Thursday, February 28, 2008

Oddest Book Titles

Reuters recently had an interesting short article on this year's finalists for the oddest book title. I can't decide whether I think "Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues" or "Cheese Problems Solved" is funnier. Of course, "I was Tortured by the Pygmy Love Queen" is pretty good, too.

As the article points out, it's really nice to see that the publishing industry isn't homogenizing too much. There are still plenty of quirky oddities making it into print.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Why I Write

Literary agent Nathan Bransford posed this questions to his readers: why do you write? Here's my answer:

My own personal character has been heavily influenced by the works I read as a child and a young man. Books have a way of reflecting and crystallizing real life, and our favorite characters are often foils to ourselves. I write not so much to change the world (though that would be nice), but to hopefully help others shape themselves into the people they want to be -- as my favorite authors helped shape me into who I wanted to be.

On the other hand, one of the main reasons I write is simply to provoke a response. If I can make people laugh, or cry, or look at something in a new way, I've been successful. Novels are entertainment, education, and sometimes even catharsis. For the author as well as the reader. But mostly, I write because it's part of who I am.

PS - In other news, I am quite busy on a writing project, which is why I haven't been blogging much. I hope to be back soon!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Writing Status

Well. I am sick. Yesterday was the worst, with my temperature getting up to 101.8, among other unpleasantries (which I will spare you). Not sure if this is the flu or not, which is going around NC in a major way, but it's certainly cutting its way through the school where my wife works. At least the really bad phase seems to last only a day or two for most people.

Today I'm still home from work, and as you can tell I'm catching up on my blog posts a bit (to distract myself from how my body feels, mostly). But I'm way too out of it to get any actual writing done, and have been for a couple of days now. I did get maybe a page written on Wednesday, before things got too bad, and I've also been making prewriting notes so that I can hit the ground running once I'm better. Amazingly, I finally sat down and wrote the first half-page of my synopsis -- I think that's going pretty well, so far.

And... that's pretty much all the news.

Roads, versus their destinations

Yesterday, Dwight made an interesting post called What's a little sacrifice between friends. He brings up some very interesting points about happy endings, and predictable endings, and why he prefers works that are not formulaic in their resolutions. One interesting quote from Dwight's post, this one specifically referencing movies:

As a kid, I was the biggest James Bond nut. Somewhere in my teens (circa A View to a Kill with that awful Duran Duran soundtrack) I finally had the “He’s never going to die. What’s the point of all this? Why am I wasting my time here?” epiphany. I was done with Bond.
Here's the original response I posted in the comments of his blog:

Very good post, Dwight. I have a lot of the same feelings. The intersting thing about tragedy is that it often goes well until the end, when everything falls to shit. I don't like to write tragedies any more than I like to write comedy, or happy endings, or whatever.

As you say, write the story honestly. For me, this means bits of dark comedy throughout; moments of success for the hero and moments of abject failure (somewhere between page 1 and "the end"); and endings that are never all bad nor all good. Bittersweet? You could call it that.

But, more to the point, things are never wrapped up with a bow on top -- for good or for ill. Just like life.
I still stand by what I wrote there. However, as yesterday progressed I found myself wondering how I could think that, and still love Bond movies (or the latest Batman incarnation, which has much the same problem -- there's no way Batman will die, any more than Superman "died" in the mid-90's during that whole "Death and Return of Superman" publicity stunt). How is it that I can pride myself on writing the unexpected, often bittersweet endings, and then not be as judgmental with other works? What's the appeal of those other stories, if the ending is a relatively foregone conclusion?

Well, I think it boils down to the fact that I don't read books or watch movies for their endings. I want to find myself captivated the whole way along, and if the ending is predictable -- so what? If I come away feeling good and happy about myself, what's the harm in that?

Granted, my own writing tends to be much darker, but that doesn't mean mean I can't enjoy the lighter side of things in others' works. In the case of the Pierce Brosnan Bond movies, it was all about the cleverness of the action and situations, and the interesting bad guys and their plots. Sure, it was lightweight fare, but it was pretty entertaining nonetheless. Those aren't among my favorite movies, to be sure, since they lack the depth to make me really connect with them, but every movie I enjoy can't be my favorite.

With the most recent Bond movie, Casino Royale, the writing is much more poignant and deeper, and Daniel Craig portrays a much more interesting Bond. Did I think there was a possibility that he might die in the end? Of course not. But there are a lot of things nearly as bad as death, in such movies. What about the heroine? She's fair game to die, and I didn't want her to. What about the other secondary characters that I was coming to care about -- would Bond be able to protect all of them? And, of course, there are other interesting subplots, such as his relations with M (who doesn't seem to like him very much), his growing finesse as a spy, and the ever present danger of betrayal. So, clearly, there was a lot to keep it suspenseful.

