“We”

Yesterday was Dad’s birthday. “Was,” damn it. Not “would have been”. Because, as I’ve said elsewhere, he still had stories to tell, and I’m sure he’s gonna hang around until he finds a way to tell them.

Granted, not in a corporeal sense, because that would just be creepy (and I say that as someone who writes fantasy). But here.

And then there are those other ways he’s still around…

I was making a note for the next draft of the novel-in-progress and realized I had started it with the phrase “We need to find a way to justify…” Even though it’s been six months since I last worked on Mo’less and even though every word of this book is one I wrote, yes, I’m still making notes in the first person plural.

But Dad critiqued multiple drafts of Splat Squad and Lord Peter’s Eyes. He always had good suggestions, even when I showed him individual scenes where he didn’t know who was who or what was going on. I didn’t always agree with his suggestions, but when I didn’t, figuring out why I didn’t like them usually gave me an idea to make the book better.

I wrote 1,524 words yesterday. (It was probably closer to 2,000 words, but there was this familiar voice in the back of my head saying things like “Are you sure you want to say it like that?” and “That doesn’t sound like her. What about…?” So it was 1,524 net words.) Most of them were for a scene that could easily be dismissed as filler. It’s not wildly exciting–but then, I’m not writing an action movie, so every scene doesn’t have to end with an explosion. It’s not critical to the plot*–except that most stories need a reminder that everyday life is going on even while the characters are dealing with The Most Important Thing That Ever Happened. (There’s a scene in The RagTime Traveler–one of my favorite scenes, in fact–where some of our main characters opt out of the ongoing investigation so they can do a load of laundry.)

* Or at least I don’t think it is. For all I know, the most exciting scene in the book couldn’t happen without the events I just wrote. One of the joyous hazards of not being an outliner.

But one of the important lessons I learned from Dad is to let your characters do what they want*. Nothing good will come from forcing them to do what you want.

* Another, arguably more important, lesson is that a mid-afternoon craving for a cookie shouldn’t be neglected. So I had a Florentine concoction of almonds and chocolate in his honor.

And so, when [redacted] wanted to visit [purged] and take him to task for discriminating against [censored], I let him.

At the moment it seems like a good idea, but if it turns out the scene doesn’t add anything to the book, I’ll make another note: “We should junk this.”

And we will.

All Paws On Deck

I said in Tuesday’s post that I give my novels to a crew of beta readers. What I didn’t mention is that not all of the readers are human.

fbr1Here’s Kaja reading Splat Squad. As you might expect, she’s reading with her butt. Judging by her expression, she either just found a typo or she read a scene involving swimming. Both give her an urge to wash the offending material out of her eyes. No matter how hard she tries, though, there are some things that, once seen, cannot be unseen.

For the record, no, Sachiko is not a beta reader. She is still a kitten after all. Aside from the fact that there are child labor laws to consider, she’s still more interested in picture books.
fbr2

Last Week In Review

There was a lot going on in the world last week — much of it was even relevant to this blog*. Most of it was far from time critical, though, so I didn’t feel compelled to drop everything and put fingers to keyboard (I almost wrote “put pen to keyboard”, which seems like it could work, but would probably be a bit messy.) Instead, I bring you this assemblage of short items summarizing last week.

* Meaning, of course, “Casey found it interesting.”

