Thursday, February 28, 2013

Making plans tonight?

Figment, an online writing community, is hosting a live chat at 7 PM ET tonight with three newly-published YA authors (Rachel Hartman, Andrea Monir, and Elizabeth Laban).

All three are published through Random House, and they'll discuss what it takes to sell a first book.

Crack open a Two-Buck Chuck and get your chat on.

You can join the fun here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Censorship in YA

The American Booksellers Association's Winter Institute 8 wrapped up yesterday, and one of the big topics was censorship in YA novels. It's a topic that comes up fairly frequently, particularly as YA authors continue to address disturbing (but real) topics with increasing frankness.

One speaker was Sherman Alexie, author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. He wrote an excellent essay in the Wall Street Journal last year called "Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood."

Monday, February 25, 2013

This is for real (I think)

For any of you looking to make your writing process artisanal and Zen-like, David Rees will teach you how to sharpen your pencils by hand. Or he will do it for you.

Yes, I think this is at least somewhat for real.

No, I haven't read it.

Friday, February 22, 2013

WTFriday: DRM!

The mere mention of "DRM" seems to set people's blood boiling nowadays. It's like a black hole.

Most people don't really know what it is, but they know that it sucks massively.

People associate DRM with various kinds of software shackles that limit their ability to fully enjoy the digital products they've bought. This might encompass songs that can only be transferred to a limited number of devices, games that will only launch when connected to the internet, and e-books that are optimized for certain platforms.

Now, three independent bookstores are suing Amazon and the Big Six publishers over the notion that Amazon's Kindle DRM unfairly restricts competition by forcing Kindle owners to buy e-books only from Amazon (Shelf Awareness points out that this isn't true--readers can convert ebooks in other formats to the Kindle-friendly MOBI) and preventing Kindle e-books from being read on anything but a Kindle or Kindle app.

It's nothing new that people expect a degree of flexibility from digital products that they never have from physical products. I suspect that this has to do with the idea that limits on physical products have always been natural whereas DRM is an extra chunk of code that content creators have added to products just to mess with us.

I've never met, for instance, a reader who expected to be able to convert his hardcover book to paperback when the luggage space was scarce. Or a gamer who was surprised when her copy of Dead Space for PlayStation 3 didn't also ship with an Xbox disc. And when my old Michael Jackson HIStory cassettes warped to the point where everything sounded like it was being played underwater, well. HIStory was history.

That's not to say that many complaints about DRM aren't justified or that there isn't a better system. It's just to say that, if the indie bookstores want to go all David-and-Goliath on Amazon, they're going to need to sling something a little stronger.

"Digital Lard" by Paul Downey. CC-BY license.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

I'd rather have a pint with Moriarty

Today, Slate draws attention to a copy of a "favorite things" type of questionnaire filled out by none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Since he lived before the age of irony, I interpret his responses to indicate that he wasn't much fun.

The Slate copy is larger and clearer, but you can see the original post at UT's Harry Ransom Center Tumblr.

"No, I do NOT want to take a survey."

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Short and sweet

I'm growing to appreciate the process of writing short fiction.

While I look for representation for one novel and start planning another, I've been writing short stories.  It exercises the writing muscle, and it provides an opportunity to experiment with new characters, plots, and styles. Because I read more novels than short fiction, I've generally thought of my writing in those terms. I used to think that it would be frustrating to develop a world and characters only to abandon them after a few thousand words. It felt like dipping your toe into a hot spring and then toweling off to go home.

Not so.

Writing short stories has been liberating. It's allowed me to focus on just a couple of ideas, or a relatively simple storyline, without having to build up as much as I would for a novel. There's still structure, but it's easier to avoid getting lost in it.

Perhaps most importantly, the payoff of completing a short story is fast, and the consequences of trying a new idea and failing are low. It may take months (or longer...) to complete the first draft of a novel, but many writers can crank out a short story draft in a couple of days. It feels good to have a finished product in your hands and on submission, and it doesn't feel as bad to have to abandon a story when you've only invested a couple of days in it.

