Touching the future, ghostlike

In writing this blog post, I'm not doing anything here that I wouldn't do ordinarily, except that I'm not doing it now. I did it forty-five minutes ago.

And I have to say, if you don't get the reference, please go read "Watchmen". Then we'll talk.

As to what we'll talk about, or what I'm talking about, that will remain my little secret.


Going on vacation

I'll be going on vacation next week, with pretty limited web access. I'll probably be posting to this blog via e.mail, but will do more via Twitter.

How shall I work this in my absence? Perhaps I'll post flash pieces here, and inspirational quotes in my tweets? Or should I take one of my regular stories and break it up into 750 word chunks suitable for blog posts?

I'll give this some thought. I'm going to be doing more travel later this year, some of it behind the Great Firewall, so I need to consider.

Finding the time to write: the simple truth

A recent post over on John Scalzi’s Whatever blog was pretty much spot on. The post, What You Have to Give Up to Write, discussed the sturm und drang of the canonical suffering writer. Do you really have to sacrifice your life to write? His answer: not really.

You need to devote some time every day to writing, and turn out a decent number of words during that time. At the end of year, you will have written a lot of words. Edit and revise that to improve the quality and coherence, and that’s a book. (Unspoken here is the corollary that once you get some experience at writing and make it a habit, you can write a good book.)

Life is complicated and tricksy for everyone anyway. Scalzi’s point is that by giving up an hour of something that really isn’t very important (TV, video games, RSS feeds), you give yourself time. It’s a cogent post, and makes a straightforward point about the logistics of finding time to write.

If you really want to write, you can make the time for it. If you don’t, you don’t.

Of course, it’s not really that simple. Some of the comments delve into issues of family support for writing, internal motivation, devotion, fear, prioritization, etc. Dave Barry once said that for most would-be writers, the problem is not finding the time to write, it’s finding the will to write. The post and the comment stack are, as is usually the case with Whatever, worth the reading.

But all of this is not why I’m writing this blog post.

One comment, #33 in the stack, said that a) if you haven’t devoted yourself to the writing life by your teens, it’s too late, b) if you haven’t written your first 80K novel by your early twenties, you never will, and c) if you find yourself in your thirties still not having begun to write, then you not only need a life coach, you should also limit your ambition to learning how to mow your lawn.

I posted a comment in response (#48):

@33 the writing life begins in the late teens. If you haven’t discovered your writing spirit by then, you’re just wasting your time… If you haven’t written anything by your thirtieth birthday, then you’re in desperate need of a life coach.

Oh dear me, how foolish I was to think I could begin writing fiction after the age of 35. If only I had known that I was wasting my time when I wrote that first novel back in 2006.

I drew inspiration from the result, and decided to develop my skills until I could write a good novel. I should have recognized it as the pathetic flailing of a man desperately in need of a “life coach”. Now, here I am, about to turn 40, and I still think that it’s never too late to learn?

O, foolish old man! If only you had followed your literary muse back when you were writing stories as a punk ass 15 year old! You followed one path successfully … do you think that life could possibly hold more than one? Now, encrusted with age as you are, you turn your embittered and deluded eye towards worlds of imagination? You think that you can live the dream deferred? It is too late for you!

You cannot write! You are too old!

Give up! Give up! Give up!

Scalzi frowns on overtly profane and inflammatory language in his comments. So, I expand on my response as follows:

"Kiss my ass, you pompous little shit."

"Screw you."

"Sorry, I couldn’t understand you because you are an asshole."

… and finally …

"Come over here, sonny, so I can hit you in the ankle with my cane."

Twit fic for Edinburgh

A collection of twit fic short pieces written for the 2009 West Port Book Festival, and event held annually in Edinburgh. This year, it's Aug 13-16.

#wpss On their 23rd anniversary, he took his time and made little circles. It made the next 19 years a whole new ballgame.

#wpss The marinara stained the tablecloth and the rug. She locked herself in the bathroom, and tried to bandage her eye.

#wpss He rebuilt the bike, dreaming of his own car. His sister handed him the 6 mm allen wrench. He’d need it for the brake tensioner.

#wpss Venus burned as the enormous comet broke apart in her skies of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid. The next one was scheduled for June.

#wpss Vivian watched her son push her granddaughter on the swing. She was glad her husband had planted an oak, not a birch.

