Sunday, December 26, 2010

How Realistic Can the Fictional Dream Be?

A few nights ago, I dreamt I remembered flying a small plane with my cat in the copilot's seat.  Notice that I didn't dream I was flying with her, but instead I was remembering that I had.  I recalled her sitting up in the left seat, peering out the windshield, calm and happy, queen of all she surveyed.  And she was surveying quite a bit, being a mile or so up in the air.

Of course this never happened, and if somehow I had lost my mind and placed her in that seat, she would not have stayed put, she would not have been calm or happy, and she couldn't have seen over the dashboard either.  I wonder if instead I had dreamt that we were flying together (rather than remembering), that upon waking I would have known it was a dream.  As it was, it took a moment for me to realize (later in the day, when the memory came to the front of my mind) that it was a dream and not reality.

As writers, we strive to create fictional dreams.  Our stories should pull a reader into the book, into our protagonist's world.  There have been a great many great writers, and I have read a great many of their works.  I get engrossed in my reading:  I laugh out loud, I nod my head, I cringe, I duck, I squirm, I jump, I cry....

Why have I never mistakenly thought, even for a moment, that a passage I've merely read actually happened to me?

Has it ever happened to you?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Time and Tidiness Wait for No One

I've been thinking a lot about cleaning, lately.  The options are to:
  • leave a mess (who needs to clean?)
  • leave a mess until you do a deep cleaning at the end
  • always keep things clean
  • cycles of let-it-get-dirty followed by clean-ups

Let's just put the leave a mess idea out to pasture.  We're going to show more self-respect than that.

Alternatively, cleaning up after making a long-term mess, after letting the cruft pile up, the stains set and the mold grow, may work but having to do all that cleaning at one fell swoop is difficult.  There's always the chance that you'll claim you're done before it's really as clean as it should be.  Cleaning can be a mind-numbing activity, and numb is not a place from which you're likely to do your best.  But if you enjoy the cleanup process, then this may be a good approach for you.

The opposite of leaving a mess is the other extreme:  never letting anything fall out of place.  Anything that might become dirt or disorder is immediately tackled and dispatched.  Cleanliness rules.  It sounds good (even if in practice it's difficult to do) but I think it's a red herring.  Cleanliness is not the goal -- writing is.  [Of course this is about writing -- did you think I was talking about house cleaning?]  The goal is writing:  clean writing, yes, but writing first, cleaning second.  Another word for clean is sterile, which is not something we want our writing to be.  Disorder can help trigger connectivity and creativity.

As usual, the middle road sounds appealing and sensible.  Interspersing periods of writing with periods of cleaning, clutter-removal and looking for targets to send to the trash or recycling, seems like a good idea.  You can adjust how often you clean based upon your style, energy, schedule and need.  I just don't find it works for me.  How can I know what is discardable before the draft is even finished?

I enjoy the cleaning process best when I can see a big difference between the before and the after.  When I was young, my favorite time to vacuum the floor was when it was filthy enough that I could hear the dirt going through the hose.  For similar reasons, I now prefer to leave my editing till after a draft is finished.

How about you?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tossed in the Winds of Change

Winds shape the clouds, the trees, the land, the climate, the life.  One wind shapes another wind.  Winds create flow, change, and sometimes turmoil.  Flow, change and turmoil create winds of their own.

Breaths, waftings, currents, breezes, blows stiff and shrill, gales, turbulence, uplifts and chop make leaves dance, trees bend, dust obscure, snow fly, wires buzz and rain pelt.  We sense a change in the air.  Winds bring change, carry change, warn of it, spawn it, sweep all before it.  We speak of the "winds of change," but rarely of the "changes of wind."

Without wind, the wind of the soul, change, little would happen worthy of a story, little would happen worthy of a life.  Our characters are buffeted by winds; their responses, and the further stirrings they trigger are what make the reading interesting.  When they blow through our own lives we always have a choice of how to respond, just as we have a choice to make for our characters, though we may not want to make the same choices in both instances.

How are you dealing with the winds blowing through your life right now?

One word:  wings.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Writing for Our Selves

Lately a lot of people have been under pressure.  I've certainly been feeling it.  Pressure from my day-job, pressure about the holidays, pressure about elder-care responsibilities, pressure to be more fit, pressure to make better use of my time, pressure to get the yard work done... you name it.

Do we really need to add the pressure to write a novel?  To find an agent and revise the entire book in the process?  To revise again to get an editor?  To (perhaps) wind up with a novel that is not our story anymore?  To be pushed into writing two books a year even though our natural pace may be slower than that?  To have our writing or our families or our jobs suffer in the attempt? 

Must our process of writing cease to be a delight in order for us to succeed?

It depends on our definition(s) of success; my definition says "no" to the additional pressure.

I don't need another full-time career -- I've already got one that is always straining to be more than 40 hours/week.  I need a(nother) creative outlet.  That's what I want from writing.

You should do what you've got to do.  But remember to do it by choice, with your eyes open to the benefits and costs both to yourself and to those around you.

Happy trails.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Kindle 3 Impressions

My wife has an Amazon Kindle 3.  It has changed her reading habits for the better -- she's reading a lot more than she used to -- so it works for her:  does it work for me?

Let me get the negative stuff out of the way first:  I've read two books on it now, and it doesn't seem as convenient to me as a paper book.  Partly the inconvenience is that my wife and I use different font sizes, so I need to switch to mine and back to hers each time I read (I am borrowing her Kindle, after all).  The screen occasionally has a glare problem when I'm reading with my back to a window with the sun shining over my shoulder.  The 5-way controller is too easy to click in the wrong direction.  I'm getting better at it.

I wish it had a dynamically calculated page number based on your selected font size.  A percentage and location code is always shown, but call me old-fashioned, I still think in terms of pages, not percentages.  Really, I'd like to have some idea how far it is to the end of the chapter.  Of course I could just page forward till I find it, but it's too easy to get lost on an e-book on the Kindle, and I don't mean that in a good way.  If you think you're moving back, but you move forward instead, it can be a daunting task to get back to where you were.  That probably doesn't really make a lot of sense until it happens to you....

I hope it never does.

There are a host of other user interface annoyances, but I'm not going to go into them here, because even though I can pick nits like you wouldn't believe (with anything -- it's part of my training as an engineer), I like the Kindle.

The device is the right size, the right shape, the right weight, and even the right texture.  It stays in your hand(s) well.  The screen (my biggest concern, originally) really is readable:  I never experienced eye-strain from using it.  Searching for a word or ordering a new book may be a little iffy with the keyboard and 5-way controller, but the reading experience is wonderful.  And face it;  reading is what you'll be doing with your Kindle most of the time.  I appreciate that the Kindle is not one of those "oh, and you can read books on it too!" devices like the iPad.

One odd thing I noticed when reading on the Kindle was that I didn't move my hands much.  The Hunger Games was an exciting read and the device is light compared to a paper book.  But that meant that my hands stayed in one position for a long time, which is not good for arthritic joints.  I'll have to train myself to move my hands a bit to replace the movement I get with a paper book from turning the pages and shifting from left page to right page.

The page forward and page backward buttons fall "to finger" readily.  One issue that both my wife and I found, was that we expected the left-side button to move us back through the book, and the right-side button to move us ahead.  Actually, the large buttons on either side move us forward, and the smaller ones move us back:  simple, yes, but we still mess it up as often as not.  See above comment about getting lost....  The paging buttons allow one-handed and left-handed operation.  Battery life is excellent.

I like the Kindle, but I still prefer my paper books.  As time passes and e-readers get progressively better, I don't doubt I'll buy one.
But not everyone should get an e-reader.

