Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Update Day 5

I'm back to posting every day -- at least while I'm in an active dare. I'm still only posting a few full commentary posts a couple times a week, but I will post at least a minimal dare update when I don't post something else.

Today was my long day at the day job. Some physical running around, plus I'm trying to make things healthier for myself by working at least part of the day at a standing desk. (This has been VERY good for my bad arm.)

However, I am exhausted. So this is it as far as you getting a blog post:

Yesterday's "reading time" went really well. I took physical notes on paper as I read on my Kindle. I decided to implement some of those notes this morning before work, and it didn't take long at all. I expect tonight to do as well, but we'll see. Tomorrow I have more time for writing, so maybe I'll be digging into those more intense tasks.

I wanted to give you some examples of some little edits I made, and talk about them, but I am tired, so I'll have to do that another day.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Mastery Comes First, Not Last

Many many moons ago, when I was studying Art History, I learned what a "masterpiece" actually was.

It was not at all what I thought it was.

See, most of us think of a masterpiece as the crowning glory of a long career. The greatest work of an artist. That's how the press uses it, and frankly, that's how most academics use the word too.

But the original meaning of "masterpiece" was very different. It wasn't the crowning glory, but rather the first major professional work of a craftsman. It was the thing you produced to prove to the guild that you were worthy of entering the profession.

Of entering the profession. Like, you know, at the beginning of your career.

You started out as an apprentice, and then moved on to journeyman. When you were ready to start out on your own, you applied to the guild become a master. And reach that status, you didn't just prove you had talent, or could do some jobs, you had to prove that you had mastered ALL of the skills you might need in your chosen profession. Even the skills that didn't come naturally to you.

Publishing is not so persnickety -- even with traditional publishing, most writers start publishing when they're really at the journeyman stage, or maybe even a "talented apprentice." They haven't mastered everything yet, but they've mastered enough to work around their weaknesses and produce good work.

I'm not saying that you have to produce the crowning glory of your career before you get started -- remember I said a masterpiece is NOT the crowning glory -- what I'm saying is that the crowning glory of your career will only happen after you achieve mastery. Perhaps a long time after.

Mastery isn't brilliance or insight or maturity. Mastery means you actually bothered to learn your craft inside and out -- not just the fun bits. And certainly not just the easy ones.

Think about it this way:

An apprentice writer depends on "inborn" talents. She says "I'm a pantser...(or a plotter, or a novelist, or a poet)... that's just how I'm wired." She says this even though he or she has barely tried doing it any other way.

The journeyman writer may have gone further afield, but still clings to the idea of his or her natural inclinations. He says "I'm a pantser (or plotter, etc). I tried it the other way, but it just didn't work for me. I do better work this way, so that's what I should do."

The master, on the other hand says, "I can do a decent job any way I need to. I'm using this particular tool or method because it suits the job I am trying to do."

Now, it's possible to build a career without fully mastering every element of your craft -- but how do you know that the actual crowning glory of your career isn't hiding behind one of the techniques you didn't learn?

Here's the kicker: mastery may not be brilliance or insight or maturity, but it is required to unleash those things. Learning makes you mature. Learning gives you insight. And maturity and insight unleash your brilliance.

So next time you find yourself saying "oh, I just don't write that way," pause to consider whether that is really true, or whether it's just a difficult skill which you haven't had the motivation to master. Maybe it's not something you need to do now, but don't shut the door on it.

I'm just sayin'.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Dare Day 2

The first day of this 600 minute dare was painful. Saturdays are always filled with errands and with decompressing. (The decompressing will be easier when the new schedule kicks in, though.)

The second day, however, still did not go as well as I expected. but that's okay. I realize that I'm being reasonably strict with myself with my definition of "nose in book," and I'm really getting stuff done. I got 800+ words done in a single 41 minute session. But I had some uncounted time spent getting my mind into the right frame.

This is a time management trick for intense tasks: You don't count the prep time, like the cat vacuuming or sharpening of pencils or pacing around the room, or fiddling with your calendar or clock. But you do set a time to stop fiddling and go. It's like an actor doing his warm up routine and having a meltdown and doing all sorts of apparently counter productive things, until it's actually "SHOWTIME!" and then all that stuff gets shaken off and he steps into character, and turns that performance light ON and it's suddenly all about the audience.

Here's the question I still have open in my mind: Given good work done in short periods of time, should my minutes goal be lower? The average for this dare goal is 90 minutes a day, which seems fine except that I only managed 90 minutes on a day off. Will I be able to do that much after a full work day?

And I suspect the answer is... yes. Why? Well, because not all the tasks I need to do are as intense as what I did yesterday. For instance, I need to do read-throughs on the existing writing - minor editing, a "continuity and clues" check. That stuff is nose-in-manuscript and it does count. It's also something I can do with a tired mind. I'm thinking I might actually get more done after a long day at work. And those tasks don't require any fiddling and avoiding and cat-vacuuming before doing them.

I look back on when I have been struggling the most, I realize those are the times I tried to give myself a break and scheduled the cat-vacuuming tasks for after work. Maybe that shot me in the foot. Maybe I should put in just as much writing time on those days -- but it should be the easy and mindless ones. Proofing and editing and reading and not taking. Sometimes that results in new writing anyway, but it doesn't have to, no pressure.

Maybe I need to do the cat vacuuming on days off -- because it helps the focus. It also takes the pressure off all the other tasks I have on weekends. And even if I don't do more work on those days, I can do more intense work.

So I shouldn't lower the goal... I suspect that, as I train my mind to seek those Minutes That Count, the goal will start creeping upward.

Now, enough cat vacuuming. Back on my head...

See you in the funny papers.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Week in Review - New Dare, New Cover, Hurricane!

For those hunkered down on the east coast -- and especially those inland - a reminder: Most of the death and devastation done by Hurricane Camille in 1969 actually happened in Kentucky and Tennessee, long after the system was no longer a hurricane, when the storm dropped 39 inches of water in a 24 hour period. Yeah. That's over a yard of water.

Also remember that most of us have only experienced the power of water in waves on the beach. Those waves usually just reflect the power of a couple of inches of water at the surface, and are nothing like the hellish force water can exert when you've got a foot or so on the move.

DO NOT underestimate the power of water, folks, and do not assume that anywhere is completely safe. I notice Amtrack is taking the threat seriously: "Amtrak said Saturday night it is suspending all service north of Jacksonville, Florida, and east of Toledo, Ohio," says CNN live blog.)

On that cheery note, I turn to the events of this week, where I had TWO EPIPHANIES:

New 600 Minute Dare

One epiphany was my new 600 Minute a Week Dare, outlined in yesterday's post. Azarimba pointed out in the comments that how well such a dare will work depends on your time and task management abilities. One of the reasons I went for the minute-count is because it makes things really easy that way: the only minutes which count are those with my nose in the manuscript. Period. Nothing else matters.

I think that goes back to something else too: how do you measure productivity? Most of our measures don't really do a good job. Even word count is misleading. In the end, the only thing that matters is the finished work. Getting it done and out into the world.

In the meantime, I had another epiphany the other day:

A New Cover Concept!

I like the cover I had designed for The Man Who Did Too Much, but I just couldn't take it to the next level. I need a branded cover -- something I can replicate into a series. When I played around with covers for the next books, I didn't like what I came up with.

And, okay, I'll be honest: I want something artier. I know it's a cozy and quaintness is important... but when I was a young urchin, all mysteries (cozies included) had slick designs.

Still, I wasn't thinking about that consciously, until my screensaver (which rotates through dozens of classic movie posters) popped up with Anatomy of a Murder -- which is a puzzler, and a Michigan murder mystery too. And I thought "You know, I should play with that fractured paper cut-out style from the late '50s."

So I started sketching, and I had some plans to do three figures like the original cover, but then one of the rules of fine arts happened: sure, sometimes you can only take an artwork to another level by working on it beyond the resistance point... but sometimes the artwork hits its golden moment and you have to stop. There comes this point when it's just done, and if you put one more element in, it will ruin it.

