Story Ideas

Lately, when I wake up, I've found myself occupied with an idea and more often than not the idea is engrossing. Each time it has happened, I've tried to nurse the idea along, to develop it, and have also tried to recapture the thing about it that had me engrossed with it in the first place. Most of the time, I've failed in recapturing that feeling, but never has my interest in the idea waned. Instead, I get out of bed and, without speaking to anyone, head straight to my office where I sit down and write down the idea as completely as I am able. Once, I was able to write the idea down in just a couple of sentences. Today, however, it took nearly two pages, the idea was so complex.

One or two nights ago, something similar happened when I went to bed. Out of the blue an idea came to mind and, again, I lay in bed, letting the idea run its course, letting it develop, letting it engross me. The result of this was that I wrote down the opening paragraphs to a new story. It was about a page to a page-and-a-half's worth of prose.

I'm not sure what has prompted these things to happen, and I don't care. When these ideas come to me, I'm simply writing them down. I've created a file on my computer in which to store these ideas, and that's now where they reside, ready to be used when I decide I want to pick one of them up again and play with them.

WIR #34: Three-Ten to Yuma

three-ten_to_yuma-125That was good. One hundred ninety-three pages of seven well-told short stories, although one, the last one I read, was probably of novella length.

I enjoyed them all, but one of them, the story titled, "Long Night," I didn't think was quite as good as the rest. The best, in my opinion, titled "The Captives," was the longest.

These were all old short stories. At the end of the book is a listing of where these stories were first published:

  • "Cavalry Boots," Zane Grey's Western, December 1952
  • "Under the Friar's Ledge," Dime Western Magazine, January 1953
  • "Three-Ten to Yuma," Dime Western Magazine, March 1953
  • "Long Night," Zane Grey's Western, May 1953
  • "The Captives," Argosy, February 1955
  • "Jugged," Western Magazine, December 1955
  • "The Kid," Western Short Stories, December 1956

Some of Leonard's writing reminded me of my own, reminded me, in fact, of how some of my own stories begin. That's no guarantee that I'll enjoy the same success as Leonard, but it was a comfort to see. Gave me confidence.

Weekly Writing Progress (Nov 22 – 28)

Humblebee: 6,059
Weekly Total (Nov 22 – 28): 5,054
November Monthly Total: 17,224
Grand Total: 83,688 (55.8% of 150,000)

Another day of free-flowing prose in the writing of Humblebee. I'm surprised at this development. Happy, but surprised. Once again, I've spent no more than 90 minutes writing this morning and have managed to churn out 1,395 words.

Some surprises turned up in today's writing, as well. Good surprises, surprises that work, I think, to increase the story's tension and to increase it's strangeness. That's always a good thing. I thought this story would end up longer, perhaps a novella, but I now think that it will be shorter.

WIR #10: Mastering Online Research

Mastering Online ReearchStill reading this. Nearly half done. Hope to have it finished within the next couple of days.

Humblebee

Don't quite understand how this happened today, but I managed to meet and exceed my daily quota in an hour-and-a-half. It usually takes me nearly twice that time. My fear, though, is that what was written today is cliché.

WIR #34: Three-Ten to Yuma

three-ten_to_yuma-125"What?" I hear you ask. "You're readin' a western?"

Damned straight. Just watched this earlier tonight. Second time I seen it. Damned good story. Leonard's a damned good writer. Bought this book months ago. Been meanin' to read it, but haven't. I aim to rectify that. Strikes me that a writer could learn a thing or two from Leonard, no matter what it is he likes to write. No matter if this here monologue sounds cliché. I don't give a damn. Readin's readin' and writin's writin'. Genre's just window dressin'.

This here's what they call an anthology. There's seven stories inside. Yup. That's right. Three-Ten to Yuma's a short story. You didn't think movies was all made from novels, did ya? I hope not. 'Cuz if you did, you'd be wrong.

FOOTNOTE: Hate to say it, but I think the movie's better. It's different. The outlaw's name is Jim Kidd, not Ben Wade, as in the movie. Kidd's right-hand man is still Charlie Prince, though. The movie develops Kidd's/Wade's character more, does more to build the tension of the story. Christian Bale's character in the movie is completely absent from the short story. If he'd been in the short story, though, the story wouldn't've been so short. I like what Bale's character added to the story, as well as the way in which the movie ended. Still, Leonard's story is good, and so is the movie. If you haven't read the one or seen the other, you oughta do both.

Humblebee – Timed Writing

I've struggled with this story today. This is a story that I didn't outline. I started with the barest of ideas, and I've come to the conclusion that this isn't the best way for me to work, but it's how I'm working at the moment. Nothing like insisting on doing things the hard way, eh?

However, this hasn't been entirely without merit. I searched for more information on outlining, and in doing so rediscovered some info I already had on my computer. Reading through the info, an exercise in timed writing was recommended. I've read about these exercises and have never really given them much credence. Writer Holly Lisle says,

When your Muse goes slouching off into the dark places of your mind, sulking all the way, you want to reestablish communication as soon as possible. And if you can, you want to do it on your own home turf, which is words.

Timed writing is your first tool for doing that. Get out an egg timer, use the timer on your microwave, use a stopwatch if it makes noise when the timer goes off. Of, if you do first drafts directly on the computer as I do, get yourself a software timer.

(...)

Set up your timer for ten minutes. This is long enough that you'll be able to break the barrier between you and your Muse, but not so long that you get tired and lose your focus.

And then you write. If you're stuck, start with questions. Don't correct errors, edit content, or change anything. Keep putting words, any words, on the page from the time you start the timer until the time it rings.

I decided to give this a try and I was pleasantly surprised at my results. I've included them below, unedited:

A village with something to hide, something hundreds of years old. What is it? Old musty men not yet dead? A plot to overthrow the UK? Not sure. Whatever it is, it’s deep, it’s dark, and it’s secret, even from me. Sooner or later something has to rise to the surface to thwap me upside the head so that I can make sense of this and not write without having to resort to self-abuse to get the writing moving. The Rector has yet to come out of his manse, and the two fellows who approached the Frenchman are just short and tall, having no faces that can be seen, and voices that can barely be heard. Can’t think of anything to write mut I’m told that if I just write write write sooner or later something will come out . Something sensible? Dunno. But something inspriational, I suppose. Something that WILL thwap me upside the head and make me wonder why I didn’t see it in the first place. It’s the secret that bugs the shit out o me. What is it? What about it makes it so important to keep it hidden? I want to think that it’s something to do with someone from the past, that possibly they are still alive, somehow, perhaps by some means of magic, or some such. Not sure what to write again. write write write. Secrets secrets secrets. Dark. In the night? OUt of sight out of mind. Losing mind. Got Loreena McKennitt echoing in my head through my headphones. write write write. type type type In the moonlight. Part of the lyrics. There’s something in the history of Shenington that has to do with an old English Thane. I’ve thought perhaps that the thane was still alive. If so, what sort of power would he have? Would he be supernatural? Paranormal? Just plain magical? What’s he about? What’s he want? Why doesn’t he want to be found? Does he have any sort of control over the village? If so, what sort of power does he exercise? Certainly the villagers are not robots, doing his bidding without question. Hmm. What if there’s a history of people who haven’t done his bidding? What happened to them? Did they disappear? If so, how? Why? Where? What sort of trail would this leave? Would it be something easily found in library files? Perhaps in old newspapers? Would their deaths be mysterious? Unsolved mysteries? This sort of thing over time, especially over hundreds of years would certainly result in people who would seem like robots, but wouldn’t be, and there would no doubt arise from within their numbers more rebellious sorts, folk who don’t like the idea of being subservient to this moldy guy, no matter how old or powerful he might be. Does the Frenchman run into them? How so? Where? When?

