Sunday, January 31, 2010

Reference Block

Current Reading: Myths of the North American Indians, by Lewis Spence

Inspirational Quote: "The great thing is to last and get your work done, and see and hear and understand and write when there is something that you know and not before and not too damn much afterwards." -- Ernest Hemingway

I've been extremely fortunate over the last week to have come across some wonderful writing resources on the net. Many of them tell me things I've read before, but apparently I needed to hear them again because they're having a positive impact on my work.

The Magic District: A blog by a bunch of writers which often discusses useful techniques. In particular, this article was very helpful and led to these other resources:

Randy Ingermanson describes an outlining technique which breaks down plotting into manageable bits. He's also got a great discussion of scenes and their anatomy.

Holly Lisle has some great articles, including the One Pass Revision article which offers hope for those of us who find ourselves languishing in the 9th Circle of Revision.

I read a screenwriting book once, the name of which is lost to time. I had no desire to become a script writer, although it might be fun someday, but a friend offered it to me because he thought I'd benefit from a discussion of story structure. He was right. The above articles on structure led me to look for on-line articles that might refresh my memory and provide some perspective.

Here's a good one on the three-act structure complete with illustrations.

TVTropes, which is a wonderful resource for just about every story telling element, convention or cliche, has a good summary as well.

Author Jim Butcher, who has had some success, offers up some wonderful guidance on his livejournal pages (the pages are old, but the advice is ever-relevant).

And last, for those considering short-story writing, IO9 gives up 12 secrets to prolific short story writing.

I have no doubt that anyone reading this has their own favorite internet resources for writing and revision techniques. I'd like to know what they are, to expand my own virtual reference shelf, so please let me know in the comments.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Book Report: Myths of the North American Indians, by Lewis Spence

Well, as may have been evident from my earlier comments, this one was a bit of a slog. The book is divided into halves, the first of which is a sociological exploration of native america by a man who, for his time, was quite forward thinking. However, the prejudices of his race and his time are obvious in his language and attitude. He writes of the natives as though they were interesting animal specimens, like rhinoceroses or galapagos tortoises, not as though they were men. He frequently addresses the reader in tones of surprise when he discusses the depth and richness of aboriginal society, as though the pre-European inhabitants of North America were like dancing dogs: animals who had learned some amusing tricks.

It's all a little hard to take, yet it's valuable both for the insight that it does convey about this country's inhabitants before "civilization" was inflicted on them, and for the window it opens on a time and a people (American social scholars) now more than a century gone.

The second part of the book is chiefly concerned with relating the myths of the title, breaking them down into language groups and geographical distributions. And this part is fascinating. There are parallels to Greco-Roman mythology, particularly in its depiction of the underworld and death, and to Christian beliefs such as monotheism and the existence of a messiah. Of course, I can't tell how much of what Spence relates is unspoiled native myth and how much has been corrupted by European influences by the time they were recorded. Regardless, the best of them have a beauty and a rhythm, a certain simple power, that rivets me every time I read them.

Primarily useful as a research work. I can't recommend this for light reading.

Ulysses Rating: 2 - I finished this, but I didn't enjoy it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Overthoughts: (def'n) The results of overthinking.

1. My online shopping cart has squeaky wheels.
2. I just bought an outline of inline skates online, and I'm not sure what I paid for.
3. There's only one letter difference between "engaged" and "enraged." What does that tell you about the divorce rate?
4. If people slept standing up, I don't know whether making the bed would be harder than stealing the covers.
5. I have yet to find a Chinese restaurant that includes cheese in any of its menu items.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Right Words in the Right Place

Current Reading: Myths of the North American Indians, by Lewis Spence

Inspirational Quote: "Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about." -- Benjamin Lee Whorf

I went to visit a friend of mine a few years ago. He was being visited by a friend of his, an Ojibwa man from around Lake Simcoe. The three of us sat around the fire in my friend's living room and sipped tea while discussing whatever entered our heads. The Ojibwa told a story about something that happened up on Lake Simcoe back in the seventies. The details, the story itself, isn't important. What is important, is that I sat there riveted. There was music in his voice, and rhythm. He took a simple story and turned it into something epic and mythic and resonant and the manner of his telling it is likely to stay with me for the rest of my life. The man was a storyteller of the highest calibre and I could have listened to him read all twenty volumes of the Annotated History of Accounting without nodding off even once.

