Wednesday, November 29, 2017

NaNoWriMo 2017: Achieved

Somehow, i managed to complete the challenge. Last night around 10:30, I checked the word count on the official website, and it came to 50,017. I think I will try to sleep tonight.

Future plan: I have a list of To Do items, that need to be completed before I will be willing to call what I have a draft. When those are fine, I will set the manuscript aside for a month or 2 before trying to turn it into something that's not painful to read, then get it to some better readers for comment.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

I never thought I’d try

A bunch of years ago — more than 15, I think — I first heard about NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. The basic idea is to slam out 50,000 words in the month of November. It seemed like a great idea for those who had time. Back then, I definitely didn’t have time.

But now, it seems, I do. Wednesday, November 1, 2017, I mentioned to my wife that I was thinking about doing it. She said words to the effect of “go ahead.” (I don’t remember her exact words.)

I thought, “Why not?”

But there were 2 problems:

  1. I have a WIP (work in progress), the next Mason & Penfield Mystery. It has been a matter of fits and starts for the last 5 years. At that rate, I couldn’t finish a 3-question multiple-choice test in a month.
  2. I write slowly. This meant that unless I had a definite plan (outline), I knew I had no chance.
So I have set aside the WIP. (Sorry Mason & Penfield fans, both of you. You’ll just have to wait.)

And I created an outline. But it’s not the kind of outline you imagine. When I hear “outline,” I think about a business-oriented document that’s more like a table of contents. This is not what I created. And I didn’t create it cold. I finally found outlining advice that was useful in this YouTube playlist. There are 5 videos, each about 10 minutes long. They are taken from a talk given by a successful author, Dan Wells, and he shows by example from stories you’ve read or seen on the screen how successful storytelling is structured.

So on Wednesday, November 1, 2017 (after talking with my wife), I sat down to create an outline, and did so. It took about 6 hours to complete. And since it was almost 2:00 a.m. on the 2nd of November, I went to bed. I was already a day behind. But today, the 4th, I completed my 3rd day of writing, and each of these days I got out more than 2,000 words. It’s just possible I can make it.

What is this new story? It’s a murder mystery (surprise!) set in the year 2101, in a beautiful dystopia. The victim is a wealthy, elderly woman, and the primary suspect is her caregiver. The tentative (and poor) title is Murder In the Future.

We’ll see whether anything comes of it.

Update 2017-11-15

As of last night, I have about 23,000 words written. Including November 1, I have missed (almost) 3 days. On the nights I have been able to work (drat that pesky day job!), I’ve managed about 2,000 words across about 4 hours. That means that tonight (assuming the pattern holds), I will be exactly halfway through 50,000 words exactly halfway through the month. Not too awful.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Writing sex and profanity

As a reader, I have sometimes wondered at the choices writers make in their presentation, specifically, the presentation of sex and profanity.

Please understand, I am not here advocating limits on the freedom writers have. But it is important for readers to understand that when they read, they are looking at the result of choices made by the writer.

As an example, when writing a scene containing sexual tension, I could write something like “she unbuttoned her shirt, exposing” various body parts and provide any amount of active and passive description. Or I could write what actully wrote in Unthinkable: “And three shirt buttons were open instead of just one, revealing nothing, suggesting everything.”

With regard to language, some writers seem intent on f-bombing their readers into oblivion, or at least numbness. Some use high-yield profanity as a way to express ratcheted-up tension. In some cases, the use of profanity seems rather arbitrary. Take Tom Clancy’s first books as examples. In The Hunt For Red October the language started moderate and increased steadily in foulness as the book progressed; but in (I think) The Cardinal Of The Kremlin the language at the beginning was stronger and fell off as the book went on; in (I think) The Sum Of All Fears the profanity was held at a fairly constistent, relatively low level. Realizing this, I wonder whether the author’s use of profanity is more of an ├ętude or exercise than anything else.

In both Unthinkable and Seen Sean? I chose a very PG level for language, actively bowdlerizing from what I thought was the likely language in one scene of either book (and in both cases sacrificing a small amount of irony). Why? Simple: I grew up loving mysteries from the time I was in junior high school (or earlier), reading Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, etc. These are books that are appropriate for audiences young and old, and I wanted to fit into that tradition.

