Category Archives: Writing

Wisp says hello

As I said this morning, she showed up, climbed on top of the table (it shelters the heated house, which isn’t waterproof) and peered in at us. We were very relieved to know she was alright.

Another relatively quiet week. I got several Leaf articles done, the most interesting being 1800 words on “Job Duties of a Nun.” And that’s it until 2019; much as I enjoy the dinero, I’m happy to have added time for finishing up Southern Discomfort.

I made it over 50,000 words so I’m past the halfway mark. I think I’ll be done by New Year’s as planned. After all I have two work weeks, less Christmas, and nothing else on my plate. Fingers crossed.

I did run into one major plotting problem but I fixed it fast. First I realized Joan was breaking a promise to her father to stay at home much too casually — for good reasons, but I’d already established she feels duty bound to keep her word. Then I realized that the FBI would probably have a few questions for her, which makes getting out of the house mandatory. Problem solved!

Hopefully they’ll all be that easy.

Oh, and I received a copy of the October/November History Magazine with my story on the history of the Fordson, the first affordable tractor, and how it and its eventual replacement, the Farmall, changed agriculture.

And I spent Thursday while the dogs were out doing some major cleaning to ready the house for the writers’ group Christmas Party Saturday.

Below, Wisp’s tentative check if we were ready to feed her.

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Too much of a good thing? Constance Verity Saves the World

What if Kim Possible’s crazy life didn’t get any less crazy by time she hit thirty? is how I’d sum up CONSTANCE VERITY SAVES THE WORLD by A. Lee Martinez. Martinez usually loves playing with genre tropes for humor, usually successfully, and overall I liked this one (second in a series)

The premise — well, my opening line pretty much covers it. Constance routinely battles mad scientists, crime cabals, monsters, alien invaders, occult threats, to the point where her reaction verges on the blasé. No matter how scary it is, her reaction tends to “meh.” It’s not like she hasn’t seen it before, no matter what “it” is.

Getting a life, though? That’s a little frightening. Constance has an accountant boyfriend, Byron, and it’s hard for her to figure out how much of her experiences to share with him. It’s also difficult for Constance to reset her reflexes so that the presence of an ET or a possibly dangerous robot doesn’t trigger a fight in their new condo. I did like that Byron really is thoroughly ordinary; he’s the Lois or Pepper to Constance’ superhero, and that’s a nice change from the usual.

I’m reviewing this one as an Is Our Writer’s Learning? book because I did learn a couple of things from it. Most notably, that original takes are few and far between. No Good Deed Goes Unpunished has a similar concept in Jennifer being afflicted with a life of constant peril and strife, though my handling it is quite different. The Astro City series frequently goes into the same territory, and it was the whole premise of the Gerard Jones/Will Jacobs The Trouble With Girls (reviewed here and here): Lester Girls wants a normal life but destiny keeps throwing him into a world of danger, sex and excitement. It’s the execution that makes it work, or not.

The second point I learned is that there’s a limit to how far some premises will stretch. Trouble With Girls kept the laugh balls in the air for two TPBs; Martinez manages it for the length of a novel, but it’s a near thing. We know pretty much how any of Constance’s scenes will go, the same way the last one did. It’s a one-joke premise, which is not a bad thing if the joke works, but it almost doesn’t. I don’t feel any urge to read the first volume or V3 when it comes out. But I did enjoy this one, more than several other superhero riffs along the same line. Martinez has a good feel for the tropes he’s parodying, and not everyone does.

#SFWApro. Cover by John Picacio, all rights to current holder.

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Will my reach exceed my grasp? Stay tuned!

As of today, Southern Discomfort is at almost 44,000 words. That leaves me with roughly 50,000 more to get through by New Year’s Eve to finish. That’s doable, but not a slam dunk. If I run into problems with some of my later scenes, or I get sick for a couple of days, I may be SOL.

I added 11,000 words to the book this week, which is definitely not enough if I keep going at the same speed. However I have only one more week of Leaf articles; after that, I’ll be free to work on the novel and nothing else. And this week I was sidelined Tuesday by having an opthalmologist appointment with eye dilation. As a result, I wasn’t able to use the computer for two or three hours after getting home. We’d taken the dogs in for grooming the same morning so I figured I could do some cleaning and giftwrapping while they were gone, as that doesn’t require the same level of fine eye focus. Nope, they were ready much sooner than I’d expected, so I had to push the cleaning to later in the week.

