Friday, February 23, 2018

Nil Desperandum

I look at the professional writers I long to be like and despair.

And yet . . .

I look at the professional writers I long to be like and see they struggled too.

Take Rincewind the Wizzard, the character created by Terry Pratchett.

In the first Rincewind book – Pratchett’s first – we see a lot more of the classic fantasy novel environment (exotic settings, exciting, scantily-clad women, fantastic creatures, etc.) than we see in Pratchett’s later novels. As a reader, it’s clear that The Colour of Magic is a lot closer to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars than, say, Thud!

What I’m getting at is best summed up by what Stanford University educator David Labaree says in his article “Writing Essays by Formula Teaches Students how to not Think,” published at

The point is that learning to write is extraordinarily difficult, and teaching people how to write is just as hard. Writers need to figure out what they want to say, put it into a series of sentences whose syntax conveys this meaning, arrange those sentences into paragraphs whose syntax carries the idea forward, and organise paragraphs into a structure that captures the argument as a whole. That’s not easy. It’s also not elementary. [Author Stanley] Fish distils the message into a single paradoxical commandment for writers: ‘You shall tie yourself to forms and the forms shall set you free.’ The five-paragraph essay format is an effort to provide a framework for accomplishing all this.

I’m going to argue that the best authors do exactly what Fish admonishes: They learn the form, and then set themselves free from it.

Pratchett’s later novels are filled with the satire and humor we expect from him. They’re present embryonically in The Colour of Magic, but don’t come out fully because Pratchett was still learning the form.

The discouraging thing here – for novelists and for teachers of writing – is that to set writers free from the form is something that cannot be taught. It has to be learned through long practice in writing to the form, experimenting with the form, and then finding ways to use the form to one’s advantage (I don’t believe anyone actually strays completely form “the form” – whatever form it takes in the genre they’re writing. It can also be said that in Pratchett’s last novels he’d again become slave to the form of his own making, as he battled with The Embuggerance as well.) But they do become the better writers they want to be. Over time and with lots and lots of practice.

What does this all mean for me as a writer?

It gives me hope.

Maybe I’ll get better. I’ll certainly get better the more I write. I can see that in Doleful Creatures. It’s a long shot from where it was as a finished NaNoWriMo novel in 2005. And I can see the potential in other projects I’ve done. I just need to write more. Practice more.

What does this mean for me as a teacher of writing?

Maybe somewhere in the swamp of students I have had over the years, there are a few I’ve helped start on that long writing journey. Maybe.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Plug it in and Turn the Crank

A common lament is heard in English class – not necessarily this one; you’ve been an extraordinarily patient bunch – is (and it’s sometimes said with a lot of volume) WHY DO I HAVE TO KNOW HOW TO DO THIS?

I have a very simple answer:

So you can get better at it.

The Argumentative Synthesis essay is, by nature, one dependent on a formula:

  1. A     An introduction where the writer identifies a problem and explains why the problem is significant.
  2. B     A body where the writer explores at least three solutions to the problem, going over the solutions in detail to explore their strengths and weaknesses.
  3. C     Concluding on describing their preferred solution in greater detail, along with an explanation why it’s the best of all possible solutions.

We’re used to formulas. I recall something about the Pythagorean Theorem from my high school days – don’t ask me what it is now; I was a communications and English major in college. But I do recall my high school algebra teacher saying we’d live or die by formulas, and that to solve the problem, all we needed was the right formula, and to “plug it in and turn the crank.”

Well, I remember plugging it in. I remember turning the crank.

But the formulas never worked for me (see previous note about communication/English majoring).

But I have to ask: Was it the formula’s fault?


Mine. Because I didn’t practice turning the crank enough.

It can be argued that I won’t necessarily need the higher maths for the rest of my life. But if I agree with that, I miss the point.

And the point is this: LEARNING.

We have formulas in English composition for a reason. And the reason is is that writing is hard work. I’ve been a professional writer since I started in newspapers in 1997, and there are still things I’m learning about writing. And once I master one aspect, there are other aspects to learn.

Plugging it in and turning the crank – whether in math or in writing – means putting in a lot of practice so you can tell when you’ve got the wrong formula, if you’ve accidentally plugged it into a 220-volt outlet, or if they’ve replaced the crank with a push-button starter.

I want you to progress on your “learning how to write” journey in this class. Thus the learning of a new formula, the argumentative synthesis essay.

But once you master it, oh, the things you’ll do.

Let me draw on an example from the world of music. Namely, Victor Borge. For those of you who don’t know Borge, he’s a classically-trained pianist. Behold:

He plays beautifully, no? He knows his way around a piano. He can plug it in and turn the crank.
But, oh the places he went. Once he knew the formulas, once he could plug it in and turn the crank with efficiency every time, he really began to learn. And what he brought to the world was uniquely Victor Borge. Behold again:

We hear the formulas coming out. But we hear Borge too. Unique Borge.

And that took a lot of practice too.

So. Plug it in. Turn the crank. And keep on doing it. After enough practice, you’ll be surprised at what comes out.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Christmas is Cancelled

So we’re now in that crazy little valley between a big document publishing push at work and when the documents actually have to be used for work, and the reviews are coming in.

Typically, I hear only the bad news, and there is some if I can say revision=bad news. And revisions are expected. Thusfar, the number of revisions requested is pretty small. Knock on wood.

Still, part of me wants to cancel Christmas.

We’ve been reviewing these documents for months. Some of them for more than six months. It didn’t help that the process we’re documenting evolved over time, with more evolution coming toward the end of the review cycle. Then again, that’s just standard procedure here.

