Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Onward to the beginning! Revision time at last.

In a fitting end of the month event, last night I finished the story for Book 2 / Part 2 and wrote "The End" at...well, at the end, of course.  There are still some things I want to go back and change, but for the time being I'm pleased to be done with the brute force draft writing.  As I've blogged before, draft writing and draft revising are fairly different activities.  Writing is pure creative thought; I give some regard while writing to proper sentence structure and word choice, of course, as well as (now, anyway) proper voicing in dialogues, but my main purpose is always to get the story down on paper as fast as possible. 

Now that I'm turning the chapter to another revision stage, though, I move into a more careful, deliberate process.  Part of the process is reordering most of the words and changing several.  I once read a beautiful way to describe the process, written by Douglas Adams, but my quote looker-upper is failing me now.  It had something to do with the task of a writer being the selection of a few words out of the millions available and then putting them into the correct order.  He was correct, whatever he said.  Word choice and order is absolutely vital in writing, more so than in any other entertainment medium.  In movies, for example, millions of people flocked to see Thor's ripped abdominal muscles, and most of those never really noticed that the bulk of his lines went something like, "Niff norf nuff numnom nohhhh."  Us authors, if I may include myself in that group for the time being, don't have sexy ab shots to get people interested; all we've got are the words we write.  Thus, it stands to reason that the words had better be the best possible ones. We have to choose the Thor's Abs of the possible words. 

There are, however, a few other things you do when you revise.  One is to look at details, making sure that the stuff you set up makes sense in, say, Chapter 3, and that it still makes sense a few chapters later.  Take, ferinstance, the forge scene.  I wrote it based on memory of forges and on videos and books.  Then, this weekend, we went to Colonial Williamsburg and I got to see a non-electric forge in action.  I even got slag down my shirt.  And...I was close.  The way I described the forge of the mighty Hephaestus was really pretty darn close, and in that I am pleased.  Close, though, ain't good enough.  As I go back through I'll be combining the multiple forges into just a couple to leave room for the great bellows, and I'll move a few other things around a skosh.  Then, it will be perfect. 

The third thing you do when you revise is check for consistency and story points left out.  The basic rule is that anything you bring up should tie to something; it either serves the plot arc or it helps us understand a character.  The author, though, shouldn't leave his readers hanging.  The Salmon of Doubt includes a story told by Sue Freestone, Douglas Adams's publishing editor.  In it, the great author was telling her of books he was writing, and:

There was a scene early in one book when he talked about some plates with, very definitely, one banana on each.  This was obviously significant, so I asked him to explain.  But he liked to tease his audience and said he'd tell me later.  We eventually got to the end of the book and I asked him again, 'Okay, Douglas, what's with the bananas?'  He looked at me completely blankly.  He had forgotten all about the bananas.

Now, I've done this kind of thing at work to see if people are paying attention.  I'll discuss the three things I know are important to retention, and list the first two but not tell the third one.  More often than not, the folks listening don't ask, which tells me that either they're not paying attention, or I've made the discussion so boring that they just want to go back to their cubicles and staple post-its to their foreheads.  I'm kind of hoping, though, that were I to do this in a book, people would ask me about the bananas, because novel readers have been quite effectively proven to be paying thorough attention, and the other alternative stinks.  Thus, my third goal in revision is to make sure I explain all the bananas.  And dragons, too, for that matter.  And there is that one little trip to buy silk outfits in Atlantis that I absolutely know I didn't close the loop on...yeah, it'll be fixed soon. 

The last part is dialog.  Dialog, dialog, dialogue.  My story has gods and humans from various walks of life and talking dragons and people from Scotland and...well, there is a fair amount of diversity.  A good dialog writer makes those differences pop out at the reader.  Going back through some of my earlier writing, and at the same time reading some of the comments that my beta readers made, it's pretty clear that I can't call myself a good dialog writer yet.  As I go through revising, I have to pay extra super special attention to making the talking between the characters help the storytelling instead of the other alternative.  I'll probably even blog about it some.  

So...look out world, another major milestone has been reached.  Soon, the Ascent of the Goddess will be born. 

Word Count: 87,392; total word count: 162,100

Friday, May 27, 2011

Getting to the end...or not.

I don't devour stories like I used to. I remember, way back in my young man days, getting a copy of Robert Jordan's latest installment of WoT (can't recall if it was Book 369 or 373) on a Friday and finally going to sleep Sunday having read the entire bazillion-page book cover to cover, almost literally.  Now I savor books a bit more...if I like them.  If I don't, of course, I don't read them.

What brought this up is that this morning I realized I had gotten to the final scene of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.  With some sadness, I laid the book down and stood, unwilling to just plunge through the last several pages and close out the plot arc.  Tomorrow morning I'll probably finish it, or the next, but I've enjoyed the book so much that I'll actually feel sad when it's done.  The same thing happened with The Eye of the Needle; it was a compelling story.  In neither story did I much like the central character; it's a German spy in one, and a really rather ignorant and somewhat barbaric girl in the other.  But in both cases I understood them; the authors successfully brought a (less than likeable) character to life for me.

Contrast that to another award-winning novel, Articles of War by Arvin.  I bought it before I bought the EotN, and eagerly popped it into my CD drive on the way to work the day after it arrived.  Halfway there, I popped it right back out.  I went on to listen to a couple of other books, and then tried it again...in part, because I felt sort of guilty for admitting to not liking an award-winning book, and in part because I had nothing else to listen to other than the satellite and FM radio stations.  This time I forced myself to make it all the way through the first CD, but just couldn't bear to pull the next CD out of the case, much less pop it into the player.  I know it's bad when I start looking at the readout that shows what track is playing on the CD, wondering what cool sounds I'm missing on the 80's channel. 

What made this one so tough?  For me, it boils down to the main character.  I've read reviews telling what wonderful and insightful challenges the guy goes through in the book, and that sounds great.  But I can't get past the first part.  The guy is flat.  He's boring.  Maybe he's that way on purpose, but something that's bad on purpose is still bad.  He's called Heck because he doesn't curse.  And...that's all I remember about him.  I can tell you where Die Nadel grew up and what sport he won an award in, but I have no idea about Heck.  I can give you all sorts of details about Yeine's background, but Heck's is absent for me.  It's not like Heck's background was unwritten; I just didn't get much give-a-damn out of reading it. 

Given that, I really owe the folks who've read the draft of Part I for me an even greater volume of thanks than I realized at first.  Most of what I've been hearing is that my characters are flat, at least at first.  And they're right.  That means my friends have been doing what I haven't been able to do: reading past the boring part to get to the more interesting stuff.  While I'm glad for their strength, the realization of what I've done makes me want to dive in and fix it that much more.

Eventually, I promise, I'll have the type of book that I would put down, just a little past where I am in the writing currently, unwilling to just plunge through the last several pages and close out the plot arc.  Till tomorrow, anyway, or maybe the next day.

Word Count: 75,000

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Drinking and writing

I was initially going to take a day off of blogging for a couple of reasons, but it's Towel Day, and so I absolutely must write, if for no other reason than to pay homage to Mr. Adams.

Some time ago I wrote about what authors drink, and it turned into an interesting bit of research for me.  Many authors are or have been known for their alcohol consumption...take, for example, Stephen King.  In the 80's, he got into drug and alcohol abuse to the point where it serves a significant role in his book On Writing.  His advice, loud and clear in the book, is this: don't do it.  It's a crutch, he says. 

I've written about my own enjoyment of a nice beer or a whiskey after a long day of work, myself.  Of course, I tend to write after work, which means I often drink and write at the same time.  The thing is, I usually don't drink very much, so it's never been an issue.  Last night was different, though.  I had a particularly rough day at work, and so I picked up a particularly tasty and strong beer (Double Bastard, from the makers of Arrogant Bastard...yum) on the way home.  Then I drank it.  It was so good, I drank another.  By the time I started writing, I was feeling beyond relaxed and into pretty darn giddy.  Did my thousand words, ish, and then moseyed on off to bed. 

