Friday, January 18, 2008

Overcast Crags

Overcast Crags

This rendering is notable for several reasons. First, it's the first black and white scene I've ever done. I've always been one for color, but in this case I wanted to do something dramatic and new.

Secondly, this image represents the most accurate "brain dump" of a place from one of my novels. If you look through my art gallery archives, you'll find literally dozens of renderings that I've done to correspond with over eight books (all but two of them unfinished) that I worked on over the years. This one is the best.

This is the edge of the Deep, a sunken netherworld of demons in The Guardian. The chasm itself is miles deep and as wide as a small continent, shielded from the sun by a thick bank of clouds that swirl in an endless, unnatural cycle.

Golden Dunes

Golden Dunes

This is my first Carrara rendering to feature an actual image-based terrain texture, rather than the algorithm-based shaders that are so easy with that program. It turns out that using image-based textures are just as easy in Carrara (a lot more so to handle well than in Bryce). I was really pleased with the result on this one, which came from Mayang's Free Texture Library, a great resource for images to use as textures.

I learned a few other new techniques that went into the creation of this image, too -- more lighting tricks, as well as the way that distance haze is invoked. The end effect reminds me of the lands around Dalmasca in Final Fantasy XII (which was an unintended side-effect but seems pretty cool).

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Chapter 12 completed

Well, today was certainly a record -- though to be fair, it was third-draft revision, not first-draft writing. Still: thirteen and a half pages in one evening. I am very close to being done with my revising-expanding process, so that I can move on with writing the first draft of the rest of the book. This is very pleasing, to put it mildly.

The stats as of today:
-49,500 estimated words.
-58,704 actual words.
-Twelve and a portion fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (192.5 pages total).
-198 pages in all.
-Song(s) listened to while writing: Soundtrack to Jet Li's Fearless

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Chapter 11 completed

Six and a half all-new pages today! Of course, I deleted just as much content, so my total word count dropped by about 200 words, but who cares. I'm finally done with my eleventh chapter, which is the last of the chapters that required wholesale rewriting.

My next chapter is the one that was best written prior to my last round of edits, so it should take the least amount of work. That's nine pages I should be able to fly through, relatively speaking. The shorter chapter that comes next isn't quite as good, but still doesn't require any wholesale replacement. Then I will be DONE with my revising-expanding process, and can move on with new content. I look forward to the point when the words I write will actually be added to my net wordcount. It seems like I've been working my tail off, and yet been hovering around 200 total pages for weeks.

At any rate, I'm feeling pretty jazzed. Hope your writing is going as well.

The stats as of today:
-49,500 estimated words.
-58,481 actual words.
-Eleven fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (179 pages total).
-198 pages in all.
-Song(s) listened to while writing: Remember, by Harry Nilsson

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Autumn Storm (and progress)

Here's a new piece that I rendered today in Carrara.

Autumn Storm

As of the time of its creation, this is my favorite image that I've done in Carrara. I hope you can taste the crispness of the air, smell the tang of the storm rolling in towards you as the clouds scud across the sky. This is some of my favorite weather, and I'm really pleased to have captured it like this.

This was also my first Geocontrol terrain rendered at 4096 resolution -- makes a big difference in the realism factor, doesn't it?

Also, I managed to make four and a half pages of progress on my novel. All right!

The stats as of today:
-49,500 estimated words.
-58,647 actual words.
-Ten and a portion fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (172.5 pages total).
-198 pages in all.
-Song(s) listened to while writing: Soundtrack to Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children

The effect of expectations on percieved quality.

Here's an interesting article from Reuters about how higher wine prices boost drinking pleasure. Essentially, adults were given the same wine over and over, but told that each one cost different amounts. The adults preferred the higher priced versions, even though there was no difference. Anyone who has taken marketing knows that this effect exists -- it's the basis of all "luxury" items.

What was interesting to me in the article, however, was that they documented a physiological response in the brain. Since the people believed they were getting something better, their brain responded as if it was. Their subjective experience was very much a slave to their expectations.