Also a number of years ago, I read an article by Orson Scott Card in which he talked about language and story. As I understood his thesis, it was that story is more important, and the language is just the way the writer chooses to insert the story into the reader's mind. At the time, I couldn't see how I could not agree with him. Stories are timeless (and many are archetypal), but words are ephemeral and vary from teller to teller with the passage of time.

But I look at Shakespeare, who is endlessly quotable out of context because his words are so resonant. "To be or not to be..." "The quality of mercy is not strained..." "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers..." I look at the Bible and compare the King James version to the Good News version, and I shake my head at the loss of poetry like: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..." or "speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. for I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it."

Or, to offer a more recent example, from the graphic novel V for Vendetta: "Although the truncheon may be used in leiu of conversation, words will always retain their power. For words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth."

These are words, not stories, but they resonate. Stripped of their story, of their context, they still speak to us about faith and love and beauty and strength.

I don't write literary fiction. I write genre. As a consequence, I tend to place more emphasis on plot and pacing than on language. I use the words that seem to work best with greater regard for their function than for their poetry. I don't think it is a mistake, I think that for me it is a necessity, and yet I can't help but look with envy on those who choose their words with talent and flair that causes them to live fresh in the mind long after the book is closed and the story faded.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Misanthropist Moment

Current Reading: Myths of the North American Indians, by Lewis Spence

Inspirational Quote: If you're looking for inspiration, I recommend not reading the following post.

First: Haiti.

Earthquakes are remarkable phenomena. Like hurricanes and tornados they remind me that for all our technological advancement, for as often as we look around at the environment we've transformed, we are not the masters of our domain. To our planet our human concerns are nothing. Faith, love, art, science, even existence are of no consequence to continental plates and vagrant air masses. As "Life After People" shows, the planet would get along fine without us. Maybe better, because there are so many of us.

But from a human (and humane) perspective, what's happened in Haiti is tragic. So many dead, injured and dying. So many looting and stealing and stockpiling supplies to feed a black market that must, by now, be staggering in its reach. Yet I haven't seen it mentioned on the news. I've heard no reports on those who are making a killing off the billions that are pouring into Haiti. There is profit to be made, and so there must be those who are making it at the cost of lives and suffering. Because this is a facet of the human animal: we are not a moral species.

Second: Late Night Television.

In other news, Conan O'Brien has lost his job. Jay Leno is getting his old job back. David Letterman is having a field day. The masses seem split between O'Brien and Leno. I'm split between disgust and loathing.

I think I've seen far too many people who have lost their jobs and who did not have million-dollar homes in Los Angeles or New York, who did not make more in one evening than most of us are likely to see in our lives. Why are so many people paying attention to this? Personally? I'd rather fire Jay, Conan, Letterman and every executive at NBC, then blow my meager savings on buying them shovels and plane tickets to Haiti. Let them dig for bodies and scrounge for food. Maybe they'll come back with some perspective. Maybe they won't come back at all. Either is fine with me.

We live in a society where a person who plays a doctor on television makes more pretending to save fictional lives than does a real doctor trying to save real lives. We live in a society where millions of dollars are spent on cell-phones and ipods while the food bank down the road from my house pleads for donations because my neighbors don't have enough to pay for groceries and shelter at the same time. We live in a society where celebrities are patted on the back for organizing telethons to extract money from people who have lost their houses and watched their cities drown when they and their circle of friends could donate every penny they own and still not be reduced to the circumstances of those from whom they are soliciting donations.

And this is one of the most advanced societies our species has ever developed.

Please understand. I like people. I love my family and friends. I know other people love theirs, and that the loss of any one of us is a tragedy to someone.

Still: Looking at the whole overpopulated species of homo modernis, I think we could use a good meteor strike.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Book Report: Infinity Hold 3, by Barry B. Longyear

Infinity Hold 3 (It's supposed to be "cubed," but I can't figure out how to represent that).

