Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Reading Advantage?

Stewart has a recent post up about whether writers can also act, in the context of reading their own dialogue and such. This reminded me of something from my writing youth [cough] and since it's not really relevant to his post, I'm putting it here.

Twenty-some years ago I was in a (realspace) writing workshop and this one woman participant was a very expressive reader. I found her too slow and annoying to listen to for that reason, but she "did" voices very expressively. A lot of the workshop's writers thought she was just wonderful and wanted her to read their stories for the group (the workshop format was to have stories or chapters read right then and there, and then commented on) because her reading made the stories sound better.

I tried to argue that this was a reason not to have her read their stories. The whole point of being in the workshop was to focus on the writing, its good and bad points, and how it could be made better. If the person reading the story is so actor-y that the focus is on the voices and the characters as expressed by the voices, rather than on the writing itself, then that makes it harder to concentrate on the words as they appeared on the page, and give proper criticism.

Of course, I was ignored and a number of people had this woman reading their work for the next few months. Whatever.

But there are going to be times when a vibrant show of lively talent really isn't what you're looking for. If a story has been published and you're doing a reading for prospective buyers to try to persuade them that said story is wonderful and delightful and worthy of their money and time, then getting a really excellent reader to do the performance is probably to your benefit. In a workshop environment, though, where the purpose is to focus on the words and only the words, allowing distractions (no matter how entertaining) is counterproductive. The bare words are what you want in that sort of situation, and if they come across as boring then you need to know that ASAP, not have it masked by a character-actor of a reader.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Support Writing 2 -- Macro

[Continued from Previous Post: Support Writing 1 -- Micro. This was originally a single post, split for length.]

Plotting is another set of notes. As I said above, I don't actually outline, but if I think of an interesting plot twist and am afraid I might forget it, I'll jot it down in the Notes file. If I run into a roadblock, I'll try to work it out by "babbling" about it, and for that I'll usually start a separate file called StoryNameBabble.doc.

I started using babbling as a solution to a story problem during my first NaNo year, when I ran into a roadblock and couldn't figure out how to get past it. I'd been exchanging e-mail with a writer friend who was also NaNoing that year, and decided to ask if she had any ideas. Of course, to do that I had to explain everything from the beginning -- what I'd had in mind and what I'd done and where I wanted to go and why that wasn't working, what the problems seemed to be and why and what I'd thought of to maybe fix them and why the possible solutions hadn't worked... everything.

And in typing all that out, every detail, explaining the problem in so many words from the ground up, to someone who didn't know anything at all, I came up with a solution.

I assumed at the time that writer's block was now a thing of the past for me. It didn't turn out quite that well, unfortunately, but it is a great technique and often helps. Most of my longer stories end up with an associated babble file at some point.

[I'd give a babble example but they tend to run a couple thousand words or more, so....]

The trick, though, is to explain everything. Pretend you're asking for advice from a writer friend -- someone who knows about plotting and worldbuilding and characterization and pacing and POV and all that, but doesn't know anything about your particular story. Write it like you're actually talking to that person, and explain everything, just as you would if you were going to send them that e-mail and wanted to make sure they got what was going on first. They need enough info and details to understand exactly what's up before they can give you any advice. (Heck, if just writing about it all doesn't work for you, you can actually send it to your friend and maybe they will have an idea for you. :) )

Explaining what possible solutions you've thought of already and exactly why they won't work is particularly helpful. What ended up producing a solution for me at that point was that while I typed, I found I didn't want to look dumb in front of my friend, so I was coming up with more and more possibilities. I didn't want her to go, "Well, why don't you just do X?" and have to do a facepalm. And having just explained my story and what direction I wanted to take it in minuscule detail, I had all the info at the top of my head, ready to feed into ideas and options. In trying to cover all my bases before I sent the e-mail, I came up with a scenario that would work, and I was able to get back to the novel again.

It's all about details, though. It's like you're spreading all the pieces of your story out on the desk in front of you, so you can see it all at one time. It seems like it should all be there anyway, in your head, but in reality (or at least in my reality -- your head might work differently, and chances are at least a few of you do) when I've been working on a given chapter or scene, focusing on a particular plot thread, the rest fades a bit, as though it's been filed away. It's still there, and I can get to it when I need it, but it's not right there in immediate sight. It's like the difference between having things out on the desk and having them in your desk drawer.