This is very interesting, perhaps alarming. It might mean that the same manuscript, packaged differently, will seem better or worse to agents and editors. One version that smells of stale smoke, another that is printed on too-cheap paper, one in the wrong format, another with crazy fonts or styling or with home-made cover art included... the agent or editor is already thinking they are dealing with someone unprofessional. Your actual writing and story would have to be pretty amazing to surpass those sorts of hurdles. Especially since they are looking at your work as part of the larger slush pile, which they expect to reject almost all of, anyway.

Just something to think about next time someone like Anne Mini is talking about reasons for having your work in standard format. It's also a good reason to exercise restraint and patience when you approach the submissions process itself. Take the time to do your homework, to proofread carefully, and to do everything else in your power to make your submission perfect. Each error makes your work seem like a cheaper wine.

Of course, we all rush to submit our very first works, don't we? That's probably why most (but not all) people don't get published until their third or fourth completed novels. I think that's just a part of the learning curve, something you have to go through that no one can talk you out of. Still, once that lesson is learned, hopefully we're all a lot more thorough the second time around.

I imagine that I have at least one reader who thinks this post is aimed at them -- it's not! This is more about general wisdom; every situation is certainly different, and sometimes people do get their first works published. Joe Haldeman did. It just doesn't happen very often, is all. Most of the other greats got lots of rejections, and not because they were any less of writers than Haldeman. Sometimes the stars align, and sometimes they don't. So it's probably good that we throw ourselves out there on our first try, perhaps a bit recklessly. Then we have a frame of reference for how to do things the next time around (presuming the stars didn't happen to align).

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Red Desert Buttes

A couple of new pieces that I did last night. Also, I did get a page of writing done on my book, which was reasonable. Weekends are slow for me, writing-wise, I'm learning. But it's good to take some time to recharge every week.

Red Desert Buttes

Dramatic sunset lighting in a butte-filled desert. This is one of the first images with buttes that I've rendered since Bryce 2.0 back in 1998. How time flies. These terrains were mapped in Geocontrol, which is why they are so much more realistic than some of the recent terrains I created in Carrara alone.

Mountaintop Range - Winter

My third version of the mountaintop range rendering. This time with snow instead of greenery, no trees or helicopter, and even more dramatic lighting. I think this is my favorite version of the three.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Lighting up your writing

I had a bit of spare time the other day, and decided to do a bit of artwork. I haven't done any art since October or November, so it seemed about time. I've recently started using a tool called Carrara, which I find to be both more powerful and more difficult than Bryce, a tool I've used since 1998.

The switch should have been relatively smooth: Carrara has intuitive controls, a great deal many more features, and a lot more sophistication and realism than Bryce. However, there was a problem that I couldn't quite put my finger on. I was able to create images with content in forms I'd only ever dreamed of before, and it was indeed quite intuitive to do... but at the same time, something was missing in the finished products. The scenes often felt flat, dull, and less interesting than the ones I had been doing in Bryce.

This was a mystery to me for several months -- all the parts were seemingly there, so I couldn't see why everything didn't gel. I should point out at this point that I'm not a professional artist, and most of my technique is self-taught. To a professional artist, or even just someone trained in mid-level photography, the problem with my Carrara work should have been obvious: light. If you have any passing interest in art or photography, the link above is one of the best reads you may find.

Take a look at the two images below. The one on the left was rendered before I read that article, and the right-hand one was rendered after.

Pretty dramatic difference, right? The only thing changed between them is the lighting. The mountains, their "shaders," the clouds and mist -- none of that was changed one iota. Yet it looks like much of that is different, doesn't it? The mist is much more prominent in the second image, because it is caught in the path of a strong light from the left of the scene. The clouds look different (thicker and more brooding) because the sun is now positioned high in the sky, shedding a redder, more diffuse light as a counterpoint to the harsh white light from scene left. Even the mountains look different, as the deep contrast of light and shadow makes each crook and crag that much more prominent.

In every sense, light is art. Monet certainly knew this. Light is vision, after all -- at the most fundamental level, the only thing our eyes ever see is reflected light. From that perspective, of course changing the lighting of a scene will have a dramatic effect on the way that scene is viewed. Lighting effects everything from clarity to mood.

Here's where I tie this into writing -- perhaps you see the connection already. Light is to (visual) art as words are to writing, right? The wording of what we write is what separates the great writers from the merely good, and the merely good from the truly terrible. Cliches, passive voice, unneeded word repetition, awkward construction, and just plain unclear wording can kill any work -- fiction or nonfiction. It doesn't matter how brilliant or revolutionary your idea/plot/characterization is, unless you can transmit those concepts -- through your words -- to your readers.

