Saturday, December 29, 2007

An Unusual Litmus Test

Anne Mini has recently been talking about who should and shouldn't be a valued feedback-giver to the aspiring writer (parts I and II). If you haven't read her posts yet, I highly recommend you do so before continuing reading this post of mine. I can wait!


Now that you have returned, let me first note I certainly agree that Anne's logic applies to almost every situation. However, most people tend to believe there are exceptions to every rule, and of course they tend to believe they fall into the minority that is the exception. Especially when it comes to issues like this.

Interestingly, I've read several published authors who noted their spouses were their first reader/editor. Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, and Bill Watterson (who wrote/drew the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, and thus wasn't truly in this industry) all come to mind. I'm sure you could come up with many other examples.

There are two points I'd like to make on this score. First, readers would do well to remember that what a person says when publicly thanking his/her beloved is not necessarily the full truth. Secondly, most of these writers noted looking for general reaction from their spouse, usually on a chapter-by-chapter or realism basis, rather than on a line-by-line basis. But I'm sure it varies. At any rate, aspiring writers would do well to not just blandly take such comments of published writers at face value.

That said, I do believe my wife is an incredibly valuable first reader/editor to me, even on a line-by-line basis (and I believe I have a good litmus test for objectively determining she is -- more on that below). First of all, she has a degree in comparative literature, and is a voracious reader of the same genres I write in -- she's much wider read than me in general, actually. Secondly, she's done enough writing to know what she's doing. She hasn't written as much fiction as I have, but it's not a race.

All of that just gets her into the ball field of being a potential first reader, except for the pesky issue that she's my spouse -- and here's where my litmus test comes in. Ask yourself this: would you or your spouse be offended/upset/surprised/displeased by trading constructive critiques post-coitus? As in, “that wasn’t very good for me?” If you’re uncomfortable answering that to yourself (don’t tell me -- I really don’t want or need to know) then your spouse probably can’t be your editor regardless of his/her other qualifications.

But if you’re so uninhibited around each other that giving direct, un-couched feedback on your most intimate acts is a normal and accepted practice between the two of you (after all, the comments are only designed to help), then you can probably be reasonably certain they aren’t couching things when discussing your novel. Although, even then, be on guard at first -- it’s far too easy for your beloved to want to be supportive at the expense of not being constructively critical at first. Here’s a good law of editing (in the mathematical sense) I’d like to propose: if all your feedback from your first reader is unequivocally positive, it wasn’t helpful. Even if the person loves your book to death, he or she should find about ten thousand things wrong with it, and tell you just why each one is wrong (or say it just doesn’t rub them right if they can’t tell).

So that’s why I think my wife and I are one of the very few exceptions to this particular rule -- yet even then, she is my first reader, but certainly not my last before querying. I think my litmus test holds water, but I’m not aware of many people who seem likely to pass it (of course, it isn’t exactly a topic I ever discuss with anyone), so for most aspiring writers this is probably a moot point in the first place. When in doubt, follow the advice Anne has already laid out in her posts on this subject.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Overusing "That"

Yesterday I saw a very interesting post over at Dwight's Writing Manifesto called Drat That. It's a post about the perils of overusing/misusing the word "that," something I definitely tend to do. Thanks to his handy pointers, I'll definitely be looking out for that in my writing in the future. Thanks, Dwight!

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Tonight I decided that it was once again time to work on some prewriting. I needed to flush out a few more minor points about my major characters, and do a lot more flushing out of my minor characters. This exercise really helped, I think, and should make writing much easier in the future. I actually wrote 2,400 words worth of character bios today -- that would be ten standard pages! It's a shame that doesn't count towards my actual word count, but I have a great feeling that this will help with the fact that I keep getting stuck.

It's not that I haven't had motivation (though I haven't had much time). It's that things just haven't been feeling quite right. Things have seemed harder than they should, than they have in the past, and I haven't been able to shake the feeling that I just am not close enough to my characters. Hence tonight's earlier musings, as well as this character prewriting work. I don't think I'm fully there yet, but I am getting closer to the point at which the full weight of my momentum should hit, and I should be able to blaze through at least another substantial portion of this book.

Also, I did manage to revise my content from last time, and I actually wrote another two pages of new content. It came very easily tonight, after all my prewriting. All right! But that doesn't necessarily mean I have my momentum back. We'll see what the upcoming holidays do to that.