On my current WIP, I started doing something new. This story's structured differently -- I had a lot of backstory but I didn't want to actually start the story thirty-two years before the main plot begins. [wry smile] Neither did I want to tell thirty-two years worth of flashbacks or reminiscing conversations or whatever, but I really wanted to get some of that past info in; it showed how the relationship between the two main characters developed, which is vital in order for the present-day storyline (a kidnapping story which turns out to be a part of something larger) to work for the reader.

What I ended up doing was going back and forth, scene by scene. The first scene was labelled [Thirty-Two Years Ago] and then the next was labelled [Today]. Then [Twenty-Six Years Ago] then [Today], etc. It was an experiment and at first I was afraid it wouldn't work, that the backstory would be boring or annoying or whatever, but reader response has been overwhelmingly positive, yay. So that's a technique I'll keep in my toolbox for future use when appropriate.

As I go from scene to scene, I bip around between multiple viewpoint characters. Where I am now, I'm caught up with the backstory and everything is "Today," but I'm still showing what's going on at different places, with different characters. To a certain extent, I have some discretion in what order I put the scenes; it won't always ruin a progression or even look strange if I put Scene Q after Scene T rather than before. I've been writing this one as a series of scenes, rather than a single, smooth story flow, so what's been in my head has been ideas for scenes I want to write, each of which has one or more plot points I need to get across to the reader. When I finish one, I grab the one I want to do next -- usually in a different setting and often with different characters from the previous scene -- and keep going.

I've gotten to the point, though (fifteen chapters in) where I can't hold it all in my head anymore. Or rather, maybe I could but it's getting iffy and I don't want to gamble any further and start losing vital chunks. So I've started jotting down notes, like:

SCENE: [2--scene couple of weeks after 1] Blah-blah-scene description, mainly jotting down all the plot points.

This is the fanfic story I mentioned a few posts ago. I'm not comfortable actually giving details in this blog, but you get the idea. The note in [square brackets] links this scene with two others; this is number two, so one of the others comes before it and the other comes after. The three together have to go in a particular sequence, and have to happen a certain length of time apart, so I made sure to hilight it. Each scene in this cluster has a similar bracketed note, in blue to make them stand out and make it visually obvious that they're together when I'm scanning over the list of scenes. I have another cluster of ordered scenes with their bracketed notes in green.

Formatting things this way, I can bang out notes for a scene whenever I think of it, without having to worry right away about what order it'll come in.

[I know it sounds weird, but in many cases with this story it really doesn't matter, up to a point; there are three or four people or groups acting independently in parallel, and until they get together and talk or their activities cross, the fine-grained order doesn't make a difference in the story. I make final ordering decisions as I write, looking at what I need to build a good flow, with rising action and tension in the proper places at the chapter level, grabbing scenes from the pool as needed.]

But I find that I now have notes at the scene level for a little way forward into the story -- seven scenes ahead at this point -- and this is the closest I've come to outlining since my last disastrous attempt. I'll admit I'm a bit nervous about it, but with this many major characters and this many major plot threads which all have to braid together evenly and wrap up at about the same point, however many chapters in the future, I feel like I need some sort of scheme for taking plot notes and planning things out. It's not really an outline, but it serves some of the same functions as one. We'll see how it goes. [crossed fingers]

So how does everyone else work? Do you outline? If not, do you do anything else to help keep the plotlines straight and make sure all the ends get woven in reasonably neatly? What support writing do you do, outside of the story itself?


Support Writing 1 -- Micro

[I wrote this as a single post, but it's a bit long so I'm splitting it. The first couple of paragraphs apply to the whole piece.]

Normally I don't outline -- I think I've mentioned that before. I've tried it and it's crashed and burned pretty miserably, on one landmark occasion taking an entire novel with it. Even in school I never outlined my papers unless the outline had to be turned in for credit, and sometimes not even then; I've essentially pantsed major research papers with footnote numbers in triple digits (and gotten As on them) so after a few failed experiments I've never had any particular incentive to go back and try again.

