Thursday, April 28, 2011

My mad research skillz

So I opened the box, and now I have to close it.  The box in question, of course, is a research How-To; yesterday I talked about how important research is, but I ran out of lunch hour before I ran out of talk.  Not an unusual problem for me, of course, but it's OK...lunchtime happens every day.

So...a research How-To.  It's a task I've become rather used to through my various jobs and educational programs.  As a teacher, I was always researching part because I was curious about new stuff in the IT industry as well as questions of why it got where it was the way it did, but also because my students pretty much demanded it.  Granted, none of them ever said "You need to research," but they did ask lots of great questions, many of which stumped me at the time, and the only way to maintain credibility is to come back with answers.  Later, then, in the business and in my Ph.D. program, I had to research as a matter of course in order to generate the thousands of pages of reports that I haven't read or seen since.

Research as a fantasy author still draws on the basic techniques of academic research, but it's fundamentally different.  For one thing, nobody really cares if I'm "right," only if I present a believable argument that keeps their suspension of disbelief going.  While there's still a significant burden of factual reliability inherent in that, it's not like I'll have a Ph.D. expert in the field skeptically reviewing every fact and opinion.  In other words, for the first time in my researching life, "wiki" is no longer a four-letter word.  Well, OK, it's got four letters.  But it's not a dirty word any longer.

Used to be.  In fact, I've seen teachers who threaten to fail any paper that cites a wiki as a source.  The reason is that it's a popularly-edited site.  I, for example, could go into the page on Saturn and write a blurb about them finding a new moon for Saturn at CERN, and that blurb would stay there till somebody challenges it...which hopefully wouldn't take long.  Sure, I could...but why would I, you ask?  Well, most of us wouldn't, but there's enough possibility of it happening to render anything coming from there as a target for skepticism.  Instead of wiki, then, an academic researcher is supposed to use credible sources, such as primary sources (them what saw it) and peer-reviewed sources...if ten people in politics say something's a good idea, it's probably a dumb idea, but if ten people in any academic field say something's a good idea, then by definition it's a good idea. is, though, a great resource for researching for my book.  For example, when I tried to figure out what the primal emotions in a list I could use...I opened the site up and typed in "list of emotions".  The list I found on the page that appeared magically before my eyes was from a work a decade or so ago...or at least, I think it was.  I didn't follow the citation and check the reference, because...well, who cares?  All I wanted was a list I could use.  The list I got could've been a crackpot's listing of another crackpot's list, but it sounded right to me, so I used it.

I've had to research other things as well.  For example, there was a scene at Stanford University.  Now, I've never actually been to Stanford University, so I started from a bit of a deficit there.  True, I could've picked any other school on the west coast, but it would've been the same deficit, and Stanford, by reputation, has the best physicists.  That, and I wanted Matt to have had experience plot spoilers, though.  In any event, the scene at Stanford took me a few solid hours to research enough to write. 

My computer, by the way, hates me when I'm researching.  I typically open Internet Explorer and start going, leaving each screen open as I continue moving toward other information, and I open as many tabs in IE as it will allow (yes, there is a limit!) and then launch another copy of IE.  With Stanford, I think I had two windows of IE maxed out and a third started with a few tabs open. I also only close a window or a tab once I realize it's useless to the matter at hand...which does happen to some, but for most only occurs after I'm done writing the scene. 

The process is straightforward and fairly standard.  First, I open Google and launch a search for whatever keywords I think will get me closest.  Since the Stanford scene was set in the physics area, my keywords to start were "physics Stanford University."  Google opens a bunch of hits...I have Google set to display the maximum number of results per page, which is 100, since it's much easier to scan the top 100 than it is to dink around with 10 at a time.  There's another setting in Google that requires each link to open in a separate window, but I prefer to use tabs, so instead I right-click anything I want to see and select the "Open in Separate Tab" option.  I'll usually open 8 or 10 different tabs...typically, many of the top 100 are repeats, so 8 to 10 is the total relevant options. Once I've read each one, some of them generate another several tabs each, with links coming from links.  Anything that's potentially useful is opened. 

Stanford was a special case, in that the university maintains its own pretty sophisticated web site.  You can get a lot there, which in my case meant looking at the map (they have an interactive map, so you can search by room number or building name, which was nice) and perusing the list of faculty and seeing where on the map their offices were.  Not trying to be creepy, but there's no point saying that the noble heroes wander down a hall of first-floor offices if all the offices are on the third floor.  There were some guesses I had to make, but again--writing fantasy isn't an exact science.  I had to be reasonably close, but not perfect. A class schedule was also mildly useful, as it said which rooms classes were held in, and lab classes are usually held...well, in labs. 

I was able to find reference to the vibration-resistant labs two stories beneath ground level in an article I found on somebody (can't recall who) who did some famous research in those labs, and the journalist who covered it was kind enough to describe them for me.  I had actually been hoping to put the physicists to be rescued in a metal shop, since I know that research physics departments always have a well-appointed shop to build all their 30kV capacitor charging circuits and other doomawhatzits, but I couldn't find anything pinpointing where that was in the Varian building.  Ah, well...the underground labs made a good Plan B for the scene location.  I was also kinda thinking how nice it would be to have something happening in SLAC, but there's really not much information out there readily accessible in the public domain on that little secret spot of Stanford, and I'm not interested in hacking for it, and I'm also not interested in putting the book writing on hold for weeks as I conduct extensive research.  Basically, when I'm researching fantasy fiction, I'm a low-hanging-fruit kinda guy. 

The San Francisco main public library was another interesting bit.  You can get a listing of the least, the important of their site.  This is where my own background comes in, because I have spent enough time chatting with the librarians who have worked for and with me to have an idea how many people would be working there based on the structure of the primary staff.  I'm probably off by a few, but again, it ain't rocket science.  As for imagery, Google's image search helped me a lot.  When you do a Google search, you can select Image from the text links at the top of the screen to just pull up a page of images, and there were enough pictures of the library out there that I was able to successfully build a description into the story. 

Had some trouble with flowers early on.  There's a scene where the family gets to a country cottage, and I decided it oughtta have some ever-present flowers to decorate the English-cottage style landscaping.  So, in the initial draft, I wrote about it having lots of perennials such as pansies (Heide's favorite) and columbine (my favorite).  Second time through, I got this nagging little doubt.  Once again, I turned to Wikipedia, and bam!  Columbine is a perennial, but pansies aren't.  Oops.  A little verbiage change, and I was OK, but I'm glad I checked.  Based on what I've read by other authors, every person who read the book and knew anything about flowers would've written me an e-mail yelling at me for calling a pansy a perennial when, in fact, it's a biennial.

Hope this helps somebody.  As I said, I've done a lot of opening links from links, usually in a separate tab, and spinning through them to see what I can learn.  I close the tab immediately if there's nothing useful on it, but most tabs I leave open as I then write the section I was researching...there's nothing like knowing you've seen something, but having no idea where, and not being able to find it again.

Happy researching!  

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Joy of Research

Back when I was in high school, and later in college, the word "research" was a dirty one for me, a term that conjured dark and scary visions of musty piles of books surrounding a hapless redheaded stepchild (me) on all sides, closing in with their teeth bared.  Yeah, I know, books don't have teeth, but I have always had an active imagination.  So sue me.  Later, in my Ph.D. program, research was far quicker and easier due to the availability of large and diverse databases, most of which allowed me to pull up all the articles on, say, "student outcomes assessment," written in the last five years in less time than it took me to write this sentence.  Reading them was another story entirely, of course, but at least the information was readily available.  That said, I still hated the word as well as the activity it represents. 

Research, in an academic setting, sucks.  At least, it sucks, in my opinion.  That's not what you'd expect a Ph.D. candidate to say, I know, but it's how I feel.  Research in terms of "hey, let's learn something" is great and exciting and fun, but all too often academic research is more for "hey, I already know this but need to find somebody else who said it before I can say it" or "hey, I don't know this, and never really cared to, but I have a paper due on it" or, worse, at the dissertation level: "hey, I don't know this, and neither does anybody else...mainly because it's pretty boring and nobody will care even after I publish it." 

One might think at first that a fantasy author doesn't need to research.  After all, it's my world.  If I say the trees are all pink, then the trees are all pink.  Why are they pink?  Well, it's because this world's version of chloroform, or whatever you call the green stuff, is pink.  Why?  Because it is.  And when a reader informs me that the green stuff is actually called chlorophyll, I can get all author-huffy and walk away complaining of anal-retentive idiots. 

That's not how it works, though.  A quick Google search will prove it...see?  I did research.  Bruce Coville, author of over 100 books, says:
  • The best fantasy writers do the best research.
  • You better know your lore, because you’d better bet your reader knows it.
  • You can break the rules (lore, etc.) but do it with intent. You have to know it first, too.
  • Research can often help you find the solution to a story problem.
  • You have an obligation to do your research.
Other sites join in the wisdom, discussing the importance of research in the task of world building and such.  It's OK, it seems, to have things on your world defying laws of nature commonly accepted here on Earth, but when you do so, you'd better a) know why it's defied, and b) consistently apply it. Otherwise the reader loses engagement, and then interest, and the crime is committed whereby your book is put down, unread. 

