Monday, October 31, 2011

Help a Fellow Writer Reviewer

I don't usually ask for things like this, but a fellow writer whom I know from the Short Mystery Fiction Society is really hit the bottom of his resources. He and his family -- one parent on disability, the other recovering from a series of strokes, both kids with special needs -- are on the verge of being homeless.

Please help the Tipple Family.

They've been depending on the kindness of strangers (or at least online friends) for a while now. They don't need a lot; they aren't looking to pay off major medical bills or even fix the car. All it takes is a few people making small donations to pay the rent.

Or if you need to buy things from Amazon, you might consider entering the store through a link on Kevin's page so he can get a commission (which won't help immediately, but income down the line will always help in a case like this).

(Update -- they've made their rent for this month. Phew. Check out the front page of the above mentioned blog for more info.)

"Death And The Writer" - Flash Fiction for Halloween

For Halloween, I give you a fanciful little story I wrote this summer. It isn't polished, but it seemed... appropriate.

Death and the Writer
by Camille LaGuire

DEATH CAME TO a writer one night and as is usual with writers, the man cried and begged and said;

"Please! Just let me finish this book! It's almost done and it's everything to me."

"That's what they all say," said Death, who wasn't using a cliche, but telling the exact truth. That was what all writers say. He was tired of it.

The writer snatched the first page off the pile on his desk and held it up for Death to see. "Read it," he said. "Read it and see if you don't agree."

Death sighed, but as he reached to knock the paper aside, he happened to read the first sentence, and it was interesting. So he took the paper, and read a little more and thought it really was very interesting. The story had a nice hook to it, and made you want to read more.

But Death wasn't there to read so he dropped the page to go after the writer again, but the writer held out the second page. Which was also very good.

Death sat down and read the entire thing. It was really very very good up until about page 250 or so, when the plot began to falter and seemed to wander aimlessly.

"You see?" said the writer. "It really is a worthy book. I just have to find an ending that's worthy of it. I'm almost there. I've got some hot new ideas for following up on the sailor's story and tying everyone in that way...."

"All right," said Death. "I've never done this before, but I'll give you a few more months."

"Oh, thank you. It'll be done by then."

"If not," said Death ominously, "it will never be done."

* * *
At the appointed time, Death returned to find that the author was not done yet. He was not surprised. People are never done with their life's work, especially artists. But he was a little disappointed. It would have been nice if, for once, the claim of artistic necessity had not been just a stall.

Since he had waited this long, though, he read through the manuscript before hauling the writer off to his doom.

And, of course, that it turned out the writer wasn't really stalling. The reason it wasn't done was because the writer had started over, and by golly it was better. It had more direction, and didn't wander off at all.

Death agreed to give the writer more time.

* * *

Some time later, Death showed up again. The writer clutched the manuscript to his chest and cried, "I'm not ready yet!"

"I know," said Death. "I'm early. I just wanted to check on your progress."

Unfortunately the writer had gotten stuck again, but the deadline wasn't up, so Death read through the story.

"Perhaps you should forget about all the bird symbolism," said Death. "It takes the story off course."

"No, no," said the writer. "It's actually reflects what the story is about, but the character doesn't know it."

"Hmmm," said Death, and he asked a few questions, and soon he spent the whole evening discussing the story with the writer, and between the two of them, they came up with a much more ambitious direction for the story, but a great one.

Death felt it was worth letting this one live longer. He was contributing to the betterment of civilization, which he usually only got the chance to do by clearing out the excess population. And that was a dreary way to contribute.

* * *

The story, ambitious as it was now, was very difficult to write, but Death kept giving an extension. This went on for many years.

Unfortunately, the writer's underlying health problems -- the reason Death was at his door in the first place -- only got worse, and he was in pain and getting older and more tired all the time.

So finally one day Death showed up at the writer's door and the writer was happy.

"It's done!" he said. "You can take me now!"

"Hmmm," said Death. He insisted on reading through the manuscript, and he found that the ending was less than stellar. "It is NOT done," said Death.

"Yes it is!" insisted the writer. "It's the best I can do. You can take me now."

"No, this ending is just tacked on to get it over with. I gave you all this time so you would write a brilliant book. It requires a brilliant ending. Finish it!"

"I won't!" said the writer. "I'm too old and sick and I'm done. If you don't take me, I'll kill myself. That's what I'll do."

"You cannot die if I don't take you," said Death.

"Well, what do you want done with it, then?" said the writer.

And Death sat down and they hammered out a better ending. Rather than leave, though, Death stuck around and made sure the writer worked on it. He paced the floor and when the writer was stuck, they threw ideas back and forth and eventually came up with the ideal ending.

Soon the book was perfect, and Death took the writer from life, both of them relieved to be done.

* * *

Ah, but it wasn't done. Since the writer was not there to sell the story to a publisher, Death haunted the man's apartment, invisible to all.

The landlady came in and snorted in disgust and began to throw things away. She picked up the manuscript and glanced at it, but only snorted again and threw it in the trash.

She promptly died of a heart attack.

Death put the manuscript back on the desk.

The landlady's nephews came to take over her property, and they hired a company to clear out everything in the apartment, without even looking at it.

Rather than wipe out the entire cleaning company, Death quietly took the manuscript and left. He'd just leave it on an acquisition editor's desk.

But the unfortunate editor noted that it had not been logged through the regular submission system, and had no return postage, and it was over 1000 pages long. He went out and fired his assistant and threw the manuscript in the recycling bin.

That editor died in a terrible accident that night, and Death retrieved the manuscript from the bin and went on to the next publishing house.

After the demise of three editors, one of whom did include a nice rejection slip, and four agents, Death realized that he wasn't doing the publishing world any good, except perhaps for the agent who had charged a large reading fee and then tried to sell him on some expensive editorial services. Death was simply not cut out for the process of selling a novel.

He considered blackmailing another writer into taking credit for it, but it wouldn't work if the person didn't have right kind of talent, and the voice had to match. And a truly great writer would have integrity. Death didn't want a hack to get credit for this novel. He needed someone who would treasure that novel as a work of great art -- support it out of love, not out of greed or fear.

Then one day Death was came across one of those dogs -- the ones that make the newspapers for being so loyal in death as they were in life. The little mutt mourned and whined away at his master's grave. That little dog would do anything for its master, and Death wished he could find someone that devoted to his manuscript.

And that's when it struck Death what the solution would be.

It was only a few months later that the news broke. One of the great poets of the age had died, a woman of great voice and strength, a Nobel laureate, struck down by a long illness at last after 98 years. And lo and behold, in her files was an unpublished novel. She'd always been a poet, who knew she could write such brilliant fiction?

The poet, of course, was beloved of many, but no one was more devoted than her granddaughter, who took it as her life's work was to see that the novel was not only well-published, but that its vision was well-protected from the vagaries of Hollywood and inane academics.

She lived an amazingly long life.

Tomorrow a few words on the writing of this story.

See you in the funny papers

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Week in Review-Preview, and ROW80 Update

A Round of Words in Eighty Days check in - second half of fourth week.

In the home stretch. How close will I come to making it by the time this post goes up?

Wednesday Day 24 - 0 minutes. After a long day at work, I screwed around and did some other things. And it looks like I'm actually going to get to bed on time.

Thursday Day 25 - 181 minutes. Yep that's just over three hours. I would have spent another hour, but I have to get up early tomorrow and I'm trying not to deprive myself of sleep. Aside from some good work finishing off another tricky scene (and ending up with a scene I enjoy thoroughly), I also paused to re-chapter.

I have given myself permission to skip around as much as necessary, but I have a little goal of getting done at least to the second shooting (which is more or less the climax of the second act) by the end of Saturday. Which would leave only Sunday and Monday to finish the end. (By the time this posts, I'll know whether that happened or not.)