So it’s still doable. I shall stretch like Plastic Man until I achieve my glorious triumph! Or so I hope.

As my writing this week was just the novel and Leaf articles, I don’t have much else to say. Although I did have some more entertaining Leaf articles than usual, such as “Duties of a NASA Mission Specialist.”

I must admit I’ll be glad when I’m done with Southern Discomfort but if it comes to a choice between “get it done” and “make it good,” I’ll go with option B. But I’ll spend the rest of this month trying to avoid that choice.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jack Cole, all rights remain with current holder. I picked it to fit the “reach” theme, but also because it’s just cool.

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The little things: Georgia O’Keefe and Sherlock Holmes quotes

“Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” — Georgia O’Keefe (creator of the painting illustrated here, The White Flower).

“The little things are infinitely the most important.” — Sherlock Holmes

Any writers reading this know detail is a big part of what we do. Which ones we need to include. Which ones we have to include. Which ones we should leave out.

Detail can make or break a story. Details can bring a character to life — the scars on their back from fighting dinosaurs, their passion for playing chess by mail (yes, that used to be a thing), their freaky tattoo or being nitpicky about other people’s grammar. They can also bring settings to life: the smells, the flavors, the music. The minor details of alternate timelines, such as Leslie Howard and JFK still being alive in the film Quest for Love. Or the slightly different wording of the song “Teen Angel” in my Atoms for Peace (“That fateful night the saucers came/We were caught in their attack.”). For historical fiction or fantasy, the fine points of slang, culture, attitudes and politics can make the period vividly real.

Or take the throwaway line in Monty Python’s crunchy frog skit where a chocolatier points out the repellent ingredients in his chocs are all listed on the label — lark vomit comes “right after monosodium glutamate.” It makes the grotesque premise (there really is a small dead frog in “crunchy frog chocolate”) that much more vivid.

But as O’Keefe points out, details can also distract and confuse us. The classic example is dialogue. Real human speech is full of pauses, mumbling, distractions and repeated words (one of my friends used to use “like” in sentences as a punctuation mark). Even when quoting people as a reporter, I trimmed that stuff out.

Too much visual detail can bore or frustrate readers (it’s TYG’s biggest complaint about the Game of Thrones novels) as much as a lack of any detail. Some people love the nitty-gritty details of how magic systems work. I usually find them boring as all get-out (as long as the magic feels right and stays consistent, I’m fine with not knowing the details). Errors in factual details can make readers stop taking a book seriously. For example, a nonfiction work I read some years back that mentioned in passing that research into identical twins has proven our personality is 100 percent shaped by our genes. Um, NO.

Of course some readers or viewers will treat any inaccuracy or error as a fatal flaw that ruins the entire work. When Stage Crafters did A Glass Menagerie, we got a note from the audience that the pillows had those “do not remove this tag” tag on them even though they weren’t around at the time of the story (late 1940s). How could we make such an utterly incompetent error? Given that Tom, the protagonist, specifically states at the beginning this is a subjective story and not a literal retelling, that seems really pointless nitpicking. But for some people, the nits wreck the story.

So that’s part of the challenge. What some people see as a distracting detail, others are going to find fascinating and fundamental. There’s no perfect level of detail that works for every writer, every story, every reader.

But hey, nobody ever said our gig was easy.

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33,000 and counting

I accomplished 57 percent of my November goals. That’s primarily because I underestimated the impact of my colonoscopy on my work Thanksgiving week (and for that matter my off-work activities). And yes, insomnia played a role. As I sleep great on weekends, I’d anticipated making up for lost time over the four day weekend. Instead interruptions from one source or another meant I only got one night of good sleep. Bleah!

The biggest fail on my goal list was not finishing Southern Discomfort. That one I can’t really blame on my colon, though the short work week certainly had an impact. So did the Leaf articles continuing longer than I’d expected.

But the main reason is, it’s been a long while since I read an entire novel aloud, and I’d forgotten how long it takes. Rewriting and changing the scenes is taking more work than I thought too. I’m rewriting the flow of conversation so it makes more sense, adding tension to some scenes (though some of them are simply going to be about setting and character, and that’ll have to be enough), checking formatting. Every decision then leads to more changes (well, not the formatting). Making Maria more skeptical about whether it’s really magic in one scene means she needs to be skeptical in the next scene, or I have to show her changing.