In my efforts currently, it's even more important to do research, because I'm trying to create a quasi-realistic world based on our own.  Yes, I remember a lot from my physics and psychology and engineering classes, which helps, but I have to look up things all the time anyway.  An example is this morning's efforts to take on a god's voice as he explains emotional magic to our noble heroine.  When he does so, it's only natural that she'll ask questions, mostly about the distinction between primary and secondary emotions, because that distinction forms an important boundary for the magical powers she will be able to wield.  I vaguely recall there being a difference from some psychology class I took somewhere, or maybe it was a psych class I observed as Dean, but regardless I needed to really know it if I was going to speak, as a god, authoritatively. So...research.  And I enjoyed it.

I'm even having a bit of fun in the writing...I think this will be the first fantasy novel ever to mention Lagrangian mechanics, mostly because it brings me joy to bring them up in a fantasy book, but also because it plays into the system.  To do so effectively, though, I had to not only be able to simplify the topic so that the average fantasy reader could understand it, but I also had to solidly grasp, myself, how it fits into the magical structure I've built.  Otherwise, the reader would be greeted by a scene where two people just up and started talking about advanced physics.  Does that happen often in your circle of existence?  Doesn't in mine.  That said, though, in order to advance the story well I had to go back and research classical mechanics my grad school experience, we quit talking about Lagrangian mechanics, really, and just started using energy equations, so it's been a couple of decades since I studied them.  But once again, I found the research fun, because it was focused on something I really wanted to understand and then use. 

Lots of research, then, is involved in writing a good fantasy novel...and just as much in writing what I hope will be a great fantasy novel.  The "how" part of that I'll likely cover in a future blog...I have plenty of bits left in my blog for today, but my lunchtime is over.  It's been an interesting journey, though, refining my research efforts to meet the demands of fiction writing. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

My portals of discovery

"A man's errors are his portals of discovery." - James Joyce

I've started closing out my manuscript when I end each writing session.  Before, I'd leave it open and, when I sat back down to write, just take right up again where I'd left off.  I find, though, that having the document open to page 1 and then scrolling through it--yes, I know the keystroke to go to the end directly, but I force myself to scroll--engages me in skimming over what I've already written, thus making my activity a little less prone to error.  Or, technically, it makes me more prone to catch the errors I've made, which unless I blog about my errors later is pretty much the same result.

Found one this morning, in fact.  A couple of days ago, I'd introduced an adept named Patrick (so named because "Humor Element #15" didn't sound right) to Crystal.  Patrick was wearing an orange robe.  He bragged to her about studying fire magic.  Last night, then, I'd discussed the colors associated with the elements of magic, and fire is red, not orange.  Ah, crap.  I suck.  It's an easy fix, but still, it shows to go ya that I'm just not as prefect as I think to like I am.

After my writing spell this morning, though, I was sitting in my library reading a book, and found this:

"Andrew Carr!  Andrew Carr!  It was an illusion, of course.  No one within three hundred miles of this place knew...."

Flip forward eight pages, and the same apparition that had saved Mr. Carr from sure death in a snow bank by calling to him by name says that she doesn't want to keep referring to him as stranger, and so he gives her his name for apparently the first time.

Oops.  Good to know, I guess, that other authors aren't prefect either.

I must point out, though...this wasn't just another author.  This is a Darkover novel...Marion Zimmer Bradley, herself.  On the Easter Island of great authors, there's a statue of her.  She stands together with such greats as Piers Anthony and Tolkien.  She didn't write fantasy fiction; she defined it.

And she wasn't perfect neither.

Well, I guess that puts my little mistakes--my portals of discovery--in decent company.  Till later, then!

Monday, April 25, 2011

What do authors look like?

So Stephen King's recommendation has caught me, hook, line, and stinker.  I read everywhere.  It's been a while since I've really read a lot for fun, but now that I've given myself permission to do so and even accepted that it's an important thing to do, once again it's become a drug to me.  A good drug, I'd say, but still...I read everywhere.  I have audiobooks in the car.  I have books piled so high in my "library" at home (my privy...toilet...whatever polite term you wish to call the john) that they're a bit of a falling hazard.  I have several by the bed, though that pile at least I manage to find ways to avoid when I get there.

It's no surprise, then, that I was reading this weekend while waiting for my car's oil to be changed...and, right after that, for the tires to be rotated, since the service man at the dealership made a solid enough argument that it was needed.  I found myself in the foreword of Anne McCaffrey's book containing one novella and several short stories about dragons.  Yes, I'm sure there's more than one book meeting that description, but that's all I remember about it right now.  In any event, the topic at hand was her dealing with others' recognition, or not, of her as she does her author-y stuff: stuff like appearing at conferences, riding airplanes to and from book signings in such strange places as Fairbanks, AK (just kidding, my frozen friends up there!), and going shopping in bookstores for her son's first published novel.

"You don't look like Anne McCaffrey."  She's reportedly heard this line an awful lot.  Probably more, in fact, than I've been told that I don't look like Stephen King.  Which is absolutely true in my case, assuming you're talking about the same Stephen King I'm talking about.  But she IS Anne McCaffrey, and as far as I am aware, the only one on the whole planet. 

So what exactly do we, the reading public, expect Anne McCaffrey to look like?  I mean, I've seen pictures of her, and...well, she didn't look like I expected, either.  But I also happened across the web site of Alex Kava, whose detective mystery I'd just finished.  Boy, she looked EXACTLY like what I didn't expect.  So what did I expect, you ask?  Honestly, I have no idea what I expected these folks to look like.  I just remember looking at the picture and thinking, "That can't be her."  It's not a gender-specific thing, either; neither Robert Jordan nor that other Stephen King looked one iota like I thought they would.

This, of course, led me to two separate questions, one of which I can answer now.  The first question was "does anybody know what an author is supposed to look like?  A quick and quasi-scientific Google search tells me that the answer to that is "absolutely not."  I couldn't even find a site addressing the question, honestly, and heck, I went two whole search screens back.  It appears, then, that the problem of not knowing what we expect an author to look like, followed closely by the problem of authors not looking like we would have expected them to if we had known what to expect in the first place, is a nearly universal problem.  Or perhaps I should say problems.  I'm just too tired after a long day of work to care.  Or grammar, for that matter. 

The deeper and more engaging question--to me, anyway--is whether I'll look like what I'm expected to look like once (OK, fine...if) I become famous.  When people read my work, what picture will they get in their mind when they think of the guy who hammered it out on a keyboard?  And will it be a different picture for Evan Koenig than it is for Bob, the Grumpy Dean?

Can't wait to find out, which means I better get to hammering, right? 

Word Count: 24,773 and climbing

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Writing what you know

So, I finally got to the part I'd been looking forward to...specifically, the hazing of Crystal.  In the interest of not spoiling too much of the plot I'll be general in my comments, but boy, is this part fun to write.  It springs from the fact that Crystal can't just jump right from being a human to being a god...she's got stuff to learn.  A LOT of stuff to learn, of course.  And sometimes the only way to teach a LOT of stuff is to use "alternative" teaching techniques.  Hazing, in other words.  Technically, it's not hazing in the traditional definition of hazing, but it's still not the most comfortable way to learn. 

I know this because I've been through it.  It seems like most of the learning points from the Army and the Infantry were so important, so "LOT"-worthy, that the Army's normal mode of teaching was the "alternative" mode.  It was rare, as I recall, for us to sit in comfortable, climate-controlled classrooms listening to the gentle lecture of a subject matter expert.  It was far more frequent that we were given requirements that obliquely taught us stuff that we needed to know...usually not in what would be considered a climate-controlled classroom, either. 

At least, that's how I remember it.  Thinking back, we really did spend a fair amount of time in traditional learning activities, but the ones that made the biggest impact on me, and thus stand fresher in my recall, were the other ones.  Maybe there really is something to it?

In any event, a great many authors, editors, and agents across several publications I've read preached the gospel of "Writing what you know."  It's important, as the truth of what you know comes out in a way that no level of research can really make up for.  Luckily for me, I know education.  I know teaching.  I know learning.  I know hazing, too.  What that does is make the writing of these passages fly by.  I don't plan what's going to happen; it just does, and it sounds good and right as I discover it at about 80 words per minute. 

So...while Crystal is going through a rough time, I hope all my friends out in the real world are having a happy Easter today, full of all the alcohol, chocolate, marshmallow, and pig parts that you all desire.  Tomorrow it's back to work, but today is a wonderful holiday.

Word Count:  21,615

Friday, April 22, 2011

Looking back, and forward too

Sometimes it's useful to look back and assess how far we have, or have not, come on our paths of personal productivity, and then to build on that assessment with future practices which will help us go farther, do more, and reach our goals in the future. 

There.  That gets the management-speak crap out of the way for now, I guess.  It's what I get for coming in to work early and blogging in the quiet of my office in a business suit rather than at home in my pajamas. 

