Monday, March 29, 2010

The Tyranny of Words

Current Reading: American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

Inspirational Quote: "If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word." -- Margaret Atwood

I'm experiencing writer's block, although I hesitate to qualify it as that. Events have conspired to make my daily chaining to the keyboard both short and frustrating. I can write words, but they're all wrong and I'm angry at them and so I consign them to the bit bucket with little remorse and a "so there!" attitude.

Serves them right.

I'm considering buying a laptop/notebook/netbook so that I can take my frustration on the road and pound the keys away from distractions at a time of my convenience. However, I believe this is seeking an external solution to an internal problem and that never works. I'm also considering taking a few days off my paying job in order to get my head back in order (it's like playing Tetris with gray matter). That may also be seeking an external solution to an internal problem, but it has the advantage of allowing me to sleep in and take long walks to clear my head.

Career-oriented writing requires a tremendous amount of both courage and confidence at all stages.

You need confidence in your ability to tell a story, to put the right words in the right order to instill in a reader the full range of emotions that make for a satisfying read. You need that confidence in order to set down the first draft.

After that, you need courage to cast aside all your partiality and look at your work with a critical eye. You have to face up to its imperfections, and you have to commit to doing something about them. You have to have the courage to take something you've made and rip it to pieces.

Once it's in pieces, you have to have confidence that you can rebuild it better than it was.

Then, of course, you have to do it all again until you are confident that it is a good as you can make it.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Book Report: The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

I went with Penelope to see a movie a little while ago. We left our children in care of the eldest. Every parent who's done this knows that the first time is a mistake. As a result, Penelope only got to see the lobby and her cell phone, over which she could hear complaints and blame and recriminations. I got to see about five minutes of a guy vanishing at the least convenient times. We aborted our date and went home. Brought the popcorn with us, though... 'cause if anything tastes better than movie popcorn, I have yet to find it.

Skip ahead to about a month ago when I come home to find a small stack of books on the corner of the kitchen island. Someone had dropped them off for Penelope, and on the top of the stack was "The Time Traveler's Wife." At the time, I was beating myself over the sympathetics with Racing in the Rain, but I look at the cover with the empty shoes and think, "Well, I've got to read P&P&Z, because I've got to return it post-haste, but after that..."

What a wonderful book. It's beautifully written, with such arresting prose that I occasionally reread passages just because I liked the sound of them. The plot is as complex as a Mandelbrot diagram, bits of it set in the future, bits in the past, so that I sometimes had to flip back and forth to figure out when in the story certain events took place. I can only imagine Niffenegger working out the book's structure with the help of a couple of mathematicians and a quantum theorist. So it's work, but it's rewarding.

It's a love story between Clare, an artist, and Henry, a librarian who's uncontrollable tendency to time-travel makes his life uniquely weird. Not just his life, but the life of everyone with whom they come in contact. Henry tries to deal with loneliness and the burden of knowing bits of the future. Clare has to shape her life around a man she's known in various life-stages since she was 6, a man who vanishes without warning for indeterminate periods of time. With the time-travel device, I could call it science fiction or fantasy, but it's not because it's not about that. It's about two imperfect people who manage, against tremendous odds, to create a life for themselves in the shadow of tragic unpredictability. It's a story about loss and love and hope and death wrapped in some beautiful words.

A great book.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


1. The sign said, "Yield." After I melted it down, I got about seven pounds.

2. If you're getting a chicken to mow your lawn, is it better to buy one outright, or to subcontract to a poultry-centric landscaping service?

...and that's all I've got this week. I'm still trying to figure out where that last one came from.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Let Me Tell You a Story...

Current Reading: The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

Inspirational Quote: "The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot." -- E. M. Forster

I've read a lot about the death of the novel, the death of the short story, the death of publishing and the death of reading. In other words, a lot of death. It's depressing (yeah, death is like that). But I think that, as writers, we have to look beyond the death of our particular art form and realize a fundamental truth:

It's not about writing. It never was.

Writing is just one form of communication, and the rise of computers and electronics has caused all forms of communication to undergo a transformation for which very few industries were prepared. During my work in telecommunications I've watched a tradition-bound corporation with its feet firmly in the analog/digital world shaken up by the advent of network-based Internet communications. The television networks are trying to figure out how to survive in a world where there are hundreds of channels subdividing an audience which spends more time watching YouTube than the boob-tube (archaic reference courtesy of my father). Music producers can't figure out whether to embrace the spread of their music via the web or try to prevent it.

