Friday, September 28, 2012

What's Good?

It's the end of September and I'm nearly done with The Cold Distance. Well, essentially done.

For now.

It's hard to live with thing you've written for such a long time. The initial idea was so mad, so beyond anything I'd tried to write before that I wasn't sure I could write it. When I was knee-deep in the early chapters, I loved the story. When the revelations about the end came to me, I loved it even more. At the end of November I was only about two-thirds of the way through it and I loved it so much I had to see it through to completion.

Now, eleven months after completing that Zero Draft, I'm done polishing my baby to a high shine and hoping that I can convince other people to like it.

I've done all that I know how to do. I've gone back in and fiddled with grammar, turns of phrase, little character moments, and all the other things that are part of the editing process. My baby is grown up compared to December of 2011, and ready to toddle off out into the world. 

And I still love it. In fact, I love this book more than anything else I've ever written. Don't get me wrong, I'm proud of everything I've written, especially Evolver, but this is different. This is a truly full-length work clocking in at well over 100,000 words. A true novel. It's not epic, it's operatic. Space Operatic, in fact, like Star Wars or Firefly.

Is it that good? I don't know. I hope so. I have to convince someone else that it could be.

How will I know, though, that it's good if I can't make someone else see how good it is? Selling the work is a very different skill than writing it. All I have is my passion for the story and the characters and the worlds I've built and trying to tell someone they should like it, too, is a little like saying what your favorite flavor of ice cream is to a group of strangers and having them stare back at you with a horrifying blank look.

My book is good. I would read this book if I discovered it on a shelf in a bookstore. But brick and mortar stores are rare and there's very little browsing that happens on the internet. How will I call attention to my story? All I can do is make it the best I think it can be.

Endless tweaking will only hurt it. That's something I've learned over the last couple of years. Your initial idea is always good but you can almost always make it better. But you can go too far, too. You have to find that hallowed Middle Ground and know where that boundary ends and the Overworking begins.

So - it's done. If an editor finds the book attractive (and I'm crossing my fingers on that one) then I'll make changes if I'm asked to. I'll meet my deadlines. I will learn and improve. This is why I conceived the book in the first place: to sell it. 

But is it good? Obviously I'm biased but I think it's pretty terrific. It's been worked on long enough that it's so much better than the Zero Draft and even the real First Draft. Things have changed and grown and gotten tighter. I know what the book is about.

Next week, it goes out for consideration. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What's in the Middle

Our Miss Eleanor Rigby on a bench like so many others. Where was she
before she got there? Where was she going? Was this her regular spot?
I wanted to know. Image attribution.

I love music. Music influences me when I'm writing, it can help me reach The Zone very quickly and allow me to stay there. Sometimes the themes of the individual pieces creep into the work. As I'm editing The Cold Distance I can tell you in a couple of spots exactly what I was listening to as I wrote a particular passage. There's a rhythm to the words that came through, too.

What usually speaks to me in music are the mid-range notes, the ones that are usually associated with rhythm. Cellos, French horns, rhythm guitars. Coupled with bombastic percussion and drumming, these are the instruments that grab my attention and keep it. The melody usually comes in there somewhere, but for me to like an individual song it has to have a solid middle sound.

Which is probably why I struggle so much with beginnings and endings in my stories. Coming up with the concept is relatively easy and throwing around some complications for the characters to have to overcome is only marginally harder. That's middle stuff.

Beginnings and endings are also easy. First scene, last scene, even knowing why they happen in most cases. Relatively easy.

It's connecting the parts that's the hangup. 

I need a cello.

That instrument that bridges the rhythm section with the melody. The sound that holds it all together. What's the literary equivalent of that though? What does that in the great stories?


Digressing for a moment, the first time I heard The Beatles' Eleanor Rigby, I was mesmerized. The plaintive sound of the cellos underneath the lyrics telling stories of two terribly lonely people who shouldn't be lonely in the first place hit me dead center in the heart. A brilliant collaboration between Paul McCartney and George Martin (with a small contribution from John Lennon) is what came out. A complete story in about two and a half minutes. A sort of flash fiction, if you will.

