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.

Friday, November 30, 2007

A good way to end the month.

Three and a half pages today! I certainly didn't hit my goal for this month, but I did manage to make substantial progress on many levels (plotting, title, hook, writing, and revising), so I can't complain too much. Sometimes you just can't rush things but so much -- I well know that I'm capable of finishing a novel in a timely fashion. I finished each of my prior two in about two years, and this one is looking to take only about half of that overall. Despite the fact that I would have loved for this to happen in a total of eight months, for a part-time writer I think I'm doing pretty well. And quality has always been more important to me than quantity, so my impulse to "power through" when I'm not fully prepared for the material is quite low.

The stats as of today:
-43,750 estimated words.
-51,516 actual words.
-Eight and a half fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (141.5 pages total).
-175 pages in all.

Let's try this hook thing again...

Thanks to more feedback, I give you:
Nine years have passed since the Dead ended civilization, leaving only tiny splinter societies behind. Darrell Williams, a black doctor in a rural white town, is one of the few survivors in a countryside of roving monsters and encroaching wilderness. When his house is stormed by his undead neighbors, he escapes with his daughter, Lela, to find asylum with refugees in an abandoned electronics factory.

Yet something about the post-civilization world is changing. The uneasy equilibrium between the survivors and their supernatural tormentors is suddenly lost. The Dead are becoming erratic and aggressive, and seem to have a particular interest in Darrell’s family. Four-year-old Lela discovers clues to the twisted logic that drives them -- but then she disappears. Darrell is left to search for answers and his daughter with only the help of strangers in a hostile, ruined world.

Nothing is simple with hooks, is it?

One More Hook

All right, thanks largely to Heather (sorry, I don't have a link!) and Karen, I've got a splendiferous new version of my hook to share. This one really is a lot tighter and gets to the point better. Thanks so much to everyone who has offered feedback during this whole (long) process!
Nine years have passed since the Dead ended civilization. Darrell Williams was once a respected black doctor in a rural white town, but now he is one of the few survivors in a countryside of roving monsters and encroaching wilderness. When his house is stormed by his undead neighbors, he escapes with his daughter, Lela, to find asylum with refugees in an electronics factory many miles downriver.

Yet something about the world has changed. The normally-predictable Dead are suddenly erratic and aggressive, and seem to have an unusual interest in Darrell’s family. Four-year-old Lela discovers clues to the twisted logic that drives them -- but then she disappears. Darrell is left to search for answers and his daughter with only the help of strangers in a hostile, ruined world.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Hooking Again...

Looks like I haven't posted a new version of my hook since June, but I have been working on it on-and-off steadily since then. I think I've gotten a lot better at this whole process in general. Here's the shiny latest version:
Nine years have passed since the Dead ended civilization. The few remaining survivors huddle in isolated towns that have been refit to repel the nightmare creatures prowling the countryside. Darrell Williams was once a respected black doctor in a rural white town, but now he is haunted by the memory of his wife, Mary, slumped against the furniture store window where she was inexplicably murdered by transients. He will never forget how the undead rage transformed her as she rose to kill the family she had cherished only moments before.

One quiet morning his house is stormed by his neighbors, all of whom apparently perished during the night in a fire that his four-year-old daughter, Lela, glimpsed in her dreams. The two find asylum with refugees in an electronics factory many miles downriver, but the Dead are escalating out of control there, too. As the creatures become unusually erratic and aggressive, little Lela discovers clues to the twisted logic that drives them -- but then she disappears. Darrell is left to search for answers and his daughter with only the help of strangers in a hostile, ruined world.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Progress Update

All I've accomplished in the last week was to revise the pages that I wrote in my last two sessions. But fortunately, those were really good pages, and my edits only made them stronger. It's hard for me to get chills at something I wrote myself, but this did it for me.

In other news, the holidays take up a lot of time. Actual events are only part of it -- then there's the shopping, planning, etc. And trying to get all my day-job work done before the end of the year, to make sure everyone is happy before I take off a week and a half around Christmas.

Oh, and I came up with a new title for ALDEN RIDGE. I've been searching for a more evocative one for months, struggling with many dimensions of the story/themes, etc. No luck. Then, after yesterday's post at Pub Rants about titles, I finally had the idea to look through proverbs and idioms from various other cultures to see if that sparked anything. Turns out I found a Chinese one that sparked a great title! But right now I'm sitting on it, waiting a few days (or possibly weeks or longer) to make sure this title sticks with me before I go announcing it to the world. So for now, in public, the book is still ALDEN RIDGE. But I'm very excited about the new title (now I've probably hyped it to the point that you'll be disappointed when I do "unveil" it).

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving Trivia

Today is Thanksgiving here in the US, a holiday of feasting and giving thanks -- and the official opening of the Christmas season, as well. I'll probably be a little quiet on this four-day weekend, what with all the family events going on, so I'll leave you with this: Early Bird Special. Thanks to Jay Garmon for some great Thanksgiving/Black Friday trivia!

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

More on Chapter 9

Three and a half pages today! I was stuck at one part for some time, but finally realized that I could just skip most of it. Sometimes the scenes that you don't want to write are the ones that don't need to be written...

Also, I passed 50K actual words today. All right!

The stats as of today:
-42,750 estimated words.
-50,394 actual words.
-Eight and a half fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (138 pages total).
-171 pages in all.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Plotting, Revising, and Progress

I only wrote about a page and a half today, but I spent a lot of time catching up on revisions, and also made great progress in my plotting. I'm already set with plot for the next four or five chapters, anyway, but tonight I figured out the resolution of an important sub-plot that I previously didn't know how to handle after a certain point. That sub-plot now properly ties into the climax of the book, and the eventual resolution of the main plot, in a way that I really like.

The latter half of the novel is becoming increasingly concrete in my mind, which really helps to alleviate my worries of getting lost after my current solid plot threads run out. I'm really starting to get a full sense of this entire book, to the point that I think I won't ever completely run out of material before I reach the end. If that happens, that will be a first for me.