Like my 84 year old mother.  I love her, but we're talking about a woman who sometimes can't get her fan to work without my help.  Yes, her fan.  Don't even ask about her VCR, television, cordless phone, alarm clock, photo frame, answering machine, microwave oven, etc.  When she mentioned that one of my brothers was going to buy her a Kindle for Christmas I thought, "well, there goes whatever free time I might have had."  She'd heard about e-readers, but had never actually seen one in action.  My wife and I had her try to use my wife's Kindle, and Mom very quickly realized she wanted no part of it.  One of the striking things for me was realizing she had absolutely no idea what a cursor was.

The reasons my mother would have liked a Kindle (if she could have handled using one):  it's light -- heavy books tire her out, and she could have increased the font size for easier reading.  At her age, however, with her complete computer illiteracy, it just wouldn't work.

For everybody else -- have at it!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

I am not Katniss Everdeen

A month ago, if you'd asked me how I felt about first person narratives, I would have told you that they don't interest me.  I can't think of anything I've ever read that cried out for first person, anything that couldn't have been done as well or better in third.  Except, of course, things like detective novels and the rare book that seems to need first person to "put you right there in the story."  But I can't think of any non-detective novels that I remember as needing first person.

The biggest problem I've had with first person point of view is that I'm not the person I'm reading about.  Maybe I can identify with them on some level, or empathize with them, or try to put myself in their shoes, but....  I'm not an alcoholic inventor who repeatedly goes on benders and then sobers up to find he's invented something, but he has no idea what the invention does.  I'm not a star-crossed lover contemplating suicide as the only way out of his predicament.  I'm not a 16 year old girl who's been sent to an arena to fight 23 other young people to the death to provide "entertainment" for the capitol.

Oh, but I am.  Or rather I should say that I have no problem getting into a story as told from the point of view of a 16 year old girl who's been sent to an arena to fight etc.  I've read "The Hunger Games" and I'm reading the second installment now.  I love the story.  I love the storytelling.  Suzanne Collins has done something I haven't seen before -- she's written a novel in first person that doesn't make me feel like I have to shed my skin and step into someone else's.  The reason I don't feel that way?  Because the transition is effortless.

I mentioned to my wife (I'm reading her copy on her Kindle -- more on the Kindle in an upcoming post) that The Hunger Games was written in third person limited (a POV I'm rather fond of) just like the Harry Potter novels.  She said I was wrong.  And I was.  I recognized that I was getting the entire story through Katniss's eyes, and because it never once felt forced or awkward, I assumed it was third person.  Amazing.  I'm there in the arena.  Maybe others who read it become Katniss, but not me.  Instead I'm looking over her shoulder and listening to her thoughts (just as if it was close third person).  Does this sound confusing?  I suppose it is, but it doesn't matter:  I've got a front-row seat and a mind-link with the main character.

To add insult to injury, I looked at the text and realized it was written in present tense.  Normally I find present tense kind of hokey; it feels stilted and interrupts the fictional dream.  In this case it helps to make the story feel more immediate, and it's use is warranted.

So now I'm wondering how many other novels I've read that have actually been first person but I didn't notice because they were done equally well.  The times I've noticed first person POV have been when the author didn't manage to make it work.  When the POV stuck out like a sore thumb, it led me to the opinion that first person is the problem.  I can see now that the fault lies not in the POV, but in the author.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Bulldozer Has Stalled

I can read just about anything:  cereal boxes, upside-down newspapers, phone books, toothpaste tubes, road signs, books.  When it comes to reading books, I tend to finish what I start.  Sometimes I'm disappointed for one reason or another with something I'm reading, but I still finish.

I'm consistent about the finishing part.  I've probably abandoned less than 10 books in my life, and maybe only half that many.

Much of the time I breeze through my reading.  That's not to say I'm not reading fully or not paying attention, just that the books are absorbing:   Harry Potter, Dante's Inferno, The Hunger Games, War and Peace, Shakespeare, etc.  When things get tough I go into snow-plow mode.  I can plow through just about anything:  The Faerie Queen, Dante's Purgatorio, A Pilgrim's Progress.  [I found out last Spring that even English professors don't read The Faerie Queen by choice, but I didn't think it was that bad.]

There are a few books that I have to be a bulldozer for, because a snow-plow just won't cut it.  While a snow-plow can take to the highway in a storm, a bulldozer never moves that fast.  I went bulldozing for much of William Blake, all of Sigmund Freud after the first week, William James, Dante's Paradiso, parts of Nietzsche, but I finished them.  All.

I've finally  found a book that I cannot finish.  It's been taking forever to read because it's never my first choice.  I've let it fester, half-finished on the top of my dresser for a week now, unsure what to do about it.   I've been coming to the sad conclusion that I'm going to abandon it, but I couldn't quite admit it.  I thought of writing about it here, and this morning I lay in bed thinking about getting some facts from the book for this blog, and that's when it hit me:  I have a physical aversion to opening that book again.  The bulldozer has stalled.

I've finished books I've been bored by, books I wasn't sure if I should bother, some that I wasn't sure if it made sense to finish.  And this is a "classic" international best-seller that I've come to hate and now (finally) refuse to finish.  Yes, the bulldozer has stalled, and not up against some huge and dense boulder-like tome, but against the almost fluffy little book "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."

I don't understand what prompted people to buy this book into best-sellerdom.  Did they read it?  I understand it's a philosophical novel, and how it's set in the Prague Spring, and that it's theme is love and sex... and that I can't stand it.  The author comes across as such a mysoginist it makes me want to scream (but it's probably okay because I get the idea that he's a misandrist too).  That, and the way he puts chapter breaks (and there are a lot of them) right in the middle of scenes -- even between two lines of conversation!  Oh, yeah -- and there are what seem like sloppy repetitions of phrases, but that might have been a conscious (though grating) stylistic choice.

This is not a review.  I'm perfectly willing to put the blame on myself for my failure to finish this book.  I simply do not understand what's so wonderful about it.  My son had to read it in High School, and he thought it was awful and unreadable, if I remember correctly.  I smiled when he told me that, and figured he just didn't have the maturity or the background to appreciate a great work of literature.  Now I know where he was coming from.

What am I missing?  I'm not lacking maturity and I'm not lacking background.  I'm not lacking an appreciation for good literature.  I don't know what it is, but...

I was wrong.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Undue Influence

The media's influence on our minds and actions has been in the... media... a lot lately.  My son is discussing in class whether violent video games beget violent people, and whether stereotypes in games cause or add to racial / ethnic prejudice, etc.  I just read about a study that says romance readers are more likely to accept unsafe sexual practices than others.  Most of this is being looked at in the ethics and morals field, less so in the scientific field of human behavior.  I'm a science guy, so I'm going to look at it from a scientific viewpoint.

Sort of.

But not really.  I'll use a single real-life subject -- myself, so my conclusions are not statistically significant.  So be it.

Let's step into the wayback machine, to a time when I was an impressionable teen / pre-teen.  What books did I read and did they leave any lasting impression?  I can only recall the ones that left some kind of impression, because the rest I've forgotten, although there were many.  The ones that I recall, I may have the wrong title for, or no title at all, but I remember the story.

The Other Side of the Mountain triggered a lasting interest in peregrine falcons, their near-extinction, their successful recovery, and their beauty.  However, I never felt any desire to live in a tree-trunk.

A story, whose title I don't recall, about a boy who had a skunk for a pet.  He was a really cool skunk, but I've stayed a cat person.

A biography of Steinmetz, a competitor to Thomas Edison, encouraged the engineer / scientist part of me, while teaching me that sometimes people fail in spite of all their hard work and intelligence.

Another title-free story about a teenage boy who'd just been blinded through  the carelessness of a classmate with a firecracker.  I've never liked loud noises, and this story put the finish on my dislike of personal fireworks, but it also gave me a deep (though admittedly outsider) empathy for the blind and otherwise physically disadvantaged.

A whole lot of sci-fi -- Asimov's robot novels and Foundation series, Niven's Ringworld, Andromeda Strain, etc -- taught me to look to science and technology to solve problems at the same time they create new ones; to think about the (far) future; the law of unintended consequences; and to remember always that people, no matter how powerful, are still just people.