Friday Day 26 - 0 minutes. I was tired, and then stress at home killed everything until about 1am. So I gave up for the night. We'll see how it goes tomorrow.

Saturday Day 27 - 120 minutes. I guess I didn't do so bad - but I did not get to the second shooting. I mostly cleaned up what I did Thursday, which means I didn't even make up for Friday. I lost a little momentum, but I'm still there and still pushing.

Sunday and Monday should be good writing days, but a couple of things are still up in the air.

Coming Attractions;

  • Monday - Flash Story for Halloween: "Death And The Writer"
  • Tuesday - Story Notes for "Death and the Writer"
  • Wednesday - ROW80 Update
  • Thursday - My Experiences With The Slush Pile, part 1, Teaching.

Thoughts on a slow sales month:

I came across a traditional author who has only just become aware of the terrible joys of watching your rankings and getting live sales reports. Writers who are new to immediate reports (which is most of us) are like new stock market investors -- and prone to great leaps of joy and great crashes of depression. So....

This is my second October since I started publishing with Kindle's Direct Publishing program. Still not much of a sampling, but this year I have a little more data. To whit: I have sold very very few books this month. Maybe a quarter of what I might expect.

And yet my Amazon sales ranking has... stayed pretty close to the same as it was when I was selling two to three times as many books.

So I think it's safe to state outright something I have always believed to be true: October ebooks sales suck for pretty much everybody on Amazon.

I mean, I'm sure there are people who are doing unusually well or badly this month -- there always are -- but since ranks are competitive, I couldn't be holding my rank quite so well if my competition was not also suffering from a drop in sales.

So if you are a writer and your sales have been slow lately, take heart. It's just a slow month.

Will November be better? I can't guess. I did some promotional stuff last year, so that throws off my estimate. (And I'll be screwing up this year's numbers with a sale later this month too.)

Think of it all as a learning experience.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Why NOBODY in Publishing Gets Amazon's New Publishing Enterprise

I decided to buy some new shoes tonight. I went to Zappos, which is my favorite place to get shoes online, but discovered that, alas, they did not have the shoes I wanted in my size. Before I settled for something else, something I didn't particularly want, I went over to, and checked, and by golly they DID have exactly what I wanted. So I bought them.

And as soon as I'd done that, everybody else in the family remembered something they've been meaning to get and can't find locally... a bra, cat toys, usb adapters, sinus relief products, etc.

Not one book in the bunch. Not even an ebook.

This is why no pundit out there, not one, actually gets what's going on with Amazon's publishing platform. Not one single pundit, blogger or publishing expert.

They think this is about book publishing.

Silly silly silly pundits.

(Hint, you'll never understand on what is going on at Amazon if you don't look beyond books and publishing. Heck, you won't understand it if you don't look beyond retail.)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Best Post for Writers in the Whole Wide World EVAR

Once again Kris Rusch has written a brilliant post about the experience of being a writer -- this one for all writers, as opposed to being aimed at pros and semi-pros.

Believe in Yourself <-- read this

This post says everything I want to get across to most writers I meet, and it touches on the reason I run screaming from so many writer's groups: The writers don't frickin' believe in themselves, and they are so certain of it, that they spend all their energy on convincing everyone else not to believe in themselves either. "Gasp! Whatever you do, don't believe in yourself. Only delusional people believe in themselves!"

Folks that way lies mediocrity.

(Which I'm going to write about next week, by golly, when I talk about my experiences reading slush.)

See you in the funny papers.

Editorial Standards, Pulp Fiction and eHow

I used to have a blog of tips and information for eHow writers.

eHow was an SEO article farm, which specialized in "How To" articles. The articles were "consumer written" -- which meant often by non-writers, or by writers who were hacking out crap just to make money. And there were no actual "editors," only a team who swept through the site after publication, looking for spam and other undesirable articles to delete.

I stumbled across this article in my archives, and I thought, golly, this is really apropos to the discussion of writing quality and editors, etc.

Editorial Standards, Pulp Fiction and eHow

The front page article today on eHow has some typos in it (probably fixed by now). This has prompted much green-eyed discussion (especially among writers who have had articles deleted recently) about how low eHow's standards are.

Don't get me wrong. Scads of typos in the front page "Article of the Day" doesn't look very professional. eHow should at least spend a little editorial time making sure that one article is perfect. It's not like it would cost much.

But eHow is not a slick (i.e. a high end magazine). They don't pay hundreds or even thousands for a front cover article. They don't even have a real editorial staff. eHow is more like a pulp magazine. They're down, they're dirty, and they are focused on giving the readers what they want. Pulps are more pragmatic and less polished. That's just the way it is.

I'll tell you a story I heard from Harlan Ellison to illustrate the point:

Ellison is an amazing, prize-winning short story writer. His stuff is gut-grabbing and literary, but he started in the pulps. He wrote for fractions of pennies per word, so he had to write a lot to make a living, and that volume made him fast and sure. Every word became like the strokes of a chef's knife, pretty only when necessary, but always accurate and to the point.

Now, the editorial needs of a pulp magazine are somewhat different than a fancier, high-paying magazine. They need what they need when they need it. For instance, the magazines would commission their lurid covers well in advance of getting the stories for the magazine. They'd just make up titles and author names, and writers would compete to get to write the stories. Of course, the biggest prize was the cover story itself - the story that matched the glowing yellow cover with the monster and the sexy babe on it.

Harlan tells of one time getting the cover story by luck. He found an editor one day all in a tizzy. The writer for the cover story of the next issue had flaked out on him. He needed a 20,000 word story the very next day, and he had nothing.

Harlan looked at the cover, which featured a giant glowing earthworm tearing the clothes off a buxom woman, and thought about it.

"You know, I've got a giant earthworm story that might fit."

"Great! Can you have to me tomorrow?"

"Gee, I don't know. It's only 18,000 words. I guess I could stay up all night working on it...."

Harlan got the assignment, got the money and glory for writing a featured cover story, and got paid extra for doing the rush job.

The thing is, he didn't have an 18,000 word story about alien worms raping the women of earth. Until he saw the cover, he hadn't even thought about such a story. He just went home and wrote the whole thing from scratch that night, turned it in in the morning and took home his payment and honor.

That story probably wasn't very good. Even with the Ellison touch, it probably would have been rejected by that same editor if it had come in over the transom (i.e., if it had been an unsolicited submission).

But because it was exactly what that client needed at that time, it didn't matter. It got the money and glory anyway.

That's just the nature of the business.

So, when it comes to the front page articles on eHow, let's spend less time being jealous and disdainful, and more time trying to understand just what makes that article so valuable to eHow - our client. Because when it comes down to it, it doesn't matter how professional or not eHow's standards are, our professionalism demands that we understand what they need.

Next Thursday I'll talk about why this is relevant, and also my experiences reading slush and grading student papers.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

ROW80 4th Week - Energizing

A Round Of Words in Eighty Days Check in

I started this week by looking at what I had:

The first eleven chapters are done, and have been done. They need only to be made consistent with what happens later.

Of the remaining 16-17 chapters:
  • Five are more or less done
  • Five more are done-ish
  • The remaining six or seven have big chunks missing, or they take place in the wrong location or something like that. Even so, every chapter has the critical incredients, and I can actually see the whole story in place, and the pacing and all that. (It's ALIVE! ... er, sorry. Saw Bride of Frankenstein this weekend.)

Technically, each of those remaining problem chapters should take a day's work each, and this should be done in a week, with another week for consistency checks, and smoothing and filling. I'm thinking that I'll be tearing my hair out and whining a lot next weekend. But the next Wednesday Update will see me dancing in the streets.

Sunday Day 21 - 28 minutes. Should have got more done, but I had some creative other stuff to do. Also, had to get up way too early to go see the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein, which was playing at the local theater. Then I was off my stride for the entire day. Sat down and looked at the "big jobs" remaining for the rest of the book, and found what you see above: the the story is really shaping up. I am just into the fiddly stuff. But there's lots of fiddly stuff. Not major decision making, just sitting down and doing it one layer at a time.