So this morning, I got up and read over what I'd written, and as a result, I won't drink that much and write ever again, I assure you.  I mean, it was garbage.  Crap, with a capital k.  Total crap, with a capital tk.  I had written the scene where Thor introduces our beautiful and capable (and quite beaten up, by this point) heroine to his hall of warriors for dinner after a long day of her sparring with the thunder god.  I know how I want that scene to sound, and what I read this morning wasn't it.  What I'd written sounded more like Jimmy Carter introducing the Queen of England to a frat house.  Ugh.  It's not even worthy of mere deletion; I feel like I have to print it out so I can stomp on it, mark it up in a black magic marker, and then shred it. 

Ah, well.  At least I didn't totally waste my time.  I got some experience, and as I learned to say a long time ago in the Army, experience is what you got when you didn't get what you wanted.  As I'm re-writing that scene tonight, I'll start with a hundred times of repeating:  If you drink, don't write.  If you write, don't drink. 

Word Count: 73,407

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Quotes 'R Us...well, Me, anyway.

I used to play a game, back when I was ensconced in the glory of having supreme faith in a particular religion and its views.  I'd take that book...you know the one, whose title always begins with a Capital B no matter what...and open it to a random page, point to a random verse, and be thrilled when the writing on the page spoke directly to my present situation.  It was clearly the hand of God reaching down, guiding my one finger as it picked the right verse out of thousands for me to read. 

Meh.  I've aged a bit, and life doesn't hold quite the mystery it used to.  Not saying you shouldn't continue playing that game, if it brings you strength or warmth or inspiration.  It still, in fact, works for me.  But so does a web site full of quotes on writing. 

Funny how it works.  I presume there's some psychological term for it, this ability to find relevance in random quotations or thoughts or images.  But it does happen, and it's not surprising that it does.  After all, our lives are strange and quirky amalgamations of thousands of events every day.  You may not notice, but I suspect your subconscious does, and so when you read a quote that has relevance to something you saw, heard, or read at, say, 6:30 this morning, is it really surprising that your brain flags that as interesting? 

*ahem* So now I've probably destroyed the magic in someone's prayer life, dooming them to eternal Hell or something like that.  Sorry.  What I'm really getting at is that I went through some quote sites this morning and found a number that applied to my efforts.

Be obscure clearly.  ~E.B. White
Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.  ~Hannah Arendt
I love writing.  I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.  ~James Michener
Every writer I know has trouble writing.  ~Joseph Heller
A synonym is a word you use when you can't spell the other one.  ~Baltasar Graci├ín
What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he's staring out of the window.  ~Burton Rascoe
The best time for planning a book is while you're doing the dishes.  ~Agatha Christie
If you want to get rich from writing, write the sort of thing that's read by persons who move their lips when they're reading to themselves.  ~Don Marquis
Most editors are failed writers - but so are most writers.  ~T.S. Eliot
The road to hell is paved with adverbs.  ~Stephen King (no, not this one)

See how much wisdom can be gained through reading the words of others?

Word Count: 73,407

Monday, May 23, 2011

A different letter for the alphabet

Douglas Adams is one of the few authors for whom, when I have his work open in front of me, I change the verb "reading" to "recharging with."  Granted, "recharging with" isn't precisely a verb, more of a verb and preposition, but you get the point, no?  In any event, one of his shorter essays in The Salmon of Doubt struck me as particularly apropos to my efforts this morning. 

"Why" is the only question that bothers people enough to have an entire letter of the alphabet named after it, the essay begins.  It goes on, The alphabet does not go "A B C D What? When? How?" but it does go "V W X Why? Z." 

He goes on to write about some questions in life are easy to answer, like "When was the battle of 1066?" (his answer is, of course, "Ten-fifteen in the morning").  But other questions are much harder to answer, and often those are the questions that begin with Why. 

One that springs to mind occasionally in my efforts is: "Why am I doing this?"  The question is quite beautiful in its generality, but for now let's focus on the writing.  I'm spending hours each day writing a story.  That's hours each day I'm not spending with my family, or reading a good book, or recreating.  I took the family out to a wonderful tour of the Maymont Park this weekend and then to dinner and a movie, and all along I kept thinking about how much I wanted...NEEDED...to get back to the writing.  It's like a bad addiction I could easily give up, but won't.  Why? 

The money, of course.  Yes, I'm giggling as I write that.  There's a great chance that I'll find a wonderful agent and a publisher who will make me rich and famous because of all the fabulous authoring I'm doing now.  In The Making of a Bestseller, they roughly quantify that great chance: "Bowkers estimates that 175,000 new titles are now published annually.  It is believed that less than 1 in 100 books that are submitted for publication actually end up in print...."  OK, so make that a 1% chance of getting published in the first place.  Then "It has been estimated that only 10 percent of books published ever end up selling enough copies to earn back the advance paid to the author....  How many become bestsellers?  Fewer than .3 percent."  That's .3 percent of 1 percent.  You do the math; it makes my brain cry.  The last blow the book gives before scurrying off into rosy discussion of how to do it is, "Another way of looking at these results is that...an average of 4 new books per week appeared on the list, or 208 for the entire year (in fiction)." 

Can I write one of those 208?  Possibly.  I'm excited for the opportunity, frankly, but I would also be pretty stupid if I counted on it.  Those ain't big odds. 

So, why?  Why, why, why?

For solace, I return to the ubermeister, Douglas Adams, and his essay on the topic.  He said:

But when you hear the word "Why?," you know you've got one of the biggest unanswerables on your hands, such as..."Will you go to bed with me?"  "Why?"  (Yes, I skipped several other less interesting unanswerables) 

There's only ever been one good answer to that question "Why?" and perhaps we should have that in the alphabet as well.  There's room for it....  How would it be if the alphabet ended..."V W X Why Not?"

Why do I write?  Why not?  There's a story in there to tell, and it may bring me fame and glory, or it may bring me a thick sheaf of papers in an old box to show my grandkids.  One way or another, I'm takin' a swing. 

Word Count: 72,566

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Butchering a legend

OK, I'm doing it myself...the very thing I derided the director/screenwriters of the movie Thor for in an earlier post.  I'm butchering a legend.  Specifically, I'm having the lovely heroine of the story go spend time in Valhalla with its master, Thor. 

But wait, those who know Norse mythology will say: Odin is the master of Valhalla. 

Not in my story. 

It kind of comes down to a bit of a sticky point on how I'm tying the Norse deities in with the Roman/Greek pantheon, and then fitting Yahweh in to the whole mess.  It's a bit sacreligious from a Judeo-Christian standpoint, so if I believed in Hell I'm sure I'd think I was going there.  What I'm doing now, meanwhile, is sacreligious to my Asatru friends, so hey, I guess I'm an equal opportunity offender.  But the only way the story makes sense to me is if Thor is in charge of Valhalla.  If that makes me destined for Helheim, or to be eaten by the dragon Niddhog, after my death, so be it.  But it's my story, after all. 

Hopefully, if I'm telling the story right, it's the only way it will make sense to the readers, as well.  I did write in a long discussion between Matt and his resident expert in mythology to explain it away, and then yesterday I revisited the discussion with the guy whom Matt's resident expert in mythology is named after, and it seemed to work out fine in both cases.  Maybe I'll escape offending the Asatruars after all.  Maybe.   

In any event, it's an awfully fun part of the story to write.  Valhalla is a cool place, after all. 

And now, back to writing....

Word Count: 68,269

Friday, May 20, 2011

I just don't get it....

I have a very strange brain.  That's not exactly groundbreaking news to those who know me well, but it's true in so many ways.  Specifically, now, the strangeness I'm speaking of is related to the topic of creativity.  See, some people are innately creative.  I'm not.  And yet here I am doing something creative to discuss an act that is inherently creative. 