Now, while this is filled with lots of unanswered questions, those questions open up lots of fascinating pathways for my imagination. These get the blood flowing in the brain, get the neurons firing. preventing the old grey matter from going red with rust.

I watched 2012 last night. Lots of very cool special effects. I also thought it intense, given my own state of mind the past few days. Critics have unanimously praised the special effects, but have criticized the story. For example, Todd McCarthy of Variety writes:

2012 is a joke, for the simple reason that it has no point of view; the film offers no philosophical, metaphysical, intellectual and certainly no religious perspective on the cataclysm, just the physical frenzy of it all.

This is true enough. Given the cataclysmic nature of the event portrayed in the movie, you'd expect more religious fervor from the story's main characters. As the old saying goes, "There are no atheists in foxholes."

Afterwards, the movie got me to thinking about the worldviews of ancient civilizations and why and how they would come to the conclusions that they drew from their observations. Strangely, I think I got a small glimpse of it. If you cast aside all your 20th-/21st-century notions — computers, cars, planes, city lights drowning out the stars of the night, time, clocks, etc — and then imagine yourself in such a world, armed only with a wooden spear, perhaps, your wits, your brain, your imagination, trying to understand the wide world in which you live, the barest sliver of light of that ancient, myth-filled world will, if your imagination is facile enough, start to overwhelm you. The logic of their views will seem inevitable, inexorable, unsurpassable, and their conclusions . . . only clichés come to mind: awe-inspiring, mind-boggling, humbling, fear-instilling. All of that and more. I'd love to be able to capture even a hint of that in some of my fiction.

Humblebee

Humblebee is a story I started late last week. This is the second day of writing in this story. It currently stands at 2,359 words.

WIR #25: Creating Short Fiction

creating short fiction-125 Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction was written in 1981. This makes it a pre-computer book. Consequently, it contains a section on typewriters. Despite this, the book is not outdated.¹ (I actually like pre-computer writing books.)

Early editions of post-computer writing books had sections on computers. "What sort of computer should I buy? A PC or a Macintosh?" were the questions most often addressed. In the beginning, this was understandable. Some early computers were dedicated word processors that did nothing else. The first computer I thought to buy was such a one. A friend, a professional writer, warned me against buying it, and I'm glad I listened to her.

As time wore on, though, the "What sort of computer should I buy? A PC or a Macintosh?" sections became tiresome. The computing platform simply didn't matter. Novels and short stories were sent to publishers via snail mail. So, as long as your manuscript was formatted correctly, no one gave a damn about which platform you used or about the file format in which you had saved your precious story.

With electronic submissions now possible, the majority of publishers still prefer submissions via snail mail (although that is slowly changing). Basically, they don't want to risk viruses.

Obviously, online publishers are exceptions. The question now is: "What format?" The answer is almost always: "Either RTF files or Word documents."

(I prefer RTF — Rich Text Format — because it is cross-platform. The choice of computing platform is still irrelevant. You can get MS Word for the Mac and save the files in PC or Mac format.)

In the original edition of Knight's book, he brings up some important points:

Here and there in this book when I talk about your writing, I say "when you are at the typewriter," but you may not want to work that way at all. Richard McKenna, the author of The Sand Pebbles, wrote his first drafts in longhand with a mechanical pencil — it had to be the same mechanical pencil — and revised on the typewriter. I know another writer who works in pen, using different colors of ink; when he gets tired of one, he switches to another.

People got along without typewriters for thousands of years [GDT's NOTE: and computers, too], and some of them wrote more in their lifetimes than I ever expect to. There are only two problems involved in writing by hand: one is writer's cramp, a crippling and painful spasm of the fingers [GDT's NOTE: it's been years since I've experienced writers cramp] and the other is illegibility.

I worked for twenty years on a manual Royal portable; then I foolishly bought the first of a series of electric typewriters, and I am so addicted to them now that I will never go back to a manual, but I sometimes wish I weren't. The manual was a little slower, but maybe that was good because it gave me more time to think. I could take it anywhere, and if the power went off I was not left sitting in front of a useless hunk of metal. [GDT's NOTE: The same could be said of laptops, regardless of their advertised battery life.] The manual, which was not new when my father gave it to me, was still in good shape when I abandoned it. [GDT's NOTE: Compare the life-expectancy of a typewriter, electric or manual, to that of a computer, and in some ways it seems like we've gone backwards.] Modern typewriters are getting more and more sophisticated, complicated, and sensitive. If something goes wrong with one of them, you probably will not be able to fix it yourself and will have to wait for a company repairperson who will charge you thirty dollars an hour. [GDT's NOTE: Same for computers, but increase that wage!]

For about three thousand dollars, you can get a "word processor," a computerized typewriter that will store what you write and allow you to correct it on a cathode-ray tube; then it will type the corrected copy automatically. [GDT's NOTE: If that price seems crazy, remember to factor in inflation.] It won't take a page out of the typewriter and put in another one, though; so there you sit, watching your typewriter work and waiting to perform your humble task, feeling like a vestigial organ that has not yet been eliminated by science. [GDT's NOTE: Reminds me of the days when I wrote on my old Apple IIe and printed on my ever-faithful daisy-wheel printer, the Brother HR15.]

So, yeah, this is dated, but a you can't deny that a manual typewriter doesn't require electricity and that it doesn't hold out the risk of your battery dying at an inopportune moment.

¹ It is amazing the number of reviews at Amazon that criticize works like this because they are "outdated." Newer editions of Knight's book appear to have been updated, as this section is now titled "Typewriters and Other Keyboards." It annoys me that those reviews consistently ignore the nearly immutable nature of writing advice. If you can, check out writing books from the 1920s or the 1930s, or even old issues of Writer's Digest magazine. The advice has not changed and I doubt it ever will. Writing is writing, regardless of the technology used.

WIR #25: Creating Short Fiction

creating short fiction-125I have liked Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction since the day I bought it. I've read it several times, and this time around I've been finding and highlighting lots of new gems. That's just one of many reasons, I think, in favour of reading some books several times over.

Thanks to Knight's methods for generating ideas, I've written a short story titled, "The Limnades." However, it's longer than I intended it to be. It's 8400 words.

While reading Creating Short Fiction last night, I came across a very useful passage:

Madame de Staël once wrote, "If I had more time, I should have written you a shorter letter." She meant, of course, that she was working out what she wanted to say as she went along, instead of thinking it through and then saying it briefly. If you are writing short stories this way, they are probably running to seven and eight and ten thousand words, and editors are probably sending them back. Compression is a matter of planning and method — like packing things carefully in a suitcase instead of throwing them in helter-skelter.

This is one of my favourite books on writing. That may be because of Knight's conversational tone, or it may be because he's not as dogmatic as some. I think it's because his instruction is relevant, workable, and reliable. It's also practical. Here's the instruction that follows the paragraph above:

Before you begin your next short story, make a list of the scenes and episodes in it, and write down the number of pages you think each one should have. Now you have a series of compartments into which you have to pack your story. If the total tells you that the story will be more than six thousand words long, go back over the list and reduce the number of pages. When you have written the first scene or episode, if it is spilling over its compartment, you are either going to have to reduce it somehow, or else trim down another section to make room for it.

Look at the scenes or episodes that make up your story. Are any of them unnecessary? Out with them. Have any necessary sections been omitted? (...) What is each section intended to do? Is there anything in that section that does not contribute toward its principal function, or that actively works against it?