The stats as of today:
-47,250 estimated words.
-55,491 actual words.
-Nine and a portion fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (155 pages total).
-189 pages in all.
-Song(s) listened to while writing: Sick Cycle Carousel and Somebody Else's Song, both by Lifehouse

Thoughts on Writing

[The following is an essay that I wrote tonight for myself, in response to the things I am currently thinking about as I try to jump-start my writing after a relatively bad year productivity-wise. These thoughts are a bit unordered as times, as I'm working through a number of craft issues in my head at present, but I thought that they might be of outside interest.]

One of the critical things about writing well is to do the unexpected. This means if the next scene seems obvious, or little more than a bridge to the scene after that, you probably shouldn’t be writing the scene in question. This means that your characters have to be unique, and have enough interesting attributes to keep the reader following them. In my case, this also means there has to be enough to keep the reader sympathetic to the main character(s). If there isn’t something admirable or unique about the character, they just seem like another everyman, or a prop in a play.

One key aspect of this is that the character must be strong enough to make his or her own decisions, despite where you (the author) think the story is going. This might mean that some smaller scenes won’t work or can’t play, or even that some whole scenes might have to go -- a romantic scene with Ender would have been disastrous, and would have completely killed parts of his character.

This means that certain conversations, which the author might wish to have proceed in a certain fashion in order to disseminate information in the most efficient manner, will instead go in an entirely other direction. This is how depth and complexity is created. I have a tendency to feel frustrated or flustered in such cases, because I feel like I’m not writing tightly enough in terms of plot -- but in reality, not every scene is going to advance the plot by light years. The best books have plot and character development interwoven in every scene, but in many cases the plot development is so slow as to be almost unnoticeable. The novel is book-length because the main plot is doled out in little bits, after all.

One big issue with my own writing is that scenes which are just filler, or scenes in which the protagonist is passive, tend to crop up too much in early drafts. Identifying those sooner than later and killing them is a good idea. I’ve gotten a lot better about the filler issue, but the passivity issue is a big problem. After all, I tend to model the characters after myself, and my general strategy in life is to accumulate knowledge/power until I have an assured positioning for victory, and then to strike the finishing blow all at once. This strategy is actually very effective in practice, but it doesn’t exactly make for the most riveting writing, as the build-up period is comparatively dull.

This means I will always be slightly out of my element when writing, if I want to remain interesting to my readers. I will always have to use the strategy of taking smaller actions early and often, still with an eye to that big finish, but without the painful comfort of doing little in the meantime. This is something that I’ve been forcing myself to do with my last two works, but it still isn’t something that is entirely comfortable to me.

Interestingly, my older works were often much less cautious, but also much less practiced. I’ve changed since then. I’ve learned patience and caution, at times at a rather steep price to myself. What I have to learn is that these virtues are not necessarily virtuous when it comes to the body of my writing itself -- but they are certainly helpful in weathering the creation process itself.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Black Hole Blasts Neighboring Galaxy

Jet From Supermassive Black Hole Seen Blasting Neighboring Galaxy is an interesting article from the Washington Post. Apparently, astronomers have found a black hole that is sending a gigantic stream of deadly radiation into a neighboring galaxy -- good for birthing stars, but quite bad for any life that might have been in the path of that radiation.

Yet another thing for people to fear: intergalactic radiation that suddenly wipes out Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field. Apparently the researchers that saw this think that the same thing could actually happen to the Milky Way in about a billion years, when it starts merging with the Andromeda galaxy. Well, look on the bright side: maybe our sun will have imploded by then, anyway.

I have to say, this sort of thing really strikes me as interesting partial-premises for sci-fi novels. I know that a lot of the far-future dying-sun stories have already been done, but I still hunger to someday do something of the sort. There are just too many interesting ideas to write them all!

Friday, December 14, 2007

I Am Legend

My wife and I went to see I Am Legend tonight, and we both thought it was really great. It was a little bit less faithful to the book than I was expecting (the ending is completely changed), but that was probably necessary for modern moviegoer tastes. I was a bit surprised by some of the negative reviews that this movie garnered, which claimed everything from a lack of suspense, to wooden acting by Will Smith, to inept storytelling, to"too little gore."