It really is interesting, though, to re-read the first post I wrote. No management-speak...just a bit of introspection. 

"At this point, I've done quite a bit. I'm up to nearly 32K words, and still have a lot of the story to get to."

Heh.  32K words seemed like "quite a bit" then, certainly.  Now that I'm nearing 100K?  Not so much.

"But this one will be different."

I guess "different" is a good way to describe what I've created here.  It's true that I've kept it going nearly every day for a couple of months now.  That, in itself, is different from the blogging experiences in my past (and from many others, from what I read and hear).  Hopefully, at the same time, it's made for at least a semi-interesting read.  It has for me, but then again, I'm the knucklehead who wrote it.  Of course it's interesting to me.

I created this blog "so that once I'm done I can look back through what I did and why I did it."  But it's morphed into more than that.  As I've plunged through writing the book, I've learned...not just about writing, but also about the overall process, and about the industry, and believe it or not, a fair amount about myself.  This blog has, so far, indirectly tracked along that learning curve, sometimes explicitly discussing what I've learned and why, but sometimes instead just bumping lightly or smacking up wetly against my new discoveries in the world of novel-writing.  

I've had to research some of the posts, and that, in itself, has been a great experience.   I love learning, and the deeper I've dug into the art and science and business of writing, the more I've learned that I have to learn.  It's like I keep peeling off layers of onion to reveal other interesting layers inside...or it would be, if I liked onions.  It's the diced celery in my stew of crushed metaphors. 

No, I don't know what that last bit means either, but it sounds like something Douglas Adams might have written.  That, in and of itself, makes me happy. 

All that said...I must admit that I've truly enjoyed the ride so far, and I hope that you have, too.  This weekend is being set aside mostly for yet another extreme write-a-thon, since I've only been gallumping along at 1K words a night this week and need to make up some ground.  I'm looking forward to it, and I'm also looking forward to being able to write more blog posts about it. 

Have a great Good Friday! 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Sound of Life

I can hear life.  No, really.  That whooshing sound I hear when I work late, only to get home and write for a couple of hours?  That's the sound life makes as it's whooshing by., not really.  But it seems that way sometimes.   I got home from my "day" job last night at about 9:00, and then spent as long as it took to get my 1000 words in, and got right back up and back at it at 5:30 this morning.  Hey, it's my life...somebody's gotta whine about it.  *whoosh* See?  There it went again.

Every discipline has its "gotta swim the moat to get to the castle" times, it seems.  As a teacher, I had to take whatever classes got tossed my way till I got some seniority.  As an Army butter bar, I had to put up with a couple of years of being a butter bar.  It doesn't take reading too many authors' biographies till you realize that nearly all of them did what I'm doing...writing despite one, or sometimes two, day jobs that kept them away from family and pillows.

But it's the dream.  And yes, it's the money, but it's not entirely the money.  I know there's a decent chance I'll never make much of anything.  But I also want the opportunity to call myself a "published author."

And...can't forget...I've also blogged numerous times about the fact that writing for fun is, well, fun.  It's really very enjoyable to sit and spin this story, despite the fact that it's a multi-week process that takes me away from other things for a matter of time.  In all honesty, I wouldn't have gotten this far with it if I didn't enjoy it greatly.  So my whining, then, really is just empty whining.  I could quit.  But I won't.

So...for what it's worth, keep all this in mind if you, Gentle Reader, ever decide to write a book...the next life you hear whooshing by might be your own.  And next time you pick up a "first novel" of somebody's, think of all the times that person heard a "whoosh." 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What authors drink

Mmmm, coffee.



Woven in and around all the super-serious literary questions that must be addressed before or while a would-be JK Rowling pounds out what he or she hopes is the next Harry Potter are some other queries.  Many of these aren't so super-serious, but are important in their own crappy little mundane way. 

For example: What do authors drink?

I kinda doubt there's ever been a true study done based on that question, but have you ever sat there reading and wondered what the guy who wrote the story was drinking at the time?  We know, from the appropriate passage in Stephen King on Writing, that that author was a raging alcoholic in his early years.  We know this because Mr. King spends a great amount of ink telling us how bad this was, how inebriation is a crutch for an author, and how we should do as he says and not as he did. 

Me, personally...I'm rather a fan of drinking alcoholic beverages.  I love a good beer, especially a good trippel or a solid ESB.  Give me one that was aged in a wine or a whiskey cask and, I admit, I swoon.  I've also, though, come home after a tough day of work to write a thousand words or two while sipping a nice whiskey: either Gentleman's Jack, when I'm in a bourbony mood, or Crown Royal black, when I'm not.  After all, my day job affords me a few luxuries, and I'll be damned if I'm gonna drink cheap whiskey.  Of course, I still have some Scotch packed up in a blue-labeled bottle in a blue satin-lined box.  My plan is to hold off the party with Johnny Walker till I get the "Yes, we'll publish your work" letter.  Might take a while, but luckily Scotch doesn't go bad very quickly.

I'm certainly not the first writer...hopefully to become an author...who tipped the jug a bit.  The Everyman's Bard, Mark Twain, himself once said, "Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over."  More famously, such greats as Edgar Allen Poe, Jack London, and William Faulkner drank to notable excesses.  Hemingway was famous for his love of whiskey...and, I guess, mojitos.  F. Scott Fitzgerald, who is included in nearly every listing of fabulously competent authors for some reason I simply can't fathom, loved his gin.  And Tennyson apparently loved, as do I, a good sip or three of port. 

Donald Goodwin, in his book on the topic of authors and alcoholism, said, "Writing involves fantasy; alcohol promotes fantasy. Writing requires self-confidence; alcohol bolsters confidence. Writing is lonely work; alcohol assuages loneliness. Writing demands intense concentration; alcohol relaxes."  OK, fine, so do all authors drink?  And if not, why the hell not?

Answer to first question: probably not.  Answer to second question: coffee can be just as effective.  I've found numerous references on the web to authors like Sarah Darer Littman and Lia Habel who can't write without that other wonderful (and, you must admit, drug-laden) liquid: coffee.  Yes, it contains caffeine, which isn't as mind-altering as alcohol, certainly, but no one can deny (or, I think, would want to) that it has an effect on the human body. 

I'm drinkin' a cup now. 

In any event, I can't speak for all the other authors who either do or do not pursue intoxicating or stimulating beverages.  It's just me, here, in my own little world.  But what I can tell you is my own experiences...and believe it or not, the alcohol really doesn't play a major part in them. 

Most of my creative work is actually done in the mornings, sitting with a cup of coffee, sometimes not writing a single word but instead letting my (stimulant-enhanced) brain churn through the many possible outcomes of a passage and decide what direction to take the story.  At night I get relaxed with an intoxicant and the writing flows a bit freer, but not to any great extent.  Sometimes, when I'm really tired, a beer lets my body forget about the tiredness for long enough for me to pound out a few words.  But I suspect that, were I to imbibe to the extreme that some authors were known for, it would actually inhibit the work.  I also suspect that, were I to quit drinking altogether, I'd still be able to write just fine. 

I suppose that the question of what authors drink isn't answerable in a concise way any more than the other issues of generalizations of a very diverse crowd.  I know what works for me, though.  And it 

Word Count:  14,111

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Humorously I said

I lost it, but I'm getting it back.  My voice.  No, not the voice you hear when I speak, but my writer's voice.  That esoteric something that all the people who discuss it in The Making of a Bestseller say is vitally important, the core...the thing that makes one author worth reading and another one not. 

I honestly had no idea what they were talking about before I began my current writing exercise.  Sure, I knew I had a voice voice, but a writing voice?  I didn't really even know what that means.  I've read plenty of different writers, myself, but I'm sure that one of the classes I didn't take on creative writing is where the student reads various authors and identifies their voice...the particular patterns of speech that make that author recognizable. 

Nope, missed that lesson. 

That said, I do know that I have a particular manner of speaking to a group.  In one of my plebe semesters at West Point, I had a few roommates who loved to tease me about Mississippi, the state of my birth, and California, the state from which I'd entered the academy.  I'd get all blustery about the insults, and it would invariably lead to a wrestling match...well, OK, more of a dog pile with me on the bottom.  As I'm not completely stupid, it only took a couple of those times before I learned to disarm the teasing by laughing at it.  I even learned to make jokes about the states myself.  Doesn't mean I don't love Mississippi or California, either one, but I'd learned an important lesson...the ability to laugh at myself and at the rest of my crazy life. 

I honed that skill later on.  The Infantry didn't teach me to laugh; it taught me in a less graceful way not to take my life too seriously.  After all, once you've stared down the wrong end of a tank barrel owned by the opposing team, no matter whether that tank barrel was shooting real sabot rounds or just laser beams, nothing else seems quite as serious. 