But there are sub-plots in there. At least, they're hinted at. The chorus/opening is the best indicator:

Ah, look at all the lonely people

But we only investigate two lonely people in the song: Eleanor and Father McKenzie. Why was Eleanor alone? Why didn't the good Father go to her? They were both waiting for someone or something, but that's all they did. Why? What were they afraid of? Who are all the other lonely people and how do they connect to Eleanor and the Father?

The song is a terrific bit of storytelling, dropping us in as late as possible and getting out as quickly as we can. There's obviously some history that goes on before the first notes, and there's likely some fallout upon the death of Eleanor if that history comes to light. 

So what this song is, while it's a complete story and self-contained, is really the middle of a much larger tale. What makes it work, what makes it timeless, is that the listener is left to imagine all the things that happened before and what should come after. We are allowed to interpret based on our own experiences. This song had such an impact on me that I developed my own theories about what happened before and what came after. I may tell that story someday, but I'm not a good enough storyteller to do it yet.

Typically the middle is where stories sag because they're the 'boring' parts. Next time you think that, listen to Eleanor Rigby and remind yourself what the middle should be.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Time Sheet

I may be on the Death Star of Writing, but there's no
two-headed monster lurking in there.
Copyright Lucasfilm. Image attribution.
If you're a writer, you probably don't think much about how much time you spend writing unless - like me - you're trying to cram a whole bunch of stuff into what constitutes a Star Wars garbage compactor of time.

I think that's maybe my first mention of Star Wars on the blog. If not, oh well. Regardless, I used to not think much about how much time I spent before this year.

Each of these blog posts takes me about half an hour to write. Some are more, some less but that's the average. I spend another half an hour, or more like 90 minutes when we're writing flash fiction, on my posts over at the Confabulator Cafe. That's four posts a week with anywhere from two to three hours of time put in to things that aren't paying. These are obligations I've given myself.

But those are largely philosophical, non-fiction types of assignments. In general they write themselves based on my experience and what's on my mind during the week. I tend to spend time thinking the topics over before I actually sit down to write. What I'm saying is that while it seems incongruous to invest in them, they're important because they force me to write on a regular schedule. The payment of being forced to write something I'm not necessarily comfortable thinking about is huge and has improved my writing.

Even though they sometimes take away from what I'd like to be writing: the novel, a new short story, a new novel, something more in the world of Evolver, maybe.

So I'm not really concerned about the return on my investment of time (that's long-term and something I can worry about once I make it onto a prominent bestseller list) but just finding the time I need to get deep into the Zone and bash away at the keys. (That's a figurative term, of course. Bashing one's computer is NOT recommended unless one is Bill Gates or Stephen King and you're basically made of money.)

In my day job I worry about Time as it concerns others and me, too. I developed a time sheet that I could use to track how much time I spent on a given project. I did that because I thought it would help me to find the wherewithal to find more time to spend writing.

I never used it. Not once.

As soon as I developed it and printed it, stuck it over my desk in the home office, it didn't mean anything. I'm not writing for a job, I write because I like to do it. I write because I want need to share my stories with the world. Yes, it's an investment and I'm hoping to have a return on it, but the investment isn't what's important. It's the end result. There's really no garbage compactor involved.

So even though I complain sometimes that I don't have enough time to write, it's more from frustration that I'm in the Zone and I have to come out of it in order to go to the job that pays the bills and keeps a roof over our heads.

Which also provides me the space I need to write and the other comforts. Like coffee.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Busy Sky

I've been lax about Saturday sunflowers, I know, but hey - we all get busy, don't we? Me, I'm spending my weekends trying to get grass to grow. To kind of make up for it, here's a picture of yesterday's afternoon sky near my hometown in Kansas. Enjoy.

Back on Monday with some more musings. Have a great weekend.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Are You Experienced?

Obviously those aren't my hands or legs. You get
the idea, though. Image attribution.
A couple of weeks back I acquired an iPad. (Yes, I'm an Apple victim. Have been for years.) And for as long as they've been around, I've resisted ebooks, too. In general, I don't want to read for an extended period on a screen so sitting in front of a computer to read my favorite author wasn't something high on my priority list.