This, of course, is old news. I presume I'm preaching to the choir, here, to pick an apt cliche. What may not be so obvious is this: poor wording problems can be remedied with editing. This is the part of the craft that has to be learned by most writers. Clear, original thinking and content -- that's the part that can't be taught. I'm not an art historian, but from what little I have read on the subject it seems that most famous artists attended some sort of art school, or studied under another artist in their time period. This was how they learned what they needed about technique, including everything that was known and relevant about light itself.

Even though these artists had presumably been walking around and "looking at stuff" their whole lives. Maybe even admiring the great art that came before them. My first point is this: a serious writer will take the time to learn the underlying craft it takes to become a true wordsmith. Practice makes perfect, but not unless you know what to practice.

But that's really my ancillary point. The true purpose of this post was that I realized something rather important with those two images of mine: in order to fix my "bland, dull" images, I just needed to put some vigor into the lighting. I have a good sense of form and composition, anyway, so that part was already pretty much set. It's the same with writing. If you have a good sense of plot and character, and have a good understanding of the basics of grammar, that's a pretty decent foundation to work from. It's like my first mountains -- deceptively empty if you're lacking the crucial elements of voice and style, but still quite recoverable. As long as you take the time to learn something about voice and style, as I finally did with regard to light.

Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of terrible writers with "great ideas" that aren't really great. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about those writers with legitimately new concepts, with solid foundations, who nevertheless get rejected time and again because their work lacks pizazz, or agents just don't fall in love with it, or one of the many other euphemisms for "poor lighting." If you're one of those people, don't just keep beating your head on the wall -- practice probably won't help significantly, for the same reason that I'd have never figured out the underlying mechanisms behind lighting my mountain scene. Instead, go pick up some good writing books (I've mentioned On Writing and Don't Murder Your Mystery recently), and learn a few things you don't already know. Then come back and practice, practice, practice -- and I bet you'll see some progress.

I'll let you know if that worked for me once I find out.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Prewriting is Writing

Only two pages of writing -- well, prewriting -- today. When I'm finished writing that content, it should be about ten pages of actual prose. I'd have written more, but I have a family engagement. Tomorrow is looking promising, however.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


Four and a half pages (1,200 actual words) of all-new content today, even though it doesn't look it. I cut about four pages that were very old and not very good, so my totals didn't change much, but the new material is something I'm really pleased with. These last few sessions have been extremely good, actually.

I probably could have written more today, but I hit the end of what I had prepared, and so decided to stop. No sense burning myself out. I'll figure out the rest of this scene by the time I start writing tomorrow, and get it written then. The important thing is to be making meaningful , reasonably consistent progress.

At any rate, there is still a bit more old content that I need to do a wholesale replacement of, and then I'll be reaching the best of my old content -- that part should go extremely quickly, by comparison. Then I'll finally be done with my long "revising and expanding" phase, and can press on and write the last third of the book.

The stats as of today:
-49,000 estimated words.
-57,549 actual words.
-Ten and a portion fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (167 pages total).
-196 pages in all.
-Song(s) listened to while writing: Soundtrack to Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Chapter 10 is done

Today was a good day for writing. Eight pages good. My change in page count doesn't quite reflect all that I did, since a fair portion of my new content was replacing old content (about two pages' worth), but I'm very pleased. My new strategy of just getting my first draft down -- of not sweating the small stuff until a rewrite -- is going pretty well.

Of course, some self-editing must necessarily sneak in. When I first started chapter ten tonight, I wrote 3/4 of a page before stopping. This is all telling, I realized. I made myself go back and rewrite that content through showing instead of telling, and the result was about two pages of dialogue/exposition mix instead -- and it was vastly stronger. I may not be an expert yet, but I'm catching on!

Now, if only I can keep up a relatively fast pace and get through the dreaded first draft sometime in the next month or two, I can move on to the fun business of revisions. I believe this is the opposite attitude of most writers, who seem to prefer the first draft to revisions, but that's how it goes. Oddly, my backhand is much stronger than my forehand in tennis, too, which is also backwards.

Now that was a non sequitur.