The stats as of today:
-42,000 estimated words.
-49,334 actual words.
-Eight and a portion fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (134 pages total).
-168pages in all.

Why some readers don't read.

Today, over at literary agent Jonathan Lyons' blog (an excellent read, by the way), there was an interesting post about a new National Endowment for the Arts report about how readership is continually falling. They particularly pointed out how the reading levels of late teens were falling, while the reading level of nine year-olds was up a little bit. It was all very doom-and-gloom with the apparent hope of shocking people out of their apathy about reading, and from that angle I support what they were saying. People do need to read more! We all do!

However, I do have a less depressing theory about why at least some of the people in the 17-22 age bracket are reading less. I'm 24 myself, and I can tell you that I probably almost fit into those poor statistics (when it came to pleasure reading) during the 17-22 age bracket -- as did most of the other book lovers that my wife and I knew.

Now, all of us were certainly reading plenty of textbooks, newspaper/journal articles, and nonfiction works related to our careers (programming/computer work, in my case), but pleasure reading was a rare thing.

This is because the pressure on juniors and seniors in high school is higher now than it ever was, and most of us were taking 5 or 6 college-level classes that kept us busy. Plus all the various extracurriculars -- sports, music, clubs, etc -- that the modern teenager is involved in. College is also a very busy time for most, either because of all the intense socializing and such that many subscribe to, or (in my and my wife's case) all the extracurriculars. We both were working through college, not because we had to in order to make ends meet, but because we didn't want to erode all our savings while in college, and because we each had opportunities to jump-start our careers in a major way during that time period. The year after college is also very busy, often even traumatic, for most students as their social life disappears (if they were that sort) and they start job-hunting (in a very tight market at this point -- competition isn't just fierce in the publishing industry).

What my wife and I are now seeing, with all our friends having been out of college for a year or two, is that everyone is reading a lot more again. We recommend books to our friends and vice-versa, we talk about what we like, and some of our friends even formed an impromptu monthly book club as way to keep in touch.

If you look at what all of our reading habits are now, we're probably in the top to upper-middle percentages (depending on what else the individual has going on in a given month), whereas we were all in the lower percentages just a few years before. And these are all people who grew up reading in the top percentages, all of whom participated in "Battle of the Books" competitions and other reading programs as a kid, and most of whom write short stories, poetry, or novels.

I don't pretend to know what everyone in the world is doing, and certainly the lack of literacy in many people I know is a little bit shocking. However, statistics can be misleading, and I think the notion that the current generations won't have any/many readers is a false one. I think certain societal conditions make reading difficult even for those who love reading during the late teens and early twenties -- but before long, those who love it will resurface on the other side.

I suppose we'll see if I'm right in about 10 years, when we see the statistics for the late-twenties crowd. At worst, I would be willing to bet serious money that many people rediscover their love of reading when they have kids, and start reading to them. Hopefully that then leads to other kinds of reading for the adults themselves.

What advice would you have wanted at the start of your career?

Anne Mini recently asked her readers what advice they would have liked to have been given before they started the whole submission process -- and how they would have needed to be told in order to believe the information. At any rate, the myriad of things I wished I knew before I started querying is quite long.

I finished my very first novel back in 2001, when the market was a bit different and there was a LOT less information available on the Internet for aspiring writers. I subscribed to Writer's Digest, but even that didn't help much at the time, for whatever reason. At any rate, I decided that I didn't want to be paying somebody else 15% of my income for the rest of my life, so I tried sending my novel directly to publishers -- one at a time, since they didn't accept simultaneous submissions. At any rate, I didn't hear back from the first one for fourteen months, so I sent out the next submission to a second publisher. I never heard back from them, either, and I assumed that was just it.

I wish that I had known to submit to agents, back then! I also wish I had realized all the many services provided by agents. I think that a lot of truly-green aspiring authors just don't get that agents are actually a valuable asset to their career, rather than the imagined money drain that some seem to think they are (or even just an extra step -- why go through two steps when I can just approach the publisher?).

I finished my second book in 2006 (I took four years off after my first silent failure, largely because I was going through school, starting my day-job career, getting married, etc, at the time). This time there was loads more information on the Internet, but I still jumped the gun on my first query. I found a big-name agent who represented a crazy number of authors I love, and I decided to send him, and only him, a query to start. Worst of all, his agency had a policy of not responding to queries (e-queries only there) if not interested.

So after a month I had nothing back from him, and that was a bit demoralizing. Fortunately I had spent that time doing more research, and I built up a better list to query. I also learned just how bad that first query letter was -- I included something like four or five flags that said I was a newbie. I've blogged at length about the whole process I went through before, so I won't repeat all that here, but suffice it to say there is a lot to learn, and it's hard to learn who to believe on the Internet without a LOT of reading. And even those sources that are reputable give seemingly conflicting advice at times -- sometimes it's not clear when they are speaking for themselves, or "the industry as a whole" (which is hard to do).

I wish that somebody had told me about all that complexity, so that I would have had the proper expectation of doing the research necessary to make myself comfortable with the whole process -- and so that I wouldn't have shot myself in the foot quite so many times. Plus, I wish I had known more of the expectations of pacing, etc, for a modern debut -- something I learned a whole lot about from Anne's blog, actually. Though several agents remarked on the ingenuity of my premise for my second book, those that did respond in a personal manner felt the pacing was too slow. I presume that all those that sent back form letters, or didn't respond at all, probably agreed.

Because, you see, I was sending sample pages (30 at first, and later 10 once I wised up) with every query. That meant that I never got a single request for partial, not that I'm certain I would have otherwise. Not having sent so many pages with each query also would have meant I might have saved $100+ in postage, incidentally.

I wish I had known how to format a manuscript properly (just double-spaced isn't enough), and that I had known how to do a proper title page. It would have been such a big help if I had been a lot better at writing query letters, since so much is riding on that. Writing effectively in a condensed format was not a skill I had at all until fairly recently (this speaks to the source of the overwriting in my second book).