Later on I became a teacher.  I started out nice, and kind of serious, as I discussed the intricacies of DOS, and of Windows, and of networking.  Then I noticed that when I tossed in a snide comment or a joke of some sort, students would chuckle.  And then I noticed that, when students chuckled, they paid more attention.  Wow!  I honed the art, then, of tossing in humor.  Even database normalization...a boring-as-crap topic no matter who you a lot easier to describe when a touch of humor was added in a careful way. forward to the "for serious" business of writing a novel.  I wrote Part I, really, for the purpose of telling a very serious story.  It's a love story, with an epic battle brewing throughout and culminating at the end.  Along the way, there was a bar scene.  The bar scene, though, I didn't really write; it kind of wrote itself.  That's because...well, it's funny.  It kind of bubbled up out of my subconscious as something that would really be fun to add to the story, and my fingers did what my subconscious told them to. 

Interestingly, that one scene has had more positive comments than all the rest combined.  Now I just need to go back and see about revising the rest of the work to be more that voice...the snide, wise-cracking Stephen King The Other...instead of the William Faulkner Wannabe. 

My voice.  I found it.

Word count: 13,018

Monday, April 18, 2011

Mozart and the creative juices

One of my greatest challenges as a writer has been space, both mental and physical.  My apartment does have three bedrooms, and only two are used, but to put the computer into the third would take more rearranging than I have the energy for.  Besides, the desk sits nicely out in the living room.  It's a blessing when I work and want to still interact with the family.  It's a curse when I want to write and there's a movie playing on the big TV sitting a dozen feet away, or when there are several teenagers taking up the other part of the living room. 

I know, I should just take a folding table and my laptop and set them up in the spare bedroom, and if it gets too bad then I'll probably do it.  For now, though, I found a pretty good answer in Stephen King's book On Writing.  The grand master of horror discussed the importance of writing space...he, of course, wrote Carrie in the laundry room of his trailer, if I recall the story correctly.  Now, though, he talks about having a place separated by an actual door from the rest of life.

That separation is important.  It's true that the creative juices unleashed in the writer's mind do just flow...I suspect, honestly, that most, if not all, of us have that happening regularly.  It's one thing, though, to have mental images flash through your brain, and another entirely to actually capture them, wrestle them into conforming to linguistic norms, and then place them onto a piece of paper--electronic or physical--at whatever rate it is the writer can type or write.  I'm lucky in that area in that long ago I conditioned my fingers and mind to do 80 words per minute; I can't imagine how challenging it would be to pin your ideas down by their straps till you got to writing them at any significantly slower speed. 

To do so, at whatever speed, requires concentration as well as some degree of distance from the mundane world.  I've had to turn off Facebook, for example, because I'll be writing along about a nice little fight and pop!  I've got a comment from my friend on another friend's picture of their parrot.  Oh, hey, somebody just poked me.  And hey, somebody else sent me a request in a game I don't even play.  Minimizing distraction is the key to winning the writing game. 

Stephen King also uses music.  He says, "I work to loud music--hard-rock stuff like AC/DC, Guns 'n Roses, and Metallica...for me the music is just another way of shutting the door."  What a great idea!  Except...that type of music doesn't insulate me.  Instead, it gets me going, makes me want to jump up and move quickly, which is kind of the opposite I want when the desired behavior is to sit still and type. 

Last night I tried several options from my own CD chest.  Cat Stevens's music has always gotten my creative juices flowing.  Problem is, when he's playing, the juices are all I got.  It's too easy to get into the music, singing along to great lyrics.  The music takes me away to its world instead of helping me insulate myself in my own.  I tried Petra, also; This Means War has always been an uplifting album for me.  Nope, same problem. 

In desperation, I pulled down my CD of the Canadian Brass playing Mozart.  Now, I bought that album long ago.  I love the Canadian Brass because of their brashness.  This album, though, bored me, and so I only listed to a small part of it, and that only once.  It's not that Mozart is boring...far from it, in fact.  It's that when I'm listening to the Canadian Brass, I'm looking to be entertained by great yet playfully done music, and them doing Mozart ain't it. 

Regardless, the result was magical.  Turns out that Mozart is truly a perfect composer (for me) to write to.  The songs go from energetic to lyrical on the album, so my brain is lulled into focusing entirely on the story I'm trying to discover.  And, bonus points...I was inspired to work one of the songs into the story. 

I'll have to experiment some day...Bach, for example, was also great at keeping a good pace alive in his music, as was Beethoven, and I love both composers as much as I do Mozart.  For now, though, CB doing Mozart works, as evidenced by the four thousand words I got down yesterday, and it's what I'm going with.

Word count:  11,862

Sunday, April 17, 2011

To cut, or not to cut?

A big problem for a prospective author is how best to tell the story.  Sounds kinda self-evident, but it's not as easy as it sounds.  Earlier in my blog I talked about my efforts to avoid describiness, the word I made up to describe the problem some epics like the Wheel of Time series face.  Robert Jordan's (R.I.P., grand master!) biggest flaw, to my opinion, besides some horribly over-stereotyped characterizations and a couple of noticeable asspulls, as well as...well, never mind all that.  Robert Jordan's problem that I'm going to talk about in this post is that he tended to dwell in a land of describiness.  I remember reading several dozen pages about such mundane topics as the murals on the walls in the palace, when all I really wanted to know is if the one guy with a hammer beat the hundreds of Whitecloaks in battle. 

OK, that's a bit of a falsehood on my part.  Truthfully, I remember skipping over several pages about those topics in order to get back to the battles.  I'm not the only one...Jordan's work was publicly criticized about that several times.  He didn't seem to mind; he was still selling millions of books and making bazillions of dollars.  Honestly, I didn't mind a whole heck of a lot, either.  I kept buying his books.  Flipping past pages I'm not interested in is a small price to pay...even when added to the $24.95 minus 25% I paid for the book itself...for a great story, really.  But still, I intend to avoid it. 

It's a more general problem, though.  Many authors are praised in reviews for "sparse" or "tight" writing.  Harlan Coben was quoted in The Making of a Bestseller with his "single best piece of writing advice": "I cut out all the parts you'd normally skip."  Clearly good advice, given all the praise for those who do it well, right?

Again, not as easy to implement in reality.  When I released my revised version for a first reading, it felt a little overly sparse to me but I wasn't sure where.  Now that I've gotten several responses, I'm a little more aware of where.  People don't mind side journeys along the way, so long as the side journeys answer questions that occur to them as they read.  I don't mind them, either.  That's a big dose of "duh."  But again...not a easy as it sounds.  Problem is, I know the story.  I know that Matt quirks his eyebrow, for example, because Crystal says something that his ex-wife used to say.  What I forget, especially as this work grows past 80K words and many, many pages of storytelling, is what the reader does and doesn't know. 

Interestingly, I fell on this same problem at the beginning of my teaching career.  I started off teaching CMP102, which, at a college that doesn't have a CMP101, is a pretty basic course.  Hence, I didn't assume they knew anything.  CMP103 was the same...while CMP102 was Windows basics (Windows 95, incidentally), CMP103 was DOS basics.  I assumed that nobody knew nuthin' at the beginning, which got me quite well through that first quarter. 

The second quarter was a little more difficult.  I found myself facing a group of students in CMP103 who, for the most part, were actual IT workers looking to upgrade their skills to the Microsoft Certification that, at the time, was like gold lettering on your resume.  Real gold, too, not that fake gold lamé crap.  In any event, my assumptions about what they already knew were tossed out the window.  It wasn't a difficult adjustment to make, but a big part of my success that quarter was that I did make the adjustment. 

It's kinda like the current writing situation.  Since I'm writing Part II, I have to assume that the reader already knows some things.  Not all, of course...I remember many times in Robert Jordan books when I'd forgotten details from page 10 or 20 by the time I'd gotten to page 1,342,677,832...or so.  But it happens, and the delicate balance an author has to find is between describiness..."all the parts you'd normally skip"...and leaving the reader wondering for more.  It involves, necessarily, realizing that your reader doesn't know the story anywhere near as well as you do, and making adjustments accordingly to your storytelling. 

Word count: 7,350

Saturday, April 16, 2011


"Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted-One moment
Would you capture it or just let it slip?

You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime"

You won't often hear me quote rap songs.  I only know the words to four or five of them, in fact...I've never made the time to listen to most of them, and the rest I did listen to but couldn't tell what the words were.  Most of the time I put that category of music in the bucket where I put romance novels.  Yes, it exists.  Yes, many others enjoy it.  No, thank you, I don't want it in my collection. 

I did, however, read a romance novel I enjoyed once.  Didn't have much choice; it was a long road trip and my mom only had three books in the car.  This was what would come to be known as historical romance, though in those days it was just another white-covered Harlequin.  But it was a pretty good story, and my eyes didn't fall out or anything from reading it.

Same with "Lose Yourself" above.  I heard it once on the way home from a long night of teaching the evening IT students.  The radio dial isn't as populated in Wasilla, Alaska, as it is in many cities, and that's my excuse and I'm stickin' to it.  But the song resonated.  It's Eminem's anthem of accomplishment, his magnum opus of magnificence.  His...ah, crap, I ran right out of clever word combinations.  Not enough coffee yet this morning....