In a short story, every scene must contribute to the pattern. If any scene or incident, or even any word or sentence, has no function, it must be pruned. In fact, the problem of compression in a short story is so acute that every passage must perform three or four functions at the same time — advance the plot, add to the characterizations, introduce background information, and so on — like a juggler keeping three or four balls in the air at once.

If you are having trouble with this, try listing in advance everything that you want to accomplish in each scene. First determine what the main purpose of the scene is. (If it has none that you can find, maybe the scene doesn't belong in the story.) Then ask yourself what else the scene can be used for. Will it carry more information if you move it from one setting to another? Introduce an additional character? Make something else happen that will strengthen the plot, or add to the background, or reveal character?

If you think that rich with advice — and I do, I assure you — the exercise Knight gives at the end of this discussion of "Compression" is even more so.

I've another 50 pages to read, and then I'll've finished this book.

Words, Words, Words

Out of curiosity, I decided to go through the files of all the stories I've written (drafts, second drafts, third drafts — one story had seven — false starts, etc) to find out how many words I've penned since October of 2004. (Why October 2004? That's when the first incarnation of this blog started.)

464,290 words!

That averages out to 77,381 per year.

However, when I think back to the stories I remember writing in high school, it's easily much more than that. In my Creative Writing class in my sophomore year, for example, we had to write something on the order of 5000 words per month for the whole year. So, that class alone produced another 45,000 words, at least (probably more). Then there were the stories I wrote for the Creative Writing class in my senior year. I recall writing a two-part tale for that class that amounted to about 25,000 words or so. And then there are the untold other stories I've written whose word counts fail me.

I would venture to guess that thus far I've likely written 600,000 words or more since I got bitten by the writing bug. If I haven't yet hit one million, I'm positive I will within the next 2-3 years, tops.

I'm not saying that this is the most important thing. Not at all. Just making an observation.

NOTE: I've deleted the "Recent Posts" make-shift gadget. Too time-consuming. I didn't use the automated version because, well, it didn't look consistent with this blog. Since I'm using the "Blog Archive" gadget (and it does look consistent), "Recent Posts" strikes me as redundant. So, out it goes.

Weekly Writing Progress (Nov 15 – 12)

Weekly Total (Nov 15 – 12): 8,224
November Monthly Total: 12,170
Grand Total: 78,634 (52.4% of 150,000)

Broke the 50% threshold this week on my writing goal. I'm going to fall shy of my goal of 150,000 this year, but I expect to get fairly close. Considering that I didn't write anything at all this year until August, considering that since August I've written a total of 60 days, and that in that time I've managed to write 52.4% of my stated goal, I'm reasonably happy with what I've accomplished thus far.

If I meet my daily goal from now until the end of the year, I'll write another 45,900 words, minimum, for a yearly total of 124,534 (83.0% of 150,000). This tells me that I can set a higher goal next year and reasonably expect to achieve it, no excuses.

WIR #—: Magazines

weird_tales_351-125Lovely, lovely, lovely international fiction: Slovakian, Israeli, Phillipine, Serbian, and Scottish. All of it filled with wonder, gore, and beautiful weirdness. There is little that is much better than this.

I especially enjoyed the articulate doom of Alistair Rennie's BleakWarrior Meets the Sons of Brawl, which Weird Tales described as "the metadimensional streetfighting throwdown of the year." Amen to that, and all blessings to Achlana Promff, Priestess of the Church of Nechmeniah. Shalom!

These are the authors of the short stories contained within this issue of Weird Tales, and all that remains of the fiction within is Ekaterina Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone, being chapter one of a new Steampunk novel. (Sedia, a native of Russia, lives in New Jersey. To that I say, pass the vodka and long live the Holland Tunnel.)

weird_tales-352-125Next on the magazine agenda? Eleven tales of the bizarre from authors Matthew Cheney, Kathe Koja, Chris Furst, Tim Pratt, Felix Gilman, Mark Budman, Chris Ward, Micaela Morrissette, Michael Bishop, Eric Lis, and Ben Thomas. Included is an interview with Neil Gaiman. (Since only his name is readable on the scanned cover, I'll tell you that the entire blurb reads, "Neil Gaiman refuses to wear a Darth Vader mask." Good thing, too. :P)

The Importance of Ad Hoc Facility

Science-Fiction_Handbook_ReI think I'm getting feisty and rebellious in my old age.

I'm currently working up an idea for a new short story, but I didn't want the day to pass without having met my daily writing goal. I 'wasted' the first one or two hours of my working day browsing old favourites on the writing of science fiction to refresh myself on their instruction for idea generation. One book I consulted was L. Sprague and Catherine C. de Camp's Science Fiction Handbook, Revised. I loved this book as a youth and I still like it, but "Those Crazy Ideas," the de Camps' chapter on generating ideas was, well, frustratingly vague (ooh, a damnable adverb! kill it! nah. this one ought to be allowed to live, Mark Twain's advice be damned) , as well as depressing.

. . . a writer should not wait too long before starting to write. Creative imagination varies with time. With many, it seems to reach its peak in late adolescence or early adulthood and thereafter slowly to decline. Hence many writers start out with a stock of highly original ideas but express them in crude, verbose style. As they get older, they learn to express themselves more clearly and elegantly, but their ideas become less original. With each new story, they have to struggle harder not to repeat themselves. As an editor once shrewdly observed, fiction writing is the only craft that gets harder with practice.

The editor to whom the de Camps referred, according to their footnote, was "Charles S. Ingerman of the Ladies Home Journal, in a speech at the Philadelphia Regional Writers' Conference, June 20, 1951." And yet many often say, as author Tess Gerritsen once told me in a response to a comment I'd left at her blog, that unlike many professional pursuits writing is one profession you can start at any age. I would think that if a writer is struggling not to repeat themselves, regardless of their age, that they're either suffering from self-imposed limitations such as the idea that one is bound to a fate of repetition as one ages, or from outdated and obnoxious ideas such as the idea that one is bound to a fate of repetition as one ages. (Oh, shit! o.o I'm repeating myself!)

Annoyed with this quote from the de Camps, I decided to sit down to write something completely disposable. It's important for a writer to remain well-practiced and facile, and I'm often given to writing on a whim with no pre-planning whatsoever, so I sat at my keyboard and wrote.

I began with this:

“Oh, yes,” de Camp said, “there is no doubt whatsoever that the mind atrophies with age. It follows, then, that the imagination must likewise atrophy. It’s as inevitable and as inexorable as death itself.”

“And taxes,” St. James said. “Don’t forget taxes.”

de Camp scowled at this remark.

Rereading this makes me laugh as much as it did when I first wrote it. Three hours later I was finished, having written 1,372 words in an opening which bears the signs of international intrigue. In fact, it has already captured my imagination. It's not the sort of story I usually write, and it flies in the face of such conventional advice as "write what you know," but it's piqued my interest and I'll continue with the writing of it until such time that I've drawn up a workable fantasy idea and a story outline to accompany it. Perhaps I'll continue writing it, even after I've come up with an idea for a new fantasy story.

Please don't misunderstand me. I still like the de Camps and their book is chock full of valuable and usable advice. What happened today was the result of annoyance and a desire to beat the shit out of a depressing idea. Tomorrow, that idea shall be bloodied further with continued beatings.

WIR #33: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Self-Editing For Fiction WritersI've had Renni Browne and Dave King's Self-Editing for Fiction Writers for some time now and I've never read it. Time to remedy that. I've one or two other books on editing and I've not read any of those, either.

