisin is a great example of this...her "voice," to use the standard writer-ish term, is very concise. I like it...both to read, and to write. 

It's funny, then, how our tastes change over the years.  And, at the same time, it's sad that my car isn't repaired yet...they had all last night with it, after all.  "Patience" is my middle name, so long as you don't look at my birth certificate for verification.

Yours patiently,

(PS...sorry for the multiple posts.  I just can't get the extra random spaces out of it)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Revising by the (text)book

One good thing about being a college dean in my day job is that I get more "review" or "desk" (aka "free") copies of books in my mailbox than you can throw a one-armed paperhanger with broken metaphors at.  The bad side of that is that most of them never actually get opened, and thus represent a waste of the poor trees that died to allow them to be printed.  Ferinstance, I'm not a Chemistry guy; stoichiometry makes me wish to stab #2 pencils into the eyes of whoever wrote the text I happen to have in front of me.  Yet because several months ago a publisher's agent and I had a discussion about a chemistry class that I didn't really want to offer in the first place, I now receive book after book on the topic.  Yes, I could send them back.  Yes, I should send them back.  Yes, sometimes I actually do send them back.  Usually, though, I just put them on my bookcase for the off chance that some day somebody will walk into my office and say, "Oh, goodie goodie, chemistry textbooks!  I was desperately seeking another chemistry textbook to read this weekend!" and I will be able to make him the happiest chemistry geek on the planet.  Which probably isn't all that grand, come to think of it, but hey, I usually hope for small but achievable things.

Today, in what should completely not surprise you by this point in the blog, I received a "free" book that actually sounded interesting to read.  I opened the package to find The Bedford Guide for College Writers, 9th Ed.  Oooh, a writing text!  This whole time, the majority of my learning has been from two sources: first, random and sometimes unknown people posting valid-sounding information to unverifiable web pages; and second, what some people call the School of Hard Knocks, where I pick a topic based on something I'm actually doing, right or wrong, or something I'm actually reading, right or wrong.  These are actually kinda tough learning sources, as it were.  In the case of the former, there's a TON of information out there, and I have to assume that some of it is correct.  I also, of course, have to assume the opposite.  The trick, then, is to figure out which case a site belongs to.  I've discovered a nearly foolproof method for this, but read the next part only if you want the spoiler: I say "eenie meenie miney moe" and then ask myself if I believe the site.  If the answer is yes, then it's clearly a case of either truth or lack thereof.  That wisdom aside...in the case of the latter, it can be tough to really determine how much of what we learn in the School of Hard Knocks (SOHK for short, which is an interesting acronym, yes?) is true. 

So...bring on the texts.  The joy of textbooks is that they're peer reviewed, which means that many experts in the field looked through it after the first expert wrote it.  There's a funny story about peer review, in fact, in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, regarding when he served on a curriculum review committee for math education in California.  Everybody on the committee ranted and raved about how wonderful a three-volume set was, which left Mr. Feynman baffled because Books 2 and 3 had been shipped with blank pages.  Not some blank pages, mind you...two covers, and a table of contents, and the entirety of the book blank for each one.  Hey, I've been in education long enough to agree with the assertion that most math students would get as much out of that as they would out of texts with actual squiggly things printed on the pages, but apparently it bothered Feynman.  I guess I must admit that it would bother me in any topic other than math, a subject whose students would rather eat a live zombie one limb at a time than open the actual textbook, and this, then, lends some suspicion to the veracity of peer review. 

All that notwithstanding, I got a book today.  It was a textbook, and it was on writing.  Hallelujah!  I couldn't wait to open it once I got home, in part because I knew that by the time I opened it I would have a cold beer in my hand, but also because I wanted to see what was inside its 903 pages of wisdom. 

Where to start?  Since I'm doing revision, I decided, I should start in the chapter on revision.  All...hmm...18 pages on it.  I was already confused...revision is one of the most important things I do, I think.  Yet the topic only merits 18 of 903 pages?  Two percent?  Yeah, it makes for kind of crappy milk, too.  Still, the number of pages doesn't always indicate the relative importance, so I dove in. 

The contents were really relatively straightforward, and...well, what I already knew.  For example, in the "revising for purpose and thesis" section, it asks:

  • Does each part of your essay directly relate to your thesis?
  • Does each part of your essay develop and support your thesis?
  • Does your essay deliver everything your thesis promises?

