Friday, June 28, 2013

WTFriday: Public bathrooms

Today's Shelf Awareness reports that, not surprisingly, bookstore owners don't like it when people waltz in off the street to use their bathrooms.

Especially if those people use Kindles.

Seriously, though, it's not nice to splash around in an establishment's bathroom when you don't plan on buying anything. And you probably shouldn't check Amazon's product listings while you're in there.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The finest of the flavors

The Smithsonian has delved into tons of old books to bring you the secrets behind "old book smell." Turns out it's related to all of the materials in the book breaking down over time, and one of the main odors is vanilla. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Story templates for Scrivener

Today GalleyCat features several free story- and novel-writing templates collected by writer Justin Swapp. These templates require Scrivener to use, but if you're looking for a way to get your story started, try one of the templates based on particular writing methods. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Details, baby, details

One of the panels I saw at ApolloCon featured a group of artists (Peri Charlifu, Cat Osborne, and Keri Bas) talking about how they give fantastical art a touch of realism. Since I don't always have a strong visual sense of made-up settings, I thought this would be a good one for me.

Not surprisingly, it was.

My favorite moment, though, was when Keri Bas told a story about a portrait competition in London. She came across a portrait of Ian McDiarmid, The Actor Formerly Known As Emperor Palpatine. It looked like the kind of painting you'd see on someone's mantel, with McDiarmid sitting in a study with a view of the English countryside behind him. But, Bas mentioned, what gave the picture its context and tone were two little Star Wars action figures--a Stormtrooper and R2-D2--on the shelf behind McDiarmid. Sometimes, she said, the important elements of a piece come through in the details.

This is great advice for writers, too. Some of my favorite authors can define a scene or a character with a few clever details. Here's one example I like from Scott Spencer's A Ship Made of Paper:
"I just had a nightmare," he says, reaching his hand out to her, beckoning her to bed. He knows that he should not be so commanding--Iris has even told him as much--but the gestures of the favorite son, the always-sought-after man, come from the deepest part of him.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Fun with cons

Last weekend I attended ApolloCon, a Houston-based science fiction and fantasy convention. I'd never been to a con, but several members of my monthly writers' group were involved, and they pointed out that this would be a great first experience before Worldcon in September.

My dance card was empty for the weekend, and Dogfriend was giving me those "please get out of the house so I can have some me-time" eyes, so I thought what the hell.

"I just need some space right now. It's nothing personal."

And then I looked up the con programming.

I got excited.

Lots of things happen at cons. There are panel discussions, art shows, gaming sessions, movies, and more. Since I'm a planner, this meant I was like a parent studying the lines at the Magic Kingdom, consulting my program and mapping out my day.

I stuck to panels. Quite a few had a strong scientific focus, which makes sense at a Houston-based science fiction con because NASA. The many fantastic speakers included an astronaut, a space medicine physician, a planetologist, and, of course, many writers.

What surprised me most was how outgoing and sociable everyone was. Almost any time you're surrounded by strangers, the standard operating procedure is to stay in your bubble. But con-goers want to talk about their passions. They want to get to know you.

And it's fun. The barriers to socialization are lowered to roughly elementary school levels, back when you could make new friends based on a shared love of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I got to visit with writers Bradley Denton, Stephen Dedman, and Amy Sisson, all of whom had keen insights about the writing business as well as quite a few recommendations for my reading list.

Look for cons in your area and take the opportunity to meet new people and learn from other writers. See you at Worldcon!

Friday, June 21, 2013

The coffee shop in your living room

The New York Times reports that research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggests that moderately quiet ambient noise--the kind one might hear in the background at a coffee hop--can boost creativity.

Now, instead of dealing with five-dollar lattes, limited seating, and the inevitable restroom dilemma, you can bring the coffee shop to your house. Or office. Or whatever.

Coffivity will bring you all of the wonderful sounds of a coffee shop without the hassle of overloaded wifi. I expect I'll give it a try in the next few days, and I'll let you know how it goes.

