Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Excitement of NaNoWriMo Eve

What you're probably thinking is, "It's not NaNoWhatever Eve.  It's Halloween!"  You're right about the second half of that, of course, unless you prefer to call the holiday by any of its other names like Samhain, All Saint's Day, Dia de Muertos, etc.

To me, though, it's NaNoWriMo Eve.

Part of the reason for that is my rather dismal lack of interest in celebrating Halloween. First, I grew up in a really poor family in a rather poor area of a fairly poor town in Mississippi.  Thus, I don't know if they had all the fancy costume makeup and paraphernalia or not back then; my costume usually consisted of a sheet or some old clothes and one of those flimsy plastic masks.  Remember those?  They looked like they could almost be a likeness of somebody famous.  When you wore them, the first trick was finding a way to see through the itty-bitty eye holes, while the second was finding a way to breathe.  Minor inconveniences, though, compared to that dang cord.  The cheap elastic cord that tried to saw into the tops of your ears was always breaking, and when it gave in to physics it always did so with a loud plasticky thwap

You'd hear those thwap sounds, usually followed by a squeal of pain, around the neighborhood and know that somebody's mask just broke.  We all winced at the mental image of a mask sliding slowly down onto the kid's chest, the child too busy rubbing his sliced-open ear to worry about the plastic part.

This was also back in the days when people used to give fruit and homemade stuff instead of the safely-wrapped store-bought chocolaty stuff.  In fact, I was in the age group that is the reason people now usually only give the safely-wrapped store-bought chocolaty stuff.  Early in my Halloween career we started hearing the first horror stories about people putting razor blades and needles into fruit and candy.  Suddenly every little morsel we collected in our cheap, thin plastic pumpkin-shaped buckets was suspect and had to be double-inspected by Mom and Dad before it could be eaten.

But finally, eaten it was, and yay!  What a treat!  Chocolate for the entire night!

When I woke up the next morning, what a treat!  Stomach ache for the entire day!

So yeah.  Halloween: ththththffffffphphphphphphphphffffft.

NaNoWriMo: yaaaaayyyyyy!  Now there's something to get excited about.

First, this is the year I will extend my record into more Ws than Ls.  I know, 1-1 is hardly a historical record, but it's what I've got, and I'm looking forward to it being 2-1.

I'm also looking forward to turning out a decent book.  The first time I did NaNo, I started out on a story concept with no real plan, and I failed at about 23K words when I ran out of story concept to write.  This last time I started out the same way, and when I reached that magical point in the book (yes, five novels later, 23K seems to be my stumbling point) I just pushed through by adding more explosions, killing more people, whapping more words in.

I got to 50K last year, but that book is never, ever going to see the light of day.

This year?  I have a plan.  I actually have a five page synopsis of how the story is going to go, in fact.  Over the past few days I've worked out an opening scene in my head, and the critical scene where the protagonist meets the series antagonist is planned out and acted out and even voiced out, and so now all I need to do is--well, it's the writing.

Which, due to NaNo rules, I can't do till tomorrow.

Hence the excitement.

I can't wait for NaNoWriMo to begin this year.  But if you do have any extra chocolate, I won't mind a piece or two....


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Namaste-ed out

Long day, yesterday.

First came the "Namaste Day" event that my wife talked guilted me into attending.  See, with all of the writing and working, and working and writing, that I've been doing lately, I have to admit that I haven't been spending a lot of time with those who love me.  I also have always had a strong metaphysically spiritual side, though lately it's only evident once you chip through the thick, hard curmudgeonly shell.

Besides, she promised I'd have fun.

By the time we left, we were exhausted.  Unfortunately, we couldn't come straight home because we needed some cat food (which can only be picked up at the pet food store, thanks to special dietary needs of the littlest carnivore in the family) and a refill on meds for the daughter (which can only be picked up from the pharmacy) and hey, I wanted some beer (which can't be picked up at either the pet food store or the pharmacy) and so we had not one, and not two, but three stops to make on the way.  The thought, tired as I was, made me want to whine.

We managed to successfully make those stops, though, and with a minimum of whining, and so finally, exhausted, we pulled into our garage.

And there the neighbor was, outside, washing his car.

Now, first of all, I like my neighbors.  I like them quite a lot, in fact.  I've not lived anyplace where I've had such explicitly neighborly neighbors in a long, long time.  Yes, they're very Southern, and yes, they have just as many quirks as any other set of neighbors would have, but they make it clear that they sincerely care about having a good neighborhood and about their neighbors.  It's--well, it's heart-warming.

But not when we're tired.  Especially not when we're exhausted but yet there's no way for this curmudgeon to sneak a great big Jeep Commander into the garage without him noticing as he washes his car a narrow alleyway away.

Not, um, that I would do such a sneaky thing, but I have to admit that the thought crossed my mind.

Tired or no, I had a neighborly obligation to wander across the alley to say hi while the wife and daughter got everything from the different stores into the house.  But then, they surprised me by joining us outside.  As did the neighbor's wife. As did the other neighbors.  Before long, we had a full-on neighbor party in beach and lawn chairs in the alley separating the rows of homes.  Soon the sun went down, dragging the temperature with it.  Individually we all went indoors to pile more clothes on, nobody willing to call it quits before anybody else--especially not us, since we'd made it known that we'd come back home to the South from Alaska.

