Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Stephen King On Writing

Of the many gifts I received on Christmas, one of the ones I enjoyed the most was "On Writing" by Stephen King. This is actually the tenth anniversary issue of the book. Part memoir, part writing advice, King shares everything succinctly (he describes the explanation for brevity in one of the forewords).

I enjoyed this book for several reasons, but what I liked the most was his candor. I felt like he had brought me next to his writing desk to tell me about the craft and his life with amusing and somewhat surprising detail.

The majority of his writing advice served as reminders for things I had learned from other sources, primarily that writing should be concise. He makes some good points against adverbs, especially dialogue attribution (such as he said vehemently). I try to avoid passive voice as much as possible, but I do admit a fondness for adverbs and adjectives; nothing excessive, certainly, but as I’ve pointed out in a past article, I can only be so brief before my thoughts are no longer conveyed. That said, I understand much more about the give and take between author and reader after reading this book, so perhaps that knowledge will keep my adverbs at bay.

I don’t read a lot of writing advice books, so I can’t really stand behind any single book and proclaim it as crucial for good writing. I do think that King’s book makes a lot of great points for consideration for new authors or authors (like me) with some credentials to our names. This probably isn’t something that an author of multiple published novels would need because he/she has likely already figured things out, but I would guess that it would still be an entertaining read, one that would give a sense of comradery with a prolific author.

I recommend picking this up if you have the chance. More than likely, you’ll learn something or be reminded of something. If nothing else, I think you’ll find it a great read. Go ahead and pull up a chair next to Mr. King. He’s ready to share his thoughts with you.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Writing Convention Tips

If you’re planning on attending any convention that in some aspect is geared toward writers, I have a few tips to share. These are based on my observations and practices in attending three World Fantasy Conventions.

Before you leave for a convention, make sure you have some business cards with you. I suggest that they at least contain your name (as you would like it to appear in print), Writer as a title (even if you’ve never had anything published) and your email address. Oh, and if you’re currently using something like Chewbacca@hotmail, get a new email address that has your name in it, such as FirstNameLastName@someplace. You may even consider purchasing a domain of your name (it’s relatively cheap to do so).


One other packing note – pack clothes that at least put you in business casual attire. Coats and ties might be a bit too formal, though not necessarily frowned upon, but T-shirts are too informal. Remember that you’re representing yourself as a professional writer (or aspiring to be a professional writer). Business is part of writing, so dress like you’re ready for business.


If you’re attending a convention with few or no contacts, volunteer. This may not be possible at large venues, but WFC accepts volunteers to man the various stations, such as check-in, con suite, programming, etc. Volunteering is a great way to meet other people, both those who are volunteering with you and those whom you’re helping. Plus, you won’t be as nervous as other first-timers if you’re busy doing tasks and have a sense of belonging. I helped with the con suite at my first WFC, and that went a long way in helping me to get my bearings.


If the convention has author readings, attend some. First, this will give you experience in observing how different authors read aloud. Second, you will usually have the chance to meet that author after the reading because the crowds tend to be much smaller for readings than for other events.


Another must is to attend parties. At WFC, there are always parties open to all attendees. They will usually be crowded, but it will give you a chance to interact with people. After you attend several, you will begin to learn which ones are preferable to you based on your interests as well as what you write. Don’t try to maintain a nightly schedule like you would at home; you’re at the convention, so stay up late and sleep in if you need to; parties are where deals are made, writers are promoted and contact information is exchanged.


My final piece of advice is to recharge when you need to. For me, I can quickly become overwhelmed by the crowds and putting myself out there as much as I can, far beyond my comfort level. When it gets to be too much, I retreat to my room to enjoy some quiet time or even take a nap (very helpful if you’ve been up late attending parties). For short conventions, this may not be necessary, but for ones that span multiple days, find time for yourself when you can.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Illness Invasion

I’m home unexpectedly today. Shortly after I arrived at work, my wife called me, and she sounded terrible. Though she said she would try to muster the strength to endure a day at home with the kids, I made quick arrangements and headed home. Hopefully she can rest while I play Mr. Mom in her place (a role I’m not terrible at, but still a far cry from the real thing).