Monday Day 22 - 167 minutes. I would like to fix an ailing chapter per day, and I did not quite make it on this one, but I made very good progress. I am very close on this one, except... I realize I miscounted. This chapter is really two chapters, and I only fixed one of them. (Mostly.)

Tuesday Day 23 - 104 minutes. I was looking forward to continuing the momentum from Monday, but I was so sore and wretched when I got home from work. I eventually took some aspirin, though, and I recovered enough to get a little work done, and then a little more, and then I caught fire again.

The Homestretch can be Energizing

The middle of a writing dare is often the doldrums. By this time, the excitement of the start is dying down. Keeping up with your goals is beginning to be a slog. Lose enough momentum and you might even quit.

On the other hand, getting to the end of a project can be extremely energizing. You see it whole. The pieces pull together and you can actually your dream of it coming to fruition. As you get closer, even if you're tired, you may find yourself accelerating.

Now, sometimes that finish line is much further away than you thought it was, and you run out of steam before you get there. But sometimes it's close enough to taste and the steam only builds.

One of the advantages of a long flexible challenge like ROW80, is that you might hit the home stretch on a project right when you most need it: in the middle of the dare. That can kick the snot out of the doldrums. (It also can lead to serious sleep deprivation, but that's another story.)

I'm not going to get this done before the next update on Sunday, but I sure would like to get it done by the end of the month. So we're pushing for Halloween night.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Story Notes for "Power is Better Than Love"

Yesterday's story, "Power is Better Than Love," came to me in March, at the beginning of the Libyan uprising, though I had all the petty dictators and potentates throughout history in mind, (even those I've encountered at the day job).

Although it didn't turn out to be the center of the story, the thing that inspired this most was the concept of the loyalist. People who gave love and loyalty involuntarily, and yet are as dependent on it as the dictator. Whether it's Stockholm Syndrome of the abused becoming psychologically dependent on the abuser, or those who threw in with evil to save themselves and then realize they'd cut off their options, to those who simply had no loyalty or love and go with whatever seems safest at the moment.

That's the only kind of love or loyalty a dictator understands.

I don't know if I can say that this is a very good story. It almost isn't a story. It's almost an essay in narrative form.

Which makes it a parable -- a teaching story which illustrates a point. (Not quite the same as a fable, which is all aimed at a specific lesson, and therefore more manipulated. The parable doesn't have a "moral" at the end so much as an illumination. The whole thing is structured to shed light in a symbolic way on motives and behaviors.)

And that's what all fiction and drama does for us, but in a less intellectual way. Regular fiction is more immersive. It takes you into the experience more fully and trusts you to see for yourself. In that way, real fiction is more powerful in getting across ideas. Parables are largely for people who agree with you, but who may not have thought fully about why.

Ironically, I think the dictator in this story would be the first to understand it, and agree with it, if he were told the story as if it happened to someone else. He only missed what was going on because he was an egotist. He knew that love for him wasn't real. He didn't understand only because no other kind of love mattered to him.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Flash Fiction - "Power Is Better Than Love"

I wrote this story last spring, and you could say it's timely. But I'll let it speak for itself....

Power Is Better Than Love
by Camille LaGuire

"YOUR PEOPLE LOVE you," said the First Advisor to the Dictator. "It must be wonderful to have the love of your people."

The Dictator laughed. He knew, of course that the advisor was full of it.

"I have power," said the Dictator. "I can demand love from anyone. Is that not so, Aline?"

A quiet woman from among the cadre of concubines, looked up at him fondly.

"I don't know, Dictator," she said. "I don't anything about power. I only know about love."

The Dictator shrugged, and then turned back to the Advisor.

"She is a simpleton," he said. "But everyone else here loves me because it's good for them to love me."

The Advisor nodded in hasty agreement. "That is the nature of love," he said. "Love is good for us."

"Loving me is good for you," said the Dictator.

Aline was a puzzle to the Dictator. She alone among his followers and sycophants never asked him for anything. She never tried to advise him. She never tried to gain advantage. He was sensitive to the most subtle manipulations, but she never tried any of it. When he was in a generous mood, she stayed firmly at his side while the others fought ever his gifts. When he was dangerous and angry and unfair, she stayed as his side no matter what. She kept her head down, but she never cringed, and she never stepped back.

When the neighboring country cast a jealous eye on the Dictator's holdings, and saw itself as stronger, the Dictator found himself in a terrible war. Some of his people defected, and he shot several others -- killing them with his own hand in front of the others. His people got back in line quickly, and they fought valiantly, because the knew he could do much worse to his enemies, so they were not his enemies.

But there were some hairy moments, and when the foreign troops came close to the city, the Dictator was persuaded to send the women to a safer location. The other women packed and fled, but Aline didn't even look up. She stayed near the Dictator.

"You may go," he said to her. "You do not have to fear my displeasure." When she didn't go, he added, "It is not safe here."

"I don't know anything about safety," she said. "I only know about love. I will stay with you."

"And if their troops crash through the gates? And the bombs bring down the building?"

"I will stay with you to the very end."

The war came to an end, but part of the Dictator's territory was in enemy hands, and threats to his safety and power continued.

Even when the neighboring country's government fell, it brought no relief, because their people only incited the Dictator's people to rebel. He did not have the power to command their love, or their labor or their loyalty. Not all of them. Not any more.

Through it all, Aline stayed at his side. When he made an appearance, and there was fear of assassination, she went with him though she didn't have to. And when he went to rally his troops at the front lines, though it was dangerous, she stuck to him even closer.

It seemed to him that the more dangerous it was, the closer she came. There were even times he felt like sending her away because whenever she came closer, he would look over his shoulder.

And in all of it, she never asked for favors, never objected if he grew paranoid and insisted that everyone be searched and everyone be tested. She only looked at him with quiet energy that he came to understand was passion. Adoration. Even as his power faded, he had power over her, and that was a consolation.

At the very end, when the guards abandoned their posts, and the rebels were celebrating in his outer courtyard. He gave her a last chance to flee, but she said again:

"I will stay with you to the end."

"Then we shall die together?"

"If that is the end."

He smiled at that answer because though she accepted death, she also left the outcome open to hope.

He led her down to the bunker, where he revealed that he had kept one secret from everyone. There was a tunnel for escape. They had somewhere to go, just the two of them. He had been moving his money for years into an off-shore account. He'd put the money in her name, and the World Court would not find it to seize it.

He pulled back the covering from the escape tunnel, and she looked into it...

And then she pulled away his gun and shot him in the belly. It made a horrible wound, and pierced his spine, so that he lay helpless on the floor, dying as his heart and lungs still yet worked.

"Power," he said, "is stronger than love. You see, I knew it!"

"You know power," she agreed. "But I don't know anything about that."

He choked and laughed. "You think you will be rich? The accounts are in your name? That's nothing. You must have the number and the password."

"I don't know about money," she said.

"And you will never escape through that tunnel. You must know where to go. You are trapped."

"I don't know about escape," she said. "I only know about love. I loved my mother. I loved my family. They had no power, and you killed them all. So perhaps power is better than love. I don't know. Is it? Can you tell me?"

He could not speak now and so she continued.

"I have stayed with you so that I could one day see you die, because I have no power to do anything else, only the power to love my family. But I don't know about power, only love, so perhaps I should let you should die alone."

And with that she took the gun and considered the tunnel, but instead she went back up the stairs toward the palace. There was sunlight up there, and though it might be dangerous, she didn't know -- or care -- about danger. She only knew about love.


Tomorrow some short story notes on the writing of "Power Is Better Than Love."

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

ROW80 Check-in, Low-Hanging Fruit, and Weekly Preview

It was a tough week for ROW80, and I fell about 45 minutes short of my 600 minutes for the week. Still, I'm happy with the progress, and I'm in a good position for next week.

