Sunday, October 30, 2011


There's something fundamentally wrong with putting real maple syrup on toaster waffles.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Ulysses Plot Peeves: If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body, Would You Do Nothing?

Current Reading: Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain

Inspirational Quote: "We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!" -- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit.

I read a fair bit, although nowhere near as much as I'd like. I also read a fair number of manuscripts as part of belonging to various critique groups. So, from an avid reader to those who (like me) aspire to write well, I present:

Ulysses Plot Peeves.
These are things I keep coming across that really string my bow.

To illustrate them, I'll refer to a fictional work of fiction (uh... what?) entitled "Massive Zombie Death Parade," Starring Redd Meat.


These are the guys (and gals) who don't do anything. They're the dull eye of the storm while things happen all around them. They don't cause anything, they just suffer the effects.

Redd Meat is walking down the street (hey! A rhyme!) and he sees a zombie trying to drag a still-living victim from a car. A few minutes later, he passes an alley and attracts the attention of a zombie horde which chases him (very slowly) into an abandoned apartment building. He barricades the door and waits until the zombies lose interest. Then he leaves to see if there's any pizza left in the restaurant across the street.

So far, I find MZDP undeadly dull. As a writer, I just want to show you this cool zombie world I invented, so Redd's a tourist. He doesn't actually DO anything. He just sees and experiences a lot of stuff that's really interesting.

Except it's not.

As a reader, I don't care. I don't care about Redd because he's not interesting. I don't care about your world because my tour guide is boring. I'm not involved in anything that happens, so I'm going to put down MZDP and go read my horoscope.

It's not enough for a character to be a Reactor either. A Reactor is someone who reacts to everything. The car incident? Horrible! Redd recoils! Zombie horde? Terrifying! Redd runs! Reactors are the Scream-Queens of the literary set, without the skimpy costume. They're fun for a minute, but any story you try to build on them is going to collapse before the end of the first act.

For a character to be interesting, I believe they've got to do SOMETHING. They've got to be proactive. For them to be proactive, they've got to WANT something, and be willing to go to exciting extremes to get it in every single scene... because a story is all about the getting, or failing to get.

Let Redd want to save the car victim, the only other living being he's seen in a week. Let him want to off both the zombie and his victim/soon to be comrade because his hate of the walking dead verges on the pathological. Let him show his determination and THEN you'll pique my interest. You'll capture it by making it almost impossible for him to get what he wants. Instead of having him just wait until the zombies leave, force him to escape. There's a window, but he's on the twelfth floor, although he might be able to make it by jumping from balcony to balcony. The only other way out is crawling through the space between the drop ceiling panels and the real ceiling, right out over the milling horde.

Either way, he's going to take action, and that action is likely to be dangerous, and I'm going to keep reading even though it's three a.m. and I've got to be up for work in 4 hours.

So, summing up: Don't be dull. Give me a character who wants something and goes after it.

Next, I flog a dead (not undead) horse: Plot-Induced Stupidity.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Book Report: The City and The City, by China Mieville

This is a mystery, a police procedural, a hard-boiled detective noir, but it takes place in a city unlike anything I've ever imagined.

In fact, it takes place in a city that I have considerable difficulty imagining. The City is Beszel, a middle-European town whose best days are behind it. The OTHER City is Ul Qoma, a modern and upscale metropolis heading boldly into the 21st century. The odd thing about these two cities is that they share the same geography. They overlap.

And that's where I sprained my medulla.

I thought they overlapped in the sense of parallel dimensions: that Ul Qoma overlay Beszel with occasional areas of bleed-through ("crosshatching" in the novel) or shared territory, that you would stand on one street in Ul Qoma and see one set of sights, but would be standing on another in Beszel and see a completely different set. However, I've recently seen the possibility that their division is less physical and more psychological: that the cities are separate only in the minds of their inhabitants. Some neighborhoods are Ul Qoma only, some are Besz only, with the citizens conditioned to see and interact only with those things that are in their city. In crosshatched areas, they have to be extremely careful to ignore anything they might see or hear from the other city.