"Cold?  What cold?  I spent fourteen years in Alaska; this isn't cold.  Let me tell you about the time I was tromping through three feet of snow and met the grizzly bear tromping the other way--," is hard to say when your teeth are chattering, but by goodness I managed. 

Sheesh.  I finally managed to end it at about 10:00 pm.  Like I said, I like my neighbors a lot, but not so much when I'm cold, tired, and cranky.

What got me so tired in the first place, though, was an interesting experience.  Yes, I'd been dragged (though neither kicking nor screaming, I admit) to the festival.  Namaste!  I honestly hadn't wanted to go; instead, I'd wanted to sit and work on a book.  Heide pointed out, though, that being outside the house was what provided me with a lot of my writing inspiration, and she was absolutely correct.

Therefore, Namaste!  For those unfamiliar with the term, it means "I bow to the divine/light/whatever within you."  It's probably the most commonly-used term in yoga, ranking, as I suspect it must, even over the true building block terms of yoga which include "tadasana," "downward facing dog,"and "put your elbow in the other ear now." 

To be honest, I enjoyed my stay there, at least till I got namaste-ed out.  I mean, there's only so much 'bowing without really bowing to the divine in so many other people that I never met before' that an old cranky curmudgeon like me can take.  After a while, I was just plain tired of not-really-bowing.

That, and there are always a great many wonderful people to meet at these types of events, which means your "nice to see you" smile is always burning.  At the same time, there are always a few people there who creep me the hell out.  If you've been to one, you know what I'm talking about. 

Anyway, we arrived just in time to pay my entrance cost (ten dollars; the girls had already attended the evening previous and thus were already paid for) and head to the session on Automatic Writing.  It was an interesting session; a woman with vibrantly blue hair and sequined hat and scarf who identified herself as a Reverend lectured us on the process of asking an archangel for help answering a Deep and Important question and then writing the answer for 20 minutes.

Now, you know me by this point in the post, I hope.  If so, you're aware that the next thing I'm'a gonna say pretty much has to be snarky, or else the curmudgeon in me is gonna explode.  Still, as much snark as I could possibly apply to the situation, the fact was that the whole Automatic Writing gig worked when I tried it.  She set the timer, and I asked the archangel for help with a particular situation, and then I sat and wrote down some of the clearest thoughts I've had on the topic.  Impressive, that.  Was it the archangel I'd called for, or my subconscience, or the memory of all the episodes I've watched of Dr. Phil while spending time with my beloved one that brought the newer, deeper, richer understanding?  I don't know, and it doesn't really matter.  Point is, it worked.

Maybe Dr. Phil is the archangel? 

Sorry, that was snarky.

The next session was even more meaningful.  In it, the presenter told us (basically) that we get back from the universe what we put out into it.  Reap what you sow, yadda yadda, and all that stuff, but it made a lot of sense based on the negativity surrounding a lot of the move we just made and what has happened to us since.  Yeah, I know, duh and all that, but she had some useful techniques for transforming negative vibes into positive ones to send out into the universe.  The important fact is that I left with some great notes regarding how to react to negative situations in the future.

We attended a couple of other sessions that seemed a bit less useful to me than the others had, and then we listened to a couple of fairly young guys describing astrology in a way I've not heard it before.  If true, it puts current events into a light that, juxtaposed against past events in similar astrological circumstances, is interesting at best and alarming at worst.  It had to do with something I'd not heard of before called a "square"--yes, I know what a square is, silly, but not in this context.  I'll have to do my own research on it.

Was humorous, too, hearing them pronouncing the--well, the name of the  next to last planet. You know, Uranus.  "Your'-uh-nus" is how they said it, and it took me a sec to, um, square that with the way we were taught to say it in high school.  Finally somebody else asked a question about the "square of Pluto and 'your-ay'-nus'" and I thought I was gonna explode in childish glee.

I didn't, though.  My lovely bride has some elbows, she does.  Effective deterrence, they are.

All that said, by the end of the afternoon I'd taken in quite a lot more than I had thought I would, or could.  I was really ready to go.  I was just flat namaste-ed out.


Saturday, October 19, 2013

Fictional Languages

One thing J.R.R. Tolkien was famous for was his intricate development of fake languages for his magnum opus, Lord of the Rings and the rest of its genre-creating set.  It was, indeed, a great story about some very engaging characters, and it would very likely have been a hit even without the linguistic effort he exerted. But he did exert significant effort.  Hey, the man created both Elf and Dwarf languages, each with its own runic alphabet.  How cool is that?

He was, from what I've read, a linguist at heart.  His day job was doing etymology for the dictionary, of all things.  I mean, I knew that somebody had to have done all the work required to tell me that "wunderbar" came from the root words "wunder," which means good, and "bar," which refers to a place to consume alcohol, but till I read Tolkien's bio I had no idea that somebody was a real person.  But it's true, he did it, and by all accounts he loved to do it.

He reportedly loved it so much that he probably would've been screaming at me for making etymological stuff up like I am wont to do (and just did), in fact.