Although I'm in the midst of reading several other books, I'm also in the midst of editing a novel and will soon be in the midst of editing a short story. A book of this sort should be a great help, I would think.

I've read some of the reviews at Amazon about this book, and I'm quite surprised at some of the things said. As an example, one reviewer (who gave this book one-star) wrote:

If it was possible to give this book zero stars, I would do it. Or, the first-ever negative-star book. How do they explain, for example, how many best-sellers, including Harry Potter, Steven King, among others that have adverbs.

I left the following comment in response:

Regarding adverbs, on page 160 of the first edition of this book, Browne and King write, "When you use two words (a weak verb and an adverb) to do the work of one (a strong verb) you dilute your writing and rob it of its potential power. There are exceptions, of course, as there are to every principle in this book."

So, tell me, please, where Browne and King give a wholesale condemnation of the use of adverbs? The OVERUSE of adverbs has been condemned since at least Mark Twain, if not earlier.

Also, if this is your only complaint about the book, one-star is a bit of an over-reaction, wouldn't you say?

I have to wonder how many negative reviews of books are the result of misunderstanding or misreading a passage. It's quite clear from the two sentences I quoted in my comment that Browne and King do not advocate the wholesale deletion of adverbs from a manuscript.

For my money, the following comments by editor/author Sol Stein and novelist Lawrence Block are invaluable:

My students — including the published novelists — ought to read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers once a year, the Show and Tell chapter even more often.
— Sol Stein, author of The Best Revenge and president of Write-Pro

Specific, pertinent, entertaining advice from two real pros. I recommend it highly.
— Lawrence Block, author of Telling Lies for Fun and Profit

Stein is an incredible editor himself and Block is a fabulous novelist, and I absolutely value their opinions far more than that noted above. In fact, only an amateur would hold the opinion of that reviewer.

The Limnades

Finished! Got it done this morning. A day in advance of my goal, too! ^.^ I spent much longer writing today than I usually do, but the ending came with a twist I didn’t expect and it’s a twist I absolutely love. At first, I thought the ending scene was becoming anti-climactic, but, thankfully, I was proven wrong.

Wrote 1632 words. Total actual word count for the story, 8430 words. That’s a little more than 900 words over what I thought it would be. The shocker, though, came when I did a white-space word count: 9920 words. EEK! o.o (I need to try a minor reformatting of my manuscript, though, to be sure that the white-space word count is correct. It sounds a tad high. I’ve heard/read that white-space word counts — a.k.a. "printer’s rule," ten words per 6.5-inch Courier 12-point / 10-pitch manuscript line — tend to be about 10% greater than actual word counts.) Still, I’m hoping I can tighten this thing up so that the second draft’s more than 10% shorter than what the story is now.

Well, it’s a first draft, so now’s not the time to fret. Now’s the time to set it aside and let it cool, to get my mind to working on the next story.

EDIT: The adjustment to the manuscript revealed a white-space (printer's rule) word count of 9,350 words. That's good. That's less than I thought it would be. That means the second draft should be in the range of 8,400 words, still a little longer than I'd hoped. Perhaps I can pare it down even more. We'll see once the editing starts.

I was hoping to sell this to a professional online market, but all the ones I've seen don't want anything longer than 6000 words. I might be able to do that, but that's a lot of cutting (36% white-space; 29% actual). Ah, well. As they say, writing is rewriting.

WIR #—: Magazines

WD0910I'm behind on reading the magazines to which I subscribe. I've never made a habit of including the scans of the magazine covers in my "What I'm Reading" sidebar, and I'm not about to start. However, I do like to log what I am reading. Today, I finished reading the September 2009 issue of Writer's Digest, so I've now moved on to reading the October issue.

The September issue featured several articles which focused on writing memoirs. I try to read all the articles, whether they focus on what I prefer to write or not. I figure I can learn from everything. The October issue, however, looks very promising as it features five different articles on fiction writing. It covers writers' forums, and also an article on different writing communities. Specifically, that latter item covers the Mystery Writers of America, the Romance Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Christian Writers Guild, and, my favourite, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.

weird_tales_351-125I'm also behind on my reading of Weird Tales magazine. To that end, I'm now reading the Sept/Oct 2008 issue. This copy puts international authors in their spotlight. Namely, Zoran Živković, Sara Genge, Nir Yaniv, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Juraj Červeňák, chiles samaniego (I guess this gent doesn't like his name written using caps; shades of andrew j. offutt strikes again :P ), and Alistair Rennie. I look forward to reading it.

The editor of the magazine changed a few issues ago. George H. Scithers is now Editor Emeritus, but the person I'd have to please to have anything published in Weird Tales now is Ann VanderMeer.

On a different note, I've experienced a sudden change in my schedule here at home. It's a good thing, actually. I've always been a late night writer, or I suppose it's better to say an early morning writer, and that has not changed. It used to be that I'd go to bed early and wake up mid-day. I'm now keeping more "traditional" hours, kinda sorta. I'm now finding myself in bed by 9p or 10p (yes, you read that correctly), and I'm waking up at 4a or 5a. Last night, for example, I went to bed at about 10p, and I woke up at 4.30–5.00a. I immediately went into my office, sat down, and started working on "The Limnades," my current writing project. In the midst of that, I took a break and fixed myself some breakfast. Three hours after I got up, I was done, having written 1499 words. Then I finished up a chapter in Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction and went on to finish the September 2009 issue of Writer's Digest.

A little later, I watched some tennis — the finals in the Masters 1000 series in Paris, to be specific. Novak Djokovic of Serbia defeated Gael Monfils of France.

And now I'm blogging. In a minute, I'll go downstairs and have lunch. Then I'll put some time into my job search, read some more, watch a movie perhaps, and then to bed. Exciting, isn't it?

What amazes me, though, is that this schedule is working for me, and it's working very well. Although I'm writing as soon as I wake up, instead of late at night, before going to bed, I'm still writing at a time of the day that I've always enjoyed writing, in the dead of night when many are still sleeping. Many may be on their way to work, or getting ready for work at 5a, but that's their loss. :P

The Currency of Our Lives

PerpetualTo perfect the irredeemability of my sanctification (see previous post) and to perfect my digital apostasy, I questioned time.

Time left unchecked, time run amok, time spiraling away into nothingness, degrades into chaos. The wider the bandwidth, the more feverish the download speeds, the less time we have to spare, until we find ourselves dangling precipitously at the edge of a life swallowed up gigabytes at a time.

In our recklessness, we heedlessly fritter away our hours, the currency of our lives, bankrupting our life-clocks until we have nothing left with which to ransom even a nanosecond.

How to correct this?

One must fastidiously fast from the faster.¹ There is in this philosophy a warp of thought often unexamined. Velocity is a duo, quantity (distance, megabytes, whatever) and time. Greater acceleration is the bearer of an addictive and deceptive delusion: the more one has the more one wants, and the more one thinks less time is required to get what one wants. And yet, the truth remains that the more you get of the one, the less you have of the other. Time is the price of quantity and vice versa. The faster the computer, the faster the Internet speed, the slower things run and the less time you have. Nothing in life is free.

The oft-quoted phrase "time is money" is, I think, unprofitable. Time is not money! That's far too financial and crass a posture to take for something as invaluable as time. It smacks of consumerism and corporatism, and they are anathema to time. Time is not so prosaic. Time is, if I might repeat myself, the currency of our lives. That is the acumen which ought to govern how it is spent.

Yesterday is today's guide and tomorrow's teacher.

Tomorrow
is time unearned, but that does not mean it cannot or should not be planned for.