#wpss Once again, the sunset lit the sky with magnificent scarlet and goldenrod. Someday the dust would settle, and the stars would return.

#wpss Four naked men ran through the library, paper bags on their heads. Finals week affected different people in different ways.

#wpss Rick Boyle quit smoking 35 years ago. It was to be his only triumph in life.

#wpss He passed out every time he tried to give blood. They asked him to stop coming back. It was the same in every city.

#wpss One match left in the book. One smoke left in the pack. One dollar left in her purse. I can’t do it again, she thought. I just can’t.

How a master works

I've seen various posts about how to denote sections of a WIP that are "done" and not to be further fussed with. Font colors, font styles, separate files, etc. Once a section is done, it should be set aside until the next full read-through and revision of the book. The tools available are quite different now than in the days of quills, fountain pens, Underwoods and Selectrics, but the need remains for knowing where you are in the thicket.

I must admit that my own method is no method at all. When I feel like a particular chapter or scene is good enough, I just go on to another part. I save files in labeled folders with incremental version numbers:

New Book/intro 01.doc
New Book/intro 02.doc
New Book/Sammy kills Will 03.doc
New Book/Will meets Carol 02.doc

If I were more organized, these would be in some kind of uber-structure of chapters and scene, but I'm not there yet. Within the files themselves, no visual cues denote one stage of completion or another.

When P.G. Wodehouse was working on a book, he would thumbtack typed pages for each chapter in a line all across the walls of his study. For scenes that weren't working he would move those pages lower - the worse shape they were in, the closer to the floor. As the revisions took hold, he would move the revised pages up, until they reached a spot over his head. When each chapter was at that upper point, he declared it done. When the whole book reached that point, off to the editor it went.

One of the most prolific and artful humorists of the 20th century, Wodehouse's characters, such as Jeeves and Wooster, live on in the original and as archetypes. His novels and short stories are solid sellers to this day. However, his letters reveal that he was constantly worried about having run dry, that each book he was working on would be his last.

His prose reads like it's effortless fluff, floating across the page like a wisp of cotton candy that escaped the carnival. Yet the craft and sweat (and fear) that went into the work was tremendous. That's a wonderful example of dedication and work ethic, even if it's a pretty high mark to compare oneself against.

I saw some advice once that in trying to break into fiction writing, you should consider only living writers as role models. The idea is that the publishing biz, along with the tastes of audiences, will be quite different now that it would be back in the days of Austen, Dickens, Twain, Hardy, Woolf or Asimov.

Wodehouse having died more than 30 years ago, he's ineligible. If I had to limit myself to a living author who's writing I admire (and whose career arc I wouldn't mind having), it would probably be Michael Chabon. I wonder what method he uses for knowing how to move on.

A Bad Poem, Dissected

What exactly was I doing with that poem yesterday?

It was an old thing I'd written a long time ago, when I was turning out a fair amount of really dreadful poetry. I even tried my hand at songwriting. Someday, when I feel that I have too many regular readers and need to drive half of them away, I'll put up an mp3 of the song I wrote.

Yesterday's poem was an example of an utterly unrestrained use of just a couple of poetic devices. It's like a brownie covered in chocolate sauce, then another brownie, then MORE chocolate sauce, then some sprinkles, then ANOTHER brownie, and topped with yet MORE chocolate sauce. It goes beyond indulgence and vaults straight into sickening.

Here it is, dissected:

From the full bowl of ripe red cherries -
Alliteration/ Internal Slant Rhyme/ Alliteration/ Internal alliteration (“r”)
Choose and chew and let the flesh
Alliteration/ Internal Slant Rhyme/ Internal Slant Rhyme
Release the sweet sweet sweet;
Internal Slant Rhyme/ Repetition
Grip the pits in your teeth and
Internal Slant Rhyme/
Flip the pits off your lips,
Internal Slant Rhyme/
Arc through the air and BING! cherry
Alliteration/ Onomatopoeia/ Connotation
pits in the pots on the steps
Alliteration/ Internal Slant Rhyme/
That catch the mess of the cherries you chose
From the full bowl you hug 'tween your legs
Internal Slant Rhyme/ Connotation