Wednesday Day 17 - 0 words. This was a day off.

Thursday Day 18 - 96 minutes. More blogging than I meant to do, because of that great post on Kris Rusch's blog.

Friday Day 19 - 66 minutes. Today was a day job nightmare -- no sleep, too rushed and groggy for breakfast, got to work and the student aide had called in sick, and there was no one available for back up. So I was stuck at the window all day, no way to get lunch, and had to run around doing things I really didn't know how to do. I had pudding and a pack of crackers. And it's monthly migraine week, so by the end of the day I was not only low on blood-sugar, energy and sanity, but I couldn't see well, either. A Big Mac Meal, extra strength Tylenol, and listening to a bunch of rock and roll cured most of it.

I would have got more done, but I saw on Twitter that Pete Seeger had arrived at Occupy Wall Street, and with the assistance of two canes was leading a midnight march to Columbus Circle -- where he and his grandson's band held a mini-concert -- all on a jerky jumpy picture on livestream. Ninety-two years old. I wish my dad had lived to see this.

Saturday Day 20 - 156 minutes. Some very good work today. Even though today was booked up and busy.

Picking the Low Hanging Fruit

For those of you getting ready to start NaNoWriMo, a couple words about when the going gets tough.

This was a tough week for me. The third week of a dare often is. (Okay, any week can be the tough one. That's just how it is.) Momentum helps you get through that tough slog. But sometimes the slog just beats that momentum right down.

One really great way to restore the momentum is to jump over the tough stuff. If the going gets tough, skip it! Jump to something easier for a while. As they say: Pick the low hanging fruit to get yourself up to speed again.

For instance, I've been pressing really hard on the trickiest part of my book, right at a time when real life issues have come around to sap my energy and time; and I've been slowly losing momentum. I had been going strong enough to carry me through, but that energy had trickled away by Wednesday.

So on Thursday night, I jumped completely out of what I was doing:

I noticed that the main document of my manuscript did not have any of the scenes I'd written for the last chapter. I wrote them in their own documents -- mostly notes and dialog -- but I hadn't decided yet how to deal with location, so I didn't put them in the manuscript. (One part of the scene would be great in one location, and another part in a different location. Should I choose one or the other, or should I find a way to split the scene?)

So on Thursday, I gathered up the notes and stuck them in the document. I didn't worry about location. I just wanted the dialog and scene structure nailed down. Then I jumped to a random scene someplace else, and started correcting for changes in the mystery solution. And another random scene.

I just skimmed my way across the story -- especially the parts I hadn't looked at in a while -- to find anything I could do right now, even while groggy from that migraine.

And in the course of doing that, I've discovered spots which I thought were further along, but actually just needed a fresh brain -- a brain which hadn't looked at them in a while. And now my brain, me and myself are all happy.

It's refreshing, that's what it is.

If you're not working on a mature manuscript, like I am now, so you don't have old bits to go over, you can still do something similar. When you're facing a blank page, you don't have to write in chronological order. Better yet, you don't even have to completely give up on chronological order either. You can just be more flexible as to what your idea of a "note" is.

So a scene is giving you trouble, and hammering at it hasn't helped. You don't want your brain to practice hammering at things that don't work. You want to give it some free rein: so stop trying to write the full out scene. Write a place holder if necessary. (Like this.) And then start in on the next scene, or even pause to write snippets of scenes you know are coming up later. A description of the villain's sneer, the chase through the alley, the moment where the kiss almost happens but then doesn't.

Even if you are a pantser, I'll betcha you have small images of things you know will come up ahead.

So when you're stuck, indulge in the gathering of some low-hanging fruit to get your momentum back. What you may find is that once you've done that, you have the momentum to go back and address the tough part.

One thing you don't want to do when the going gets tough, though, is to spin your wheels.

That's when you get excited about something you're writing, and then your mind starts racing faster than you can write, and you stop writing and just indulge in thinking about the scene or whatever. We all do that a little, but be careful. You can lose a lot of great ideas by expressing them in your head only. You think you'll never forget this shining moment of creativity -- but sometimes you will lose the spark as soon as you spin through that creative moment.

When writing is slower than your brain, you either have to slow your brain down, or get good at taking notes. Sometimes skipping ahead works here too. You distract your brain from overthinking by giving it something else to do. The problem with that, though, is that you need to get down any good ideas you already have before you jump away. It's something I do only when I realize I'm losing ideas anyway, and so I might as well stop my brain from throwing more ideas out there.

Preview of Coming Attractions

I said I was going to start a series to which I give the intentionally controversial title "We Don't Need No Stinkin' Editors!" What I want to talk about is likely not what you expect. And it takes a different perspective than I've seen out there, so I hope to bring something new to you. It's a big subject -- part of being an attempt to look at a bigger picture than all of publishing -- and I find it very hard to latch onto that first bite.

So I'm going to ease into it on Thursday with a reprint of an article I wrote for a blog on SEO publishing with eHow. I just stumbled across it recently, and it really seemed to mesh with a lot of what is going on in indie publishing today.

  • Monday: "Power is Better Than Love" flash fiction
  • Tuesday: Story Notes for "Power is Better Than Love."
  • Wednesday: ROW80 check in
  • Thursday: Editorial Standards, Pulp Fiction, and eHow.

See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Blogiversary - Daring Novelist is Two!

I've been blogging in one way or other for over five years. I can't tell you exactly how long because I ditched some of my early efforts. I even considered blogging professionally, but I could never get excited about any subject which actually pays much to blog about. I blogged about what interested me writing, screenwriting and reading, niche SEO writing, local restaurants, how to read Chinese menus, and probably some other things I don't remember.

The food blogs are still extant, but not active, because I've got other things to do, and they don't make money.

But two years ago, I decided to start a blog with no purpose at all other than to keep my nose to the grindstone on my writing. As it says in the header, a major part of a writing dare or challenge is reporting the progress or lack thereof.

And that's entirely what the first posts were: "Day 6 - 1493 Words" and a quick paragraph about what I did or did not achieve.

I love that kind of blogging. IMHO, it's a great way for writers to get their feet wet online. It doesn't compete with your writing. It makes you think about your writing, and it gives you an immediate sense of purpose. And though it's not the most exciting kind of blog, it's surprising the kind of small following you can build up with a "diary" type blog.

The blog evolved into something more -- just a little more -- at Christmas that same year. During the period I call The Liminal Zone (between Xmas Eve and New Years Day - inclusive), I took a break from the dare in and wrote up some real blog posts. I talked about goals and things like that, but then I suddenly abandonned that and dove into a series in which I examined the first pages of a large number of books.

Then in March, I discovered ebook publishing -- and that blew away everything I thought I was doing.

I've struggled quite a lot over this blog's identity since then. I have a larger audience, and books to sell, and the blog has become more audience-oriented.

And yet I've known in my heart that the heart of this blog is its "progress report" nature. That's what I'm writing the blog for.

But as I look back, I find that I've come full circle: This ROW80 challenge, with its twice weekly check-in, has brought back the Dare element to the blog. You'll notice that I've been doing those update posts in a day-by-day manner. I actually write those updates at the end of each day, as I did when I began the blog -- I just don't post them every day.

And when I look back on that first series of "think pieces" mentioned above, I realize that those were a kind of progress report too. They fit in the writing journal or web log (which is what a blog is) concept. Daily report of the development of my thinking as well what I'm doing on the page.

I've been told that I should do an ebook collection of blog posts, but I find that is not an easy thing to do with my blog. The posts are often interconnected and wander this way and that. They would require rewriting and lots of organizational work to make a unit out of them.

All the same, I think I've found a good balance for this blog.Even though I'm holding back on posting right now, I think I've found the right balance: the twice weekly update, and on other days, write what's on my mind.

