Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Day 3-Recap

Daily total:  3,396 words    Project total: 10,660 words

Today was a very enjoyable writing day. I wrote for just about 3 hours and my pace improved significantly from yesterday. I gave some serious thought to putting in some more writing time today, but I wanted to keep a certain amount of eagerness to push ahead saved in the back of my mind so that when I begin tomorrow, I’m prepared to hit that blank page with an idea of where I want to go.

I had a mental blueprint in my mind of where I wanted the final scenes in Chapter 2 to take the story. I ended up expanding one of those scenes because the writing felt good. I introduced a character that I intend to play a major supporting role, and I feel like she came across with more depth than I expected out of the gate. I was also able to build in a bit more of the main character’s back story and foreshadow some elements of his character arc. I was working hard to balance narrative summaries with dialogue.

In general, I enjoy writing dialogue and I’ve been making a concerted effort to have it do double duty within the context of the story. My first goal at this stage is to have the dialogue advance the plot in some fashion. Whereas some of the earlier dialogue has played the secondary role of revealing elements of the setting, today’s dialogue felt like it revealed more about the characters’ inner lives.

I’m sure that I’ll need to go back through these scenes the same as the others and look for places where I can show rather than tell. I’m also going to want to go back and look for places where I can include extra sensory details without bogging down the writing, as well as shore up some weak spots where I’ve glossed over background elements to keep my momentum going. For example, I’ve had two meals described so far with the most boring food descriptions imaginable. In one case, the food is actually supposed to be dull, but I could certainly describe it with more verve. In the other, I couldn’t immediately think of anything appropriate to the time and location of the meal and I put what is essentially a food placeholder into the scene.

My plan to improve this treatment will involve looking at one of my favorite food references, Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Not only is it great to browse for scientific information on food, it has wonderfully interesting entries on all types of foods and cooking methods from around the world, lots of clear definitions of different types of food terminology, and even quotes sprinkled throughout from historical recipes and descriptions of foodstuffs. It’s also a great reference for a foodie or really serious cook as well. No flashy color pictures, though.

There’s another area where I’d like to throw in a few specific details about some weaponry carried by guards, and there I’ll probably reference Weapons: An International Encyclopedia from 5000 BC to 2000 AD, by The Diagram Group. This black and white volume is a fantastic resource if you get lost in the naming conventions of historical weaponry or just want to know how things work or what they looked like. It’s out-of-print but you can pick up copies cheap.

My major goals at this point have been to focus primarily on developing character and plot and sketch in just enough detail on other subjects to keep the story moving, while marking sections with Comments reminding me to go back and add or polish details in specific areas. We’ll see how that works.

For tomorrow, I’m doing a little review tonight of some architectural references, because the main character will be entering the city that will hopefully become another character of sorts in the story. I’m a little leery of this, because while I find city structure and infrastructure fascinating, descriptions of place are a weak point of mine, probably because I’m fairly oblivious to many elements like color, furniture, and so forth in real life. Authors like Scott Lynch do such an excellent job of creating vibrant cities like Camorr in his Lies of Locke Lamora that the bar in my imagination is quite high. I need to remind myself that I’m not going to reach those heights on my first try, certainly not my first draft. I suppose the long-term remedy for this will be forcing myself to observe my built surroundings more carefully, but that’s not going to be achieved in the next few weeks.


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Daily total:  2,555 words    Project total: 7,264 words

Barely hit my daily goal, but I got there. Wrote for about 3 1/4 hours today, in three different chunks of roughly 1 hour, a little less than 2 hours, and about 20 minutes. Definitely harder to sustain yesterday’s higher pace, but it worked out to a little more than 750 words an hour, with no real spikes or drop-offs.

As far as the quality, I felt like I wrote in a more modern style better suited to my current goals and that I did a better job of varying the pacing, alternating a bit more smoothly between stretches of narrative exposition and dialogue. And I wrote some dialogue that I enjoyed. Maybe I’ll still enjoy it tomorrow. 🙂 I’m about 2/3 of the way through the scenes that currently comprise the 2nd chapter. Once again I think I have a pretty good idea how I want the next scene to go, which will hopefully help me get a good start on things tomorrow.