Interestingly, the research suggests that this kind of noise is ideal for abstract and creative tasks but that silence is still best for work that requires detail-oriented focus.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

This explains a lot about how I work best

One of the great things about being married to an intelligent, insightful person is that that person comes to recognize things about you that you don't recognize about yourself. Spouse and I had one such moment last night when Spouse sent me this article about Google's hiring policies:

"Google HR Boss Explains Why GPA And Most Interviews Are Useless"

I spend more time writing (or trying to write, or agonizing about writing) than most people do, and while it's rewarding when it goes well, it's frequently frustrating. I'm never as productive as I feel I should be. I get distracted and discouraged too easily.

All of this surprised me at first, and primarily because of my academic experiences. I made good grades! I finished assignments and papers early! I studied well in advance of exams! I stuck to deadlines!

I was also surprisingly productive on my first novel while in college.

None of this prepared me for the soul-shaking struggles for progress I would experience when I started devoting a chunk of my working hours to writing. I expected that increasing my available writing time would increase my output by the same factor. I am embarrassed to note that this has not always happened.

I thought I was a self-starter because I finished work early. I thought I could work independently because I usually did well with minimal oversight. It turns out that there's a wide gulf between loose structure and none at all.

Writing has taught me that I love having some structure, and it has confirmed that I crave competition. I don't like the formality or the rigidity of corporate cubicle farms, but the college seminar environment was just right for me. I can push myself, but I like to have someone else expecting an end product (and a good one). Otherwise, I start to wonder, what's the point?

How do you work best, and how do you add structure (or remove it, if that's your thing) to your writing life?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Blood, guts, and a writing workshop

I have the good fortune to be part of a pretty awesome local science fiction/fantasy writer's group. This past weekend, some of our members in medical careers hosted a workshop called "Medical Concepts for Genre Fiction."

It was not for the faint of stomach.

Our presenters, a doctor, nurse, forensic pathologist, pharmacist, and EMT presented on topics such as large-scale epidemics, trauma, and postmortems. The idea was to give us a better concept of how illness and injury (and recovery) happen in real life and the way modern-day health professionals respond. Our experts wanted us to understand that while losing half a liter of blood won't cripple our heroes, losing five will kill them, and that the CDC would not face the zombie apocalypse with guns (although the National Guard probably would).

After the presentations came the workshops.

I learned quite a bit about medicine and about myself. For instance, 'tis better to give an injection to an orange than to receive one. Curved suture needles are much easier to use than sewing needles (and pig skin is tough). Fatal injuries come in many shapes and sizes, and they are all gross.

But I learned the most with the pig carcass.

Our last station involved a pig carcass (purchased from a butcher shop) hanging in a garage. This sounds very Silence of the Lambs, but it quickly went Lord of the Flies. See, next to the pig was an assortment of weapons, and this station was designed to give us a feel for what it's like to use them.

It feels awful.

We had combat knives (no kitchen knives!*), a baseball bat, a drill, a hammer, a staple gun, a mallet, and various gardening implements.

As it turns out, tire irons make terrible bludgeons. The grip gets slick, and they're too light to carry much force. This was true of most of the weapons of opportunity.

The most interesting bit, though, was how uncomfortable all of us were with the exercise. We had trouble watching our fellows attack the pig, to say nothing of doing it ourselves. When my turn came, I found myself concentrating on the belly, where I couldn't see the head. None of us could look it in the eye for more than a few seconds. There was something in all of us that shrank back from doing violence to even a very dead and very bloodless pig.

You know how a blow to the head is often described as a "sickening thud"? It's cliche because it's apt. I needed a very long shower after all of this.

*Want to know why? Because when a knife strikes bone, it will stop, but your hand won't. So, unless there's a crossguard, you're likely to slice your own hand open.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

As if kids need this

Coming in second for "Most Interesting Books for 'Children'"* is this little gem:

This seems like an interesting study in the difference between "target reader" and "target buyer." While I'm certain that anarchy appeals very much to children ("target readers"), I'm not so sure that their parents ("target buyers") will share that enthusiasm. Getting kids to make their beds and eat their vegetables is hard enough, amirite?