But really, no, I'm not a creative guy.  Not, not, not.  How do I know?  Creative people watch interpretive dance and think...something...about how beautiful an expression of life, the universe, and everything it is.  Last time I watched interpretive dance, I was at a cast party at West Point for a theater production we had just done.  As one of the more balladic songs--don't recall which--played its tones across the dance floor, one of the primary actor types sauntered out between everyone who was dancing in the non-interpretive, I-want-to-sleep-with-you way, and started wiggling.  Sort of.  Moving, wiggling, herky-jerkying, and spinning are all verbs that come to mind.  Now that I've heard of it, I know that he was just doing interpretive dance.  Back then, I thought he was in need of mental treatment.  Still kinda do, in fact; that stuff was strange.

What brings the subject up in a fresher sense is my research today.  See, I took Stephen King seriously when he suggested, through his On Writing work, that I constantly seek to learn more about the craft.  I had the perfect opportunity today, in fact, when due to an illness on my staff I got stuck watching people take an admissions test for four hours.  The practice is called proctoring, and every time I do it I'm reminded of its closeness to the term proctology.  It consisted of endless repetitions of: scan the room, no cheaters (kinda tough for them to cheat, anyway, since each has her own version); scan the testing company's monitoring site to make sure nobody went over her time limit on a section of the test (which can only by definition happen once an hour); repeat.  During that time, I was granted a wonderful opportunity to research more about the craft of writing, since sleep wasn't a valid option.

I hit on something grand, in a strange way.  Or perhaps it's strange, in a grand way.  I'm not sure which yet.  It's called "asemic writing."  According to my good friends at Wikipedia, asemic writing is defined as "a wordless open semantic form of writing."  Semantics, of course, is the study of meaning, and so the term open semantic refers to the freedom to mean anything, even nothing, in any manner you wish.  Open semantics, then, is kind of the opposite of what Stephen King teaches in his book on the craft.

Asemic writing is more or less artfully displayed at several web sites, including http://www.asemic.net/, where the site owner says, "It looks like writing, but we can't quite read it."  My non-creative mind says...so what the hell good is it if we can't quite read it?  My sarcastic side then chimes in with a comparison of the writing sample displayed at asemic.net with my own handwriting, which is known to be horrible on the best days, from the class notes at West Point from International Relations class.  That was the class that recorded the lowest grade on my transcript, in part because I found the subject fascinating right up till I had to study it in that fashion and then found it unbelievably boring, and in part because it was right after lunch.  I am a little ashamed to admit that I kept all my notes for about five years after graduation, but those notes brought a chuckle for all those years as you'd see each lesson start with precision and end in a herky-jerky set of scribbles combined with the vertical marks you find concurrent to a student's head-bobbing of sleepiness. 

There are more sites devoted to scribbles...or asemic writing...of course.  http://thenewpostliterate.blogspot.com/ is a site titled "The New Post-Literate: A Gallery of Asemic Writing."  As offended as I may, in my non-creative brain, be by the suggestion that asemic writing is what we ascend to AFTER we get good at the readable stuff, I'm fascinated by how much of it there is and by how many proponents the practice seems to have gathered.  It's the literary equivalent of that wing in the art galleries and museums I'm always terrified to walk into: the one where everybody is standing around a famous work of art saying how wondrous it is, and all I see is a bunch'a friggin' blobs.  Have you ever seen the one that looks like the artist painted a finger with his finger?  That's what I'm talking about.  In physical art, it's called abstract.  Apparently, as I learned this morning, in literary art, it's called asemic. 

And I don't get it.  Either one.  Add that herky-jerky stuff called interpretive dance, too.  I just don't get them.  I have no creative side of me.  Sorry.

Lucky for me, I don't think that true creative brilliance is required to write a decent novel.  In fact, that just might be the difference between literary fiction authors and commercial fiction authors.  Maybe the literary folks see asemic writing and think on what a beautiful linguistic expression it is, while commercial authors see it as scribbles too.  Might make for an interesting dissertation, that. 

Not interested in doing a dissertation, though.  For now, I'll just continue plugging along in my semantic-filled world. 

Word Count: 67,163

Thursday, May 19, 2011

No more coffee

The problem with writing what you intend to be a daily blog is that eventually you run out of ready-made ideas for them.  That happened to me, in fact, somewhere around a month ago.  I like to think I've written some pretty decent blog posts since then, but they were all cases where I actually had to think on the question of what to write about. 

See, it really was different at first.  There are many subjects asking to be described when you're writing about your first attempt at writing, and so at first the ideas came at me faster than I could commit them to the blog-o-sphere.  As with any new activity that you continue past its point of newness, though, writing became more routine and less discovery-laden.  Mind you, it's not that I think I've progressed to the point where I have nothing to learn.  It's just that I no longer sit and watch myself as I write, amazed at all the mystery.  Since the blog is intended to detail some of the discoveries, then, the natural course of it is to submerge itself into the "well, I wrote a bunch again" quagmire.  There, though, is somewhere I refuse to take myself, much less you. 

Besides, it's actually not that bad.  There really is always something to write about writing.   I just sometimes have to *gasp* work at it.  Which is, incidentally, what got me into a Douglas Adams book tonight.  I was sitting here looking at a blank blog screen, shuffling through nearly half a dozen really crappy ideas on topics about which I could blog, when I decided to just open a book and see if anything called out.

It did.

I've talked about how several different authors respond to the "where do you get your ideas" question.  Some, of course, are less artful than others in their responses, but it's such an oft-written about issue that it apparently plagues all, artful or no.  Douglas Adams is, to me, the pinnacle of artful writing, evidenced by the fact that I absolutely adore his answer in The Salmon of Doubt when asked, "Where do you get the inspiration for your books?"

"I tell myself I can't have another cup of coffee till I've thought of an idea."

Now, you'd have to be a writer, or a teacher, or a military person, or one of the other professions that lives off of coffee, to find that as humorous as I do, I think.  But if you are, and if you do, then...isn't it grand?  Simple, yet deep and insightful.  All that and entirely sarcastic at the same time (yeah, right...who ever heard of someone denying themselves coffee?  That's like not breathing till you get an idea). 

Funny where ideas can come from, then.  As it is, I've got ideas for more books than I think I have time to write, but the time will come, I'm sure, when I'll have to consider denying myself the grandest pleasures of life, like coffee, mocha, cappuccino, and all the others.  Not that I will, of course, but I'll certainly be willing to consider it, since it came from the writings of a Grand Master.

Word Count: 67,163

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The art of chronology

I'm currently reading, as my library literature choice (i.e., the book I read in the bathroom), The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin.  Good book, if a little strange at times, in large part because it takes a truly unique view of gods and their relationship with mortals.  While the book I'm writing adopts a fairly standard view, at least till the end, on what makes a god, Jemisin's work is different. 

Her style, though, is what takes a little getting used to.  She's jumpy, for lack of a better word.  I kinda like it, and it's pretty fresh, but it's not typical.  She leaps from one plot segment nimbly to another.  She also makes use of an interesting device, one that only works in the first person narrative voice, which is where the narrator says, "Wait.  Something happened before that," (a real quote from her book) and I, the Gentle Reader, go with it. 

It's really kind of strange at first.  I'm used to reading and hearing stories that are in order.  First, Jack and Jill went up the hill.  Later, Jack fell down and did the whole crown-breaking thing.  Finally, Jill proved that not all women learn from men's mistakes.  It's told in order as it happened.  If I were to tell you that Jill fell down the hill after Jack, then later when I said, "Oh, by the way, they climbed up the hill first," you'd think I'd gone daft, right? 

We expect plots to be in a particular sequence in part from the basic definition of the word.  About.com says a plot is "The sequence of incidents or events in a narrative."  See?  Sequence.  Dictionary.com says a plot is "a secret plan or scheme to accomplish some purpose, especially a hostile, unlawful, or evil purpose," a definition that has nothing to do with the literary use of the word, but it's fun to relate anyway.  Bedford St. Martin's Interactive Fiction Tutorial (http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/virtualit/fiction/elements.asp?e=1) says "Plot refers to the series of events that give a story its meaning and effect." 