And publishers are looking at the rise of e-books with trepidation. They don't know the economic rules that will govern the literary world when books are available on-line, and they're starting to realize that "when" is now.

What does this mean to us as writers? The same thing, I imagine, that the rise of language meant to the caveman who had told his stories via cave paintings. It means the same thing that the development of writing meant to the oral storyteller. It means the world is changing. It means we're going to need to develop new skills. It does not mean that there is no place for us in the future. In fact, it means we are needed desperately in this future.

We are storytellers, and the importance of that cannot be overestimated. Stories aren't just amusements. They are the ways we tell each other what it is to be human. They are the ways we tell each other about our world and our place in it. They are the ways we time travel, discussing our memories of the past and our hopes for the future. They are the ways we connect and share what it is to be us. Historians know that they can uncover everything about a civilization, it's battles and its triumphs, its crops and populations and leaders, and still know nothing about it. Let them uncover its stories, though, and its people live again.

We are storytellers, and whether we work in printed words or images connected through hyperlinks, or posted videos for which we provided scripts, we are vital and necessary. We will survive this electronic shift, although we shouldn't imagine that the transition is going to be comfortable. We'll have to learn new skills. Maybe, as individuals, some of us will be unable to make the transition, but there will come other new storytellers and the tradition will continue.

We'll survive, and that survival will make for a heck of a story.
(Here's hoping we can find someone willing to pay for it...)

Book Report: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

It is what it says on the cover.

It's been some time since I read the original Pride and Prejudice, so my recollection of the book is a little hazy. However, I remember finding it slow going at first and then I remember warming up to the story about half-way through and being satisfied with the read overall by the time I finished the book.

What we have here is the original Pride and Prejudice enlivened by the presence of Oriental martial arts and a plague of the undead. Is it good? Well... I guess. If you're looking for an illumination of the human condition in the depths of horror, or revelations about the meaning of life when death is no end to existence, then you're going to have to look very far afield from this book. If you're looking for a comedy farce of manners and mores set in a Regency England beset by the undead, well... again, you might want to look elsewhere although not quite so far afield. If, however, you're looking for Pride and Prejudice that a self-respecting geek wouldn't mind being seen reading, well... this is the book for you.

It's essentially one joke carried on at length for many pages. It's entertaining enough and I laughed a couple of times because I appreciate absurd comedy, but there's nothing new here. I think I went into it expecting something more than just Pride and Prejudice and zombies, which was foolish. I hoped for an original spark, something that would make the work wholly its own, and I didn't get it. I got exactly what was advertised.

Of course, that's the point.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Book Report: The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

I had some difficulty with this, as I have mentioned previously. That has entirely to do with my own reaction to tragedy, and this book has tragedy enough to satisfy Shakespeare. A man loses almost everything. That's not a novel, it's a country-western song.

However, this is a beautiful book. The odd charm of a tale entirely narrated by an unusually intelligent dog named Enzo ought to lend it more to comedy or farce, but the premise is taken seriously and it works. I found myself drawn into Enzo's narrative and affected by his second-person observations of his master's life and his obsession with racing. It's a story of courage under duress, about love and death and how evil can be done with the best of intentions. It brought my wife to tears when she read it (sorry, don't cry much myself).

I could write a lot about the structure of this book. The sequence of events that lead up to the eventual resolution and the device of framing the book as a recollection of past events ought to be used as textbook material for writing drama. If I have a beef with this, it is that so many of the events that befall Denny (Enzo's owner) don't seem to come out of his own actions, but out of the actions and desires of others. He's not passive. We see him making choices, but it's always a choice about whether to remain firm in the teeth of a gale rather than to "take arms against a sea of troubles." Enzo himself, within his limited capabilities, manages to take action a number of times, but I just didn't feel that his involvement in the story was sufficient to qualify him as the protagonist. He is too often merely an observer.

But that's a quibble. This is a beautiful book beautifully written. Stein's observations about racing and what it takes to be a racer are nothing short of distillations of Zen teaching and they are rendered beautifully.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this (it would rate a 5, but I doubt I'll read this again).