Me, linguist?  Not so much.  I handled linguistics in Return of the Gods in much the same sloppy way most fantasy works gloss over the issue.  In my case I did it by inventing magical translating blocks for use in the library.  Cheap and cliched it might be, but it worked and it allowed me to get on with the interesting bits of the story.

In Dragon Queen I'm taking a little different path.  For the first book I'm shamelessly ripping off the entire Welsh language.  Heck, I don't feel bad about it either; after all, nobody ever writes Welsh(TM) and so I'm not actually stealing any intellectual property.  On top of that, I've always loved Welsh, what with its funky interpretation of the alphabet and the melodic pronunciations.  I was able to work some of the funkiness into the storyline, and the language's use presents some fun situations throughout the book.

Take, for example, the main character's confusion over the name of one of the animals in the story: is it Booboo or Bwbw?  The spelling that completely lacks vowels just plain doesn't make sense to the poor Mississippi lass who, despite her standing as a recent high school valedictorian, had to go through and complete both a primary and a secondary education with only English(TM) in her linguistic toolbox.

It's a little challenging for an author, this using a language that I don't speak.  I suppose that would've been easier for Tolkien--nobody can tell him he's got a declension wrong, for example, because he made it all up in the first place.  By definition, the way he does it is the right way.  But I'm using Welsh, which does, in fact, have standard rules, and not all of which I know. 

I'm only using it in little spots in the hope that I don't some day have an actual Welshman walk up and punch me in the face for language abuse.

It's possible, trust me.  The unintentional language abuse, I should add, not necessarily the face-punching.  I worked with a multilingual group in my multinational MBA Leadership course.  We had mostly Alaskans and Austrians in the cohort, but there was also a German who spoke--well, Real German (as opposed to Austrian German).  Most of the time we communicated in English, the course being held on the Americans' home turf and all. 

Toward the end we were required to create a leadership activity, and my group, twisted as it was (hey, it included me) decided to teach communication by blindfolding the crap out of everybody and making them do stuff. "The Blind Leading the Blind" was an obvious, if horribly cliched, name for the gig.

Thing was, none of the Austrians in my group were particularly motivated to translate the English instructions I'd written into their language, which was one of the requirements of the exercise.  So I took the project on. Only--I didn't speak German.  Still don't, neither Real German nor Austrian German.  Yeah, I can ask for a beer, or the restroom, or both, and with enough hand gestures can probably get across a request for schnitzel and fries, and so I'm not terribly worried for my own life if I ever find myself in Heidelberg again. But I'm certainly not "conversant" in the language.

Now, this was a while ago, back when Babelfish was a major site.  It was great; you fed phrases into the magical text box and told it what language to translate to, and CLICK!  The wizards within their web server would nearly instantly feed you back the translation.  For free, even!

I used Babelfish to translate the instructions into German for the Austrians.

And I sent the results to them.

And I heard nothing for a week.

When we were together next, I asked what they thought of my excellent translation.  They grinned and patted me on the head (verbally, not literally).  "No, really," I insisted; I wanted constructive feedback, after all.

Finally one of the uber-polite Austrians explained that what I'd written, in German, was actually, "The Window Coverings Leading The Window Coverings."


At least they didn't punch me in the face for language abuse.

This time, though, I want everything to be perfect--or, at least, accurate.  Thus I've spent hours triangulating phrases.  There are quite a few English-to-Welsh translating sites out there, and when two or three give me the same result, I know I'm close.  Then I spin the result back into the Welsh-to-English translators, and if it comes up right, then I'm happy with the word choice.  At that point, I run off to look at the Welsh grammar sites to make sure I've pluralized and declensed and conjugated correctly.

For the insults, meanwhile, I go directly to a Facebook friend who lives in Wales.  Yay for friends!  Yayyay for friends with strong insult mojo!

It's taken some effort and some time, but I think I've created something that will at a minimum avoid face-punching in return for language abuse.  I'm pretty happy about that.

For the second book I'm creating another language, though I won't spoil any plot points by saying why.  Because I'm trying to build in a certain mood, I'm actually picking the lower-hanging fruit from the Slavic language tree.  At least I have taken a couple of courses in Russian, and so I can read the alphabet and can declense that language with the best of 'em.

Yay for vodky vodkui! (see yesterday's post)

I'm still not interested in creating a whole new language from scratch, though.  Tolkien, I ain't.  Sorry.


Friday, October 18, 2013

On Learning Foreign Languages

"In one hundred years we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching Remedial English in college." - Joseph Sobran

"The relationship between a Russian and a bottle of vodka is almost mystical." - Richard Owen

I love my Facebook friends.  Most of the time, that is.  Yesterday we ended up having two great big, long debates on Facebook.  The one on a political topic turned ugly, pissed everybody off, and didn't ever find resolution.   I swear, next election season I'm gonna find a way to make opening Facebook shut my computer down.  "Politics" and "social media" are the new opposites.

That said, we (including some of the very same people who participated in the political one) held a very civil and quite productive discussion on the first quote above.  It was wonderful.  Granted, the topic of the debate/discussion wasn't really anything dealing with remedial English courses; that part is too obvious, and too obviously painful (especially to those of us who work in college-level education as I and many of my Facebook friends do) to really put any energy into.  No, instead, the talk was on the topic of the efficacy of learning Latin and Greek in high school, versus the more "useful" languages such as, say, Spanish, German, or Mandarin. 