Which isn't to say that every story is created completely within its Word file, with no support writing. Short stories, sure. But for longer pieces and series stories I find I do need some help keeping everything straight, at the very least for the sake of continuity.

Most of my longer stories have a Notes file, usually called StoryNameNotes.doc. I'll jot down character notes at the top -- full name, any nicknames, age, family/friend/work relationships, physical details, plus things like how they take their coffee, whether they call it a "couch" or a "sofa," where they're from, etc. I'll add to it as I go, whenever anything significant comes up in the story that I think there's any possibility I might need to refer to later. The character notes go first in the file because I refer to these most often, usually protags at the top, then supporting characters, then minor characters. Sometimes I'll cluster characters differently, like in my current WIP where I have the bad guy's notes followed by a bunch of very minor characters who are his henchmen and who pretty much are just names and skills/functions; exactly how I organize things depends on what I think will be the most useful for the current story.

Then I'll start adding setting notes below that, which might be more or less detailed depending on the setting. SF or fantasy gets a lot of notes because every time I make something up I have to remember it, while mundane contemporary settings get fewer. So for A Hidden Magic, an urban fantasy set in modern times in the Bay Area (where I grew up, and lived until I got married and moved to Long Beach), I've got the following setting notes, among others:

Underhill or Under the Hill
It's winter
the wildlands, the chaotic territory Underhill between enclaves
the light Underhill was a perpetual dim twilight and days passed only in the sense that meals and sleeping periods came and went.

The first bit is a nomenclature note; I wanted to remember how I wrote it out and what capitalization I used. (I do that a lot, for consistency.) The bit about it being winter refers to the story period; it's not winter Underhill all the time. The last bit is a clip directly from the story; no sense retyping it, right?

Farther down I have some spells I used:

don't-look -- a magical glamour which coaxes the eye away
banishing -- sending creature back Underhill, chanting & hollow BANG! 2 min. when Aubrey does it
obscure -- spell to block someone who's Seeking

The timing note on the banishing is there because Aubrey's one of the most powerful mages in my world; anyone else doing that spell would take longer and I don't want to forget and have some apprentice-type do it in thirty seconds a hundred pages later. [laugh/flail] Most of what I jot down are things like that, for consistency. It's all right for different characters, who might've been taught by different people or groups or traditions, to call the same spell something different, but if I do that I want it to be a deliberate choice because I was adding depth to my world, rather than accidentally because I forgot what I called it last time.

Swords and Shadows, a fantasy set in a world I made up, has more notes about little things:

Ulder Pass -- main artery through Daro Uldrem, the mountain range east of Pilenem, the capital province.

Five of Arden's brothers were at the victory feast

Pilen -- the Molani language

bridegild -- brideprice

Money -- Molani
terran -- copper coin
lunar -- silver coin
solar -- gold coin

Money -- Ruvori
pes -- copper coin
kas -- small silver coin
vas -- larger silver coin
chas -- gold coin

I start out just jotting things as they occur to me, which is usually as I create them within the story, which is why the ordering might seem a bit chaotic. As I collect more notes, I start cut/pasting to get them more organized. In this file, I separated out lists of gods and other religious matters, because all the magic in this story comes from the gods and the main plot is based on the gods messing with the world, so there's a lot of info piling up about the different gods -- their name, appellation (Ashti, a goddess of travellers, is often called Ashti of the Roads, for example) what they're in charge of, how their priests dress, temple descriptions, etc.

I don't necessarily worry about putting in every detail -- the point is to jog my own memory. There's actually very little verbage in my note file about the one god who's stirring up all the trouble, for example, because I've been focused on him all along and I haven't come up with much that I thought I'd have a hard time remembering. This is for my own utility, so I tune it to my own needs. If this ever turned into, say, a shared world and I had to come up with a bible for other writers to use, I'd have to add a lot.

So how does everyone else work? How do you make sure your character who's allergic to citrus in Chapter Two doesn't slug down a lemonade in Chapter Thirty-Seven? Or that a character who says "dresser" for twelve chapters doesn't suddenly start saying "bureau?" Or that your landlocked city doesn't suddenly develop a thriving waterfront at the climax of the story?