  • Putting the most important story first, to ensure that it gets seen even by those with short attention spans. I hasten to note that nobody who regularly reads this blog could be suffering from that problem — the comment is aimed at the occasional drop-in reader. A moment of silence in memory of George Thornton, who passed away Sunday, 27 October. Mr. Thornton will be remembered for decades to come as the prime mover in the famous “Exploding Whale” fiasco. I won’t even attempt to summarize the events of 12 November 1970; I invite you to watch the video embedded below, and then to visit the commemorative website for more information. Let us mourn the passing of a mind that thought dead whales and dynamite were a natural combination. I’ll skip the inevitable jokes about proper disposal of Mr. Thornton’s remains, and simply refer you to the comment section of the NBC News story, where all of the jokes have already been made.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_t44siFyb4
  • Google Announcements As many of you are aware, Google announced — and began shipping — the new Nexus 5 phone and Android KitKat. The phone is, as expected, similar to LG’s G2, and the OS is, as expected, similar to Android Jelly Bean. What’s most interesting, however, is what didn’t get announced (and thanks to go Ars Technica for pointing these out.) On the hardware side, Google’s Android.com promotional website was updated to include the Nexus 5; the updates include photos of what appears to be an unannounced 8-inch tablet. Since the Nexus 7 was just updated a few months ago, it seems improbable that this would be a replacement; however the Nexus 10 has not yet been updated. Perhaps this is Google’s next entry into the “large tablet” space, and intended to compete head-to-head with the new iPad Mini. Over on the software side, KitKat all but drops the standalone Home screen app that provides the home screen and app drawer: it’s now a stub that redirects calls over to the search app. Yes, you read that correctly: the home screen and app drawer are now part of the search app. It’s an interesting move on Google’s part to tie Android users closer to their own tools, and I look forward to seeing how device manufacturers and carriers react, as this will certainly affect their ability to differentiate their devices through home screen tweaks and proprietary UIs.
  • A major milestone in my professional development has been reached. With a rejection on Sunday, 3 November, I now have enough that each finger could claim one. Yep, rejection number 10. I realize the email was a form letter, but I take heart in the fact that they chose to use the form that says they “enjoyed reading” my submission, and that I should “feel free” to send them other works. Much better than the form that threatens lawsuits for mental damage and warns of restraining orders.
  • Halloween musings A few follow-ups to my comments on Halloween.
    • Apparently a lack of sidewalks isn’t quite the barrier to trick-or-treating that I had thought. Our modest decorations (a giant spider, a few themed lights, and a talking dog skeleton) sufficed to bring in almost 40 candy bandits, a new record.
    • For the record, there was only one zombie and no Miley Cyruses (Cyrusi?). There were also a couple of cats (hurray for tradition!) and fairy princesses. Most of the rest were clearly costumes, but not anything I recognized. I suspect my lack of engagement with most current popular entertainment is a drawback in these situations.
    • Reese’s Cups were far and away the most popular item in the candy bowl. KitKats were a distant second (sorry Google), and Mounds bars barely even registered on the consciousness of the average trick-or-treater.
    • Trick-or-treaters who politely ask “How many may I have?” are a distinct minority. I’ll allow you to write your own “decline of civilization” comments; my own suspicion is that politeness has always trailed well behind the lust for candy among the pre-teen set.
    • No wildly creative costumes this year. However, since the few older kids were obviously towing younger siblings and mostly declined candy, I forgive them their lack of effort. I’ll give them mild props for making a small effort and save my scorn for the parents that made no effort to costume at all, but sent their urchins to the door with an extra bag “for Daddy”.
  • The importance of conjunctionsCJ Maggie spotted this place on our way to dinner Sunday night, and I’m really looking forward to trying them out for breakfast. I’ve never had ham, bacon, or chorizo juice before. Should be quite the tasty — and artery-hardening — experience! (Lest you think this is entirely in jest, be aware that the Internet is full of suggestions for what to do with ham juice (stock, pea soup base, beans), bacon juice (mostly related to eggs), and even chorizo juice (predominantly potato-related). Hint: most people call these items “grease” or “fat”. I’m all for regional dialects and variant word usages, but when it leads to straight-faced suggestions regarding large glasses of liquid pig squeezings, I draw the line…) Seriously, guys, would it kill you to add an “and” before the last word?

Tap, Tap, Tap

One of the reasons I started doing this blog was to learn to tune my approach. I’m starting to wonder if I’ve need to do some dial-twisting*. As a general rule, I don’t normally expect to get a lot of feedback on how I write–certainly less than on what I write–but I’d appreciate it if you could take a minute to think about the question I’m going to ask at the end of this post and then give me your answer.

* Showing my age here. Some of you younger readers may not be aware that in the pre-digital age, you couldn’t just push a button to have your radio or TV go to the station you wanted. You had to physically rotate a knob. Even with TVs that had channel numbers marked on a dial, you frequently had to manually fine-tune the station!

In Monday’s post, I wrote

One bust, two busts
One moose, two mooses
One mouth, two mouths

Watch out for irregular words, though. Some words use non-standard plural forms (one mouse, two mice) or the same word for both singular and plural (one deer, two deer). It’s amazing how few people will notice if you slip up, as long as you use the correct standard form, so be careful.