(Only the first book out of 15 or so of) Castaneda's Teachings of Don Juan, all about peyote-driven hallucinations and stuff like that.  I still worry about my brother that gave me that book.  I did not develop an interest in drug-induced mysticism, although the out-of-body part of the book intrigued me and I delved into that a bit through sleep-states and a bit of self-hypnosis.

Johnathan Livingston Seagull rocked my world.  It spoke to me (unlike Catcher in the Rye -- I don't think I could ever relate to Holden C.).  Alas, I didn't become a seagull, but the book bolstered my determination to make my own way in life.  Which didn't need any bolstering anyway.

There are undoubtedly other books that I'll remember only after this is posted, but these are enough to make my point.  Did these books influence me?  Of course they did.  Did they make me
  • a violent sociopath?  No, but I didn't read much about violent people.
  • a mystic?  No.  While I have a very active imagination, I believe the world is thoroughly grounded in everyday reality.
  • a drug addict?  Not a chance.
  • a person who chooses to live outside society?  No again.
  • an engineer?  Yes, but my father was an engineer and had much more impact on me than any of these books did.
  • a very different person from who I was already turning out to be?  No, my reading didn't so much change my trajectory as it widened certain parts of the path of my life.
Why is that?  Why is it that (so we're told, anyway) some people are at risk of picking up life-altering "evil ideas" from what they read?  Aren't they then also at risk of picking up life-altering "positive ideas" as well?  [Besides, who's to say what are "good" things and what are "bad"?  That brings us right back to censorship.]  Maybe some people have less of a hold on the direction their inner life is heading in than others do.  I don't think the problem is the book / video game / movie, but the person doing the reading / playing / viewing.  If it wasn't a book that sent them down the wrong path, it would be something, anything, else.

I think those people are already in trouble before-hand.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Puzzling Observations

Lately I've been assembling jigsaw puzzles, and (like everything else I do) I see some things they can teach us about novel writing.

There is a difference between a 100 piece puzzle (a short story) and a 1000 or 1500 piece puzzle (a novel).  They both need every piece to be put in place to finish them, to "see the big picture," but the larger puzzle, having more pieces, allows for greater subtlety.  Think of each puzzle piece as an action, description, line of dialog, conflict, etc:  a piece of your story.  Each piece is a tiny part of the whole, but none can be omitted without leaving a gaping hole in the completed work.  It would be nice if we could view our novels the same way we can view a puzzle to see what might be missing or how much is left to be done.

I think of putting together a jigsaw puzzle as an exercise in observation and memory.  Memory is handy -- it helps speed the work when we can remember where we saw a certain odd-shaped piece, or one with only half of a shasta daisy on it -- but we can get by without very much of it.  Observation is key, though.

I'm continually struck by the transformation, the ramping-up of my powers of observation as I work on a puzzle.  At first, half of the pieces are not even right-side up (in the context of a novel, they're incomplete ideas).  Soon each is readily classified as sky, and building, and grass, and tree, and... wait -- what is that?  And I don't see anything here that looks like this area by the walkway. Hmmm.  Even working from an image on the box (an outline), not all the pieces are easily identifiable.  Not this early.

As time goes on and I've been culling pieces, making and filling gathering-areas for grass, brush, trees, I begin making finer distinctions.  There are trees against the sky, trees against the wall, trees in shadow.  But then again, there are two walls, and the trees against the brick are lighter than the trees by the stucco.  Later when I'm in the middle of the trees against the brick, I see that the color changes left-to-right, a bit yellowish on one side, a bit more blue and slightly out-of-focus on the other end near the shadow.  Finally I see the boy leaning up against the tree trunk:  I hadn't noticed him in the picture on the box because he's so tiny, and even though he fits on a single puzzle piece I couldn't see him for what he was until he was in place, under his tree.  Observation has level upon level.

Many is the time that I'm looking for a piece of such-and-such a shape with this green and that purple toward one end, when I find out that the green actually changes as we enter this new piece, and the purple changes to pink.  The larger the puzzle, the smaller the pieces and the more difficulties and surprises there are.

As I complete (or nearly complete) sections of the puzzle, they become like scenes in a novel.  It's not always clear where they fit into the whole scheme.  Before I have them properly linked to the body of the puzzle, they may be in the wrong place, or they'll be upside-down.  When the connection is finally made, it's like magic, and instantly hard to imagine it in any other configuration.  A major part of that magic is that the proper place for the "scene" is defined by a dozen or a hundred relationships with the rest of the work -- not the physical interlocking of the pieces, but the lines, shadows, colors, and textures that cross the boundary between the newly added section and the rest, relationships that were not evident until, suddenly, they popped into relief.

Observation, layers of observation.  She drank her coffee.  She chugged her cup of Joe.  She sipped her espresso.  Slurped her Java.  Inhaled her caffeiney-beaney whip.  Yes, one combination is perfect; She sipped her coffee.  But don't forget that the mug was heavy, and she'd wrapped her slim fingers around it to warm them on that windy November morning.  She held it ready between sips, unconsciously concealing her mouth, her elbows on the sticky diner table.  Her eyes stared off, unfocused, her mind elsewhere, but she must have been smiling:  you could tell from the way the edges of her eyes crinkled.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

I live. I wish. I dream. I write.

I live.  I wish.  I dream.  I write.  That means that roughly 75% of the time I am the absolute ruler of my world.  And believe you me, it is my very own world.

Or worlds, actually.  Plural.  Writers are creators, though not all of our creations show up in our writing.  Let me tell you about one of my worlds.

In this world of mine, people really care.  Simple things are simple, and hard things are hard.  Everybody tries.  Everyone is good at something.  Failures are for learning and improving and keeping perspective, not for leaving scars.

The skies are blue, the rivers wide, the earth soft under your bare feet.  Each of the four seasons has its own distinctive beauty.  Even rainy days are good days.

Nothing in this world is quite as beautiful as a full moon lighting up a night walk through a scattering of fresh fallen leaves.  Unless it's the sight of the first crocus poking its head up through an early spring snow.  Or a Canada goose, wings straining to cup the air, coming in for a full-stall landing.  Or a bite of a red-delicious apple.  Or a cloud shot through with the sun.  Or a thousand-thousand other things.

In my world, everyone misunderstands once in a while, so everyone knows what it's like to be misunderstood.  People do noble things because they seem right, without knowing or caring how others will interpret those actions.  They hold doors open for each other, use their turn signals, smile at passers-by, and yield to pedestrians in crosswalks.

Things are what they seem, at least if you look hard enough and deep enough.  Evil exists here, because without evil there's no rallying point for good, and even in my world, good needs to be rallied now and then.  Evil may sometimes attempt to clothe itself in the guise of good, but good has no use for masquerades.

And in my world, the wait-staff are always in a good mood, all dogs are friendly (or at least willing to negotiate), the produce is always first-rate, and children's shoelaces stay tied all by themselves.

Because even in my world, it's the little things, you know?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

English Rules

"Pay attention!" the English teachers say.  Our language has rules -- lots of them.  We must adhere to them at all times lest we invite misunderstanding.

Take adverbs, for instance.  They're simple and consistent modifiers-of-verbs.  If you quickly run to the store, then you're quick about going.  When you carefully drive up the twisting dirt road, you're full of care behind the wheel.  If you barely made it to the library before it closed, you arrived naked.  If you hardly finished your vegetables, you mashed them to bits with a hammer.  More to the point, if you see a used item for sale in hardly used condition, you can count on its having been used (perhaps very) hard.  It's clear that every adverb modifies its verb in the same way every time.  Simple.

Let's move on to something just a bit more complex, shall we?  Word choice is important -- there is always one best word, and you must be sure never to use an incorrect word.  Of course, meanings run on a continuum between the best word and the worst.  You might think there is no single worst word possible for any other, but there is.  It's called the opposite.