One of the major steps I took today was using the Comment feature on Scrivener to enter a dozen or so suggestions in specific places in the text of how to revise, reorganize, or replace material that isn’t working in Chapter 1. I did this instead of actually rewriting the chapter, which would have taken much longer and been counter-productive at this stage of the drafting process. I also think I’ll be in a better position to make the changes once I’m a bit more removed from what I wrote. It was also a useful way to reestablish where I was in the story and get me ready to write.

At the same time, this process gave me some confidence that I can identify and fix problems, which gives me the mental freedom to be imperfect. A freedom I am taking full advantage of right now.

Looking forward to tomorrow.

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Last night I spent some time before bed thinking over what I had written during the day. I wondered why I had written my narrative exposition in such a florid style while my dialogue scenes felt more natural. And I thought about how to address the issue.

From a personal perspective, I realized that my freelance job is affecting my fiction writing. I write a lot of nonfiction for history and government texts aimed at junior high to high school readers. I have to keep this writing concise and on point. Moreover, I have to keep my vocabulary and sentence structure simple enough for students with limited literacy to understand. Whether this is a good way to build up a struggling reader’s vocabulary is moot; it’s what the clients want and demand.

Freed from these constraints in my fiction writing, it’s no surprise that I’ve become giddy at the opportunity to play with complex words and write long sentences. Finding myself in a writing situation where high word count is a goal rather than an obstacle is not only refreshing, it’s cathartic. However, I suspect that it’s also self-indulgent. (As to why the dialogue reads differently: I tend to read my dialogue passages out loud, and what might seem acceptable to my ear as narrative exposition falls very flat as conversation.)

The bright side is that the self-indulgence criticism comes into play only in terms of the finished product. In other words, at this first draft stage, I’m free to work these long-winded urges out of my system. If I want to have a marketable and readable manuscript, however, I will need to do a thorough job of editing the novel to fix these style issues. I think the key here is being aware of the issue up front and understanding that even if I achieve a high level of productivity now, there are further stages that I will have to budget time and mental energy toward.

From a technical standpoint, I reviewed some of the advice in two books on self-editing:

I did this to make myself aware of some of the issues that I’ll be trying to fix in later drafts. This is partly to prepare myself mentally and emotionally for the reality of the editing process that lies ahead, and partly to preempt some of the stylistic mistakes by increasing my awareness of the gaffes I’m likely to make.

I prefer Self-Editing for Fiction Writers so far, because it has a clearer focus on the type of writing that I’m trying to produce and I like the way the book is organized.

All that said, time to forge on. I have a strong urge to revise the first chapter, but instead I’m making some notes on how to improve the pacing and increase the tension. If I hit my writing goal for the day of at least 2500 words, I might go back and try to incorporate those revisions, but otherwise I’m trying to stay focused on moving forward.

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Daily total:  4,709 words    Project total: 4,709 words

After a few fits and starts, I finally got started writing today at around 9:30 am and knocked off a bit before 2:30 pm. I used a variation on the Pomodoro Technique to manage my time. Instead of taking 5 minute breaks every 30 minutes, I took a 10 minute break every hour, except one round in which I skipped the break because I was in the flow. During these breaks, I try to avoid looking at email or anything online. Instead I did some dishes, checked out the garden, ate a sandwich, and so on.

I don’t expect to sustain a rate of nearly 5,000 words a day, because I doubt I’ll have five hours to write, but I’m hopeful that I can achieve a steady pace of 750 to 1,000 words per hour and find time for a couple hours on most days.

In terms of the story, I completed all the scenes that currently comprise the first chapter and left myself with a pretty good sense of how the second chapter should start and a definite idea of how I want to write a major scene in it. So while I’ll have a lot on my plate before I can get started tomorrow, I feel pretty good about being able to hit the ground running.