"A Crumpled Paper Ball" by Flickr user Turinboy. CC-BY license.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Pleasure

So I realized that I wrote this a while back but did not actually get around to publishing it. Oops. So here it is now. You could consider this laziness, but I'd still stand by everything I said below.

I finally got around to seeing The Hobbit (and the Star Trek intro, you bet), and after hearing a resounding chorus of "meh" about the movie, I have to say it was... rather enjoyable.

That's not to say it was fantastic, but I was entertained from start to finish, and I did not at any point regret that I was sitting in the movie theater for three hours.

It helped that my expectations were already south of high (based on other reviews and the sudden decision to make a full trilogy), so I was able to enjoy the movie for what it was, not as Lord of the Rings Part IV.

Speaking of, it probably also helped that I have seen LotR since its initial release and found that it's a highly entertaining and masterfully made set of films, but maybe not quite the perfection I first believed it to be. Don't get me wrong, it's epic. It's lavish. And any movie that carries the burden of that many prosthetic ears and unpronounceable names with as much dignity deserves respect. But, to be honest, there are times during the trilogy when I'm a little bored. When the grandiose dialogue gets tiresome. When the excess of earnestness weighs heavily.

The stylistic contrasts are part of what I particularly enjoyed about The Hobbit. One of my favorite scenes occurs when the dwarves dine at Rivendell. In the LotR trilogy, the dwarves are frequently portrayed in a humorous manner (because, of course, short characters with exaggerated features are ripe for humor) while the elves are never anything but majestic. That's why this dinner scene was such a treat.

The dwarves pick over plates of something out of a raw vegan diet and look like they'd slaughter their horses for some meat, and the joke's on them. Meanwhile, elves on flutes play serene tunes right into their ears, and the joke's on them, too. See, the dwarves are Seriously Hungry, and the elves are Seriously Serious, and it's kind of refreshing for the filmmakers to acknowledge that both states of being are humorous.

Another thing I liked was that the morality of the characters and their decisions carried a little more nuance. In LotR, it sometimes felt that everyone got along just a little too well. Of course, Boromir tries to steal the ring, but that's clearly a wrong and evil decision. And Sam and Frodo trade doubts and suspicions over their trek, but what else are they going to do for two full movies? But the rest of the fellowship carries on rather bro-tastically.

Not so in The Hobbit, where Thorin doubts Bilbo, the other dwarves doubt Bilbo, Bilbo doubts Bilbo, actually, pretty much everyone except Gandalf doubts Bilbo. In fact, Thorin also doubts Gandalf at times, but mostly because he really doubts the elves. There is a sense that the politics and prejudices of various characters and factions will further emerge in the next two films, which brings us to the next point.

The Hobbit has a less clear (and less epic) sense of good vs. evil than LotR, and I suspect that this is part of the let-down for many viewers. In LotR, the good guys are fighting Pure Evil to save Middle Earth, so the question of whose side we're on (and to what extent) is a pretty shallow one. In The Hobbit, the dwarves are trying to reclaim their ancient kingdom. It's a smaller conflict by comparison, and for me that makes it a more intimate one. It also allows that the dwarves + Bilbo may be the protagonists, but they might not always be clearly in the right. And they may find conflict with other characters who are. This is the kind of grey area that I find compelling.

Monday, February 18, 2013

My dog approves

Spouse and I have extended couch privileges to Dogfriend in the spare room where I do a lot of my writing. This is big, in part because furniture is usually verboten for non-human family members, and in part because I spend lots of time in the spare room (consequently, so does Dogfriend).

This has been a popular ruling.

Friday, February 15, 2013

WTFriday: Meta-review

Harper's online is running an archive piece from 1959 in which writer Elizabeth Hardwick complains that book reviews have become too blandly positive. I guess this is less of a WTF moment than an occasion to appreciate the irony of a five-page review written on the state of reviews and a 54-year old opinion is still voiced today. It's kind of like that quote from Socrates about how the hipster kids in his day were rebellious and had awful table manners.

To the extent that the literati raise this grievance today, I suspect that it has more to do with the proliferation of book blogs, Amazon reviews, and Goodreads and the corollary question of who reads New York Times reviews when there are plenty of other opinions out there.