That was very interesting.  What good is it, after all, to learn other languages?  I brought up, and somebody else backed it up with an article that had a picture of the human brain, that learning languages is like gymnastics for a part of the brain that doesn't get worked out otherwise.  Yay.  Brain pictures--cool.  That wasn't my main point, though, nor was it Sobran's.

To get more personal with this point, I consider myself a pretty good linguist.  I've been told by editors that my prose is very "clean."  I'm kinda proud to say that comes with no more than the basic required composition classes in high school and college both.

I also learned Russian at West Point, though.  It wasn't because I necessarily wanted to learn Russian, nor was it because that was the only choice.  It was, rather, that I thought that the Russians would be the nation's chief enemy and thus it would be a good idea for an Infantry officer to know their language.  It would be "useful," in other words.

The sheer volume of wrongness in my assumptions there is incredible, but that's not worth discussing here.  Regardless of reason, I soon found myself sitting in a class trying to learn one of the most foreign of foreign languages.  I mean, they don't just flip the alphabet around a little like the Welsh do; they have a completely different one.

And they conjugate their nouns.

I know, every linguist reading this just gritted their teeth.  "Conjugate" is what you do to verbs, you're probably screaming at this post right now, right?  It's the process of changing the word, slightly or more so, in order to make it clear what the verb is saying.  An example, in English: I see, and you see, and they see, but he, she, or it sees.  Now, though, time has passed since I wrote that, and so I saw, and you saw, and they saw, and he, she, or it saw.

Funky, right?

Not nearly as funky as Russian.

For nouns, the process of modifying the word to make its place in the sentence clear is called declension.  Russians do it, in spades.  English does it, too, to a lesser extent; I'd just never really noticed.  For example, if you're going to use the third person male pronoun in English, you might say that "he received a new straightjacket."  But if it's something being done to the third person male pronoun, you should say "I put him in a new straightjacket."  "He" changes to "him," and everybody's happy, right?  Except, perhaps, for the guy in the new straightjacket, but he doesn't care about us, and we don't care about him, right?

(didya see all the declensing I did in that last couple'a clauses?)

That's pronouns, now, and it's the old basic subject vs. object discussion that we had back in grammar school.  Meanwhile, nouns change--a lot--in Russian, and all depending on how they're used.  Let's take, for instance, the only Russian noun I still remember after all these years: vodka.  If you're going to say that vodka tastes good, then it's spelled just like that: vodka.  Using, I should add, that funky Cyrillic alphabet, but let's not get too crazy.  If, on the other hand, you're going to say that the vodka drink tastes good, you've changed the noun from one that stands as a subject itself (nominative) to the case that describes another noun (genitive).  It's telling us what kind of "drink."

And then there's the dative case, which sadly has nothing to do with dates or with dating no matter how much vodka is involved.  No, the dative case is the formal way of describing the object portion of the subject-object issue I mentioned before.  And yes, it applies to both nouns and pronouns.  While English changes pronouns but not nouns: "she hit her in the face" but "the girl hit the girl in the face," Russian does both, because we need to know who's getting hit in the face in Russian no matter who is doing it to who--er, whom.

As a result, though in English we really don't give a crap whether it's vodka or a vodka drink waiting to be consumed, or even whether I drink the vodka, in Russian it's "vodka" or a "vodky" drink, and I drink neither "vodka" nor "vodky" but instead "vodke."

Yeah, you have to learn all that to learn Russian.

Yeah, I hated it.

Still, I'm glad I took the two courses in the language.  Why, you ask?  It's not because I'm anywhere near conversant in Russian.  I mean, yeah, I can now order a vodka if I'm ever over in Moscow ("Moskva"), but I could've probably managed that even without the courses.  They'd'a probably giggled a little at my wanting to drink vodka instead of "vodke," but after enough vodky vodkas are consumed, who really cares, right?

What learning the little bit of Russian did for me, though--and this speaks back to the original topic of the post--was taught me more about the language I speak, no matter which one it is.

By paying attention to how the noun is used, in other words, I've become much more knowledgeable--and cognizant of that knowledge, too--about nouns.  Same with verbs, as well as with other parts of speech that I've always flippantly tossed out in English but had to pay attention to while mangling them in Russian.

I think that if we required every high school graduate to have passed a full year of coursework in Russian, we wouldn't need nearly as many remedial English courses in college, is what I'm saying.

But that's probably just me.

Might need more vodkui, though.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

It's NaNoWriMo Time, Again!

"The world is a lot more fun when you approach it with an exuberant imperfection." - Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo

When I was the forward party in our move to Memphis in April I figured I'd get some writing done in my alone-time before the family got here; I was wrong.  I figured I'd get some writing done over the summer; I was wrong.  I figured by now I'd have several of my works in progress (WIPs) done; I was wrong.

What went wrong?  Life, to sum it all up.  I've posted before on how I learned to only keep one WIP open at a time--that lesson came after several weeks of extremely low production.  Plus this moving thing is, you know, stressful.