Oh, sure, I'll play with it a little more, but most likely I'll just polish up the body, and the colors. (I might want to go with a distressed wall look instead of stark white for the background, for instance.)

I've already played with what I'll do for other covers in the series, and I think I will go mostly for variations in the typography and color. The body may have slightly different positions. Who knows yet.

The Return of the Students!

This week students returned to both our little college and the big one down the road. This, like the monsoons, seem like both a plague and a blessing, as hordes of young people crowd everywhere, blocking streets and making life difficult, but also bring well needed cash to the depressed economy.

I like it when the students come back. The first half of last week was prepping for their return, and the second half was patrolling the halls, looking for lost souls to help. But I think that the bulk of the students didn't come in yet. (Sometimes they don't.) The LCC traffic jam did not tie up several blocks as usual, but only a very slow line up half of one street. Next week should be worse.

But as I said, I like it when the students come back, because when they're gone it's slow and boring, and so many great restaurants run the risk of going out of business. Like last weekend...

Food of the Week: Dim Sum

As a devout gourmand, my Sunday worship service is generally dim sum. This weekend we trekked out to the better of our two great dim sum houses, and found it nearly empty, because A) it was August and nobody was around, and B) it is in a remote location separated from its main customer base by extensive road repairs. It's a case of "you can't get there from here."

Since they weren't otherwise busy, they did a fabulous job. I have not had better even in L.A. Below are images of the remainder of the Turnip Cake and Fried Meat Dumplings (not to be confused with pot stickers -- these have a gooey sticky sweet rice flour wrapper). I didn't manage to get pictures of anything else before it was gone.

Tomorrow we're headed to the other dim sum place -- which has carts, and is likely to put on some special dishes for the return of the students.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The 600 Minute A Week Dare

Well I FINALLY figured out a method of measuring the clean up writing tasks (editing, rearranging, back-filling, changing clues - the stuff that happens toward the end of writing a book, and which can't be measured by word count) which feels like word count.

Counting minutes!

D'uh. They are a tiny unit, so they drive you to do just a little bit more (unlike hours and schedules), and they are non-judgmental and easy-to-measure. These are all the factors that make counting words the goal in a writing Dare -- so minutes should be just as good.

Plus, minutes are also really easy to guestimate in terms of what you might have available, but by counting them rather than scheduling them, you can be more flexible about when you do them. (I've tried "time-based" dare goals before, and they are always blown away by life.)

So.... The semester has begun. There will be much competition for my time and mindspace -- but I think I can get more writing done anyway, if I think in terms of racking up minutes. Kind of like a change jar helps with saving money.

I figure I can manage 10 hours a week on-task even if things get crazy, so this coming week:

  • Midnight Tonight through Midnight Sept 02
  • 600 minutes
  • On task with The Man Who Did Too Much

It should not be that hard, and it leaves time for distractions. I hope that two weeks on task with this goal should finish that book up, but after I see what happens with this week, I'll adjust next week's goal.

For the weekend update tomorrow, I'll be looking forward to some new dares for the fall, including my 1001 Ideas Dare, and some external dare sites -- like ROW80 and NaNoWriMo. Some of these are pretty flexible, so you may want to join in.

See you in the funny papers.

(The illustration, btw, is from an ad in Top Notch Magazine, May 1915.)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Layering In A Story

Here's the thing about writing: Not only is every writer different, but every story is different.

One of the things I've learned over the years is that you shouldn't dismiss anybody's method of writing... because no matter how wrong that method may be for what you're writing now, someday a story will come along where that method is the exact thing you need to make it work.

One technique which has often done wonderful things for me is something I call "layering." It's related to what some people call editing passes -- when you write a rough draft and then "make a pass for language" or "make a pass for dialog." That's more of a stylistic thing. Most of us do that sometimes, but what I'm talking about digs down a little deeper. It's not something you will use for an entire book.

It's also not the same as rewriting -- in that you write the way a painter paints. You don't do you best guess for the first draft and then "fix" is on other drafts, but rather you lay down an incomplete foundation with the plan of putting other layers over it.

This isn't something that's good for every scene. It's best for complex scenes which bog you down as you try to juggle too many elements. Multiple characters, maybe some subtext, subplots -- and lies. Mysteries, of course, can be full of scenes in which people are lying, but neither the point of view character nor the audience knows it.

Two examples of how I've used layering:

In Have Gun, Will Play, Mick has some tricky conversations in Chapter 2. It's the aftermath of a suspicious situation, and Mick wants to know what's going on. The town authorities want to know who the heck he is. Suspicion and wariness all around. So I already had to juggle: 1.) the practical level of information they all want from each other, 2.) clues and lies and 3.) personal motivations.

But there was a fourth element which was a little too much to juggle: Mick's wife Casey, the firebrand sharpshooter. She doesn't say much (she prefers to let her guns do the talkin') but she's very much a presence. She lurks, and Mick is always very aware of her.

I knew she wasn't going to say anything in this scene, and the two men they're talking to were going to ignore her anyway because she's a woman. But she was going to be there, glaring, and Mick is always aware of her and every subtle shift of weight she makes. Juggling his hyper-awareness with the task at hand was a little too much for me.

I had trouble writing that scene, until I just let Casey go completely invisible. It was almost like I took her out of it completely. I let Mick do his job of talking, and standing up to the two men who were trying to question him while he tried to question them.

Then after I'd nailed down the scene, I went back and added in Casey. You'd think that wouldn't work. After all, Casey has a big influence on Mick and what he says and does, even if she does it silently. If I nailed down the conversation without her, and added her later, she'd be just standing there, right? Well, no. I found that by nailing down the "front conflict" of Mick vs. these other two guys, I was able to concentrate on Casey and Mick on the second pass, and by golly it really worked on a root level.

I think one of the reasons this worked is because of the nature of the problem: Casey is a wild thing and wants to be invisible a lot of the time. But more importantly, it shows us a lot about Mick. He may seem dumb and distractable, but here we need to see he's not as dumb as he seems. We need to see that he can stay on task, and that keeping tabs on Casey is old hat to him.

Since I learned this trick of what I call "character passes" I use it a lot in scenes where there are multiple characters. I'll let some of the characters just walk through their lines, while I nail down the emotional texture of the most important players. Then I'll do passes for other characters.

The other example is an interesting contrast to this:

In the current work-in-progress, I find myself doing multiple passes for the same character. In a mystery, some witnesses lie. Sometimes you don't want to raise too much suspicion about the lies ahead of time -- because the main character will figure it out later. At the same time you don't want to cheat the audience. The witness has to behave in a way consistent with the truth. And there have to be clues.

So, say my detective is questioning someone who has something to hide, something which isn't just a simple lie, but something with an emotional component they don't want to reveal. Usually you can juggle that in a single pass, but sometimes you can get bogged down trying to deal with the various layers of deception -- especially if the liar is a minor character.

What I'm finding is, though, that if I get bogged down -- especially with a minor character who lies -- it helps to write the scene first as if they are not lying at all. Just write the surface. The detective asks questions, the character answers.

THEN I write a second pass for the lie. I go through the scene, keeping in mind how the character wants to mislead the detective. (This is often what I call a "rational" pass too -- where I massage any clues to things that will come.)

And depending on how the second pass went, I make a third pass for the emotion. Would this character really be so convincingly cold blooded about this lie? When it's a major character, this usually is dealt with in the first pass -- but when it's a minor character, and we haven't seen a lot of character development, it's sometimes necessary to actually stop and think about it just for this scene.

None of these passes are clean. There will be emotion and deception in the first pass -- after all, I do know the character is lying. I just find that when there is a really important subtext, especially if it is emotional, it can help sometimes to deal with it on its own.

I find that as I get older, and better at what I'm doing, I do this more and more. This may be because I understand the structure and purpose of a scene on a more instinctual level now. I don't know if this is something to recommend to novices...