To return to Hardwick's argument and play devil's advocate, some of what frustrates Hardwick appears to be an admission of subjectivity and a more practiced sense of balance among many reviewers. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing probably depends on whether you read reviews for entertainment value, in which case a more polemical stance is obviously more entertaining, or whether you read reviews to build your own reading list, in which case a mix of a book's strengths and weaknesses and caveats about the reviewer's own biases and tastes are extremely helpful.

Or whether you read reviews at all.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

TV Adaptation of Reamde?

The Mary Sue reports that Neal Stephenson's most recent tome, Reamde, will be adapted for television for Fox.

Soon to be "Watcmhe."

Now, there's a little part of my writerly self that rolls its eyes whenever a fuss is made over a screen adaptation of a perfectly good novel. As if every book is really the kernel of a series (or movie) encased in a pulpy fruit of prose. As if a written work hasn't really come into its own until someone has chopped it, shot it, and blown it up on screen.

Then again, there's another (larger) part of me that is excited to have another way to experience a work of fiction I've loved and a means to share it with friends who won't be talked into a 1,000-page book. It's also fun to root for the writers, who often gain wider recognition and (hopefully) a nice royalty stream. Good for them.

Reamde has a small nation's worth of major and minor characters, so it will be interesting to see how the developers accomodate all of the storylines. It will also be interesting to see how many seasons they can stretch this into. Since, y'know, A Song of Ice and Fire gets one (two, tops) ten-episode seasons for every 1,000 pages.

If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend changing that state of affairs pronto.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Word choice: quality > quantity

Revising and editing my manuscript has given me an opportunity to observe and reflect on my progress as a writer. One of the most interesting changes besides my (hopefully improving) skill level has been my approach.

When I began my novel, I was comfortable with my vocabulary and grasp of sentence structure, and my goal was to use all of it. As a result, my early drafts were full of interesting (and sometimes rarely-used) words, but they weren't always the right words. My sentences tended to be long and descriptive, but they weren't always attention-grabbing.

Over time, I realized that the authors I enjoy the most weren't always teaching me new words. Instead, they were giving me vivid images with the words they chose, and the words they chose seemed to have more to do with connotation and sound than with variety for its own sake. Similarly, these authors showed me that I was underestimating the power of short sentences. By throwing in too many modifiers and clauses, I was diluting my sentences into a runny word soup.

I think of this when I hear other folks say that they could never be writers because they lack extensive vocabularies. An ear for cadence beats an encyclopedic vocabulary any day. Rhythm makes prose a lot more enjoyable to read, and it's eminently harder to learn.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

50 shades of differentiation

Let's start with a caveat: I have not read 50 Shades of Grey (but I have read about it to the point that I'm familiar with the plot), nor have I read any of the Twilight books (but I have seen a few of the movies). Ahem.

Now that that's out of the way, let's look at this New York Times interview with Jodi Picoult. She makes several interesting comments, but the one that caught my attention was this:
"E. L. James has been upfront about the fact that this was “Twilight” fan fiction. As a writer, I find it pretty reprehensible that someone who began a story cycle with somebody else’s created characters would go on to make gobs of money off those characters simply by slapping new names on them. Honestly, if I were Stephenie Meyer, I wouldn’t have been that gracious."
I would be more sympathetic with this viewpoint if 50 Shades were more akin to the "Tanya Grotter" et. al. rip-offs that emerged in the wake of Harry Potter. But it's not just the names that are different. It's the plot, too.

Based on my understanding, what E.L. James really borrowed from the Twilight series was a model for romance. The archetype of the wide-eyed heroine and the dangerous, brooding, Byronic hero already exists in The Phantom of the Opera, Anne Rice's vampire novels, and pretty much anything by anyone named Brontë. My only point is that I think it's pretty well-accepted among creative types that we all take inspiration from other works that have intrigued or entertained us.

E.L. James's process may have started with characters named "Bella" and "Edward," but I think she distinguished them sufficiently when she gave them not only new names, but also a new set of, um, preoccupations. Not to put E.L. James in the same sentence as Tom Stoppard, but, there, I already did it. Stoppard's own Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and The Real Inspector Hound openly reference Hamlet and Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, but even with direct connections, Stoppard's plays distinguish themselves from their source material.