Today,
however, is the currency (the current) of NOW! It must be redeemed immediately; no other option exists. It must be spent as urgently (and as frugally) as it is earned. Today cannot be banked; once spent it is lost forever.
Perpetual. Image courtesy of Ghetu Daniel.
¹ Take time away from the computer and the Internet.

The Limnades

Weekly Total (Nov 8 - 14): 3,946
October Monthly Total: 3,946
Current Story Total: 3,946
Grand Total: 70,410 (46.9% of 150,000)

Of the three days I've spent writing this story, today has been the most difficult and the most satisfying. This story is giving me the damned chills!

This is the first time I've ever planned a story from "Once upon a time..." to "The End," and it's gone very well. In fact, it has gone far better than I expected. I think this is by far the best story I've ever written.

I hope I can write a climax for this story that is worthy of the buildup that's gone on for 19 manuscript pages.

That reminds me, there are three things — significant things — I've done different with this story than nearly all my previous stories. First, I outlined the whole thing. Second, instead of writing it longhand, I've been writing it on the computer. Third, and most importantly, I've had that typewriter sound software enabled while writing.

Why is this significant? I like this analogy: typewriters are to the writer what tripods are to the photographer. Tripods force a photographer to slow down. They force him to examine the scene before him, to give full consideration to the composition of his photograph. They force him to pause. To think. The end result is a better photograph. I think typewriters have the same effect on writers.

Computers are to the writer what point-and-shoot cameras are to the photographer. You point, you shoot, you move on. It's too easy. Computers, unlike typewriters, unlike writing longhand, make writing too easy. Good writing isn't easy. As Gary Provost said many years ago, "Getting published is easy. What's hard is writing well."

I'm not sure that this story will go the full 7,500 words, as planned, but time will tell. It'll go as long as it takes, and when I come to the end, I'll stop.

I again fed this story into Flesh. The results were as follows:

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 2.80 (previous 3.22)
Flesch Reading Ease Level: 91.28 (previous 89.00)
Words: 3,946 (previous 2,604)
Sentences: 447 (previous 272)
Syllables: 5,134 (previous 3,328)
Average Syllables per Word: 1.26 (previous 1.28)
Average Words per Sentence: 9.14 (previous 9.57)

I think that's bloody amazing! The grade level has decreased, the reading ease level has increased, the syllables per word have decreased, and the average words per sentence has decreased. All those things become harder to accomplish the longer a story gets. That's just how averages work. The average number of characters per word in my last entry on this story was 4.09. Even that has decreased! It's now 4.06. And this story is still in its first draft, too.

In my last entry, when I compared my numbers to best selling novelists, only Elmore Leonard had a bead on me. What about now?

Elmore Leonard
Characters per Word: 4.14
Flesch Reading Ease: 89.53
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 2.68

G D Townshende
Characters per Word: 4.06
Flesch Reading Ease: 91.28
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 2.80

Leonard's numbers are based on a 900 word short story, as I recall. Mine are based on a nearly 4,000 word short story. This has got me excited!

Irredeemably Sanctified

corona-float-1acorona-float-1bcorona-float-1dcorona-float-1ccorona-float-2acorona-float-2bcorona-float-2ccorona-float-3acorona-float-3bI want, once more, to own a typewriter. After seeing — reading? I hope! — my lengthy post on these here magnificent machines, it should now be quite obvious to you.

They are beautiful. They clack. They ding when they wish their carriage to be returned. They are friendly beasts. They're weighty — and outdated! They're substantial! and, yes, they make me feel shamelessly anachronistic. What more could you ask for, except, perhaps, some chips and salsa? (But only for the sake of flamboyancy, you understand.)

I recently downloaded software that makes my Mac's keyboard sound like that of a typewriter. Oh, the memories it evoked! Oh, the transmogrification! My transformation was, indeed, effectual. My perversion is now complete, my digital apostasy perfected. I am now irredeemably — and analogically — sanctified. Hallelujah!

On learning about the typewriters used by various authors, I Googled and I discovered, not surprisingly (to me, at least), that there are authors who still compose using a typewriter, and with good reason, too. Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison is one.

I intend to be another. Wish me well in my disease.

The Limnades

I wrote another 1274 words yesterday in "The Limnades," for a total of 2527 words. So, I’m now about 1/3d done.

I fed the content of my story into Flesh, to take a gander at the numbers. (Flesh is a "readability" calculator.) My numbers are:

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 3.22
Flesch Reading Ease Level: 89.00
Words: 2,604¹
Sentences: 272
Syllables: 3,328
Average Syllables per Word: 1.28
Average Words per Sentence: 9.57

Those are excellent numbers. The most important numbers are the first two and the last two. (In addition, the average number of characters per word for my story is 4.09 — 10,340 characters / 2527 words = 4.09 — also a great number.) Several months ago, I read a book in which the writer compared writing samples from several best selling novelists. Here are a few examples, to compare their numbers to mine:

John Grisham
Characters per Word: 4.58
Flesch Reading Ease: 72.34
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 6.3

Stephen King
Characters per Word: 4.28
Flesch Reading Ease: 84.34
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 4.52

Anna Quindlen
Characters per Word: 4.19
Flesch Reading Ease: 81.77
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 5.33

Elmore Leonard
Characters per Word: 4.14
Flesch Reading Ease: 89.53
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 2.68

Wallace Stegner
Characters per Word: 4.28
Flesch Reading Ease: 80.82
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 4.9

G D Townshende
Characters per Word: 4.09
Flesch Reading Ease: 89.00
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 3.22

I've done this before. I wanted to do it again, however. Average characters per word, I beat them all. Flesch Reading Ease, Leonard beat me. Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, Leonard won. (Leonard wrote Get Shorty and the short story, "3:10 to Yuma." Both were turned into movies.) All these writers are best selling novelists. Stegner's novel, Angle of Repose, won the Pulitzer. Quindlen is a journalist turned novelist, and she's a damned good, too. I've read a book or two of hers. She once voiced the opinion that most novels are 20% too long. Now that's a journalist for you! Journalists contend with editors whose concerns are breaking news, deadlines, and making sure that stories fit in the space allotted to them.

The only thing I can't compare against those writers is the percentage of passive vs. active sentences. I don't have the software to make that comparison. However, I believe I would compete very well with all of them. It's no guarantee that I'd become a best selling novelist, or that I'd win the Pulitzer, but with stats like those I think I'd stand a chance of selling better than many a novelist who is already being published.

In other news, I recently learned about a new online science fiction/fantasy publisher I didn’t know about before, Clarkesworld Magazine. I read through their submission guidelines. My current story is too long for them. Their lengths are 1000-4000 words. They pay 10¢ per word. That’s pretty damned good. Qualifies them as a professional market in SFWA’s eyes. Will have to keep them in mind for future stories.

In fact, I've learned about several online science fiction and fantasy markets today. Very cool.

¹ I don't understand how Flesh calculates this word-count. Mellel, my word processor, shows a total 2,553 words, and this includes info found on the manuscript's first page — name, address, phone number, social security number (needed for tax purposes), word count, story title, byline, etc. — that is not included in the story's word count.

All the additional info on the first page of my manuscript adds up to 26 words. So, 2553 - 26 = 2527 total word count. Somehow, though, Flesh finds another 51 words in a document that doesn't include those additional 26 words. That leads me to believe that it counts spaces between words, not the words themselves. Word counters that count spaces instead of actual words can't distinguish between symbols or typographical conventions. For example, the typographical convention used in a manuscript to show em-dashes looks like this: "I wanted to kill her -- I didn't care that she was my mother's sister -- and it would've been completely satisfying to do so, but I resisted the urge." Counting spaces results in additional words being counted, even when it's not actually a word.