But it sure feels like it would be at least a great exercise -- like those exercises where you write the scene three times in a different point of view. Only in this case, you would write it first on the surface level, and then add deeper layers as you go.

Next week I'm going to talk about what a "masterpiece" really is, and how achieving mastery isn't something you aspire to do at the height of your career, but at the beginning of it. In the meantime, I hope to get set up for the next writing dare in this weekend's week-in-review.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Art, Rewriting, and Layers Of Work

Many of those who believe in Heinlein's rules of writing, particularly the rule about not rewriting, see writing as a kind of performance. They equate learning to write with learning to play the violin, or learning to dance.

I am not one of these people. Though I see value in the metaphor, the plain fact is, you CAN'T revise a performance. It doesn't really equate at all to Heinlein's rule.

I think the visual arts make for a better perspective on writing.

See, in the visual arts, you have to sketch a LOT -- just keep drawing new lines and shading new spaces -- to gain control over your hand. But you also do revise. It's a critical part of the process.

The first thing you learn in any drawing class is that your drawing should be "complete" at any stage of the game. That is, you don't draw the nose to perfect completion and then move on to the eyes. You sketch the overall shapes, you lay in lines or base shading all over the whole canvas. You might work some details a little ahead of others, but generally, you always work the whole piece of art at every stage.

You may not be finished, but the whole picture is there. And there may be several times in the process where you could declare it finished, as well. Part of the work of the artist is to be able to step back and know when a work is done.  (And, imho, that's what Heinlein's Rule 3 is about.  It's an emphatic of Rule 2 -- you have to finish the work.)

So this past weekend, while I was watching an episode White Collar on Hulu, I decided to sketch a riding boot and save the various stages of the work as I went.

The first step is the basic shape, sketched out in line. I did this one as a contour sketch -- quite literally the outline, with no internal detail. I was making this one up as I went along, with no idea where I was going with it stylistically, so I just slapdash sketched in some shading for the next step -- which is when I got an idea of what I wanted it to look like. Then I sketched in the real shading -- still in sketch form. The third boot here could be a finished drawing, depending on what I was going for.

But I wanted to work on my shading more, so I decided to switch colors and sketch in some highlights, with medium and light tones. The technique I was going for requires putting in too much and then backing it off with an eraser (if you're using layers) or more dark shades if you're just layering in color. So the first boot here is not a finished drawing. The second, where I've backed off the highlights a little could be.

In the final drawing, I decided to take it to another level, and I used a smudge tool to give it a more painterly or sculptural look. It's not a strong drawing by any means, but it has a more finished and polished feel. Very different from the sketchiness of the earlier versions, and yet still the same boot. And it would not have been possible to do this as a first run attempt. To get that last boot, I had to go through the other stages. (Although, admittedly, if I knew I was going for that look, I might have moved to pastels step two or three. But I didn't know I wanted to go there until I saw what I had. Art is like that.)

I write something like I do artwork. It's not an exact equation -- I don't rough in the whole story and go through multiple drafts, for instance. But I... work the canvas as I write, pinning down major events, pinning down details as I work the areas in between. Working all the greens and blacks first and then splashing and blending with the reds and yellows

You might call it layering. And yes, I do think it's a form of "rewriting." I'll talk tomorrow more that layering method of writing.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Is Indie Publishing A Distraction?

Is Indie Publishing A Distraction?

Yes. God, yes.

Let's just get that clear off the bat. Indie publishing is new and shiny. New things are exciting, invigorating, and they change everything. And you have to learn about them. And, and, and....

When I started this blog, it was with a depressed acceptance that the publishing industry was hopelessly dorked, but I didn't want to do anything else (I'd tried), so I was going to soldier on like an existential hero who realizes that there is no meaning in life, no honor, no fairness, no pattern, no purpose. All that matters is what you do, yourself.

And then along came Indie Publishing, and Existentialism went out the window, baby. Holy Moly, did publishing suddenly have all the meaning you could want in the world. Suddenly it was time to get serious about the career again. (Not that I wasn't serious already, but I'd been around publishing long enough that it was old hat.) It wasn't just that hope was back. It was that suddenly you didn't even need hope. The odds are now in the writer's favor. Forget hope, and get on with plans.

But life doesn't really take on meaning just because it's more fun. Life isn't even about what you plan or aspire to. In the end, all that matters is what you do. Yourself. True in good times as well as bad.

I say this because over this summer I cut back significantly on my internet activity. Four things happened to coincide with this: The number of visits to my blog sank a little -- as expected. My reading time increased dramatically. My writing efforts ... stayed the same. Maybe even got worse.

And my sales improved.

Not a lot. But considering that you expect a summer dip in numbers, it would seem to be more than a seasonal fluke. So....

I've decided to stop investing meaning in numbers. Sure I'll be happy when my sales or blog stats go up. But it's not my job to make them go up. It's my job to write -- both my fiction and my blog. And yes, theoretically that will make the numbers go up, eventually, but that's not my job. It's not something I do. When it becomes something I do, then I'm not a writer, I'm a marketer, and my writing is no longer the thing with meaning.

There's a famous quote from August Wilson: "You're entitled to the work, not the reward."

You said it Auggie.

What matters is what you do. Yourself.

So I'm in the process of reestablishing patterns of what I do. Striking out the things I do because they might be good for my platform or because I think they'll be good for sales. Yes, I'll still do some very low maintenance stuff: I'll still tweet blog posts. I'll also continue my low-level advertising, but I do that to support the sites I'm advertising on, not so much to get numbers of my own.

This blog will probably evolve back to something closer than it started. (Not that it has moved that a far away. I never could bring myself to turn it into a "platform.") It's my kitchen. I post what I'm thinking at the time, and I probably will go back to posting daily writing progress again. I'm taking a recharge right now, but the goal is not to get more readers. The goal is to write. Because that's what matters, and that's what I'm entitled to.

See you in the funny papers.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Week in Review - Back To Work, Writer Blogs, The Help, and No Raisins

The two weeks before the semester starts are always hell on the schedule.

For reasons I won't go into, I always end up working every day of the week, even when the actual workload itself is light. There are good and bad things about working short days - you can be very productive at work... but a short day disrupts your day at home almost as much as a long one. (Hmmm, I may do a post on the ins and outs of different kinds of schedules for writing....)

I noticed, though, that day job habits can be a metaphor for writing habits.

All through the school year, stuff comes my way. Tasks, notes, ideas, things to file, things to recycle, (things to leave anonymously in other people's offices...), calendar items, you name it. And all through the year, the most important and urgent stuff gets done. The moderately important and urgent stuff also gets done. The least urgent stuff? It piles up. In physical form. In my office.

At the end of the school year, I'm just glad to get out of that place, so I don't clear much of that dreck. No, the time when that stuff seems to get cleared is the beginning of the next school year.

I do this purely as a matter of procrastination... but at the same time, I find it works. When all the actual important stuff has been dealt with, I find that the beginning of the semester is the very best time for clearing the desk.

For one thing, at the beginning of a semester, my main job is to Be Available. (My job is a helpy trouble-shooty type job.) The people I'm available to don't always need me -- especially if I did my job earlier and planned ahead -- so I spend a lot of time at my desk being alert. Which is a great time for desk-clearing. And clearing your desk is one GREAT way to get yourself back into the swing of the job after being away from the main tasks over the summer.

This is similar to what it's like being on hiatus away from a novel for a while. If you have a copious mess of notes, you can spend a little time sorting them out, rereading the old material, and by the time you're done, you'll be back into the novel. This only works, though, if you were on a real break from the novel and working on something else, AND if you took good notes.

It doesn't work so well when you are dealing with an ongoing project. It only really works well after a long time away from the novel. And even then it only works if you took good notes. If you didn't you'll be frustrated as heck when you pick up that half-written novel, and it's fascinating, and you wonder where you're going with it... and you can't remember. Dang.

