Archive for July, 2011

As I Sit Here…

A new family moved into the apartment above me last week.  When I moved into my apartment last Fall, I was foolish enough to request a first-floor unit in order to make the move easier.  (Large pieces of furniture are hard to move upstairs.)  Now I’m wondering if I made the right choice.  As I sit here writing this, the two kids in the family, one about three years, the other perhaps six, are running around yelling and screaming about something, the mother is yelling back, and the father is god-knows-where.  Every now and then someone turns on the radio or stereo or television and adds to the noise, not to mention the sharp squeaking of the floor boards when they walk around.  Someone right outside my window is yelling to the people above me.  There isn’t a helluva lot I can do about it; you can’t tell kids to be quiet unless you put them down for a nap.  I guess I’ll just have to learn to live with it.  But it sure screws up the writing.

That brings up the point of this blog.  Writing is such a solitary lifestyle.  You have to be willing to go into a room (and close the door if necessary) and sit alone with your thoughts just to come up with something to put down on paper.  It’s only by the power of the human brain that we produce the written word, and brain power takes time to work.  I don’t know about you, but I need a quiet place to do my work.  I like working out of my home because it usually is quiet during the day when everybody else is at work.  There’s a children’s playground outside my window, but that doesn’t usually bother me because the noise there is sporadic and muffled.  Occasionally a jet airplane will roar over, (most frequently Southwest Airlines) but that’s also not a problem because it, too, is infrequent.  But now with two small children upstairs and the thunder of little feet, well, who knows?

I like the quiet.  I like being alone with my thoughts of novel or short story, or whatever.  I created the characters of my novel, not out of childish daydreams or infantile fantasy, but to bring them to life and present them to the world as real and substantive.  The exist for me, and I hope they exist for whoever reads the book, once it’s published.  To do that takes time, work, a computer to write on, and the aforementioned brainpower.  And surrounding all that, holding it in and keeping it solidly in place, is the quiet of the office environment.  If you crave company, if you’re outgoing and gregarious, writing may not be for you.  Unless you have one whale of a story to tell.

Some people can write in a public place, like a coffee shop or a bookstore or a library.  I’ve tried it, and it didn’t work for me.  Even Starbucks was too noisy, what with people coming in and going out, placing their order, talking to others in person or on the phone.  Starbucks isn’t a library, neither is Barnes & Noble.  One other drawback of public places is that the internet access is of questionable security, and I have to be online to write this.  Additionally, the library is unavailable today because I write my blogs on Sunday when the libraries are closed.  Upshot: stay at home and put up with the noise.

It’s been quiet for the last half-hour, but now one of the kids upstairs is throwing a tantrum, yelling and screaming about God-knows-what.  What about the readers of this blog?  How do you like noise as opposed to quietness when writing?  Comments?

Now I’m going to see if I can set my laser printer to “stun.”

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The Borders are Changing

I stopped at the local Borders bookstore this morning.  They’re having a going-out-of-business sale, so I picked up a science fiction novel edited by George R.R. Martin.  (He’s the editor of the novel because the different chapters have been written by different authors).  It looked like an interesting concept, so I decided to buy it.  I saved 10 percent off the regular price.  I may go back later when the discounts are deeper.

The important thing about this sale is not the book nor the price, but the fact that Borders is going out of business.  To those of us who use books as a means of making a living (or, like me, intend to) that such a large chain of bookstores would fold up and keel over is an atrocious run of bad luck, and even in a small sense, horrifying.  I’ve been following the progress of this implosion on Publisher’s Lunch for the past several months, and though it’s been couched mainly in business terms which I don’t fully understand (and don’t want to), I get the feeling that the underlying cause of the bankruptcy was poor, or at least unlucky, management by the officers of the company.  That is to say, they didn’t invest in some form of electronic reading device, like Barnes & Noble’s Nook.

When Nook came out a few years ago, I thought it was silly.  Why does a bookstore chain need an electronic reader?  It’s just a cheaper and smaller version of Amazon’s Kindle.  Perhaps even a knock-off.  But, not being a business person and not trained in the complicated and elaborate ways of management and marketing, I missed the point of the Nook.  Electronic reading is here to stay.  It’s not a fad, and a large chain of bookstores like Borders took its chances when it opted out of the e-reader market.  Sad.