Okay, so here's a funny story.

It's 2003 (I think), and I'm on the first travel vacation I've taken in forever. Penelope and I are in Calgary, Alberta Canada.

Why Calgary?

Why not? Sure, it's oiltown, but it's also got some of the greatest beef restaurants on the planet, it's a few miles from Drumheller which has one of the greatest dinosaur museums on the planet (and the weirdest geography I've ever seen), it's a few miles from the Rockies (at this point I'd never seen real mountains before), AND it's home to Penelope's aunt. It's also the city I will remember forever because it was there that I got the call telling me there were two brothers coming up for adoption...

But I digress. It's also got some neat bookstores. In one of them, I was perusing the piles and came across a battered paperback called Infinity Hold, by Barry B. Longyear. A decade before this, I had picked up a copy of Amazing Stories (May, 1992) which had included a story called "Blades of the Diram Ring." I'd never heard of Longyear (author of Enemy Mine, which was a wonderful Hugo- and Nebula-winning novella butchered into a movie), but I read the story. I read it again. That night, while she was trying to get some sleep, I read it to Penelope. It was a story about faith and redemption and ultimate suicide sports and it stuck in my head so much that when I saw a book by the same author, I had to buy it.

Fast-forward a week. We're flying home from Vancouver, British Columbia. It's a long stretch from Vancouver to Toronto. Good time to read (when I'm not staring out the window and wishing I could fly like Superman. Sorry, maturity is only a disguise I wear in front of the children).

So I crack open Infinity Hold and start to read. I like it a lot... right up to the point where I discover that pages 87 to 122 are missing. Not cut out, not fallen of their own accord, just not printed. The book goes straight from page 86 to 123.

The remainder of the flight passes in a funk because I won't read a book without a heart.
Penelope, because she is always kind and because it's so darned rare that I actually WANT something (I lead a Spartan existence, but my family makes up for my lack), finds the complete trilogy on line through (an iUniverse thing, at a time before I knew what iUniverse was). When it arrives, I read even the bits that I'd already read because it had been months since the flight home.

First: no illusions. It's not a perfect book. In its iUniverse form, it's got typos and typesetting issues and the cover is bland. It exerts, however, a strange fascination over me.

Infinity Hold 3 is a compilation of three books: Infinity Hold, Kill All the Lawyers and Keep the Law. It's about a group of unrehabilitatable convicts who have their life sentences commuted to exile on the planet Tartaros. Tartaros, in addition to possessing a massive desert into which the convicts are dumped without maps and with only a few days of provisions, has served as a dumping ground for convicts from dozens of worlds for dozens of years. The result is a place ruled by savage gangs formed around the most brutal and powerful rulers.

Into this place drops Nicos Bando and a group of hardcore cons who appear destined either to die or to be swallowed up by the existing gangs until one of their number, a terrorist and political reactionary, suggests they band together for mutual protection and suggests a vote on leadership. The book chronicles the transformation of this group of savage men and women into a political force, an army and a nation. It also chronicles Bando's transformation from just another murderer into a policeman, a lawmaker and a leader for a society of criminals and sociopaths. The plot rambles a bit, and its presentation of an AA-type grouping as a treatment for ills ranging from loneliness to compulsive rape strikes me as being a bit too pat, but I find the read compelling and I return to it again and again.

I can't help thinking sometimes that if Bando's approach to law and law enforcement were imposed on the real world, it might work better than our current justice system. The book forces the reader to think about justice, not just about law, about what makes people and societies work and it makes me wonder if sometimes we place too much value on human life and not enough on humane life.

Ulysses Rating: 5 (I'll read this again and again)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Book Report: Wintersmith, by Terry Pratchett

I guess I get into a Pratchett run sometimes.

Wintersmith is the most recent in Pratchett's run of Tiffany Aching books, books for younger readers (middle-grade?) which feature as the protagonist a young girl who is good at making cheese, tormenting her brother, and being a witch. It also features the Pictsies, the Nac Mac Feegle, who are technically fairies but are likely to give you a face full of head if you bring it up. Rumor is that they were thrown out of fairy land for being drunk and disorderly at two in the afternoon.