[To Be Continued in "Support Writing 2 -- Macro"]

Thursday, November 20, 2008

FEEDJIT Wierdness

I installed FEEDJIT's live traffic feed -- rather than a map, it's a list of recent visitors, showing what country they're from and what web site they came from -- on my other blog. It gets like zero traffic so far as I can tell, and I was curious to see if anyone was lurking.

I've only gotten three legitimate comments the whole time I've had the thing. I'll admit I don't update it all that often, and pretty much everything that's there is also here (the idea being that readers who weren't interested in the writing craft/industry posts could just watch that one for releases and such) so I wasn't particularly expecting to see a bunch of lurkers reading today. (Although it'll be interesting to see if anyone shows up next time I do post something.)

What I do get a lot of, though, is comment spam. I probably delete at least a dozen a day, sometimes twenty or so. Wordpress has a good filter so they hardly ever get past the Possible Spam Please Moderate queue, but they do show up, and sure enough I've had a few this morning.

When I checked the FEEDJIT list, though, the only hits that showed were my own. o_O So... how am I getting all this comment spam if the spammers aren't actually hitting the site?? Anyone have any ideas?


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Visit Map

I added FEEDJIT's visit map to my sidebar, down at the bottom, just 'cause it looked like fun. (Thanks Writtenwyrdd for pointing out the site.) I have no idea why it thinks I'm from Whittier. o_O

Check out their site, though; they have other cool widgets too, including dynamic lists showing where your visitors are from (I added that one to my other blog, so at least I'll be able to tell if anyone's reading [wry smile]) and what pages are the most popular and such. They're free, and you don't even have to sign up. I have a particular fondness for sites which give me cool things without requiring me to generate another login ID and password, so props to FEEDJIT for that.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Libraries and Sales

Whenever the discussion of free reads comes up, someone always mentions libraries. They're the second-favorite target of writers who are intensely concerned with the bottom line on their royalty statement. (The first being used bookstores of course.) Nathan Bransford mentioned recently that he knows "a few authors who cringe every time a fan tells them they can't wait to borrow their next book from the library -- if everyone did that, of course, the author would get next to zero royalties."

If you think about it, a library is actually more of a threat to one's revenue than a used bookstore. A library copy of a book can be read thirty or forty or more times and then have a new check-out slip pasted into it (or whatever they do now -- I'm thinking back to when I was in school but I imagine there's something more high tech than a rubber date-stamp these days) while realistically, a book is only going to go through a used bookstore a maximum of, what, two or three times? I remember back when I used to practically live at the used bookstore across the street from my high school -- I spent most of my lunch money there for four years -- it was pretty rare to find another used bookstore's stamp in one of The Bookrack's books. I don't ever remember seeing more than one.

But you know what? I'm not worrying about it.

Seriously, I think the "if everyone did that" argument against libraries is looking at the situation wrong-way around. Because before it showed up in a library, that book was bought from a publisher. Every book in a library is a sale.

If more people really did start patronizing libraries, if they really were two or three or ten times as popular as they are now, libraries would probably do everything they could to grow their collections, right? Or specifically, if one of my books is ever popular enough that people all over the country are flocking to the libraries looking for it, then it'll probably be one of those books that all the libraries buy multiple copies of, so they can serve their patrons with a waiting list less than a year long.

According to the relevant ALA web page, the number of public libraries in the US (central and branch both) is 16,543. If they all bought -- let's be conservative here, in the face of this overwhelming display of frugality on the part of the readers -- three copies of my theoretically gonzo-popular book, that's 49,629 sales.

You know what? Even if no individuals at all bought the book, I'll still take those sales numbers.

And realistically, if the book is that popular in the first place, the libraries really aren't going to be the only ones buying it. I wish every library in the country would buy copies of my books. Well, some day when I finally have a hardcopy book published. And assuming I ever write something that a public library could carry without getting picketed. But you know, in principle. [cough]


Sunday, November 16, 2008


Well, it seems like half of southern California is on fire right now. :/ Our area is safe, but as usual we're downwind and getting a lot of smoke. My eyes are itching and watering and my throat feels icky. Much better than having our building burn down, though, which has happened to way too many people and will probably happen to more before this wraps.