Well. I think that "too little gore" is easily answered: it's just not that kind of movie. And frankly, I think the opposite advice can be given to most modern horrors, so it's obvious that I'm just not on the same wavelength with those reviewers. We'll chalk that up to taste.

Secondly, my wife and I both felt the movie was immensely suspenseful. The key word here is suspense -- this was more in the tradition of M. Night Shyamalan or Alfred Hitchcock (both of whose work I love), rather than George Romero. To note: I did enjoy the original Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, but I was less than thrilled with Day of the Dead, and haven't wanted to see any of the more recent entries or remakes from that line. I also enjoyed 28 Days Later, though I felt it was overly bloody, and I quite enjoy Stephen King novels (the most obvious comparison being THE STAND, of course, which I believe must have been at least partly inspired by the original novella of I AM LEGEND -- King has noted that he is a fan of Richard Matheson).

So, given all of that, I must say that I thought that this was one of the most suspenseful movies I've seen in recent years. The use of silence, and of light and darkness, was masterful. The CG creatures weren't quite what I expected, but they didn't seem out of place at all to me. The largely solo acting by Smith was his best work, in my opinion -- he displays a fairly wide emotional range here, and does so subtly and convincingly. Those who complained of "wooden" acting, especially referring to the scene in which he recites from the movie Shrek, are simply missing the point. This is a moderately subtle movie that trusts the viewer to catch the emotional cues without the aid of music or extended dialogue. It's all about Smith's expressions, body language, tone -- and that's why I feel like it's his best work.

As for inept storytelling... there are flashbacks, as there are in the novel, and I think that was the main complaint. I thought those were well done, and provided some interesting contrast to the "present" events of the story. I suppose this is a matter of taste once again. Don't get the wrong impression, by the way. It isn't that the movie has done particularly bad with the critics -- it's middling on rotten tomatoes. I just felt that it should have done much better than middling.

The chief complaint that I could lodge against this movie is that it will probably make diehard fans of the book unhappy. The core twist is changed -- and thus the very meaning of the title is altered rather dramatically, actually -- and this will upset those who simply wanted to see the big-screen version of the Matheson novella. However, for those fans who understand what this movie is -- both a modernization and a retelling of the classic tale, with a weaker ending but a much more likable protagonist -- there's a lot to love here.

Changing The Spacing Of Your Manuscript

Anne Mini recently did a great post on why it's a good idea to have two spaces after each period. This was actually not a habit I ever picked up, as I don't believe my typing teachers ever advocated this (my wife learned this in her schools, but I didn't -- maybe I just missed the boat). At any rate, when I heard of this preference a few months ago, I decided to make the shift to using the two spaces, and in order to do that I had to reformat my entire WIP manuscript.

Hours of tedious work? Not hardly! Using nothing more sophisticated than the "Find and Replace" function in MS Word, here's how to reformat your manuscript to add two spaces instead of one. Just follow these steps in order, and you should be good to go. It also works on manuscripts that are half and half -- part of it formatted with the correct two spaces, part of it formatted with only one.

Of course, as with any large-scale change you make to your manuscript, make sure and save a copy first! If something should go awry for whatever reason, you don't want it to happen to your only recent copy.

Now, on to the steps:

1.) Open "Find and Replace" in MS Word by hitting Ctrl+H in windows, or by looking under the Edit menu and choosing "Replace" (the menu location may vary slightly by Office version, especially in the 2007 edition, which moved the location of a lot of things -- I'm using Office 2003).

1.a.) Step two and below will use the character "_" to represent a literal space (since you otherwise couldn't see it), and square brackets [] to indicate the boundaries of the text you should be finding and replacing. When entering these values into your textboxes, omit the square brackets, and use a literal space where I show the underscore.

2.) Search for [._] and replace it with the value [.__]

3.) Search for [."_] and replace it with the value [."__]

4.) Search for [?_] and replace it with the value [?__]

5.) Search for [?"_] and replace it with the value [?"__]

6.) Search for [!_] and replace it with the value [!__]

7.) Search for [!"_] and replace it with the value [!"__]

8.) Search for [:_] and replace it with the value [:__]

9.) Search for [._._.] and replace it with the value [...]

10.) Search for [...__] and replace it with the value [..._]

11.) Search for [___] (three spaces) and replace it with the value [__] (two spaces)

Unless you have strange formatting or other interesting punctuation, that's it! And I'm sure that you can see how you can apply these general principles to other types of punctuation, or strange types of speech-delineation, like the carrots (<>) that are used to identify thought-speech in Orson Scott Card's SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD.