I was fighting something on Saturday, the only remnant of which is an occasional cough. The kids took turns with fevers, but they seem normal today. I’m hoping that, as a family, we’re on the mend.


It seems like everything falls behind when illness hits. Laundry and dishes seem endless, to-do piles appear in random places. It’s like illness is an enemy invasion, picking apart all things normal and laying siege to the entire household.


My way of fighting back the horde of sickness and disease? Writing this blog post.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Mydrianna

My short story, “Mydrianna,” is now available at MindFlights.


This is my tenth published story, and it completes the series featuring Cole of Arkessler.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Outlining Short Stories

Usually my method for writing short stories is to allow an idea to rattle around in my mind for a while and to then start typing and see what happens. With my latest short story that I’m working on, I let the idea rattle around, and the idea led me to create an outline, something I’ve only used in writing longer works in the past.

A short story outline for me is a bulleted list of scenes. I’ll mention the basics of what’s happening, enough to trigger my memories about the scenes. In one case, I filled in a little dialogue because there was something I could hear two characters saying, and I didn’t want to forget it.


The outline is just a guide; the story goes where it wants to go as it gains strength, moving from an idea to a narrative plot with dynamic characters. I like this aspect of outlining, that the preconceived notions do not set the final course but merely guide the idea of going from Point A to Point B.


Outlining isn’t necessarily something I plan on doing with every story, but I like where it’s taken me with the current project. Whether or not it proves to be a great help will only be determined in the weeks and months ahead. So far, I’m glad I tried it.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Friday, August 06, 2010

Lost

I remember when Lost first came on television six years ago. I didn’t watch it. I didn’t feel compelled to watch a drama about people who survived a plane crash on a deserted island. I knew it was a popular show, but popularity does not indicate that I will personally like something. I thought the show was nothing more than an evening soap opera with a setting other than a hospital or police station (which are more common settings for such shows).

After the final season ended, my wife said that several of our friends with tastes similar to our own thought it was one of the best shows ever. We knew we could watch the episodes through our Netflix instant play account (we have a Roku box), so we decided to watch the first episode. Suddenly, I realized I was completely wrong about the show. It was a drama but with strong science fiction and fantasy elements. And the storytelling was amazing.


We raced through the next few episodes, completely hooked to the show. Over the next few weeks, we watched the entire six seasons. Let the kids run around over the weekend, we’ve got Lost to watch. Do dishes and laundry later, there’s more Lost to see. It was an obsession for us. Towards the end, I was looking forward not only to the finale but to getting our life back.


If you haven’t seen Lost, you really should. I will not spoil the show with any details; it’s probably a lot better to watch it without knowing much more than the basic premise. What I will say is that the writers are absolutely brilliant. They envisioned the full series and then wrote each episode to fit within that vision. The method for character development is ingenious, and the pace is great. Honestly, I don’t know how people watched the show for six years and kept their sanity waiting for the next episode to come out.


If you haven’t seen Lost and decide to undertake doing so, I have a few recommendations. First, find someone else who hasn’t seen it and watch it with them. You will want to discuss things, and Google will not be your friend because you might find things you don’t want to find yet. In fact, don’t even type the word “Lost” into Google until you watch the entire series. Second, don’t tell anyone (other than your friend) what you’re doing so that you don’t accidentally hear any plot points. Finally, make sure you have lots of free time because once you get hooked, you’ll want to keep watching.


Lost was one of the best television series I have ever seen, and I don’t think it could ever be duplicated. In fact, I wouldn’t enjoy seeing anyone even attempt something like this again. Is it perfect? No. I understand some of the negative criticism, and I have a few gripes myself, but they don’t take away from an otherwise great show.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Black Gate Issue 14

I always enjoy receiving the latest issue of Black Gate, and I wish they came more often. Still, a gigantic version was a nice surprise for Issue 14, and it’s taken me quite a while to read through it. My only quibbles were the use of the scantily clad female imagery at the end of the stories; they just seemed to give the issue a cheapened feel. Also, I would have preferred something less revealing for the illustration to “Devil on the Wind”. I’m coming from a viewpoint of wanting to see Black Gate continue to gear itself towards a wide audience, age-wise, which I think has been done well to this point (such as providing warnings for stronger content).