That said, I was ecstatic to claim to have finally finished Book 1 of Dragon Queen of Kiirajanna.  I'm querying agents sending out rejection invitations right now; hopefully it'll get out to the public sooner rather than later and the world will be treated to my story.  Yay!

So what's next?

Book Two, of course.

The timing is about as close to perfect as I could ask for in my imperfect world.  The Month With A Deadline (aka National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo) is at hand.  It's only a couple of weeks away, in fact.

There are two requirements to "winning" NaNoWriMo--not that you win anything physical other than a cool little graphic, mind you, but it's an esoteric feel-good kinda win.  The first is that you start with a blank page on November 1 and finish on or before November 30 with a complete story.  The second is that your story be "novel length," a fairly ambiguous measure that the folks at NaNo decided should mean 50,000 words.  There's nothing special about 50,000 words, nor is it really novel length in most genres, but it's a good minimum around which to build a deadline.

And, as I've seen, deadlines are what I need.

I've done NaNo twice so far.  The first time, in 2007, I didn't win; I started with a cool story concept that didn't have any ending I could see, and I got to about 27,000 words before I realized it was going nowhere.  I didn't have such good writing buddies back then, and so I didn't know any effective writing continuation techniques ("blow something up" being my current favorite).  So I quit. 

The next time, last year, I was determined to succeed.  I still entered the month, though, convinced that the seat of my pants (so to speak, of course) would propel me across the finish line.  It did, but only at the expense of writing a horrible, horrible story that shall never, ever see the light of day under its current structure.  Oh, I'll go back and fix it, the mess representing the next installation in Return of the Gods, but I decided then to do things very differently now.

And I am.  Doing things differently, that is.

Last weekend I sat and wrote a two-page synopsis for how I thought the story for my second book was going to go.  The good thing about that was the eye-opening effect of putting the bones of the story down on paper--I realized that it sucked.  When I'm writing a novel the long way I can always go back and fix the parts that suck, but when I'm trying to spin out an entire story in a month I don't have the luxury.

Thus it was that yesterday found me with the other parts of my creative team (my beloved Heide and Jessa) discussing the story over breakfast.  By the time we left I had a plot that didn't suck.  I wrote the synopsis today, all five pages.

I even named the bad guy.

I'm ready.

Bring it on, NaNoWriMo.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Untitled Poem

Summer lingers
Autumn’s nigh,
Not near enough,
The heated sigh.

My former home,
The great white north,
Fall here and gone,
The snow brought forth.

And they sigh too,
These frozen clans,
They miss the days
Of warm suntans.

‘Tis tough enough,
Creator’s job,
But please us all,
The fickle mob.

--can't seem to come up with a title for this one.  Any suggestions?


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

More Poetry

We used to laugh,
We used to cry,
For hours and hours,
Till dawn was nigh.

Both young and full,
Of life's best spice,
And neither knew,
There was a price.

Our stories twined,
About a core,
That all was us,
And wanted more.

And through the years,
The time we've lent
To social hours
We shan't repent.

But that was then,
And this is now.
In others' bough.

My dear old friend,
It's time to go.
You hold me back,
You make me slow.

My time, I think,
You're now the crook,
And so I close
Your page, Facebook.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Let Me Hear Your Body Talk? No, Thanks

I grew up a bright-eyed child of the 70's and 80's, decades when Grease was The Movie and Olivia Newton-John was The Singer.  I'll never forget how much fun we had dancing to "Physical." 

"Let's get physical, physical,
I wanna get physical, let's get into physical.
Let me hear your body talk, your body talk,
Let me hear your body talk."

When you're a late teen or early twenty-something,  "let me hear your body talk" means something--well, physical.  Physically emotional.  Erotic, even.  "Ooh, baby, let me hear your body talk," was admittedly something I never, ever, had the guts to say to a woman, but there's no question what I'd've meant if I had mustered the courage to speak aloud such hypnotic eroticism.

Now, in my forties, I really don't want to hear anybody's body talk.  Nope, sorry, not interested in anything it's got to say or the aromas that might go along with it.

Slightly less annoying is that song by Wham that was quite popular back when I was--um, very, very young, really, I was.  You know the one, right?  We all cringe when we hear it cranking up at karaoke night, because we know that after the guy singing it goes through a few catchy lines about waking him up before the song's target can go-go (a line that has an extra meaning or two, itself), he's gonna lean back and, depending on how drunk he is, wail out a horribly off-key high note.

"I don't wanna miss it when you hit that hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh...." *screech*

High shouldn't be that high.  Nor, I must add, should most men's voices attempt be raised that high, no matter how--no, especially when drunk. 

But even when it's not a serious assault on the senses, it's got a double meaning hanging around in there, doesn't it?

What's your favorite double entendre?


Monday, October 7, 2013

Don't Quit Writing

By way of continuation of my post from Saturday, Quit Not Sucking, I have to add another (shorter) verse: Don't Quit Writing.

There are so many events in a writer's experience that suck the wind right out of our sails.  The obvious ones, of course, are things like never seeming to have time or getting negative commentary on your work.  But it's just as insidiously easy to drop off the writing once you're at a certain point of the noveling process--like, say, for today's example: querying.