All of this, plus the various issues of novelcraft that I learned or still am learning, is all what I would have liked to have known. If you read writing books from the early or mid 90's, the authors tend to make light of the whole process, and that makes the modern commonality of bland rejection hurt that much more. I think that, previously, new authors started with a smaller audience and worked their way up (or petered out). It seems like most now-famous writers of a certain longevity in the industry have a number of obscure titles under their belt from the start of their career. Not so much anymore, eh? Now it's sink or swim from the get-go, and all the "on the job" training that writers used to receive is now self-study homework that must be learned from trade magazines, conferences, and (reliable) Internet sources.

None of that ever would have occurred to me when I was just starting out. There's no way to tell everything to someone with no concept of the industry in just one sitting, so the best thing would be just to get the general idea of what the issues are, and how much work is involved. Back when I was starting, my ego was overlarge and had not yet been trampled down to a respectable size by the process, so I probably wouldn't have believed someone who told me.

What's the solution? I'm not really sure. But this industry sure is a lot more Darwinian than ever before, I notice. That's kind of demoralizing in some senses, but in another sense I'll be that much more proud when I DO make it -- because it's never been harder.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

I'm on fire

Six pages! Almost 2,000 new actual words! And these were really good words in a hard scene. And it only took two and a half hours. Ah, what a pleasure. I didn't think I'd be able to write more than a page (after I revised yesterday's three pages), and then when I hit three pages I thought I was done, and then suddenly I was at six pages and had to stop myself (it's really late and I have work tomorrow). What a good feeling...

The stats as of today:
-41,750 estimated words.
-48,855 actual words.
-Eight and a portion fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (133 pages total).
-167 pages in all.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Progress on Chapter 9

Three new pages today, which is amazing considering that I only had two hours to write, and was also starting a new scene. I got through the first section of that scene, and should be able to make good progress on the second part tomorrow. Also: I've broken 40,000 estimated words! All right! I should be breaking 50,000 actual words in another two or three sessions.

The stats as of today:
-40,250 estimated words.
-47,067 actual words.
-Eight and a portion fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (127 pages total).
-161 pages in all.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Great Swampy Middle

Read this. It's Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files) writing on his strategies for making it through the dreaded middle of your manuscript. I've intuitively used a couple of the strategies that he mentions, as you probably also have, but I wasn't at all organized about it. Having such concrete thoughts and methods as he presents is likely to be a really big help to me, and I hope also to you.

Many thanks to Dwight's Writing Manifesto for mentioning this post in passing (that's another pretty cool blog on writing you should check out, by the way).

Finishing Chapter 8

Four new pages today. I also revised all my new content from yesterday. Chapter 8 was an all-new chapter, but it was rather short at only eleven pages. Most of my chapters have been more like eighteen pages, not that it matters. At any rate, I'm done, and and quite happy with what I have, and excited to move on to Chapter 9, which is also all-new. It's gratifying to see my word count go up so much after a writing session, rather than just seeing my "revised pages" count go up as I revise/expand preexisting content.

The stats as of today:
-39,500 estimated words.
-46,097 actual words.
-Eight fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (124 pages total).
-158 pages in all.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Paul Potts

I saw this post about Paul Potts over at Pub Rants, of all places. I mean, you don't generally expect to read about an operatic singer on a literary agent's blog. It's a bit surprising that I'd link to this, because I'm not a fan of American Idol (at all), and this is basically a clip from the British version. But it's a pretty cool story how this guy got his start.

3 out of 4 people reading isn't so bad

I saw this great post, Jim McCarthy is excited that 3 out of 4 people read a book last year, over at the Dystel & Goderich Literary Management blog today. He has a much more positive spin on the much-lamented poll from earlier this year than most other people have. I must say that I wholeheartedly agree with his points -- definitely worth a read if you've been feeling down about those statistics showing that readership is declining.

Progress, Again, And Some Resolutions

So it's been a week since I've done any writing. Terrible, I know. Three and a half all-new pages today, though, and I also edited the four-and-a-half pages from last time. At this rate, I won't finish this novel for years to come. What can I say, I think this was just yet another temporary setback. More unexpected life events. One of my relatives accidentally shot himself, for one thing. He's okay, and it's not something he'd like me talking about, I'm sure, but that definitely threw me off. That, plus work stuff, plus holiday stuff...

Man. Makes me worry about how productive this holiday season can possibly be for my writing. Seems like there is always something new coming up these days. If writing was a full-time job, it would be no problem, but with so much of my time already obligated elsewhere, it does create pressure. At least I don't have kids yet -- I am in awe of those writers who somehow become published while working and raising kids.

At any rate, to increase my odds of coming even remotely close to my writing goals, I've made several resolutions. First, I'm cutting out television time. I'm not sure how this happened, but somehow in the last year I started watching a lot of TV. For about seven years in recent history I didn't watch any at all, so I don't know what happened there. I don't really even enjoy most TV shows that much, but it seemed like such a nice, mindless retreat after a hard day of designing software and programming and such. It became my habit to treat TV like some sort of recharging device, to let my mind idle and rest between getting off work and sitting down to write.

The thing is, after two hours of TV in the early evening (yes, sad, I know) I was usually just as tired as I was before I started, and frankly TV isn't very inspirational when it comes to writing (ahem). Plus if there was anything else I wanted/needed to do that evening, like household chores, errands, exercise, pleasure reading, or just spending time with my wife, that was going to cut into my writing time. Ick! It was making me feel like I was under very great pressure to do writing in all my spare time, but like I had very little spare time at all.

Somehow it didn't occur to me to just cut out the TV time until this weekend. Instead of TV, I did all those other things I wanted to do. If I was too tired to do any of that, well, I'd just let myself fall asleep for a brief nap, and wake up feeling really recharged. It's amazing what even just fifteen or thirty minutes of sleep can do for your body. So far so good on this approach, even though I haven't been using it for long -- I certainly don't miss the TV, anyway, and I doubt that will become an issue again. It's like when I became addicted to morning caffeine (like so many Americans) without realizing it: after about four years I saw what had happened, and I was able to quickly cut out the caffeine and haven't looked back (though now that I'm thoroughly detoxed I'm once again able to enjoy an occasional sweet tea or mocha latte). Sometimes these bad habits, many of which current society frankly encourages, just sneak up on you.