But maybe those are just my thoughts. I'd like to hear otherwise from anyone who's actually read the Twilight and 50 Shades novels. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Take daily with a grain of salt

Lately I've been working with several critique partners and groups. It's a good thing because (1) it means I have to keep producing and refining work for their review, (2) critiquing other people's work puts me in a mindset to edit my own, and (3) getting a wide swath of opinions prevents me from getting too stuck on one individual critique.

Evaluating advice can be a chore, not in the least because advice, by its very nature, is often intended to convince the recipient to do something that he or she is not already doing. Sometimes this results in an "aha!" moment, but sometimes it's a "wtf?" moment.

A person's emotional reaction is often telling. When I find myself not only disagreeing with advice, but also feeling perturbed by it, I try and ask why.
  1. Am I ticked off by the tone of the advice? Some people rub me the wrong way. I rub some people the wrong way. It happens. If I realize that this is the source of my frustration, I find it helpful to mentally reword the advice and imagine it coming from someone whose company and counsel I enjoy.
  2. Am I ticked off by the content of the advice? Maybe I genuinely think that dogs make great narrators. And sometimes they do. But it's important to consider the context of the advice--what about my talking dog doesn't work for the critic? If the tactic I'm trying to employ is the exception rather than the rule (like non-human narrators), what are the exceptional examples in other fiction where this has worked, and why did it work? What does my work have in common with those examples? It may be that my idea is the exception for a good reason and that my execution is, well, less than exceptional.
  3. Am I ticked off because the person giving the advice doesn't really "get it"? Back when I did theater (theatre, if you prefer), Fearless Director used to tell us that the audience is always right. It's not an audience's job to be disposed to find me entertaining, but rather, it's my job to reach through the fog of work/school/exhaustion/illness/personal problems to entertain them. There's an art to realizing who your audience is--i.e., readers of contemporary romance may not be the best test subjects for your military scifi novel, or vice-versa. And you can't please everyone--some readers will pick up on certain developments in your story more quickly than others. But if I'm getting feedback from more than one person that something in my story doesn't make sense, chances are I'm being too opaque. It's pointless for me to tell those critics that they didn't read closely enough or that I was *actually* doing something clever there, because the bottom line is that it didn't come across. I have to meet readers where they are, not where I think they should be.
Giving and receiving good advice is almost as difficult as writing. I have to separate the advice that works best for my story from the advice that works well elsewhere without using that as an excuse to discount everything. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Epic page count

For every aspiring author with a 200,000 word manuscript in your desk drawer, take a look at this clever chart showing page counts for fantasy series of heroic proportions.

Since I didn't find a CC license, just head over to the Imgur page here if you want to see it.

I guess the moral of the story is to save the bombast for book 2 or 3.

A cookie for the first person to make a "size matters" joke about it. Oh, I guess that's me. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

With murder in her heart

I've been working on (one more!) set of revisions to my manuscript before the next round of submissions, and I'm paying particular attention to the first chapter and character introductions.

In the spirit of keeping things interesting and keeping conflict on the page, I'm trying to figure out how to make one specific character's introduction more dynamic. She begins absorbed in a task that is not inherently riveting, and I'm just going to go out on a limb and say that most people don't care to read about the everyday chores that they themselves would find boring.

So, current introduction = not interesting.

But it would be if she had murder in her heart.

"With murder in her heart" is to ho-hum fictional situations what "in bed" is to fortune cookie predictions. Now, if only it actually fit.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Writer's block bulldozers

To continue from yesterday's post about blocks, we also learned that we get stuck for a variety of reasons. While regaining momentum is an important aspect of recovering the story, sometimes knowing what the missing piece is helps us find it and get it in place.