Still, when I counted up the completely finished wordage this week, I was pleased. As of today, I’m a little over 33,000 words done, out of a 92,000 word book. And next month this is my only writing goal besides the Leaf articles, which will wrap up before too long. So I should be done by New Year’s Eve. Well if the good lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise, as they say. Even if it rises, I can get it done in January, but I really want to start 2019 fresh.

And I wrote another Dr. Mabuse article for Atomic Junkshop. As I didn’t have time for even a half-hearted film review, I looked at two Dr. Mabuse songs, Dr. Mabuse by Propaganda and Dr. Mabuse by Blue System. Thanks to my friend Ross Bagby for alerting me they even existed. Below is the CD cover for one of the Propaganda versions (there are several of various lengths floating around).

#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.

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Sherlock Holmes: “It is easier to know than to explain why I know.”

Yep, time for another of the Great Detective’s insights into writing: “It is easier to know than to explain why I know.”

Holmes’ point was that it was much easier to make a lightning-fast deduction than to break down his chain of thought for Watson or Lestrade. I’ve often had the same experience writing: at some level, my unconscious mind knows what the story needs even if I can’t explain why it’s right. Sometimes I can’t explain what it needs, only that it’s not what’s on the page.

I think the first time I had the experience was writing my second novel. I’d had a big major fight scene midway through the book, and it was decent, but then I found I couldn’t write the next scene. My gut seemed to clench up and obstruct me every time I tried. Finally I realized it was because what I’d written was wrong. Oh, it was perfectly adequate, but there was a better alternative, if I could only find it.

Eventually I did. It was a lot better. The book didn’t sell, but it was still a better novel.

I’ve had that sense of “something’s wrong” since, though not usually as strongly. And more generally I find a lot of choices and decisions I make in writing are intuitive: choice A simply feels better than choice B. My gut is a good guide.

But unlike Holmes, not a perfect guide. In writing new drafts, I spend a lot of time thinking and studying the previous draft’s structure and pacing. And after I’m satisfied that a story feels right and the logic holds up, then I go get feedback from my writer’s group or other beta readers.

For example, when I wrote The Savage Year I thought a lot about the story’s structure, giving Diana and Artemis multiple encounters with the villain. I thought about the talismans that would make logical sense for him to hunt for. But I also trusted my feelings about the story. As I was dealing with quasi-Lovecraftian horrors, I felt the sensations the magic triggers in Artemis needed to be weirder and more horrible. So I wrote at one point about how the magic made Artemis feel like rats were running around in her stomach, and trying to climb out. Other magical efforts triggered similar unpleasantness.

Then I showed it to the group and got lots of feedback. Including that the bad guy needed to come on stage sooner and that the effects of his magic weren’t creepy enough. I took those suggestions both into account. Eventually the story sold to Lorelei Signal (unfortunately the web site’s been down so long, I wonder if it will ever come back up).

I don’t know if this is true for all writers, and it doesn’t need to be. Everyone’s got their own method. As long as the story works for readers (or listeners, or viewers), it doesn’t matter whether we get it by following a formula or improvising based on intuition.

#SFWApro. Cup design by Philosophers Guild, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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That was a shorter work week than I anticipated

I knew I wouldn’t get anything done Monday due to my colonoscopy. And obviously not Thursday or today, because holiday! But I figured I’d have two productive days Tuesday and Wednesday.

Not so much. The subtle whisper of “you know you’re not getting much done this week, so what’s the point?” snaked into my brain. I got some Leaf articles written and they were actually interesting (“How to Become an Interpol Agent” and “How to Become a Freelance Model,” for example). And that was about it.

So nothing much more to say about the work week.

To make this post slightly more interesting, here’s a map from Harvey Comics showing how all their characters from the Silver Age — Richie Rich, Casper, Wendy, Hot Stuff — coexist in the same enchanted valley. I wasn’t a huge fan of their comics as a kid (though looking back, I read my share) but I still find this oddly interesting.

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Not a surreal week, just disorganized

But I’m using a surrealist art work (by Giorgio DiChirico, on exhibit at MOMA) as an illustration anyway. What can I say, I love his work.