The key is to run all your replaces that are like 2-8 first, so that you have at least the correct number of spaces after each sentence; then run numbers 9-11 to collapse any inappropriate extra spaces back down. If you're worried that things have gotten very out of whack, you can even run numbers 10 and 11 repeatedly, until they find nothing more to replace (that's actually not a bad idea to do, anyway, just to be sure).

I used this logic to successfully reformat my own manuscript several months ago, and I haven't found any problems with it in the interim. But I'm not the biggest expert on the rules of two spaces versus one, so if you see a hole in my logic, or if there's something I'm omitting, please let me know and I'll update the post. Happy formatting!

UPDATE 1: Someone pointed out on Anne's blog that this sort of logic incorrectly adds too many spaces after abbreviations. Since I didn't use any of those in my WIP, I didn't have that problem. But adding lines to search and replace things like [Mr.__] with [Mr._] would work, presuming you know, or can at least guess, all the abbreviations you used.

UPDATE 2: The list has been simplified a bit regarding quotes, thanks to a comment to this post.

UPDATE 3: Actually, that simplification was invalid, as another comment pointed out. In order to avoid adding extra spaces in cases like [what I think,"_said Tom.], the full steps above are necessary.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A winner is me!

Four pages today! And I started out with a really busy day at work, a lot of stress that resulted in a really bad headache, and other woes... but I wrote anyway. I was really only planning on making some notes and such, doing a little revising -- that sort of thing. But that turned into writing a page, which turned into two, which quickly turned into four at the last minute. Progress feels good, especially since it is so sparse during this time of year.

The stats as of today:
-46,750 estimated words.
-54,902 actual words.
-Nine and a portion fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (153 pages total).
-187 pages in all.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Another Scene Down

Only a page and a half today, but that was a complete (brief!) scene. I also revised my content from last session. My day job bled into the night the last couple of days, which cut into my writing time in a major way, aside from sapping all my energy. Nothing bad, just lots of end-of-year stuff. Hopefully now I'm fairly caught up, though, and won't have to do that again in the coming weeks.

Today's scene was very brief, but I think that's a nice counterpoint to the longer ones I usually write. I also think it was a fitting length for this particular scene, which ends suddenly and surprisingly. I had been a little unsure how to write this one, but it turns out that I was thinking I was going to write it from one perspective, but really needed to write it from another character's pov. What would have been expected and relatively uninteresting the first way became something surprising and unexpected this way. And brief! Let's me move on to the next scene, which is more important anyway, which is good.

Now I just need to figure out exactly how I want to write that one. Sometimes having the right plan is well over half the battle. I don't expect to get much done on that tomorrow, though, since that's my birthday and I'll likely be otherwise occupied. The big twenty-five! I'm not sure if it seems stranger that I've lived a quarter of a century, or that I've only lived a quarter of a century.

The stats as of today:
-45,500 estimated words.
-53,639 actual words.
-Nine and a portion fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (149 pages total).
-182 pages in all.

Monday, December 3, 2007

More on Chapter Ten

Two and a half new pages today, and I revised all my content from Saturday. I managed to efficiently finish off a scene that I was worried would drag out, so that was a pleasure. Next writing session, I need to write one more scene, and then I'm up to replacing some preexisting content. I suppose I'll need to heavily-rewrite/replace about a chapter's worth of material that just doesn't fit anymore (and which was boring and fragmented to begin with, so needed a heavy rewrite regardless), and then I should have a couple of chapters of smooth sailing where my rewriting is fairly minimal. And then I'll finally be done with my rewriting/expanding efforts, and will be able to move on with the rest of the book. I'm hoping to hit that point by the end of December, if not sooner. I suppose we'll see if I hit that goal this time...

The stats as of today:
-45,250 estimated words.
-53,263 actual words.
-Nine and a portion fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (147.5 pages total).
-181 pages in all.

Attributes That Identify Your Writing

Nathan Bransford had an interesting post about cross-genre writing today. Essentially, he advocated that writers stick to one genre, in order to build their skills and their brand, until they are so famous that it no longer matters (think John Grisham). In response to questions in his comments, he further revealed that he felt that certain complementary genres, such as sci-fi and fantasy, or the various sub-genres of children's literature, were less of a problem. But in the case of the sci-fi / fantasy question, which was particularly relevant to me, he did mention that you still have to have some aspects to your writing that makes the stories obviously "you," and thus something that will have less risk of fragmenting your readership.