We'll use opposites to illustrate the danger of not choosing the best word.  Suppose we want to say that Tom was speedy, fleet, rapid, swift; Tom was fast.  The opposite is that he was motionless, tied-down, secured, static; Tom was fast.  Or for another example, that the CEO's motives were clear, obvious, visible, plain to see; the CEO's motives were transparent.  The opposite is that they were occluded, hidden, concealed, invisible;  the CEO's motives were transparent.  You can clearly see the peril of not choosing the best word.  Those sentences with the opposites in them really stick out like hardly used thumbs, don't they?

English is scarcely simple, even though there's plenty of it; English is devious, cunning, treacherous, crafty -- English is slippery.

And fun too.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Confuscius and Censorship (and Pornography)

Wondering what the link is between censorship and Confucius (and pornography)?  It's the rectification of names.

One of the first and most basic arguments Confucius made was in favor of the rectification of names:  calling a duck a duck.  He said it's impossible for us to live together with any hope of peace and mutual respect if you call something a duck while I call it a milkshake (not his words).  We have to agree on definitions before any real communication can take place.  A dictionary is a good place to seek out mutually agreed-upon definitions.

Peace and mutual respect fall apart when they hit the censorship wall, the division point where one party insists they know what's best for everyone else (to which I always say, "Excuse me, but I'll think for myself.")  There are plenty of examples of book censorship to choose from, but I'm all riled up right now about an art exhibit.

We had an incident last week where there were protests outside a local art museum (in Loveland CO) because of an allegedly pornographic depiction of Jesus Christ with a priest.  The artist intended the piece as a comment on the Catholic Church's problem with sexual abuse of children.  The overwhelming majority of those protesting the artwork had not viewed it.  I had not viewed it, and now no one can -- a crazed woman truck driver took a crowbar to the exhibit.  Fortunately no one was injured.  The protesters scattered on the four winds after the destruction.  Wherever they blew off to, I hope they feel as responsible as I believe they are.

But to get back to Confucius (and pornography); you can't call something pornography without it meeting the definition.  Well, okay, you can, but you shouldn't, if we're going to carry on a conversation.

You can't have pornography without intending to cause sexual arousal.  [From Black's Law Dictionary, 8th edition:  pornography, n. Material (such as writings, photographs, or movies) depicting sexual activity or erotic behavior in a way that is designed to arouse sexual excitement.]  No one reported becoming sexually aroused by the exhibit.  In fact, the protesters appeared uniformly disgusted and angered (by what most of them hadn't actually seen).  I'll give them points for imagination, I guess.  The creator of the artwork neither intended to, nor succeeded in causing arousal.

It was not pornography.

Maybe some of the viewers didn't like it, thought it was disgusting, against their religious beliefs, not quite the right color, discomfiting, poorly executed, etc.  Fine.  But that's not pornographic.  And I'll make up my own mind, thank you very much.

I'm ashamed that the day after the report of the attack appeared in my local paper, the comment section was full of people gushing about how happy they were that this abomination had finally been removed from their sight, expressing smug indignation that it wasn't done earlier, some remarking that they would have liked to have been there to help swing the crowbar.

What did these people bring to their viewing of the exhibit that caused them to react the way they did?  The exhibit was just something to look at -- what they took away from it was up to them.  Are their closely held beliefs built on such a shaky foundation that one single image threatened those beliefs?  Maybe so.  Do they also think that everyone who shares those beliefs needs protection as well?  What about those of us who don't share them?

More to the point, how could the majority who protested without even viewing the exhibit make up their own minds?  They didn't.  They accepted someone else's opinion (who may not have seen the artwork either).

We can't have a conversation about art or books (or anything else) if people are content to act on received opinion alone.  Art and literature are supposed to make people think, but they don't work for those unwilling or unable to do so for themselves.

And even so many years after Confucius, one of the first steps toward peace and mutual respect remains the rectification of names.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

First Things First

Last night at nearly 8pm the front of the house was dark when the doorbell did its dingle-dongle.  I was upstairs, busy at the computer.  It might have been a neighbor (who else would call at a dark house so late in the evening?) so I descended the stairs, turned on the porch lights and opened the door.

A young woman unknown to me was standing on my doorstep with a diamond stud in her nose and a clipboard in her hand.

"No," I said, shaking my head and beginning to close the door that hadn't yet made it more than halfway open.

"But I'm not selling anything --"

"I don't care," I said as politely (and firmly) as possible  The door closed.

I gave her a more than decent interval to get back to the sidewalk, turned out the lights, locked the door, and went back to my computer.

I was being reasonable.  It's election season.  Just as I don't buy things from strangers who show up at my door, I don't discuss politics with them either.

I was saving us both time.

If I hadn't been busy at the computer I would have been busy with something else:  busy playing piano, busy talking with my wife, busy reading, writing, painting, exercising, fixing, breaking, tinkering, thinking....

Do you have "spare time"?

I choose not to.  I'm not all in a rush and hurry, but I've always got something to do.

There are lots of distractions in this world.  I've been [I just ran 3 blocks down the street chasing a bunch of teenagers who had firecrackers and a thing for doorbells -- it's a wild night] stuck in my writing for a while now.  For the last year or more I've been distracted by the need to:
  • write something different enough to sell 
  • write something conventional enough to sell
  • write something to catch an agent's eye
  • get an agent
  • get published
  • hold my first novel in my hands
The thing is I don't need any of those things.  I'm not even one of those people who need to write.  I want to write, though, and that's enough.  I enjoy writing, and so long as that's true and I'm able, that's what I'll do without worrying about whether or not it's publishable or attractive to anyone but myself.  I don't know how or when it happened; my writing took a back-seat to getting published.  And I always told myself I wouldn't do that.

Set your own goals.  Keep them in mind.  Put first things first.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

World Domination

I was looking into mind-mapping software last week for the nth time (and for the nth time I decided to stick with pencil and paper).  Mind-mapping is a useful technique to have in your writer's toolbox, however you do it.  This post isn't about mind-mapping, though; it's about world domination.  What do the two have to do with each other?  Well, planning for world domination is a frequent topic of mind-mapping software examples and tutorials, that's all.

So I started thinking about world domination.  I mean, how would I go about it from a literary perspective.  Let's say I wanted to take over the literary world.  Or maybe take over the world through literature.  How?

The first thing that sprang to mind was the way certain soft-drink companies (all of whom are bent on world domination, don't you know) want to place their product in retail outlets and vending machines all over so that no one will ever have to walk more than a hundred feet (or something like that) to slake thirst with one of those soft-drinks.  "Slake thirst" -- I like that.  Thirst slaker in a can.  Yeah.

We should have reading material (but not advertisements) within reach of everyone.  We could slake thirst in this intellectual reality-tv dessert, this Bikini Atoll of culture.

And then I thought about how we have all these soft drinks available, all these empty calories helping us get and stay overweight.  Of course, there's the other class of soft-drink, which is the zero-calorie variety, the purpose of which is to counteract the weight-increasing kind.  So we're surrounding ourselves with products that give calories to those of us that don't need them, or products that give us a way to spend our food-money on something that has absolutely no food value.  All in a world with starving millions.  Slake that.

That got me feeling kind of negative about world domination.  I decided to seek a more local solution.

Writers could form gangs.  I'd call mine the West Side Story.  We'd roam the sidewalks at night forcing people to read our works at pen-knife-point under the street lamps, or just chase them into bookstores.  On second thought it sounds too much like dancing.

Maybe we could enlist the Secret Society of Fiction Librarians (come on -- you know the SSFL exists), but they're already busy with their turf war with the reference section, and fending off the book burners....