Splat, and the spots stain the steps
Onomatopoeia/ Internal Slant Rhyme/Alliteration
where the pits miss the pots –
Internal Slant Rhyme/
The pits and the pots and the chewed cherries and the
Internal Slant Rhyme/ Alliteration/ Repetition
still full bowl
Internal Slant Rhyme/
and the laughs that are left in an afternoon
Internal Slant Rhyme/
of nothing to do.
Slant Rhyme/
Grip the pits on your thumb and
Internal Slant Rhyme/
Flip the pits on the lawn and
Internal Slant Rhyme/ Repetition
Run around and run away and run on
Repetition/ Alliteration
until sundown, when you strip off your clothes
and hose yourself off in the warm vinyl smelling spray.
Carried Slant Rhyme [clothes, hose]
Now not sticky, now not sweet, now not sweaty, now not smelly,
Repetition/ Alliteration
Just wet and ready for bed, after a
Internal Slant Rhyme/ Connotation
double rub with a bright red sun-warmed towel.
Internal Slant Rhyme/ Connotation

What a piece of work! And yet, when I wrote this steaming pile of literary abandon, I thought it was pretty good.

So why am I putting this up here, and why go to the trouble to label all of its froggy little bits? For the lessons it teaches about writing in general:

1. Knowing the tools is not the same as knowing how to use them. Framers, carpenters and cabinetmakers all might use the same hammer, but oh, how different the result.

2. Restraint is the foundation of quality. Paracelsus said, "The dose makes the poison." With whatever you're creating, give enough to tease and please, not so much that you choke the reader.

3. Embrace your mistakes. They can teach you, if you let them.

4. Erato has her favorites. You may or may not be one of them. If poetry isn't where your passion lies, then try something else. (Thalia's cuter, anyway.)

Poetry Thursday: "Twelve"


From the full bowl of ripe red cherries -
Choose and chew and let the flesh
Release the sweet sweet sweet;
Grip the pits in your teeth and
Flip the pits off your lips,
Arc through the air and BING! cherry
pits in the pots on the steps
That catch the mess of the cherries you chose
From the full bowl you hug 'tween your legs

Splat, and the spots stain the steps
where the pits miss the pots -
The pits and the pots and the chewed cherries and the
still full bowl
and the laughs that are left in an afternoon
of nothing to do.
Grip the pits on your thumb and
Flip the pits on the lawn and
Run around and run away and run on
until sundown, when you strip off your clothes
and hose yourself off in the warm vinyl smelling spray.

Now not sticky, now not sweet, now not sweaty, now not smelly,
Just wet and ready for bed, after a
double rub with a bright red sun-warmed towel.

Photo Credit: Jim Ward, via Google Images

Body in decent shape, runs good

My 1994 VW Golf III just rolled over to 150,000 miles. The milestone is arbitrary, of course, as it doesn’t feel any different at 150,014 miles than it did at 149,127 miles, but it is a milestone nevertheless.

A car that turns 150,000 miles may be on the verge of falling apart, or it might be settling in for that long run to 200,000 and beyond. Even for a car in fundamentally decent shape, however, you can’t have run that many miles without some wear and tear. There are some uncomfortable analogies to a person hitting one of those birthdays that end in a zero (click on the table to enlarge):

I should be honest about my car. It’s functional (for the most part), tolerably efficient and affordable. I got it used, so it already had a history before we came together. After all these years, I’m used to it. In truth, I don’t really like it very much, but I can’t get a different one any time soon. So, I put up with its idiosyncrasies, accommodate its shortcomings and arrange my life to fit its limitations. Sometimes I ask too much of it, and it fails me.

For all these reasons, this car is not like a friend to me, but rather like a member of my family. You can pick your friends, but you are stuck with your relatives.

Is there anyone who loves their car? Would be happy to see it run for another 100,000 miles?

Recording dialogue

I used to carry a notebook around to record real-life snatches of
dialogue, scenes and interactions, for later use in fiction. I
collected many absolute gems.

The problem was that I never did anything with them. I was so enamored
of the "look at me, I'm a writer" scrivenerish action of stopping a
conversation to whip out pen and paper! It was the perfect excuse to
change the subject to me and my writing. It was a precious thin topic,
given my near-zero output of actual writing.

Now, though, when I write a lot more, of much better quality, I don't
carry a notebook around. Yesterday, I heard and observed a lot of
really good dialogue and interactions bewtween people who were happy,
unhappy, resentful and grateful. Some was funny, some was pathetic.

I'm trying to remember it all, but am failing. How does one do the
writer's little notebook thing, but discretely and without being
ostentatious about it?