BTW: I did finally come up with an idea for an ebook collection from this blog. I am going to collect the "story notes" posts, along with the stories they comment on, into a yearly collection: The Daring Novelist - Stories and Notes 2011.

That will be a one-week goal for ROW80 after I'm done with this book. I do plan to post a few more stories and notes this fall, and so my only question is whether the date on the title refers to when the stories were posted (in which case I should wait and include the new stories) or if the date refers to when the collection was published (in which case I'll go with what I've got, which will be something like 50k words). I lean toward the latter because it has been a while since I published anything.

In the meantime, expect a short story this Monday.

See you in the funny papers.

The Real Elephant In The Room -- Disrespect

My Blogiversay post will come later tonight, but I had to post briefly to send you over to Kris Rusch's blog. She wrote about how traditional publishing is shot through with disrespect for the writer.

The Business Rusch: Respect

This comes in the same week as a post in HuffPo about "The Elephant in the Room" in regards to self-publishing. The author of that post seems to think nobody has noticed or talks about the (completely expected) excess of low-quality work in self-publishing. From what she says, she's relatively new to the self-publishing world, and the article comes off, imho, like this old joke:

There's a giraffe standing in the middle of the park, and as people walk into the park they say "Oh, look, there's a Giraffe!" And they talk about it and exclaim about it until the subject is exhausted.

And new people come in and exclaim "oh, look, a Giraffe!" and the people who have been there a while repeat what they've said for the benefit of the newbies, and this goes on for a while until people are used to the Giraffe and sick of talking about it.

Finally some late-comers enter the park and exclaim about the giraffe, and they say exactly what everybody else has already said. The people who have been there for a while are just sick to death of the conversation and they ignore the newbies, and a few are very rude. They're not actually ignoring the giraffe, they're ignoring the late-comers.

And the late-comers say "Golly, that giraffe is a real elephant in the room!"

Only in this case it's a little different. Because the late-comers here are people who have bought into the disrespectful culture that Kris talks about in her blog post: they are people who have no respect for those who are already in the room.

I'm not one of those Indies who is hostile to traditional publishing. I have written more about how much I miss rejection slips. I have written about how much you've got a lot to learn when you're just a Hatchling or a Neo-Pro.

I do think, however that the hierarchical nature of publishing clouds our ability to see what's going on. There are many great and helpful editors out there -- but I think our idea of who and what an editor does keeps us from seeing what the new generation of writer needs.

These days, I cringe when I hear "that author needs an editor!" The implication is always that the author is a child who has no judgment. If that is true, the author most emphatically does NOT need an editor. The author needs a teacher.

We have a myth in traditional publishing that writers need "handlers." That we never graduate. That an editor or agent -- even one fresh out of school -- will always know better.

Furthermore, indie publishing has broken out into a much wider world than traditional publishing ever did, and, in some areas, is very very different from traditional publishing. And what those authors need will be something quite different than what traditional authors need.

And that's the real elephant in the room.

Next week I'll start a series of posts called: "We Don't Need No Stinkin' Editors!" It's not about what some of you think it's about. It's about how what you think it's about is irrelevant. The world is changing much more radically than people in publishing understand, and we need to evolve our quality controls to suit the new paradigm.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

ROW80 Check In - And Talking To Myself

Here's my Round Of Words in 80 Days Wednesday Check-In:

Sunday Day 14 - 125 minutes. Stayed up much later than I meant to, but I got a lot more done. Too tired to deal with the emotional texture of the sign-off of Chapter 17, though. But it may be less tricky than I thought.

Monday Day 15 - 61 minutes. ...but I enjoyed every minute of what I wrote. Chapter 17 is now whole and satisfying. I was really suffering from sleep deprivation Monday. I got to bed after 3am the night before, and had sinus problems which disrupted my sleep in the morning. I somehow managed to not do any work at all until nearly midnight.

It took a lot longer to get through Chapter 17 than I expected, but I think part of the reason I was struggling before is because I was compressing too far. Taking my time with it, making multiple runs, is working out really well for the tricky emotional texture.

I also found it very helpful to let the characters be wise. It can be fun to let the audience get ahead of the characters -- to let the characters be clueless about themselves. But it's often overdone, sometimes to the point of being automatic. It can get the characters, the audience and the writer in a rut. I find, very often, the solution to being in a rut is to let the characters get you out. Let them be wise and clever and deal with it for themselves. I'm going to talk about this in a lot more detail later.

Tuesday Day 16 - 61 minutes (again). I played around with scenes at random from the end. Knitted together a few things. I realize one other thing that will give me a certain amount of trouble is the last chapter -- "The Detectives sit around and explain it all to each other" scene. I think I've got a good set up so I don't have to explain too much, but maybe it's time to nail that down, so I know what I need to firm up or set up. Christie is a great model for this, and I've read a bunch of Christies lately.

In the meantime....

A conversation between Me, Myself and my Brain for your delight and edification:

Me: I guess I'll just start my routine with a little random proofreading.

Myself (scandalized): No, no, no! You need to get to the scene in Chapter 18. You can't write the follow up scene until you've done that. You need to do that NOW.

Me: Oh, all right. Brain? Can you give me a hand with Chapter 18--

Brain: Eeek! I'm not ready. Avoid! Avoid!

(Brain dives into the closet.)

Me (to Myself): See?

Myself: Brain is just being lazy.

Me: Then you try telling him what to do.

Myself: We're not on speaking terms since the Chapter 14 debacle.

Me: I can lure him out with proof reading.

Myself: But that's such a waste! You're gonna change it so why proof it? How do you even know you're not going to cut that scene?

Me: Oh, Brain? Are we going to cut the scene in Chapter 9?

Brain (sobbing and rocking): ...Not ready, not ready. Nope, not ready, not ready, not ready....

Me: If Brain can't handle that, he's not going to handle anything else. There's no point in writing at all, so we might as well--

Myself: We could do research instead!

Brain (perks up): Research! Did I hear somebody say research!

Me: No, Brain, proofreading!

(Brain comes out of the closet wags tail.)

Me: Good, Brain. Good good, Brain.

Brain: Hey there's a "hte" but it doesn't count because spell check would have got it. Oh, but you left out "can" in that sentence. Score! Oh, look! You wrote "theire" when you meant "they're" -- that's a double score! Typo AND wrong word! (pauses to think) Hey, you think we should cut this scene in Chapter 9? I bet we could make this work without it....

The big issue, though, is that Mr. Brain has been working very hard and is tired and cranky. I often slack off on Wednesday anyway (it's my long day at work), but I think I'm going to schedule it as completely off except for one thing: update the reading copy on the Kindle.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Daring Novelist's Greatest Hits

On Thursday this blog will be two years old. I thought, by way of celebration, I would review the top posts and maybe post some links.

Blogger's built in stats started nine-months after I started this blog, so the Top All Time Posts (in terms of visits) don't really reflect "all time." So I also went back and looked at Feedburner's stats to see about adding a few earlier posts.

Books Are Not Commodities! They're...Pastrami On Rye!
(a look at why we don't have to worry about the "race to the bottom" on ebook pricing)

How Readers Find Books (These Days)
(part of a multipart series on how Google and algorithms have changed publishing -- and why writers should worry less about marketing and more about writing)

Dialog Tags - "Fear Them Not," Said She.
(a little common sense on the irrational fear of the word "said")

eBook Experiment Update - Better Than A Poke With A Sharp Stick
(a look at my less than stellar success at self-publishing, and where I decided to go from there)

Novella, Novelette, Page-Count and Word-Count
(how to measure the length of an ebook, and also clear defitions of novella and novelette)

On Hatchlings and Neo-Pros -- When Is A Writer "Good Enough"?
(a look at dealing with criticism as a young writer, and how it's often accurate but not helpful, and how you'll find your answers eventually yourself)

Story Notes for "Balancing Act"
(Notes about the writing a frivolous little romantic flash fiction story -- this was the top "click through" on my RSS feed -- I would not have guessed this was a top post, but the clicks don't lie)

Volume vs. Quality - A False Dichotomy

(saying "I prefer quality over quantity" is an excuse, and a poor one - you can' t have one without the other - but we also need to learn to pace ourselves)

My Live Real Choices, Beat-by-Beat, As I Write
(I was surprised this one was popular too: a log of my decision-making process in plotting a couple of scenes. It feels self-involved to me, but it was fun to write, and I may continue the series later on)

Turning Expectation into Anticipation
(a look at suspense theory, and Alfred Hitchcock)

I'll be back on Wednesday with the "A Round of Words In 80 Days Challenge" update.