That I love Pratchett's work should be evident by now. But I think that the Tiffany books hold a special place. There are moments when she is feeling homesick, or when she is on the verge of triumph, when she remembers her bond to her land (the chalk hills) and to her grandmother (a shepherdess who was, maybe, not great with grandchildren, but made up for it by being amazing with sheep, and quite likely the greatest witch ever to come into her power without being aware of it), and something about that moves me. "I'll never really leave you, land under wave."

I have no idea why that almost brings tears to my eyes, but it does.

In Wintersmith, Tiffany accidentally steps into the dance called the Dark Morris, which is danced in the high Ramtop mountains to welcome the winter in Pratchett's Discworld just as the Morris is danced everywhere else to welcome the spring (I think that's how it goes). As a result, she attracts the attention of the Wintersmith, the god of Winter, who mistakes her for his counterpart, the Summer Lady. His pursuit of love is both comical and deadly, as Tiffany tries to avoid his attentions while simultaneously dealing with the death of her mentor, the persistent intrusion of the Nac Mac Feegle, and the sudden advent of a cornucopia.

Ulysses Rating: 5 (I'll read this again and again).

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Query: New and Improved! Now With Notes!

Current Reading: Infinity Hold 3, by Barry B. Longyear

Inspirational Quote: "Writing is learning to say nothing, more cleverly each day." -- William Allingham

Since queries seem so difficult for everyone, and since the Rejectionist's comments on my attempt seemed to attract a lot of interest, I thought I'd offer up my subsequent thoughts and their results. Bear in mind, of course, that this isn't the finished product. It's just another step along the way. The next version will incorporate some of the things I point out below (I hope), and maybe it'll make Edison proud.

When last we left my query, before I took the Rejectionist's advice to heart, it looked like this:

Dear Agent Awesome:I am seeking representation for my 86000 word fantasy, Aria. [Insert bits here indicating that I'm familiar with Agent Awesome's list, preferences and/or favorite cheese].

A modern-day act of piracy taps into a magical storm and throws sailor Ken Williams into a dimension where islands float in the air, ships fly and the four elements have taken human form. He lands on a ship filled with escaped slaves including N'gali, Mother Earth.

Ken is forced to assume command in a race toward a distant mainland with the vast armadas of El Diablo del Fuego close behind. If they catch N'gali, El Diablo will use her power to create a fiery new world where her people will be slaves forever.

It's Ken's chance for redemption, but saving N'gali may take more than even his considerable skill.

My short stories have appeared in [print]. Further information about me can be found at, and at [url redacted because I like the word "redacted."].

Thanks for your time.

Not pretty. Not good. Oh, it's got its strong points, like the salutation. I think that works well. And I still like the word "redacted."

I think the first paragraph is fine as is. From what I've read, most agents like basic information up front and spare: title, genre and word count. This seems like a good place to put personalization, if I've got anything to say on that score. I suppose I could put it at the end, but I'd rather give them a reason to pay that extra bit of attention up front than give them a reason to say "Oh, that's why I should have paid more attention."

Likewise, I can't think of any way to improve the last paragraph. It's just a bit about me that might indicate why reading some of this might not be a horrible ordeal. I've been published, and I've got a website and blog... so I'm internet aware, and at least prepared to be professional.

The big hole here, the flaw, is right in the middle: the pitch. Details are missing and, in an attempt to be brief, I've omitted anything that might be of interest. So I've gone a bit longer this time.

First, I wanted a nice short paragraph that introduced the main character: his name and some things about him that are important to the plot. I also wanted to introduce the fantasy element right up front by contrasting the real world with the fantasy world. Last, I want this first paragraph to include a summary of the main conflict: what's at stake. I'd like to have worked in who the conflict is between, but I think that would just have made the paragraph longer and more confusing so I concentrated on Ken.

Ken Williams is a sailor tormented by past mistakes and consoled only by music that he hears in the sky. When a magical storm throws him from a sinking yacht in the modern Caribbean to a flying galleon in another dimension, he lands in the middle of a struggle over the shape of a new world.