Good questions, really, whether you assign the word "essay" or "novel" to them.  Then again, they're covered on nearly every Writing101.com/org/net/info/xmen/whatever page that exists.  Does every part of the novel advance the storyline?  Does each part support the storyline?  Bottom line: does it tell a dang good story? 

The rest of the chapter, sadly, reads the same way.  This book?  Going back to work to sit on that bookshelf, hoping that a writer comes in one day and says, "Oh, goodie goodie, a writing textbook!  I was desperately seeking another writing textbook to read this weekend!" and I will be able to make him the happiest writing geek on the planet. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Fight scenes

If we assume for the moment that a topic's relative importance is indicated by the relative frequency with which people discuss it...an assumption clearly invalidated in today's news by counting the relative frequency of mentions of the economy versus Sarah Palin's knowledge of Paul Revere's ride, but let's just go with it for now...if we do, then we know that writing fight scenes is one of the most important aspect of literary pursuits.  There seem to be hundreds of pages out there where people tell us how to tell them the story of a fight.  The advice varies in scope, too, from a detailed discussion of planning and mapping the fight out (including figuring out how high the ceilings are if weapons are involved) to "go read R.A. Salvatore's fight scenes." Not that there's anything wrong with Salvatore's fight scenes, of course, but the advice is a bit anti-helpful.  Unsurprising, really, since quite a few of those sites describe fight scene prose creation as a difficult task. 

With as many experts as there seem to be on the topic, though, how could anybody still think it difficult?

OK, that was a bit snide.  Any writing is difficult.  Creating effective fight scenes?  Difficult.  Creating effective sex scenes?  Difficult.  Creating effective dialogue scenes?  Difficult.  Creating effective difficult scenes?  Difficult!  But what I don't understand is why it apparently seems so much more difficult to write fight scenes.  They really don't seem too hard compared to any other writing.

Come to think of it, most of the instructional sites read much the same as sites detailing other aspects of writing.  "Show, don't tell," is a common mantra in both groups of sites, for example.  Don't use the same word or sentence structure over and over, either, unless that word is "said."  Those two suggestions seem to pretty well set up most effective writing, really.  Some of the forums I saw in my research for this post had people complaining that their fight scenes read like this: "He swung.  Then he swung.  Then he swung.  Then he swung...."  If you focus on describing the scene, rather than just telling about the swings...thus, showing, not telling...you avoid the repetitiveness.  One site had a very effective combat-specific way to think of prose generation: each action in combat has a reaction.  The hero swings, the villain blocks.  The villain swings, the hero goes down in a heap of gore and blood.  Or whatever.  But fighting isn't just a matter of "I hit you, I hit you, I hit you," unless you're fighting a punching bag. 

So what about rhythm?  I used to, as a kid, read fantasy books with battle scenes, imagining a sort of rhythmic dance that the combatants get into.  It makes good fantasy, I guess, but...it doesn't really happen like that.  Granted, I'm not the world's greatest expert in actual combat.  I'm a Combat Veteran, thanks to my participation in Desert Storm, but as far as I know I've never had a real bullet fired at me in anger.  I've been in plenty of mock battles, though, and I have to tell you that peering down the wrong end of the main gun on a tank belonging to your foe is an emotional moment, even if the foe is what the Army calls OpFor, for Opposing Force, in training exercises.  I've also stood toe to toe with guys (and girls) in the boxing ring, the wrestling ring, and close quarters combat stations.  One key observation: girls are mean, man.  Don't fight them if you don't have to.  But more to the point of this post: combat doesn't have a rhythm.  If it does for you, then you're about to get beaten because the other guy is gonna recognize your patterns. 

That said, the writing about combat must take on a rhythm of its own, to a certain extent, but that's true of all writing.  Specifically with combat, you as the writer want to build suspense and keep the action going, and the way to do that is with short sentences.  Thus, combat writing has to, as much as or more so than other writing, be lean and crisp.  The fewer words you can describe an action in, the better you'll be. 

And...that's about the extent of what I know of combat writing.  Hopefully I'm up to the task of doing it well.  None of my reviewers have really complained about the combat, though, so I guess if nothing else I do it better than sex scenes...which really isn't saying a lot. 

Till later! 