Yes, it's rather easy to go through once you've successfully completed the novel and compulsively obsess on the query process.  Querying is challenging, after all.  First, you have to find agents to query.  This can require a lot of a lot of a lot of web searching.  Yes, you can find books in print that will help you, but to my opinion they're not worth the paper they're written on.  By the time the ink dries on their pages they're outdated, the agents listed in them having already shuttered their submissions windows. 

The best bet to begin?  Look up your favorite authors to see who their agents are (Google "[author's name] agent").  Then look up those agents online.  Odds are strong that most of the agents you find this way won't be accepting queries, but some will.  Once you run through those just start Googling for agents.  I've found to be an excellent source.  I've also found to be an excellent source.

The second hardest part, unarguably, is crafting the blurb, the query letter, and the synopsis.  I gave a short and somewhat snarky rundown on how to approach those in my recent post titled What Does Being A Writer Mean?.  They're certainly not impossible to do, but they're not as easy as a lot of people seem to assume.

Then there's the seemingly progressive activity involved with the actual querying.  I open a Word document containing each component of the query process and an Excel spreadsheet containing the information on the agents, and use a lot of copy and pasting to piece together the submissions, painstakingly, one at a time.  If you do it this way, you must make sure that in each case you proofread what you're sending before you hit the "can't pull it back now" button, as it doesn't do to forget to change the currently queried agent's name from the previous one (not that, um--okay, fine, I've done that, yes, I have). 

And then--write.  There's a reason we're called writers rather than query submitters.  Yes, the querying is important if you wish to be traditionally published, but the efforts on continuing the string of productivity is just as important.  Can't get your head wrapped around another novel yet?  Fine--write a short.  Get a novella going.  Better yet: mentally dare the agents you just queried to get you signed up before you can finish the novella. 

Hey, look, you're going to get rejected.  Stephen King was rejected.  J.K. Rowling was rejected.  The Help was rejected sixty times.  If all you're doing is querying, though, you're going to focus in on the rejections.  Don't do that. 

Keep writing, keep creating.  Keep going.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

What Does Being A Writer Mean?

"writer [n]: someone who has written something." - Merriam-Webster Dictionary

"You're a writer.  You should be able to write a query," I remember reading in one agent's post about queries and how badly we writers suck at writing them.

Uh huh.

It reminds me of when I was an IT guy.  Now, I started my work in IT as a cabler--office cabler, not industrial stuff.  Cabling sucks, by the way, because of how filthy the job is, but on the other hand it's wonderful to finish and know you've built something that is generally impervious to the mismanagement of users and so will likely last for several years, if not a decade or more. 

(at least, that's how it was before the IEEE started tossing out new cable standards every couple of years, but that's another story)

So one day I, by that point a fully qualified and highly certified IT guy, walked into a client's office.  Their copy machine was down.  "You're an IT guy.  You should be able to fix the copier," I was told.

Uh huh.

The very first English class I remember really enjoying was in my college freshman (though we called it "plebe") year.  It was a class on composition, and it involved a lot of creative writing.  I rather liked that.  Many other English classes involved us reading books and writing book reports--synopses, generally speaking, though sometimes the assignments got weirder--and that wasn't fun. 

Telling a story is fun.  Telling a story about a story is no fun. 

What's the difference?  Writing is writing, isn't it?  At least, that's the assumption that the agent's comment above is based upon.

But no.  No, it's not.  All writing is not the same.  And it's easy enough to forget the distinction when it's not staring you in the face at the end of a long rush of noveling. 

I just finished revising my synopsis for Dragon Queen.  A synopsis, like I said, is a book report.  It's really rather boring to write once you're done lovingly crafting epic scenes of emotional connection and battlegrounds.  And it's hard, too.  With fiction, there are several things you have to do--and several things you have to not do--to do it well.  With a synopsis, you have to throw those ideas out the window and just write about the book.  "Show, don't tell" becomes "eh, screw it--just tell, and do it in as few words as possible." 

I also revised, this morning, the other major piece of queries: the blurb.  The blurb is the part that actually goes in the query letter.  It's a tease.  In the blurb you neither show nor tell.  Instead, you make something up that'll hopefully entice the person reading it to want to read the book.  I mean, it really should have something to do with the story, but without actually telling the story. 

The blurb is--just weird.  It's actually less creative writing--much less, in fact--and more marketing writing.  Not boring at all, but certainly not within a normal fiction writer's normal mode of, well, normal efforts. 

Then, once you've braved the Boring Writing and the Marketing Writing, you get to do Sales Writing.  That's the query.  The query is nothing more or less than a direct sales pitch.  Hey, you're a writer, right?  You ought to be able to write a sales pitch with the best of 'em, right?

Uh huh.

I think that's the biggest challenge writers who're trying to be published face, though.  All writing isn't really writing, for one thing, and switching between major modalities is challenging and fearsome on the best of days. 

The good news is that there is some help out there. 

On the synopsis front, I found my greatest challenge to be encapsulating a lot of words (97,000, to be specific) into a single-page book report.  This site, though, has broken the task down well, into little bitty easy steps that even I can follow.  I recommend you approach it the way the linked site lays out.