Flaws: "tormented by past mistakes" seems cliche. If you eliminated all the books on the shelf in which a character is not "tormented by past mistakes," you'd eliminate probably two-thirds. But his past is the prime motivator for the choices he makes, good and bad, and I couldn't think of a shorter, less trite way to put it.

"The shape of a new world." Well, it's accurate, but it doesn't convey the excitement I wish it would. Why is the "shape" of a new world important? I suppose I could use "fate," or "destiny." Those are portentous words, especially in fantasy, but they tend to be overused.

Second, I need some details about the new world and what it's like. Then I've got to work in the antagonist and the state of things when the plot starts. I'm going to try to give some idea of how the plot develops, so I've got to show how it begins. Now that I've established a few other characters, I can get specific about the conflict "in the middle" of which Ken "lands." In the novel, it is El Diablo's desire that Ken obstructs, so I wanted to highlight that desire and how important it is to El Diablo.

In this place, islands float in the air, ships fly, and the four elements have taken human form. El Diablo del Fuego, the Lord of Fire, has already imprisoned Senorita del Agua and exiled Father Sky. Only N'gali, the woman who is Mother Earth, has escaped him. She has fled on a ship filled with escaped slaves and captained by a renegade pirate. They are hunted by El Diablo's fanatic legions, for N'gali has the power to create a new world, and it is a power El Diablo will do anything to possess.

Flaws: It's got a lot of names in it. Maybe too many, and the mix of African-inspired and Spanish names may seem strange out of context. Maybe mentioning that N'gali's people are inspired by a mix African slaves and Central American natives, while El Diablo's people are drawn from the Spanish conquest of South/Central America might clear things up, but I think it's unnecessary wordage in a note that's supposed to concentrate on plot.

"Will do anything to possess." Cliche again? Yes, but I'm at a loss how to put this in a fresh manner while retaining its brevity and punch.

Strengths: I like the first sentence. It sounds interesting, especially that last bit: "the four elements have taken human form." "A ship filled with escaped slaves and captained by a renegade pirate." I like that bit too. "Slaves," and "pirate," are exciting and emotionally charged words.

Now that the setting is in place and the plot in play, I'd better get to Ken's journey: what does he have to do, and what's going to make doing it tough? This is a good place to bring up the plot twists. Then I'd better get to describing the resolution, or at least a few points about it. I've got to make it interesting and intriguing, to make the reader want to read the book in order to understand how all the elements enter and fit into the story. Last, I want to make it clear that the end of the book reflects on some of the things I raised in the first paragraph.

When N'gali's captain sacrifices himself to delay El Diablo's fleet, he conjures the storm that brings Ken to N'gali's deck. Since none of her people are sailors, she is forced to rely on Ken's skill to keep her ahead of her pursuers. As Ken struggles to adapt to this new place and his role in it, he must deal not only with El Diablo's armada, but with the mistrust of his new crew, the effects of shaman magic and the efforts of a saboteur. The chase takes him from the cloudscapes of the endless sky to an island refuge where the earth swallows whole ships and the water speaks in riddles. But El Diablo is relentless, and his fleets drive Ken and N'gali to a confrontation in the vast, windless expanse called the Eye of the World. To save N'gali, Ken will have to disturb the dreams of sleeping gods, discover the fate of the missing Father Sky and learn the meaning of the music that haunts him.

Flaws: It's a big paragraph. I may be trying to do too much in too little space. The remedy is, of course, either to do less or to give myself more space. Like every other writer on the planet, I don't want to do either. I think the first two sentences are clumsily written, but they explain how Ken arrives and ends up in charge. I like the next sentence, but "the effects of shaman magic" is awfully vague. What effects? Why should the reader care?

I think I might have written the "chase" sentence wrong. It reads as if the journey ends at the island, so in the following sentence I've got to get them moving to the Eye. It's a clumsy transition, and I can do better. I like the last sentence, but I'm concerned its use of the "list" approach, as used in the list of Ken's complications and the list of destinations, is far too repetitive.

In winding up, I feel I should indicate that the things I brought up in the first paragraph are resolved. I mention the music, but I don't mention his past mistakes or their impact on the story's resolution.