This year, though, I should 'fess up and say that I've read half a dozen books on my computer. They were all by friends who had written novels for NaNoWriMo and the experience wasn't as bad as I'd thought. Then I got the iPad.

And I started reading my friend Rachel's book Monster in My Closet. A book I'd already read on my computer earlier in the year on my computer, although in substantially different form.

The reading experience on the iPad is quite different and very much like reading a book. I use the Kindle app. It's not the same thing as reading a book, but it's not what I imagined it would be. The device itself has a nice weight to it and I can turn it any which way. If I'm sitting upright the device in my lap feels like a good-sized hard-back. If I'm at the table, perhaps eating breakfast, then it sits sideways with a nice double-page split. The font is very readable, the page-turn action is simple and comes with a little swipe sound if you want it. All in all, it's similar to reading a quote real book unquote.

But that's all technical stuff. As a reader of long standing, I resisted the switch on a number of levels: I didn't have an ereader and didn't want to spend the money on one; I couldn't envision wanting to read on a screen; and finally I loved physical books so much I didn't want to see them go away. The first thing I see when I go into my office at home or walk into my living room is a shelf of books. I like having books, being surrounded by them. One of the books on the shelf is one I wrote. Another has a story I contributed. (Full disclosure: I have an ecopy of the book on my shelf, too.)

Where I'm going with this is that I don't want physical books to go away, ever. But now - because reading on the iPad is so easy and even convenient - I'm willing to delve into ebooks. Price point is definitely a consideration, ebooks are generally a little cheaper, but I shop at used book stores, too, so that wasn't everything. I guess that finally what I've realized is that once I took the plunge and bought the device it made sense to read books on it.

If you're wavering at all, go ahead and flop in. You don't have to abandon traditional books, and I would encourage you not to. But it doesn't hurt to open up to a new experience.

My next step? I'm thinking about comiXology and reading comics on the iPad. It may take me a while longer to do that, but I imagine it'll work out just about the same.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Storytelling Lessons Part 1

At my age, feeling like I'm still learning is a good thing.
It's actually what gets me up in the morning.
Image attribution.
As I go back through the novel getting it ready (I hope!) to get out into the world, I'm finding some things I've learned over the last couple of years have really come into focus. Even though I've participated in and 'won' NaNoWriMo three times prior to writing this novel, I feel like this is really The First. It came out longer and more fully formed than any other piece of writing I've done previous. I've been working away at making it better for months and I'm not tired of it. I'm not discouraged that it wasn't better after the Zero Draft or even the First Draft. I'm as excited for this book as I was the last day of November when I knew I had to keep writing and as the day I finally typed The End more than 90,000 words and six weeks after I started.

I am a capital-W Writer. Here are just a few things I've learned from this journey.

I had pages and pages of notes and lots of links for research that I'd accumulated in the month before I started writing. When I finally opened up a new Scrivener file on November 1st, I was enthusiastic about telling the story I had in my head. I had a beginning and a lot of the middle and some more than vague notions about the end. I knew some big beats that had to be hit and even several fine details that could be worked in to make the story richer.

I didn't use everything, though. As I'm flipping back through those pages I can see things that just didn't work out, things that would have taken me to places I really didn't want the story to go. For that I'm glad, but it's part of the process. Previous to 2011, I would open up a new file with a beginning and then just write by the seat of my pants. Sometimes I would think a little more before I started writing, but not like I did for this book.

Every writer approaches every project differently. This is what finally worked for me: knowing about 60% of what I needed to in order to start.

I can't know everything. I don't want to know every little detail of every character I'm going to use. I want to have some breathing room in order to satisfy the surprises that I need to keep my interest. The really cool thing about this book was that I found things out about my characters that I didn't know. I know that sounds like garbage, but in this particular case it's true. Everything I liked about science fiction came out while I was writing this book. Someday I'll discuss the obvious influences but for now trust me when I say that a lot of pop culture SF crept in around the edges.

And that's what enabled me to follow some of the paths that popped up along the way.

When I'd open up the file to pick up where I left the day before, I was often amazed at what had been written. It wasn't always like someone else had hijacked my writing but I found that I leveled up several times during the Zero Draft. A clever turn of phrase or that unsuspected plot turn really opened things up in terms of where I could go. I still had my map, still knew where the story had to end up but now I had some sights to see along the way.