I think the same can be said of Batman Begins, which is another of my favorite movies. I was less interested in Batman before that movie, but I really connected with every aspect of that rendition. Harry Potter was the same way -- of course there was no possibility that Harry was going to die until the last book in the series, and even that seemed pretty unlikely. Yet those books drew me along like few others, as there was a whole world there that I cared about and didn't want to see ruined. There were plenty of characters that I cared about just as much as Harry, and was distraught when they did die (though I was artistically pleased with all of her choices as to who to kill).

I could give plenty of other examples of books I think fall under this category (The Dresden Files, which I just finished the first of and loved, for instance), but I think you get the point. The endings of books and movies should definitely not be telegraphed in advance -- that's bad writing -- but the central question of whether the protagonist(s) live or die is not always the most important one. Sometimes it's all about seeing what they do along the way (all unexpected events, hopefully), and sometimes it's about any collateral damage that might occur.

Clearly, statistics aren't everything

This post at SF Signal shows which books supposedly are for the "dumb" kids, and which ones are for the smarties, as evidenced by the correlation between favorite books and SAT scores.

I highly recommend you read the original article, but here's the graph they include, for quick reference:

Hmm, interesting. I'm quite surprised to see that the average score (on the older 1600-point scale, rather than the new 2400-point one) does not go any higher than 1250. At any rate, I know loads of people who scored way higher than this entire range, and who loved many of the books on the lower end of the scale.

My favorite book is Ender's Game, but I'm also quite partial to Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia (just to pick examples from this list). My score was about 1425 (790 in English, thank you very much). My wife is not nearly as partial to Ender's Game, but liked Eragon and loved Wicked and Harry Potter (though her favorite books, most by Connie Willis, aren't even on this list). She scored a 1590. I knew plenty of people who scored in the 1400-1600 range who loved Lord of the Rings above all else.

Of course, this might be skewed by the high school I went to -- Enloe was the top magnet high school in the country when my wife and I were there. I was actually a bit embarrassed by my 1425, and with a ~4.4 weighted GPA, I was only something like 125th in my class of about 500. My wife had a much, much higher weighted GPA, and a much better class rank in her year, but I think she'd rather I not publish those on the Internet.

The point is that I don't think that the books we read (within reason) are necessarily indicative of intelligence or SAT scores, and certainly that kids shouldn't be discouraged from reading certain books because it will "make them dumb." Obviously there are benefits to reading thought-provoking works with an advanced vocabulary, but reading works of value that inspire you is also important. Great books are about people, relationships, and ethics (Harry Potter and Ender's Game) as often as they are about deep ideas in an academic sense. Read higher-class literature if that's what moves you, but don't expect that to be a primary determinant of your academic success.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Progress is Progress

Wild Zontars had to drag the information out of me*, but I managed to write three and a half pages today. For whatever reason, the juices just weren't flowing -- but I persevered. I'd write more here, but it's late and I'm tired. I'll try to make a more interesting post very soon.

The stats as of today:
-52,625 estimated words.
-62,186 actual words.
-210.5 pages.
-Song(s) listened to while writing: Lacrymosa, by Evanescence; The Man Who Sold The World, by Nirvana; Monstrous Turtles!, by zircon

* Ten thousand points (**) if you catch the incredibly obscure reference I made above without googling it.
** One point if you can catch the much less obscure reference I made in the first footnote.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Blog Birthday

That's right, this blog turns one year old today. No fanfare, just business as usual. I've made some progress on my writing (actually, I've given in to the urge to do a bit of editing -- to good result, at least), but I don't have enough that's new to warrant a full progress report. I hope to complete an entire new scene tomorrow, but we'll see what else comes up in the meantime. I find myself with a lot of different things going these days...

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Manuscript Analyzer Online

The Windows version of Manuscript Analyzer has been getting some pretty good comments and use around the Internet, but one undercurrent that I've been encountering is that there are more writers who are Mac users than I had anticipated. To provide a solution for those users who can't use the Windows version, I've created Manuscript Analyzer Online.

This program is written entirely in JavaScript, and so works with Internet Explorer, Safari, Netscape, and FireFox without the need to install any software at all. The online edition contains all the features of the Windows edition, and is only very slightly slower to run.

The big concern that everyone is likely to have with this program, however, is its online nature. Is it stealing their manuscript, or transmitting it across the Internet where passing hackers might take advantage of it? The answer, of course, is no. Otherwise I wouldn't have put it up.

The program itself is about 24kb, and gets downloaded as a web page via your browser (like any other web page). Once it is downloaded, that's all that is transmitted: using JavaScript, the program analyzes the manuscript on your own computer, without any more interaction with my web server. This means that it also will work just as fast for dialup users as it does for users on cable or T1 (after that initial download), and that you don't have to keep an Internet connection open to use it.

Hopefully that alleviates any concerns that anyone has, but if there are other questions please do let me know and I'll be more than happy to address them. Also, I'm still quite interested in ideas for improvements/extensions to the program, so feel free to email me with those.