So there's the latest incarnation of my query, with my thoughts.

What do YOU think?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Year-End Roundup

Current Reading: Myths of the North American Indians, by Lewis Spence

Inspirational Quote: "...and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun..." -- So This is Christmas, by John Lennon.

My second annual year in review...


Best Movie I've Seen: The Dark Knight. Ledger's performance is riveting, but it's the writing -- the characters, the story -- that held me gaping in my seat.
Worst: Transformers 2. Perhaps not that bad, but if you were to ask me to describe the plot, I'd have to throw up my hands and say, "Megan Fox?"
Shortest: The Time Traveler's Wife. Penelope and I took off for the movies and left Telemachus in charge. Five minutes into the film, just as the main characters meet, we get a phone call. Aeneas is upset, Cassandra's in tears and Telemachus is denying responsibility. We left. It turned out to be nothing (it usually is, but Penelope couldn't believe it until she saw for herself), which makes this also the most expensive popcorn I've ever bought.

Best Book I've Read: I haven't read as much as I should have this year. I blame stress (more on that below). I think I'd have to go with Watchmen, although repeated readings have dulled its edge a fair bit. And here I'm disqualifying Pratchett because I've read all his books before (several times). Second would be Lake's Escapement, though.

Best Song I've Heard: I'd go with Fireflies, by Owl City. Catchy tune, confusing lyrics, but a synthesis that results in a song that could be about anything. A neat sound. I'm still fond of Coldplay, especially Life In Technicolour II.
Worst: My kid's choice in music. My father used to be a sailor, but I think he'd blush at some of the words and combinations that are coming up in their songs. It's all about anger and shock, and little of it is about meaning. That said, Eminem's biographical raps are heart-wrenching at times. Also: "Party in the USA" by Miley Cyrus. Every time it comes on the radio, I change the station and hope that the world gets over its fascination with her sometime soon. I have no doubt that she'll grow into a fine musician someday, but first she has to learn to push herself and that lesson usually only comes as the result of failure. I haven't linked to any of the songs I didn't like because... well, because I didn't like them, and I'm petty like that.

Best Television Show I've Seen: Stargate: Universe.
Worst: Um... Heroes, I guess. I almost watched one episode this season, but couldn't make it past the first commercial break. Other than that, I don't watch much television.


Best News I've Heard: The economy is rebounding, and economic Armageddon has been avoided yet again.

Worst News: Sheesh. Who can pick? Some days, a glance at the newspaper is enough to make a Care Bear suicidal.

Personal Stuff:

Best Thing that Happened: I took my sons white-water rafting on the Ottawa river. It was a perfect, sunny, warm day and the only mar to the event was Aeneas's ear infection. He hadn't bothered telling anyone he had one, and only brought it up when being dunked in the water several times caused it to inflame. He was a trooper though, and we all had a good time.
Worst: Nortel's bankruptcy. I wasn't one of the thousands who were let go with a few hours notice and no severance, but I knew many of them personally. Watching them lose their livelihood while wondering whether mine would vanish as well is an experience I would not wish on an enemy, let alone a friend. Then, hearing about the millions of dollars awarded to the executives who destroyed the company with their short-sightedness and greed, allowed me to start each work day bitter to the point of nausea.

Most Fun Thing I've Done: Watched my children grow up, still. In fact, I doubt anything's ever going to top it. My boys are teenagers now, wrestling with love and maturity and responsibility. Cassandra's five, and the only I know for sure about her future is that she's going to surprise me at every turn.
Least: Housework. I'm doing this instead of cleaning the bathroom... and believe me, someone NEEDS to clean the bathroom.

Most Surprising Occurrence: I've gathered 14 followers. My gosh. I can't tell you how flattered I am. Fourteen of you believe I might write something worth reading, and you believe it so strongly that you've committed to monitoring my output. Goodness. The pressure is enormous!

New Year's Resolution: To finish the new book, finish "final" (yeah right) edits on the Magnus Somnium, and begin querying agents.

Happy 2010, everyone. May God stand between you and harm in all the dark places you must go.