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Voice recognition during a flu episode

Problem: I'm home with bronchitis, and feel like shit, dried on the pavement and rehydrated with a dropped can of warm Diet Cherry 7-UP. My eyes hurt, I don't want to read, work on any deadlines, watch TV or play videogames.
Solution: Write some fiction!

Problem: My head is so foggy that I can't think. I couldn't possibly work up some new material.
Solution: Type in some of the fiction you have handwritten in some of those notebooks.

Problem: I'm too weak, tired and feverish to type lots of text.
Solution: Use voice recognition software to read it all in.

Problem: The software is trained to my normal voice, not this tubercular croak I'm able to make.
Solution: Maybe it'll be OK.....

**attempt made**

Problem: 1000 words later, it's 90% accurate. That means near-gibberish that I'll have to re-work completely at some point in the future.
Solution: True, but that's 1000 words towards a writing goal.

Problem: But I'd already written that text. This was just dictation and typing, not new productivity.
Solution: It still counts.

Problem: No it doesn't. That would mean a 1000 word count when I scrawled it, and another 1000 for typing in the same text.
Solution: Go lie down and let me worry about it, OK? You look tired.

Problem: I am feeling kind of woozy. All that dictation took more breath than I thought it would.
Solution: C'mon, time for your Advil and codeine. A nap will do you some good.

Problem: Will you edit that text for me?
Solution: There, there, it'll be fine. Just lie down and rest. That's it... rest.

Problem: tired......
Solution: Just sleep, OK? OK? Are you awake? Hello?

Problem: ............
Solution: Geez, I thought he'd never give it up. Mr. frickin' Type-A personality, gotta make every moment of the day "productive". A thousand words of crap, if you ask me.

Podcasting, audio files capacity

Both Anthony and Emma use WordPress, and both have informative (and nice looking) blogs. A discussion with them about Blogger vs. WordPress prompted me to test the ability of Blogger to support podcasts. If this were an actual podcast, you would be hearing my voice, not the Fugue in C minor from Book 1 of the Well Tempered Clavier.

Audio link

Blogger doesn't provide hosting for audio files. Am I correct in thinking that if I get an off-site host for the podcast audio files, I should be good to go? I have no intention of doing this anytime soon, but a website with the ability to grow is certainly a good thing.

Content creation options and flexibility will (presumably) be a key issue as I grow this blog, and the ease of use will (again, presumably) be less of one as I gain expertise.

Am I just stumbling into one of the classic ongoing debates with a Blogger vs. WordPress discussion?

Fiction vs. Non-fiction

Interesting blog post from Marissa Lingen about writing fiction vs. non-fiction. They each require different skills. Important quote:

If you haven't written a lot of fiction, you probably won't write good fiction right off the bat.

This explains why I have trouble with plotting. In non-fiction writing, either there is not supposed to be a plot, or the events are what they are as a matter of factual reality. Either way, no invention is required of the author.

It takes practice to come up with a plot that is a) coherent, b) believable, c) interesting. I'm still working on it.

Skill sets

It was brought to my attention today that my skills at woodworking are
rather above average. Someone was talking about seeing a tablesaw for
the first time, and how amazingly useful and flexible it was. My
reaction was "WTF?" I'm on my second tablesaw, having worn the first
one out.

It makes me think about all of the other skills that I have, some of
which are only rudimentary, others of which are at expert level. I've
been all over the country, lived and visited, and I've done a fair bit
of international travel.

How can I use this life experience in my writing?

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Follow me on Twitter: @TonyNoland

Techfu improving

I've been working on the back-end of this blog more than you might realize. I'd already adjusted the HTML to allow for continuity breaks for long posts, and done some organizational tweaking on an ongoing basis.

Several months ago, I installed the HTML code to allow for data acquisition via Google Analytics. This lets me know how many people are visiting, which pages are most popular, where my visitors are from, etc. Is this overkill, especially for a blog that only gets ~60 visitors a month? Sure it is, but without the Analytics data, I'd have no real notion of any visitors at all: who, how many, from where, new vs. returning, anything at all. I *hate* operating in the dark.

A big thing that I've finally figured out is how to screen out my own visits from the data stream. Oh, such a trivial matter, you say? Surely your own visits to post, edit or tweak won't skew the data that much, you say? Why not just guess, estimate or ignore your own visits, you say?