I guess I'll skip the world domination thing for now.  I don't have time anyway -- I have a story to tell.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Physical Crossover

William Butler Yeats got involved in his writing.  Physically.  He tells of an embarrassing day: 
"I had a study with a window opposite some window of [my stout stupid neighbor's], and one night when I was writing I heard voices full of derision and saw the stout woman and her family standing in the window.  I have a way of acting what I write and speaking it aloud without knowing what I am doing.  Perhaps I was on my hands and knees, or looking down over the back of a chair talking into what I imagined an abyss." (WBY Reveries Over Childhood and Youth)
I don't imagine that most writers act-out to that degree, but I know that I act-out at least a little.  Usually I notice myself mimicking certain head motions and facial expressions of my characters.  I don't find that strange.  My characters are a part of me, and I am a part of them:  we stir each other in the act of creation.

Acting-out also occurs when reading a novel.  In that case, another author has created characters that are so real to me that I can relate as if they are real people -- as real as the people I create myself (which is very real indeed).  I know (or think I know) their motivations, their passions, their worries, their fears, their goals, their disappointments, and what will make them happy or upset.  I know these things as well as I know myself, if the writer has done her job in the writing and I have done mine in the reading.

And that is a wonderful thing.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Who's Flying this Thing?

When training as a pilot, I learned the mantra was "aviate, navigate, communicate".  It served me well when flying, but the same idea applies to (my) writing as well.

The idea is that when you're flying a plane, your first job is always to fly -- keep the plane shiny side up, as they say, and avoid "unintentional ground contact."  Is there smoke coming from the instrument panel?  Fly the plane.  Remain calm.  If you have any attention left (and you should) then navigate -- look for a place to land.  If you still have bandwidth left, get on the radio and communicate your situation to someone who can send help after you get the plane safely on the ground.  Somewhere after aviating and navigating you may find an opportunity to use the fire extinguisher, but you need to keep flying.  You are responsible for everything that happens on that plane.

When you're writing (this probably applies only to pantsers) you need to "write, plot, get feedback".  It doesn't roll off the tongue nearly as well as the pilot's mantra -- how about "plod, plot, see what you've got".  Now where was I?  Oh yeah.

You have to write.   Always.  Has your manuscript developed a flaming hole in the story?  Write.  In the background (if your brain and fingers give you the chance) plot.  A lot of plot develops organically through the act of writing anyway (that's the pantser thing, of course).  Some people will disagree with me on this, but I don't think you should ask for feedback until you've brought the story down safely:  no one but you can write your story.  You are responsible, and asking feedback when you're in the middle of a muddle can make things worse.  It can make you stop writing.

And if you stop, can you start again?

That's my biggest fear:  that I'll stop and lose the thread, lose the excitement, lose the impetus, and I won't get it back again; that my story will fall from the sky, engine off and with no one at the controls, to crash and burn, forgotten in a field.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Literary Traps

When traveling in the real world I believe in packing light, but not so in the world of story.

We all bring baggage, or traps (short for trappings), to our reading and writing; everything from traumatic experiences we had as children, to favorite pets, bullies, unsuccessful relationships -- you name it.  All this and more affects how you interpret what you read as well as what you write about and how you write it.

Just as our life traps affect our ongoing life, our past reading and writing give us new traps that affect our future reading and writing.  They also affect our real life.

The more literary traps we carry, the fuller our experience of story can be, and it spills over into "real life" as well.

For instance, I can no longer see a fox without thinking of The Little Prince; and I can't think of The Little Prince without thinking of wheat fields in the breeze, and loss, and airplanes; which makes me recall flying my dad in a Cessna one Colorado autumn over a pumpkin patch; which brings up The Headless Horseman; which naturally introduces Rip Van Winkle; which reminds me of my Hudson River; then Hudson Bay way up north; polar bears; The Golden Compass; churches and religions; The Da Vinci Code; rose windows; rose hips; the dying community of the Shakers (where I had rose hip ice cream on a field-trip); the Shakers trigger thoughts of death, and almost-death, and missed opportunities; then Ethan Frome; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; Le Morte d'Arthur; Beowulf; trolls, and trickery; Douglas Adams; So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish; rain gods; American Gods; The Three Kingdoms; honor and duty and courage; Sam Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings; oliphaunts... elephants inside boa constrictors -- oh -- we're back to The Little Prince.

Quite a trip, wasn't it?  Some traps are good to get into.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Homo Sapiens Scriberens -- What do Your Bookmarks Say About You?

Homo sapiens sapiens (modern men and women) and their close but improved relatives homo sapiens scriberens (modern writers) use tools.  The use of tools was, until recently, one of the things that marked us as human.  Now we know that chimps do it.  Octopi do it.  Even crows do it.

Nothing against chimps or octopi, of course.

And especially nothing against crows.

As a result of the crows, the bulk of humanity is questioning why they're not as good as crows, but we writers are too busy for that:  we've got tools that need using.  From quill (not from a crow, though) to pencil to pen to typewriter to computer to voice recognition and so on, we use tools to help us write.  The tools we use say something about us, whether we like it or not.

Often, the simplest tools are the best.  I had to cringe while I wrote that sentence;  I rely on my computer a great deal, and I have to admit it's not a simple tool.  But within the crowputer I use tools that are simple and effective for me, tools that simplify the tasks I want to accomplish.  I cannot imagine writing and revising without the ability to search for text, for instance.

For reading, a bookmark is a simple tool.  It can be made from almost anything, especially flat things.  A scrap of paper makes fine bookmark, and you can almost always find a scrap to serve the purpose.  What does a scrap say about you though?

You can buy decorative bookmarks or you can make your own.  Years ago I made a number of them by cutting rectangles of suitable size from old birthday and Christmas cards.  I find these bookmarks deficient in one important respect -- they don't tell me where on the page I stopped reading.  I should explain.

I often read several books at once, and some of them (usually non-fiction) might get put aside for a couple of months.  I have a strong dislike for reading a passage twice by mistake.  My rectangular bookmarks tell me which page, and which half of that page I stopped on:  the bookmarks are one-sided, and the illustrated side points to the page of interest; the bookmarks have a top and a bottom (even if it's subtle), so a right-side-up bookmark signals the top half of the page, an inverted one signals the bottom.

In order to increase my precision in marking the spot to restart reading, I developed this bookmark:  I rotate it to show an upright 1 for the top quarter, an upright 2 for the 2nd quarter down the page, etc.  It's alright, but I'm not really happy with it.

My best bookmark is a well-worn two-piece.  I've read a lot of books published with extensive notes, and all too often those notes are buried at the back of the book.  I prefer them to be in with the text on the same page, but that's relatively rare.  At first I used two bookmarks -- one for the text and another for the notes, but all too often one (usually the one for the notes) fell out while I was reading at the other bookmark.  I solved that by linking two bookmarks with a string.  The larger piece with the arrow marks my place in the text, and the best part is that it is accurate to the line!  I position that part so the arrow is pointing to right where I'm leaving off.  Crows like this bookmark the best.

The string sticks out of the top of the book so I can always find what page my bookmark is hiding on.  Here are some action photos!

What does this bookmark say about me?  That I'm serious about reading?  That I value function over form?  That I have too much time on my hands?  That I have a knack for making anything complicated?

I don't care what it says about me.  I care that it works.  Just as I think a car is for getting me and my crow from place to place rather than for impressing my oh-so-human neighbors,  I believe a writer's choice of tools is a personal decision best made with the goal of improving the writing.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Botox Harmful to Writers

It's simply not true that Botox will make non-writer brains explode.  At least not that I've heard about.  But we're not here to talk about non-writers, are we?

Directly after reading Wendy's post last week (about yet another birthday passing), where she mentioned Botox as one of the things some people consider when they feel down about the aging process, I came across an intriguing writeup in Science News for a study of the effects that Botox treatments have on our emotions.

You may think of Botox as relaxing muscles in your face as a way to do away with frown lines. That doesn't sound so terrible. In truth, a Botox treatment paralyzes selected facial muscles. In a first-time treatment, these muscles are disabled for three to four months. While we say we're attacking "frown lines," what we really attacking are the muscles used to show negative emotions.