That the whole thing is told in first-person by a Besz native to whom all this is second nature just makes the truth of it all the more obscure to the reader. The division is never fully explained. The reason for the split is lost to time. It just is, and the citizens have to deal with it.

It's weird, but fascinating.

The story follows a Besz detective investigating a murder in Beszel of a woman from Ul Qoma. In unraveling the mystery, he has to travel from one to the other, a journey more about psychology than geography. The mystery is complicated by extremists who believe the cities should be united, other extremists who believe they should be fully separated, politicians vying for power, and academics and conspiracy theorists who suspect there may be a third city hidden between the other two. There is also Breach, the terrifying and implacable organization which investigates and punishes those who cross the border from one city to the other without going through the proper checkpoints.

It's tightly written and atmospheric, the way a good crime novel ought to be, but it also brings up questions of urban identity and how much our environment shapes our society, like the best science fiction. I recommend this highly, and would love to find out what other people think is REALLY going on with the separation of the Cities.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Fiction Writer's Tool Wishlist

Current Reading: The Bible Repairman, by Tim Powers

Inspirational Quote: "At each increase of knowledge, as well as on the contrivance of every new tool, human labour becomes abridged." -- Charles Babbage

In order to be a writer, you really only need two things: something to write with and something to write on. But on a certain level, that's like saying all you need to be a brain surgeon is a patient and a sharp knife. It's a pretty high-level view of the situation.

I'm not saying the better your tools the better your results. Results all come down to skill and knowledge, and you can't get them from tools. I've often said that the test of the artist is his (or her) use of an imperfect tool.

But using a good tool can make getting better results easier.

When it comes to writing, the current tool of popular choice is a word processor (although there are those out there who still prefer freehand, and typewriters have not yet gone the way of the Dodo). Writing and editing with one are easy. But I find that as wonderful as they are for WYSIWYG presentation, and as terrific as they are for a broad range of documents, they really aren't designed with fiction production in mind.

I use Microsoft Word in my day job, and I create some pretty nice technical documents. I can keep track of tables and figures and refer to different sections, documents and URLs. I can create indices and tables of contents and control the layout so that documents come out ready for binding.

However, when I sit down to wrestle with the Magnus Somnium, none of that helps.

For my fiction, I use Libre Office (it used to be Open Office before politics and economics tried to run on the same track in opposite directions). It's a like Word, but... well, it's like Word.

I'd like something better, please. Something that makes my work easier.

Here's my wish list for fiction writing software:

1. The production of words has to be its primary function. So it's a word processor foremost. Some of the usual features are things I don't need, I bet, like tables and lists (but that might be just me).

2. WPs are really good at breaking down text into sections and subsections with headings. I want to break down my manuscript into scenes, and then...
a) I want to be able to group them into chapters and/or acts, or books or some kind of higher structure.
b) I want to be able to move them around, change their order or placement in the manuscript.
c) I want to be able to mark them as unused, so that I still have the work, but it doesn't show up in the manuscript or word count.

3. It'd be nice to be able to track characters and settings, to ensure consistency whenever they're described and as they evolve (in scene 12, she's got a cut over her left eye. A day later, in scene 18, why is it over her right?). I've got NO idea how you'd pull this feature off without magic.

4. I want to be able to create different versions of my manuscript. I work with software, and I'm familiar with CVS and other versioning systems. I'd like something like that for my work. It wouldn't be as complex as software versioning because we're usually dealing with only one author and wouldn't need the "check out/check in" operations. You load up your current version, make some changes and save it. The changes for this version are tracked. When you've finished your draft, you give it a "draft number," and all the changes are locked in. All subsequent changes are made in reference to that draft number. This way, if I decide I like last Thursday's version better than today's, I can just jump back to Thursday's version and work from there. At the moment, I accomplish this by tacking the date and a draft number onto the file name, but it makes it hard to find the draft I want to backtrack to.

To say nothing of littering my hard-drive with files.