They're calling this the worst fire in the area since 1961, and considering we have big fires pretty much every year, that's saying something. The Santa Ana winds blow off the desert toward the coast every fall. They're hot and dry and suck all the moisture out of everything. If a fire starts, it flares up right away and everything's tinder. And the winds themselves blow embers all over the place. Jim and I were watching the news around midnight and they had continuous vids of the fire going; there'd be the main fire line, with a bunch of little spot fires starting up in front of it, growing larger and larger, especially as the wind made them flare.

We were watching video from (the ironically named) Carbon Canyon for a while. The whole thing was blazing and the fire fighters were up on one rim, hosing down the brush and trees right there at the top and just over the rim, trying to protect a mobile home park and a church. The canyon had turned into an oven, holding in so much of the heat that huge sheets of flame were towering over the silhouetted fire fighters. And of course the canyon just channels the winds, too. They had to get right up at the edge of the canyon to get the water over the rim to the top of the slope, since it doesn't do any good to just sprinkle the tops of the flames.

We could only see the fire fighters as dark shapes, and the dark curves of the water. They were tiny compared to the spurts and sheets of fire and it seemed like it must be futile, but the commentators said it was working and that the fire department was optimistic about being able to save the buildings behind them.

There were also photographers down there with them. It was funny -- I'd just finished saying to Jim that the flames were so close, they must've chased all the media away by then, and he'd just agreed with me. (The footage we were watching was from a helicopter, and the on-the-ground commenter who'd been reporting to the station over the phone had hung up to move back a few minutes earlier.) Then about three seconds after I made the comment, I saw the unmistakeable silhouette of someone with a video camera on his shoulder! That's going to be some awesome footage, whoever it was and wherever it gets shown. I'm still surprised they were allowed to stay right up with the fire fighters there like that.

Anyway, I'm okay, except for some minor respiratory stuff. I have several sets of virtual fingers crossed for the people who are losing their homes and businesses, and in some cases already, their lives. :( Good wishes are appreciated for my neighbors in the larger area.


Saturday, November 8, 2008

Halloween Story

I just realized I never posted a link to my Halloween story. Torquere's Halloween Blitz was published on October 30th this year -- I couldn't get a reliable connection from the ship, then afterward I just didn't think about it. :/

Mine is Candy Courage. Glenn Bellamy, a divorced dad, is taking his son around trick-or-treating. He confiscates some homemade peanut brittle -- and eats it himself of course -- not knowing that the old man who made it is an alchemist who adds something special to his candy each year. This year it was Courage, so when Glenn and his son hit Neal Sampson's house, Glenn finds himself flirting and making a date for the next day. Will the candy courage wear off, or will Glenn find the guts to go after what he wants?


Sebastiano Fiorentelli studied the calendar -- a freebie from the Humane Society with photos of puppies and kittens on it -- on the wall of his cluttered basement laboratory and observed that it was the thirtieth day of October. Since emigrating to the United States and discovering the Halloween custom of sending children around to beg for treats, he'd made a habit of including something extra in the candy he made for the occasion each year. By the Nineteen-seventies, when hysteria over poison and razor blades swept the population, Mr. Fiorentelli had been living in his San Jose neighborhood long enough that no one fussed about letting their children eat his wax-paper-wrapped candies.

He paced back and forth in front of open cabinets and crowded shelves, pondering what to make this year, until finally he stopped and nodded.

"Courage," he said. "This year, I think I'll make courage..."


The next evening, Robbie Matheson, age eight, refused to share the wax-wrapped peanut brittle he'd gotten from old Mr. Fiorentelli on the corner. His real favorite candy was those little Milky Way bars, but Mr. Fiorentelli made some pretty cool candy and he always knew he had to eat it as soon as he could or his mom would sneak it.

Ten minutes later, he stood in his room and stared out the window into the dark back yard at the trampoline cage. His big sister Stephanie had been bouncing in it since she was five and had been teasing Robbie for being a scaredy-cat for the last three years, because no matter how his sister had taunted or his parents had coaxed or his friends had snickered, he'd refused to even stand on the trampoline.

Robbie knew -- really knew -- that he couldn't get hurt in the cage unless he landed on his head or something. Just bouncing up and down without trying any flips or anything was perfectly safe. He knew that.

Of course he knew that.


Get the whole thing here. :D