So when I read comments by an author along the lines of “this was the best way to show some character trait” or “this is the way people like this really talk,” then you, the reader, need to be aware that every single description and use of the language is the result of a choice made by the writer.

And, if you are a writer, you need to realize that some readers will be willing to put up with only lower levels of language and sexuality. In my mind, it’s a question of whether you are willing to limit the size of your audience. If that’s what you are willing to sacrifice on the altar of your creative freedom, go for it.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A new science fiction short story

Those who know me know that my regular gig is traditional mysteries. I love to read them and enjoy writing them. However, once in a while …

I have posted (and will leave in place for a short time) a new science fiction short story, “The Janitor.”

It’s quite short — less than 2,800 words. How did I come to write it?

The idea came from an episode of the wonderful Writing Excuses podcast, the April 7, 2013 episode called “Brainstorming with Brandon.” One of the regulars, Brandon Sanderson, brought a short story idea to the table for discussion with the rest of the crew, and together they threw ideas about,  searching for a good story. Listening to the show on my way to work (my iPod connects to my car stereo), I found myself pounding my steering wheel and saying, “That’s not the story! I know what this story is!” Outlining it took about 20 minutes, and the bulk of the story was written in a couple of evenings.

If you read it, please leave a comment on this post with comments, suggestions, whatever.

The story won’t be available here forever, so read it now by clicking on the link in the second paragraph or in the menu bar at the top.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Starting a scene by breaking the rules

The “rules” say conflicting things:
  • A good start for a scene is in media res, i.e., in the middle of things.
  • You shouldn’t start a scene with dialog.
There’s an obvious conflict here, since the middles of lots of scenes are dialog-heavy.

My approach has been to (sometimes) start a scene with a single line of dialog that presents a challenge from the speaker to the listener.

Unthinkable started with “So you see, Mr Penfield, we can’t really be communicating, because true communication is impossible.”  There follow
  • a couple of sentences about the speaker;
  • a couple of sentences of setting;
  • resumption of the action.
I still think it’s effective.

In Seen Sean?, the opening line was, “I hope the schedule change didn’t rattle you too badly, Corwin.”  So we establish that
  • there was a change in the schedule;
  • the speaker had the authority to change the schedule
  • he’s speaking to someone who had a different expectation.
After the opening line, there’s an immediate establishment of characters (the victim and his assistant) and setting (the victim’s condo).

Again, I stuck with it because it worked.

It’s interesting (as an artifact) that the original opening of Seen Sean? (click on the menu above or on the book cover to  the right) didn’t start with dialog, but just with a hint of trouble: “One Tuesday in early September, about halfway between the start of school and the first hint of autumn air, a tall, broad-shouldered man with steel gray hair, deep blue eyes, and no wedding ring strode into the office of Fleming Properties with an assistant in tow. Lisa McCloskey recognized Charles Jamison, U.S. Senator, at once.”

What do you think? How much should an author break the rules in an opening?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Naming my main characters

When I sat down to write Unthinkable, I knew how the book should start: We enter the scene with a single line of dialog (I know: the “rules” say you shouldn’t do that; maybe more in another post), and a main character’s name is given in this line.  I typed “So, you see, Mr” and stopped.  I didn’t know what his name was.

With exactly four words written, I had no idea what the next word should be.  And it was a main character’s name.

At this point I didn’t want any of my characters’ names to be symbolic or referential (though this changed somewhat when I got to Seen Sean?).

Obviously, I was “pantsing,” but hey, it was my first novel and I (mostly) knew where the story was going.

I just didn’t know a Main Character’s name.

So I sat. I thought. I sat and thought.  Some more.

The first name that came to mind was “Penfeld.”  That sounded almost right, but a quick search of the 1990 U.S. Census data showed no entries for that name.  But there was a name that was close: “Penfield”  And that was that.  Though uncommon, “Penfield” had the advantage of being easier to pronounce and spell than “Crigler.”  You might not believe some of the variations we’ve seen and heard — but I digress.

My police detective, also a main character, still needed a name.  So I just pulled a name, “Mason,” out of the air and I liked it: it was common enough (it’s in the top 150 in the Census data), and it conveyed a solid, plainspoken feel.

What do you think?  Were the names chosen well in spite of my lack of method?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Foreshadowing, imagery, characters and what’s next

I was starting to wonder about an event that will happen in the second quarter of the WIP.  To do this, I needed to pull a recurring character onstage, one who hadn’t been seen since Seen Sean? And I needed to begin foreshadowing a major event that happens later on.