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Week in Review/Preview - ROW80 Update

This week is my blog-iversary!

It will be two years, as of Thursday, since I started this ongoing novel dare that is my blog.

So in celebration, I am, uh, cutting back on posting. Well, you know I got to get this novel done. So for the next two weeks I'll only post four days a week -- the Sun/Wed ROW80 update posts, and Mondays and Thursdays will be regular thinky-type posts. (And Mondays will not be reserved just for covers because of this.)

  • Monday: The Daring Novelist's Greatest Hits -- plus some forgotten favorites too.
  • Wednesday: ROW80 check-in (plus musings on the struggles of meeting goals, etc.)
  • Thursday: Blogiversary! A look back at the first two years of this blog (this might end up broken up into two -- in which case I'll post one on Friday as well.)

A Round of Words In Eighty Days Update

Wednesday Day 10 - 0 minutes. Wednesdays are my long days and I get home late. And it marked the end of a long week of disrupted schedules, and such. It will always be a low productivity day. The other thing that worked against me is that I've reached the point where I have to stop the read-thru. I try to get to the point where Wednesdays can be proofing or editing days, but I was not at that point alas.

Thursday Day 11 - 107 minutes. Today was a brilliantly spiffy day. I went into my work session with a blank mind. Ready to just jump in and work on whatever presented itself to me. There is a major event at midbook -- and I have all the pieces, but they only fit together... adequately. I had a little filing to do here and there. I'd tried a few major shuffles before, but today I snagged onto the right undercurrent, the "emotional trajectory" as it were, and with a few minor adjustments, I am ready to pound to fit!

Friday Day 12 - 102 minutes. Busy day at work, had to spend a lot of time unwinding. I set a mini-goal of setting myself up for a good day on Saturday -- i.e. getting lots of edits and material in place and creating a new reading draft for the Kindle.

Saturday Day 13 - 123 minutes. Made it! Just barely. I had a full day of errands and shopping, AND I had to stop by to Occupy Lansing for a while. Also make cookies for the permanent occupiers. (To be delivered Sunday, as it was late before I got the first batch done, and I suspect I need more than one batch.)

I'm working on the hardest part of the book really (have been for the whole dare) where the B Story overtakes the A Story. I realize now that part of what I've been doing all this time is using my layering technique. Writing for one element, then writing for another, and then working them together. This is just a really big, complicated version of that.

I would like to do a clip, but there are some twists and turns, and I want to choose carefully for fear of spoilers.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Only Rule: Pay Attention

An awful lot of writing rules aren't really rules at all.

For instance, very often one of the first "style" rules we learned about writing was to not repeat words. That was the very first writing advice I ever got. My dad was reading over a book report, and he suggested that I not use the word "she" quite so much in a particular paragraph.

It's really the same rule as the one where people go through and try to eliminate the word "said" entirely.

But here's the thing: those ain't rules. They don't automatically improve your writing. As a matter of fact, often the very best writing uses repetitions and rhythm to create additional meaning.

So if they're not rules, what are they? What is just about every "rule" in writing?

They're tools for seeing. For noticing what you're actually doing. They act like a grid, or magnifying glass or ruler. They point things out to you, but they aren't meant to rule what you do. Blindly cutting or changing words is no better than blindly putting them in.

The real rule is Pay Attention.

Be, as Miss Marple is sometimes described, a noticing type of person. Notice what you're doing and be deliberate about your choices.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Rambling Post About Nothing

I was supposed to write this post about Coverage and Critique for tonight. Heck, I was supposed to do it last week. I've mostly got it written.

But I'm not posting it, because it's boring me.

It isn't a problem with the subject so much as my mind is wrapped up in the story right now. And the blog is suffering for that.

Which is good because that was a part of the plan.

Don't ask which plan, I don't remember which one and I'm not going to look it up. It was in one of those grandiose posts about where I'm going and what I'm doing with my career. And I remember distinctly (or maybe indistinctly -- I'm a bit fuzz-headed tonight) that I said I was going to neglect everything else until I had more writing done. That I'm supposed to be establishing the foundation of my various series, etc.

I'm sure I said I wasn't going to worry about sales (but they dropped off this week!) or about blog stats (which I've been checking every ten minutes), or whether anybody has retweeted me (but if I wrote a better headline for that I bet I could get a retweet), or anything like that. I wasn't going to do that.

Because I don't need a big blog audience or an engaged Twitter following, or to worry about sales, or much of anything else, until I have more books out there. Because, after all, the best promotion for a book --the only real way to improve any of this -- is another book!

Am I mistaken, or isn't that something I've been saying loudly and for a long time?

Maybe I'm getting deaf in my old age and didn't hear it. I guess I should shout louder when I'm talking to myself....

See you in the funny papers.

ROW80 Update - And Getting Past Discouragement

I'm putting my ROW80 Update at the end of this post, because this is more important:

Getting Past Discouragement

I haven't had the chance to read many of the update posts of the other ROW80 participants, but I try to at least browse a few each time I get the chance. I noticed the word "discouragement" came up in a few places. Not a lot, but just enough that I am reminded of my own first efforts at a dare, and the discouragement that comes on young writers generally.

There are two kinds of discouragement.

One is when people get discouraged about not meeting their goals. You sit down and do the math, and you realize you can't reach your ambitions if you don't write 20,000 words a day, and you managed 16. Everybody suffers that one, and there are a million techniques to get past it, so I don't worry about people so much when I hear it. (Joining a group or a challenge like ROW80 is a help on that, btw. You get to hear how everybody else is struggling, and realize it's normal.)

The discouragement that worries me is the one where the writer say:

"I'm discouraged about my writing."
"I don't know if my writing is any good."
"I don't know if I'm any good."

You've got to fight this kind of thinking. This kind of thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophesy, as doubts cause you to betray your muse and write "safe" and mediocre stuff that others tell you to write.

I have three suggestions for people who feel this way:

Revel in your flaws, because they may be your strengths.

Dean Wesley Smith and Nina Kiriki Hoffman used the motto "Dare to be BAD!" as the rallying cry for getting over this kind of discouragement and taking your writing to another level.

Here's the thing: you may be right, you may be doing something wrong. But if you just hide it, you won't get better. So bring whatever it is that you're doing out into the light and indulge in it. Go after it like it's gold, rather than hiding it away. When you're done, one of two things will have happened:

1.) You will have mastered the skills surrounding that flaw when you're done, so you can eliminate it. OR...

2.) You'll find out that what felt embarrassing and discouraging was really something unique and precious, and close to your heart, and by bringing it out and developing it, you will have something more precious than diamonds and chocolate. More precious than diamonds, chocolate AND bacon.

Remember why you're a writer.

Right now, the desire to write the page in front of you might be driven by a need to please someone, or a need to be published, or some external motivation. But once upon a time, something internal drove you to want to make up stories and write them down, and it had nothing to do with what anybody else thought.

You may have read something or seen something or heard something which sparked a story in you. It created a strong emotion -- a thrill, excitement, perhaps even anger -- and an event happened in your head that you wanted to bring to the world.

That's what you're writing for.