What does this have to do with writing, you ask? Bear with me a little longer.

It turns out that the face doesn't just mirror our emotions, transmitting them to anyone with a view. Nope. Our brains sense our facial response to the initial emotion, and use the facial expression to reinforce the original emotion. It's not a one-way street where our brains makes our facial expressions -- our faces change our brains too. If our faces don't respond to an emotion, the emotion doesn't fully form, and flickers out like a candle in a bad draft.

Botox not only freezes our face; it freezes our emotional selves as well, at least when it comes to the negative emotions.

So (I told you -- here comes the writing part). As a writer are you willing to give up your ability to feel (and put on the page) the following; anger, aggravation, irritation, agitation, annoyance, grouchiness, grumpiness, crosspatch (I had to look this one up!), exasperation, frustration, rage, outrage, fury, wrath, hostility, ferocity, bitterness, hate, scorn, spite, vengefulness, dislike, resentment, disgust, revulsion, contempt, loathing, envy, jealousy, torment, sadness, suffering, agony, hurt, anguish, depression, despair, hopelessness, gloom, glumness, sadness, unhappiness, grief, sorrow, woe, misery, melancholy, disappointment, dismay, displeasure, shame, guilt, regret, remorse, neglect, alienation, isolation, loneliness, rejection, homesickness, defeat, dejection, insecurity, embarrassment, humiliation, insult, pity, sympathy, fear, horror, alarm, shock, fright, terror, panic, hysteria, mortification, nervousness, anxiety, tenseness, uneasiness, apprehension, worry, distress, and dread?

[Don't worry; I didn't come up with that list all by my lonesome. I copied it from wikipedia.]

It seems to me that you'd be in trouble without being able to fully utilize any of those emotions as you write. No jealous lovers, no hostile strangers, no contemptuous waiters, no terrors in dark alleys, no frustration at goals denied, no conflict.  (The Science News article talks about how this could negatively impact your real life, but we're talking about important stuff here.)

Have you ever frowned when your MC would? Have you ever gotten choked-up when something terribly sad happened to them? Have you ever been mortified by finding an awful grammar mistake after you sent out a writing sample? Of course you have -- because your face still works.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

On Your (book)Mark, Get Set, Doh!

Reading sometimes gets interrupted by life, and bookmarks bring us back into the flow of our reading as rapidly as possible afterward.

We don't always get to break from our reading at a chapter break.  The phone, the doorbell, the kitchen fire -- all require us to put down the book more or less promptly.  In cases like these we may not even get to the end of the current sentence.  A ready bookmark slapped into the crease before closing ensures we'll be able to find where we left off without too much bother.  Even if we're reading other things in the meantime and we don't pick up that temporarily-abandoned book for weeks, we'll be alright.  Whew!

Sometimes life gets interrupted by life.  Okay, not sometimes -- all the time.  Too bad we don't have lifemarks.  Imagine you're driving to the grocery store when you realize you have a book you ordered waiting at your local bookstore.  You go to the bookstore and forget all about the groceries until later in the week when you finally figure out what's causing your entire family's synchronized stomach pains.

Lifemarks mean never forgetting what you meant to do next.  If you'd thrown down a lifemark at the turning, then you would have remembered to go for food after you stopped for your book.  Life is good.

Okay, that needs a little work.

Life is complex.  It's got multiple stories.  It doesn't always make sense and it won't wait for us.  It's constantly being interrupted, and things inevitably fall by the wayside as we neglect to pick up the pieces we dropped along the way.

Books (novels) are simple, even when they're complex.  They tell a single story even when they have multiple story lines.  They're told by a single person (the author) even when related by multiple narrators.  They are read in linear reader-time even when the story jumps back and forth in time.  They make sense even when they surprise.  They're in one piece, bound together so the reader never has to go looking for the next page.  The reader is there from the beginning right through to the end with no gaps, and has full control over the rate at which they read, whether they read at all, and if they want to re-read.  This is why bookmarks work as well as they do.

If reading is interrupted by life, use a bookmark.  If reading is interrupted by something in the novel itself... well, a bookmark won't help.  A novel that interrupts itself isn't lifelike; it's just broken.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The End is Near

We expect things to be wrapping-up as we near the end of a novel.  Usually we can tell when we're approaching the end of a book by a check of how many pages are left.  Even if you don't want to know, you can't help but receive messages from your eyes and hands about the relative thickness of pages already read on the left hand side, and pages remaining to be read on the right.  On e-readers you're given a running count or a progress bar to tell you where you are in the book.  You can't help but know that the end is approaching, and about how far off it is at any given time.

Except for the case of collected works, or more specifically, multiple novels presented in a single binding.  I'm currently reading "The House of Myrth" by Edith Wharton in a collection of four of her novels.  This is the first in the set, and while I can feel the acceleration of the (at least social) death-spiral of the main character, I don't know how many pages are left.  I don't know if the final resolution is just around the corner or if there are five more chapters of reduction in her circumstances to go before the end.

It's like reading half-blind in a way.  We still experience the normal course of the novel form:  beginning, middle, and end.  We can still sense the end approaching by the increasing pace and power of events.  But in a normal reading situation we also have a subliminal (if not conscious) feeling for how close the end is because we know how many pages are left.  The two measures reinforce each other, and they affect how we read.  I know that for myself, if I'm enjoying a book because of what's happening in it, I find myself reading faster, trying to reach the end.  If, on the other hand, I'm enjoying a book because I enjoy spending time with the characters, then I slow down my reading, trying to make it last.

Multiple novels bound together shut off one half of the information streams we have that signal how close to the end we are.  It affects how we read.  It can affect the perceived importance of story events, much like the feeling we experience cresting a false summit on a hike to the top of a mountain.

"Oh.  There's more," we say with some degree of disappointment.

I looked to see where the next novel starts, so I'd know approximately how much further I had to go in the current novel.  I didn't want to.  I like to be surprised.  But I couldn't resist.  I had started to guess the ending in earnest, and part of me scolded the other part for, perhaps, jumping the gun.  If I was only halfway through, then it was much too early to start thinking I knew how it was going to end.  Then again, there might have been only ten pages left -- I didn't know.  So before I knew what I was doing I was eyeing a relatively thin set of pages between thumb and forefinger.  I didn't count.  I didn't look at page numbers and do the math.  I let it be at "the end is not right around the corner, not is it too far." 

Then I said "shame on me" for looking ahead.

How do you handle reading the approaches to endings?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

This Book Sucks

If all we can say about a book that we read is that it sucks or it was good, then we've failed.  Nathan Bransford talked about The One Question Writers Should Never Ask Themselves When Reading this past week, and while he was specifically talking about writers-as-readers, I'm mostly going to talk about readers in general.  Got that?

NB's question to be avoided was "Do I like this?"  Readers in general can ask themselves that question, sure, but they owe it to themselves to give more than a yes/no answer.  "Yes I liked it" or "no I didn't" is different from "it sucks" anyway.  The first two are statements about your reading experience.  The other is  a judgment that you pass on the writer.  We tend to use the two interchangeably, but we shouldn't be so sloppy;  we don't like our writers to be sloppy and careless, so we shouldn't be that way as readers.

It's a two-way street.

Even as a non-writer reader you should be able to articulate why you liked or disliked a piece of writing.  You should also be able to admit that your feelings were not all one-sided:  you didn't like the ending, but wished one of the minor characters was available to be your best friend, say.  There's something of value in everything we read.  If we can't see it, it's because we're deficient somehow.  We're blind, deaf, ... dumb.

And even if you loved a book, you have to be honest about its failings.  And it's got failings -- nothing's perfect.