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Special Physics Edition:

1. I invited Heisenberg over for dinner, but I've got no idea if he'll show up.

2. I think Einstein just wanted to get away from his relatives as fast as possible.

3. Curiosity didn't kill the cat. Schroedinger is a suspect, but nobody wants to open the box to find out.

4. I don't know much about Newton's apple, but I've eaten his figs.

5. The majority of modern physics experimentation consists of making bigger and bigger explosions with smaller and smaller things. I fear the day someone gives them nothing...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Thoughts, and What To Do With Them

Current Reading: The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein

Inspirational Quote: "I want to know God's thoughts; the rest are details." -- Albert Einstein

Two things impacted me this week.

The first is a bit of writing advice from Claire Light, who was filling in for Justine Larbalestier on her blog. (Hmm. Three links in one sentence... that's value for money, that is):

The question isn’t “what happens next?” the question is rather “what does my character make happen?”

Anyone who has seriously tried to write has heard this advice, or variations on it, a hundred times. However, it's a piece of truth that I had forgotten in the midst of my current middle-angst. For reasons best left to psychologists to figure out, Claire's words were just the right ones to sink into my head and clarify (pun unintended) the solutions to some difficulties I've been having (plot and passive protagonists). I've already thanked Claire for her contribution, and am passing on her wisdom in the hope that it may strike others as sharply as it struck me.

The second thing is my discovery of mind-mapping software. The name is somewhat misleading in that you can't use this stuff to find your corpus callosum, no matter how much you may need to. Instead think of this as software for organizing notes.

In the course of writing novels, I have accumulated dozens and dozens of pages of notes: character sketches, worldbuilding details, scene ideas, thoughts, brain junk and random neural discharges. Notes are necessary for making sure characters don't change appearance half-way through scenes, that details of the world remain consistent and that the whole meanders more or less between beginning and end.

The problem is that there is no organization to these notes. Character insights are mixed in with setting descriptions, societal rules and scene fragments. As a result, finding the information you require at any given time demands slogging through all the other stuff. Oh, you can break your notes into groups under headings or even set aside different documents for different types of notes, but managing headings and multiple notes documents is painful.

Mind mapping software, in this particular case, Freemind (which is free, open-source software available for Windows and Linux) takes a non-linear approach to organizing things. Categories, headings, sub-headings and details are all visible at a glance. Items can be grouped, shuffled and moved or copied between groups. Right now I'm using it to deconstruct the Magnus Somnium. I've broken the story down to scenes and am trying to juggle their sequence to move up the first turning point and tighten the plot. I have a group for scenes and can rearrange their order with a few clicks. I also have groups for characters, making their details available at a glance without the need for hunting through pages, and ideas for new scenes, things I ought to work on and weaknesses I don't yet know how to address.

I recommend Freemind to anyone who, like me, has a lot of information and needs a free-form but structured way to organize it all. I'll be using it on the new novel from now on and I know it'll improve my structure as well as the consistency of my details.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A New Word For Your Lexicon

Snowball (v):

In e-mail communications, the tendency of an e-mail chain's "cc" list to grow beyond sensible bounds. It occurs when one or more addressees believe that there are other contacts who ought to be aware of the chain's existence, or the contents of the e-mails. They proceed to "reply all" and add new contacts to the "cc" list. As the "cc" list grows, so does the likelihood that a large percentage of those on it:
1) No longer care about the chain's subject.
2) Never cared about it.
3) Will develop an active dislike of the addressee who added their name, and will do their best to forward to the originator all future correspondence involving Nigerian banks, "relationship enhancement supplements" and stupid crap sent to them by casual acquaintances in the mistaken belief that said missives are "funny," or "poignant."

...sigh. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go take a bulldozer to my inbox.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Birthdays Have Chuck Norris.

I notice that today is Chuck Norris's 70th birthday.

I think his fame and reputation has only increased with the spread of the Internet as a result of the staggering number of Chuck Norris comparisons that get made.