So why am I sitting here at the keyboard banging out words before I have enough coffee in my system to really be counted as awake?  Well, that song says least, for the most part.  There are differences between my situation and the one described in the song.  I've got a good job that I enjoy.  Yes, it has me working more hours than I should sometimes...well, nearly all the time...and sometimes students and their parents drive me a little crazy, but still I love my job.  That said, an opportunity is there.  A very small handful of new novelists make it big in the industry every year.  The book on bestsellers I've been quoting off and on confirms through several interviews how financially rewarding the making it big can be.  Sure, it's a very, very small, maybe two.  But it's there, it exists. 

If the opportunity is there, I'm going after it.  That's why I'm sitting at my laptop before anybody else in the house is awake, pounding out word after word, and giving up my weekends.  It's why I got home from a long day yesterday and wrote a thousand words even though I really just wanted to go to bed.  It's why I bared my soul to my friends by asking for opinions. 

Will I make it?  Only time will tell.  But I won't look back and say that I didn't give it my all.

Word count: 6,456

Thursday, April 14, 2011

My awesome reviewers

As I keep charging...sometimes slogging...through the second half of the book, I'm overjoyed to have as many people willing to offer great feedback as I've received.  Last time I asked for feedback, it was regarding a survey for faculty members in career colleges for my dissertation, and I got less than 50% "Yes" rate and then less than 50% who actually gave me feedback.  I've already had a better response on the book, and I have specifically told anyone who's asked that I don't need responses back for a month. 

Awesome.  Awesome, awesome, awesome. 

It's a good thing to me that nobody has given me a "loved it, buh bye" response.  Truth be told, I kinda expected to receive a few of those, because I got several on the survey.  While that response is all warm and fuzzy, it leaves me with a quizzical "did you really even read it?" feeling.  I knew there were flaws in the survey, but in the academic process I needed my "panel of expert reviewers" to tell me that before I could change them.  Similarly, but for different reasons, I knew there were problems with the book.  In, well, the back of my mind, anyway.  Hey, it's hard to spend two months writing something and finish a two week long revision without jumping and hopping in pride and pleasure a bit.  But I know that I only have one mind, and while I know what I like, I also know I can spend hours...days...weeks...months, even...revising back and forth.  I even thought briefly in the review process of taking out one part that nearly everybody reviewing it loves.  That's why I sent it early...quick validation from several people on what was working, and what wasn't, so I can more intelligently mold the 3rd, 4th, and maybe even 7th and 8th revisions. 

None of the responses, then, surprise me.  The one thing that is a little surprising, honestly, is how consistent they are so far.  Everybody who's replied has liked certain things, and disliked other things.  I'm not gonna say what those are for now, because it might color the responses of anyone who hasn't finished yet.  But the consistency is really quite excellent news, especially since nothing anybody has mentioned is unfixable. 

So, short version...*ahem*...I'm excited, even more so than I was when I started the project in the first place or when I sent it out for review.  And I continue to be thankful for everyone who's devoted time to helping me get there. I presume a free copy of the book and a mention in the acknowledgements page is standard, but it doesn't seem enough for what y'all have done. 

Word count: 5,426

V7N Blog Challenge

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What the hell is an asspull?

So, the creation cycle continues unabated.  I've received a few more critiques on Part I, and though my readers' assessment that my baby has drool on his chin has proven its ability to touch on my emotional and defensive side, overall I'm happy.  It's one thing for me to say the writing sucks, and another thing entirely for me to read someone say something critical about the way I developed Crystal, for example.  But one thing being in management as well as education for many years has taught me is how to get over myself and listen to feedback from others, both good and bad. 

I think it's easy for authors, and even those who are working with small teams of editors and such, to overlook flaws in their own works.  Well...that's not exactly right.  Nobody who recognizes a flaw will overlook it.  I think.  The problem is in recognizing it.  Honestly, a couple of things that people are now pointing out as things to improve upon were stuff that seemed pretty good ideas to me at the time I wrote them.  Later, when I was revising the work, I still thought they were good.  Now that somebody else has pointed them out as flaws, I have to say...hmm.  In most cases, they're right. 

Not something to get bent out of shape over, that.  I find flaws in professional works.  For example, I just finished an audiobook that I enjoyed immensely.  Not wanting to be a plot spoiler, I'll be general, but it was a book about a serial killer who used a virus to do his dirty work.  Toward the end it was really quite gripping, but the author had an FBI agent speeding down the Interstate from the Washington, D.C., area to Charlottesville, VA on a workday afternoon.  Nope, not gonna happen in real life.  Somebody really should've caught that one.  I wouldn't have known it myself, of course, before I moved to Richmond and spent several pleasurable weekends driving to Charlottesville and D.C. myself.  Can't get there from here, though, by pressing down on the accelerator during afternoon traffic in an unmarked car. 

Worse was the ending.  So the good guys beat the bad guy, yay.  The device the killer had used, though, to deliver the virus was manila envelopes sent through the mail.  For some reason the author never really went into, the killer sent one of his envelopes to a middle school.  In the closing scene, we find out that the mail room person for the middle school was apparently on vacation (and apparently hadn't annointed a backup) and so when she returned, she found a huge pile of unmailed and undistributed received stuff along with a manila envelope.  Bom bum bam!  And now what?  Ah, over.  C'mon...tell me what happens at the middle school! 

The worst, probably, was what I've recently come to learn is called an asspull.  This single clever little term is used by...some literary critics?  Most?  Many?  I don't know, honestly, how widely it's used; I just saw it on a website and thought it cool.  The official term, from way back when I studied writing in my single college class covering the topic, is deus ex machina, or machine from god...if used by the protagonist.  I guess if it's used by the bad guys, it's a diabolus ex machina.  Whatever...I like asspull.  It's where the creator of the story pulls something seemingly right out of his or her tushy to either save the day or ruin it. 

Now, there's a line to be drawn.  I mean, in fiction, the entire story is really just a big asspull.  It's fake.  That's what fiction means.  But hopefully the storyteller makes it believable.  The line, though, is when Q suddenly shows up to pull the Enterprise out of the battle with a thousand pissed off Romulan warships.  Suddenly the story becomes just a touch less real, and it feels like...well, an asspull. 

Yes, that word is as fun to type as it is to say.  Asspull, asspull, asspull.  :-)

So...back to speaking like an adult...that's what happened with one of the subplots in the book, anyway.  The main character, beloved by all...a tough, single, female FBI agent...started exhibiting symptoms of the virus after being exposed.  This virus, by the way, exhibits in its human victims a nearly complete fatality record.  She's going to die, and this becomes especially poignant when her nose starts dripping blood, identified many times through the book as a key symptom.  But then she goes in, gets clobbered by the bad guy, gets saved by the other good guy, and sets up to live happily ever after, and the asspull is that her body was just exhibiting stress.  One paragraph, and then it's over.  Oh, c'mon. 

Makes me wonder if the author...who, by the way, is what I hope to become: a PUBLISHED author...had a group of friends as wonderful as mine read the story before she sent it off.  It might be that she did, and that somebody said, "Hey, c'mon...stress?  Nosebleed?  Sure, it happens, but this is a mad maneating virus we're talking about," and that she dismissed it.  It's easy to do, the refusing to admit that your kid has boogers on his face, but the result is readers giving you the raspberry. 

So...on I write, pressing through Part II about as quickly as I did Part I.  Should be another month, ish, and then I'll be ready to work on what my friends have told me I need to consider. 

Friends are good to have.  Friends who'll tell you that your feces really do stink are the best.

Word count: 4,559

V7N Blog Challenge

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A bared soul

Didn't blog yesterday; was too focused on writing.  This is really an exciting time for me.  I've taken the first half of the story entirely through the rough draft and first revision stages, and now it's time to let it rest as Stephen King suggests in On Writing while I work on getting through the rough draft of the second half.  Once again, I'm creating a story as I go.  I know the final scene very, very well, having played it in my head over and over.  I know a few scenes along the way, too.  But the twists and turns are still to be determined, and that's part of the joy of it.

I was given to think that I was probably the only writer who eschews outlines.  I read one case, for example, that I've already mentioned in an earlier blog, of an author who outlines the book fully and then just goes through putting the connecting lines in.  It works well for him, but I don't think I can do that.  It's not like I'm creating the story as much as I'm discovering it along the way.  Turns out from my reading in The Making of a Bestseller that most of the authors they interviewed feel the same.  I guess I'm actually kind of normal in that regard, then. 

The other excitement, though, was that I finally felt comfortable enough with the manuscript to share it.  I wasn't kidding in earlier posts when I said that the first draft sucked.  It should, really.  When I sit down to discover the story as I do, sure, I'm worried about sentence structure and flow as well as not having too many of those little dot the same paragraph, a sin my first true writing teacher pointed out in my work a long, long time ago.  But that's OK...isn't it?  I mean...well, it's just...I like them. 