So that got me thinking: what aspects of my writing are distinctly "me," and present in all of my works? To date, I've written two Science-Fantasies (that's a real book category, not something I made up), and I'm working on one Dark Fantasy that's set in the future of our modern world, so in some senses is a bit like science fiction (just with magic). So here's what I came up with:

1. All my works have both magic and technology in them, to some greater or lesser degree.
2. All my works have characters with modern outlooks. Either my story is set in modern times, in the future, or in an alternate universe.
3. All of my books have a dark streak to them. Main characters are not safe from death, though I'm not cavalier about that.
4. Multiple cultures are always present in my works, and often multiple languages are present, as well.
5. I usually make use of some non-European mythology or folklore as the underpinnings of parts of my story or world.
6. There is usually a blend of locales in my stories that includes industrial/commercial locations as well as deep wilderness locations.
7. There is almost always some sort of Eastern influence in my works, usually Japanese, Korean, or Chinese (or all three).
8. Entropy is a theme (or at least a strong element) in every last work I write.

There are probably other things, too, but that's what I could come up with off the top of my head. In my biased, non-expert opinion, I think that this is enough to tie together a readership and build a fan base that can enjoy all my works. I don't plan to write any thrillers or horror or romance, though those elements may creep into my various works to greater or lesser degrees. But the core sci-fi / fantasy mix, and other elements that I mention above, are always part of my works, and should make a story recognizably mine once people have read a couple of my pieces. The main question is the ratio of sci-fi to fantasy, and that's something that varies work-to-work for me.

What about you? What attributes permeate every work that you write? Everyone has something, even if it's only one or two things. For instance, Orson Scott Card, who writes in something like four genres, is well known for always including interesting ethical dilemmas in every one of his works. Even if it's something as broad as that, or the fact that you always have strong female leads, or always write in a certain notable voice, you probably have something consistent in each of your works. So what is it?

Saturday, December 1, 2007

A good way to start the month.

Four pages today! Another 1,000 words! I'm finished with chapter nine, and a page into chapter ten! I also did my writing work much earlier than usual today, because I'm going with my wife, sister, and parents to see the Broadway South production of My Fair Lady. It's the British version, actually, and it's supposed to be fantastic. It's been over a year since I've gone to see any live theater, so that's pretty exciting.

I also had a pretty striking realization today: I really don't need to write things in sequence. I've always tried to do that, because when I wrote the endings to books long before I finished them, it never felt right by the time I actually got there. The characters and story had matured in different directions than I had originally expected.

However, part of what makes me feel like programming is easier than writing is that I can break even the most complicated programming down into discrete parts, and I can attack each piece individually, in whatever order I choose, and then I can put it all together and polish it up and it's done.

Well, today I realized that I can do that same sort of thing on a smaller scale with my writing, too. I was having ideas for dialogue farther into today's scene, which I was trying to hold in my head while I figured out the start of the scene. After twenty minutes of this, I realized I should just write down the later stuff so that I could free up those resources in my brain. That turned out to be about a page of material, all told. Then there was another section that came shortly after the first that popped into my head, and I wrote that down.

The funny thing is, that made it much easier to write the opening of the scene, too. I knew where the scene started, and where it quickly needed to get to, so I just wrote the appropriate (brief and interesting) bridge. Sometimes having too many options can be paralyzing, as we all know, and by writing something that I was certain about that came just a bit in the future, I reduced my options for the earlier bridge paragraph so that I could more easily make the right decision and just be happy with it.

Funny how that works! I'm definitely going to have to keep this technique in mind over the coming weeks, and see if that makes things easier. I suspect it really will. With programming, often there is a piece that I just don't want to do, because it seems too big and unpleasant. So instead I just do lots of other little pieces that contribute partly to the big piece, or even that are unrelated, and when those are done I just have the big piece left and it doesn't seem so bad. I'm a much faster programmer than I am a writer, and I bet that has something to do with it.

The stats as of today:
-44,500 estimated words.
-52,536 actual words.
-Nine fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (145 pages total).
-178 pages in all.