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A synonym for (censored)

The book revising is going along at a quick clip; I'm already a quarter of the way through.  I think I'm...no, really, I know I'm significantly improving the story.  For one thing, there's the language.  I really don't know why I wrote so much crap earlier, and I also don't know why all that crap made it through three revisions up to now.  Here's an example:

Wordless assent rippled through the crowd as the thrakkoni approached.  RJ admired their beauty.  Each of them was perfect.  Perfect eyes, perfect skin, perfect muscle tone…everything.  Their gait was lithe and smooth, and RJ realized as he watched them move as a group without any of their heads bobbing up and down that he was bothered a little by their uniformity.  Not only did they all walk alike, but they also all wore the same style clothing.  Each, regardless of gender, was clad in trousers over simple sandals with a wrap-around tunic tied at the waist by a cord.  He wondered to himself what manner of creature they were.  Before he had time to ponder it much, though, the thrakkonis’ long strides brought them to the group, at which point they all stopped, kneeled, and bowed as one, foreheads touching the soft billowing grass on the hillside. 

Here's the improved version:
As the thrakkoni approached, several people whistled softly in admiration.  Each of them was perfect.  Perfect eyes, perfect skin, perfect muscle tone…everything.  Their gait was lithe and smooth, and their long strides quickly brought them to the group surrounding Matt.  They all stopped, kneeled, and bowed as one, foreheads touching the soft billowing grass on the hillside.

Here's the significant changes.  First, nobody really gives a crap what RJ thinks by this point.  He was never really meant to be a major character, and after the first scene he's really just a plot device I use to show how little patience Matt has for dumbassedness.  So...took him out of the point of view.   Also, nobody really cares what the thrakkoni are wearing.  You will, later, by the way, when they all strip down for a particular reason, but for now, does their wearing a wrap-around tunic tied at the waist by a cord mean anything to a group of folks who have just landed somewhere strange?  Nah.  Finally, everybody at this point is wondering what manner of creature the thrakkoni are.  Why rub the readers' noses in that wondering? 

Oh, yeah, and what the hell is "wordless assent" and how does it ripple through a crowd?  Snip...gone. 

With all this tightening of wording, then, you'd think the book had gotten smaller. It has, but not by a lot.  After ripping excess words out of a quarter of it, ish, it's down by about 100 words.  That's it.  But that's because I'm adding as I'm taking away.  There were several great questions my reviewers asked, and I'm endeavoring to answer them by grafting in short stubs of text at just the right spots.  It's harder than it sounds.  First, you have to find just the right spot.  Second, you have to figure out what the text is that you should graft in, and in my case, I have to keep in mind that I tend to add too many crap words.  Third, there's always changes you have to make before and after the addition to make the new text flow correctly in the now-altered conversation.  It's tricky and takes a bit of thought, but it's making the story better. 

For example, a couple of people asked why Crystal never asked about her daughters' status as demigods.  I really hadn't thought of it before; in my deity system, demigods don't exist, so the question never really occurred to me.  It would, however, occur to Crystal, who is having this whole deity system thrust right smack into her face to deal with all at once.  So I added it, and then moved on to the next question I hadn't thought of.  Overall, I'm thinking I may actually end up adding a little bit of length to the story. 

The other thing I did just now was add a sex scene.  Ick.  Not ick over sex, but ick over writing sex.  This book isn't a romance novel, and I ain't a romance novelist.  Several weeks ago I blogged about the joy of writing about sex, and there really isn't any in my world.  But several people pointed out, rightfully so, that I have this couple who's been married for fifteen years, and I toss them into a very stressful situation, and then I don't show a lot of intimacy between them.  OK, fine. 

But...one of my most commonly-used writing tools is Google; I'll, for example, be describing the color of Sorscha's hair, which is silver, and then I'll realize that I'm saying the word silver way too much.  Thus, I open my old friend and type "synonym for silver" and see what I get.  It's really quite useful, because instead of using one thesaurus at a time, I'm using several.  It just doesn't work really well for some words, like "clitoris."  Hey, it's a body part, and it's an important one when you're having (or describing) sex.  But it's kind of silly sounding when you use the A&P terms for the body parts in telling a sex story...for me, it reminds me of when my dad gave me "the talk," a few years too late, and described it in terms like penis and vagina.  Maybe that works for some, but when I've Googled "how to write a sex scene" that's nearly always one of the prescribed no-nos. 

The problem is, I also don't wanna use the Hustler-esque terms.  You know what I'm talking about..."little button of passion" or, for the guy, "one eyed trouser mouse."  That crap just makes me laugh when I read it.  I asked my wife, who has read romance books in the past, and got some ideas for words that are lodged somewhere on the spectrum of linguistic expression between "penis" and "dual-engine pocket rocket," but...this whole business of writing about lovemaking totally creeps me out.  I just want to make sure you know that.  When/if the book comes out, you'll be reading along and see the short slide into a bedroom scene, and you'll know, "Hey, Evan was creeped out here." 