As far as the quality of the writing goes, I feel that my current style is fairly stilted and comes across as rather old fashioned, despite the fact that I’m not having to think too much about what I’m writing. Here’s a sample from today’s output:

The trip to shore had been largely uneventful, for which he was grateful enough. The slaughter of the crew and passengers had attracted sharks and other opportunistic creatures that fed with equal glee upon floating carrion and swimmers drowning from their own panicked exhaustion. More worrisome were the darker scavengers that followed, waiting to devour unsanctified souls released from their waterlogged corpses. Rone had no intention of dying in his current, incomplete spiritual state, much less being consumed by some spectral jackal; as matters stood even proper rituals would not ensure his reincarnation until certain issues were resolved.
Though his route steered clear of that feeding frenzy, he was briefly set upon in a halfhearted fashion by a smallish shark that had apparently wandered away from its companions. He dismissed it with a few swift kicks to its sensitive nose. Otherwise his main burden, aside from being tired, wet, and materially poorer since the bulk of his belongings had found a watery resting place, was that the smell of charred wood and burning flesh was still in the back of his nostrils despite a healthy snorting of seawater. It was the sort of combination that, after a few hours adrift baking in the sun on an empty stomach, made you a bit peckish until you remembered just what the scent causing your mouth to water actually was, which in turn killed your appetite stone dead. Unless, he supposed, you were a Tilanese noble used to certain types of delicacies.

Not likely to be popular reading in this century, but part of this process is to hammer ahead and work through the flaws later during the revision process, once everything awkward and squalid has revealed itself.

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Deviant Standards

With many educational programs these days, there’s a disconnect between the rigor of the standards being issued by the states and the actual content being provided in the textbooks.

The standards, which are typically written in overly technical institutional educational jargon, call for students to carry out fairly sophisticated analysis of various issues. The problem is, students aren’t given the information in the textbooks needed to do this sort of analysis. There are several reasons for this:

  • the chapters have to be kept short due to fears about limited student attention span
  • the reading level has to be kept low due to concerns about limited student literacy
  • textbook companies know there’s a price ceiling on what they can charge for a textbook and longer textbooks thus eat into their profit margins
  • teachers don’t have enough time in short class periods to cover all the additional material

However, if the standards are there, then by god students need to be prepped to take the corresponding tests. This means that each textbook needs a plethora of questions that are carefully mapped to standards. It also creates a problem; if the content needed to cover the more complex standards is not present in the textbooks, how can students answer questions correlated to those standards?

The answer is that many questions are correlated to standards that they address only in a tenuous sense. This usually manifests as questions that seem fairly sophisticated but can in fact only be answered in a fairly basic way because the content needed to explore them in any greater depth isn’t present. Thus a question about the effects of the Black Death gets boiled down to an answer that includes the only two factoids about those effects that were mentioned in the lesson. A question asking a student to evaluate a complex issue gets reduced to an opinion exercise for the hapless student, who has little information or experience at his or her disposal to apply toward an answer, though the sample annotations offered in the teacher’s edition for such open-ended questions are often extremely optimistic in their projections of what a student might offer.

The result is a charade concerned only with the surface facade of intellectual rigor. I’m confident that the tests correlated to these standards, whether in the book or on the state level, can be passed or even aced without requiring students to demonstrate either the knowledge or skills that are supposedly being assessed, simply because the answers accepted for those correlated questions aren’t very demanding.

Blaming the textbooks is the easy way out. Textbook publishers are catering to a market shaped by the forces noted above. The people writing the standards can operate in a fantasy land of heightened expectations without acknowledging limited resources of time, attention, and money. School districts that want to accept rigorous standards need to be willing to buy the type of textbooks that convey the content needed to address those standards. I still have a copy of the high school history textbook I used in my AP class more than 20 years ago. It’s rich in story and details and rather dull in terms of visuals and colors. It could be used to answer a lot of questions being posed by today’s standards. And I doubt it could be sold in most districts today.

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Damsah’s balls, this was the most overrated book I’ve read in some time!