My hope is that, even with all the extra personal time commitments I'm going to have during the coming holiday season, I'll be able to maintain a good writing pace (and my sanity) by having cut out the "dead weight" of my daily schedule. Hopefully there should be plenty of time for merrymaking, relaxing/recharging, as well as writing during this schedule. And maybe I'll be able to accomplish some other things, like some art that I have in mind, and some new code for my uncle's robot, without cutting into that writing time.

You know, becoming a novelist really requires a level of commitment like no other career I can think of. Although, becoming an editor or an agent is close.

The stats as of today:
-38,750 estimated words.
-45,025 actual words.
-Seven and a portion fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (120 pages total).
-155 pages in all.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Art of the Finish: How to go from Busy to Accomplished

This is a pretty interesting article by Scott H Young. It's primary detailing his method for insuring that projects (personal or work) get accomplished, but it also raises some interesting points about the differences between being "busy" and being "accomplished." Personally, I don't feel the need to undertake a system like he suggests, but even so I found his points in the first half of his article to be thought-provoking.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Wizard of Earthsea Miniseries Woes

Here's an interesting article by Ursula K. Le Guin regarding how the Sci-Fi channel deviated from her books' original vision when they made a miniseries out of them. I saw that miniseries, and sure wasn't impressed -- despite the inclusion of Danny Glover, who I always love to see. Aside from weak directing, the story was definitely mangled and didn't make much sense. Here's why.

Cosmic Rays on the Tennis Court

Perhaps someone can explain the logic of this NY Times article on Cosmic Rays to me. Maybe I'm just revealing my ignorance of physics, but it seems like there's a pretty gross typo in here (aside from the obvious one that I marked). From the article:

Each of the cosmic rays studied had energy in excess of 57 billion billion electron volts, about the energy of a nicely hit tennis ball. By comparison, the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, near Geneva, will accelerate protons to a mere 7 trillion electron bolts [sic] when it turns on next summer.

“Such energies are so extreme that they could arise in only the most violent places in the universe,” the authors of the report wrote.

Okay, so a "nicely hit tennis ball" has 57 billion billion electron volts of energy in it, but the world's largest particle accelerator only produces 7 trillion electron volts? Apparently the energy found in cosmic rays can only originate from black holes or the tennis court -- "the most violent places in the universe."

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Digital Dreams

For years I've been doing prints of my art for people who request them using Kinkos, CopyMax, or other local printers. However, that's rather time-consuming on my part (for what is, after all, a part-time hobby for me), and it also doesn't result in the best quality of prints (the way that 8pt cardstock absorbs ink just isn't ideal with the sort of printers most commerical places use).

Since this has been an ongoing minor issue, I've finally bit the bullet and set up an online store from which people can order prints of my work. Certainly you're still free to look at my art in my online gallery, which has pretty high-res images (compared to what most artists would put up if they hoped to sell their work), and that's not something I plan to change -- I'm not going to lower the quality of my online offering in hopes of making a few bucks on prints.

If you enjoy my work and want to make a contribution to my computer art software fund (haha), feel free to stop by the store. Or if you just really like a piece and want a print for your home, office, or a friend, you'll be hard-pressed to do as high a quality printing as these.

But no pressure! I'm really not out to get rich off these. If you want to use my art on your website or something like that (non-commercially), I'm still generally happy to grant rights to those who ask.

PS - If there's a piece that you really want that isn't in the store, let me know and I'll see what I can do. I just have too many pieces to be able to put them all online.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Actual Progress

Four and a half pages today, most of which was new. It looks like less from the word counts, because I cut about another two pages of content. I'm finished with chapter seven, however, because I decided to just end it after the content I had already completed, and thus started directly into a new chapter eight today. Not too shabby!

Amazingly, though, it's been about three weeks since I've actively worked on new content. I've got things well planned out for the next four or five chapters, however, so I'm hoping to make up for lost time this month. It would be nice if I can actually exceed my goal of reaching 172 pages (which seems reasonable), but I suppose that remains to be seen. There are plenty of real-life events that could still get in the way, but I'll try to keep that from happening.

The stats as of today:
-37,750 estimated words.
-43,926 actual words.
-Seven fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (116.5 pages total).
-Eleven completed chapters in all (151 pages).

Friday, November 2, 2007

More Revisions, More Cuts

But this time, my cuts were from sections I hadn't yet revised. I'm now back up to the point where I'll work on new revisions and new content again. This weekend is going to be busy with family events, but hopefully after that I can finish up chapter 7 pretty quickly and move on to chapter 8, which is probably going to be another all-new chapter (the one I finished plotting a few weeks ago). Things are shaping up well! My goal for this month will be to reach 172 fully revised/expanded pages.

The stats as of today:
-36,750 estimated words.
-43,059 actual words.
-Six-and-three-quarters fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (112 pages total).
-Eleven completed chapters in all (147 pages).

On Becoming a Published Writer

Becoming a published writer is an endurance sport. I've been at it for nine years, and I'm still not there yet. However, you learn an awful lot along the way. I've been up and down in my moods for the past eight months or so, ever since THE GUARDIAN failed to find an agent, but recently I'm learning to have more innate confidence in myself.

No, it's more than that. I'm learning how to recognize good writing, and how to tell when I'm not creating it versus when I am. I'm learning how to let go of the little passages that I love, but which just don't fit; how to maintain pacing to keep the reader's interest without sacrificing characterization; how to weave scenery description effortlessly into the action; how to reveal emotion and character by truly showing, rather than telling. I'm learning how to be a professional author.

It's funny, because a lot of that was stuff I already did intuitively. But when you work based on your intuition alone, your craft controls you, rather than the other way around. So when things aren't working (which inevitably will happen to every writer many times in every book), the purely-intuitive writer is going to be at a loss as to how to fix things. Not to say that this writer won't eventually figure it out through experimentation, reflection, or the help of mentors or peers -- just to say that it will either take more time and frustration than it should, or take that outside influence.