For the blurb, I'm not gonna be able to help a lot, considering the tremendous number of ideas out there about what a blurb should be.  Some people think it's a one paragraph description of the book.  Others think it's a two paragraph description of the book.  Others think it's just a hook, maybe about the main character and a little bit of the main conflict, designed to get a reader into the story without describing the book at all.  Sheesh.

What helped me, though, was Facebook.  I posted my blurb idea in a couple of places, got several dozen suggestions, pasted everything into my blurb doc, and got busy snipping and pasting.  In the end I went with the ones I felt worked best with what I originally wanted.  Remember, though, that the blurb isn't supposed to make you want to read the book--heck, you wrote it, so of course you'll want to devour it.  The blurb is supposed to make others want to read the book, so the more help from others you can get, the better.

The query letter itself also is up to debate, since so many agents have such differing opinions.  I've read a lot of their "how to write a query letter" posts, and I've also looked on reputable places like  Also, I've attended "Query Letters For Dummies" sessions at conferences.  They're all different, though to be honest, they're not as different as the opinions on blurbing are.  Through all that, I've come to the conclusion that the perfect query letter is just like the perfect resume: it's whatever gets you where you want to go.  Both are, in fact, sales pitches, and pitches resonate differently to others depending on their expectations (not yours!). 

That said, a query letter should always do the following: a) introduce the book, including word count, genre, and blurb; b) introduce the author; and c) ask for representation.  In about 300/about 500/no more than 250/whatever word count the agent being queried wants.  Just go write a sales pitch, okay?

Simple, right?

Uh huh.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

Quit Not Sucking

As a career college dean, I'm being perfectly honest when I tell people that I love my job.  I know, there are a lot of people in a lot of fields who will say that between clamped teeth, fake grin plastered across tight jaws.  Not me.  I love watching students with a desire to make something of themselves, some of whom missed the path when it presented itself right after high school, and some of whom never had the path in the first place, yank their courage out of their pockets, meet the challenges, and become professionals in the field of study.  I love seeing people who haven't had a job worth their time in years--decades, sometimes--go off to join new career-mates with smiles on their faces.

But there are some that make me want to eat my desk in frustration, yes there are.  And it's not because of lack of ability--all of our students, by definition from the outcomes of the admissions testing and criteria we apply, have the ability to complete their chosen programs.  And you know, sometimes life happens along the way, causing people to have to move away or stop studying for a period of time--just like happened to me before--and I understand that.  That's not what frustrates me so much.

What makes my face turn a frustrated shade of crimson is people who self-sabotage.  I mean, career colleges more than anybody else in the education field have honed our craft, using the data we have on both previous student outcomes and current employer desires, to create a process that is as near to a guaranteed path to success as is possible with the human mind being involved.

And they don't do it.  Most do, granted, and as a result I have a lot of very successful people on my Facebook page as well as my other social media feeds--folks who followed what can be a rather difficult path, who pushed through, who succeeded.  Folks who earned their success one quiz, one study session, one classroom exercise at a time.

At some point, it was because they decided/realized that it was more important to learn than it was to worry about not sucking.

I do know this.  I've got tons of data about why dropouts tell us they leave.  It's family issues, it's stubbed toes, it's hurt feelings when instructors call them out in front of class, and it's all the other, legitimate, life-happens stuff, too.  But there's a pattern I've seen over the past many years.  Way too many people are still caught in the "don't suck" fear-based mentality, and that causes them to stop trying when the chance to suck becomes very real.

You remember primary school, don't you?  You remember when everybody's hands would burst up and all the kids would try to answer the teacher's question, joyfully, because they knew the answer? 

You remember when somebody--you, perhaps--got one wrong, don't you?  Way wrong, in fact.  Wrong enough that people laughed.

Wrong enough that you sucked.

How'd it make you feel next time you wanted to answer a question?

Thing is, though, school is, or at least should be, all about sucking.  (no, I can't believe I just wrote that, either)  Learning is nothing more than the process of assimilating new information in with the old.  In order to do that, though, especially once you're of an age where your brain is already full of old information, you have to come to grips with what you don't know.  Come to grips, too, with what you knew that is actually wrong.  Come to grips with sucking, to put it basely.

"There are no stupid questions," right?  How many times have you heard that little lie?  Yes, it's a lie.  Yes, there are stupid questions out there.  But in the classroom, the stupid questions need to be asked.  If you're not asking the stupid questions, then you're not really learning.

The more complicated the learning you're trying to obtain--like, say, a nursing degree--the more you need to be willing to suck sometimes.  Because, you know, it's hard.  Nothing about nursing school should sound like it's easy to do, or to learn.  And when you try--really, truly try--you're going to make mistakes.  Yes, you're going to suck.

Hopefully, you'll learn from that, and you'll some day laugh at it as you recount how you became a professional nurse, be it practical or registered.

That's just how we learn.

Would-be novelists, y'all are the worst at this, though I haven't yet been dean over one of those programs.  Some writers are so afraid to suck that they don't write anything of substance.  Others will, and then they'll realize it sucks, and then they'll put it somewhere it'll never see the light of day again.

But writers, it's okay to suck.  I mean, granted, don't send sucky prose to an agent and hope to get picked up, at least not unless it contains sparkly vampires or repetitive bondage scenes.  (sorry, couldn't resist)  But so many people I run into tell me how much they've always wanted to write a book, except that [fill in the excuse here].  Over, and over, I hear this.  It's the same pattern I've noticed as a career college dean.  People have grown up afraid to suck, and so out of fear of sucking they never learn what they need to learn.