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I couldn’t bring myself to finish this book. I made it about a third of the way through, but seeing that I care nothing for any of the main characters, wasn’t seeing a very thorough exploration of the main economic theme of interest, and was pained by the clumsy writing style, I decided to spend my time more wisely.]

In the future, everyone will be incorporated at birth, with 100,000 shares of personal stock issued. Parents get 20 percent and the government gets 5 percent. A person is free to sell off the rest to interested investors/speculators in order to secure things like loans, housing, or an education. The authors propose that most people will quickly end up owning less than a majority of their own stock due to the need to sell themselves off to get the things in life they need or want.

It isn’t made very clear just what happens when you are majority owned by someone else. It would be like indentured servitude except that a bunch of people could own shares in you. Perhaps they act like a corporate board? That seems unlikely for the average person; who would bother? Whether you have to pay dividends or hand over a direct percentage of your salary is also unclear: each is implied at different points in the narrative.

As for the story itself, it’s just window dressing to explore the setting. The protagonist is a smarmy, arrogant, dispassionate former billionaire who suspends himself for several hundred years and awakens in this pro-corporate future as the only person who has not been incorporated (because of course, in the future, the world, nay, the entire Solar System, will have a unified society). This makes him valuable. Of course, he’s brilliant and handsome and daring. And has the heart of the Grinch, as evidenced by his pride in inventing the first workerless factory, something the authors also celebrate.

Many of the POSITIVE reviews of this first novel will point out that the characters are static, the writing clumsy, the point of view confused, and the pacing erratic. The book reads like an early draft. I agree with all of that.

I’ll add that it’s disappointing to see the sophomoric humor ladled out in this book referred to as “clever.” And the main character, Justin Cord, is a Mary Sue of the type I typically associate with fanfic. I wonder which one of the Kollin brothers gets to dress up as Cord at Halloween?

Some of the negative reviews point out that the book’s cardboard characters spend a lot of their time demolishing straw men in the form of superficial objections to the future utopia based on the perfection of the free-market and the wisdom of handing everything over to corporations. Let me put it this way; I found some of L. Neil Smith’s libertarian screeds more convincing (and entertaining). One reviewer said that it “occasionally” comes across like a Glen Beck rant, while another mentioned shades of Ayn Rand. Glen Beck I buy; I think the philosophy that Rand bludgeoned readers with probably had more depth to it.

The basic concept is interesting, but you can get a better understanding of the ramifications of personal incorporation by simply reading the blurb on the dust jacket and having a conversation with some intelligent friends than you will from reading this novel. Even with ham-handed expository scenes galore, the authors manage to skip over inconsistencies in their setting and its premise. Corporate greed contributes to the Great Collapse via VR, so of course the answer is to give more power to the corporations. I don’t know about you, but the thought of having public stock in myself at the mercy of automated stock-trading software programs and the whims of day-traders does not suggest a stable financial foundation for the future. Your personal worth would fluctuate wildly over the course of a single day. And that’s the future you would have; nobody can check or regulate this practice now–in a future where corporations are seen as benevolent, demi-god entities, regulation will be a four-letter word.

If you were foolish enough to sell off a majority in yourself, good luck being able to afford to buy back your own shares if you became successful. The more successful you become, the higher your stock would be valued, making it more costly to buy. The only way to get around that would be to conceal your real worth long enough to buy your shares. With so much incentive to lie up (as a company) and down (as an individual) about your real value, stock trading becomes just as much of a game of moving shares with little relation to actual worth as it is today. You can say that the market would punish corporations that conceal the truth. In addition to suggesting that many companies in today’s Fortune 500 are hardly paragons of virtue, I’d add that it would be pretty simple for a future corporation to buy up a majority stake in any potential whistle-blower and ship them off to Mercury or the Oort Cloud.

Toned down from the extremes presented here, some of these ideas might have potential. Selling private shares in yourself below a certain minority limit might have some traction. It would be somewhat similar to finding a patron or establishing a small base of supporters to whom you would be beholden. Selling a majority stake of yourself on a public market? I sure as stock wouldn’t try it.