*evil grin*

As I was saying, the first draft writing has me concerned over the mechanics, to be sure, but in a subdued manner.  What I'm really doing in the first draft is just getting the story onto paper as I discover its nooks and crannies.  The first revision, then, is the time when most of the mechanical issues are identified...notice, by the way, that I said most.  My lovely bride pulled the manuscript up on her computer last night after I'd shown her the super-secret spot on the web where I'd parked it, and on the very first page pointed out some things I can still improve.  Yeah, yeah.  It's not perfect, I know that.  I also know there's a fine line between getting it the best it can be in order to send it out the door successfully and obsessively holding onto the work to make sure all the grammatical demons are purged.  But that's later.  It's time, really, truly, it is time, for me to PUT IT DOWN and work on something else. 

Meanwhile, I've asked others to pick it up.  That's the exciting terrifying scary fun part.  It's like I bared my soul to the world.  Well...not the world so much as a bit over a dozen friends on Facebook and in my WoW guild.  Same difference, really.  I care what my neighbor thinks about my book only so far as whether or not he buys a copy.  Well, she...I think it's a she, anyway, but whatever.  I care what my Facebook friend who loves fantasy and has a master's degree in literature thinks about my book a great deal, though. 

Interestingly, I got just exactly the right mix of people by the end of the day.  I'd been looking for between 12 and 20 people; a number of opinions is good, but drowning in a sea of opinion isn't.  I got a couple of literature masters, a few people who know me well and are very into fantasy fiction, a few people who don't know me well (and are thus more likely to be willing to say "this sucks" if they need to), and a guy I went to church with at West Point who is still a serious Christian.  I was really hoping for the reaction of someone of faith, as my book goes into some fairly anti-Christian storytelling.  Not on purpose, really, but it's hard to explain how a Greek/Roman god has come to life without addressing Christianity too. 

So, anyway, I'm excited.  I'm excited to be back at it discovering a story, and I'm excited to have something I spent the last couple of months creating being critically reviewed by others. 

Word count: 3,261

V7N Blog Challenge

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What's in a label?

Chapter 15 of The Making of a Bestseller deals with a topic that has succeeded in perplexing me: genres.  It was a no-brainer at first that, since I was writing a book involving a god, a goddess, a dragon, and other similar stuff, this would be a fantasy book.  But the question about sub-genre stopped me cold.  I didn't, a couple of mere months ago, even know that fantasy HAD sub-genres.  Now that I think about it, sure, it's pretty obvious, but it's one of those things that I'd bet most readers never even really consider.

In any event, I dove right into the discussion of genres.  "Romance is the largest genre," the book says.  Sure, I knew that.  Any thrift store contains thousands of trashy romance novels with white covers, strange scripty-looking titles, and pictures on the front of a pretty girl and a good looking boy.  But the book goes on to say, "According to Romance Writers of America, the official definition of a romance is: 'a book wherein the love story is the main focus of the novel and the end of the book is emotionally satisfying.'" 

Uh, oh.  The main focus of my novel is Crystal's quest to become a goddess, true, but it's borne out of love for her husband, the god.  And I do intend for my book to have a happy ending...that's "emotionally satisfying," right? 

Crap, I may be writing a romance novel...I thought. 

Hell, no, I'm not writing a romance novel...I thought immediately after. 

After getting over the initial shock, I decided it was incorrect to characterize the quest as a love story, so I'm really not writing a romance.  It's also unfair of me to characterize romances as trash novels as I do.  After all, they make a lot of money, and they do so by providing their readers with a pleasant diversion from everyday life...much the same things I intend to do, only I plan on using dragons and spellcasting instead of all that lovey-dovey kissy-kissy stuff. 


As I was saying, my characterization of romance novels is unfair.  Then again, most labeling is difficult, prone to inaccuracy, and at its core, unfair.  Take the political labeling these days as probably the best example.  Politicians self-label into Republicans, Democrats, Independents, or one of the other half-dozen or so bins.  But within all of those bins are sub-characterizations: right wing, Tea Party, RINO, DINO, moderate, Blue Dog, etc., some labels being more emotionally and propaganda based than others. Talking about what I know, there's also labels for types of colleges; there's liberal arts colleges, fine arts colleges, career colleges, research universities, technical institutes, community colleges, etc. 

I guess we humans just can't let a group go along without a label, can we? 

In the case of genres, though, clearly there's a business reason for the labeling.  Knowing that a book fits into the "romance" bin helps publishers know where to sell it, and bookstores know where to display it.  Knowing further that it's a "historical romance" helps people who prefer to read that type of book zero in on it as a possible purchase target.  Labeling, then, in publishing, is more than just serious is the business. 

That, then, leads me back to my original perplexity.  What bin does my book fit into the neatest?  I mean, I know what bin I'd say it falls's that bin that also contains masterworks such as Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality series.  But...what's it called? 

My old friend Wikipedia doesn't help much.  There's a page listing all the genres and subgenres:  One sort of sounds close: Mythic fantasy fiction.  That, though, links to the Wikipedia page on mythology, on which I read that the theory that all myths come from the same basic idea (which kind of forms the highway on which my story travels) has fallen out of fashion among mythologists.  Eh, screw 'em.  It's a good least, it is to me. 

I guess that's what I get for doing research on Wikipedia, right?  I guess that could serve as a label for an amalgamation of nearly-accurate pages. 

Word count: 74,083

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Editing and borrowing

Finally got done with the really pretty difficult Library Scene today.  It's been my bane for nearly a week, mostly due to my inability to really spend time thinking it through.  In my first draft I'd parked Crystal and the girls on the roof and had Matt go down and in a few minutes return with a few dozen library workers and patrons.  Reading it to Heide, though, made it clear that it needed more...this was an excellent opportunity to show Crystal's humanity as well as go into some of the story of the people there. 

So...I set out to rewrite that part, having Crystal float down with Matt to talk the library residents into returning to the estate.  It proved tougher than I'd thought.  I had to determine exactly who was down there, for one thing, as well as how they'd react to seeing two people levitating down and then saying, "Hey, trust us, and go with us back to our estate." 

But I finished...yay!  And then I went into the bar scene, which though it didn't need major rewrite did call for some beefing up.  I, frankly, really like my bar scene, and now that I've spent a few hours on it, I really like it even more. 

I did, however, borrow from a previous work.  I tried to do it subtly, more as an "in honor of" than a copyright violation.  My barkeep, though, is Irish, and floats in a crosslegged position, and his first name is Mike.  If anybody thinks "Callahan!" when reading, then I've done my job.  I loved Spider Robinson's books on Callahan's bar, and this is my way of tipping my hat to him. 

So...late night after a long day of writing, and it's time for bed.  G'night, and more to come tomorrow!

Word count: 74,019

V7N Blog Challenge

A virus, a visitor, and a day off

Today started kinda easy.  At work, I found myself having a good, productive day, and even had great news when all three nursing students who were testing today passed their tests.  Got kind of yelled at by a guy at corporate because I'd forgotten to send him a report yesterday, and so I submitted it this evening.  Almost put a TPS report coversheet on it, but I wasn't certain that the humor would be well received. 

Got home late, and that's when the stress happened.  Somebody else had used my laptop, and this person is fairly good at somehow attracting any bad bug available when she touches a browser window.  Sure enough, I got home to a trojan that was particularly annoying in its refusal to let any other program start. 

Any other time, it would have been an annoyance.  This time, though, I realized that I hadn't backed up any of version 2 of the book.  Stupid of me, I know.  But the fear of losing a couple of weeks worth of work really made me much so that I stormed away from the computer for a while, closing myself and my rage up by my/itself in the bedroom where I could cool down without burning anyone else. 

Finally calmed, I went back out and to work on the laptop.  It was a persistent bug, sticking through a reboot with no apparent change of mood in allowing programs (including the registry editor) to launch.  Luckily, it was a bit stupid, too, and had only infested itself into the registry.  I had to reboot into Safe Mode, but then I was able to wipe the virus out and restart into a fairly clean machine.  Only two more steps remained: back up the work I'd done, and apologize to the wife and daughter, and visitor, for losing my temper.

Oh, yeah...visitor.  A friend of Jessa's is over tonight.  She's in the choir at school, and is a pretty good singer.  What that means is that they've spent the entire time I've been home in front of Phantom of the Opera on the big screen TV singing away.  It's actually relatively cool, except that it's also my writing area.  It's impossible, really, to carry on a story line with Phantom of the Opera singing in the background. 

Eh...I needed a day off, right?  Tomorrow I'll get up early, drink down a pot of coffee, and get a ton of work done.  But for now, it's fine to acknowledge a single day off this week and go to bed. 

Word count: 72,972

V7N Blog Challenge

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Some days just aren't meant for writing

Funny how often this happens.  Specifically, "this" refers to a weekday evening or weekend morning when I plop myself down into the computer chair at my desk and start staring at the story.  I know what I want to tell, and I know where I need to do it, so it's not writer's block.  It's just...tired.  Exhausted, in tonight's case.  I had a rough day at work yet again...kicked a few students out of the school to launch the day.  All three had done something to deserve it, of course, but none of the three believed their offense was as serious as it was.  For two of them, in fact, it was particularly disturbing to me: their offense was lack of attendance.  They'd dropped below 50%, yet they both swore up and down that they'd attended every class of the last term.  Now, I can see not believing that your conduct was bad enough for a conduct dismissal, but how could you mistake that one?  I could see if the attendance was recorded incorrectly, but several times I'd personally gone looking for them to warn them of their attendance issues, and...they were absent. 