You aren't writing to get an A in your class, or to get good reviews, or to make a lot of money. Those things would be nice, but those are negatives in terms of your writing quality. Every single one of those drive you to play it safe and be mediocre and to do as the sports people say "Play not to lose." Ironically, doing what you're supposed to do gets you B grades, moderately positive reviews and maybe a little income.

That's all mediocrity. It's all middle-of-the-road, a million-people-did-it-before.

Some of you who are discouraged may be thinking "But that's exactly it, I worry that I'm mediocre."

Here's the secret: You can't break out of mediocrity by doing things right. You certainly don't get there by listening to doubts. Doubts lead only to mediocrity. That's what mediocrity IS.

You want to break out of mediocrity? Go after the joy, and be arrogant about it. Don't let any criticism get in the way of enthusiasm -- even the criticism that comes from within.

You don't just have to risk failure, you must revel in failure. You must SEEK failure. Because only through failure do you learn and develop -- and ultimately find something unique and new and worth it.

Failure is not optional.

Recruit Cher as your Muse

And if you find yourself getting discouraged anyway, play this very short video:

You might also check out this post from May, "On Hatchlings and Neo-Pros - When is a Writer 'Good Enough?'"

And now for my update: A Round Of Words In Eighty Days -- Second Week - Check in 1.

Sunday Day 7 - 104 Minutes. I sorta took the day off. Went to lunch and a movie, and then did a bunch of editing. Actually, I started a read-thru. I didn't count reading the first 6 or 7 chapters, because I've edited them pretty extensively. I also didn't do any heavy editing once I hit the more raw chapters, because I'm trying to get a sense of pace. The most important thing is that I enjoyed reading it so far. I'm going to continue the read-thru tomorrow until I get bogged down or finish.

Monday Day 8 - 113 Minutes. A ha. Chapter 16 is where the real rough patch begins. I don't want to look at it until I can dig in up to my elbows, so I'm going to skip ahead in the read through tomorrow, and read what I have that's AFTER the mess. In the meantime, I might have got a little more done, but I found myself watching the livestream of "OccupyAtlanta" where the police were getting ready to clear the park. (But at the last minute, the mayor decided not to do it.)

Tuesday Day 9 - 60 minutes. Well, I knew this was going to be a tough beginning to the week. I've also discovered that I have further to go with some of this than I thought... but that's okay. It's just that there is a lot of twisting and turning that I forgot about.

As for the rest of the week.... Wednesday is my day from hell (always) and I don't know what I'll get done. The big issue will be whether I'm needed for extra testing work at the Day Job on Thursday, if not, I hope to do some catching up then.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Short Stuff - Damon Runyon

I am very very tired, so instead of an extensive post I'm going to give you an excerpt of a short story I read.

It's a Damon Runyon story, and that means it's out of print and not available for Kindle -- but there are used copies of his books around, and I read it in a paperback called The Best of Damon Runyon.

Runyon was great with the twists and punchlines and ironies in his short fiction -- but he's more famous for the fact that he was, like P. G. Wodehouse, a master of voice. His characters -- all small time hoods and crooks and gamblers along Broadway in New York -- spoke with his distinctive, slightly elaborate yet slang-filled patois.

The story I was reading today was "The Snatching of Bookie Bob," which begins like this:

Now it comes on the spring of 1931, after a long hard winter, and times are very tough indeed, what with the stock market going all to pieces, and banks busting right and left, and the law getting very nasty about this and that, and one thing and another, and many citizens of this town are compelled to do the best they can.

There is very little scratch to be had anywhere and along Broadway many citizens are wearing their last year's clothes and have practically nothing to bet on the races or anything else, and it is a condition that will touch anyone's heart.

So I am not surprised to hear rumors of the snatching of certain parties going on in spots, because while snatching is by no means a high-class business, and is even considered somewhat illegal, it is something to tide over the hard times....

And thus begins the story of the snatching of one Bookie Bob, and how it goes not like Harry the Horse thought it would.

And for those who are impatient (and also want something free...) here is a clip from Guys And Dolls which not only has the style and voice, but also a touch of the Runyon sort of twist:

Guys and Dolls was based on a number of Damon Runyon short stories, and the original play was to be awarded a Pulitzer, but because the writer who did the adaptation was on McCarthy's blacklist, they decided not to award a Pulitzer for drama that year rather than give it to a possible Pinko. (So don't ever let it be said that the Blacklist only affected talentless hacks.)

If you like old movies, you might also check out "Lady For A Day" from 1933 (it was remade in the fifties as "Pocket Full of Miracles" with Bette Davis, too).

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Monday Covers: Light and Dark

This week I was jazzed by two covers. Neither of them were adult mysteries, but if I were to see these covers in the mystery section, I'd pick them up in a second.

The Apothecary is a children's book (middle-readers). It has mystery and magic, and it is historical -- but from the 1950s, rather than the Victoran/Edwardian era the title and art evokes.

The artwork here reminds me, indirectly, of Edward Gorey. I haven't decided how. But it sets a mood: dark and imaginative, but with a certain simplicity. It suits a children's book, and IMHO, it really suits a great old-school cozy mystery. A lot of modern cozies do go for this mood.

I was thinking about why I like this sense of simplicity and I finally put my finger on it. Great cozies and great children's books have two things in common: they have moral clarity, but they have a subtly twisted world view which allows for a lot of complexity inside the broad brush strokes of a slightly cartoony world.

The Sisters Brothers has another simplified and moody cover. I love this because it makes great use of pure design. The shapes are all symbol and/or text. The text itself uses modern typographical design -- stacking the words of the title to make a neat box, and then throwing some grunge "distressing" over the top. The characters are each holding a gun, but that hand/gun shape is almost like a typographical symbol of some sort. Their bodies make a big black "M" shape, which works with the two triangles of the nose in the moon/skull behind the. (As well as giving the moon/skull a more skull shape.)

And of course, the heads are the eyes of that moon/skull, complete with hats for eyelids, and their own eyes act as the pupil of the background figure.

The colors -- red, black and off-white -- I just love what they do with so little. The whole thing screams dark crime comedy, and that appears to be exactly what it is. From the description, it sounds like it's darker than I would really enjoy but this cover certainly gets me to look at the description and maybe a sample.

See you in the funny papers.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Week In Review/Preview - ROW First Week

A Round Of Words In Eighty Days

I knew I had a heavy schedule at day job for this half of the week, so my goal was to not lose too much ground. I wanted to hit the 600 minute mark (my weekly goal) a day early -- on Saturday -- so I could line up my week on the Sunday Update posts. And I made it! I made it early enough that I will probably do some work tonight to get started on next week's 600 minutes.

Wednesday Day 3 - 39 minutes! This was my long day at work, so I slacked off a bit on the Dare Goals. But I had an inspiration there, about a tough scene that was coming up -- how to transition from a major turn, to Karla realizing that her books were floofy. (It's a clue.) It pulls the whole sequence together. So I wrote that.

Thursday Day 4 - Oh, crap. Nothing done. Thinking, maybe. And I was SO excited about working on some scenes. But though today was not such a long day, it was an exhausting one, and I have to get up early in the morning. I ended up revamping that post I did for Friday, about Sustainable Anticipation, because it is relevant to what I'm working with right now in the book.

Friday Day 5 - 96 minutes. Whoo hoo! That leaves me within easy striking distance of hitting 600 minutes by the end of the day Saturday. Which allows me to start the next week on Sunday. Worked on Chapter 17, in which Karla realizes she has a naked man in her house... or else a fully clothed man who is dripping wet.

Saturday Day 6 - Exactly 120 minutes, to make for 601 for the week!

This coming week, it's the early part of the week which will be tricky. So now that I've reached 600 minutes, I'm actually going to start next week's goals tonight after midnight. I hope to have all the pieces in place for the tricky section -- up through the end of Chapter 18 -- by the Wednesday update. The rest, I think, will go a LOT faster. I think I'll have an actual coherent draft, from beginning to end, soon.