Issue 14 had a mix of old and new authors, and I’m sure many Black Gate readers will be enthusiastic about the return of Morlock via “Destroyer,” a great novella by James Enge. My favorite story within the issue is “The Word of Azrael” by Matthew David Surridge. This was like a novel or series of novels condensed down into a single story in an impressive way; the world building was fantastic. I also want to mention another great read within the issue – “Folie and Null” by Douglas Empringham. This was a story that read really well; the narrative and flow were exceptional.


If you haven’t read this issue yet, you’re missing out. This is a good one.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

What Does That Character Know?

I enjoy stories that add some complexities, depending upon me, as the reader, to use some intelligence. One component of that is the use of limited knowledge with characters. Each character’s knowledge may overlap in part with that of other characters, but knowledge is unique to each character. This is common sense, but it isn’t something that I always make use of in my writing.

While in college, I took a couple of psychology classes, and one of the interesting topics discussed was child development. I recall a study with children where children were shown a scene (perhaps from a movie or picture book) and asked to comment afterwards. The scene was something like this: Sam plays with a toy, places it in a box and leaves the room. While Sam is out of the room, Sally takes the toy out of the box, plays with it and puts it in the closet. When Sam returns, he wants to get the toy. Where will Sam look for the toy? Young children (I don’t recall the average age) will answer that he will look in the closet, not realizing that Sam doesn’t know what they know.


Now, shift this back to writing. Sam and Sally are characters in a story. We can make use of the facts Sam knows to do some interesting things but only if we trust the reader to realize Sam’s limitations. In the past, I’ve sometimes avoided this so that I wouldn’t confuse the reader, but in retrospect, I think I didn’t trust the reader enough. The danger, of course, is adding too many characters with too many facts. If I need to keep notes while I’m reading a story just to keep myself straight, I’m not going to enjoy it. That might work for text adventure games, but not for short stories.


The device of limited character knowledge can add the right degree of complexity to a story, and I encourage its use for others as well as for myself.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Regarding Sir Chahan

My fantasy short story, “Regarding Sir Chahan,” is now available for reading at MindFlights: http://www.mindflights.com/item.php?sub_id=6451. I thought I’d cross-post this announcement between a couple of sites that I post on to try to get the word out to as many people as possible.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Science in Science Fiction

There are a lot of varieties in science fiction stories, but one of the subgenres that interests me focuses on the use of a specific technology or science as a plot device. I’ve sometimes heard these stories referred to as “science fact”. If we attempt to write such a story, I think there are some things to keep in mind.

If we’re writing a technology story, we should have some understanding of how this technology works. We may not need to give intricate details about its inner workings, but it seems lazy (and lends to implausibility) to just say, “Of course it works.” The assumption of futuristic technology that simply works might slide past the reader more easily if it’s a device common to other stories, such as time travel. If we use a common device, though, I think it’s nearly impossible to use the device as the main plot point without writing a clich├ęd story. The nice thing about futuristic technology is that we can use a lot of creativity in how such devices function, even if they employ far-fetched theories. Readers will feel more secure if we at least allude to some of the principles involved with the device. For example, imagine that if Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” had simply employed a magic box that made dinosaur eggs; that’s not nearly as believable as extracting DNA from fossilized mosquitoes.

For science stories, details should become much more factual. If a story is set on the moon, for example, the facts about lower gravity or tidal locking might come into effect. If a story involves physics, we should research the kind of physics we’re employing. Guessing is a terrible idea because it makes a story look foolish or sophomoric. As a software developer, I’m especially picky about stories that involve programs or code, and I can tell when a writer doesn’t know what he or she is writing about. We want readers to laugh with us, not at us.