Mellel counts words and numbers as words and not symbols — e.g., the hyphens used to indicate em-dashes, or the hash mark used to indicate a scene break. I've removed all those symbols from my .txt file and Flesh continues to give me the same numbers.
Odd that it comes up with a greater word count, but I'm not about to obsess over this. Ultimately, actual word counts mean nothing. The actual word count is for my own use. Publishers want white-space word counts. They want to know how much paper will be used. The white-space word count for my story currently stands at 2,950.

Reminiscence of a By-Gone Era

Warning, long post follows, but that's pretty typical of me. :P I hope you enjoy it anyway.

olivetti-1Sigh. Having read some depressing articles on the economy and the opinions of some as to what shall soon come to pass, my mind turned to the pre-computer age, to the day when all my writing was done either by hand or by typewriter. My mind so turned, the old Underwood-Olivetti typewriter on which I learned to type filled my thoughts. This, in turn, led me to search for images of the typewriter that I might discover which model it was. It is pictured at left, sitting in the case provided for it. (The lid for the case could be removed.) This is not my parents' old typewriter, which had been given to me. That one, alas, is gone. (Yes, a victim of the storage unit.)

I look at this typewriter, and if I had it in hand, I would have no difficulty using it again. I remember all it's functions: how to set the tabs, centering the page, how to center type on the page, setting it for single-, line-and-a-half, double-, and triple-line spacing. I remember it all.

olivetti-2A heavy machine (about 20 lbs/9,8 kgs, with case), it was actually billed as a portable, and portable it was! From the mid-1960s to 2003, this typewriter went from Mississippi to Thailand to England to Michigan to Florida to Maryland to Greece to Maryland to California to Georgia to Pennsylvania and, finally, back to Georgia once more.

You see here the cream-coloured case in which it came. This model typewriter, the Studio 44, was first introduced in 1952. I've learned that playwright Tennessee Williams used this model typewriter. (Also, his birthday is March 26. Mine is March 27. Good man!)

Based on information found at this site I can confidently say that this typewriter was likely purchased in 1963, or shortly thereafter (probably in 1965 or 1966, when I lived in Mississippi). At that web site, they say, "By October 1963 Olivetti completed the purchase [of Underwood] and typewriters began appearing under the Olivetti Underwood name." This was the case with the typewriter that my parents owned. The brand name on the typewriter was Olivetti-Underwood, not Underwood-Olivetti.

My mother had a typing manual, the sort used in schools to teach students how to type. When I was 11- or 12-years-old, I decided one day to take the typewriter and the manual out onto the back balcony of our Bangkok, Thailand, apartment, and there I sat, day after day, typing, typing, typing, going through the manual, doing exercise after exercise after exercise. Years later, when we had moved from Thailand to England, and I had entered high school, I enrolled in a typing class, Typing I. By all rights, I should've been placed in Typing II, but as Typing II had the pre-requisite that you had to have taken and successfully completed Typing I, I remained in Typing I.

While I sped along at 50-55 words-per-minute, my classmates all struggled to do 20. As the class progressed and my typing improved, the teacher noted that I would sometimes look down at the keys as I typed. They had four sorts of typewriters in that class: Manuals with the letters printed on the keys and manuals with no letters printed on the keys, and electrics with the same features. In addition, hoods could be placed over the keyboards of all four sorts of typewriters, to prevent the user from seeing the keys if the habit of looking down proved difficult to break. The hood was placed on my typewriter a few times, but not before the teacher moved me onto an electric.

I was moved onto an electric to improve my typing speed, as the keys on an electric are far more sensitive than on a manual. Of course, this also meant an immediate drop in my speed, as any minor mishap resulted in an error, and for every error one word was subtracted from your total typing speed.

One day, our speed was tested. An old high school friend, Ron Clay, sat at the typewriter facing me. (I still stay in touch with Ron.) The teacher told us to start, and off we raced, trying desperately to type as fast and as accurately as we could, to best our last recorded speed. The teacher called time, we noted where we had stopped, counted up our errors, and calculated our speed. While doing this, Ron looked at me and asked, "How fast were you typing? You sounded as if you were flying!" I looked down, finished my calculation, looked back up, a huge smile on my face. "Seventy-two words-per-minute!" I said. It was the fastest speed I ever posted in that class.

A few years back (2002 or so), when I was unemployed, I went to a staffing agency, to have my typing and data-entry speeds tested, for potential employment. These had to be tested and recorded, so that accurate speeds could be passed on to any employers interested in hiring. I registered a typing speed of 78-wpm. I forget what my data-entry speed was. This seemed like an average number (even the data-entry speed seemed average) until the woman at the office noticed that everything I had typed was free of errors! She said, "We've never had anyone type or do data-entry so fast with no errors." (In other words, they had people who had faster speeds, but they all had errors.) Ever since the advent of computers, because I can see what I'm typing on the screen (and I'm no longer chided for looking at the keyboard :P ), I correct all my typing on the fly. If I did not do so, my speed, sans the subtraction of errors, probably would not be all that much greater. I'd guess it'd be in the range of 85- or 90-wpm. (It's become such an in-grained habit that I've never been able to register my speed without correcting on the fly. For all I know, if I didn't correct, my speed my actually be 100+ wpm.)

This reminiscing brought on a lust to purchase an old manual typewriter. Why not? I've been told that there are studies which have shown the right-brain to be more engaged when writing longhand, or when using a typewriter (vs. a computer). So, I searched and I found several online stores that sell refurbished manual typewriters. One store caught my eye: myTypewriter.com.

myTypewriter.com does have the old Underwood-Olivetti Studio 44 typewriters. You can see the page for them here (but there are no images of it, unfortunately).

corona-float-1corona-float-2corona-float-3
I've browsed nearly every bloody page of their store, and three typewriters in particular have captured my imagination. The first I saw that I liked is the Corona Sterling/Corona Silent of the 1940s.

There is a soft place in my heart for Coronas. For my high school graduation, my parents bought me a Smith-Corona electric (also a victim of the storage unit—trying to not let that anger me right now).

Isn't that typewriter just beautiful? Sigh! Says myTypewriter.com in their description:

A classic workhorse. Replacing the early Corona line of 1930s that included the Standard, Sterling and Silent, the new model sports a streamlined design billed as Speedline in matte finish (some also available in glossy maroon and black finish). The Sterling and Silent models were essentially identical in appearance and mechanism except that the Silent model had a interchangeable platen and sound proofing feature. The Speedline models were well built and appeared to be the choice of many writers and typists for decades.

I rather like the matte finish.

royal-float-1royal-float-2royal-float-3royal-float-4royal-float-5royal-float-6
The second machine I like is the Royal Quiet DeLuxe Portable of 1941.

Here is myTypewriter.com's description:

The Royal Quiet DeLuxe puts you right in touch with literary history -- it was one of Ernest Hemingway's favorite machines. This was the first model in a series of the Royal Quiet DeLuxe line that outsold any other portables of the time. It was introduced just before World War II, but its production was suspended when Royal Typewriter Company, like other typewriter manufacturers in the United States at the time, was converted to an ordnance factory to produce weapons. When production resumed in 1946, the Royal Quiet DeLuxe continued to gain a following among on-the-go writers and journalists. Compact, snazzy and a pleasure to write with, this workhorse model is also one of myTypewriter.com's bestsellers.

underwood-float-1underwood-float-2underwood-float-3underwood-float-4underwood-float-5underwood-float-6underwood-float-7The Underwood Universal/ Champion Portable of 1938 in Matte is the last of the three. I can see in this typewriter influences in the design of my parents' old Olivetti-Underwood. As with all the others, I think it's also a beautiful looking machine. In fact, all of these machines cause my eyes glaze over with complete, unadulterated lust!