Yes, I know I'm judging a book by its cover (which is what most of us do, to one extent or another, when we're browsing the shelves). In all seriousness, the "embrace people who are different from you" part of the book's message sounds great, even if the "draw on the television" part does not. And the "skip a bath" part is a wash (heh). I really don't care as long as He Who Shall Not Be Bathed doesn't sit next to me at Chili's.

*I just made this up! But first place goes to Go the F*** to Sleep

Monday, June 17, 2013

The night is dark and full of terriers

Even though last week's opening scene was disturbing, Dogfriend was disappointed to learn that there would not be another Game of Thrones episode last night.

Yes, Dogfriend was hoping for comeuppances. But that will have to wait until next year.

Friday, June 14, 2013

WTFriday: Background checks

Today's is an interesting WTF rather than an exasperating WTF, but still. If you've checked the news (thank you, Shelf Awareness), you might know that Obama has recently selected a new deputy director for the CIA, and her name is Avril Danica Haines.

It turns out that Haines has been in various policy- and national security-related positions over the last few years, but most news sources are focusing on a different, um, position. Two decades ago, she opened a bookstore and organized (among other things) erotica readings.

What's interesting is that, of all the things Haines has done professionally, everyone is focused on the bookstore. And of all the things she did to run it, everyone is focused on the erotica readings.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's neat that she's had such a varied career, and it's refreshing that no one (yet) seems to be looking askance at her for her earlier work.

Image: A Reading in the Salon of Mme. Geoffrin, Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier, via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Gitmo's library

So prisons have libraries, but I'd never thought of Guantánamo having a library. It turns out that it does. It also turns out that most of the books are in Arabic. 

There's a great Tumblr site with images from the library. Many of the books on display are recognizable and surprising.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Stop crapping on the grammar geeks

Novelist Sherman Alexie tweeted the following yesterday:

While GalleyCat posted a slew of amusing responses, sentiments like these always give me pause. Sure, contempt for authority is fashionable, and it's important to question and understand the purpose of the rules we're asked to follow, but not all rules are bad. No one likes to see flashing red lights in their rearview mirror, but it's better than anarchy.

Whenever people stick up their noses at "grammar police" (or members of any other branch of the grammarian forces), I always wonder how they define the term. After all, one man's "grammar cop" may simply be someone who knows the difference between "your" and "you're."

Grammar rules are about clarity. I believe in the tasteful use of a sentence fragment, but I also know that poorly-structured sentences and ambiguous punctuation obscure meaning. Clarity is like offensiveness; it's not what's intended that matters, but rather what's interpreted. Too often, a person shrugs off writing conventions because his meaning is clear to him in the sanctuary of his own mind.

And yes, I'll be honest, when I see they're/there/their confusion and plural's with apostrophe's, I judge. Just a little. I make mistakes, too, but a complete disregard for grammar basics sets off alarm bells. Writing is about first impressions. Writers don't usually get the chance to follow up with readers about the arguments they make or the stories they tell. Words are our stock in trade, which is why I don't trust a writer who can't form a sentence any more than I'd trust an accountant who can't add.

There's another problem with ungrammatical writing that also plagues those of a more charitable mindset. It's distracting. Language errors are like scratches in a record. They interrupt the flow of an idea, and instead of focusing on the writer's message, the reader begins to think about the anomaly.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

I should be able to taste the pickle-flavored ice cream

At a local writers' meeting last night, one member shared a sample that involved a pregnant woman acting irritably pregnant. While there were some comedic moments in that scenario, the problem was that the character swung from one extreme to the next so quickly that she felt like a caricature of a pregnant woman more than a character. She wasn't believable.

The author responded that he'd been around for a couple of pregnancies himself, and the extremes he'd written were quite realistic.

Realism, however, isn't the issue. What matters isn't whether the events and characters in a novel could and would exist in real life, but whether they are conveyed to the reader in a vivid and convincing manner. Georgian era magicians and sandworm-riding nomads are not realistic, but they can be made believable.