It's true that none of that really says it has to be chronologically sequenced.  Going down a bit farther on the page, in fact, at Bedford St. Martin's virtuaLit, you find that "In some stories, the author structures the entire plot chronologically, with the first event followed by the second, third, and so on, like beads on a string. However, many other stories are told with flashback techniques in which plot events from earlier times interrupt the story's "current" events."  What's entertaining about how Jemisin does it is that there doesn't seem to be a big word "FLASHBACK" watermarked on the page.  I'm sure you've read the stereotypically bad way to write this, yes?  When the main character goes through a major situation and then sits down and becomes pensive, the author's point of view narrowing down till it focuses inside the main character's head, and then you see glimpses of Young Johnny through the prose and think sarcastically to yourself, "Hey, I didn't see that flashback coming, nosirree!" 

What's important about this is that I'm going to do it myself.  I hadn't thought of having a flashback, as my mind usually works in a linear fashion and I've been seeing, and telling, the story in exactly that way.  But many people have told me my prologue didn't work, and I agree, so I'll probably move it to a flashback scene later.  My trick is going to be doing it in as fresh and interesting a manner as Jemisin did, instead of figuratively putting the words "FLASHBACK" on Crystal's forehead. 

Word Count: 67,163

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How tall is a giant?

To be honest, I didn't really agree with all of the quotes I posted yesterday in my Thor-bashing.  Nearly all, yes.  But the one about mutant smurf NBA stars?  Nah, I didn't have a problem with the height of the frost giants, but the quote did give me an amusing mental image, so I included it.  Mental images being the topic for today, I reprised it: mutant smurf NBA stars.  Awesome. 

So how tall do you think giants are?  Clearly,what I saw as eight or nine feet wasn't enough to satisfy the commenter I quoted.  Would ten have been enough?  Twenty?  As tall as Godzilla?  All of those heights make Andre the Giant fairly puny at a mere seven feet four inches of shortness, but nobody that I know of objected to his title...not to his face, anyway.  I don't mean to ridicule...at least, not as a primary theme.  But not having an objective measure lodged in reality to answer the question "How tall is a giant?" we kind of have to go off of our own mental images. 

That reliance on mental imagery is one of the significant differences between film and books.  In a book, when the author tells you the dragon is large and blue, you form a mental image of what Sephira might look like.  Later, when you watch the movie, you don't get the opportunity to have your own mental image, and if you've read the book, and the image in front of you clashes with the mental one you built, you get to do what I did: complain that Sephira is too small.  Yes, the cameraman and director have a lot of power over what you see in terms of lighting, closeness, image frame, and perspective, but when it comes down to it you see what you see.  The blue frost giant in Thor's case looks kinda like a mutant smurfy NBA player, or he doesn't, depending more on how you think a mutant smurfy NBA player might look than on how the giant appears. 

In books, though, the author has an amazing degree of power and responsibility to portray the image, not in a physical format, but in that mysterious "mind's eye."  "Thor's band of heroes walked in and fought the frost giants" doesn't do much for it.  It's not descriptive enough.  On the other hand, "Thor's band of heroes saw the frost giant king for the first time.  The nine foot six inch tall being had medium-shade blue skin with darker blue patterns on the skin of his face and other parts of his body.  He was muscular with well-defined biceps and pectoral muscles, though he was seated so the heroes couldn't tell how toned his lats or quads were.  His teeth were white, though two were crooked due to a lifetime of lack of good dental care, and so...."  Blah, right?  I mean, the author might be gonna make a point about the lack of dental care and so that might be relevant point, but describiness is bad.  Have you ever considered why, though?  Why does it get irritating when an author lays out every detail?  I think it's because we actually like to create images ourselves.  The whole point of reading books, for me and probably for many of you, is to escape into my own imagination...not the author's. 

Thus, an author's job is to give us enough detail to allow us to fill in our mental images, but not so much detail that the prose superimposes itself on them.  Right? 

Problem is, that's harder than it sounds.  I've found myself going through my own writing, examining it for the right amount of description.  It's hard to tell, really.  I know what the scene looks like in my own mind's eye.  When Mars dresses in his godly regalia to take Crystal to Olympus, he's wearing a very military-ish suit in red tunic over black pants.  Gold embroidery hits the details up, and he's accented it with a gold sash and belt. 

Now, what do you see?  What's embroidered on the red tunic?  Did your mind create some bold abstract patterns, or perhaps a more martial pattern, or did it just jumble a bit of gold on the picture and say "embroidery there" like mine would have if I weren't the author?  It's actually gold dragons, at least in my mind, but...does it matter?  If you are fine with the god of war wearing a red tunic embroidered with kittens...hey, I say go with it.  Whatever floats your shotgun, man.

The great authors do it seemingly effortlessly.  Have you ever noticed how sparingly MZB actually describes the scenery of Darkover?  Probably not.  I hadn't, till I started thinking about the topic of descriptiveness.  But the great one doesn't really get into too much description. 

The three-room apartment was a better domicile than most ordinary Terrans possessed, but Herm had grown up in Aldaran Castle, with stone walls around him, and great, roaring hearths sending out gusts of scent-laden sooty, heated air....  But the scentless, stifling atmosphere of the apartment, which was warm all the year round because of the central controls of the building....

Nice passage, and from it I get a good mental image of both Aldaran Castle and the apartment that Herm is in now.  What color stone was in Aldaran Castle?  Grey, I think, but you might prefer brown.  MZB didn't take the choice away from us, anyway, and frankly, it doesn't matter.  Should she have specified where the hearths are?  If the location of one is key to the story, sure, but otherwise, hey, it's up to you.  Well, us. 

In any event, description is a learned skill.  It doesn't come naturally, which is probably why most of the blogs and commentary I've read about 'why newbie authors suck' identify descriptiveness as the number one flaw.  To do it well is hard.  It requires the author to do something we don't often do as humans...lift ourselves out of our own brain and put ourselves into the brain of the one I take after Asimov in calling the Gentle Reader.  Every description a newbie writes must go under a microscope...is it descriptive enough?  Does it leave enough to the reader's mind?  Would Gentle Reader enjoy reading it, wish you had said more, or get irritated because you took the choices away? 

I guess I must admit that nobody ever told me this would be easy....

Word Count: 66,500 (ish)

Monday, May 16, 2011

It's the story, stupid

I'm gonna go ahead and tick off a lot of people...assuming a lot of people read this blog, an assumption which can easily be proven more myth than fact, but go with me here.  We saw Thor last night.  I figured it would be an interesting diversion from a weekend of writing, especially important since the young lady of the house had a bit of a personal issue going on.  So we went.

I didn't like it.

Now, I really don't have a lot of credibility upon which to critique the movie.  If the report I read is to be believed, the movie has made $119 million in a couple of weeks, which is somewhere around $118 million more than I've earned in my life, give or take a few hundred thou.  As a commercial enterprise, then, it's successful.  To me, it was less so.  I mean, the visuals were great.  I admit that if I were into guy's physiques, that would have been great as well.  It just felt...flat.  And wrong.  Flatly wrong, wrongly flat. 

Reading over the user reviews on Yahoo, I see there are a few people who agree with me.  Most reviews are comprised of such words as pretty and awesome and lightning and Stephenisgreat.  Well, not so much the last; I'm just checking for attentiveness.  Clearly, though, people were impressed by everything a movie is supposed to impress us with: powerful visual effects, stunning scenery, and pretty people.  Most folks, in fact--at least, most folks who took the time to write a review--were impressed by those things.  I was, too, to a limited extent, but I like a story to back them up, and I didn't feel like I got one this time. 