I can easily see myself purchasing any of them. Of course, not until after I've found myself employment. :P Worry not. I'm not so taken with these machines that I've lost all sense of reason. Well,... not completely, anyway. :P

The description that accompanies this machine at myTypewriter.com's web site is as follows:

Billed as the new Typemaster portable, the Universal/Champion line was a popular portable that embodies the latest development in personal writing machines of the late 1930s. Noticeable improvements of the new line include Sealed Action Frame, Champion Keyboard, Dual Touch Tuning as well as an array of features that one would expect to find only in higher priced portable. Available in Charcoal gray or tan matte finish. The early version had metal ring key tops while the later version had improved plastic key tops. (A carrying case with folding stand was also offered at the time as an optional accessory for the line.)

My inclination, despite the history of the Royal Quiet DeLuxe, despite the loss of the old Underwood-Olivetti, is to go with the Corona. Very likely it's got to do with my high school graduation gift, the Smith-Corona electric, plus I rather like the looks of the Corona a bit more than the others.

Another Little Progress Meter

This is an interesting progress meter, I think. I found it on the web here. What's cool about it is that there are no graphics at all. It is generated completely using HTML code, although JavaScript must be enabled for it to work. What you see below is the meter as it appears with the code generated at the web page where I found it.

66464 / 150000


With a little manipulation of the code, the height of the meter is easily changed:

66464 / 150000


A little more manipulation of the code, and the text can be made to conform to any blog's stylesheet, and it will give any blog a consistent appearance.

66464 / 150000


With yet a little more manipulation of the code, the colour-scheme of the progress meter can be made to match that of any blog:

66464 / 150000


If you like, you can also change the code to have the width of the meter fit your specifications:

66464 / 150000


Of course, I'm not averse to digging into code, so making changes of this sort aren't that difficult for me, whereas it might be for others. Despite the huge convenience of this particular progress meter, I'm quite fond of the one I created for this blog, so it will not change.

The Limnades

A quick note, just to say that the story for which I'd been reading Poe's stories as research has now been outlined in full. It has a working title now of "The Limnades," which I'm not going to explain, but which, if you look it up, won't reveal anything about the story's conclusion. This title may yet change, in fact. I'll say that the outline is three pages long, single spaced, typed in 13-pt Courier New, with 1-1/4" margins. The actions in some scenes were outlined in some detail. I expect to start writing this story very soon.

There is a little more I'd like to say, but I'll leave it for a later post.

Grammar

Science-Fiction_HandbookNow, to answer yesterday's question of the day... the de Camp's wrote:

If you see nothing wrong with such sentences as "He stared like he had seen a ghost," or "An individual can return to any period of his entire life providing his passage is not blocked by engrams," you do not know enough about writing English to tackle fiction.

Their answer, word-for-word, is:

The first sentence uses "like" for "as"; the second, "providing" for "provided."


Thus, "He stared like he had seen a ghost," should be, "He stared as he had seen a ghost." Or, perhaps, "He stared as if he had seen a ghost." And, "An individual can return to any period of his entire life providing his passage is not blocked by engrams," should be, "An individual can return to any period of his entire life provided his passage is not blocked by engrams."

The confusion with like/as is a common one, and is the one of the two that is, I think, the most easily spotted. The second is more difficult. "Providing" is a gerund, a verbal that ends in -ing and functions as a noun. What's needed in that position of the sentence is a verb, not a noun.

WIR #31: You Can Write a Mystery

You Can Write a MysteryI finished this last night.

I like Roberts's constant devotion to giving specific examples to back up her instruction. For example, many writing books tell you to carry a pen and a small notebook, to write down ideas, observations, etc. Very rarely do these authors tell you what they write down. I don't understand why this is. It's not as if national security would be jeopardized. Prior to reading Roberts's book, the only specific example I recall being given was to write down "snippets of overheard dialogue," but the author didn't explain what they meant by that. And my memory isn't that bad! To contrast this with examples from Roberts's book:

Clues and cues to note
Note scraps of real-life dialogue that affect you. You'll probably become aware that you are struck by a gesture or words or dress because its meaning is greater than itself. Make note of what specific appearance cues caused you to react emotionally and make immediate value judgments. Don't write the abstract/judgment at which you arrived. Instead of writing sloppy, be specific: "hem unraveling," "stain that looks rubbed at but not removed on lapel," "hair in back matted."

Roberts's advice is more specific. Write down what affects you! In other words, don't be a secretary dictating what others say. Pay attention to your reaction to what's said. Note only those things that stand out, unique turns of phrase, juicy tidbits that capture your attention and imagination. Those sorts of things and more.

Many neophyte writers often make the mistake of basing story people on people they know. Professional writers caution against this for a variety of reasons (including avoidance of potential litigation). Roberts adds to her caution something I've never read before:

Beware of basing characters on people you know. Whether you adore or despise the original, you run the danger of writing an unbelievable character. (...) As a fiction writer, you must think of real life—the one that isn't on the page—as no more than a starting point.

Human beings are too complicated and unfocused for writers to replicate, so what you aim for is your interpretation of a person. Know that your vision is skewed. Don't presume to be omniscient; presume to be a fiction writer. Don't duplicate or try to report; create something new.

Generally, what intrigues you about the person you want to use as a model is his personality or emotional core. Keep that, therefore, and systematically and drastically alter the externals. Change hair or size or gender or the setting in which he must act. Take part of one person and part of another. Does she really have to be a mother even if yours was the model for this rotten person? Could she be a despicable teacher or minister? Does the character have to be a female as long as the unreliablity and coldness is there?

I find it fascinating that Roberts says that basing a fictional character on a real person runs the risk of creating an unbelievable character. I've never heard it put this way before, but when she explains herself—human beings are too complicated and unfocused for writers to replicate—it makes perfect sense. And then she nails it: what you aim for is your interpretation of a person. The rest is stock advice, found in any writing book, with the exception of her clarification: what intrigues you about the person you want to use as a model is his personality or emotional core.

Roberts advises: your next job is to wrap believable life around that starting point. That's where the imaginative work of the writer begins.

One reviewer at Amazon didn't like Roberts's focus on "rules." Rules? Sure, Roberts has provided rules, or principles, if you like, but far more importantly, she's provided pragmatic, down-to-freakin'-earth examples of what she means. She presumes that you don't know what she's talking about, and she's right in doing so. If you did know what she's talking about, you'd be a published writer, and probably not reading her book.

Roberts doesn't provide a silver bullet to ensured publication (one doesn't exist), but her advice and her examples will damned sure improve your writing if you follow her advice and will also improve your chances for publication. You don't need to be a published writer to see that.

This is a library book, but it's about to become a resident in my personal library. I'm ordering myself a copy of this from Amazon!

Grammar

Science-Fiction_HandbookOne of my favourite books on writing is a tome published back in 1975, L. Sprague and Catherine C. de Camp's Science Fiction Handbook, Revised. (The link will take you to the edition of the book previous to that volume to which I've referred. The image to the right is of the cover of the first edition of this book, published in 1953. You can learn more about it here, at Wikipedia.)

My copy of this book is the second edition (shown below). It is because of this book that I know how copyright law in the U.S. worked prior to 1978.