You think that writing is kind of a solitary thing, right? It can be. I'm writing this in my office at home and listening to Los Lobos while I do that. But I can tell you that sitting in a room full of people who are typing as madly as you are trying to get their stories out of their heads the way you are is inspiring. Every once in a while I'd look around and see a writer with her hands to her face and that bewildered look I know had been on my face more than once was somehow comforting.

Don't question whether or not it's the absolute right thing to do or not, just go with it. You can fix it later. Blow something up. Kill a character off. Break something. That's how you get around/through/over something that's blocking you. And if you're writing in a group, you've got any number of wingmen to navigate you through it. All you have to say is "I'm stuck and ---" and then you'll have choices.

And that's all for this installment. Next one I'll tell you a bit about procrastination. Maybe.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Question

What's your story about? Can you boil it down to a logline or a catchphrase that would be meaningful to someone browsing in a bookstore or a library? 

In some feedback I got a couple of weeks ago, I was asked what the Story Question of The Cold Distance was. Well, I thought to myself, it's -- uh...

I was stumped for a minute. That really got me thinking. It wasn't something that had ever been at the top of my mind while writing but it's there in my notes though it's spread out over a couple of pages and not really coherent. I've said that this book is about friendship at its core, and how friendships can change those involved. It is. But what's the Question?

I've figured it out but I don't want to share it with you yet. Not because of any reason other than I don't need to in order to make the point I want to make. Bear with me.

There's another Question that comes up later on, a problem to be solved, but the overarching story has to do with how alone we all feel, embodied in the main character, and how when we open our eyes we see that we're not really alone. Nor have we ever been. We have chosen to be solitary because of the hurt we endure. What kills us makes us stronger, I suppose. So if something is going to kill the Universe and we survive that, how much stronger will everyone be?

All this from one sentence in a critique by a trusted reader. Damn.

The thing is, it's all there on the pages in the story. Everything, but now as I'm revising it I'm making it stronger and more prominent. It was buried in the Zero Draft and sort of peeking out in the First. Now it's not exactly strutting down the catwalk, but it's certainly on the stage. To boot, it's also in the first quarter of the book now and not so close to the middle. 

So I'm building a world, a Universe and societies and religions and prejudices, and peopling it with characters who reflect our world in this Science Fictional one. This is Space Opera, folks, this is the kind of SF that I like to read. Believable, relatable characters in a convincing world facing the End of Everything. 

And now I've got a deadline. It's got to be ready to go out for submission no later than October 1. That means I'm working away on this with coffee and whisky in quantity until it's done. So nine months after finishing the Zero Draft, my first really complete book will be going out into the world. I'm afraid of being rejected but if I never show it to anyone I'll never know how ugly or beautiful my baby is. I have to be like my main character and realize that it's time to let some old hurts go and the scars be damned. 

Cross your fingers for me. This is going to happen. I'll let you know how it goes.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Revising the Revisions

Oh, man, do I have a lot to learn about storytelling.

No kidding. I'm still revising The Cold Distance, my SF/Space Opera novel that first came to life during NaNoWriMo 2011. One might ask why I would continue revising it this far into the year.

Good question. The reason I'm still after this book is that it's good. I'm not the only one who thinks so, either. People I trust are telling me that there's an awful lot to like about it and as I keep going back (I'm in an official Second Revision, which will equate to a Third Draft when it's done) I find more and more things that I can add that will give the story more depth. I'm still between 110,000 and 120,000 words, which is a good target length for a first novel, I think, so I haven't gone too far.

The big thing about this revision is that I've had to take out four chapters, add information to the new first three and then write a completely new fourth chapter. Does that sound like a lot of work?

Well, it is. Trust me.

Since I'm not a full-time writer and there are household chores and other things that pull my attention away it's taking a LOT longer than I want it to in order to get this book in shape. Not an excuse, not a complaint, just a statement that yes, I could spend a lot more time on the book than I am but then things in the house or at the day job will suffer. I can't afford either of those things to happen so writing comes in third sometimes.

