Archive for May, 2012

One Word at a Time

I’ve been hard at work for the past month on the rough draft of the third in my trilogy of science-fiction novels.  I call the series “The Anthanian Imperative,”  and each book gets an identifying color.  The first is “Blue,” the second “Green,” and the third, “Red.”  The colors are actually integral to the plot of each book.  “Blue” and “Green” are finished and ready for an editor or agent to take a look at them and I’m currently trying to sell “Blue.”  (Anybody interested?)  But it’s “Red” I want to talk about here.

I’ve been working on “Red” off and on for about six months, and I’m about halfway through the rough draft.  Right now, I’ve got about 30,000 words down, and plenty of ideas for the rest of the novel.  The whole plot line is worked out in my head, and I’ve got 30 or 40 pages of handwritten notes that I’ve accumulated over the past several years of thinking about it.  That’s the same way I wrote “Blue” and “Green.”  But what’s different about “Red” now is the intensity I’ve been able to give to it, a ferocity I rarely gave to the other two.  I’ve been able to sit down almost every day (except Sunday when I write this blog) and pound out about 1000 words.  Occasionally I’ll do more work on the plot line and write more notes, especially details about the characters and their activities.

A thousand words a day is a great way to write a book.  I’m not saying it’s for everybody but it works for me.  It’s a heady mechanism for getting the job done.  I can actually look forward to seeing the final draft, when I’ll start the revision process.  For me, revising is easier than writing the first draft, because the hard work has already been done.  If you want to write a novel, going at it this way is (I feel) the best way to do it.  One word at a time, a few hundred a day, whatever suits you.  Plant butt in chair and write, even if all you do is complete a character sketch.

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Top Ten Books

I noticed a week or so ago on the website Squidoo a list of the top ten books read in the last fifty years.  They gave a listing of the top books sold in the world in the last fifty years, and they assume this means those books were the top fifty read.  I suspect that’s probably true, but my blog today is not to question their use of the words “sold” and “read.”  I have something else in mind.

Here’s the list:
1.  The Holy Bible
2.  Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung
3.  The Harry Potter series (all seven books together), by J. K. Rowling
4.  The Lord of the Rings series, by J. R. R. Tolkien
5.  The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho
6.  The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown
7.  The Twilight Saga, by Stephanie Meyer
8.  Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
9.  Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill
10.  The Diary of Anne Frank

The list interests me.  There are a few surprises, such as Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill.  I’ve never heard of the book and wouldn’t have thought it would have made the list in a million years.  Live and learn.  The Bible coming in first is no surprise, it always has.  I was a little surprised to notice that the Koran didn’t place on the list.  With the millions of Muslims in the world and their almost fanatical obsession with the Koran, I would have expected it to place somewhere on the list.  I’m not surprised about the Quotations from Mao Tse-Tung, though.  Every one of the billions of Chinese living in China during the reign of Mao Tse-Tung was required to buy the book, so it’s no wonder it appears on the list.

But looking over the list, what I found most interesting was the number of books that were written in English.  Six of the ten were in English.  The Bible, of course, was written in several different languages, notably Greek and Aramaic (I’m not a biblical scholar, so can’t address this fully here), and the Quotations of Mao Tse-Tung was written in Chinese.  Paulo Coelho’s book was written in Portuguese and Anne Frank wrote in Dutch.  But all the others were written in English, and many of those in the last several years–Harry Potter, DaVinci Code, Twilight SagaGone With the Wind was published in 1937.

But what to make of the preponderance of books in English?  English is not the most widely spoken language in the world.  More people speak Spanish or Chinese as their primary language.  English, though, has come to be more of a world-wide language than any other, and many people in other countries learn to speak English as a second language.  That’s not to say that The DaVinci Code, for example, was read in non-English countries in the original English; they read the translation, just as we in the USA read translations of Anne Frank’s diary.  A scientist would say English has penetrated the other countries.  But that can’t be the whole explanation.  There are many excellent writers in other languages–just look at the Nobel Prizes for literature, for example.  Perhaps publishing and marketing account for the high ratio of English books.  Spending, not only for publication but also for translation and advertising, and the ability to flood the market in a foreign country might play a role, I don’t know.  But somehow English has become the language of choice for writing.

Take note, all you aspiring writers out there, there’s hope for you yet.

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A Friendly Book Review

Have you ever read a book, especially a new one, then wrote a review of it?  With the ease of publication by electronic means now available that results in new books popping up on Kindles, Nooks, iPads, etc., the chances that someone you know will have a novel or a non-fiction book that you can purchase on your e-reader in the near future are growing all the time.   Conceivably, a friend of yours could even have a traditionally published book that will appear on the shelf in your local bookstore.  Out of friendship, you may buy that book and take it home, or download it onto your reader.  Then, presumably, you will read it.