Evolving....And A Preview of Coming Attractions:

I'm easing my way back to more frequent blogging. Not to a full daily schedule yet, but this summer changed me. (As time always does.) I'm headed in a slightly different direction as a writer -- not much different, but I'm moving even further away from commercial considerations for the time being. I'm going more Existential -- writing for the sake of writing, and blogging for the sake of blogging.

I'll talk about that a little bit more on monday. In the meantime, here are the posts I'm planning for this week.

  • Monday: Is Indie Publishing a Distraction?
  • Tuesday: Revision and Artwork - Rewriting as Writing
  • Thursday: Writing Scenes in Layers

Some Writer Blogs I Love

One of the things I hear out there in Bloggy Land is that a writer should never blog about him or herself. "Rule Number One -- It's not about you!" they say. Don't write a journal, don't say how your day went, or reminisce about things that happened. Be focused. Think about your readers.

And yet, some of my favorite blogs do exactly what "they" say not to do. In one case, it isn't a blog so I can't refer you to it, but a private newsgroup, where one of the members updates us daily on her adventures as a parent and human being. Visits to the doctor, crazy silly things her kids say and do, books she has discovered, the progress in the reading competition she has with her older daughter. It's utterly fascinating, and if she didn't want to keep the stuff about her kids private, she could be a prize-winning columnist.

Heck, that's what nintey percent of LiveJournal is, isn't it?

Then there is a wonderful blog, "Just Thinking" by Earl Pomerantz, an old TV writer with a lot of great stories.

Writer Steve Perry's "Old Enough To Know Better" is another informal blog I really like. He seems to write about whatever strikes him, and what strikes him is interesting.

Same with Rhys Bowen. In her case, a lot of it has to do with her research or traveling related to her latest book, but it's still casual and just enjoyable read... like a magazine.

There are others. I'll post them as I think of them.

Movie of the Week: The Help

The Help is an interesting movie because it is not at all what it seems to be.

It's easy to say it's about race relations in America, but we've seen that all before. It's more personal, more down to earth... more like a "women's fiction" sort of story. A large cast of female characters, all with character arcs, all trapped in this bizarre society of the southern Women's Junior League. (You could even say it depicts 1963 as like a more dangerous version of junior high.)

Here's the irony: The apparent protag (who is not the real protag - just the catalyst) wants to write a book, and she pitches it thusly; in 1963 everyone was familiar with the "Mammy" character from the white point of view, but nobody had ever heard Mammy's story, and she wanted to write a book from the point of view of "the help." So it would seem to be a white woman turning a camera on the lives of the black maids and nannies. Except that in 2011, we know that story. What really happens is she hands the camera (which was previously reserved for white people) to the black maids who promptly turn it on their white employers.

And that simple shift in point of view is what makes the very familiar material fresh. And uncomfortable. It's a rigid, sharp society, which is also brittle, and it's beginning to crack.

Food of the Week - Zingerman's Raisin D'Etre

Last trip to Zingerman's for the summer this week. I have been considering getting their new "Raisin D'Etre" sandwich, because that turkey salad sounds SO good, and the radish sprouts seem like the exact right topping. The problem was the bread. They serve it on their Pecan Raisin Bread bread, which is not a bread I like at all. But after much contemplation, I got it on Challah, which was perfect. Really delish. It would go well on any light and buttery bread (croissants would be great -- I might get some of their turkey salad to take home next time).

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Plagiarism, Copyright Violation and Harper Collins

It appears that Harper Collins has plagiarized the most beautiful cover in indie publishing. Going only on what I am hearing secondhand, they loved the cover and they made an offer for it and when they were refused, they made an extremely close knockoff of the work.

I have no verification of whether that's true, but if it is, it was a stupid thing to do. If there is a paper trail showing they desired to copy that work, and they can't claim coincidence. Furthermore, it begins to cross the line from simple plagiarism to actual copyright violation.

(You can take a look at the two covers in comparison on the author's blog here. UPDATE: it appears that Harper Collins has agreed to change the cover without legal action involved.)

The difference between plagiarism and copyright violation.

There is a difference. It's important. And a lot of people are confused about it these days, so I wanted to address that. (NOTE: I am not a lawyer. This should not be considered legal advice. I'm just going to give you a general overview of the principles involved with some examples.)

You can't copyright ideas.

Copyright is supposed to protect the specific expression of ideas, not the idea itself. (Note that you can patent ideas, but that's a whole different discussion.) So:

Plagiarism is taking ideas and claiming them as your own. While there are lots of legal ins and outs, plagiarism is, in its purest form, not illegal. It's unethical and will get you fired from a job, or disgraced in public, and potentially sued and all sorts of things like that.

Copyright violation is the actual copying/theft of Intellectual Property covered by copyright. For ease of typing, I'm going to call this "IP Theft."

So, if you can't copyright ideas, only expression of ideas: Plagiarism is about the ideas, and IP theft is about the expression. They often overlap, but one can exist without the other.

For instance:

  • A book pirate doesn't claim to have written the book he distributes, so he isn't committing plagiarism -- he's committing IP theft.
  • A college professor builds a theory on the ideas of his graduate assistants, and doesn't credit them, but he doesn't use their words or specific expression, so he's not committing IP theft -- he's a plagiarist.
  • A blogger takes material from other blogs and posts it on her own blog, without crediting the original authors -- she's a plagiarist AND an IP thief.

The first is illegal, the second is unethical, the third is both.

But in the area of the arts, it gets more complicated. There are huge sociological issues involved (as an old musicologist once said "Plagiarism is basic to all culture"). We build our culture and art on the previous generation, art is commentary on what went before, etc. I'm not going into that other than acknowledge that the issue exists.

The question I want to get into, though, is whether Harper Collins -- if they did what was alleged -- committed plagiarism or actually crossed the line into IP theft.

Once upon a time, what they did would not be considered IP Theft. If you look at the two covers, they did not physically duplicate the original cover. They built it out of photographs of their own: It's a different woman, a different dress, a different bird, a different landscape, a different font.

They did what Microsoft did when they first created MS-DOS back in the eighties. Microsoft had created PC-DOS under contract for IBM. IBM owned it. But Microsoft redeveloped MS-DOS using "clean" processes -- programmers who weren't involved in the original development, and with no knowledge of the code involved. They were given the specifications and told to re-program the exact same thing from scratch. As long as they weren't actually copying, but just "putting it in their own words" so to speak, they had some legal cover.

You could say they were plagiarizing, but not violating IP laws.

However, since that time, there have been a lot of "look and feel" court cases -- some won, some lost -- and so just doing it from scratch on your own isn't good enough these days.

One good example is that famous "Hope" poster of Obama. The artist used a press photograph of Obama as a model for the painting. He painted that image himself, from scratch. He did not duplicate the photograph and run it through Photoshop -- he drew it. And it's clearly an illustration, not a photograph. It is, if anything, more different from that original photograph than this Harper Collins cover is from the original cover.

However, in composition, it is identical. He may have done the work himself, but he copied the photograph. And as the case progressed, there was a great deal of discussion as to what constituted the photographer's "expression of ideas" -- and one point was that the composition was the essence of that photograph. The artist tried to get out of it by claiming to have drawn the picture from another photograph taken by the same artist -- one where the composition involved several people -- but that was found to be a false claim.

In the end, I don't think this got to a court ruling. I think the artist settled the case.

Now, Harper Collins could claim that the similarity is a coincidence. With millions of artists striving to get a similar effect, there are bound to be some amazing coincidences in expression. It happens all the time. Except....

If the original artist does indeed have evidence that Harper Collins did indeed attempt to buy the design, then that's proof that the copy was indeed intentional.

And then the question goes back to whether they copied an idea or the expression of the artist. Usually the result of such "gray area" cases depends on who has the best lawyers. However, some really great lawyers have been fighting on the other side in this one -- such as Disney's attempts to broaden its hold on its own intellectual property. The precedent may be set, and may make it harder for Harper Collins to run over the artist on this one.

(Although, frankly, I wouldn't count on it.)