And that's a big thing for the aspiring writer -- outside influence. Those of us who are trying to become published (and who don't simply subscribe to ars artis gratia) are all looking for positive reinforcement. We want our friends, family, critique partners, and other first readers to love it. We want every agent we approach to offer to sign us, and for all the publishers to get into an intense bidding war and lavish a huge marketing budget on us. We want Hollywood to have such strong interest that we can dictate the terms to the point that we retain some level of artistic oversight, and we want to be on the NYT bestseller list and to get as many awards as Cormac McCarthy. While we're still aspiring, we can imagine that it will all happen for us on our first try.

When the first really hard rejection hits, it can be difficult not to feel like hanging it up. The really hardheaded among us, the career writers, don't feel like those dreams are gone after a rejection, just like we've been temporarily set back. The thought of quitting is there in our darkest moments, however, and it's tempting in many ways, but not really an option. Sure, maybe we could say that we quit for a few years -- maybe we could even think we had quit during that time. But sooner or later, we know we'll come back to it.

So we sit back down and write some more, but now it's with significantly less confidence, with significantly more hesitation. If we've gotten professional feedback from someone in the industry, we treat it as gospel -- to the point of harm at times. If we're told we're too wordy, our next book is severely underwritten. If we're told our pacing is too slow, our next book is a bit too fast. But these knee-jerk reactions are the sort of thing that can be fixed with careful editing and revision, fortunately, so the careful writer (who has thoughtful, competent, patient critique partners) might go on to good success with that second book. But at the same time, it becomes a lot easier to see why the average writer completes three manuscripts that don't sell before they come up with one that finally does.

Somewhere in this whole process, we have to start to learn to stand on our own. We have to start realizing that the recognition of the industry, or the reactions of our critique partners, or what anyone else thinks, is less important than what we know. We finally have some feeling for what is good and what isn't, and the comments of others only augment that knowledge, rather than always superseding it. This isn't to say that we become arrogant, or that we no longer listen, just that we become a semi-experienced member of the industry in our own right, and no longer feel the newbie's constant need to do whatever someone with a few credentials says. We become discerning, and listen to some people in the industry, and not to others. We form our own informed opinions. And when we do sign with an agent, and then with a publisher, hopefully we're in a position to act like a real novelist should: like an informed, courteous, open-minded professional with a spine.

Of course, there are those who shortcut this whole process, and find success more easily than most of us. But I wonder who is better off: the writer who suffers in ignominy for years, building discipline and knowledge before joining the ranks of the published author; or the writer who produces a publishable work on talent alone, and who goes into the industry without knowledge, experience, or a real appreciation for how valuable their new profession should be to them?

I'm not speaking of anyone in particular here. I actually don't know any writers who fit the second description. Everyone I've heard of had to work their way into the industry over many years, and essentially took the first path. Even novelists with famous parents, like Joe Hill (Stephen King's son). Yet this second path is the goal of so many aspiring writers, and so many of us seem to feel a little bit like failures when it doesn't happen. Not being an overnight success doesn't make you a failure: it might just make you more likely to be a sustainable success when you do make it.

When you're still on the upward slope, however, sometimes that's hard to believe. That's all a part of learning to stand on your own, without needing the overt support of someone in authority. I'm not completely there yet, but I'm a lot closer than I once was. Here's wishing the best in this regard for the rest of you, too. Here's hoping that we all have the endurance that this profession requires.

Misheard Lyrics

As authors, at least we don't have to contend with people not being able to understand us. Well, except at readings. Well, also except when people just misinterpret our prose. Hmm. Okay, but at least as an author you probably won't ever have someone make a Youtube video like these out of your work:

This one actually was something my sister first showed me a couple of years ago, but I didn't have a blog back then. Maybe you've seen it, but I still find it hilarious:

Great haystacks my destiny...

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Negative Progress is Good?

I'm, uh, down two pages from last time. Turns out there was a two-and-a-half-page segment in chapter four that just needed to be cut. I had been thinking that there was a superfluous part in that chapter, but hadn't been able to pin it down. My wife identified that chunk, and I knew immediately that she was right. With other edits on chapters three and four, however, about half a page was added back. This cut and the new slightly additions really improves chapter 4, which was slightly weaker than its peers until now.

The stats as of today:
-37,750 estimated words.
-44,782 actual words.
-Six-and-a-half fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (112 pages total).
-Eleven completed chapters in all (151 pages).

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Who Owns Fictional Characters?

Literary Agent Nathan Bransford had a very interesting You Tell Me today. In today's post, he brought up the news about how J.K. Rowling revealed in an interview that Dumbledore is gay. He also pointed out a follow-up article in the NY Times that essentially said that her revelation is irrelevant, because it's not very supported by her text (among other comments -- that's an interesting article that you should read before finishing this post).

Nathan then posited the question to his readers: who owns fictional characters? The author, the readers, or some combination? I think that Orson Scott Card said it best in his introduction to his 1991 edition of ENDER'S GAME:

"The story of ENDER'S GAME is not this book, though it has that title emblazoned on it. The story is one that you and I will construct together in your memory. If the story means anything to you at all, then when you remember it afterward, think of it, not as something I created, but rather as something that we made together."

I read that many years ago, and it has stuck with me ever since. It bothers me a lot that Rowling announced that Dumbledore was gay like she did, and I think readers are certainly free to interpret his character as asexual or however else they want to, as long as it is consistent with the (mostly scant) textual evidence regarding his sexuality.

Now, if Rowling had made this revelation in due course as part of one of her novels, that would have been a different matter. She's perfectly free to do whatever she likes with her characters in the context of her writing, and that's a license held exclusively by her as far as I'm concerned. If she had revealed him to be gay in the context of the story, I would have been fine with it, although admittedly I prefer the vision of him as a great wizard above sexual concerns, as the times article notes. But it would have been her choice, since it was her work.

I think it's rather cheap in general for authors to explain backstory outside of their actual novels. Certainly it's not a problem with minor details such as specific age, birthplace, etc, that just wouldn't come up in the story -- but anything that seemingly flies in the face of textual evidence, or comes as a shock, or even seems a stretch based on textual evidence (as this does) shouldn't be revealed outside the narrative, in my opinion.