A big part of the disorganization was that TYG’s schedule has been crazy since last Friday. That inevitably affects my schedule — extra time spent with dogs, most obviously — and just as inevitably her stress bleeds over a little. Another part was that we had several days of drenching rain this week, which left me feeling on edge. And next week I have my every-ten-years colonoscopy, so I’m currently on a diet to ensure my colon is clean. Cereal has to be low fiber, bread has to be white, etc., etc. It’s nothing that awful, but it feels like I’m being starved. And worrying the colonoscopy might Find Something is unsettling too. Oh, and I made the mistake of buying white bread at the store, and it’s just as bland as I remember. Today I’m making Australian damper bread from one of my cookbooks instead.

Plus I lost a chunk of time Tuesday to my dental visit, and squeezing several errands into the same trip (part of the schedule disruptions). But my teeth, at least, are in good shape.

And while I’d been thinking Leaf was wrapped up for the year, it turns out we’ll be running until early/mid December. So that took about nine hours out of the week I’d planned to work on other things. When planning for next year, I really need to plan my time based on Leaf being a steady gig. It won’t be but it’ll be easier to fill the time during the periods Leaf dries up than have to cut out other stuff when Leaf sticks around.

Fiction wise, I got through several thousand more words on the last draft of Southern Discomfort and about halfway through the final draft of No One Can Slay Her. Not as much as I’d hoped; due to the schedule craziness, I wound up writing my Leafs much slower than usual. I also began flipping through Writer’s Market‘s 2018-19 edition for agents I can submit Southern Discomfort too when it’s done. Again, not quite as much.

I did another blog post on Atomic Junkshop in my ongoing series on what comic books are like in the DC and Marvel universe. This time I try to explain how if Earth-Two’s superheroes were comic book characters on Earth-One, nobody ever noticed that Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman looked exactly like the heroes in those old comic-book stories.

On the feral cat front, I had a minor scare Wednesday night when I heard some sort of snarling kerfuffle outside, peered through the back windows and thought I saw Wisp either being chased or chasing something (presumably another cat, but I couldn’t be sure) off the deck. Thursday morning we put out some food for her but she didn’t eat it, so naturally I started to worry … but then she turned up, dry as a bone and apparently uninjured. I’m guessing she wound up somewhere she could shelter from the rain and didn’t want to come for the food until it stopped.

I’ll close this post out with another deChirico. #SFWApro, all rights to images remain with current holder.

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Filed under Nonfiction, Personal, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, The Dog Ate My Homework, Time management and goals, Writing

Characters stripped of everything

Way back in 2011, I wrote that the real test of a hero is that they have courage and heart, not just strength or super-powers. Even if they’re stripped of their powers, they fight on. A post on Fred Clark’s slacktivist blog (I don’t have the specific link but it was part of his discussion of the Left Behind books) makes the same point more generally, discussing stories where the protagonist is falsely accused or framed: “Who are you really, once your status and prestige are stripped away? Are you still a kind and decent person, or are those merely luxuries dependent on the power and safety afforded to you by society? It’s a powerful device for revealing character.” (which he thinks the books blow).

It’s a compelling question because it’s relevant to real life. Many people go through life buoyed by privilege in one way or another. George W. Bush was a legacy admission to Yale and the deputy governor of Texas arranged for Bush to go into the National Guard, where he was unlikely to be sent to ‘nam (said politician does not claim Bush asked for the favor, but says it was family friends). Donald Trump is rich primarily because his father was rich. Even people who don’t really get a boost in life can gain satisfaction from their status: doing a man’s job, being head of the family. Beautiful, charming people may take pride in being able to win over any romantic partner they want. Smart people may enjoy being smarter than anyone else. Fashionistas may define themselves by their cool, cutting edge traits. Actors may delight in stardom.

Take all that away — they’re framed, swindled of their money, their beauty is gone, their expertise discredited, their super powers or their fame fade— and they have to redefine themselves, at best. At worst, they have to fight for survival against their enemy or try to continue being a cop/prosecutor/spy/force for good despite being on the run or stripped of their powers. It’s a concept adaptable to many different settings and genres.

The Main Event has entrepreneur Barbara Streisand swindled out of her wealth. She has to use her one remaining asset, a contract on retired boxer Ryan O’Neal, to force him back into the ring to raise money. Private Benjamin has spoilt, pampered Judy Benjamin (Goldie Hawn) lose her husband on their wedding night (he died during sex), so she joins the Army and goes from pampered to pummeled.