Others didn't, either.  Here were some of the comments others wrote that could just as easily have come from my own keyboard:

"The worst was the dialogue between him and Natalie Portman. It wasn't romantic, it wasn't funny, it was just cheesy."
"Thor kills giants - not mutant Smurfy NBA stars." (a disadvantage of movies that books don't share)
"Thor's big humility scene is that he serves people pancakes. Really, I'm not making this up."
"Odin's horse, Sleinir, only has four legs. This is a big problem for me, because in the myths he has eight legs."
"Natalie Portman's character (Jane) is surrounded by two cardboard cutouts for characters who have no right being in the movie."

And the one that had me ranting all the way home:
"And why mess with the Norse God storyline at all?? Loki is not Thor's brother and didn't need to be for this story."

Yes, all those were true.  The movie never let us get to know most of the characters in it.  Sif, Frigga, Natalie Portman's other two accomplices, the rest of Thor's merry band...undeveloped, except for the big redhaired guy who we now know likes to eat a lot.  Yes, I know they only have a certain amount of time in a movie, unlike a novel, but I agree with the commenter who suggested that if you're not going to develop a character, don't give them a role to play.  To do so leaves me wondering what I missed, as if somehow I had fallen asleep during the movie and they had given all the info about them during that time. 

The playing fast and furious with mythology is, to me, a problem.  I mean, it's OK to make changes; after all, some of my main plot points are due to changes I've made to Greek mythos.  But when I do that, I try to explain it.  I know that Norse mythology--at least, the part that came to us in written form--was written down a thousand years ago by a drunk dude.  OK, to be more precise, I know it was written down a thousand years ago; I suspect by a drunk dude.  There are bound to be points of incorrectness.  But when lore says Loki and Thor were unrelated, and a movie puts them as brothers (with an admitted bloodline twist at the end that aligned it slightly more with lore), and you show the movie to a group of people who may know what the lore says without even a nod toward the difference, it gains a ring of falseness. 

To make the movie even more "meh" in my case, the story just didn't make sense sometimes.  A guy that nobody knew beat his way into a government agency's camp, and they let him walk away because a scientist asked them to.  Huh?  Loki, who is truly the trickster of Norse mythology, played a trick on his brother's coronation day; that, I get.  But his later machinations really didn't make any sense.  That goes back to my previous post about characters' actions and reactions.  It's OK to give a person irrational reasons for doing what he does, but the irrationality needs to be rational, if that makes sense.  "I've always wanted to be your equal, so now I'm destroying the realm of the frost giants (a realm that gained importance due to a plot twist I'm not gonna spoil)," doesn't make sense. 

So what can I take away to make myself a better writer?  Simply put: develop the characters.  Watch the story for things that make the reader go "Huh?".  Because, in the end, it's the story, stupid. 

Word Count: 65,381

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A writing weekend

Long weeks just aren't going to go away.  That's actually a good thing as well as a bad one.  Crazy as this may sound, part of what I love about my job is how hard I have to work to succeed at it.  I have some clearly defined (to me, anyway) parameters for success, and it feels good when I leave, usually late enough that it's after dark, having accomplished enough to call it a successful day.  Unfortunately, that means I don't get to write as much as I'd like...or to do other things, like spending time with my family, as much as I'd like. 

It's a double-whammy, then, when I come home from a long day at work and have research to do before I can write anything.  Now, I know I've said I love to research, and I do.  But I'm a parameter-driven guy, and the most obvious parameter for measuring the success of a day of writing is word count.  I've blogged about it very early on, in fact, and even added it as part of the footer to each blog post as a way of motivating myself.  I go for a minimum, usually, of 1,000 words in a day, and I call it a good day when I get over 2,000.  That level of effort works out to a certain size of novel within a certain number of months, true, but it doesn't matter.  What matters, to me, is setting a reasonable goal and then reaching it.  A goal of 1,000/2,000 seems good to me, so it's what I've set. 

Problem is, being a numbers-driven anal-retentive Hun as I am, if I consistently (consistently being at least twice) fall short of my goals it gets me down.  Yes, I know, intellectually at least, that when much of my writing time is devoted to research, my goal for production is going to have to slip a little.  But that doesn't mean I have to like it.  And when I'm already getting beaten up at work, and then beaten up by my own goal in writing, it makes for a long, long, long week.  Don't feel bad for me; we all have long weeks, after all.  But this has been mine.

See, research, for me at least, and to qualify it again: in fiction, at least, doesn't happen like I would've expected it to.  The way I do research for academic papers is go out, study what I need to study, gather the quotes and data I need to back up my points (that I already know I'm going to make), and then get down to writing.  Very seldom do I find a need to research once I begin the writing.  Thus, I can set reasonable pre-defined parametric goals for myself.  In fiction, though, I don't even really know for certain what to research until I'm writing.  I've not got the story planned out, outlined with points I, then A, then B, then (1) and then (2).  No, I enjoy writing by looking ahead and figuring out where the story needs to go, and then discovering it as it flows.  Thus, it's not rare for me to write a hundred words or so and stop to try to figure something out.  It's a method that lends itself well to my enjoyment of the writing efforts, but not so much to the goal-setting process. 

That makes it all the better, then, when everything comes together on a weekend.  Yesterday morning I sat down to write, since the research work was done.  Everything I needed for the story that I didn't already know about blacksmithing, I had filled in through books and web sites and videos.  It brought a special and especially gratifying feeling, then, to be able to just sit and tell the story.  It just flowed onto the page...pages, actually.  Ten thousand words is a lot of pages.  And it twisted a bit...I discovered a really cool little side twist last night that I was excited to commit to paper.  It'll make the next part a little more complicated, but...it made me happy. 

Off to write more today!  But first...a little research, this time in hand to hand combat techniques. 

Word Count: 62,881

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Newton's Third Law doesn't apply to prose

One of the common complaints I have received from those who have read/are reading my first installment of the story is that the characters all think like me.  Nobody really says it that way, of course.  But people have questioned why Matt loves Crystal, why Crystal loves Matt, why Crystal reacts the way she does to the cataclysm, why the girls behave the way they do, etc.  The questions and comments are all individually addressable by adding more explanation, but they all hit on a deeper criticism, a more fundamental flaw.  I have created mental images and character sketches of all the folks in the book, and trust me, they're all different people, but in implementing the sketches into the prose, I think I've kinda crapped out so far in that grand task what literature majors call characterization. 

On one level, it's easy to fix.  I can easily go back through and tweak the reactions, add text, maybe change a few zigs here and a couple of zags there, and it'll be the gripping and satisfying story I've envisioned.  More universally, though, it leads to an interesting question: what is characterization?  The good folks at dictionary.reference.com tell me it's "...the creation and convincing representation of fictitious characters."  Thanks...no help there.  Thefreedictionary.com is a little better: "Representation of a character or characters on the stage or in writing, especially by imitating or describing actions, gestures, or speeches."  But c'mon, if that were all there is to characterization, then I've done a fine job.  My characters all...well, mostly...have described actions, gestures, and speeches.  No problem!

Yes, problem.  Actions, gestures, and speeches aren't the sum total of what makes us who we are.  Another big piece of the puzzle is our reactions.  When somebody brushes up against me in the halls at my work, I smile and say "excuse me" as though it were my fault, because that, to me, is the professional thing to do.  It's what I do, unless, that is, I'm grumpy or haven't had enough coffee yet or just got my blood drawn or had to deal with an irritating situation or...well, let's just say there are a host of situations that can affect my reaction.  I might smile a little less convincingly, or I may or may not say "excuse me."  What I don't think I'd ever do, of course, is react the way I've seen a student react...start screaming and yelling and threatening to physically harm the other person.  At least, I don't think I'd ever do that.

Problem is, I don't know.  I'd like to think I'm a very logical person.  I'd like to think that there aren't a set of circumstances like what the student I saw went through that would cause an explosion like that.  But I must admit, I don't know myself well enough to really know that for certain.  I doubt anybody does.