My intent was to make a joke. “Moose” is almost one of those irregular words where singular and plural are the same. The general consensus is that “mooses” is obsolete and rarely used. (“Meese”, formed by analogy with “geese” as the plural of “goose” is inappropriate because goose/geese comes from German roots, but “moose” comes from the Algonquian indian language. Strictly speaking, the plural really should be “mosinee” (thank you Wiktionary) but I think we can all agree that that’s not going to fly with English speakers. Of course, moose don’t fly either, unless they get into a marijuana patch, but that’s beside the point. End of digression.)

I expected that many people would skim right past the joke, but I also expected to get at least a couple of “Hey, wait, you made a mistake,” responses, and maybe one or two “Heh. Cute,” reactions. Instead, I’ve gotten exactly one response, from someone who suggested that “mooses” was obsolete and I should use a different example.

So here’s the question I warned you about in the first paragraph:

Where did I go wrong?

I’ve come up with a few possible answers:

  1. “Mooses” was too subtle. I should have used something like “wife->wifes” or “man->mans”
  2. It wasn’t amusing enough for anyone to feel the need to comment on
  3. Nobody is reading the blog on Mondays (actually, the evidence doesn’t support that hypothesis: Mondays typically have the highest or second-highest view counts of the week)
  4. Too much “bystander effect”–everyone figured someone else would point out the error (if that’s the case, I may have to rename this blog Kitty Genovese…)

Please think about it and let me know your answer, especially if it’s not one of the possibilities I’ve listed. You can send me an email if you feel self-conscious about posting a public comment. I’m especially interested in hearing from those of you who speak English as a second language.

Taking Stock

Today, 5 July 2013, is the 75th work day of this new life I’m living. Yes, yesterday was a federal holiday, but I put in some writing time*, same as I did back on Memorial Day. That makes them both work days, so I get to count them. 75 may not be a nice round number like 100, but as a multiple of five, it has resonance, and it’s large enough to make it a reasonable number at which to pause, take a look back and see what I’ve accomplished so far.

* OK, so it was only five minutes or so, and I only wrote one sentence, but it’s an important sentence, with ramifications for the entire rest of the work.

On the non-fiction side, I’ve got 96 blog posts written (counting this one, the cat posts, and a couple of meta-posts about the blog, but not counting the emergency posts in my backlog). Some of them are on the short side, but I’ve also written 67 comments, so I think it averages out. I’ve proven to myself that I can write coherently on a variety of subjects and that I can write to specific word count targets. The 49 followers and readers from 14 different countries suggest that I’m even managing to do it in a reasonably entertaining style.

On the downside, the evidence strongly suggests that I’m not going to be supporting myself with this blog (no, that’s not news, nor was it part of the plan). I’m not even earning enough to keep the cats in Kitty Krunchies. The Amazon Affiliate links have earned me a grand total of nothing. Worse yet, nobody has thrown their corporate selves at my feet, offering me zillions of dollars to pontificate on their site instead of (or better yet) in addition to this one.

Ahem. Moving on.

As far as fiction goes, I’ve written two short stories. Both can be at least loosely described as “fantasy”, and both are making the rounds of possible publishers. For the curious, I’ve added a “Scorecard” page (last link on the right near the top of the page, directly under the picture of the fish) to the blog. It’s a snapshot of the current status of my fiction, tracking the stories’ submissions and responses. There’s a third short story, this one firmly in the realm of “science fiction” on my mental back burner. It’s got a device and a motivator, but I don’t see a lot of point in proceeding until I figure out the resolution. (For anyone reading this blog in reverse chronological order, that sentence will make more sense after you read the 4 July post.)

One novel is chugging along. This is not the epic one I’ve told several of you about; that one is still in the “research and world building” stage, and is likely to remain there for some time to come: I’m not kidding about “epic”. There are a couple of ideas in my files that could turn into novels as well, if everything comes together just right. The one that’s chugging is loosely outlined (I know what’s going to happen, but I’m not entirely sure in what order) and at a guess I’ve got about a third of the first draft. I got stuck for a couple of weeks, and put it aside to rest, which is why there are two short stories making the rounds. I seem to have gotten past the blockage and the book is making progress once more.