Believability comes from clarity of description and action and depth of character. I have to get the sense that an angry pregnant woman is something other than angry and pregnant at times and that her anger comes from some transformative pit of physical pain and emotional turmoil, not that she is angry because PREGGERS.

I want to believe.
"Pickles and Ice Cream Cupcake" by Janet Hudson of Vegan Feast Catering.

Monday, June 10, 2013

They sometimes feel like "classux"

Have you ever had to admit that you really hated a book that other people love? Or, worse, that people consider a classic?

You are not alone.

Love Reading, Hate Books is a blog that collects one-star reviews of classics. If you've ever been labelled a philistine for giving up on James Joyce or wanting back the time you spent with Virginia Woolf, this is the place for you.

I'll be honest, I disliked The Grapes of Wrath or The Old Man and the Sea. And the only Dickens I really enjoyed was A Tale of Two Cities. See, you don't have to like everything.

Maybe I would have liked it more as The Pirate Queen and the Kraken-Infested Waters.

Friday, June 7, 2013

WTFriday: The book was better

The Atlantic is running an article titled "When Sci-Fi Crime Prevention Tactics Aren't Actually That Far-Fetched," and while this feels a little like link bait (...oops), what really gets me is that half of the films referenced in the article were books first.

Books like




I get that film stills are more exciting (and often more recognizable) than book covers, but a little acknowledgement would make the book nerd in me happier.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Does social currency pay the rent?

Writers, musicians, artists and other people who try to make a living off of their ideas generate cash in interesting ways. The things that get these folks a reputation aren't always the same as the things that make them actual money.

There can be uncomfortable grey area between the feats artists perform for money and the feats they perform for exposure. A New York Magazine article about Nate Thayer's clash with The Atlantic highlights this. Thayer had written an article on basketball diplomacy for another source, and an editor for asked if their magazine could repurpose it. For free. The benefit to Thayer, said the editor, was exposure. He disagreed, and so would many other writers.

This is not unlike the time Glee covered Jonathan Coulton's cover of Sir Mix-a-lot's "Baby Got Back." While FOX said that Coulton should be thankful for the exposure, they didn't even credit him for the arrangement or original music. JoCo's fans, however, raised hell on the musician's behalf and arguably got him even more attention than he would have received had FOX played nicely.

On the other hand, musician Amanda Palmer has made a name for herself giving her music away (check out her fabulous TED talk on the subject) with the idea that people pay it back if you focus more on reaching out to them than on guarding your goods.

Where should an artist draw the line, and how often do giveaways lead to long-term financial relationships? Some of this may depend on an artist's medium and output, but more than that it may depend on how willing an artist is to couch-surf with fans.

She gets shit done. Image "Amanda Palmer" from Joi Ito, CC-BY license.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Can conflict overwrite characters?

Alyssa Rosenberg of ThinkProgress wrote an article today attempting to explain why modern romantic comedies don't seem to connect with their audiences. A lot of it boils down to needy, childish characters. Too often, a rom-com protagonist's attainment of adulthood, professional success, sense of identity, and personal satisfaction depend on finding a long-term romantic relationship.

She notes that it wasn't always this way.

So, why (now) do so many romance plots feature 8th-graders in business casual rather than two well-adjusted adults navigating competing prejudices and interests to find a relationship?

If your answer is "because that sounds boring," then I'd refer you to Rosenberg's examples of When Harry Met Sally and While You Were Sleeping.

My theory is stakes. Writers are consistently told to amp up the tension, add more conflict, and raise the stakes. That's great advice until it leads characters to unrealistic dilemmas.

If you want to give an epidemiologist an extra set of problems, you can't have her looking for the perfect apartment while she's trying to stop a pandemic. And a Navy pilot isn't going to connect his ability to fly a mission to his prospects of finding a date. In these instances, disparate conflicts are more likely to distract from one another than they are to add to the tension.

In the case of rom-coms, perhaps the writers (or producers) think that the best way to make romance more high-stakes is to make it about something more than love: identity, career prospects, and overall happiness.

Or maybe producers think modern audiences can identify with whiny, insecure characters. But let's hope not.