This would be like if George Lucas had revealed in an interview that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father, after only making the original movie. How horrible would that have been? Certainly there was foreshadowing for that revelation, but if it had been revealed outside the narrative of the movies it would have seemingly lost all truth and meaning.

I believe that the author has the exclusive right to do anything they want with their worlds and characters, but only in the context of their narratives themselves. Once those pages are in the hands of the readers, the readers are going to make their own inferences and come to their own personal understanding, right or wrong. A later work can certainly cause readers to revise that personal understanding -- all the best sequels do this to some degree -- but this is expanding the story, not clarifying it in interviews or endnotes. At least, that's my take.

Halloween Trivia

I subscribe to a weekly newsletter called Geek Trivia, which is aimed at people in IT/Programming jobs, but which this week has a literary twist. Fires of the imagination is about the Mount Tambora eruption in 1815, and the famous horror novel that it indirectly inspired. Perfect for Halloween!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Editing by Spouses

As I mentioned almost a week ago, I've figured out the plot details for the next segment of my book. However, for whatever reason, I've started looking back at my prior content again. I'm just neurotic that way, when I (by nature) can't have a lot of feedback on my WIP. Fortunately, my wife is a terrific editor, and is looking at a lot of the content, so that really helps. She's catching up on her reading of the chapters, and making a good number of small suggestions as she goes.

Now, I know a lot of professionals in this business immediately scoff at writers who have their spouse, or some other close friend or family member, as the primary reader/first-editor of their work. I can certainly understand that point of view: if the person really cares for you, the first order of business should be bolstering your confidence, right? What sort of person would tell their spouse that their work sucked?

Point taken. However, a spouse with an eye for editing can definitely help fix awkward sentences, identify weak or pointless passages, and tell you what works for them and what doesn't quite come across. Rarely is a WIP all-good or all-bad. For me, having my wife point out what really worked for her, as well as all those things that didn't, is a huge help. The former does help my confidence, of course, which is something that every aspiring writer needs, and the latter helps me refine my work and keep my ego in check (haha). My wife is better-read than me, and has an even better understanding of certain aspects of style and grammar, so there's definitely things that I learn by working with her, too.

There are a number of published authors who I have heard use their spouses as early readers, in this very same manner. Stephen King's wife, who is quite a novelist herself, reputedly reviews his earlier drafts (or at least he mentioned that she did earlier into his career -- I presume that she still does). Orson Scott Card has talked several times about how his wife, who is not a writer so far as I know, reads and comments on everything he writes chapter-by-chapter as he writes it.

What is the difference between what these writers (and myself) are doing from what some aspiring writers do? Well, the spouse may be the first reader and editor, but they can't be the last. Critique Partners, Agents, Editors, and/or writer-friends should be the next step. Even if your spouse is brutally honest at all times (hopefully in a nice way), it pays to have someone else look at your ms before you start sending it off to decision-makers (or asking your agent to send it off if you are already agented). To most, this last part is probably just common sense, but I wanted to point out that having multiple critical readers is not incompatible with having great editing done by a spouse, first.

At some point in every writer's career, he/she will start valuing brutally-honest feedback far above compliments, and a spouse who's reasonably "in the know" about this profession should know to respect that. And how to couch that honesty so that it comes across as constructive.

The stats as of today:
-38,250 estimated words.
-45,523 actual words.
-Six-and-a-half fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (114 pages total).
-Eleven completed chapters in all (153 pages).

All About Commas

Thanks to Sean Ferrell for posting about this great resource on commas. Of particular note are the 10 Simple Rules for using commas. These rules were written with journalists in mind, but most are still fully applicable for novelists.

Things I learned:
- I wasn't aware of the "four words or more" part of rule #3.
- The "adjectives of equal rank" was an awesome clarifier with me in rule #5. Read the details on that rule for even better clarification -- the equal rank test that the professor suggests is wonderful. I had an intuitive understanding of this before, as most people probably do, but just relying on that was problematic when it came to looking closely at what were seemingly gray areas.
- Several aspects of rule #8 were a surprise to me, but they are not too relevant for most novels.
- Rule #10 was a surprise. I've seen that before, but had forgotten I could do that. I tend to just ignore that construction, a luxury not shared by journalists reporting on the verbatim speech of others. Interestingly, a very few exceptions to rule #10 exist, though they aren't mentioned on that site. For example: "Robert had had a chance to review the packet."
- Rule #9 actually is the only one that seems questionable to me when it comes to novelists. I know that journalists would write the following: "I live in Raleigh, NC, with my wife." Novelists, I've always though, should be writing: "I live in Raleigh, NC with my wife." Can anyone confirm that or tell me I'm wrong? I would like to know.

When I was in elementary and middle school, this sort of nit-picky punctuation seemed so boring to study. By high school, I knew I wanted to be a novelist, but everything was still so new that it was a real challenge to absorb it all -- and it still seemed quite dry. In college, I didn't study writing at all, unfortunately, so it's refreshing to see these grammatical rules again and realize that I'm now fascinated by them. Anything that helps make my prose more proper is of the highest order of interest these days!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Public Enemy #1: "There Was"

Just a brief note tonight. I've had several breakthroughs in my plotting, and finally have the next five or so chapters planned out to my satisfaction, which is a major relief. I haven't done much actual writing, but I've been going back through my existing content and have been making minor tweaks. I should be back on track with the actual writing soon, which will be something of a relief.

One thing I've been thinking about recently, however, is passivity. It's something endemic to much of my speech, unfortunately, so it's been a struggle to weed it out of my writing. I'm getting much better at that, and my most recent work is almost all active, both in a grammatical sense and a thematic sense. But going through even my earlier drafts of ALDEN RIDGE, it amazes me how much grammatical passivity was there.