Even assuming it doesn’t get stuck again, I have to figure this novel is at least a couple of months away from completion. Given typical lead times, that means that even if it sold instantly (highly unlikely), it’s a year or more away from publication. In turn, that means I’m a long way away from cracking the New York Times bestseller list, selling the movie rights, and achieving fame and fortune.

Am I disappointed? Of course. I’d love to be rich and respected after only a couple of months of effort. Wouldn’t you?

Am I surprised? Nope. I kind of figured this is about where I would be at this point. I had hoped to be further along with the first novel (whichever one I tackled first) by this point, but I’m not surprised.

So, I keep plugging away. I’ll continue with the blog. I’ve added a front page note that I’m available for freelance work (over there on the right–at least it should be; it didn’t show up for me at first; please let me know if you’re not seeing it). I’m looking for paying work juggling words. That’s got multiple purposes beyond the obvious impact on the Kitty Krunchie situation: it should give me more practice in writing things I wouldn’t have thought to do on my own, and it should get my name out there where that elusive corporate entity who will pay me zillions to pontificate can see it. And I’ll continue working on the stories and novels.

And in the short term, I’m declaring Monday to be a holiday. It’s my birthday, which seems like a good excuse for goofing off–I’ve taken a vacation day on my birthday most of the last decade or more; why tamper with tradition? There will still be a blog post; it’s already written and uploaded to WordPress and will go live before I get out of bed. But I intend to stay away from the keyboard; unless the Bay Bridge Bolts give up the ghost, causing the bridge to crumble into San Francisco Bay, I’m not going to write a word.

See you all Tuesday.

Elementary

For reasons that should be fairly obvious, I’ve been thinking lately about story construction and distinguishing characteristics of science fiction. I’d like to share some of the results of that thinking. Nothing really profound here, but those of you prone to psychological analysis of authors through their works (I’m sure that sooner or later somebody reading this will resemble that remark) may find it helpful.

I’m of the opinion that there are three elements that must be present in a science fiction short story. (The jury is still out on the question of how much this applies to other genres as well. It’s also still out on whether publishers agree with my opinion: we’ll settle that one when I get a story written and find out if it sells.) There’s a lot more that needs to go into a story to make it a story (characters spring to mind, just for starters), but without these elements, it’s not SF. For purposes of discussion, I’ll call them the “device”, the “motivator”, and the “resolution”.

The device is the central idea, the “what if” that is the reason the story exists. It doesn’t need to be an actual “what if”, but it has to be the question that puts the “speculation” in “speculative fiction”. For instance: “What if the stars only came out once in a thousand years?” “How can I build a mansion in the space of a one-room shack?” “What if tying buttered toast to a cat’s back generated a significant amount of energy, even if it’s not a perpetual motion device?”

The motivator is the problem that the protagonist must solve. The motivator derives from the device. “What are stars and how do we keep civilization from collapsing when they come out?” “Whoops, the house collapsed into the fourth dimension and I’m trapped inside.” “With the world’s butter supply tied up by the energy industry, what do I put on my english muffin?”

The resolution is the answer to the problem posed by the motivator. It too needs to derive from the device; otherwise you’re straying into deus ex machina territory. The Greek playwrights got away with it, and frankly, so do far too many modern authors. Yes, it can be done well, but I think if you go there you’re more likely to cbe heating your readers by giving them only two-thirds of a story. “Oh, that’s what a star is. Oops, there goes civilization.” “Jump out of a window and hitchhike back to LA. But this gives me a great idea for the next house I design!” (Clearly it doesn’t have to be a happy ending or a resolution that solves the problem, but it needs to bear some logical connection to the device.) Marmalade could work, but it’s probably going to be a “well, duh!” moment for our English and Canadian readers. Margarine is a bit better, since it’s a manufactured product that was probably produced using energy from the buttered-cat generators. Kind of boring, though. How about we go for the tragic ending, and have our protagonist, despondent over the lack of butter, commit suicide by spreading his muffin with some of the huge surplus of obsolete fuel oil?

Words On a Diet

To this point, I’ve been letting blog posts find their own lengths. I haven’t checked all posts, but based on some spot checks the typical length is 600-700 words. That’s a bit long for most websites–the target for most of the tech-oriented and “educational” sites that I’ve looked at seems to be 300-400 words.