The day went downhill from there.  Had a faculty member who'd already accepted the position argue for higher wages because he said that what he was making wouldn't pay his gasoline.  "Oh?  I thought you lived in town?"  "I do, but way over on the west side."  Hmmph.  I live there, myself.  One tank of gas serves me for two weeks.  Sorry yours doesn't, but maybe you should consider a more efficient auto.  Plus I just got finished teaching my career development students last term that you should never use personal expenses as a bargaining chip in the wage discussion...employers don't care how much it costs you to live, love, or drive.  We don't.  I know it sounds mean and callous and all, but hey...our job is to manage business costs. 

Ah, well.

It all boils down to one really tired Dean when I got home tonight and sat down, blubberbrained, in front of the computer.  No writing.  None. 

Then I started my blog post, and for some strange reason got inspired to write in my book instead.  1500 words later, I've put in a decent chunk of writing.  Who knew such inspiration could come from a blog title? 

Still, I am tired, and even more so now that I've committed another 1500 words of the story to paper.  It's time for bed. 

Word count: 72,972

V7N Blog Challenge

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


Reading over my blog post last night, it's clear I was feeling a little gushy.  That's not surprising, really; I was also blowing off one of Stephen King's cardinal rules by writing while a great movie was playing in the background: The Notebook.  It's one of those feel-good, bittersweet stories that take me once again to half wanting to go back to Schenectady and complain that they give the best ideas to other people.  This one was Nicholas Sparks's first published novel, and got him a $1 million advance.  Nice chunk of change...and that's not even including the movie pay.  Give me that much money, and I'd retire to a warm beach with my family, letting the waves lap my feet every morning...till my alarm goes off the next day, of course, and I wake up from the dream and go back to writing. 

It's funny, in'nit, how it gets in your blood, though I suspect I've run that line completely ragged.  I heard the other day that JK Rowling is going to be writing another book.  She has a billion dollars now.  One hopes she has a good enough financial advisor that she's been able to buy a nice country estate, a bungalow down in Tahiti for the winters, a boat or two to get there, and...well, what else would you buy with a billion dollars?  She certainly has enough to live comfortably on, so why write another? 

Stupid question, that.  There's still stories to be told.  We gentle readers still need to know the story behind Harry's parents and their battles with evil (and Snapes), and a story about Harry and his wife's (not gonna say who Harry ended up with, in case there's any muggles here) kids would be peachy. 

So in any event...before I so rudely interrupted myself...last night I was feeling sentimental and posted my prologue.  As I said then, this short section of the book has been gone over, and gone over, and gone over, both by my wife and by me, and I've come to really like it.  Till, that is, I posted it last night.  As I re-read my post, I couldn't help but get to the second paragraph and say to myself, "Oh, look, it still sucks." 

Granted, "sucks" is a bit strong. I realized in looking at it, though, that I went into describing Matt.  At that point, nobody really cares what he looks like, much less what his job is.  Yes, I had made him a college dean, because I'm a college dean and it's what I know.  But it's irrelevant to getting the story kicked off, and when I read a prologue that's all I'm looking for it to do...get the story kicked off, get me drawn in. 

"The tall, muscular, red-headed college dean walked over from where he had been eyeing a portrait.  'Ah, yes.  Venus Kallipygos is a funny one.  I agree'"

"Her husband walked over from where he had been eyeing a portrait.  Matt, a tall redhead, answered, 'Ah, yes.  Venus Kallipygos is a funny one, I agree.'"

So...unsucking a book is definitely an iterative process.  It's clearly dangerous to declare it completely done, because as soon as you do and post it to a blog, a big red "You suck" sign will flash in front of you.  Not that that's a bad thing, honestly...I'd much rather it flash in front of me now while I'm trying to fix it than later when I'm trying to sell it. 

I could pay a lot of bills with a million dollars.  I'm just sayin'. 

Word count: 71,500 (ish)

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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Prologue as Epilogue


I got home last night at 10, stayed up writing till after midnight, got up in time to be at work by 7, and didn't get home again this evening till 7.  When I was younger, it wouldn't have been such a big deal, but if this weren't a labor of love I wouldn't have done anything on it tonight. 

In any event, I started this blog to describe the process of writing...writing about writing.  The meta nature of it appealed to me, and it still does now, over one month later.  It's helped me describe what I've done and why I've done it, and that in itself is priceless. 

So...tonight...I end the month of blog challenge with the beginning, another act that appeals to me.  I wrote this part first, not knowing whether I'd end up keeping a prologue in the story or go into it later and delete what I'd written first.  But I liked it when I wrote it, and when I read it the first time to Heide, and the second time I read it to Heide, and every other time I've read it.  So I'm keeping it.

Now, the month of blogging that I signed up for is done.  I'm not quitting; the blog posts have become too valuable to me as an internal meter, a critique and a laying bare of what I do.  But tonight is a special night, and I'm calling it the it only makes sense for me to use the prologue of the story for it. 

The unusual statue caught Crystal’s eye.  She was used to seeing ancients portrayed in heroic poses or noble poses, but this one had a beautiful lady peering over her shoulder, apparently admiring her own rear end.  “Matt, this one’s kind of funny,” she called to her husband.
The tall, muscular, red-headed college dean walked over from where he had been eyeing a portrait.  “Ah, yes.  Venus Kallipygos is a funny one.  I agree” 
“Venus who?  THE Venus?  Wasn’t she the goddess of beauty and love?  Why is she looking at her own butt like that?”
“Well, yeah, most mythology looks at Venus…or Aphrodite, depending on whether you’re Roman or Greek…as the most beautiful of the goddesses, and the goddess of all things love, beauty, and sexuality.  THIS one, though, actually is kind of a funny tale.  Want to hear it?”
Crystal nodded, but Heidi, one of the couple’s twin daughters, had just walked up and asked, “Could you shorten it a little this time, Dad?” 
“You think my stories are boring?” Matt asked with a mock pout, his blue eyes twinkling beneath his red bangs. 
“Not boring, Dad.  Too long.  There’s a difference.”
Matt chortled.  “OK, then.  Shorter version coming right up!  So…way back, many hundreds of years ago, two young and rich men down in Sicily were walking through the fields…” he paused and looked at Heidi.  “Right, short.  They met and fell in love with two daughters of a farmer.  Of course, you know that wealthy men weren’t supposed to marry poor girls, but these girls were amazingly pretty.  They were so pretty, in fact, that the new brides became famous among the upper crust for their…um, well, their butts.  Which were their prettiest features, I guess, or maybe people back then liked butts more than other parts.  Regardless, later, the rich brothers became richer, and their wives founded a temple in their town of Syracuse to Venus.  They now knew, of course, how important having a pretty butt could be, so they named their temple Aphrodite Kallipygos, which is Greek for Aphrodite of the Pretty Buttocks.  And, well, what you see is how that works out in a statue.”
“So why is the statue here in Naples, Dad?  Isn’t Syracuse in New York a long way away?” asked Linda, the other twin daughter who had walked up at the beginning of the story.
“The Syracuse we’re talking about is actually in Sicily, dear, but yes, it’s still a long way away.  Remember seeing the map of Italy?  How it looks like a boot that is about to kick a triangle-shaped ball?”  The college dean held up his hands, fingers and thumb forming a rough triangle.  “The ball on the map is Sicily, and….”
“So why is it HERE, Dad?” Linda asked again.  Crystal chuckled softly; she adored her husband, but after years of teaching he could make the statement “Sicily is south of us” into a three-hour lecture complete with diagrams on the board and, given a little preparation time, even a slide show with music and sound effects. 
Matt sighed, his hands dropping to his sides, and he shrugged.  “Oh, things happen over the years, and art gets shuffled around.  I don’t recall that part of the story too well.” 
Crystal looked at her husband with a twinkle in her eye.  “You have such an amazing knowledge of ancient times.  It’s strange that you became a computer teacher, rather than a history teacher.”
Matt smiled and shrugged in reply, giving his typical half-answer, “Yeah…strange, that.”

Seeya tomorrow.

Word count: 71,489

V7N Blog Challenge

The joy of writing

Today reminded me why I'm doing this. 

I had a really awful day at work today.  It started with a miscommunication over the weekend that resulted in me stuffing 44 paying students into a classroom large enough for 36.  Not just any students, either, but professional nurses from the area who were taking a review class to prepare for their licensing exam, and our management had offered to host the class on our campus for once.  Oops.  I was, however, able to quickly shuffle everybody around and get them into a right-size room at their first break. 