I found the book entertaining at times, often on the unintentional comedy scale in terms of some of the phrasing and the “gee-whiz” factor attached to tech that’s been speculated about more convincingly elsewhere for years, but it fails as both a thought-provoking novel of ideas AND as a story with engaging characters. I gave it a two because it’s a first novel and everybody has to start somewhere.

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Publishing vs. Self-Publishing

Recently read yet another article, this time in the Wall Street Journal, describing the steady collapse of the traditional publisher-agent-author trinity that has defined the fiction book market for many years in this country.

In short, publishers don’t develop new talent in the ways that they used to do. Advances are paltry. Print runs are shrinking. Backlists of titles are being cut. From other sources it’s become pretty clear that many publishers no longer put much money into marketing writers who aren’t already established name brands. In addition to the evidence provided by  typographical and grammatical errors that routinely assault your eyes when you try to read many recently published novels, I’ve been told by veteran writers that publishers are cutting back on their editorial staff, with copy editors and proofreaders in particular going the way of the dodo.

If publishers don’t provide much income to fledgling authors, don’t market unknown books to attract readers, and don’t do much in the way of editing, what’s left for them to do on behalf of new or little-known writers? Create physical books and/or electronic books for people to buy.

However, you don’t need a large publisher to do either of those things. You certainly don’t need one taking a huge cut of whatever profits you generate for the privilege of doing so. You don’t even have to lay out money up front. You can get physical books printed on demand through services such as Lulu and you can create and sell electronic books through a variety of mediums. Eventually you’ll be able to sell electronic novels directly through Apple or Amazon, dividing the proceeds in a much more generous fashion than current publishers offer. This won’t guarantee you any readers or significant profits, but the truth is that nothing else will, either. The digital age rewards creators who have already established their identities. Everyone else has to claw their way to recognition.

Existing publishers have established distribution channels, but if they don’t put their muscle behind them, such channels aren’t of much use to new authors.

What traditional publishers have going for them, to be honest, is their reputation as gatekeepers. There’s a clear sense among many established writers and a lot of potential readers (particularly in my demographic and older) that anything self-published is likely to be crap that wasn’t good enough to draw the attention or approval of a “real” publisher.Self-publishing gets stamped with the label of “vanity press” and roundly mocked.

After all, so much of what DOES get published is clearly already crap, what must lurk in the slushpile?

However, every writer who I’ve ever seen comment on the process of writing has many tales of stories that got rejected over and over before getting published in more or less the same form that they began. Those stories didn’t suddenly get better; they simply found someone willing to pay to publish them.

Having worked as a writer and an editor for years, I can say with confidence that editors are fallible human beings with distinct tastes and biases. That’s not to say there aren’t many talented editors out there. But tastes vary. Being rejected by the editors at a publisher is clearly not evidence that a given story was bad. At the same time, the long cycles of rejection common to many writers begins to seem like a form of ritual hazing, a gauntlet to be run before one gets to join the club. But when club membership can’t promise the reward of a steady paycheck, why run the gauntlet?

Moreover, publishing is just as subject to fads and trends as any other endeavor that feeds into popular culture. Success is imitated until there is a glut of vampire/young wizard school/post-apocalyptic fiction crowding the bookshelves. Maybe your idea doesn’t fit into the latest pop wave.

In any case, there’s no more reason that a self-published book can’t be excellent than there is reason to think a hand-crafted piece of furniture must be inferior to something mass-produced. It all depends on the talent and dedication of the creator. I’ve found that some of the very best roleplaying games I’ve purchased in the past five years were self-published endeavors. There IS reason to fear that self-publishing doesn’t provide a lucrative or even viable full-time career option. Then again, the world of publishing is falling short on that promise as well.

You can choose to see the current situation as a glass half-full or half-empty. As an unpublished writer, each day I see it as one that offers opportunity to strike out on my own and succeed or fail on my merits and whatever fortune falls my way.

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