Comparative Goal Making

I think I know too many hard-driving pros. I'm always surprised when people say that my goals are ambitious or that I'm setting the bar high. I never think I am. I mean, yes, I do always set the to something I'll have to work on to achieve, but they always seem comparatively low. (Compared to, oh, people like Dean Wesley Smith.)

I noticed that a lot of the other participants in this writing challenge (and others) have lower goals. And exactly the kind of good, steady, low, habit-building goals that you would expect.

But here's the thing: I've been writing for a very long time. I've not only formed habits, but I've tweaked them pretty well. I've learned about myself and what I can and can't do. I am disappointed that I can't just shift into gear and do what DWS does, and that I never will for more than a short period of time.

But I also know that where I am is really quite spiffy. And I have an idea of where I can go, and am likely to go under various circumstances.

Coming this week:

  • Monday Covers: Lite Darkness, where I look at two covers (not cozy mysteries) which evoke exactly the sort of "lite" darkness that I want to see in a cozy.
  • Tuesday Short Form - I'll review some short stories I've been reading. Not sure which ones yet.
  • Wednesday - ROW80 Check In - (CHANGE: Instead of more about my goals, I'm going to talk about Reversing Discouragement -- since so many seem to be discouraged lately.)
  • Thursday - Coverage Vs. Critique
  • Friday - One Rule: Pay Attention -- all the other rules boil down to that one.

Food Of The Week -- Chao Two-flavor Pork

I got two little boneless pork steaks -- too much for one stir-fry dish (or a "chao"), so I decided to make two dishes with contrasting flavors. Yum!

First flavor: Mu Shu Pork

I shredded up a quarter of a small cabbage, and and about a quarter of a large onion radially so I had similar long shreds for that. And, of course, cut the first pork steak into shreds as well (easiest to do if it's slightly frozen, unless you have mad knife skills). I normally would have added mushrooms, but alas, the mushrooms went yucky on me a day sooner than expected. Stir-fried up those with some minced garlic and a lot of hoisin sauce.

Second flavor: Cumin Pork

This isn't technically a Sichuan dish, but I've only had similar flavors in Sichuan restaurants. It originally comes from Muslim Chinese areas, and is a lamb dish. But like other lamb dishes, it's really tasty with pork.

I cut the second chop in cubes, and stuck it in a ziploc bag with some Sichuan red oil, minced garlic, a couple dashes of cumin and oregano, and a dash of soy sauce and dry sherry. I would have added ginger, but I didn't have any. I diced half a large sweet red pepper, and another quarter of a large sweet onion. Then I chao-ed the meat (with maybe one more dash of cumin, and some Sriracha hot sauce) and added the veggies when most of the pink was gone.

I did this all while watching Campion on my computer in the kitchen. (Amazon Prime gives you free access to some nice streaming choices.)

This all made me happy. Perhaps that's why I had great success at writing that day....

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Sustainable Anticipation -- Castle, Costello, Brewsters, and Me.

I watched the season premiere of Castle a couple weeks go, and found myself frustrated at something that TV shows do all the time these days: they build tension on some element (in this case, the romantic tension) until they really need to let it snap... but then, golly, the producers chicken out and decide to keep things exactly the same -- so they don't let it snap at all. They just stall.

And at first that's okay. It builds more tension, but after a while it just gets dull. The problem here is that they're making a promise. I've talked about promises before. You have to pay off on them. If you don't, then you betray your audience, and they stop trusting you to pay off, and that makes the tension go away. Then the whole thing gets dull.

So shows like Castle have a problem. The networks are right that people do tune in because of the romantic tension, but the thing that keeps them tuning in is the promise that the situation will change. So how do you change and stay the same too?

With Castle, unfortunately, they went with making bigger and more serious promises in a cliffhanger ending for last season. Like Bullwinkle "This time for SURE!" ... and then backed off and set things back to how they were. To be honest, it would have been better if they had not ramped up the tension in the cliffhanger at all. Just went with the simmer below the surface.

And yet, an awful lot of great comedies use sustained high tension all the time. What makes some kinds of tension more sustainable than others?

I think the problem here is the source of the tension. So let's take a look at some successful comedy which depends on ever-repeating, ever-increasing tension, and how it works.

For instance, no matter how hard Costello tries to get Abbott to explain who is on first, no matter how creative he gets, he will never get anywhere. (If you've never heard the original of the famous Abbott and Costello "Who's On First" radio routine, please watch the video below.)

The thing that drives the joy here is that we are not looking forward to when Costello finds out that Who is the name of the guy on first. We don't really care whether he finds out. What we're enjoying is seeing just how persistently Abbott can manage to keep him in the dark.

Another example would be Arsenic and Old Lace, a classic film I rewatched the same week as the Castle premiere. This is a film with a situation -- a dangerously, but delightfully, insane family -- which obviously must change. Society cannot countenance things like, you know, murder. And yet, no matter how hard reality tries to make a dent in the insanity, it never quite can. The Brewsters are an immovable object, and reality is simply not a fully irresistible force.

But a part of the tension here is that we like the Brewsters. (Except for Jonathan who is truly evil.) We want to see them persist and thrive and be happy -- to stay just as they are. We just don't want to see any innocent people get hurt.

And all the way through the movie we see, over and over again, innocent people are nearly killed (but then saved) the Brewsters are nearly caught (but not quite) and Jonathan nearly does horrific things (but is thwarted). And that's exactly how we want it.

So the tension ramps up each time over things we don't want to happen, and every time we're rewarded by them not happening. A new threat, a worse threat, will arise, and we don't know how they're going to get out of it this time, but... PHEW! Saved again!

Sustainable tension comes not from teasing us with things we hope for, but from fear of losing something we like.

The problem for a show like Castle is that it's teasing us with a hope for change. We want to see these two people get together. All the force of nature wants them together. The tension is unsustainable because we never get what we want, or what the characters want or what anybody wants. There is pleasure in the teasing promise, but it can't last forever. You have to pay off on it.

Now, Castle doesn't do a terrible job at this - there is progress of a sort, and though the premiere threw the promise of last season under the bus, there was a twist at the end of this episode promising a more interesting direction after all. I'm not dissatisfied, but I am at the end of my patience, and I don't want to see same old, same old, unless they give up altogether on the teasing the audience. (That is, I'm fine with the chemistry as is, so if they were to stop building big tension on it, and just let it be an "almost" relationship at status quo, fine. But that's not how they've built the show.)

Now... to my own issues as a writer.

A good, long-standing mystery series, imho, is one that makes a promise of a great status quo. You may have temporary tensions of all kinds, but what kind of situation can make two promises: that it will always be like this, and that it will also always be interesting?

I think I have found my status quo - and the built in repeatable threat to it - in the WIP. The issue is that George himself is a character desperately in search of a status quo. He needs it. But he's also a catalyst -- a force which prevents things around him from ever completely settling down.

Here's a quote from a scene I just edited:

George: I did not set the cat among the pigeons.
Co-worker: George, you ARE the cat among the pigeons. That's why Eva calls you.

George is an irresistible force, bowling down everything around him and wishing everything wouldn't fall apart on him. He needs that Zen pond of water which cannot be destroyed; water reacts to the forces acting on it, and then slips right back to how it was. And he finds that in Potewa county and in Karla.

So that, I think, is the dynamic -- the rubber band -- in the story. Karla persists, like water. She is the unflappable status quo, and George is the cat among the pigeons.

But I didn't realize that at first, so that element might not be as strong in this book as it could be -- but I don't see that as a flaw. It's there, and there's room to grow with it. Plus there are some fun scenes and details I was going to edit out because they seemed to be there to entertain me, but I realize they are about that dynamic.

And all in all, I am looking forward to this season's Castle. I'll betcha they can pay off on their promises. They're just teasing me with these indications that they won't.

See you in the funny papers.