5. Other stuff. I'm a user creating requirements for a software system. As such, I reserve the right to make ad-hoc demands, change my mind, define everything as a priority and insist that it be ready for testing by the end of the month. Oh, and I might arbitrarily slash the budget, reassign people to other projects, demand hourly updates, and schedule customer demos of unfinished features without your knowledge.

But that's okay, right?

(image from here)Link

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

In Defence of Books About Writing

Current Reading: The Bible Repairman, by Tim Powers

Inspirational Quote: "A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult that it is for other people." -- Thomas Mann

One of the criticisms leveled against books on writing, frequently by writers themselves, is "You can't TEACH art."

It's a blanket statement and an absolute. I can't argue with it. I can give you a paintbrush, but you're not going to paint Da Vinci's 'The Last Supper.' I can give you a guitar, but you're not going to play the Beatles 'The White Album.'

But on the other hand, if I plunk you down in front of Vermeer's 'The Music Lesson,' or put Fleetwood Mac's 'Rumors' on repeat, sooner or later you're going to learn something about painting or about music, about how it's done.

Count on later. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it's a slow way to learn.

If someone comes along and shows you how to use the brush, how to mix paint, how to create texture and depict light and draw the human form with some degree of accuracy (not required for Cubism, BTW), then your learning time will be considerably shortened. Those are valuable skills that can be applied not just in recreating an Vermeer, but in painting a Chagall or even something wholly original. Learning them will do more for your development as an artist than taking a magnifying glass to any number of Vermeers.

The same is true of writing. And by writing, I mean more than just putting correctly-spelled and gramatically-used words down on paper. I mean writing something compelling, something that readers want to read. I've read the Great Gatsby, and the Lord of the Rings and Watership Down and The City and The City, and Pinion and... well, there's a partial list to the left. I've read a fair bit, and after all that, I can honestly say only this:

I don't know art, but I know what I like.

If you can read these books, or other books, and absorb their lessons on technique and construction and rhythm, then congratulations. I hope you will use your genius for niceness instead of evil. I, however, am a bit thicker. Ideas don't readily penetrate my skull. I appreciate having someone peel back the skin and show me how the muscles work. Books on writing do that for me. It makes it easier for me to go out and bring some life to my own creations.

I believe I'd be a fool to denigrate or ignore anything that makes me think about what I'm doing and that gives me some ideas about how to do it differently (possibly even more effectively).

Book Report: Writing Fiction for Dummies, by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy

Writing Fiction for Dummies, by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy

Note: For the first time ever, I am including a link to my local (relatively) independent bookstore. I didn't even know they had a web site, which shows that sometimes I just don't THINK. Support your local indies, folks.

Anyway: you'd think after all the entries I've written here and my own tiny successes in the publishing arena that the last thing to open my wallet would be a title like this.

There are two schools of thought on fiction textbooks:

1) Don't read them. Go straight to the source. Read good books. Study how others do it. Imitate. Practice.

2) Read them. These people have been down the road and seen the sights and made the wrong turns and stopped at that hole-in-the-wall that looked promising but served cold Campbell's soup. They likely have a few things to say that'll resonate and cut a few miles off your own journey. Also: it's easier to learn if you're being taught.

Obviously, I belong to the 2nd school. Take from that what you may.

So why a book that insults me from the cover? Because it's done by this guy. That particular article inspired a few thoughts and raised a few questions, so I thought I'd see what else he had to say.

This book presents a real, fundamental, mechanic's view of story construction. I use the term "construction" intentionally, as the techniques he and his co-author present are practical, simple and functional. How do you make a character interesting? How do you put together a scene? A story? They show you ways and provide numerous illustrations of the principles at work in a selection of novel excerpts. If you follow their advice, you will finish with a working story.

Of course, it may not be a good one. That's where art comes in, and skill and practice. You can't get those out of a book.

I found this book quite insightful because it concentrated on how to create certain effects, how to structure scenes and acts, what things can be done to draw in a reader, to control pacing and ensure that the ending is satisfying. You have to bring your own art, but if you've got that, then this book will give you a few ideas about what you can do with it.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.