We shouldn’t think that because we’re writing science fiction we no longer need to write what we know. Science fiction is actually a very challenging genre to write because of the research it takes along with the normal necessities for a good story, such as characters, plot, setting and pacing. It’s a lot to juggle.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Journaling

I think it’s important to keep a personal writing log. Beyond the public journaling you might do on your blog or website, it’s good to have something private where you can be a little more blunt and honest in expressing yourself.

I’ve been keeping a writing journal for several years. At first, I had quite a few entries within a short time span, but more recently, I tend only to add entries every couple of months. For me, I’m not as interested in a daily account as I am in periodically expressing my thoughts on where I’m at and where I’m going. I reread these entries to better understand where I’ve come from and to remind myself about my past objectives so that I can decide whether or not I’ve run off in the wrong direction or a better direction (in the case where things may have changed). I can also jot down ideas for future stories or note why I might delay certain projects.

Another benefit of journaling is that it allows for safe venting. Sometimes I see writers use discussion boards or blogs for sharing negative thoughts, and such expressions (especially if they’re aimed at specific people or markets) risk being unprofessional. I think there’s a false sense of security in discussion boards that editors and publishers won’t read posts, but as I’ve pointed out in a past article, anyone can set up Google alerts that will send an email whenever new web content is discovered that matches the alert keywords.

If you haven’t tried journaling before, I recommend starting one. It will help you to better understand who you are and who you want to be as a writer.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Brevity is not Better

There is a trend I’ve noticed among writers, one that dictates a journalistic approach to writing. To be brief is to be published and accepted; to expound is to be boring and narrow-minded. I heartily disagree.

I read a book some years ago aimed at improving your writing by considering a number of areas, from characters to plot to pacing. The noticeable motif through many chapters was the idea of brevity. Use fewer words; cut, cut, cut. While I agree that there is a point of excess with anything (at some point a sentence must end), excessively diminishing one’s work is an extreme measure.

One of the rules I see is to only use one adjective. In the book of advice, it suggested removing all but one adjective because to do otherwise will trouble readers to remember too many details and eliminate their ability to exercise their imaginations (because you as the writer are forcing them to see things certain ways). This seems like a decent rule when you consider terrible sentences that do use too many adjectives or adverbs. But to follow this rule would mean that Dorothy should not have been following the yellow brick road. Instead, Frank Baum should have chosen the more important of the two modifiers. Perhaps yellow. That way the reader could consider why the path was yellow. Maybe it was sulfuric; maybe it was made of gold (ah, but if that were true, he could have used the word gilded, so that might be a wrong assumption by the reader).

Ridiculous? Yes. Why are we lured into this trend (I’m holding back from a tangent rant on trends)? I think the simple answer is that we believe it enhances our chances of becoming published. Some who frequent this site may have seen my motto that if you write for yourself, don’t be upset when you aren’t published because you’ve already reached your target audience. But to compromise on style for the sole purpose of publication seems like too much of a sacrifice. And so what if 90% (I’m making this figure up) of the current bestsellers are written in this style? Does that mean it’s what readers actually want? Correlations cannot be extrapolated into conclusions.

I’m not saying there isn’t a place for this style of writing or that all writers who use it are evil (in fact, I might employ the technique at points for the sake of a story). My main point is that as writers, we need to write the way we want to write and not abandon all for the sake of remaining “in style” with whatever seems current. My secondary point is that as a reader, I love details. I will personalize enough of the story, but I won’t feel betrayed in having a scene painted for me. The stories that stick with me the most are the ones that rooted me in the world through details. It was more than one pointed adjective at a time that drew me into Tolkien’s world. Think about the stories that you want to return to the most; how were they written?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Fantasy & Science Fiction, January/February 2010

“The Long Retreat” by Robert Reed – Lieutenant Castor is one of the closest assistants to the ailing emperor. Only a small entourage remains of the army as they retreat from the enemy. When it seems they cannot retreat anymore, Castor learns that the empire is much larger than he imagined.

The story had an intriguing premise with realistic characters. It was too difficult for me to wrap my mind around the plausibility of the empire, so I never felt fully grounded to the plot.