Now, perhaps there’s more to the collapse of Borders than just the lack of an e-reader, (I suspect there is) but the message is clear: books, magazines, stories, reports, journals, and so forth, that is, reading in general, is changing, like it or not.  Self-publishing by first-time authors is on the rise because it’s so much faster than waiting for a publishing house to make a decision.  Anybody can publish on Nook now, just by sending it in and formating it correctly.  The quality of those works in most cases is doubtful, but they’re there, available to anyone who wants to look for them.  Right now, I’m debating whether to publish my first novel the traditional way by going through an agent and publisher, or simply put it out electronically on Kindle and Nook and the other readers.  Ten years ago, I wouldn’t be having this discussion with myself, and would have gone the traditional route.  Now, I don’t know.

Yes, sir, publishing has changed.  For better or for worse.  Should that be a “Hot damn!” or an “Oh, crap”?

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A New Milepost

Well, I finally heard from the editor who was looking over the manuscript of my first novel.  Most of the regular readers of this blog are probably aware that I’ve been working on a science fiction novel for quite a while now and am approaching (I hope) the time when it will be ready for publication.  So, I sent it to an editor known for his work in science fiction and finally got his comments back last week.  Those comments represent a new milepost in the evolution of this book, which has been over ten years in the making.

As an unpublished author having to learn the rules as I go along, I’m not the best person to tell others how to write novels, but I’ve absorbed a lot about the craft of writing during those years, and some of what I’ve learned I’ve shared on this blog, as well as in critique groups and personal conversations.  But I haven’t learned enough, and the editor opened my eyes to several important problems with my novel.

The most basic problem he had with the manuscript was that I hadn’t put in enough of what’s called “world building,” that is, showing the reader the alternative world of the characters of a book.  The characters of my novel come from another planet, and though I thought I had explained enough about the planet, enough to give the reader a real taste of what life was like there, the editor said no, not enough.  He wanted more.  I now tend to agree.

As space travelers journey to another planet, their life experiences will most certainly shape and modify and define how they respond to another world.  So far, we on Earth haven’t had much opportunity to visit another world.  Only the astronauts of the Apollo program in the 1960s and 70s have had the great fortune to take that step, and that was on the airless, lifeless moon.  Dullsville.

But if and when we ever get the opportunity to step onto the surface of another planet in some distant star system, (not in my lifetime and probably not in yours) we will be faced with a terrain, a landscape, an environment so immensely different from anything we’re familiar with here on Earth that each individual who views this new scene will react to it in starkly individual ways.  And that’s the main emphasis in world building, bringing to the reader of a sci-fi novel a sufficient appreciation of the world of the characters that when they journey to another place, their reactions will be reasonable and appropriate based on what they are used to in their own home.  Sounds relatively simple in description, somewhat more complicated in actual execution.

Another comment of my editor had to do with the length of the book.  I’d asked him if he could suggest areas to cut.  His comment was not that I should cut any specific area wholesale, but tighten the overall narrative by removing duplications, minutiae, repetitions, and the like.  I have a tendency to write too much.  (Those of you who know me personally also know I talk way too much.)

The editor also had issues with the pacing of the novel, which has a lot to do with its length, but which also involves how the scenes of the novel are put together and the segue between them.  Some areas are dull, some exciting, some in-between, and I need to smooth them out.  Easier said than done, but I’m working on it.

Taken altogether, this represents a large revision of the novel, a revision in size I haven’t undertaken in several years.  But I’m looking forward to it, and I will probably have more updates as the time approaches to decide whether to self-publish or try publication the traditional way through a publisher.  (See my blog on this topic several weeks ago.)  I’m looking forward to working on the novel.  Actually, I always have enjoyed working on it.  How else do you think I would spend over ten years on the same project?

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It’s the Little Things That Count

I’m no expert in the art of writing, but I’ve noticed that in many of the things I’ve read over the past several years, whether fiction, nonfiction, how-to articles, whatever (while reading to improve my abilities as a writer), that there’s one primary thing that makes the better works stand out from the not-so good ones.  This is the presence of all the little details that illuminate a character.  These details are most obvious in fiction, but can occur in good nonfiction books, too.  By my use of the term “details” I’m talking about all the subtle things that bring out the character of whatever person is being described in the narrative.  What is the character doing, what do you see in his eyes, where did she put her drink, what emotion clouds her face?  Why did he light the wrong end of a filter-tip cigarette, why did she pick up her fork and place it on the right side of the plate, what color were her shoes and why did they not match her dress?