And despite that, my enthusiasm for the book is undiminished. That's the real point of this post, I suppose. I still love this book. I think it's the best thing I've written of any length over 10,000 words.

But what I'm learning has to do with things like inserting humor appropriately, showing that my main character is a real person who reacts in ostensibly real ways for particularly real story reasons. It's about building strong relationships on better foundations and answering a central story question that drives the entire book. (More about that on Monday.)

Every day I work on the book, the more enthusiastic I am about it. The more I want to spend time whipping it into shape and get it ready to put out on the street. I know where I want to send it, too. I know what this book is capable of being.

So I'm not giving up on this one. I've got three other NaNovels that are Trunked for the time being so I know good from bad. I hope. And I've got ideas for the next book, too. There's a short story I wrote in the world of this novel that could possibly be a nice bridge between the two even though the books, on the surface anyway, don't appear to be related. And they're not related to a third book that I have started but probably needs to be re-written from scratch.

As I learn what's making The Cold Distance a better book, I am going to be a better writer for it. Writing a novel is hard work. It's not just sitting down and typing away like a monkey. It's thought and consideration and study of what works in other books and stories. And recognizing when a story is good and deserves more attention to make it better.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Brand Loyalty

How many stories are left on the shelves, how many things
are unseen? Image attribution.
I drive a particular kind of car, wear a particular kind of shoe, drink a particular kind of soda. Most of us do. We have preferences. Music, art, movies, actors, clothes, food: we all like what we like and we have our reasons for liking these things.

You may shop at a store because you think the quality of their products is what you want and that's your default store. Right? I mean, you acknowledge this, don't you?

So what I want to bring to your attention today is that there may be stories you're missing because you have a preference for a particular author or genre or whatever. I tend to like and read the same authors over and over. My home library is filled with books by Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and Robert Heinlein. I used to have a lot of Anne Rice, but I've divested myself of a lot of her later works. To me, the quality of story - not the writing - no longer appealed to me. It's not bad, that's not what I'm saying. It's just not for me any more.

Instead, I've discovered authors like Lev Grossman, China Mieville, and Richard Kadrey. I've stretched myself out to read a couple of anthologies and found one that I like edited by a couple who have similar tastes in SF to me. I sometimes step out of my preferred genre to read authors who I might not have before: Jim Thompson and Alex Grecian. (Full disclosure, I've met Grecian several times and we have friends in common. He's a nice guy. You should read his books.)

I didn't read a lot of Ray Bradbury when I was a kid and I should have. As an adult over the last ten years or so, I've embraced Bradbury like everyone should. He doesn't necessarily write SF, but great fantasies or flights of fancy that appeal to the child in me. I don't know that I would have appreciated the work as a younger man, but now in my 40s I get it.

Working at a company for 22 years and starting over at a new one is indicative of the kind of change I'm going through. I bought a new brand of shoes, too. I'm broadening my horizons.

If I can do it, so can you. When you're looking for a book to read, don't go to your usual bookstore (online or brick and mortar), instead head over to your local library and browse. We don't do enough of that these days. That's how we discover new things that we don't know we like until that moment.

Do you remember the moment when you first heard the song that became Your Song? Do you remember when you went to a theater and saw the movie that you bought on DVD (or blu ray now) and watched over and over? I bet you do. How about the moment when you first tasted your favorite food or drink?

Chase that moment, seek that thrill. Don't settle for what you know, reach out and find something new. Not all the time, necessarily, but more often than you do now. Be daring. Find something you like and share it with others. Listen to your friends who are trying to share with you.

The effect of this is that you will be supporting a wider variety of creators and entrepreneurs. The result of that is that other creators and entrepreneurs (including authors like me) will have a wider audience and be encouraged to bring new, original things into the world. That's a benefit for everyone.

But that doesn't mean you have to abandon what you like. All I want you to do is branch out and find another brand that may fit with you. You can do it.

I know you can.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Laughter and Love

I didn't know this, but on September 11, 1967, the Carol Burnett Show premiered. I say this because I LOVE the Carol Burnett Show. The old variety/sketch comedy format was part of what gave me my sense of humor. I watched this as often as I could but never paid attention to when it was actually on. I always was surprised to find it, especially when it was in syndication.