So I picked up the character, put her in a scene in a natural way. And I had no idea where to go from there.

So I spent time noticing what she noticed.  And I still didn’t know how to foreshadow what’s coming later.

So I thought some more.

And then I realized that what she noticed is already a symbol for the situation as it is now: Outwardly, everything is going along normally, but pressure is building behind the scenes, and the slightest disruption can make the whole thing fall apart.

If you ever read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, you’ll recall a conversation between Aronnax and Nemo about how glass is strong but fragile.  What my character tells the MC is that her job is like that, little realizing that the MC is in just such a position.

What do you think? Does that accomplish enough?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A plea to ebook publishers

I have at least 3 books on my Kindle in each of which the font is specified by the book, i.e., the the user has lost control of the presentation of the text.

See, in a physical book, someone (a worker, a craftsman, an artist) makes the presentation choices for the reader because there’s a physical product that has to be delivered. But in an ebook — and I mean a book of words: zero or few graphics (other than the cover); zero or few simple, narrow tables — the only point is the words. Almost all books are filled with plain, Roman text, with the occasional italics or boldface in the running text. (Chapter and section headings don’t count in this discussion).

If you’re publishing a book of plain text, please, I beg you, leave the font to the reader’s discretion: the face, the size, the line spacing.  These give the reader the ability to adjust the comfort level and get to the words.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Why do I write traditional mysteries?

Thrillers are bigger.
Young Adult (i.e., fiction for high-schoolers) is bigger.
Romance is bigger. (Ignore the howls of laughter from my wife.)
Paranormal romance is bigger.
Heck, zombies are bigger.
And yes, I know erotica is bigger. (But I wouldn’t read that, much less write it.)

So why write traditional mysteries (sometimes called cozy mysteries)?

2 reasons:

  • It’s what I love to read. I don’t mean that I read mysteries exclusively. This year I have read (partial list):
    • A Tale Of Two Cities
    • The Lord Of The Rings
    • The Hunger Games (all 3 books)
    • 212
    • The Bible (I will finish the entire thing by the end of the year. It’s a foundational document for our society, and to understand the West, you must understand this book.)
    • The Red House Mystery
    • All The Blue-Eyed Angels
    • No Time To Run
    • Invisible
    • Vimana
    • Prophecy (ARKANE thriller by J.F. Penn)
    • The Space Between
    • Creative Spirit
    • Disintegration
    • Doctrine of the Trinity (John Owen)
    • Brainrush II
    • Storm World: Speaker Of The Gods
    • The Flinch
    See: Thrillers, YA, supernatural, SF, religious works, and, yes, mysteries. I didn’t like all these equally. One I would warn you off of because of the quality of the writing; in one I would warn you of the content.
  • Traditional mysteries are appropriate for a very broad audience. I fell in love with the genre in late elementary or early junior high school. My great uncle, T.O. Dahl (who attended the US Naval Academy with Robert Heinlein), lived across the street from us; he loaned me copies of several books by Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner. I was hooked.
  • Mysteries, as a form, give almost infinite possibilities in story telling: All the categories that are currently “bigger” can be subsumed in the archetypal seeking for truth. Or a story that is primarily in another genre can have elements of a mystery. (Will Katniss wind up with Gale or Peeta?)

Why traditional mysteries? Why not noir or supernatural or hard-boiled or juvenile or …?

That’s easy: To have to broadest appeal. Look: fundamentally I’m telling human stories. So in Unthinkable, everybody knows the dotcom-bust victim; everybody knows the alpha-girl in high school; detective shows are so popular that a tall, handsome detective who cracks wise is easy to picture.

So that’s why. How have I done?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Turning a genre meme on its ear

You know that scene where the detective gathers the suspects for the big revelation? Hercule Poirot almost always staged one of those scenes, beginning with AC’s first book, The Mysterious Affair At Styles.

I remember the day I was thinking about how those scenes seemed contrived, artificial.  Two weeks later, I was writing one of them for Seen Sean?

I did my best to turn the meme sideways:  People come and go throughout the scene; one of my main characters gets a strong slap on the face; one of the series’s recurring charcters wants to kill someone; and in the end, no one (else) dies or goes to jail.

What do you think?  Did I pull it off?