Diving back into fiction, then...how would you react?  Your husband, up to now a pretty normal guy, has just pulled you and your daughters through some sort of gateway to him, picked you up and transported you and a few hundred others to a fantastically beautiful estate, and told you that everything you've ever done and known is now destroyed.  Oh, and by the way, he's an immortal god.  Of war.  Would you smile, fake or no, and try to carry on and be strong?  Would you collapse into a screaming fit?  Would you shrug it off, happy that your new lifestyle is much better, including a palace and servants, than the previous?

Can you look me in the eyes and tell me that you're certain of your answer?  Didn't think so.

I'm reading Eye of the Needle now...almost done with it, in fact.  For those who haven't read it, I apologize if I bust a plot for you, but the German spy 'Die Nadel', whom in the book we've come to know as an absolutely effective and ruthless implementer of the arts of espionage up to and including murder, hits an espionage home run and discovers the Allies' plans, takes photos, and is on his way to the Fatherland to ruin Churchill's and Roosevelt's day, and then he falls for a pair of boobies.  What?  Are you kidding me?

In a similar vein...Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy could've had nearly any woman he wanted, and really, after Elizabeth Bennet smacked him around as she did, if you were the wealthy and good-looking bachelor proprietor of Pemberley estates, would you have gone back walking across a field for her?  Really? 

Hafta admit, though, that both do make for an interesting story...and conversely, they would've been quite the boring stories had reactions gone the other way.  Besides, I can't honestly say I wouldn't have done the same thing as those two men.  Can you?

The core problem of characterization, then, is also what leads to some of the most interesting quirks in fiction.  An author can create coldly logical characters, or completely illogical characters, or normal Joes who are somewhere in between.  All of that comes to light, then, as the author sets up the characterization in the prose.  But then the most remarkable thing happens.  Coldly logical characters can behave illogically (yeah, I'm not gonna mention the ultimate archetype here...not gonna do it no matter how much I wanna).  Completely illogical characters can do the inverse.  It happens in real life, right?  And so it happens in literature as well.

The challenging thing, then...my challenge, especially, once I get back around to editing the first part...is to make sure we understand why the characters are reacting the way they are, even when the characters themselves don't understand it.  That's the first part of the challenge; the second part is transmitting that through the prose to the reader.  It promises to be a fun exercise. 

Word Count: 51,450

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Research trip coming up

Didn't write a word last night.  It's not that I lazed around and did nothing, though; I had research to do.  It's actually fun, as I've mentioned before, to do research, and last night I really dug into it. 

The issue currently at hand is that a significant portion of the story takes place in the forge of Hephaestus.  Now, I've been in a couple of different forges before.  Problem was, when I was there it was either a social visit or a tour, and unfortunately in neither case did I pay as much attention as I should have. 

Socially, I visited a couple of forges back when I was in the Society for Creative Anachronisms.  It's an interesting group of people, many of whom enjoy doing such olde-style crafts as writing an e at the end of everye worde that will beare it, weaving clothe (OK, I'll stop now) from bobbins, embroidering with "period" (i.e., breakable) needles, and yes, beating on hot metal with big hammers.  Oh, and hitting each other with big sticks, which I guess isn't technically a craft so much as an (enormously silly) activity.  I didn't particularly share a fondness for any of those crafts, or the sticking either, though I'll admit that the brewing got me hooked.  That said, it was a social activity for me, a chance to hang out with some pretty cool people.  Consequently I can recall details about some of the conversations we had in the forge far more vividly than the actual forging process.  I do, however, remember an awful lot of propane blowtorches...and somehow the idea of propane blowtorches being used by the god of smiths in his volcanic forge just doesn't jive in my mental imagery. 

More recently I toured Colonial Williamsburg, and I remember going through the forge there.  It was dark, and it was noisy.  That's about the extent of what I remember.  Keep in mind that the idea of banging big hammers against white-hot metal doesn't do anything for me.  No offense to the smiths there, but the merchants, the post office, and the other craftsmen held my attention far longer than the ironworkers were able to.  I even got pictures...ferinstance, there's one of my wife, standing on front of something that might be interesting to be able to see now.  There's another of my brother, in front of something else I kinda wish I could describe.  Now I'm kind of kicking myself over what I didn't learn, of course, but at the time...well, who knew?

So last night I went online.  I found several how-to guides on forging and on smelting, and that was interesting.  I even found a great site with videos on the smelting process, which is good because I don't recall whether there was a smelting area in the smithy at Williamsburg.  Thanks to that site, I think I have an idea of what happens when iron is smelted. 

It's really important that I get it down...as I've said before, nothing ruins a fiction experience like running over a passage and knowing that things aren't done thataway.  There are, of course, plenty of places I can read about the processes of smelting and forging.  The problem is with the translational aspect of language.  When I read what someone else has written about what, say, smelting looks like, I'm really getting that writer's interpretation of what smelting looks like.  Ever tried playing the description game?  You take a picture of a room, or a horse, or pretty much anything else, and then describe the room or the horse or the anything else to a friend.  Based on that description, that friend describes it to another friend, assuming he has more than one friend.  Let it go as long as you'd like, and you'll be surprised how far separated the description becomes from the reality, and pretty quickly in the chain. 

That's what I'm looking to avoid.  By going and seeing it myself, what I can then offer my own readers is my interpretation of forging and smithing, rather than my interpretation of someone else's interpretation of it. 

All that is boiling down, of course, to a need for another road trip sometime soon.  Colonial Williamsburg is only an hour's drive from here, and our daughter hasn't gotten to see it yet.  Sounds like a good (and, incidentally, tax-deductible, now that I'm in the business of writing a book...hmm) trip to take one weekend.  I'll let the ladies run off to all the other sights in town, and I'll stand in the forge and pretend to like it. 

But those are the fine details.  I got enough last night to continue pushing through the prose, so tonight, onward it shall be. 

Word Count: 50,124

Monday, May 9, 2011

A brief commercial interlude

The contest I'm taking part in (link at the bottom of the page for the curious) asks me to make a post to the blog about what I would do with dedicated server space online.  It's an interesting post for me to write, because it touches on another important question...what should a web space be to an author, and more specifically, a fiction author? 

To seek the answer to that question, it's interesting to look at other authors' web pages.  Stephen King's site, stephenking.com, is a full-fledged e-commerce site devoted to the commercial aspects of King's career.  You can read his bio, snag a picture or two of him, view his FAQ on all sorts of subjects related to his career, search for his books by name or by keyword, view trailers of various movies based on his books, and even order a t-shirt.  It seems a logical set of commercial content.

Clive Cussler, another mega-author, has roughly the same at his site, clive-cussler-books.com.  It's organized a little differently, and I'm not a big fan of the floating menus he uses, but overall it follows the same pattern.  Newbie N.K. Jemisin seems to be building similar content on her own site, nkjemisin.com.  She's only got one book out so far, of course, so having a search option for her books by title or by keyword is rather unneeded. 

More interesting is what Christopher Paolini, author of the Eragon series, did with his site, alagaesia.com.  He's only got the one series, so it makes sense at this point to have his site, down to and including his domain name, devoted entirely to that work.  The question that poses, of course, is what happens later in his career?  Is he planning to only have the four books published and then move on to something more mundane?  Or is he going to create a separate domain name for each effort?  At what point does Paolini become the brand name, rather than Alagaesia or Eragon?  Considering the author's age, I can't help but think that he hasn't really thought that far ahead. 

All that said, Paolini's site is the most interesting, at least insofar as what is offered.  Clearly, he's very focused in on content surrounding his (only) work, but he's got a bit of creative genius tumbled up in there.  At his site, you can actually download maps of his world as well as pictures, you can learn a bit of the language, and you can even download a computer game.  Creative is great, especially in this case since the last book is a couple of years late...keeps the fans involved. 

So...what will I do?  I already have a small space hacked out of the ether, at evankoenig.com, and currently it has exactly one link...to this blog.  Eventually, if and when I get the sense that anybody really cares, I see myself putting up the same information everybody else has...my bio, my pictures, even maybe a crazy t-shirt or two.  From a commercial standpoint, though, what Paolini has done makes a lot of sense.  I don't have the technical wizardry to program a game, but I know those who do. 