Classic characters like Mrs. Whiggins, Eunice and Mama, and then regular sketches like As the Stomach Churns and so many others. You can find a great selection of some of the best of these on YouTube nowadays.

And then there's this: Went With the Wind which is one of the best funny bits on one of the best funny shows in all of television. Here it is:

If you didn't laugh at all during that nine minutes you're probably dead.

Anyway, the show ran for eleven seasons and I think I've seen most of it. I know I've laughed a LOT when I've watched it. It's easily one of my top ten favorite shows.

Coincidentally, the same day that show debuted, my parents were married. They were young and in love and over the course of the following forty-five years they've loved a lot, laughed a lot, and done a lot of things that many people dream of doing but never do. They owned their own business and Dad is in business for himself. They raised a couple of good kids (you might've heard of one of 'em) and they are the glue that brings the extended family together at the holidays. Plus, they've outlasted the Carol Burnett Show.

My parents are the best parents I could ask for and I love them more than I ever say. If any of us stay together as long as they have, laugh as much as they do, love one another as much as they do, then we'll all be so very lucky and the world will be a much better place.

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad. I hope you have a wonderful day and I'm so very grateful for all things you've done for me. 

You're the best.



Monday, September 10, 2012

Various and Sundry

Writer Neil Gaiman, Suranne Jones, and Matt Smith.
Image attribution.
Bear with me. I've got a few questions I'd like us to explore together.

I've done these kinds of laundry lists before and never really gotten anything out of them other than just getting some stuff off my chest. I don't want to get all kinds of political right now (I'll save that for late October) and the blog really is about telling stories, so let's ask some questions that should lead us to actually telling stories, right?

So yeah. This one's going to be kind of all over the place.

How many of us have day jobs? Raise your hand. Ah, good. Most of us. Do you ever get someone who comes along and complains about the kind of job you're doing? I bet that happens more often than the opposite when you might get a compliment from the boss or someone you helped. Do you ever abuse someone who's just trying to do their job? I'm not counting the obviously insensitive jerks who should be in different lines of work, I'm talking about the poor, bedraggled clerk who is overwhelmed. Ever been that person? Keep that in mind next time you're getting upset, how much it sucks to be abused by someone who doesn't understand what your job really is and why you're not able to do it the way you were trained. Or weren't, as the case may be.

Now, onto the real items of interest.

  1. Ever been in traffic and seen the bumper sticker "Driving Safely? Call 800-whatever"? What do you think would happen if everyone behind that guy called the number to either compliment his driving or tell on him? Think people who drove vehicles would do better? I know that compliments are even more powerful than criticism. Which would you rather hear? I propose that you should call once a week - just once a week, mind you - and compliment the driver when he's doing well. See what happens.
  2. Just as a matter of politics, why aren't term limits more attractive to the average voter? The fatcats that live in Washington rather than really in their home communities are counting on name recognition to retain their jobs. Everyone knows who POTUS is (the President of the United States) and most voters know who's running for the job this November. But do you know who your Senator is? Or your Representative? If you don't, why do you think that is? I'd rather vote for someone who actually lives in my district and more than occasionally makes a stop in town to hear what's on our minds. Wouldn't you?
  3. I'm thrilled to have BBC America and be able to watch Dr Who as it launches the seventh season of its current iteration. I have fond, fond memories of watching Tom Baker as the Doctor late at night on PBS for a couple of years then in the afternoons when I got home from school. When he regenerated out of the role it seemed that we could no longer watch the show in my area. Weird as it was, that cemented my love of the show, even though I never got to watch Peter Davison or any of the others. I caught up via DVD when it became obvious that the series had some legs again and now I'm hooked. My favorite episodes are Blink and The Doctor's Wife. I'll tell you about them every time I know they're on. 
  4. We got a ton of rain over a couple of days recently and the brown grass in the yard that was only just hanging on in a state of dormancy seems to be coming back. I'll still be planting grass when I can, but not as much as I'd originally thought. The summer's long, brutal heatwave is probably a combination of both man's existence and use of machinery that produce greenhouse gases and a natural swing in shifting climates. As a society we need to work on reducing our impact on the environment. Let's not take away everything, but let's invest in technology that'll create jobs and be good for everyone into the future. What do you say?
  5. I'm reading Richard Kadrey's new Sandman Slim novel - Devil Said Bang. It's living up to every expectation that I've had of the series and I encourage you to read it if you like hard-boiled urban fantasy that's maybe the bastard child of Raymond Chandler and Mike Carey.
  6. I've also given in and gotten an iPad. This means I'll be reading more ebooks, too. I don't know what else to say about that.