We write. We review. We publish. And then we panic and do it all over again, thankfully on a much more compressed time schedule than the first round, as the major lines in the sand have already been drawn.

Yeah. Just got off the phone. A philosophical change that was made just before the documents were published may be reversed. And that’s nothing unusual. Right now, the scope of the changes is limited to two documents, so that’s not so bad. Holding my breath for more phone calls, though.

I’m not complaining. Dealing with change is part of the job, especially on a new process like the one we’re dealing with. I’m more relieved to have the big document push over and done with, so we can let the dust settle a bit and then figure out where to go from here, rather than have additional change add delay to getting the first round of documents out.

And I do work in the perfect industry to call such change and second-guessing “fallout.”

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Nut Behind the "Wheel"

Representative Simpson,

I have three children in school. I pray often that as they go about their school day, they'll be safe themselves and be kept safe.

But I look at school shootings like the recent one in Florida and I know prayers are not enough.
If there were a quick solution to this problem, it wouldn't be a problem. But we can start somewhere. The folks at 99% Invisible recently created a podcast outlining the decades-long push to use data, science, and cooperation from industry and politicians to make the cars we drive and the roads we drive on more safe. Key to that safety push was the creation of a database that tracked automobile accidents and the injuries they caused.

Such a database on gun-related injuries and deaths would be a good first step toward perhaps making guns safer, and workplaces and schools safer from those who misuse guns. However, political and lobbying will has thusfar made such a database illegal in the United States.

I'm confident if I sent my children to school in a car -- our oldest drives now -- they would be relatively safe if they were in an accident, because of the long history of safety in the auto industry, that was aided by a database that collected information without names to allow engineers the chance to see what was causing fatalities and injuries in car crashes.

I'd like to see you advocate for a national gun-safety database, similar to the one used for automobile safety. That alone will not solve the problem we face as a nation, but it would be a good first step.


Brian Davidson

Different Perspective

So the writing challenge is thus: Can you work your craft from 2 angles? Homework: Write a paragraph from 1 person’s POV, then write the SAME paragraph from the point of view of someone else entirely.

This is important for me for a few reasons:
  1. I might find writing the story from the point of view of a different character might help me fix things in the story
  2. I might find ways to introduce more female characters – because beta readers have pointed out one thing to me about my WIP, re: Female Characters. They’re a) Evil or b) Dead.

So here we goes. Scene (not a paragraph; I need more practice at this) from the POV of Character No. 1:

The blast of light ricocheted off the canyon walls, forcing shadows to scurry into cracks and melt underneath rocks.


At the sound of his name again, his heart leaped.

The black star grew larger still. Two of its arms fringed. Feathers.

And with the fading of the white light into hues more normal, he could see on the feathers patterns of white.

Patterns he knew.


That was his voice. That was his voice saying something his brain had urgently cried for many moments, watching the star grow larger. He spread his wings to fly but felt no strength in his muscles.

“Yes, me. Who else should come?”

The voice too, softened with the waning white. He could see eyes in the dark face, moires of green and purple reflecting off the black feathers of the wings, the shoulders, the breast.

“But you’re dead. I saw you.”

“Yes,” Rebekah said. “Yet here I am again.”

She lit on the branch next to him and leaned into his side as she had always done, and when they touched the last of the white light snapped away and the world was vivid green and blue.

And from the POV of someone else:

The blast of light ricocheted off the canyon walls, forcing shadows to scurry into cracks and melt underneath rocks.

For a few moments, the only movement was that of birds in the air struggling to right themselves as the wave of light hit them.

Those on the ground froze, some rolled into tight balls and tried to hide under the rocks with the shadows.

Aloysius looked up to see Jarrod dumb on a branch jutting over the canyon, beak agape, staring into the quickly-waning light.

“It’s The Lady,” he thought. “Some hypnosis.”

He tried to croak out Jarrod’s name, but his throat was parched.

Then as the light faded he saw a black star at the center of it.

“Oh, the venom,” he thought, and shuddered. How long had he been held in thrall to The Lady’s blackness?


Something like a jolt of lightning pinned him to the ground, set his long-broken teeth on edge.


Just as suddenly, weightless. Young as a badger cub. Old as the mountains yet ready to race to their peaks. Race with . . .

“You’re dead. I know you’re dead.”

“Yet in the Sparrow-Minder, we all live again,” Landi said.

And the badger, teeth broken, right hind leg in a limp, blood spattered on his fur, felt new and clean as if he’d just emerged from one of the beavers’ ponds, his love at his side.

Conclusion: These scenes are bringing two characters – both female – back into the story. Can’t decide if this is a deus ex machina element, or if it’ll lead to something else. Need to study.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Just Because it Goes in the Dumper . . .

Remember how I gloried about our vastly improved internet service?

Well . . . I might have been a bit premature.Because the good ol’ net is up to its old tricks again.

I’m going to try a few things this weekend – looking at router settings, testing to see if we have a wifi weak spot in the study, etc. The latter is where my money is – although the craft room is right next to the study and NEVER seems to have any wifi problems. Then again, the study is nested underneath furnace ducts whereas the craft room has a straighter shot to the router upstairs.

So maybe a wifi extender. Or we just nuke it from orbit to be sure.

The nuclear option might also include having Cable One pay us a visit, now that the house has been “re-wired.”

In any case, if Freddy deCordova were here, he’d disavow himself of the whole situation too.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Storyoboarding Scribbles

Tried my hand at storyboarding the next scene I need to write for Doleful Creatures. Clearly, I am NOT an artist.

Also, the story is taking a little bit of a dark turn. I hope it turns out well for Aloysius and Rebekah. As I don't outline much, I'm not necessarily sure how this is going to end.