Exciting News

Well, this is certainly the most exciting news I've been able to post in a while. Remember how I've been admonishing you to read DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY, the nonfiction book on writing by mystery editor Chris Roerden? Well, I promise you that my recommendations have not been skewed by the following news, which is a very recent development:

It turns out that the first line from my current WIP will be included in the next edition, DON'T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSIONS. DSYS will be the expanded, cross-genre edition of the 2005 original, which won a 2007 Agatha award among many other honors. DSYS will be released later this year (I'll post a reminder as the time approaches).

This is very exciting for me not just because it's a great publication credit (hooray, query letters), but because I so wholeheartedly support this book. Amongst all the various writing books I own, this one has far and away been the most helpful on a practical, nuts-and-bolts level. It's really an honor to have my writing included with the many other examples of good writing that Roerden uses.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Chapter 13 Completed, And A New Process

Yes, I know I haven't been around much recently. Or, at least I haven't been making any blog posts or many comments elsewhere, though I have been reading the blogs on my list. I've been steadily working away for the last couple of weeks, though not directly on my manuscript for most of that time. I've got a new, secret project that I've been working on -- something that should prove rather useful and unique when it comes time to promote my book.

Yes, I know, that's getting ahead of myself -- the book isn't even done, and it's not definite that it will find an agent, let alone a publisher. But the promotional idea struck me a few weeks ago, and I knew I had to put it in motion. It's the sort of thing that will hopefully make me marginally more attractive to agents and publishers, anyway -- prepared marketing ideas, and all that. At any rate, my novel will still succeed or fail on its merit alone (I'd have it no other way), but every little bit helps in this business.

Moving on: I have made substantial progress on my novel itself. I've now passed 60,000 actual words, 50,000 estimated words, and 200 pages. And, best of all... (drum roll? no?)... I'm through with my revising-expanding work! Wow, that's only taken... um... has it really been four months? Well, the novel has doubled in length during that process, and definitely improved in quality. I plan on writing the last hundred or so pages in a lot less time than that, though.

That's the other thing I've been working on recently -- figuring out why I've been so blocked, albeit off and on, with my writing in the last year or so. There's one obvious answer: I didn't emotionally handle the rejections of The Guardian all that well. Well, granted. But there's another, deeper, reason: my writing process hasn't been matching my actual preferences. In fact, my writing process has never matched my preferences, but until The Guardian I was too blindly optimistic to care. Now that I'm less sure (but hopefully also wiser), my process has been smothering me.

What was my process? It basically boiled down to this:
- Plot in advance as much as possible.
- Figure out the rest as it is written, to keep things fresh.
- Write everything in order, and write the first draft as well as possible.
- Revise prior content before moving on with new writing.
- Try to hit a certain word count each session.

I think that's a pretty common process for writers, actually, but it just doesn't work for me. Or, I should say, it doesn't work well. It has, after all, helped me finish two and 2/3 books. But at the same time, I managed to not finish over twenty five (nineteen of which came before I finished my first book, though, so in retrospect those were really just learning projects more than anything else).

At any rate, my shiny new process is this:
- Plot in advance as much as possible.
- Figure out the rest as it is written, to keep things fresh.
-BUT don't ever go into a writing session thinking I'll figure it all out as I go.
That's a sure recipe for slow death during the session.
- Write things in the order they occur to me.
- This will be MOSTLY in chapter order, but definitely not in scene order.
And certainly not in paragraph order within the scene. Often it is easier
to jump ahead to some dialogue or action or description that I'm sure of,
and to then come back and fill in the gaps I was less sure about.
-Write the first draft as well as I can without going back and constantly revising.
- This also means not sitting at the keyboard for twenty or thirty minutes
trying to revise a single line (this was previously a common occurrence).
- Revising is much more effective, at least for me at this point in my career,
when done suitably after the initial writing. Also, wearing my editor's hat
scares the hell out of my writer's hat, and makes doing further writing that
much more difficult. Something many professional writers have said, but I
never listened. Well, I'm listening now.
- Ignore word count when trying to gauge progress in an individual session.
- The more important note is whether or not I finished the block of story
(usually a scene) that I wanted to finish. If I can finish one scene per writing
session, I'm doing good. Three scenes, like I wrote today, is doing awesome.
- Keep a to-do list of scenes that are ready to write, and scenes that need more plotting.
- Just being able to check items off my list, and to see the number of items on the
list as they dwindle is an inspiration to do more. I've used this trick with my
programming for half a decade, and it's just now occurring to me to do this with
my writing, too.

So far, my new process works. I'll let you know how it goes.

The stats as of today:
-51,500 estimated words.
-61,051 actual words.
-206 pages.
-Song(s) listened to while writing: Soundtracks to Meet the Robinsons, Superman Returns, Hook, and Brazil