Till laters....

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Thoughts, Narration, and Point of View

The statue of the Greek goddess looking over her shoulder at her butt looked funny to Crystal.

The statue of the Greek goddess looking over her shoulder at her butt looks funny, thought Crystal.

The statue of the Greek goddess looking over her shoulder at her butt looked funny to Crystal, Matt saw.

As I get farther into what can only be described as Mad Writing Skilz (OK, not true...it can also be described as not sucking at storytelling), I hit on the sometimes subtle distinction between thoughts and narration.  Dialogue is, of course, something I've blogged about ad nauseum, and thoughts are kind of a small subset of that.  Specifically, dialogue is a conversation between two people, monologue is a conversation involving just one person, and thoughts are an unspoken monologue.  Happens all the time in real life, doesn't it?  I've had entire conversations with myself in my own head without ever speaking anything aloud, honestly, and so I have to come to one of two conclusions: either a) I'm normal and so all my normal characters will have the same mental monologues going on sometimes, or b) I'm stark raving mad and so all my stark raving mad characters will have the same mental monologues going on sometimes.  There are, of course, a lot fewer mad characters in my book, but I have to lean toward option a) anyway because, if it's b), then...well, why worry what people think of my book? 

Part of the issue, then, is when to use a character's thoughts to tell the ongoing story and when to use narration, which is by far a simpler method where I, as the guy writing the book, tell the story in the wonderful third party past tense that I've been using.  However, there's another part of the issue...point of view.  I've discussed that a touch already, since it's an important aspect of storytelling.  In a nutshell, as an author of a third person story I'm not beholden to any one particular point of view, but it is kind of expected that I'm not going to flippity flop between them.  In other words, I'm not supposed to tell you what Crystal is thinking one moment and then what Bob is thinking the next, and then the next paragraph tell you what Matt is thinking (matter of fact, you'll find, if you ever read the story, that I NEVER tell you what Matt is thinking.  That's on purpose).  Were I to let you in on what everybody's thinking, that would seem like God mode, honestly.  Even MZB put limits on the telepathic variety of laran.  It would just...feel...wrong. 

Writing.com has a good, short article on how to write the thoughts of a character.  Most of their suggestions snap in to other comments and warnings I've read about various aspects of writing.  Don't snap the reader out of the sense of tense.  Don't annoy the reader with too many Tags of Redundancy (he thought...he thought...he thought...he thought...done well, it's pretty dang obvious that the text written is what the character thought).  And only use direct "quotations," if specifically worded thoughts can be called that, if they actually add to the story. 

Still working on getting the text "just right," so back to it now.....

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Thank God for the blogging

As I blogged last, the time has come for me to switch from writing to revising mode.  I've been slogging through the Part 1/Book 1 draft I wrote...and revised, twice, actually...as a result, starting along the path of making it publishable.  And you know what?  It stinks. 

Of course, I've been told that by several of my beta readers, in much nicer words.  There were quite a few wonderful people who ran through the entirety of the draft and were willing to write about all the things they didn't like about it.  Trust me, those literary saints will be mentioned in my Acknowledgements page if I ever get this mess published.  It takes persistence to read through something that is written poorly, and it takes courage to tell your friend that his poop stinks worse than he thinks it does already, and I am proud to say I have many friends with both persistence and courage. 

So yeah...it really does stink.  It's funny, actually.  I enjoyed writing it a lot.  I enjoyed reading it (though I now know that was mostly because I knew what the story was supposed to be).  I enjoyed revising it.  But along the way, I made a LOT of errors.  I said "said" in a lot of different ways--four on the first page alone--instead of just using the word "said."  I mixed up my point of view.  I wrote a horribad Prologue...really, I did.  I mean, it really is just crap, the whole thing.  Was, anyway.

Hopefully, if you've been following this blog as closely as I have, you know now how bad all of that stuff is.  Frankly, writing the blog has provided the education I needed to gain in order to understand, really, what stinks about bad writing and what is good about decent writing.  It's helped me, through the research I've done, come to grips with the enormous task that is telling a story. 

Now, I'm not saying I'm perfect.  Nor am I saying I'm going to knock this one out of the park.  But I do know that what comes out of this revision can't help but be much better than the crap I wrote at first. 

So...back to revisions.  And, as I go along, blogging.  Because blogging is fun.