But as I said earlier, I am not a lawyer. Usually these things sort themselves out with a settlement with a non-disclosure agreement -- so we may not even know how it shakes out.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Expert - a Has-been Drip Under Pressure

That was an old joke I learned as a kid. An "ex" is a has-been. A "spurt" is a drip under pressure. So an "expert" is a has-been drip under pressure.

Everybody's an expert at something.

You will come across readers who know more than you do about things you're writing. You will also come across people who THINK they know more than you do, but don't.

You do your research (or dig deep for your own authentic but unique experience) to please the former, and that sets you up for criticism from the latter. Sometimes you can even see it coming before you start to write....

I have been reading Punch magazines from the WWI era this week, which is the era which inspires The Misplaced Hero. The series will take place in an alternate world, which is based on the adventure story or silent movie version of reality of the times. Since it is an alternate world, I can mash things up all I want, but since it is a time of cultural shift, I do feel the need to adhere to a certain chronology.

For instance, we'll likely first meet Lady Pauline at a Suffragist rally. She will be a daring and modern young thing -- a proto-flapper. But of course, it's too early for her to actually BE a flapper, because that's a part of the whole post-suffrage state-of-mind, isn't it?

Isn't it?

Apparently not.

I have come across at least three references to "flappers" in 1914 jokes and cartoons so far. And yes, the word seems to apply to wild and daring young women. In one case, the reference implied loose women (i.e. a man spending all his money on partying and flappers) and another to a flapper as a star struck young groupie, seeking autographs of the famous.

Not sure I'll ever need to use the word "flapper" specifically. Still, I find it ironic that even though I now know it's a common 1914 concept, I feel more comfortable using it in a fantasy world than I ever would in a realistic fiction of the time. (After all, I would have looked askance at someone who used the word "flapper" pre-war.)

I guess what William Goldman said really is true: Nobody knows anything.

See you in the funny papers.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Week In Review - August 13, 2001 - Darth Vader, Place-Holders, and Hot Wings

I understand that, during the filming of Return of the Jedi, there was this one spot in the script where they couldn't think of the right line of dialog, so they just put in a placeholder. "Darth Vader says something to get Luke mad."

They left it like that well into the filming of the movie, until they finally found the right line -- or actually, the right subject for the line. Darth should realize that Luke has a sister and say something about that. A ha! Perfect thing to get Luke to react.

I really liked hearing that story, because I use placeholders like that myself all the time.

In some ways, that kind of placeholder is a MacGuffin. "The thing that the spies are after but the audience don't care," as Hitchcock described it. The spies are after the whatsis, and you can sometimes write a whole book without knowing what the whatsis is, and it doesn't matter. Because after all, the story isn't about the whatsis, it's about the characters and their struggles.

But sometimes the placeholder does matter. It may not matter to the audience even, but it may need to be something that matters critically to the characters. Luke Skywalker is mostly trained, and so Vader can't get him to react by saying "Your mother wears army boots!" He needs to say something which Luke will care about. He needs to find the chink in Luke's armor.

I bring this up because, as I mentioned, I write with placeholders all the time. The first generation of the story goes through my head in a dreamlike state -- often with blank spots where MacGuffin-like elements reside. Some of those things are true MacGuffins, and don't matter what they turn out to be. I can just backfill later whether it's the plans to a secret weapon, or an assassination plot, or a stash of diamonds. Other placeholders, though, take a lot of thinking to find the exact right detail to work with the emotional trajectory I have established.

And this week I finally found the perfect, beautiful detail to fill one of those spaces in my book. I needed to know what Karla would say to George in a particular circumstance, something which would put him on the right track. Something which would help the whole story transition to a new direction.

And this week, I realized exactly what she would say. It was so exactly right, I had to do a little happy dance around the room.

Write-A-Thon Update

So.... Last week I extended my write-a-thon efforts until Sunday. But now I think I'm going to stick a fork in it today. The little epiphany mentioned above gave me a burst of writing which officially got me to the point where I need to stop doing raw word count, and take the time to pull everything into place. Yes, there are still holes to fill, but this last piece of the puzzle galvanized the story, and I think I need to see it whole before I know what the last steps are.

I'm going to take a week or two to pull the darn thing together, and really see what the last push needs. I'll deal with a chapter or two a night... so on my week in review on the 27th, I'll announce what I think I need for the final push. I don't think it will be a lot.

Regardless, I'll probably set some short term goals for a couple of weeks at that time. Even if the WIP is done, I have other projects.

The next big dare which interests me is the A Round Of Words in 80 Days effort. It's a nice, freeform blogfest which has gone three times so far. They are currently in a "Round" until September 22. If they stay true to form, they should start the next round at the beginning of October, and it should last until around the end of the semester.

This is a better length and focus for me than NaNoWriMo. (For one thing, the rules of the game are flexible enough that you probably could do NaNo in the middle of it.) I'm going to set my goals lower this time, though: 625 words a day for 80 days, to make 50k words by the end. I need to do something which I know I will keep up every single day. I may even set the daily goal lower -- to 500 words -- and just have the overall goal a little higher so I'm not tempted to slack off from the minimum if I have a few good days in a row.

Drawings Of The Week

Nothing showing at the movies still. I have, however, been visually entertaining myself by looking at old issues of Punch magazine from WWI. Punch was kind of a cross between the funnier parts of the New Yorker, and Mad Magazine. Every issue chock full of pen and ink sketches like the one you see here from 1917.

These are in a technique I'd like to be able to do better myself. And the period, of course, is when I set The Misplaced Hero. So... I've decided to do a pencil sketch on scrap paper from some Punch cartoons every day until I feel comfortable to start playing with my own illustrations.

I haven't got anything worth showing yet, though, so I'm just posting the image from Punch. The artist in this case is L. R. Brightwell, a great illustrator who was in the army at the time. (The scene being depicted shows an officer giving an order in incomprehensible slang, and the private, who was an English professor before the war, having no idea what he's saying.)

Tasty Food of the Week - Hot Wings

We had a party at work (as we do whenever we can) and I made my version of "hot wings" -- which are a particularly succulent version. They are baked.

First line the baking pan with tinfoil. It makes cleaning up MUCH easier, and the foil is recyclable. Then....

The marinade is equal parts fresh squeezed lemon juice, Sriracha hot sauce, and dry sherry. (This makes a tasty substitute for "Red Hot" or "tabasco" sauces as well. I will often keep a squeeze bottle of it in the fridge.)

Arrange the wings in the pan, douse with the sauce and bake at 350 or so. Douse them with more sauce after fifteen minutes or so. Sometime after that, the pan should be accumulating juice from the chicken as well as the marinade. At that point, I'll just use that sauce to baste a couple more times, until they start to brown.

You don't have to baste after the first two bastings, mind you, but the more you baste, the more the hot sauce flavors the skin.

If they seem like they're done, but they havne't started to brown, you can turn the heat up a little to finish them off.

Serve with rice, celery and bleu cheese dressing. (Note, even if you don't like bleu cheese, you may want to give the taste combination a try. The bitter of the cheese really hops up the flavor of the wings, as well as cuts the heat.) I often include strips of sweet red pepper or even carrots with the celery. The sweet goes well with it all. Plus you need something healthy with this rich dish.

See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Editorial Calendar - August 2011 - Things to Write Right Now

Sorry so long in getting this first editorial calendar up. (In future I hope to post it around the first of the month.)

Earlier today I posted about why you might want to use an editorial calendar to write seasonal material. I pointed out that there are three time frames you should be thinking about: Immediate use such as blogging; short term deadlines, such as self-publishing or really fast online magazines; and the longer term deadlines you'll see with traditional print magazines.

In August, you should be thinking about stories and articles (and poems, cartoons, jokes, and anything else) involving September, November, and February/March.

Below are some official calendar events which happen in these months, but you may want to add things of your own.