As writers we can learn from what worked for us in someone else's work, and what didn't.  Did the story seem to be all setup until halfway through when things finally started to happen?  That's what I'm finding with "The Windup Girl".  I'll be sure to guard against that in my own writing.  The author manages a huge cast of diverse characters.  Too many for me to keep track of, almost.  But all those characters packed into a sweltering, teeming, sweaty city of decaying slums add to the claustrophobic setting of the book.  I never thought of the cast complementing the setting in quite that way before.

As non-writer readers, it makes sense to notice the same sorts of things.  If you stop reading when a story drags, you'll never hang tight and finish any of the books whose action doesn't kick in until the second half.  Reading with a critical eye gives a deeper experience.  The writer didn't bang out that book in a week or two, so you can take a few minutes during your week or two of reading it to examine it.  That way, even if you read a book that sucks, you'll still have profited by the reading.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Taking a Break

Everyone needs to take a break now and then.  I just got back from eight days in Alaska, which was a nice (though expensive) break.  But not every break needs to be a big deal.

I need breaks every day -- several times a day, in fact, and you probably do too.  You may not think of them as breaks, but that's what they are.  When you get up  from working at the computer to refresh your beverage of choice, that's a break.  When you answer the phone, that's a break.  Gazing, perhaps longingly, out the window is a break too.

If you work for a long time at the computer as I do, your shoulders, hands, back, neck, eyes -- just about any part of your body -- can give you problems that can often be solved by taking breaks.  For many of us, the problem is not that we don't know we should take breaks, but that we don't remember to take them when we should. 

How often should you take a break?  Some people like a 5 minute break every hour.  I prefer more and shorter breaks, on the order of 5-10 seconds every 10 minutes or so.  I find it helps to keep my body from freezing-up without breaking my mind's train of thought.

How do you encourage yourself to take breaks when you should?  You could use an egg timer, I suppose, or you may have a timing program already on your computer that could help, but there are software applications out there to help with this specific problem of scheduling breaks.

Workrave is pretty nice, and free, though it lacks much in the way of help.  [I have no connection with Workrave, but I've used it, and found it suitable.]  There are many other applications, both free and paid, that you can find by searching for "workrave alternative", "break reminder", or RSI, among other things.  RSI is short for Repetitive Stress Injury, by the way.

The nice thing about Workrave is that it offers exercises for you to do during the longer breaks that you've scheduled:  shoulder stretches, finger exercises, close/far focusing, etc.  I love that.  It also can coordinate breaks between two or more machines, so if you sometimes timeshare between multiple machines, it knows to call for a break on the machine you're currently using.  Other applications may do these sorts of things too, but I haven't tried them.

The fatal (for me) flaw in Workrave is its activity timer.  Most of these break-reminder applications monitor your activity (I know this sounds insecure, but they don't intercept your keystrokes or anything -- they ask the operating system how long it's been since you've used the keyboard or mouse; that's the same measure that kicks off your screen saver).  The idea is that you don't want to be reminded to take a break while you're out having lunch.  But I have this nasty tendency to pause my typing and mouse use for several seconds or even a minute while I'm thinking.  And staring at the screen.  That's exactly when I need the break to come up, but that's when Workrave assumes I'm already taking one!

So I wrote my own.  I may rewrite it and release it free for public use this Fall.  But I can't let it distract me from my writing, which got a big mental refresh on my break in Alaska.  And that just goes to show that even long breaks can help your writing.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Classics in Your Field

[Short post this week -- I'm off to Alaska!]

Every field has its classics.  Car enthusiasts know them, oil painters know them... do you know the classics of literature?  I'm not asking if you can name them, I'm asking if you've read them.

That's a pretty ambitious undertaking -- there are a lot of literature classics, after all.  How about something more manageable?  How about the classics from the little corner your writing fits into?  Do you know what they are?  Have you thought about it before?  Have you made an effort to read them?

Sometimes they sneak by us.  My son designs and plays video games, and the mythic monster Cthulhu from H. P. Lovecraft's short story "The Call of Cthulhu" shows up repeatedly in those games as well as dungeons and dragons type of games.  Has he ever read the short story?  No, but he knows of its existence.  He'll probably be reading it soon, because I'm going to get a copy for him.

I can't think of one that's snuck up (or snuck by) me in fantasy-but-not-sword-and-sorcerer, but I haven't read more than a handful.  However, I feel certain there are a whole bunch of them I've missed simply because I'm not familiar enough with my chosen field.  And a good part of my unfamiliarity is due to my inability to give it my slice of fantasy a solid name!  Pitiful, I know.

What about you?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Know Your Tools: Spellcheck

Your word processor's spellchecker can be your good friend and your annoying enemy at the same time.  Do you know where your dictionary comes from?  Is it the standard dictionary that came with your word processor, or does it have words added by you or someone else: words that maybe don't apply.

Just so we're clear, the dictionary in your word processor doesn't have word meanings; it has word spellings.  If your word processor allows you to lookup a word's definition as you're typing, it's not using the on-board dictionary, but is instead probably going out to the web.   Very occasionally the program's dictionary incorporates a misspelling -- beware!  More often the problem is that it uses an alternate spelling you're not accustomed to, or you might have a British-English dictionary instead of a U.S. one (in this case, check your language or locale setting in the word processor's preferences).

Sometimes people cause trouble for themselves by adding entries to their dictionary that are misspelled.   Woe and lamentation!  You only have to do it once for the word in question to be forcibly misspelled by the word processor from then on.   I would hope that writers would be more careful about this sort of thing, but many writers are not very technically savvy, and this road to ruin is traveled with a mere click or two.  On the other hand, I have seen programmers, generally a very technically savvy bunch, insert all sorts of garbage into their dictionaries. These are people who know well how to add things to the dictionary, but too many of them don't know (or don't care) how to spell.

You might think that we writers have no reason to add words to our spelling dictionaries, but we often have names, particularly surnames and place names, that need to be added:  otherwise they'll be highlighted as misspellings on every occurrence.  Why not just ignore the highlighting, since you know it's wrong?  Because you can bet your lowercase m that some of the highlighted words are real errors.  In a sea of red squigglies, how will you know which to ignore and which need fixing?  It's simpler to add your words to the dictionary so that they are not pointed out as errors in the first place.

In order to avoid those little wiggly underlines that point out spelling errors, some of you turn off your spellchecker.  This solves the problem of having incorrect automatic misspellings forced upon you, but it also means that any spelling mistake on your part can slip through.  When the computer is ready, willing, and able to help you spell things properly, why miss out on the benefits of that digital brain?

Many people think of the spellchecker and the auto-corrector as the same thing (and I've been linking the two together here), but they're two different functions which you can enable or disable separately.  If you want your misspellings to be automatically corrected as you type, then enable automatic correction.  If you want your misspellings to be tagged with little wiggly underlines, then enable your spellchecker.  If you enable them both, then the only thing left misspelled and underlined will be words that are not in the spell checker's dictionary.

If you're writing historical fiction, fantasy, or sci-fi, you may have either words that are archaic, use an alternate spelling, or are made-up.  Your spellchecker will fight you on each and every one of these words unless you add them to its dictionary.  However, when you're working on other documents, all these special entries in your dictionary are dangerous rather than helpful.  This is where custom dictionaries come in handy.

You can make a custom dictionary for a given work or series or genre.  When you work on your novel, your spellchecker will be checking your words against a both the system dictionary and your custom dictionary (which includes all of your special words for your novel).  When you write your Christmas letter or business correspondence, you'll be able to use the standard dictionary alone, perhaps adding a different custom dictionary that has family names and places in it, or special business terms.  Don't get them mixed up!

You can even use more than one custom dictionary at a time.  Imagine you're a mystery writer, and you need the Latin names for poisonous plants as well as the names of numerous toxic chemical compounds.  But you also need a dictionary specific to the mystery series you're writing; it holds the character and place-names that you want to spell consistently across all the books in the series.  You'll be using all three dictionaries (standard, genre, and  series) together when you write.