And...to bring this post full-circle...if I do that sort of technical magic, a dedicated server will be important...even vital, if the game catches on.  World of Warcraft, to take the extreme example, has many dedicated servers that, I presume, they own and maintain.  I'm probably fairly unique among authors in that I actually do know how to maintain my own server...but why would I, when I make more money doing other things than it costs me to pay someone else to manage the server? 

All things considered, then, I guess having a dedicated server is hopefully in my future. 

And now, back to the regularly scheduled writing....

Word Count: 50,124

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Exhaustion, recharging, and splitting wood

I haven't blogged since Thursday.  While there's no promise in this blog that the frequency will necessarily be any faster, I've been doing pretty well at keeping this relatively daily in nature.  I apologize for the slippage. 

Fact is, I got exhausted.  For the past month, I've had project after project hammer me in my day job, keeping me working 60-70 hours per week, and every weekend has had some sort of event: daughter's birthday, Easter, prom, school play, etc.  I used to recharge my batteries from a long week at work by sitting in my pajamas playing computer games for a substantial part of the weekend.  Since I learned to love writing, I've been recharging by sitting in my pajamas and putting out tens of thousands of words of prose.  Unfortunately, with the pace I've been keeping, I've found it necessary to recharge instead by putting my head on a pillow and closing my eyes.

There's an inherent tradeoff between writing creatively and blogging.  Writing creatively about writing creatively still represents not only an enjoyable pastime but also a useful exercise in which I talk about what I've been going through. I've already had the opportunity, in fact, to go back to some of my earlier blogs and learn a bit from them.  The problem is that the time I spend on writing about writing is time I don't spend on writing.  When I knock out a couple of thousand words in a night, I enjoy sitting down to write a thousand word blog.  When I'm too tired, though, to do more than a couple of hundred words, something must give, and for the past couple of days, it's been the blog.  Again, I apologize.

Today, I grabbed the muse and ran with it.  It was fulfilling to once again pull down nearly ten thousand words in a day, and even more so considering I did it in a small part of a day...the large part being devoted to my wife's Mother's Day.   I got up and wrote, and then went to brunch, and then went to paint ceramics (that being something my lovely bride loves to do), and came back home and continued to write.  Now, as I blog in preparation for closing the night out, I'm proud of the amount of prose I've committed to bytes. 

How does that happen?  In part, it boils back down to "write what you know."  I've been mired in topics I had to research or think about...questions that came up requiring a bit of further fleshing out of my world's rules of magic, for example, or simple questions of Ireland or Scotland or Italy.  But today and tonight I got into a topic I know well, and the words flew out at a truly pleasing rate as a result. 

What topic?  Believe it or not, splitting wood.  I used to split wood every weekend to heat my home back when I lived in Trapper Creek, so I know the subject well, and I know what makes people successful at it...and what makes it suck.  So when my heroine has to learn to do it, I know how to tell the story.  It's great, how sometimes the story actually tells itself. 

Tomorrow, I'm on to parts that I know a bit less of, but those promise to be fun as well.  For tonight, I am pleased with what I've accomplished. 

Word Count: 50,124

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Oopsies

We've all made them, those little errors in life.  Those "oopsies," as my family likes to call them.  Back in my Army days, we called them CLMs, for "Career Limiting Moments"--but then, we took everything oh, so seriously back then.  I've even been known for committing them in my current day job, older and wiser though I may be.  Ferinstance, I fairly recently reconciled the monthly population report (yes, boring stuff) with the wrong month's reconciliation data...and it still reconciled somehow.  Oopsie.  Not nearly as grand an oopsie as some of my younger stuff: "Billy (name is changed to protect the guilty) and I were throwing pipe cleaner darts at each other and one got stuck in my head, here."  Oopsie.  "I know you don't think I'm old enough for BBs, so I used BB-shaped rocks in the gun to shoot Bobby (name is changed this time to protect the mostly-innocent) and didn't mean to hit him in the face."  Oopsie.

*ahem*  Please tell me I didn't have a singularly, abnormally violent childhood.  Anybody?

In any event, it's entirely possible as an author to make an oopsie too.  I've already bludgeoned the poor author of the FBI thriller I read recently over her mistakes (see my post on asspulls).  It's not limited to authors; apparently editors and publishers make their share, too.  Franzen's fourth novel, titled ironically enough "The Corrections," went to print in the earlier draft version instead of what Franken had fixed up, and it apparently contained enough mistakes to justify recalling all 80,000 copies.  Famously, the 1632 edition of the King James Bible left out one word accidentally, to an end where the divinely-inspired works Commanded us "Thou shalt commit adultery."  Oopsie?  A small part of me is sad to have missed that, but the majority of me knows Heide would'a kicked my tush to have even considered reading it.

Isaac Asimov, in one of the many anthologies he wrote that I used to own, discussed some of his errors...some caused by mistake, some by lack of knowledge, and some only proved later to be in error by scientific discovery.  For example, it was only after The Dying Night came out that scientists discovered that Mercury does, in fact, rotate with respect to the sun.  Oopsie.  While he certainly couldn't be blamed for going with the existing knowledge that one side of that planet was always dark, he was careful to correct the story in later publications.

But wait a minute...fiction is called fiction because...well, because it ain't truth.  Non-fiction is meant to be truth.  Fiction is the opposite of non-fiction...well, yeah, as deep as that statement wasn't, hopefully you get the idea.  So who cares if Asimov said that Mercury doesn't rotate when it really does?  He also put a robot on the moon controlling most of the universe, and nobody was surprised when astronauts continued not finding such a robot on their visits, right?  What's the difference between fiction and oopsie?

It boils down to suspension of disbelief.  We can believe while we're reading his masterwork that there is a robot on the moon because he sets up a world in which travel between interspatial bodies is normal.  Those of us who haven't studied Mercury did just fine suspending our disbelief in The Dying Night, too.  It boils down to the axiom fiction writers face: make up your rules early on, make sure your audience knows them, and then don't break them.  And, while you're making sure the audience knows the rules, make sure there isn't a problem with a significant number of them saying that one of them just can't possibly be.  Like, um, what I did last night. 

Now, I break the rules plenty.  I've been good at it since before and during my West Point days.  As a writer, I enjoy bending, playing with them.  Ferinstance, I put Atlantis, an island for which the Atlantic Ocean was named, in the Pacific.  Just 'cause, sorta.  I mean, it helped with the storyline, but it didn't have to be.  But I wanted to make a point about how much of what we know is based on rumor.  The story explains it all away, fairly satisfactorily I think. 

But last night I really blew it.  I started writing the part of the story where our lovely heroin meets Hephaestus in his forge.  I'm not sure if I was just feeling too big for my britches, or not paying attention, but I wrote about her walking out of his forge into a beautiful chilly spring day in Scotland.  I'm getting pretty good, I think, at being thoroughly descriptive without too much describiness, and I was really happy with this passage.  Until, that is, I woke up and re-read my source on Hephaestus.  The Greek god of blacksmithing's forge was in a volcano.  Actually, it WAS a volcano.  I guess there were volcanoes in Scotland...sixty million years ago, give or take a millennia or two.  Now, not so much.  Oopsie.  Granted, it wouldn't be hard for most people who don't recall and don't want to look up the mythology surrounding Hephaestus to sail right by the passage, just like it's not hard for most people to sail right by the passage about Mercury's dark hemisphere (though the comparison stops at the oopsie; I'm nowhere near as talented as the grand master was).  But I'll know, and the thing about book fiction is that it gives the curious readers plenty of time to fact-check.  Assuming my dreams come true and the book is published and even sells a few copies, I know that if I don't fix it I'll run into people on the street who'll say, "Oh, hey, you're Evan Koenig?  You know that Hephaestus's forge is in a volcano, right?"

Well, crap.  I guess I had better go fix that oopsie now.  Till later!