Immediate Use: September
(For blogs, personal use and development -- and also a big head start on the long term deadlines for next year)

September is the month of too many tomatoes and back-to-school, and first football games.
  • Sep 5 Labor Day
  • Sep 8 International Literacy Day
  • Sep 10 Carl Garner Federal Lands Cleanup Day
  • Sep 10 World Suicide Prevention Day
  • Sep 11 National Grandparents Day
  • Sep 11 9-11/Patriot Day
  • Sep 15 International Day of Democracy
  • Sep 16 World Ozone Layer Day
  • Sep 16 National POW/MIA Recognition Day
  • Sep 16 'Constitution Day and Citizenship Day' observed
  • Sep 17 Constitution Day and Citizenship Day
  • Sep 19 International Talk Like a Pirate Day
  • Sep 21 International Day of Peace
  • Sep 22 World Maritime Day
  • Sep 23 Autumnal equinox
  • Sep 25 Gold Star Mother's Day
  • Sep 25 World Heart Day
  • Sep 27 World Tourism Day
  • Sep 28 World Rabies Day
  • Sep 29 Rosh Hashana

Short Term Deadlines: November
(For self-publishing, and other other shorter term publishing cycles.)

In the north, November is often the month of first snow. What is the weather where you are?
  • Nov 1 All Saints' Day
  • Nov 6 Daylight Saving Time ends
  • Nov 8 Election Day
  • Nov 10 World Science Day
  • Nov 11 Veterans Day
  • Nov 24 Thanksgiving Day
  • Nov 25 Black Friday (i.e. the day the Americans ALL hit the Mall for Xmas shopping at once.)
  • Nov 27 First Sunday Advent

Long Term Deadlines: Feb/March
(For submission to traditional print magazines.)

February is the shortest month, and sometimes feels like the longest, at least in the northern hemisphere, when everyone gets sick of winter. March is the month of Basketball's "March Madness" and of spring fever. And in the north is often referred to as "mud season."
  • Feb 2 Groundhog Day
  • Feb 3 Chinese New Year
  • Feb 12 Lincoln's Birthday (CT, IL, MO, NJ, NY)
  • Feb 14 Valentine's Day
  • Feb 21 Presidents' Day
  • Feb 29 Leap Day
  • Mar 2 Texas Independence Day (TX)
  • Mar 2 Read Across America Day
  • Mar 8 International Women's Day
  • Mar 8 Purim
  • Mar 11 Daylight Saving Time starts
  • Mar 17 St. Patrick's Day
  • Mar 20 Vernal equinox
  • Mar 21 World Poetry Day

If you have suggestions for additional events and subjects, please put them in the comments.

See you in the funny papers.

Boost Your Writing with an Editorial Calendar

Seasonal material sells. So does topical (trendy) material.

People like to read about things which are already on their minds. It doesn't matter whether what they're feeling is joy, or anger, or annoyance, they are attracted to things which express those feelings.

Editors know this, and that's why it's often easier to break into a more difficult market with a good seasonal story or article, or with one which is on a hot topic. Hot topics, however, are usually a matter of luck. A trend happens once and fades. News stories come and go. And once they're gone, interest in them is gone too.

Seasonal material, however, is perennial. It comes back every year. It can be planned for.

Writers who write short -- whether it's short stories and novelettes, poems, or jokes, or articles or blog posts -- always benefit from having seasonal material. Preferably not just Christmas stories (which happens only once a year, and has lots of competition) but material relating to Tax Day, or Election Day, or Talk Like A Pirate Day.

And depending on what you're writing this for, you need to plan ahead. Way ahead. For instance;

With Traditional Magazine Markets: Many markets want a six month lead time at least, so if you want to write a Christmas story, August is already too late. Especially if you haven't written it yet. Right now, however is a great time to be thinking of Valentine's Day stories, which you could start submitting in September.

If you're self-publishing, or know of some online markets which are faster on their feet, you still want to leave time for editing, formatting, and covers. And you also may want to leave time for the story to trickle through distribution systems, and also time to gather some reviews and do some promotion.

So for the self-publisher, now it the time to be thinking about Thanksgiving and Veterans Day stories and articles.

And for the blogger, you may only want a little time to think up the story, and set it aside before polishing it. Sure you could write something and post it instantly, but odds are, you need a little creative time for some projects -- so in August, bloggers should probably be thinking about September and Labor Day, and Back-To-School, and, yes, Talk Like A Pirate Day.

To keep on top of this, it helps to have an editorial calendar of events and subjects. And to that end, I am going to start a new monthly feature on this blog: a calendar of topics 1-month, 4-months and 7-months out. I'll be posting that first calendar sometime later today.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Except to Editorial Order (When You Should Rewrite)

I am a proponent of Heinlein's Rules of Writing, including his rule about not rewriting except to editorial order.

But I admit to you that I do rewrite. And that many, happy, healthy successful writers also rewrite. And I have wanted to blog about that for a while now, but I couldn't get a hook into what I wanted to say, until the other day when Dean Wesley Smith wrote his post about how writers must practice.

One big thing he points out is that rewriting is not practice. I've said this before; you don't learn from rewriting. You learn from writing anew. Except....

Dean pointed out one more thing that is important about learning: You need a goal. Practice doesn't work without a goal. In some ways, you could even say that practice isn't about actual learning -- not about the "discovery" side of learning anyway: It's about taking what you've learned and mastering it.

Rewriting is something that comes late in the mastery process, if not after the end of it. It's for when you know what you need, for certain. It's also something which requires a specific goal.

Don't Be Your Own Bad Editor

Junior editors, especially new junior editors, are famous for pissing on a writer's manuscript. Sometimes they are trying to be creative, but most of the time, they're just trying to prove that they're doing their job by using up a lot of red ink. If they didn't cover your manuscript with "corrections" they might be accused of not doing their jobs. If those edits were really justified, the head editor wouldn't have accepted your manuscript in the first place. I've never had a problem restoring the manuscript.

Top editors, on the other hand, usually have a concrete reason that has nothing to do with creativity -- house style, clarity, length, reading level. If they want something changed on a creative level, they leave it to the writer. After all, that's your job.

When it comes to rewriting, most writers act as though they are that junior editor. "It's a rough draft! It couldn't be good! Fix those errors!" And so we go in without any goal but finding errors whether they are there or not.

Unless you know there is something wrong, don't mess with it. And don't edit because you have some fuzzy emotional belief that it could be better. If you don't know, leave it be.

You Should Be a Good Editor

As writers we're used to fixing up any little problems you see as you read through the manuscript. That fine, that's a tidy work habit... but it's not editing. Editing is a job, distinct from writing. When the time comes to make a real editing pass, you need to know what job you're doing. Proofreading? Copy editing? Line Editing? Story Editing? They each have different goals. And if you try to bunch them together, you will miss things. Edit with a purpose.

For proofreading, the goal is a clean manuscript. This is something even beginners can do and understand. Fix the mistakes -- at least the ones you know about.

And that's a lesson beyond proofreading, btw: If you have problems with grammar and spelling, you can't fix what you don't know, right? You've got to study and practice first. What makes you think any of your other writing skills are any different?

With copy editing the goal is a consistent manuscript (i.e. making sure your more optional grammatical and spelling choices are consistent, story continuity, time line errors, things like that). For the advanced writer, this may also involve clarity -- just as long as editing for clarity doesn't mess with the voice. That's when it moves into the creative stuff.

For the beginning writer, though, I think clarity does get into the creative stuff, and so maybe should be treated as line editing. And line editing is where people start crossing into that hazy undefined area which gets them into trouble.

Line editing is about voice.

And you can't edit for voice if you don't have one, don't know the purpose of your "voice" choices, and can't identify the elements of your voice. When you have a voice and the skill and knowledge to understand how it works, line editing kicks in to support it. And for that matter, so do the larger matters of story editing.

Editing and rewriting is not writing well. You have to learn to write well first. Then, yes, higher levels of editing may take you to another level -- but it won't get you there before you actually do write well.

Quick story: I heard an interview with a young violinist who studied with Isaac Stern. When she started, she told him that she didn't want to be a "mere virtuoso." That is, somebody who showed off a lot of fancy skill and didn't display real sensitivity to music. And Stern told her, "If you want to be more than a virtuoso, then first you have to be a virtuoso."