“Bait” by Robin Aurelian – Navin and his family go on a hunting trip for fantastical game. Navin, who hates these trips, has a knack for attracting pests. During the trip, he draws the attention of a rare parasite that threatens to take over his body.

“Bait” was a nice, quick read that was a tad grotesque at points.

“Writers of the Future” by Charles Oberndorf – As part of his world tour, the narrator attends Magnus Esner’s writing workshop. He learns about how to write stories readers can interact with, which is the standard of this distant future, where the line between man and machine is so blended, it’s difficult to identify where consciousness ends.

Oberndorf presents several complex ideas in this tale. It made me think about my own writing and the conveyance of ideas.

“Songwood” by Marc Laidlaw – Spar the gargoyle seeks passage oversea by stowing himself aboard a vessel. He discovers that the ship’s feminine figurehead is alive because it is made of songwood. The two converse secretly, finding they share a special bond though one is wood and one is stone.

This was my favorite story of the issue. A love story in fantasy form, I found it engaging and touching.

“Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance” by Paul Park – The narrator investigates his family’s past, trying to understand the mysteries of his life.

I had a difficult time following this story. It was full of excerpts and other narration compiled together into one tale. I think it makes a good study for writing techniques (which were very impressive), but it didn’t hold my interest.

“The Secret Lives of Fairy Tales” by Steven Popkes – A retelling of five familiar fairy tales.

This was a fun read, and I liked how Popkes tied the tales together.

“The Late Night Train” by Kate Wilhelm – As the sole caretaker for her aging parents, the narrator feels trapped between her abusive father and passive mother.

I connected with the protagonist’s pain, the unbearable situation she endured each day. Well written and surprisingly realistic.

“Nanosferatu” by Dean Whitlock – Hugh Graeber strives to create the perfect drug: a panacea that requires a lifetime prescription. His researchers design nanobots that improve health dramatically, but they never die.

I really enjoyed the change in narration in this piece, and I found myself admiring the writer’s skills as much as the story itself.

“City of the Dog” by John Langan – The narrator finds what he thinks is an injured dog while accompanying his girlfriend, Kaitlyn, to a club. Kaitlyn refuses to wait for him while he goes to inspect the wounded animal, a mistake that he later regrets when Kaitlyn disappears.

This story moves very fast, but the timing is great. Aside from being too explicit at times, I thought highly of it. I loved the eeriness and the ending.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Snowy Days

We’ve had an abundance of snow in the last couple of weeks. The snow can be enjoyable, but it can also be a nuisance.

A few days ago, I needed to clear the driveway, so I rolled out a machine for the job. I don’t know if it’s a snow blower or snowplow or something else entirely. It’s about the size of a stubby shopping cart (the type that I see men pushing around when they’re grabbing a couple of items at the grocery store, like bacon and Captain Crunch), with a plow in front and a handlebar in back. It has an adjustable shoot that comes up out of the middle, so as it rolls through the snow, it spews it in whichever direction I choose (I could even spray myself if I was so inclined). It’s got some type of engine that sounds like an idling monster truck when it’s running. Unfortunately, the key ignition no longer works, so the only way of starting it is by jerking a cord.

I primed the engine a couple of times and started pulling. Nothing happened. I primed again and pulled some more. Not even a whimper from the engine. Then I read the directions on the machine and realized I didn’t have the choke set. Unfortunately, the choke button is long gone, and all that remains is a metal stem that can be turned to three positions. Above the stem is an icon of a two-dimensional view of Saturn (which I later found out is an icon for full choke). I tried turning to different settings, kept priming, kept pulling. Finally, I called my father-in-law to see if he had any ideas since he’s very mechanically inclined. I soon realized that I didn’t have the engine on the running state, and it needed to be set to Fast. Still, nothing worked, likely because I’d flooded the engine with all of my manic priming. Weary from pulling the cord over and over, I realized that the only remaining solution is to shovel the drive. By the end, I was more exhausted than usual, and I’m not sure which was more tiring: trying to start the engine or shoveling.