One of the biggest ways in which I enact grammatical passivity is the phrase "there was" (or "there were" for plural). There was nothing there. There were only two cows within sight. There was only the sound of the crows in the trees. Searching for these little red flags has been a big help in weeding out grammatical passivity (though certainly many other forms were present as well). Many of those sentences can just be replaced one-to-one with more active forms, but some of them are also just too passive thematically as well, and so require a larger revision of the paragraph(s) surrounding the sentence at fault.

At any rate, it very much looks like I'm not going to be hitting even my revised goal of 140 revised pages by the end of October. Right now I'm hovering around 114, and I doubt I'll be writing 26 pages in the next six days. Hopefully I'll be able to hit 16 or 20, though, and I'll be pretty pleased with that.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Sunset Cove

I've been learning to use Carrara better, so here's a new image and an improved version of one of my older images. As I learn more about advanced shaders, I imagine I'll be revisiting Nightmare Wave, as well, to make the water in that one a lot more realistic.

Sunset Cove

My first sunset in Carrara. I wanted to do something with more dramatic lighting, and richer color than my last few Carrara images have had.

Water Tornado

I rendered a new version of this image, now that I've learned a few new techniques. Radial waves have been added in the water, and the spray has become a lot more realistic. In all, it's a lot more apparent what sorts of force the tornado is exerting on the scene now, I think.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Carrara, and Four New Art Pieces

I've had my eye on Carrara for some time now, but never had any incentive to move away from Bryce, a lower-end product that is currently made by the same company. Bryce may be lower-end, but it has landscape-creation tools that are simply unrivaled. Since that's always been my primary focus with my 3D art, it was the natural choice.

However, in the most recent version of Carrara, they've added a lot of features that let artists do some spectacular effects that simply aren't possible in Bryce, or else are very, very, hard. If you want to know what I mean, see below. Not a single one of these images could have been rendered easily in Bryce.

That said, I'll still be using Bryce for years to come, I'm sure. Certain effects, particularly the ones that are more surreal, just can't be duplicated in Carrara. But when I need advanced effects or ultra-realism or fine control, Carrara is definitely going to be my tool of choice from now on.

If you're interested in checking out Carrara for yourself, there's a 30-day trial of the old version 5 here, and they're running a special on the express version of the new version 6 here. If you join DAZ's platinum club, you can get Carrara Express for only $20 through the end of October.

Countryside Tornado

This was my second rendering in Carrara. There were a number of advanced effects in this program that I knew I just had to put to use, and a tornado seemed like the perfect outlet (I'm absolutely fascinated by tornadoes -- they've featured in my nightmares since I was a kid, and those were always some of my favorite dreams, though they are quite intense).

Of particular note is (obviously) the tornado itself, the dust around its base, the thickets of trees on the left and right of the screen, and the field of grass. None of those were effects that I've ever been able to accomplish with Bryce. It was this sort of thing, more than anything else, that led me to purchase Carrara.

This scene took me an unusually long amount of time to put together, because of all the complex elements, but I'm particularly pleased wit it. Seeing the tornado like that gives me chills, so I know I did it right.

Nightmare Wave

This rendering is another product of my nightmares (which, as I noted before, are intense, but in some ways enjoyable). Tornadoes are the biggest star in my nightmares, but tidal waves are definitely number two. In my dreams, the waves are often as massive as this -- not sure if that's realistic for most tsunamis, but I don't care. Often I'm on a pier or bridge like this when they hit, and I'm left scrambling up steep banks or buildings or something as the wave destroys everything below. There are usually loads of people around right before the wave comes, but as soon as the tide sucks out (as happens before a wave hits, I'm told) I find myself completely alone. Somehow, it seems more intimidating that way. This scene would be my perspective in one of the dreams in which I don't make it away in time, and am sucked out to sea. Usually I make it away, though.

Water Tornado

Once I did my first tornado in Carrara, I knew I had to try for another kind of tornado. In some ways, this tornado was much harder to design than the first, but I think it came out pretty well. I also did a lot of experimenting with water in this image. The spray effect around the tornado's base isn't as realistic as I would like, but it was my first try with particle effects like that. Again, something that is well beyond the reach of Bryce.

Foggy Cove

This was my first image in Carrara. I was mostly just playing around with the atmosphere, the water, the fog, the terrain shading, and the surface replicator tool (used for the forest). However, the end effect was pretty decent, so I decided to save it.

Revised Writing Goal

For the last month or so, my writing goal has been to complete 80 standard pages per month (20,000 words per month) at a rate not less than 4 pages per night on 20 nights out of the month. This rate served me well when I was doing a lot of revising/expanding, and I knew the scenes and material so well that there were few decision points -- every night, I could just sit down and write, and that would be it.

But now that I'm into my later chapters, there is more expanding/rewriting than there is revising, and that's really slowing me down. Moreover, it should slow me down. Some things just require a good amount of thought process. So, my new goal is going be to complete only 60 standard pages per month (15,000 words per month), at a rate not less than 4 pages per might on 15 nights out of the month. The rest of that time will be spent plotting, characterizing, mulling, and revising. It will be time well spent.

Also, some of it will be time spent on other things -- like relaxing, the holidays, that sort of thing. My stories are always in the back of my mind, being worked on, but really I can't spend every waking moment actively working on them. Hopefully that just makes me well-rounded, not a "bad" writer. I mean, I love writing, but that's not the only thing in my life. Some aspiring writers seem to have a rather limited way of looking at this particular subject.

I know that Stephen King reputedly used to write 3,000 words per day, and while I respect that he can do that, I don't think that will ever be my goal for several reasons. First, he's way more verbose than I am -- his books are long and include a lot of background detail that doesn't fit with my own writing style (though I enjoy reading him). Secondly, writing is his only job. Sure, if I someday make it big and can afford to quit my day job, then perhaps I'll write more like 8 pages every day. If my plotting and characterizing and musing can keep up.

If writing were my only job, I don't think it would be a stretch for me to finish two books a year. However, as it stands, my rate is more like a book every nine months (assuming I don't hit any snags). I've been trying to push it to four months, and that's just too aggressive. Since I'm so far in, I think I can still make it in five months total, but I'll just have to see how things go. I'm more concerned with doing things right than I am fast (and, come on, five months is still darn speedy, for most people).