That's what I've got for now. If you want to talk about any of these things speak up in the comments. I'd love to know what you think.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Weekend Flowers

It's been too long since I showed you some photos of the flowers around Greengate, here. Not too many, mind you, just a couple that I think are pretty striking. A sunflower, the morning glorys (finally blooming!), the roses gifted to us, and the cosmos. We're fighting Japanese beetles that kind of look like off-green ladybugs but I think there's a plan to take care of that. Additionally, the brutally hot summer has had a devastating effect on the yard. Now I have to think about actually planting grass seed.

But that's enough for now. Here's the pictures of flowers. Enjoy.

Friday, September 07, 2012


Ande Parks (top) and Phil Hester drew
Green Arrow in the early 2000s.
Image attribution.
Something I really dislike when I'm reading/watching/hearing a story is being spoonfed every single detail. There's a difference between describing details that add to the atmosphere and feel of a story and oversharing. Don't tell me that Character X has a problem with Jack Russell terriers because he was attacked by the family pet as a child, show me he has a problem with that breed of dog and let me work it out myself.

One of the things I learned as I gained some skill at being a visual artist was to leave out the unimportant lines that a viewer could imply on his own. Some of my favorite cartooning comes from artists who use as few lines as possible to communicate the fewest possible symbols that my eye will then put together to form a picture.

Maybe you know what I mean, maybe you don't. Take a look at the picture there to the right. Looks like a guy with a mustache and goatee and a domino mask, doesn't it? Notice how much of the head you don't see? And the cap he's got on is only a line or two.

Recently I tried to read a book that is counted as literary science fiction. It was weighty and well-written but it was too much. The author had done such a good job of describing the world that I could see it perfectly. Too perfectly. It was like I was watching a TV show or a movie rather than reading a book. There were a lot of long paragraphs that told me about the characters rather than showing me how they act. Make no mistake that the author also showed me the characters' actions but he took a long time getting there.
In contrast, Neal Adams (a master of
a more 'realistic' style) famously drew
GA in the 1970s. Image attribution.

The book was good; well written and absorbing. I just wasn't in the mood for it. Kudos to the author for daring to be different in a time when a lot of us are writing in a very different, almost populist way. I stopped reading three chapters and about 250 pages in. That was about one-fourth of the way through the story. I liked what I was reading, I just felt bogged down by all the minute details and descriptions he was using.

One of Elmore Leonard's rules of writing is to 'avoid the parts that people skip'. So I use less detail and hope that my stories are a little more interactive, engaging the reader to ask questions of the reasons why characters act the way they do. I like being able to infer things I know about the characters but that the reader doesn't necessarily need to. I want the reader to be able to see himself (or herself, I'm not sexist) in the actions of the characters.

Because that's what I like to read.

There are times when I love a lot of description but I don't want to be talked down to, made to feel like I couldn't possibly understand the author's complex intent without all that description. I admire writers who are good at it (Stephen King, Anne Rice) and can keep the story moving (China Mieville, Michael Moorcock). To me, the most important thing is the story, not the writer's skill at detail.

So even though I enjoy comics and stories that are more 'realistic' by including more and more details, I also enjoy (greatly) the simplicity of just telling the story.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

This is a great question.

Where do you get yours?

I often quote a piece of Warren Ellis bloggery where he tells us that part of the job of being a writer "is to stare off into the distance to think about what's next." Okay, it's not really a quote - more of a paraphrase but it gets the job done. It worked well enough in my day job and it's really true.

No, really.