So go out and--um, no, I can't finish that exhortation with a straight face.  Just--just do it.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

And So, On To The Hard Part

"Writing is the hardest work in the world. I have been a bricklayer and a truck driver, and I tell you -- as if you haven't been told a million times already -- that writing is harder. Lonelier. And nobler and more enriching." - Harlan Ellison

"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed." - Ernest Hemingway

"Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil - but there is no way around them." - Isaac Asimov

You'd think, reading my fellow author's, or even my own, Facebook comments about writing, that the writing is the excruciating part.  Oh, no, we say, we must make our word counts.  Oh no, we say, this or that isn't working.  Oh no, we say, I wish I could afford a better Scotch.

Okay, that last bit is just me.

I think it's a matter of perspective and memory, though.  If we're serious about writing, we do it every night, or at least four or five times each week.  Anything we do that frequently will stand out in stark relief when we're considering the overall experiences of the craft. 

But no.  The writing isn't the hardest part.  The hardest part, instead, is something we only do when we finish writing, and rewriting, and revising, and reading, and re-reading, and revising yet again, and so on.  It's, maybe, what?  Once or twice a year?  If that? 

The finishing is the hard part.  No, not the actual finishing, though to be honest that can be challenging as well.  You never really know, as I mentioned in a previous post, whether you're really done or not.  Sure, with experience you can get a better feeling for how the pace is (or isn't) working, and thus you come to a conclusion earlier on.  Still challenging, then, but not The Hard Part.

The Hard Part is what happens after the finish.  It's the "okay, so what do I do now?" part, followed by the efforts that the decision leads to. 

Obviously, if you're writing for the cash flow of it, the next part is figuring out whether you'll go Indie or traditional publishing.  The former involves lining up editorial, formatting, and graphic design plans.  If you haven't done it before, it involves figuring out how to use the KDP (Amazon) web site or the Smashwords web site.  It involves all sorts of technical things, and then all sorts of marketing things, all sorts of which I've already discussed on the blog in all sorts of places.

If you decide to go traditional, though, now you're thrust back into sales mode where you, not your novel, happen to be the chicken nugget under the sales spotlight.  It's time to find a publisher, which for the most part (though there are exceptions) means finding an agent.  This is the process known as querying, which basically involves ripping your own heart out through your chest and holding it up for the literary gods to decide whether to squish it, to accept it for dinner, or to just ignore it. 

That, I should add, is where I am.  The heart-examining part, specifically. 

And yes, I jest.  There really isn't any pulling out of your heart required in the act of querying.  That would probably actually be simpler than the real process.  What querying really consists of is research, research, and more research, to begin with.  There are a baziggaton of agents out there, ninety-nine percent of whom despise the genre in which you write and will press the Delete button a few scant milliseconds after receiving your e-mail.  The rest of the agents like the genre you're in, but ninety-nine percent of those either aren't accepting new queries, aren't accepting new authors, or don't like the voice you write in.


There are ways of finding agents, incidentally.  One way is to purchase a book that describes the marketplace and contains some already-outdated information, but that's pretty much The Stupid Way.  Smart authors use the web instead.

A couple of years ago, I started out with the authors I like and looked online to find out who their agents are.  Most of those folks are already too busy and thus aren't accepting queries, but they usually work for agencies where there's at least one person who's hungry.  So you look up the agency and then you comb through the list of its agents, stalking each till you find the right one.

Oh, and make a database, by the way.  A year or two from now you'll be doing the exact same thing, and you'll be oh, so happy that you took the time to list what you found in Excel.  Two years ago I made a file that lists the agent's name in one column and the agency's name in the next one, and it includes how I found them, the query method (email or mail or web form), the address, the query requirements, and so on.  This time, then, I at least had a starting point, and I only had to worry about which agents had retired or stopped taking queries--which, um, adds up to a surprisingly large number.

The query requirements is an interesting part, because agents like what they like.  Some just say to send them a query letter (which, incidentally, follows a standard format).  Some want a query letter and a synopsis.  Others want a query letter and the first X pages.  Some want all three.  Some want you to submit a query letter, a synopsis, the first three letters of their pet's name, the minimum number of words their favorite publisher requires for a work to be considered a novel, and the birthdate of their favorite author, all ciphered in the Davinci Code.

Okay, that last was an exaggeration.  Just a little one, though.

Oh, and you need to write marketing material.  No, I'm not kidding.  You need a blurb to go in the query letter, which may or may not be the same blurb you'd put on the back cover of the book.  You also need to write a synopsis.  Neither sounds all that difficult till you realize that it's you, the person who's just convinced something near a hundred thousand words to all fall in line and make sense together, who's trying to condense all that into a single paragraph or a single page.


So anyway, with Dragon Queen I'm going to see once again how the traditional path works, now that I'm older, wiser, betterer at writinger, and actually have a bit of a resume to speak of.  Why not, eh?  Worst that can happen is my heart gets squished another thirty times and ignored another fifty, right? 

So, here goes.  Wish me luck, okay?