There is a happy ending to the tale, though. Last night, after another snowfall, I thought I’d give the machine one more try. I set everything the way my father-in-law had advised, primed three times and pulled. Suddenly, the beast roared to life. Fifteen minutes later, I’m putting it away with a clear driveway, hardly breaking a sweat. Hopefully I’ll remember how to start it up again next time.

Friday, January 29, 2010

You’re Not as Good as You Think

If you’re a writer who’s still trying to crack into the professional markets or can’t sell a piece to specific markets that interest you, it’s likely that your writing isn’t as good as you think it is.

I used to believe that the reason I couldn’t get into certain markets was that I wasn’t writing the right kinds of stories or that I just didn’t have the right credentials or contacts. While there is a certain amount of truth to these reasons, they prevented me from taking a critical look at my writing in general.

There have been times when I’ve sent fantasy stories to markets that don’t publish fantasy (or don’t publish the kind of fantasy I tend to write), but when you read guidelines routinely and even subscribe to a few magazines, it’s pretty simple to learn about what gets published and what doesn’t. If you’re submitting genre/subgenre stories that match a market, don’t use this as an excuse.

As for having credentials to get published, I think this can be beneficial in getting noticed, but being published in the past is no guarantee for being published in the future. I’ve seen gripes from writers about certain markets that never seem to publish new writers. Certainly it can seem that way with professional markets, but the problem with professional markets is that your story is competing against stories from professional writers. It isn’t their credentials that get them the contracts; it’s their consistency in producing excellent work.

Finally, knowing editors might help you to get them to read your stories from start to finish, but I think that’s the most you could hope for. An editor isn’t going to put the reputation of his or her magazine at stake in order to grant a favor to a friend or acquaintance.

Rather than blame shifting, focus your efforts on improving your writing. Great writing will get noticed.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

This Crooked Way

I recently finished reading "This Crooked Way" by James Enge. I actually won the copy as part of a contest on Black Gate by answering Morlock trivia questions (I think I only missed one), thus proving my Morlock fan status quantitatively.

After a deadly encounter with a stone beast, Morlock the Maker discovers that his horse, Velox, has disappeared. There are traces that suggest the beast devoured Velox, but Morlock discerns that the clues are false, a ruse that is clearly the work of another maker. Out of a sense of loyalty (and having nothing better to do), Morlock begins a long search for his steed.


During his travels, Morlock discovers the shell of his mother, who has been confined to mortal life through an anti-death spell. Only by recovering her other parts can Morlock hope to give his mother rest. Unfortunately, he also has to contend with the spell’s caster… his father, Merlin.


"This Crooked Way" is an entertaining and exciting novel. This is a must read for those who enjoy Enge’s stories, several of which you’ll find within (in slightly altered form). Actually, this is a must read for those who enjoy adventure fantasy. Imaginative, witty and surprising.


Great work, James!

Friday, January 08, 2010

Getting Back Into It

Now that Christmas and the New Year holidays are in the past, it’s time to get back into a working pattern. If you’re anything like me, holiday leisure time leaves little room for writing projects because there are other things going on. Now is the time to return to normalcy.

I think it’s good to take breaks from writing, especially around holidays or vacations. Let your mind unwind a bit, and enjoy time with family and friends. Just don’t let your mind wander so far that you can’t bring it back.

I find that the sooner I get back to writing after a break, the more likely it is that I’ll stick to it. Projects that are left for too long on my desk get dropped. It’s more difficult to return to the frame of mind I was in when I began a story if I leave it for too long. Completed drafts are easier to pick up, but incomplete rough drafts become cloudy in my mind.

Another thing to keep in mind is not to overdo it. Return to a similar pace that you had before. People make all kinds of outlandish New Year’s resolutions, and I’m sure that in the writing world, such resolutions become goals for how many more words per day to write or how many more stories, etc. Just focus on getting back to your usual pace first. Then ramp up when you can, if you really want to. Of course, ramping up to anything more than your usual pace means taking time from somewhere else, so where will it come from?