That's why us writer-types like windows in our writing spaces, as I mentioned on Monday. We need to be able to unfocus our eyes, let the brain go wild and roam about the countryside of our imagination. The input that may or may not be with us (and I'm thinking primarily of auditory input: music, TV, sounds of nature, etc...) is going to help us find the 'happy place' where ideas are gathered in herds, grazing the fertile fields of the possible.

If you've read anything about the creative mind, you've come across similar things that are equally ludicrous when you think about it. But to take that metaphor just a little further, the fields that ideas are grazing in are filled with grasses that are actually our own experiences. That's the fuel that fires the imagination. That and asking one of the two most important questions in the world:

What if?


Have you ever thought about --- ?

Which are really just variations of one another but for me they spur different patterns of thinking.

"What if" is the beginning question. The one that spooks the herd and gets it moving, like the gallimimus flock in Jurassic Park.

"Have you ever thought about ---" is the leading question that I have to ask myself once I've gotten into the story. Even the characters will ask themselves this sometimes. Once I've got a starting point, asking this one becomes more important because it can then alternate with "What if" at every stage of development of story and character.

It also works in real life for a day job as you're considering decisions that must be made.

So this strange intersection of "What if" and "What then" are connected not just by their beginning words but also by the word "and" in this particular case. This word can also function as a question of the leading variety. "This happened," I write, then I write some more. "This happened next then all of a sudden this happened." (As an aside, I never use the phrase 'all of a sudden'.) So now I'm stuck.


Then what? Have you ever thought about ---?

See how that works?

So if you ask me where I get my ideas, I'll tell they show up because I ask questions. Or they're buried somewhere in a stampeding flock of bits of things that charge around the veldt. Or the prairie. Whatever.

Use your imagination.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Writing Space

Yeah, it's messy, but this is the best writing workspace
I've ever had at home.
I've had an 'office' in my home for the last oh, twelve or thirteen years. Longer, actually. Ever since I've had a home computer. The first one was a Mac Performa (I think) 6300 and I got a lot of use out of it. That was early days of the Internet and surfing was accomplished by dial up modem.

We also rode dinosaurs to work and Dr. Who was a fondly remembered relic.

The desktop required its own space in a room that was not the living room, dining room, or bedroom. That was something I had to establish right off the bat. My drawing table was also in that room, the 'office', along with all my comic books. (Yeah, I had a about fifteen long boxes of comics plus I don't know how many more loose on any available flat surface.)

Then I got a laptop. A Mac PowerBook. I still have it and it's still in use. Three or four years later I got a MacBook Pro. That's what I'm currently writing this on. Except it's a new one I bought last week.

The problem with getting a laptop was now I could watch TV in the same room with my wife and surf the 'net or write or whatever. It took me out of the office more than I wanted it to.

This last summer, as the previous MBP began to fail, I had to migrate back to using it in the office. It had a fan problem and was overheating and it liked being on a solid, flat surface. I implemented using a wireless mouse because the overheating affected the use of the trackpad. It was frustrating.

Still, I got a lot of writing done in that manner because in my office I have a nice (now ancient) boom box, a TV, all my reference materials, and yes - all my comic books. I've reduced the collection by two-thirds or so and it takes up a lot less space in the closet now. There aren't a lot of loose books.

Along with all this, I've got a nice, big desk that I can turn and write down notes on then pin them to a cork board over the desk. My external hard drive is here, too, so I can back up stuff easily. The TV or my iTunes or the boom box can provide soundtrack while I'm writing and I've got enough practice at this now that I can work without being distracted by stuff going on behind me.

And then I can close the door, and isolate myself if need be. Well, mostly. The cat box is in here, too, but the boys don't necessarily use it while I'm in here. To offset that, I have a nice window that looks out on the backyard. It's good for staring out when I need to ponder something, story wise.

That said, there are still piles of things that need to be dealt with. Papers, books, comics, or magazines that I was looking at for some reason then put down... You know.

But I'm working in here. I'm sitting in the chair, typing on the laptop that sits atop my desk. Things are getting done. Things are being written. Working in this office has been the best thing I've done in quite a long time.

So, in the comments, show me your work space, your writing space, if you like. Or just tell me about it.

But you can wait to do that. It's Labor Day and you've got things to grill, don't you?