Meanwhile, the group that I'd shuffled out of their regular classroom decided to have a party in the new room, and a student spilled a 2 liter of Sprite on the floor.  Only...she didn't just spill it.  When I walked in for my class that was to run right after, the Sprite was up to 1/4 inch thick in some spots and stretched twenty feet from wall to desk.  So I did what any good Dean would do...I went and got the mop.  I think I taught my class something really important in doing so, incidentally.  One of them asked me if I was "pissed off" and I got to explain that that emotion has no place in a work environment, mostly because it doesn't do anything good.  Whether I or anybody else "got pissed," the fact was that a classroom had a floor full of Sprite that needed to be cleaned up.  Luckily I'd planned a guest speaker anyway, so he spoke, and I mopped, and I got it cleaned.

Then the fight broke out.  Apparently a few students had been picking at each other, and the teacher made the mistake of leaving the room for a minute or two to get something.  Next thing you know, a pretty good student and two pretty crappy ones were fighting.  I heard more curse words in that 10 minutes than I've heard in several months, and that's a lot. 

Wouldn't you know was in the room right across the hall from the nurses.  I just can't win some days.

The day did slowly improve from that point, especially after I got some headache drugs in me.  But we had managed to schedule a month end, a fiscal quarter end, an academic module end, a nursing semester end, and a new module launch, all on the same two days.  Pretty stupid, in retrospect, but it had me there till 10:00 tonight getting everything set up for tomorrow.  That's a 14 hour day of playing custodian, referee, disciplinarian, leader, and manager. 

I've had days this long/bad before, and usually by the time I get home I'm just ready to drink heavily and then go to bed.  Tonight was different.  I really, really, really, wanted to get back to my book.  It's funny how addictive the process is.  I really enjoyed getting the story out onto paper, but I thought that the revising process would be mundane and maybe even boring.  It's not.  I find myself going back through the story I've been telling, revisiting each scene, and finding a new way to enjoy it even more.  I'm cleaning the language up substantially, removing all the apparentlys and seeminglys and other weak crap, instead letting the nouns and verbs carry the day without much interference.  It's really making the story pop. 

Honestly, I'm enjoying the hell out of it. 

I'm getting back to word count, too, because a) the revision process is now adding a significant number of words, and b) it's going to be a much longer book than I'd originally thought (though it's made up for by having one instead of three books).  You won't see it increment as quickly as before, and that's OK, because what I'm adding is story, while what I'm deleting is fluff...those "needless words" that Strunk & White told me to omit.  But it is going up, and I'm thrilled at that. 

This writing stuff really is fun.

Word count: 71,375

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Sunday, April 3, 2011

The difference between writing and reading

We stayed up till 4:00 am last night. 

Twenty years ago, I would've responded with, "Yeah, so what?"  Now that I'm a bit older, though, and somewhat more frayed around the edges, I respect the more measured pace my body needs.  A 4:00 am night, nowadays, is only for something really, really special.  Like, say, getting to the final scene in the book I crafted. 

I've been reading the book (now the first half-book) that I wrote because, as pointed out earlier in the blog, the dialog and story are different when you read them from when you write them.  I've been galloping along through roughly 68K words, speaking them out loud to my wife, my two dogs, and myself, and whenever something doesn't "sound right" to any of the four of us, I scribble that fact with a detail or two about why in the margins.  The grander issues I've marked on the blank facing pages, and I have quite a few of those built up by now. 

Add one more after last night: the final battle scene sucks. 

That one really surprised me, to be honest.  I went through writing the book, thinking I was drawing it out too much, and then when I finally decided to push to the end I wrote what I thought was an epic battle.  I mean, there's a god, a goddess, a dragon, three large swords (one of them a flaming ten foot long sword), a battle horse...what else do you need?  Writing it, the scene screamed "epic" in my head.  This would be, I believed, a battle that readers would look back on fondly once it was done carrying them over the literary mountain peak and crashing into the valley of plot arc completion. 

"Epic!", I wanted the reader to say at the end.

Then I read it.  I didn't say "Epic."  Neither did Heide.  I think my Chihuahua baby, who's still less than a year old, did, but that was just because I put down the binder, an action that gave her access to my hands for the licking. 

Truth be told, I committed a blunder that Stephen King warned against in his memoir on the craft of writing.  Specifically, I got so focused on the plot and plot arc, topics he shunts off as secondary considerations for a storyteller, that I forgot about wrapping the reader up in the action of the story. 

I saw it coming, really.  As I was reading along at a magnificent clip, I got to the scene before the scene before the final scene--which was the point in the writing where I'd decided to bring the plot arc back down--and then I noticed that there really weren't all that many more pages left.  Uh, oh.  The reading was just the proof.  The epic battle filled a mere two pages.  It was like I'd gotten to the end of the writing and said, "Ah, screw it.  He attacks, she attacks, he attacks, she attacks, battle over.  Done."

Hell, I've written blog posts longer.  This one, in fact, is nearly the same length. 

On the facing page of the first half of the battle, there are now three words: "Battle too short."  Short is underlined a couple of times.  Yes, I meant it. 

And now, off to revise.  As I've said before, it's such a good thing I decided to read it critically before I sent this mess to anybody.  Now my job is to uncrappify it, one page at a time.  Oh, and write the second half, but...later. 


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Saturday, April 2, 2011

A pink sequin and a great idea

It's not every day you wake up with a pink sequin on your arm and a great idea in your head.

Continuing briefly on the subject of yesterday is mildly useful in beginning the explanation.  The point of walking, if I recall what Stephen King said on the matter in his rather meandering memoir on the craft (which is another way of saying "I just spent fifteen minutes looking for the reference, and now I'm giving up") is that the mind works well to solve problems when not focused on them.  A walk is, according to the master, a rather healthy way of getting your brain to stop focusing on your storytelling.  I agree, for what it's's impossible, for me at least, to continue to stew over something while I'm walking and looking and listening to the world around me.  The active parts of my conscience focus on the cherry blossoms, the rustling wind, the dog that is barking at me despite his complete inability to come anywhere close to me, etc., which leaves my unconscious mind free to delve into whatever it wishes to.  That's the theory, anyway, and it's borne out by the book I reference (ish) here as well as by all sorts of psychological studies I've read about in the past but have no access to now. 

It's also borne out by this morning's experience, though not in walking.  The same thing happens when we sleep, which is why they say "sleep on it" as a means of solving problems (a phrase also used, too often, as a crutch against having to deal with problems immediately, but that's a different topic).  It worked today, and I'm pretty excited to implement the new idea. 

Like all of my great ideas to date, it's really not all that, it's really something I should've thought of long ago.  I'd describe it more as a blinding flash of the obvious, honestly.  It's not like I've ever woken up with the grand Unified Field Theory floating around between my neurons (but what if I did, hmm?  Another story idea...).  No, this one's pretty simple.  I figured out how to fix what I think is the last remaining crappiness of my trilogy.

See, I KNOW the story.  Packaging the story as a trilogy seemed logical, based on it playing out in my mind as an epic tale.  I know the first book well, which is why I stormed right through it.  I know the end of the story well, which is why I'm chomping at the bit to write the last book.  The second book, I've kinda been taking little bits and pieces between revisions of Book #1 while hoping that a great story would appear.  I've come up with an idea that Crystal would be sent off in search of a missing person, but I'm not sure a fantasy-mystery-fantasy trilogy would really work...I probably wouldn't buy it, in any case.  But I have to keep the story moving, and there's got to be a sellable sub-story in each book.  I certainly don't want to buy a book that's clearly just there to be part of a series, do you? 

Oh, and Book #1 is too short to be a standard novel still.  Have I mentioned that recently?  Yes, a story should be as long as it takes to tell it, and yadda yadda also, but 70K words are still a tough sell, from what I read. 

Oh, and trilogies by unknown authors are a tough sell, from what I read. 

So here it brilliant idea...ready for it? 

Write a book instead of a trilogy. 

See what I mean about blinding flashes of the obvious?  When I say it like that, I hear a resounding chorus of "Duh!" in my brain.  From a business perspective, I guess I just had to break free of my trilogy paradigm and be willing to consider other packaging for the story.  It's like the dog food manufacturer waking up one day saying, "Hey, let's package dog food in 8 pound bags instead of 40 pound bags, because our target market is actually women, and they find the 8 pound bags easier to lift."  Well, that's a weak simile, to be sure, but it at least approaches the same type of enlightenment.  To a casual observer, it seems obvious, but to the guy who's been wracking his brain trying to unsuck a situation, it's like a mental day in Disneyland.  Which is yet another crappy simile, but I'm on a roll now. 

Incidentally, I have no idea of the timing of 8 pound bags versus 40 pound bags of dog food.  I just recall a conversation a long time ago with a dog food marketing dude about why they sold the smaller bags for so much more per pound.  They wouldn't call it artistic license if it wasn't there to be abused, right? 

So, off I go, to create the new end of Book 1.  I only thought I was done.  But at least it won't suck...I hope.

Oh, and the pink sequin?  From my wife's crafting project of yesterday.  It was just quite an oddity to wake up with it on my arm. 

Word count: Oh, bite me

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