The stats as of today:
-48,750 estimated words.
-57,356 actual words.
-Ten and a portion fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (163 pages total).
-195 pages in all.
-Song(s) listened to while writing: Soundtracks to all three Lord of the Rings movies, Meet The Robinsons, K-PAX, and the Bourne Supremacy.

Speeding up FireFox

True to my computer/gamer nerd status (see last post), here's an interesting post: Crazy like a FireFox. It shows you to get even more speed out of the FireFox Internet browser. Not that I thought it was particularly slow before, but it does seem to render a smidge faster now...

Nerd Type?

What Be Your Nerd Type?
Your Result: Gamer/Computer Nerd

You enjoy the visual stimulants of a video game, chatting on AIM, or reading online comics. Most of these types of nerds are considered dirty who lack hygeine, of course they always end up being the ones who make a crapload of money. And don't worry, that's just a stereotype; I'm not calling you dirty. ^_~

Literature Nerd

Social Nerd

Science/Math Nerd

Artistic Nerd

Anime Nerd


Drama Nerd

What Be Your Nerd Type?
Quizzes for MySpace

These things are only so accurate, of course, but I found it interesting that Computer/Gamer beat out Literature. In reality, I'd say those are about neck-and-neck for me. I should blame someone for this digression (as everyone does), but I'm a little wary of blaming an agent who doesn't represent me (and whom I plan to query in the future, you know).

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Manuscript Analyzer 1.3

A new version of Manuscript Analyzer is now available for download. This new version adds the following features:

- The dictionaries of Frequent Offenders and Phrases have been updated. Due to the self-updating nature of the dictionaries, a new release of the software was not actually required for this feature, but it bears mentioning.

- All dictionaries now support grouping of "like words" into single entries. For instance, "look/looked/looking" are all now shown as a single entry, rather than three separate entries. This gives a much more accurate view of the frequency with which frequent offenders are used.

- A filter feature has been added. This allows you to quickly filter out any entries that don't meet criteria of your choosing. At present, you can require that words contain/start with/end with a set of characters, or you can insist that a word or phrase "Equals" a specific value (for example, bring back only the word "and," without including other results like "andy," which the "Contains" filter would include).

I've recently added some screen shots to my tools page. You can also see them here:

UPDATE: 1.3a is now the current version online, as that fixes a minor issue with sorting that was introduced in 1.3.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Forward Motion

So I haven't posted a progress update since December 20th. I haven't actually written anything new since before that time, but as I have mentioned I read Stephen King's On Writing, and am currently still in progress with Chris Roerden's Don't Murder Your Mystery. I'm learning a lot from these two books, and naturally, the tendency is to want to go back and revise yet again with all the various new things that I've learned.

So that's what I did over the holiday break, in those few spare moments -- I worked over my first chapter again, and also worked on a couple of specific spots that came later on in. Tonight I realized what was happening, however, and decided to put those revisions on hold. If I keep revising as much as I have been so far, I'll never finish my first draft at all. So instead of revising Chapter 2, I jumped ahead to chapters 9 and 10, and revised both of them. This is in preparation for tomorrow, when I'll actually write new scenes for chapter 10 (I always have to do some revision of the preceding scene if there's been a gap of more than a few days in my writing, just so that I get back into the flow/mindset of that last scene I wrote).

In all, through this time I've managed to lose about 200 actual words, and no pages (so no estimated words, either). Still, I'm really pleased with those edits that I have made -- and also that there were so many things that were already "right," or at least close to it, that I didn't have to change.

The stats as of today:
-47,250 estimated words.
-55,302 actual words.
-Nine and a portion fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (155 pages total).
-189 pages in all.
-Song(s) listened to while writing: Meet the Robinsons soundtrack

Andrew Olmsted

Perhaps you have seen this blog post (or the many blog/news stories that surround it) already. If not, I suggest it as a good, significant -- if heavy -- read. One blogging soldier thought to write a post that should be posted by a friend in the event of his death. A few days ago, he died.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Holiday Roundup

I've been quiet lately, thanks to the holidays and then my return to work a couple of days ago. So this post is going to be a bit of catch-up for a lot of the things I've wanted to comment on in the last few weeks.