Word Count: 41,300

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Joy of (writing about) Sex

I must really be strange.

I don't like reading about sex.

It's not that I'm against sex, and I've never really considered myself a prude.  In fact, in some circles I've been known for having a wickedly adult sense of humor.  I'll even go so far as to admit to allowing my eyes to observe porn in my, um, younger days.  I only read the articles, and I only watched the movies for the scintillating plots, of course.  I won't even admit to knowing what might be included in the plot arc of, say, a movie titled Lesbian Spank Inferno...no, not me.  It's just that I don't go out of my way to read about sex. 

To me and my experience, there are two ways of describing sexual activity in prose.  One is lovemaking como la novela rom├íntica, and involves the use of delicate language alluding to acts without ever really getting down and dirty.  The second is porno porno, like what you find in the letters published in Penthouse...if, um, you open a Penthouse, which I won't admit to doing right now.  Still, I suspect that method uses cute little cliched terms (e.g., "one eyed trouser mouse") to graphically paint an X-rated image. 

Unfortunately, my linguistic talent may be described many ways, but I doubt "delicate" is one of those.  In prose, I'm about as delicate as a cruise missile.  That pretty much defaults me into #2 style of sex writing...bow chicka wow wow.  Even if I thought I could do the first relatively well, I don't like reading it, if for no other reason than its romance novel feel. 

What's really unfortunate, I think, is that I have to try.  I really appreciate the feedback I've gotten on Book #1 so far, but a common complaint is that it details the relationship of a man...the god of war, really...and his wife, but pretty much pretends they don't really have sex.  For example, at one point, my storytelling is detailed as hell on the couple's argument, and on the resolution of the argument...and then they go to bed, and then poof, it's morning.  Real couples have sex after an argument.  So does this couple.  Thus, I need to acknowledge that. 

I've tried already.  In the second book, I wrote a scene the night before Crystal starts her grand quest, and made them have sex.  I left it general-ish.  Definitely didn't describe any body fluids.  I also managed to avoid the "round mounds of love" (bow chicka) way of referring to any of it.  Nobody but me has read it yet, but I think I did a darn good job of tiptoeing through that literary tulip field.  We'll see, I guess.

Till then...g'night!

Word Count: 40,912

Monday, May 2, 2011

Silly little sidetrips

I wonder sometimes if anybody else had the same troubles I did telling stories when I was young, though the logical side of me knows that it's a common issue, at least enough so to have become a stereotypical problem: I rambled.  I rambled a lot.  I could sit down to tell a parent about what fun I'd had playing with neighborhood kids that day, and before you know it I was filling in details about the frog I'd seen and the bumps in the road that I'd almost tripped on and....  Get to the point, I was gently (and sometimes not so gently) told. 

Later, that GTTP (Get To The Point) message was reinforced by...well, nearly everyone.  Teachers certainly didn't want me rambling on with a roundabout slew of facts after they'd asked me a question in class.  My friends were the same; a group conversation had to tend toward terseness in order to be shared equally.  So I, like I suspect nearly every young boy does, slowly over the years developed a desire for GTTP stories.  Why speak a novel when a novella would do?  Why tell a novella when a short story sufficed?  And most of the time, with the colloquial stories we told each other, a five-paragraph essay proved too long.  "I took Barbara to the movie.  I kissed her.  It was good."  There.  Story done, on to next one.  Not that that ever happened, mind you; I don't remember knowing anybody named Barbara, and I sure don't remember taking many girls to the movies in my studious little childhood, but...well, that's what writing fiction is all about. 

Imagine my dismay, then, when I completed Part I and read it to my beloved only to be told that I didn't spend enough time in the silly little sidetrips I'd learned to avoid.  "What?  Who cares where Birch came from?" I asked, surprised that anybody might consider the question important enough to dent my otherwise straight-as-an-arrow plot arc. 

But, as usual, she was right, as proven by a dozen (so far) helpful and friendly alpha readers who have told me the same thing.  And, I have to admit, as proven by my reading, now that I'm paying attention.  I'm going through an audio copy of The Eye of the Needle now, not so much because I've developed any sort of love for spy thrillers--I haven't--but because it was Follett's break-out novel, the one he wrote after writing a few flops that made him into a star. 

It wasn't till I got into it that I recalled I had already seen the movie.  Then again, the movie was popular back when I was of an age where seeing women's breasts sent me all a-tizzie, and that was one of the two things I remember about that movie...Donald Sutherland's eyes being the other.  So, in a way, I'm glad that I'm reading the book now that I can see past boobies.  Usually, anyway.  In any event, I've been noticing, now that I'm paying attention ("boobies"...hehe...oh, sorry)...what was I saying?  Oh, yeah...Follett does it.  Wander down the silly little sidetrips, that is.  I just listened on the way home to the telling of the part where Faber and the wife meet, and...tiles from the roof?  Really?  But no, his talk of the issue of the roofing lends some realism and, in a way, serves to ground the story further. 

GTTP is still important, of course.  A story that just sits and spins around becomes boring, and people do the worst thing imaginable to a book that becomes boring...they put it down and don't read it.  But selected sidetrips, like, I guess, Birch's origins, are important to take. 

Word Count: 37,565

Sunday, May 1, 2011

...and now, I return

The other Stephen King, in his book On Writing, discusses taking days off, a practice he strongly recommends against.  In defense of his recommendation, he says that the characters will go stale.  He also says that the excitement of creation fades, and the work begins to feel like work.  Bottom line...don't take days off, whether it's Monday, Sunday, your birthday, or even Christmas Day. 

He's right, probably, only I would couch it differently for a newbie author.  While I'd love to be able to address what most newbie authors might feel, I can't...I can only talk about me and hope it applies on a larger scale.  For me, this is a labor of love, ish...one I hope will pay off some day, but I'm old enough and grouchy enough to know that hopes and dreams don't always come true.  I have a day job, one that I'm usually pretty happy with...and always very pleased that it pays the bills.  Sometimes that day job takes so much out of me that I really do have to recharge a bit, and while the writing does that to a certain extent, I find that sometimes it's just not the right path toward restfulness.

I have a life, as well, and this weekend it collided a bit with the writing.  We got to spend a beautiful day at a garden show with some dear friends, and last night was the daughter's prom...a major milestone in anyone's book, I'd like to think. 

During the last couple of days of gleeful noncreation, the characters haven't gone stale.  The work now doesn't feel like work any more than it did.  That said, I'm getting back to it today.  I actually feel better now, having let my brain get away from the rigors of storytelling for just a bit.  However, I know I can't go away for long.  That's what happened a few years ago when I failed at writing a book.  I got into a sticky point in the plot where I wasn't sure what should happen next.  I realized, in looking at where I was stuck, that I didn't like the story I was writing.  At that point, so I've read, seasoned authors either scrap the whole project and start over or figure out how to fix it.  I walked away for a day to regroup.  The next day, I didn't know any better where to take it, so I continued regrouping.  The next day, I did the same.  Day after day passed, and I kept regrouping, until the calendar told me it was December 1st, the end of NaNoWriMo. 

You know, unfortunately, it gets easier to not go back to something the longer I stay away.  That's where I got with the book a few years ago, and it's where I'm in danger of getting to with this book if I don't get right back to it.  There are a lot of tough parts of writing.  Part of the task is figuring out the details of where the storyline is going...I know, I've called it exciting discovery before, but it's not always that exciting.  Sometimes it's just plain hard thought.  Constantly figuring out how exactly the characters will react to what they're experiencing can be tough.  Creating while paying a bit of attention to following the proper rules of the language can be tough.  And, as I've said before, getting up early and staying up late, spending time away from everybody else, can be tough.  The longer I stay away from the minute-by-minute conquering those challenges, the bigger they seem to be.  The bigger they seem, the easier it is to give up.  And...no, I'm not gonna give up this time. 

So...thank you, life, for giving me a lovely intermission, but the house lights are dimming and the curtain is rising once again. 

Word Count: 35,258