On the plus side, I've been doing a lot of that musing and plotting and characterizing and revising for the past few days, and that's been going really well. I realized that I didn't like how one of my characters (Masa Uraya) was shaping up, so I've re-characterized him. I'm really happy with the result. Very soon, I should be ready to finish off chapter six, and move on with the next chapter. The next chapter is going to be all-new, and I have a feeling it's going to be a slow one because of its subject matter. At any rate, my prior goal served me well for the first part of this book, and my new goal should serve me well for the next leg of it.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

More New Art

Two more pieces that I've been working on.

Mountain Antennae

I've always had a fascination with the way that radio towers are placed atop hills and mountains in the Appalachian ranges, and this picture was an attempt to capture that. I think it turned out really well, especially with how the fog obscures the bases of the mountains.

Loss 2

This is a remake of perhaps my most popular image ever, Loss. The original version was done in Bryce 2.0, way back in 1998 when I was first learning how to do renderings. Unfortunately, since I lost the original scene file, I had to recreate this from scratch in order to get a higher-resolution version.

The original tree was pre-fab, which was why it was so low-resolution, but this one I created custom. Just getting the branches to look right took hours, and trying to come up with a comparable sunset in the newer version of Bryce also wasn't easy. In the end, I couldn't get the colors right in Bryce alone, so I had to do a lot of color correction in Photoshop (darkening the tree and its reflection, and increasing the saturation of the oranges and yellows). The effect of luminescence around the branches was also something that I needed Photoshop in order to accomplish.

Even with all this work, though, I'm not certain that I recaptured the feeling of the original. I think the clouds in the background still might not be as vivid, and the colors might not be quite right. But, in all, I think this was a successful revisit -- the water effects are particularly improved.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Steady Progress

Four pages again. I seem to be back in the swing of things, which is nice. I did my writing unusually early in the evening today, too.

The stats as of today:
-38,250 estimated words.
-45,255 actual words.
-Six-and-a-half fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (113.5 pages total).
-Eleven completed chapters in all (153 pages).

Computer Art Methods and Terminology, Demystified

This has been bugging me for a while. Back in June, I made a post about an art piece that was my longest render time ever. I've also mentioned the term "render time" several times since -- but I realized that I never defined this term, and that to people who aren't 3D artists or CAD designers, it's probably pretty unclear. For that matter, probably a lot of the terms I use in conjunction with my art are unclear. So here's a primer:

"Render time" doesn't have anything to do with how long it takes me to create an image. That's not something I really keep track of. Instead, the render time is how long it takes for my computer to generate the final, full-effects "snapshot" of the scene I've created. In other words, while the computer is rendering my image, I'm off doing something else. So a 35 hour render time is 35 straight hours where my computer is unusable, or at least very slow, because it's busy cranking out the pixels. If I had a faster computer, or used multiple computers to do the rendering together, it would take less time.

My part of the work all happens before that, and I work off of smaller, lower-quality preview images and partial-renderings. Essentially, my job is to size, position, and texture the terrains and objects, set up lighting and atmospherics, and position the virtual camera. Once I'm reasonably happy with my results, given the little previews, I set the program to "render to disk," and walk away.

If I'm doing actual object-modeling work, as well, that generally occurs in a program like Sketchup or Hexagon or Poser. When I have my model done, I then import it (in grouped pieces) into Bryce, and I texture it and render it there. Object-modeling work is tedious and not something I'm especially good at, however, so often I just use pre-fab components. Even when I use models that I didn't originally create, however, I put a lot of work into tweaking parts of them, and I usually have to break the model into individual slices that I can separately texture.

"Texturing" refers to applying some sort of material to objects. Basic objects are just rendered as flat gray -- it's the process of texturing that makes things look like sand, water, glass, leaves, snow, weeds, etc. I don't do any of my own texture-creation -- most 3D modelers don't, actually, since that's a completely different skill set (it involves photographing real materials and then carefully cropping them to a repeatable pattern). I use base textures from Bryce, texture sets that I've purchased from third-party texture authors, and textures that are free on the Internet (Mayang's Free Texture Library is a great resource).

But texturing isn't as simple as choosing from a palette and then walking away. Often you need to blend multiple textures together, or resize them for the proper scale/orientation of your model (this is difficult to explain, but it can be tricky), and also certain things like reflectivity, transparency, diffusion, ambiance, etc, need to be adjusted (or changed all together). Plus, the process of just selecting the right textures that will complement each other, and/or blend well is difficult in itself. Scenes that have a lot of organic textures (like landscapes) can take a fair amount of work to make look realistic (or properly surreal, if that's your goal).

You might be surprised by how different the same scene can look with different textures applied -- the same is true when it comes to lighting and atmospherics, actually. The right levels/colors/distributions/positioning of fog, haze, clouds (cumulus and stratus), stars, sun/moon, etc, can make a huge difference. As can such effects like volumetric atmosphere (which simulates particles all throughout the air at the density and reflectivity of my choosing), and a variety of other atmospheric tools.

One more clarification about object-modeling: that doesn't refer to trees or terrains in my case (most of the time). Some of my trees are pre-fab, but most are generated using algorithms built into Bryce. I set a variety of parameters (trunk size/angle/style, branch density/angle, leaf type/texture/color/distribution, etc), and that's that. All of my terrains start out by being generated via fractal algorithms (in either Terragen or Bryce, depending on which I'm using) because fractals are great for realistic terrains. Once I have the general shape of the terrain in place, I use a height-mapping tool to "paint" and thus raise and lower the terrain, add cracks and rivults, that sort of thing. In Bryce, I can also apply terrain-wide effects such as smoothing, erosion, spikes, etc. When I'm done with all that, the terrain is ready to be sized, positioned, and textured.

Hopefully this provides some insight into the process via which I produce most of my art (my abstract works are a completely different process and skill set, mostly just using Photoshop by itself, or in conjunction with programs like Apophysis). Working in a wide array of programs helps keep it interesting, though -- and when I'm a bit stagnant in one program, I can always switch tack and do something completely different in another program.