First off, thanks to a post by literary agent Jonathan Lyons, I read this very interesting piece by Dave Eggers. The part that is particularly interesting is his bit on selling out, which is a longish addendum to his response to the initial email. I've never had much concern over how avant garde anything was, but it was very interesting to read the rant of someone who once did, but no longer cares. I agree with Eggers' conclusion that tracking "sellouts" is just another form of fashion, and that might very well explain why I've never had any interest in it.

I saw an interesting post called Respecting Romance over at the BookEnds Literary Agency. This post was all about why some romance writers are embarrassed by their chosen genre, and why they shouldn't be. I don't read very much romance, and I definitely don't write it, but it recalled to mind the stigma that surrounds sci-fi and fantasy. I think most genres have some sort of stigma, actually, but here again -- it's all fashion. Write because you want to, and because your topic interests you. "Great art" can be formed in any genre -- any medium at all, in fact, as many artists have demonstrated.

Next I want to point out a post called Critters Vs. Betas (and the Dreaded Spouse Question) over at Dwight's Writing Manifesto -- and not just because he mentions me in the post. I recently posted some of my thinking on the topic, but Dwight has a new way of looking at it that I hadn't quite thought of before.

Literary agent Kristen Nelson recently made a post about the new Top Dealmaker feature at Publisher's Marketplace. I thought it was really useful information, and quite insightful (she usually is). It's good to have an agent's take on this sort of thing.

On an off-topic note, Stephen Parrish recently posted about Dinner For One, "a British one-act play [that] is a New Year's Eve tradition in Germany." Shortly after he mentioned this play (first time I'd ever heard of it), a German friend of my uncle brought it up. Go figure. Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry on the play notes that "although the sketch is most popular in non-English speaking countries, it is typically shown in the original English without dubbing or subtitles. Curiously, the film remains practically unknown to the English speaking world (except for Australia)." How very curious, indeed! Can you imagine a work of yours becoming a yearly tradition in some other country, but being utterly uncared-about in your native land?

I re-watched Terry Gilliam's cult classic Brazil the other day. It's a dystopian movie that made a big impression on me in high school, and which I've since counted as one of my top favorite movies even though I hadn't seen it for over eight years. My wife got it for me on DVD as a Christmas present, which was a really pleasant surprise. I was a little worried it might not seem as good now that I've grown up a lot more, but actually it was better than before. This movie is dense with symbolism, dark humor, and pointed social commentary. If you haven't seen this one, it's definitely worth a look -- the ending is probably my favorite movie ending of all time.

Have you ever heard of the (in)famous lexicographical term Mountweazel? I'm confident you'll find that trivia article both edifying and humorous.

Over the holiday break I read Stephen King's much-touted On Writing, and found it to be quite good. Most of you have probably read it already, but if not, it's definitely worth a read.

Another book that I'm finding even more helpful at present is Chris Roerden's Don't Murder Your Mystery. This is a very nuts-and-bolts book on writing, specifically aimed at Mystery writers. Don't let that fool you -- this gem is extremely applicable to all genres. The author has been a professional editor for over forty years, and she (yes, she's a female "Chris") really knows her stuff. For me, this book came at just the right time. I hope it finds you the same way.

And, I think that was about it!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Manuscript Analyzer 1.0

Happy New Year, everyone! I had a very restful and recharging holiday season, and I hope you all had the same. To kick off the new year, I've finally gotten around to creating a Tools section on my website. This is a page for various little freeware programs that I create and want to publicly release, which I've been meaning to put up for ages.

As part of this new page, I'm also releasing the very first version of a new tool that I've created for writers . It's called Manuscript Analyzer, and is a pretty unique tool for aiding writers in doing some forms of analysis of their manuscripts. There are a number of programs that let you count the frequency of words in a document, but this takes it a step further and helps you identify junk phrases, "frequent offender" word patterns, and adverbs. It also lets you ignore common words that clutter up the high ranks of other word-counting programs, and allows you to focus on words by size.

Best of all, the dictionaries for all of the above can be extended by users via simple text files. This program auto-updates its dictionaries. As is noted in the "About" tab of the program itself, I'm very interested in ideas for how to extend this program even further. This is actually something that I just started coding this evening (seriously), so I'm sure there is a lot more that could be added. But I think that you'll find what's there to be quite robust and useful as it is.