It's like that.

Writing Well

We think of line editing as being about "writing well." But consider this: Good writing is not generic. It's not something which has to do with black and white rules the way proofreading does. Or even the relatively universal rules of copy editing. Writing well is about voice.

Voice flows from the story. You can't edit it in later. It doesn't adhere to rules; it makes its own, and they are there and internally consistent, and you have to be able to recognize and discover them.

When you first write, your voice may be fuzzy and inconsistent, like a photograph which is out of focus, and has one part over-exposed and another part under-exposed. Editing that is like trying to fix such a photo in Photoshop. Yes, sometimes you can make it look a little better -- if you really understand exactly what is missing and what is wrong with it in a technical sense -- but you can't actually fix it. You're better off taking another photo, if you possibly can. Sometimes you can't and that's why you use Photoshop.

You CAN always write another story.

Which isn't to say that you can't learn from looking at the previous story. Studying your mistakes is not a bad idea. It won't help you fix that story, but it helps you identify things to work on. That's how you set your goals for your next writing project.

And by looking and then writing more, and writing more, you will slowly start to understand voice. But alas....

With Understanding Comes The Dreaded Internal Editor

You will know exactly when you start to get a handle on voice. It will be obvious, because something bad will happen.

Your internal editor will go into hyperdrive.

You won't enjoy reading like you used to. You'll start to see "flaws" in everything. On the rare occasions you don't find flaws, you're so busy noticing how well the story is written that you no longer actually experience the story.

Don't worry about it. It's normal and natural. This will pass if you persist.

The key is to learn to get a rope on that pesky internal editor. When you hit that state, that's the signal: Go Zen. Stop judging. Stop thinking about errors and right and wrong. When you see passive voice, don't let yourself think "that's wrong, I hate it!" and start thinking "why did this author use passive voice here?"

Accept what is, and think instead what it means. Here's the reason:

When you have strong rules in your mind -- like "don't use passive voice" -- you're operating in a Generic Voice. You need to move to your own voice. And to the story's voice.

So how do you get there? Well, you don't get there by consciously saying "My voice will be bright and perky" or "My voice will be stark and harsh." You develop voice by gaining control of it.

You got this far by practicing. Okay, keep that up. But now you have acquired a pesky internal editor. That editor is trying to be a teacher or authority figure. You've got to move him to a more of a support and enabling role. Like a librarian. Your editor is there to observe stuff and help understand it: not just know the rules, but how the rules work.

Think of it this way:

A dozen years ago I had a co-worker who was a highly competent, neat, efficient kind of guy. He was the perfect guy to lead our team, and though I'm more of the messy sort of person, we got on great. One thing he used to do is go through our storage areas and clean out old junk -- adapters, cables, records. And when he'd do that, I would always comb through the trash and pull a few things back out and put them in my office. And he would watch me do it, and he'd scowl thoughtfully.

It was never long before we had a technology crisis, and I saved his bacon by supplying the exact right adapter which I saved from the trash. This only had to happen twice before he started bringing junk to me and asking my permission to throw it away. I would explain to him what uses I could see for the item, and leave him to decide for himself whether we needed that item or not.

Now, the reason I could give him that information was not because I was smarter than he was -- I most certainly wasn't -- but because I had been around longer. Every crisis that came along -- whether it was technological, a problem with the aging building, a cheating vendor, a misunderstanding, or simple bone-headed decision-making on the part of those above us -- I had seen it before. Multiple times.

And in the end, he still threw most of the junk away. But we were all more prepared to deal with the crisis for having talked about it, and we had critical stuff on hand when we needed it.

Now, here is the kicker: I'm not the muse in that story, and the co-worker is not the internal editor. We're BOTH the internal editor. Our team was in a support role for the faculty who did the real work.

You need an internal editor which supports your muse: which knows when to stand back, and knows that there is always a circumstance in which junk is not junk, but the exact right thing you need. But also knows when to dismiss things and not hang on to them because you always have before. You need an editor which can come up with a solution when your muse needs it, whether that solution is an old tool, or a new innovative idea.


If you're starting out, don't worry about rewriting, because you don't know enough. Learn the basic stuff -- grammar, clarity, copy editing -- and do that kind of editing. Gain experience by writing more. Sure, look at your old work and get feedback on it, but don't worry about fixing it. Just move forward.

If you're in the state where your internal editor is messing with your ability to read, then you have to move past the "judgmental" stage. You're ready to start developing your voice properly. Go zen. Forget good and bad, and start working to master the principles. Have the control to be as bad or good as you want.

And when you have enough control to define what you want out of a rewrite, then yeah, maybe you should play with that. But do it with a purpose, not out of habit or because you think you're supposed to.

"No rewriting" is a rule, after all. Rules are meant to be broken.

See you in the funny papers.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Week in Review - The Stock Market, Lawrence Block, and Crispy Eggplant

This week we had an exciting economy, I went sideways on the Write-a-thon, Lawrence Block and Dean Wesley Smith posted different takes on dealing with your muse. Plus a 70's TV show, and some crispy eggplant.

Patience is a Virtue

This week I lost about $5000 in the stock market in my Roth IRA. I think that's slightly more that I've actually invested in that account. Oh Noes!

At least it would be oh noes if it weren't for the 47k+ in gains that remained in my account, in spite of the "horrible" losses. That 47k+ mostly comes from an original 2k investment about ten years ago. Two years ago, I invested another 2k or so while the market is low, but that hasn't had time to build yet.

Also, about an hour after the market plunged today, it changed its mind and soared instead.

Folks, that's what investments do. Short term, they buck and plunge and soar like an angry bronco. Long term, they pay off. Slowly, irregularly, but with certainty, at least if you do your due diligence, and invest in a balance of good stock, and remain patient. The best way to lose your money is to try to play the market short term.

Writers, especially indie writers, have a tendency to treat their books the way bad investors treat their money. They don't see their writing as an investment, but rather as a product, and they put way too much energy and worry into selling it, and "valuing" (pricing) it.

Folks, intellectual property is capital, not a perishable product, not a manufactured good, and not a commodity. When you write, you're investing. Investment is long term. The value of the asset endures, unless you mismanage it.

A good investor lets that capital mature, and concentrates on acquiring more assets, rather than fussing at the ones she's got. An investor isn't a trader or a salesman, an investor invests.

And just as investors invest, writers write. You increase your wealth, your career, your audience, by increasing your capital holdings - i.e. writing.

When I look at the world of indie publishing, I see something ironic going on: those who are most excited about making money at indie publishing waste all their time marketing rather than building assets. Those who don't care about making a living are the ones doing what they should do: writing.

We are about to enter a strange new era in literature, I think. The Rise of the Amateur. Or, since these "amateurs" are going to be making money, maybe a better phrase would be The Rise of the Hobbyist. Expect to see some posts about this from me this fall.


This weekend wraps up the Clarion Write-A-Thon. Don't forget that it's a worthy cause, and if you can afford to donate a few bucks, there is still time.

In the meantime, I'm going on for another week. I'm just shy of 24,000 words (not including today's word count) and no where near the 50k I had set as a goal. I will not make that, but I should have a decent writing week. I will probably not finish the WIP. See my comments under the "Links of the Week" for more on that. Lawrence Block had a great post this week regarding the subject.

This past week or so has been an incredibly creative time for me. (That whole boredom thing is working out nicely.) I've got so many good stories bouncing in my head, the only problem is that they're all fighting each other to get out first.

But I'm also having thoughts about my non-fiction writing. I've come to realize that I'm more of a natural at that than I ever believed I was. It's much easier for me to knock off 2000 words in a sitting of blogging, for instance. I'm wondering if I ought to make better use of that.

Book News

*I got the proofs on a fun little ebook anthology Pink Snowbunnies In Hell. Twenty flash fiction stories and a couple of poems, all from the writing prompt "Pink snowbunnies will ski in hell..." My story is called "Revenge of the Peeps" and it is a Starling and Marquette story -- the characters from the WIP which I am pretending to finish as we speak.