In honor of this most auspicious occasion, I present the top ten Chuck Norris jokes:

  1. Chuck Norris' tears cure cancer. Too bad he has never cried.
  2. Chuck Norris counted to infinity - twice.
  3. Chuck Norris does not hunt because the word hunting infers the probability of failure. Chuck Norris goes killing.
  4. If you can see Chuck Norris, he can see you. If you can't see Chuck Norris you may be only seconds away from death.
  5. Chuck Norris sold his soul to the devil for his rugged good looks and unparalleled martial arts ability. Shortly after the transaction was finalized, Chuck roundhouse kicked the devil in the face and took his soul back. The devil, who appreciates irony, couldn't stay mad and admitted he should have seen it coming. They now play poker every second Wednesday of the month.
  6. When the Boogeyman goes to sleep every night he checks his closet for Chuck Norris.
  7. Chuck Norris built a time machine and went back in time to stop the JFK assassination. As Oswald shot, Chuck Norris met all three bullets with his beard, deflecting them. JFK's head exploded out of sheer amazement.
  8. Chuck Norris has already been to Mars; that's why there are no signs of life there.
  9. They once made a Chuck Norris toilet paper, but it wouldn't take shit from anybody.
  10. A blind man once stepped on Chuck Norris' shoe. Chuck replied, "Don't you know who I am? I'm Chuck Norris!" The mere mention of his name cured this man blindness. Sadly the first, last, and only thing this man ever saw, was a fatal roundhouse delivered by Chuck Norris.

(Stolen shamelessly from here.)


1) Although Leonardo Davinci has some experience with ceilings, I don't think he would be a good choice to paint my whole house.

2) The Hokey-Pokey: it that really what it's all about?

3) I think "Farmageddon: The Four Horses of the Aporkalypse" has to be the most awesome title ever conceived. Now it just needs a book to go with it. I'm thinking it might be a satire/sequel to Orwell's Animal Farm.

4) Family forces us to be sociable with people with whom we would not normally associate.

5) In spite of everything parents do, children eventually grow up.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Don't Take This Lying Down

Current Reading: The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein.

Inspirational Quote: "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light." -- Dylan Thomas

It's been brought to my attention, in various words at various times, that the protagonist of the Magnus Somnium is a passive guy. It's finally sunk in. I've always pontificated loudly that I hate passive heroes, those who sit/stand back and let things happen to them. I'm surprised that I somehow wrote one without realizing it.

Of course, most heroes start off passive. They live their quiet, peaceful lives for about a quarter of the book while dark forces gather. Then those dark forces strike and our hero finds himself/herself jolted out of their previous existence and forced to deal with some new set of circumstances. That first event, that first turning point, is usually caused by outside forces and the hero is often passive to that point.

After that, though, they'd better do something. Someone's knocked over their house of cards and its time for them to take revenge, or rebuild, or do SOMETHING. In the case of the Magnus, the hero finds himself (even that phrase, "finds himself" indicates how passive he is) pushed into one situation and another by outside forces. He reacts, and it's not until the final bit of the book that he acts, that he tries to take some control of his situation.

Obviously, this is untenable. It's almost unreadable.

After that initial system-shock which unsettles him, my hero should do something. He should try to get back to his original state, or try to find out who was responsible for the change, or try to take control of the situation. One thing he should not do is let others make his moves for him. He should, as Thomas put it so eloquently, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

And thus, I have some serious work to do.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


1) If a man has only ten teeth, is he decadent?

2) Country music is the only modern genre I know of that includes songs about being in love with the person you've married.

3) Love means never having to say your're sorry... but you'd better come up with some other way to apologize.

4) February is the shortest month of the year and always feels like the longest.

5) Words are dangerous. Especially ones with lots of pointy bits like "wit." Throw 'em right, and you could put someone's "I" out.

Monday, March 1, 2010

I Got Dem February Blues...

Current Reading: The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein

Inspirational Quote: "Winter is nature's way of saying 'Up yours.'" -- Robert Byrne.

I have learned the following things this week:

I hate being sick. (Yeah, I didn't say I was learning new knowledge).

A set of two lovers is a "couple." A set of two shoes is a "pair." A set of two teenage boys is an "argument."

If you're going to drive to Niagara Falls Canada, only to have it snow so much that you can't drive anywhere else, then this place is a pretty good spot to be snowed in.

I earnestly hope that someday I am half the man that my children wish I were.

There exist in this universe banana chocolate-chip muffins which I do not like. This seems like a violation of the fundamental laws of creation, but sometimes facts are like that.

I just found out yesterday that some relatives of mine and their children were traveling in Chile when the earthquake hit. There has been no news.

It would have been nice to have spent some of my sick days curled up in bed with a good book, but I haven't been able to string together two coherent thoughts or maintain concentration longer than is normally required to fall asleep. This post, fractured, disjointed and without focus as it is, is the most coherent thing to come out of my head in days. I think I shall go make note of this on my calendar.