For example.
  • If we're not sure what a character would do next, it might be because they're not doing anything. Throwing in a stimulus (hungry tiger, mother-in-law, job offer) forces them to act.
  • If we're not sure where the plot is going, we might need to start exploring options. Start writing based on where the plot could be going. It may take a few attempts, but chances are we'll see what doesn't work, and that will necessarily move us toward what does.
  • If we're not sure how to get the character we meet in Act I to the state of desperation/fury/lovesickness/moral confusion that he needs to reach to take drastic action in Act III... this could be tricky. It could be that this is the wrong character for the job. It could also be that this character actually needs to pursue a different course of action in Act III. Or it could be that we haven't pushed him hard enough, so we enroll in the Donald Maass school of writing; figure out what adversities and dilemmas would strike this character at the core of his beliefs, weaknesses, and fears; and write those things into Act II. As with the point above, trying different avenues will eventually lead us to the one that works. So will whiskey, beta readers, and revisions.
  • If we're discouraged by our writing, it may be time for a pick-me-up. We might read a chapter from one of our favorite books (or not, if this is only going to remind us how far we are from producing at this level). We might also read some scenes that we know we've nailed or some praise for critique partners (oh yes we might). The point here isn't to forget about the faults in our writing but to tap into the energy that motivated us in the first place.
Photo: "Day 220: What the heck am I writing" from Flickr user Cali4Beach. CC-BY license.

What other kinds of blocks do you run into, and how do you deal with them?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Momentum: not just for Super Bowl teams

If you'd taken a drink every time someone said "momentum" in yesterday's Super Bowl game, you would have been unconscious by the end of it. The Ravens had it, lost it during the power outage, then the 49ers picked it up, but they didn't hold onto it long enough.

I think there's something here for writers, too. Earlier in the day, I'd met with my local writing group, and we'd discussed how we break through writing blocks. Here were our conclusions:
  1. Diagnosing writers' block helps us break through it. We get stuck for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's because we don't know what happens next in the story. Sometimes we know what needs to happen next, but we don't know how to push our characters to that plot point. Sometimes we can't figure out what our characters would do in their current situations. As with many things, understanding the nature of the problem helps us solve it.
  2. Regaining momentum is key. Those of us who got together yesterday shared a variety of tools and strategies that we use to restore a derailed story. Some people write journal entries from the characters' perspectives. Others play with random story generators, Story Cubes, or cards to add something new to a stalled scene. Still others may make lists related to the characters and action to think about what events might logically happen next, what characters are thinking about at a certain point in time, and what new conflicts and catalysts these inevitabilities could create. The old fallback for other writers is to just write SOMEthing, ANYthing, and figure out later if it works. We all agreed that these strategies may get us writing material that we won't actually include in the finished product, but they get us writing, and it is immensely easier to generate good material once our fingers are already in motion. Sometimes it's only by exploring what doesn't work that we see what does.

"So then there's... um... a sheep and a turtle making scary shadows around a wigwam. Yeah."

Friday, February 1, 2013

WTFriday: False memories and unintended plagiarism

Today's WTFriday isn't about a preposterous assertion, but rather a surprising bit of research. Today the New York Review of Books includes an article by Oliver Sacks in which he recalls two vivid childhood memories, one of which he later realized never happened to him.

Most of us have probably disputed the accuracy of a memory with a relative or friend at some point or another ("You said I could have your cupcake." "There is no way I said that."). Many of us have probably also recalled bits of conversation, or standing in a particular place at a particular time, and wondered if it actually happened or if we dreamed it up. At least, I hope that happens to someone besides me.

Sacks writes that we sometimes construct memories, either of an experience that we know we had but might not remember in specific detail or of experiences that have happened to others and been vividly recounted to us.

More problematic, though, is the possibility of incorporating chunks of other artists' songs and prose into our own music and writing without realizing it. You know, plagiarism.

The article mentions a few famous cases, including George Harrison's unconscious borrowing from a Ronald Mack song and Helen Keller's spin-off of a story that she likely heard before she even understood language. Such is the power of the subconscious.

This brings to mind more recent cases of plagiarism, such as the infamous How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. The teenage author was accused of plagiarizing specific passages from almost half a dozen other novelists, and she said, "I really thought the words were my own. I guess it's just been in my head. I feel as confused as anyone about it, because it happened so many times."