Wonderful.  Once you’ve read it–and this applies more to electronic texts than printed ones–you may be tempted to go to Amazon (or wherever the book came from) and write a review, or at the very least, give a simple rating of the book in terms of zero to five stars.  Be careful.

I haven’t published a book yet, either electronically or on paper, but I’ve made a conscious decision in the last several weeks that, from now on, I will not write reviews of books published by my friends.  For one main reason: it puts too much pressure on the reviewer.

So many reviews by close friends have a tendency to be automatic “5-star” glowing reviews and ultra-high recommendations.  Of course, the reviewer does this so as not to jeopardize the friendship and alienate the friend.  (There are other reasons, too, but I won’t go into those.)  That may be a good idea in preserving the friendship, but it doesn’t do the book–or the writing ability of the writer–any good.

If someone writes a review of a book or story I’ve written, I’d like it to be as honest as possible.  Getting a 5-star review tells me very little about whether the reviewer liked the book or not.  It’s very rare for someone to like everything about a book, about every little thing and every little detail that went into making it.  I need to know what went wrong (at least what the reviewer thinks went wrong) about the book.  The dialogue, the characterization, the plot, the setting, the front cover, the picture of me on the back cover.  Only in that way can I improve and write a better book the next time.  You aren’t doing me any favors by giving a 5-star review if you didn’t think the book was worth it.  If you don’t want to give a knee-jerk 5-star review, then don’t review the book at all.  Just read it.  That’s what I intend to do.

Some may say I’m just bailing out on giving reviews.  I don’t mind writing a review, but my intention is not to make people angry.  I just want to give them my honest opinion.  If a writer friend insists on an honest opinion, and I didn’t like the book, the result could be disastrous (though not necessarily).  I would rather preserve the friendship.  So I ask you to do the same.  Don’t give me a fake review.  I will get lots of reviews anyway from people who don’t know me, even from professional reviewers, so not having a few reviews from friends doesn’t do any harm.


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One Thing After Another

Have you ever heard the old expression, “If it isn’t one thing, it’s something else.”?  Writing a book, actually writing anything, is a good way to come up against that expression on a regular basis.  I’ve written two science-fiction novels now, and am hotly in the process of writing the rough draft of a third.  (They form a trilogy, so there’d better be three of them.)   But each book is unique, and each has had its own problems.  The first required that I learn how to write fiction from the basic elements to the most sophisticated concepts since I’d never written fiction before.  I have written numerous scientific papers, but that’s a far cry from writing fiction, and each draft of the book–and there have been many–was written using what I’d learned up to that point.

Some of the problems have been large-scale, such as what order the chapters are arranged, or how to handle the personality of each of the main characters.  Other problems have been smaller, like, does the character have blond hair or dark?  Most of the problems, though, have come in the form of inter-personal relationships.  For example, how does character A relate to character B and how does B react?  This can get tricky, because if character A does one thing, it can affect the actions of many of the other characters later on, and even affect the outcome of the novel.  In many cases I’ve had a character act a certain way because it results in the conclusion I wanted, but that character also wound up looking foolish or stupid or insensitive or something, and I’ve had to go back and change him/her.  That just brings up more problems.

The end result of a novel has to be a unified whole.  A novel can’t ramble on and on, neither can it be too short or unsustainable.  There has to be just the right amount of discussion of what happens during each scene in the novel, or the whole thing will fall flat on its face, and problems arise constantly about handling each scene.  Broken down into its simplest terms, a novel is really nothing more than a series of words formed into sentences, sentences formed into paragraphs, and paragraphs into chapters.  Every word on every page is a choice among hundreds of thousands in the English language (and, if you write sci-fi, even some that aren’t in the language) and the arrangement of those words makes problems itself.  Why, I sometimes ask myself, would anyone want to sit down and work for a year or more just to put eighty or a hundred thousand words in some coherent order on several pieces of paper?  You have to want to do it.  You have to want to face the question every day, what word will I use here?  To face every day, the thousands and thousands of questions and problems, large and small, that arise, and attempt to answer them.

I’ve heard of people who’ve written a hundred or more novels in their lifetime, and my puny two make me look like an unmitigated slacker, especially since neither of mine have been published.  But I’ve met the problems of writing a novel, and I believe I’ve done a reasonably good job.  Undoubtedly, an agent, then an editor, is going to want to change some things, bringing about more problems, but I’m ready for them.  It’s been tricky, tiring, and brain-teasing, but fun.  Anybody else out there want to try it?