One sentence in this book has stuck with me in the nearly 30 years since I first read it (yes, I purchased it very soon after the second edition was published). In fact, I highlighted the sentence with a yellow marker. It is this:

If you see nothing wrong with such sentences as "He stared like he had seen a ghost," or "An individual can return to any period of his entire life providing his passage is not blocked by engrams," you do not know enough about writing English to tackle fiction.

Science-Fiction_Handbook_ReNow them's harsh words, don'tcha think? P'rhaps. But they're right powerful, even so. Figurin' out the problem with the first sentence is easy enough, but figurin' out the problem with the second is a mighty difficult task for any man, or for women-folk, like as not. That first 'un uses "like" for "as," a common misstep for folk in these parts. Whatcha think the nigglin' little problem is with the second?

I'll give you a day to mull it over, and then I'll return tomorrow and reveal the answer. In the meantime, share your guess in a comment.

Good luck, pardner.


To share a little more from the same passage, because it's relevant to yesterday's post, saith de Camp & de Camp:

It does not follow that a writer always obeys the rules. In theory, an infinitive is never split, but in practice some sentences can be made plain only by splitting an infinitive. [GDT's NOTE: Of course, you have to know what an infinitive is first to know if you're splitting the damned thing. I know what an infinitive is. Do you?] There is, or was, a rule against using a preposition to end a sentence with. [GDT's NOTE: It's a joke. de Camp & de Camp just ended that sentence with a preposition, to demonstrate what they mean. And ending sentences with a preposition is something up with which I will not put! Not. :P ] This rule, however, is merely an arbitrary tabu invented by eighteenth-century grammarians on the analogy of Latin. Shakespeare never heard of the rule. [GDT's NOTE: Of course, Shakespeare pre-dated 18th-century grammarians by a couple of centuries.] He wrote: ". . . and flee to others that we know not of." Moreover, if your narrator or speaker is uneducated, he should use the sort of English as such a person would use.

On that last point, I would take exception, obviously, to could of for could've and would of for would've. Their homonymity is not adequate justification for those constructions, in my opinion. I'll admit that this one is a pet peeve of mine and leave it at that.

They continue:

You should so well know the rules about infinitives and preposition, and such alternatives as shall-will and who-whom, that you never need think twice about them. Moreover, you should know which rules may, can, or should be broken, and when. You should know not only standard English but such regional and class dialects as you may have occasion to use.

That substantiates very well what I said, even though I didn't reference this book as I was writing yesterday's post.

"Pedantic"

I've grown weary of this word. I've grown weary of the pedants who bandy it about, nevermind that they misuse it. Most often, I see it used in reviews of books on writing. Two examples, but I shan't link to the reviews in which I found them:

  • a book is given one-star because of its supposedly "pedantic instructions"
  • another is given one-star for its "pedantic rules"

Do you see the problem with this usage? If you don't, you should, especially if you desire to be a published writer. Here's the definition:

pedant (ped′ənt), n. 1. a person who makes an excessive or inappropriate show of learning. 2. a person who overemphasizes rules or minor details. —pe•dan•tic (pə dan′tik), pe•dan′ti•cal, adj.pe•dan′ti•cal•ly, adv.

pedantry (ped′ən trē), n., pl. -ries. 1. the character or practices of a pedant, as undue display of learning. 2. slavish attention to rules, details, etc. 3. an instance of being pedantic.

If pedantry is the "slavish attention to rules, details, etc," then the rules or instructions themselves cannot be pedantic. People are pedantic! The act of being a slave to rules, details (especially minor details), is pedantic.

Here's an example of pedanticism: insisting that CDs always be called CDs, and never allowing that they be called "albums" simply because they're not made of vinyl. What is an album but a collection? We have photo albums, yes? And they are collections of photographs. If a CD, a collection of songs, is never allowed to be called an "album," then that's an act of pedantry. That a CD is not made of vinyl is irrelevant.

Further, to use "pedantic" in reference to books whose intent is to instruct one in the art of writing is ignorant. Instruction involves rules, like it or not. It's the nature of the beast. Any art, be it writing, music, sculpture, you name it, has rules. Some rules are hard and fast, but some of them are not. They are all rules, nevertheless. Some will argue that rules kill art. Bullshit. Art involves discipline. Any artist with integrity will tell you that, and discipline invariably involves rules of some sort. If you're the sort who can't get beyond that fact then you likely haven't got what it takes to be an artist.

Another example: In music, you have keys, by which I mean a set of notes that go together harmoniously. You play in the key of G, for example. That's a rule of music. Yet another: In fiction writing, if you want your story to be believable, it has to have an internal consistency, even if the world of your story defies the rules of reality. Violate the rules of your story and it becomes unbelievable and no one will care to read it. That's a rule of writing. You can't escape rules.

Anyone with a modicum of intelligence and dexterity can be taught to play a saxophone, but not everyone has the talent to play it well and with artistry. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence can be taught to write a grammatically correct sentence, and to compose a reasonably intelligent essay, but not everyone has the talent to take words and sentences and paragraphs and weave them into a tale of fiction that will capture your imagination and transport you back in time, as in a historical novel, or into magical lands, as in a fantasy, or into the deepest reaches of space, as in a work of science fiction, and leave you believing it, feeling as if you've experienced it yourself, despite the fact that it's all really just ink formed into symbols on the surface of some highly processed wood.

At this point, would-be writers (and others) will no doubt haul out that most favourite rule of their own: Rules are meant to be broken! True. However, they are never to be broken in ignorance. Why? This should be simple enough to understand. You should know why, but if you don't, then I'll explain it to you.

In the first place, if you don't know the rules, then you can't possibly know if you're obeying them or breaking them. If you don't know the rules, then you certainly can't explain why you've chosen to break those which you've broken. This is a state of ignorance! Is that how you wish to be known? As ignorant?

In the second place, if you're breaking a rule, you should not only know the rule you are breaking, but you should also know why you are breaking it. This shows that you're not only willing to flaunt the rules, but that you can do so intelligently. If you can't articulate the rule or your reason for breaking it, then your primary concern should be to learn it and apply it. Rules should never be broken without purpose, especially in writing. The purpose of writing, including fiction, is communication. If you don't know why you're breaking the rules, then you run the risk of miscommunication, and that goes completely counter to the whole purpose of writing.

Here's an example that I find particularly annoying: Many of today's writers will have uneducated characters in their stories say something like, "I would of done it if I could of." That sentence is a grammatical mess. We know what is meant, but the actual words used are nonsensical. Written correctly, it should be, "I would've done it if I could've." There's still a grammatical problem even with that construction, but it's an intelligent conveyance of the speaker's lack of education that simultaneously avoids characterizing the author as unintelligent.

I find that particular practice—would of for would've and could of for could've—annoying because it ignores this simple fact: How the hell else do you pronounce those contractions?! Certainly there are those who give emphasis to the contracted syllable, but so what? There are better ways to convey a fictional character's lack of education/intelligence without resorting to those idiotic constructions. Unfortunately, the Internet has made it readily apparent that many actually write in that fashion, which is an insult of the writer's intelligence, and an insult of the educational systems that allowed them to graduate (assuming that they did graduate).

Therefore, it is important to first know the rules. As I said, you can't escape them.

Artistry, no matter what its form and despite its paradoxical mystery, requires discipline. Discipline implies rules. However, that doesn't make the instruction of those rules an act of pedantry. In fact, given how I've so often seen this word used, and that it is almost always misused, I've come to the conclusion that those who use it are, in fact, pedants, trying to impress us with their vocabulary.

Trust me. The pedants can be safely ignored, or laughed at, whichever is your preference.