Look for it soon! (I'll announce with hoopla.)

*The paperback version of Have Gun, Will Play is now, at last, available for purchase from Amazon. It's even linked to the Kindle version (hoorah hoorah) but I think there are still some glitches in the listing -- including the fact that the "look inside" actually looks inside the Kindle version, not the paper one. (I suppose it doesn't matter, but it isn't laid out like a paper book, and looks funny.)

I might do a giveaway this fall. Also might sell autographed copies direct. Have to look into the logistics.

Links of the Week

Lawrence Block wrote a great post on why he gets tired of people asking him for more Bernie Rhodenbarr books. It's nice to see someone as prolific and terrific as he is state outright that he doesn't write to spec. Even if he has a book mostly done... he doesn't know if it ever will be finished until he finishes it.

Nurturing the muse is a tricky business. You've got to train yourself to be tough, and to keep up with her. You have to be careful of using the "it just isn't flowing right" as an excuse. But at the same time, if you waste time fighting with something that wants to go slower, that is purely time wasted. Write something else.

At the same time Dean Wesley Smith wrote a great post on "Practice" which takes kind of the opposite view. Except it isn't. Dean doesn't believe in writer's block, but he does believe in project block. He believes some projects do stall on you. But that doesn't mean you should stop writing. The key is to keep going with something else. (Hey, didn't I just say that in the previous paragraph?)


Didn't go to the movies this week, but I've been watching some episodes of The Adventures of Ellery Queen. The mystery plots are very puzzle oriented, very intricate, and I'm reminded once again of how Levinson and Link partly created Murder, She Wrote as an easier whodunnit, after the failure of EQ.

All the same, EQ was a wonderful show, stylish, with fun characters and situations.

You don't need to solve the crime before Ellery, and heck, I don't even always mind when they cheat a little and withhold some information. (Though I don't like it when they do that too much.) Levinson and Link worked their asses off to write that show -- making it work as a drama AND as a puzzle. And not enough people appreciated it.

But I did, and I do. A lot of golden age mysteries had intricate plots but were light on story. I so love those that did both. This is one place where I disagree with Dean Wesley Smith on the idea of fussing and rewriting. Yes, I know where he's coming form, but some books are not performances, some books are sculptures or paintings. When the structure is complete, they may be mere sketches. The work itself may need many more layers. The key is knowing when it's done... and stopping.

Tasty Food of the Week

I had to have some Sichuan food tonight, in particular a dish which is called something like "flaky puffy eggplant" in Chinese, but usually translated to "Crispy Eggplant" or in this case "Eggplant in Sweet Sauce." Sticks of eggplant coated in a light fluffy batter and deep=fried, and then tossed in a slightly sweet garlic sauce as soon as it comes out of the fryer. It was particularly good with the salty Sichuan string beans.

See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Value Of Boredom

Indie publishing is an exciting, task-filled, event-filled, fun-filled land of opportunity in which it is almost impossible to be bored.

I'm not talking about the writing, or reading. I'm talking about activities. Sales, marketing, stats keeping, bookkeeping, schmoozing, ranting, talking, learning, blogging, formatting, font shopping, more schmoozing, email checking, and marketing, marketing, marketing, marketing.

And none of this compares to the high volume of entertainment you can get out of checking your stats.

But that's no different than anybody else in America who finds themselves endlessly enthralled (for good or bad) by Angry Birds, and videos of cats riding roombas, breaking news stories, or an endless cycle of "The World's Most Dangerous Auction Makeovers" on cable TV. Or even opera and brilliant classic movies.

In this day and age, we never ever ever have to be bored. And that's not actually a good thing.

(Pause for the Little-Old-Lady-Shakes-Her-Cane-At-The-Kids rant.)

A good portion of how I became a writer came from the Slow Days Of Summer. I can't believe it when I think of it. We had this OLD 1890s farmhouse -- didn't even have central heating up there in northern lower Michigan -- where we lived all summer, and most weekends during the rest of the year. I often had my horse, and sometimes friends and cousins, but for the most part, it was a place of silence. No place to go, nothing to do, only one channel on television, and all it played was Hee Haw. And the days were very long up there in summer, and you couldn't ride all day.

And yet, I just couldn't wait to get up there. Even in the winter when there were no horses, no friends at all, and it was freezing cold inside the house. And we wore our full winter coats to bed.

But there was always the musty wall paper and four-foot high beds and the room we were afraid to go into because the floor might collapse.

The appeal, I think, was that there was not a whole lot of intellectual noise going on in the place. Even in the most active moments, when I took my horse out and we climbed dunes and explored lichens and checked out thickets and antique trash heaps. There was a lot to be interested in, but it was all tactile and visual. It never enthralled me. Never got me engaged to the point of urgency where I had to do it, where I had to keep going....

It never competed with what was going on in my head.

And because my attention was not sucking up endless amounts of energy, my unconscious mind -- the dream part of my mind -- had plenty of time to work.

It's important for writers to realize that boredom is not the enemy. As readers, we avoid boredom -- it's the thing that makes us pick up books. But writers, I think, should quell that instinct. Stop looking for diversion. Start learning to resist diversion.

A few years ago, when my day job situation got to feeling pretty threatening, I got rid of cable TV as an unnecessary expense. I was surprised at how much of a difference it made in my life. I'm not anti-TV. I still watch all my favorite shows on the internet or DVD. But all of a sudden the noise was gone.

But more than that. There was a particular kind of noise that went away with cable TV. Television is all about "URGENCY!" Not just the ads, or even the drama shows, but the whole thing. Heck, the news and information shows are the worst.
"Coming up next, Scary News About Breast Cancer."
"Politicians Are Doing Something Nefarious In Washington!"
"These Five Tips Could Make Your Home Double In Value!"
"That Awful Bitch Is Going to Win Dancing With The Stars!"
"Your Hair Sucks, but You Can Fix It!!"

Urgency hypes up the audience, makes them feel the very opposite of bored. Urgency makes you feel alive, involved, and it's also bad for your health. It raises your blood pressure, causes you to release stress hormones. It causes the irrational part of your brain to take greater control, and makes you susceptible to manipulation. And it crowds out creativity.

We know this about television.

But the internet is all about urgency too.

Unlike television, the internet is interactive. We can be heard in the din, so we become like a crowd of children, each speaking a little louder, more persistently, finding a higher perch to project our voices from.

We can also make a difference, which is completely unlike television. If someone is wrong on TV, all you can do is listen. But when someone is wrong on the internet, you can correct him! We've all seen the famous cartoon, in which the character can't go to bed because someone is wrong on the internet. It's an urgent matter. He must be heard.

Do you know why he must be heard? What makes it so important? Because he is not bored. He's fully engaged. He's excited. For all his bitching, he's happy.

And that's his problem.

He is helpless in the face of his own full-throttle, full-engagement complete lack of boredom.

Last week I quit hanging out on a certain indie writer forum. A number of people messaged me to say they had thought about quitting, but where would they go? They didn't know of any other board which was as useful or vibrant or ... urgent.

A part of me was rational and said: hey, this place is a time sink, I don't want to replace it with another place just like it...I want to replace it with some other kind of vibrant, useful, exciting place.

Hi. My name is Camille, and I have an excitement addiction.

So I have a suggestion for those who want to find something to replace some internet time suck:

Replace the board with the bored.

Rediscover the joy of watching traffic go by, of poking at lichens on the side of a tree. Of letting your imagination unfold.



Divert yourself.

Let your brain out of that captivity of urgent online activity.

One of the things I'm doing is poking around at Project Gutenberg. I'm staying away from things I normally like, and looking for things which don't usually interest me much. PG is like an attic full of dusty old books, on a long day at the end of summer when there is nothing to do. It's a great place to rediscover the joys of discovery.

I'm going to write a little more about the fruits of that activity. But later. I got dreaming to do.

See you in the funny papers.