It pays to be very careful when you add a word to one of your dictionaries -- make certain you're spelling your word properly, and that you're adding it to the right dictionary.  I rarely add anything to my system dictionary, although I've had to a couple of missing words to it, like dreamt (and now I see that my browser's dictionary doesn't recognize dreamt either, sigh).  If you have any doubt about previous entries, your word processor has a way to review and change / delete words in your custom dictionaries.  Look in the help.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Tyranny of Choice

If you search the web for "tyranny of choice", you'll find articles explaining how having too many choices is a recipe for disaster.  It causes us to have difficulty making decisions, to often make poor decisions when we finally make them, and even when we (accidentally?) make a good decision, to make ourselves miserable and depressed by second-guessing our choice.  Some advocate choosing anything that's just good enough in these hyper-optioned situations.

When it comes to choice, more is not better.

I experienced something a bit different today.  I've had a rough week, and I decided that instead of plowing ahead with my normally scheduled reading (which would be some of Edith Wharton's novels), I'd like to tame my stress by reading something more exciting and interesting -- something escapist.  [Not that I'm knocking Edith W. -- but I just came off a few weeks of Chekov.]  I rearranged my morning errands to include a trip to my public library, and I decided I'd get "The Life of Pi", by Yann Patel.  No, it's not a book about mathematics, although the pi reference is what caught my attention -- Pi is the protagonist's name.  Anyway, I went to the library and they had 16 or 17 copies -- all currently checked-out, except for a set of 10 which were off-limits as they were in a kit-bag for a book group to use.  So I left the library empty-handed.

3 or 4 hours later I did think of another book I was in the mood for, and I went back to the library again.  I grabbed the single shelved copy, and went home happy.

I know -- you're thinking, "What a lucky guy he is that there were two acceptable books, and at least one of them was checked-in!" right? 

How many (hundreds of) thousands of volumes were sitting on the shelves, waiting for me to fall in love with them?  I didn't care.  I wanted the book I'd come for, and no other book would do.  Normally I'll read anything that's printed in English, but this time I'd made my choice and let it tyrannize me.

As writers, we face choices with multitudes of options all the time.  From "What should happen next?" to "What's the best word to describe how this couple moves past the bench by the lake in the park?"  We must choose.  We can't freeze or dawdle too long; there are too many choices to be made: we'd never finish.  But we can't settle for just good enough, either.  Our writing has to be far above that level to succeed in telling our story.  And, as my experience at the library today reminded me, we certainly can't let a choice (premature or otherwise) tyrannize us and blind us to the presence of all the other options.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Rough Drafts, Colonoscopies, and E-Juice

Rough drafts and colonoscopies have a lot in common.  Neither is fun to watch, I'm thinking.  Both are messy and sometimes uncomfortable (it's called a rough draft for a reason).

One involves a professional (a doctor) looking into the guts of your body, the other involves a professional (yourself at your professional best, anyway) looking into the guts of your story.  The doctor has the best equipment and an assistant, along with other medical help available as needed.  For your rough draft you probably have a fine computer, and maybe an assistant in the form of a reader or critique partner / group.  If needed, there's always help on the Internet.

Both the writing and the probing involve "getting it all out."  When you have a colonoscopy they give you some concoction to drink to help get things moving.  I call it eliminator juice, or e-juice for short.  It is mighty effective.  For better or worse, there's no equivalent to e-juice for writing rough drafts.  Assuming the goal of a rough draft is simply to get the story (in very rough form) into the computer, what you  really want is a sort of verbal diarrhea;  you want a flood of words.  Some people may take a drink to become talkative (or maybe a whole lot of drinks), but that kind of drinking won't cut it.  Inducing verbal diarrhea centered on our story is not as simple as drinking 8 oz of e-juice every 20 minutes till the unstoppable flow is loosed.

I find that two things slow my rough draft:  lack of knowing where the story goes next, and premature editing.  Where the story goes next always comes to me in good time, but the premature editing... sheesh!  I have a lot of trouble keeping myself from editing as I write my rough draft.  Part of me wants even this first stab at the story to be perfect, to flow on the page, to have sharp and witty dialog.  It's a very strong part of me.  I blame this tendency on my programming background -- if it's going into the computer it ought to be as right as it can be the first time.  If I had some writing e-juice to drink, it would make this editor part of me take a vacation for the duration.  But I don't have any of that kind of juice.

Except I've found that helps is to take my eyeglasses off (my uncorrected vision is 20/200 in my good eye), and zoom in on my text.  I can generally tell if I am on the line I'm supposed to be, and I can see that I'm typing, but it's a struggle to read what's on the screen.  My editor doesn't stand much of a chance because it has to work from memory -- there's no fine-tuning happening on the screen where otherwise it would be a persistent time-waster for me.  So while I don't have an e-juice suitable for writing a rough draft, I have a kind of helpful half-blindness that can at least eliminate a major restriction I'd otherwise place on the stream of words.

Do you face any particular problem with writing a rough draft?  Have you found any technique(s) for dealing with it?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Necessary Optimism

From outside the writer's circle, it's easy to see writers as pessimists.  Depressed lonely neurotic unkempt hard-drinking suicidal pessimists.  These types appear both in fiction (The Shining) and in real life (Ernest Hemingway).  Why would anyone want to become this kind of writer?  My answer (and we can argue about it, if you like) is that no one wants to become this kind of writer -- this is what writers turn into afterward.  It's like a second molting:  the first time was a change from mere human into a writer, and the second change was from a writer into a failure.  Failure as a writer, failure as a person.  Not my first choice.

From my perch on the edge of the writer's circle, not yet across the publishing threshold, things look different.  Don't get me wrong; I see a few pessimists, here and there in the fora, usually complaining about the injustice of their (usually first and not-yet-complete) novel not having been instantly bought in a million dollar book deal and an appearance on Oprah.  These people should quit whining and get to work writing  and learning.

It seems that you have to be an optimist to tackle something like a novel.  Why would you ever begin one if you were a pessimist?  The chance that it will lead to fame and fortune are minuscule, and if you're a realist, you don't consider fame and fortune.  (If you're a pessimist, you figure it's there, but they won't let you have any.)  I think there may be a link here, where pessimists tend to look forward to the destination, while optimists look forward to the journey.  If you're an optimist you think you can write a novel, one that's interesting, and ideally one that others will want to read.  Strike that.  If you're a true optimist, you don't use words like ideally, because the ideal is always assumed.

Assuming the ideal is an excellent way to approach writing a novel.  You'll want to pull back and employ a healthy level of skepticism once you get into contracts and such, but till then, being positive is the way to go.  What's the alternative?  Being a pessimist?  Most pessimists I know say they're not pessimists, they're just being realistic.  I'll admit I've said this a few times in my own life.  Being that kind of realist won't get you very far in writing a novel (or anywhere else), though.

I know a young woman who graduated from college a couple of years ago with a degree in psychology.  She's happy as a clam working as a manager in the food service industry, because "I get to use my psychology training every day."  Let's assume for a moment that no other jobs have been available because of the economy, and that either she's wasting her education or she's delusional about what a good fit her job is with her skills.  Well... why shouldn't she be happy?  If she didn't adopt the attitude she did, she'd be depressed instead.  It's the same situation either way, but she's chosen to be happy about it.  I admire that.  I'd pick delusional over depressed any day.

Many beginning novelists are in a similar situation.  We've been unable to finish a novel, or finished one that no one wants to read.  We've gotten 50,000 words written before we learned some key rule of grammar or story structure.  Should we be depressed at how much time we've wasted and how much work we have to throw away, and how very hard it all is?  Or should we be happy about the practice we've had, about the improvement in our writing that it brought, about how much better the novel we're working on now will be because of lessons learned?

One choice leaves you depressed, or just makes you walk away; the other puts a spring in your step and makes you excited for the future. 

Do you know any novelists you'd call pessimists?