I could insert a joke here about short attention spans, but I think I’ll refrain. It’s really not an attention span issue, but a different focus.

I’ve been treating the blog posts as something more akin to a newspaper column than a news story, and my word counts do align pretty well with that paradigm. However, since one of my specific goals with the blog is to build up a portfolio of writings that can be used for a variety of potential employment opportunities, it seems like it would be a good idea to have some shorter pieces.

So, for the rest of this week, I’m going to target my posts to that 300-400 word range. The tricky part will be to provide useful information while still leaving some room for my “signature snark”.

You might ask why would I include snark at the possible risk of losing information. Go ahead, ask. [pause] OK, even if you didn’t ask, I’ll explain. If I don’t include the snark, there’s nothing to distinguish my posts from any of the others on the same subjects. As an example, without the snark, yesterday’s post on HP’s super-hyper-jumbo-mega-tablet wouldn’t have had any content that wasn’t available in the other (literally, according to Google) 275,000 reports. Why would you come here when you could get the same information from all those other sources?

As you read the rest of this week’s posts, please consider the balance of information to snark, and let me know how you think I’m doing.

PS: 308 words, not counting this sentence.

SFWA and Me

Last week I mentioned SFWA without any explanation. The omission was intentional, as it really had nothing to do with that discussion of copyright. However, this seems like a good time to fill in the details.

SFWA is the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America; as they modestly describe themselves, “a professional organization for authors of science fiction, fantasy and related genres.” The organization acts as a trade group for its members. As such, it provides information and resources, mentorship, promotion, and a collective voice on matters of concern to the membership. Examples include ongoing negotiations with publishers to improve industry standards and a grievance committee that helps individual authors with contractual disputes; private, member-only forums and similar communication channels; and an educational outreach arm (“AboutSF”) that promotes the reading and study of science fiction to librarians and teachers.

The annual Nebula awards, arguably the most prestigious award in science fiction is run by SFWA. (The perhaps better-known Hugo is awarded by fan vote, whereas the Nebula is awarded by vote of SFWA’s membership. For purposes of comparison, consider the People’s Choice Awards in contrast to the Oscars, Emmys, or Grammys.) Keep in mind that I did say “arguably”; I suspect if it were possible to quantify prestige, the Hugo would score higher than the People’s Choice Award. But I digress.

Not every professional writer working in science fiction or related fields is a member of SFWA (as I write this, the membership directory shows approximately 1800 entries), but those who are, IMNSHO, the ones who have demonstrated a concern for the genre they work in. SFWA is very much devoted to the concept of “pay it back by paying it forward”; they note on the website that the farther along in your career path a writer becomes, the less SFWA has to offer, but writers still join and help raise the next generation.

And SFWA’s members are working professionals. To join, individuals must have sold a work to a publisher on a curated list of qualified professional markets – fan, self, or vanity publications are not sufficient. Full active membership requires either multiple short story publications or one novel publication. An associate membership requires at least one short story publication, and even an affiliate membership for non-writers requires demonstrated evidence of professional work in an allied field and references from active members.

So what’s the relevance here?

As those of you who have been following this blog from the beginning (was that really only two months ago? It seems much longer!) or who have taken the time to peruse the FAQ know, I’m out to become a writer. This blog is intended to give me an outlet for practicing my trade: as I said in an early post, I’m using it to force myself to produce something every weekday, to try a variety of things, and to find my voice. Given my long history as a reader of science fiction and fantasy, it was almost inevitable that I would want to write it. I respect and admire SFWA and its members for the work it has done in promoting science fiction and fantasy, and I lust after the resources they offer to the journeymen just getting started.

Today I’ve taken the next step in my own journey, and have submitted a short piece to a SFWA-qualified publisher. I’ll keep you all informed of any progress, but don’t expect to hear anything soon: quoted response times seem to run somewhere around 2-4 months. (One site specializing in tracking SF/F/H publishers notes that publisher’s stated response time is typically for rejections – acceptances take longer – and tend to be optimistic.) If it is accepted, I will be joining SFWA; if not, I’ll keep trying.

And, of course, the best way to improve my odds, and the only way to advance beyond “Associate” is to maintain a steady stream of new submissions. I’ll be working on that, starting tomorrow. Keep your fingers crossed!