I’ve read a few unpublished manuscripts over the past several years, and I’ve seen several good and several bad.  So often, a beginning writer will write a story and tell only the story.  He picked up the briefcase.  He got in the car.  He drove away.  Which hand did he carry the briefcase in and why is this important?  What make and model car was it?  Did he drive away slowly, or burn rubber?

What’s missing is detail.  Especially when using a third-person point-of-view, these details bring out the real nature of the protagonist or antagonist.  I like the details because they transport me closer to the person (emotionally, not physically).  I feel as though I know them better by learning about their eye color, the mole on her forehead, the baggy shirt he’s wearing.  I can see them more clearly in my mind’s eye.  Simply telling a story isn’t enough, we have to learn about the character.  We have to journey inside them and get to know them on a much more personal basis, and the little details of everyday life can do this in spades.  (Cliche alert.  Sorry)

That’s true of the good guy as well as the bad guy.  I’d like to see the interior of the private detective’s apartment; I don’t want to just be told that he went home and had dinner.  I’d like to be able to visualize the inside of the fabulous crystalline castle owned by the sinister mastermind of world domination.  So many excellent details that tell us so much about the person and make him/her real.  Can you imagine reading about, say, Hitler, and not being told about his mustache?  Or the way his hand shook and his face turned purple when he flew into one of his many rages when he was told that the Army of the Third Reich failed to meet a certain objective?  I can’t.

But one of the important uses of these details is that, in addition to telling us about the character, they serve to bring a pause in the action.  They could, it might be said, allow us to take a breath from a scene of intense emotional conflict.  A pause as short as one second, or maybe a minute.  Too much action can get hard to follow if it goes on too long, and a brief glimpse into the protagonist’s eyes can be refreshing and remind us of the real reason he’s has gotten himself into so much trouble.

Yes sir, the details count.  No sir, don’t leave them out.

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Changing the Book

What’s a book anymore?  If you, like me, spend long hours hunched over a computer keyboard (or a typewriter or a pad of paper), struggling to put words down that mean something, that have the serious intent of informing or entertaining, or both, especially words that run up into the high five-figure or low six-figure range, you can be reasonably expected to call it a “book.”  But what if it’s only available electronically?  Is it still a “book?”

I looked “book” up in the dictionary, and it was defined as follows:  a set of written sheets of skin or paper; a set of written, printed, or blank sheets bound into a volume; a long written or printed literary composition; a major division of a treatise or literary work.  There are other aspects of the definition which are not relevant to my discussion here, but the inference seems clear, that a book is something printed.  Something physical.

But if a book, that is, a ‘major literary composition,’ is published electronically, can we still legitimately call it a “book”?  Some may insist on calling it an e-book (or ‘ebook,’ a term I avoid, preferring the hyphenated version), but whatever term you use, the “book” part is still there.  I have always visualized a book as a solid object, with front and back covers, bound by some professional company, written by an “author,” and available through stores that specialize in selling that sort of thing.  (Of course, books are available in all sorts of stores, but the “book” store is the major seller.)  A book has weight, it occupies space, it was made by chopping down trees and by recycling paper and paper goods.  That’s a book.  You can hold it in your hand.  You can open it up and leaf through it and read it.

If you buy a Kindle or Nook or another electronic reader and you purchase a book, for example, Moby Dick, when you read it, the words that will be displayed on the reader’s screen will be the same words written by Melville over a hundred years ago.  Same words, same meanings, same characters, and so forth.  You can visualize in your mind’s eye the same Ahab, the same white whale, and vicariously live the life of a whaler on the Pequod.  You’ll meet Ishmael and Stubbs and Starbuck (I understand that’s where the name came from).  But did you buy a book, in the classical sense of the word, even though the words and meanings came from the classical form?  Melville, of course, had no conception of an electronic reader when he wrote Moby Dick.  The only electrons he knew were in lightning.  And that’s not to say he wouldn’t be in favor of his masterpiece being published in electronic format were he alive today.  But would he call it a book?  Or is it just a series of dark and light areas on a white screen?  I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t.  Hard to tell, though.

Times are changing.  A book by any other name…hmm.

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