Actually, for an obscure blog like mine, my own visits were messing up the data more than I was comfortable with. So, I think I've finally fixed that. A trivial accomplishment for the CodeFu Masters among us, but a reasonably big step for me.

Incidentally, I think this is no small matter for the WordPress vs. Blogger debate. One of the selling points of WordPress is the visitor data you can accumulate, which Blogger does not automatically provide. However, Blogger lets you manipulate the HTML of your blog to a much greater extent. A prime example is the installation of Analytics, which AFAICT gives much finer grained visitor data than WordPress provides.

Anyone who uses WordPress, care to chime in?

More color!

I decided that my blog looked too... basic. I hadn't done much with it beyond the template, aside from some widgets.

The banner picture certainly livens things up. The beige-on-brown look was very studious and academic, but there's nothing like a splash of color to make the place look homey.

I also de-cluttered the sidebar, and made a few other changes, to increase the customization process.

Ahhh.... that's better!

How long has it been?

A friend's blog is celebrating 6 months online. As it happens, I started this blog exactly 8 months ago, Dec 6, 2008. I've been getting around 100 visits per months lately. Is that enough for me to continue? Sure, why not? If I were in this for eyeballs, I would have quit long ago.

This blog is a place for me to practice writing, and to expose some of my fiction to the world. There are other places that might be more suitable for me to write on other topics. However, this is a place for writing about fiction, and about the creative process associated with that. Will it be any good? Hell, I don't know. All I know is that this is the place for me to do something that I've never really done before, and see if I can do it properly.

And if I can't do it properly? I guess we'll just have to see about improving my skills until I *can* do it properly. The more I do this, the more I find it means a lot to me. When I first started, I thought I was pretty good. The more I do it, the more I come to realize that I'm not very good, but I am getting better. One day, I think I'll be good enough to be able to achieve what I want to achieve. And what is that?

I'll let you know, when I get there.

Go blow something up

America is a great country. An imperfect country with lots to learn
and much to accomplish, but great nevertheless.

Congratulations on 233 years of letting people decide for themselves
how to live, what to believe and whom to follow. Always remember,
perfection is much more a verb than it is a noun.

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Forget Asimov's "Three Laws". It's Heinlein's "Five Rules" that are immutable.
My Blog:
My Twitter: @TonyNoland
My Space: Euclidian

What makes for good Flash Fiction?

Well, at least I know why I didn’t win, place or show. My piece didn’t include any of the 5 elements that are offered as criteria for good flash fiction. Here they are:

1. An Opener that Grabs
2. Economy of Words
3. Rich Use of Language
4. A Seamless Mix of Narrative and Dialogue
5. An End with a Twist

I'm putting my comments and thoughts here, since I don't want to clutter up EU with what could be perceived as sour grapes. There's some of that going on in the EU forums, and I don't feel the need to add to it.

I had a twist ending (#5win), but apparently I was lacking in everything else. My piece was a full 1000 words (#2fail), and I had no dialogue at all (#4fail). I thought I was able to tell the story effectively with a complete internal-viewpoint approach, but a story without dialogue is not much of a story apparently. My opening paragraph talked about secrets, manipulations, self-destruction and revenge over one's enemies, but I didn't throw a pie in anyone's face in the very first sentence (#1fail). I also chose to limit my use of language to relatively pedestrian phrasing, so as to give more impact to the flashes of purple prose I used to highlight emotional spikes. Not enough purple? (#3fail)

I have mixed feelings about all of this, because the examples of really great, take-your-breath away writing don't resonate with me at all.

The opening that grabs sounded sophomoric and trite, the rich use of language sounded baroque and overblown.

Maybe I'm just missing the point of flash fiction. I try to write as though I'm seducing the reader. If you do it right, by the time you are really hitting your stride, the object of your seduction is so completely enthralled with you that they wonder how they ever lived without you. More importantly, once they're hooked, they never want to be without you. That kind of seduction takes a little time.

In contrast, it would appear that good flash fiction is less like a seduction leading to an affair and more like an fast hookup with a cheap date. No time for subtlety, just let the FM-red heels announce the intention and let's get on with it?

This isn't the way I write, and I don't think I'll be changing it radically based on this experience. I will try to grow from this, though. I've been told my writing is too slow and plodding. I don't intend to stuff my text into a halter, hot pants and 4" heels in order to make things happen quicker, but I'll see what I can do.