In comics, heroes stripped of their power is a common plot ploy. Superman’s lost his multiple times, but he never hesitates to protect people. In Action #484, the Wizard magically erases the Earth-Two Superman’s memory of who he is. He’s just plain Clark Kent, but with no memory that he has to play meek and mild he becomes as dynamic a crusading reporter as Superman’s a crusading hero (it’s a really good story).

Or consider 1975’s Three Days of the Condor. Robert Redford’s entire CIA research unit is wiped out. He doesn’t know who’s responsible, suspects someone in the agency so he can’t trust anyone. Can he survive long enough to find the truth?

I use this myself in Impossible Takes a Little Longer: the mystery villain frames KC for murder, forcing her to go on the run. She still has her powers but everyone she loves turns against her. Can she win? In this case, she breaks apart mid-book, but comes back stronger.

#SFWApro. Cover by José Garcia-Lopez, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Sherlock Holmes: “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact”

I’m not sure how many quotes off this mug I can mine for posts; the one at the bottom about footprints doesn’t seem to lend itself to writing. But “there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact” applies to writing, science, politics, life.

It’s hard not to accept an “obvious” fact that everyone knows is true. It’s easy to resist facts that contradict that obvious truth or to embrace someone who insists that in spite of all evidence, the “obvious” fact you want to believe (white people are naturally superior! A woman’s place is in the home!) is true. Even science can get mangled. The Victorian scientists Cynthia Russett describes in Sexual Science thought their analysis of why women were the weaker, dumber sex was totally objective. Spoiler: it wasn’t; they were blinded by taking women’s inferiority as a given.

In writing, the “obvious fact” can trip us up in multiple ways. For example, our perception of how people behave. Suppose a writer assumes that any female character really wants marriage and a family more than anything, so her career is just an unimportant stop-gap until The One comes along. That’s going to lead to some implausible female characterization. Or if a writer believes a woman who has sex before marriage is a slut, and his writing reflects that judgment. Or that every senior citizen just sits and watches TV all day. Or believes the countless stereotypes about disabled people.

Another way the obvious can trip us up is if we assume that the obvious, formula resolution to a story is the only one possible. Or the only one your audience will accept; I’ve read multiple accounts over the years of writers being told some variation of “Well, I’m not a sexist/homophobe myself, but lots of the audience will put down the book if you show your female lead is happy without a man/one of your lead characters is gay.” Or that you can’t do X because nobody’s done X before. An article in Romance Writers of America’s newsletter some years back pointed out that Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander broke a shit-ton of rules. Time-travel romance before that was a subgenre. Protagonist is already married when she falls for the male lead. Said lead is a younger man, much less experienced sexually. Yet it was a smash hit.

For another example, consider TEMPER by Nicky Drayden. A fantasy set in an alt.Africa untouched by Europe (apparently India has staked out a foothold), the premise is that twin births are the norm, with the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Cardinal Virtues divided up between each set of twins (though not exactly matching Western Christianity’s version. Doubt is one of the sins, for instance, and vainglory and temper substitute for pride and wrath). Society looks down on “lesser” twins with the larger number of vices; Auben, a rarity with six out of seven and one virtue, has to deal with that on top of being a poor inner city kid.

Unfortunately that’s the least of Auben’s problems. It turns out the imbalance between him and his sibling Kasim is caused by/causes them to become avatars of Icy Blue and Grace, the Lucifer/God analogs. Kasim doesn’t find being pushed to be really, really good much fun; Auben finds himself driven to shapeshift into a beast and kill.

This is familiar stuff in some ways (although the setting makes it feel different) but none of it plays out the way I expected. And given how long I’ve been reading, I’m hard to surprise. This ranges from how Drayden handles the good/evil dynamic to the disgruntled scientists with their own agenda; secularists in a religious culture, they’re PO’d to have hard evidence Grace and Icy Blue are real.

Of course it’s possible to be original and completely awful — I’ve seen that a few times — but that wasn’t an issue here. Outside of one confusing scene (I kept waiting for the explanation, but it didn’t come) this was first-rate.

#SFWApro. Mug design by the Philosopher’s Guild, cover illustration by Thea Harvey, all rights remain with current holders.

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