Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Open

Open.

Opposite of closed.

So that things, people, air, can go in and out or be put in and out.

Not taken or filled.

Accessible, as to appeals, ideas, or offers.

Open a business.

An open city.

The bedrooms open into the hall.

To be open to suggestion.

Ralphie always has his mouth open with random sounds coming out.

From the Middle English and Old English opan, the German offen.

Abierto, not cerrado.



I’m not sure it’s helping. But I typed the word “open” so many times today, it lost all meaning. Help me out here. Bring me back into the land of the linguistically grounded.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Best-Smelling Book?

As ebooks gain in popularity, those whose preference lies toward printed books tout the tangible virtues of their preferred reading material.

One of the most common virtues cites is the smell of books.
So, which books smell the best?
Not surprisingly, there seems to be little empirical research on the topic. Though you can buy bottles of “New Book Smell.” I shouldn’t be surprised that such a product exists, yet I am.
There is research on what makes “old books” smell as they do, however.
And there are recipes to get rid of Book Stench.
So here’s my vote for the best-smelling books:
In the 1960s, Time Incorporated out of New York published a “Time Reading Program Special Edition” set of modern books and classics. I have a few of them. They are by far the best-smelling books I’ve ever encountered, aside from the book on sharks I took out of the Idaho Falls Public Library constantly as a kid.
Describing the smell is difficult. It’s got a mild adhesive bandage tang, but it’s not that bitter. It’s a cool smell – not hot, not cold. I don’t know how else to describe it. I don’t get the vanilla smell.
So, what think you?

You Okay, Pukka Sahib?

Started reading George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” a few weeks ago, and just picked it up again this morning.

Right at the good part.
Orwell wrote the book, of course, to support his anti-colonial views, and he does an admirable job of it. Through the eyes of Flory, his main character, Orwell demonstrates the cowardly thinking that supported colonialism for so long. And what he writes is also pertinent, I think, to society as a whole.
He writes:
For as his brain developed – you cannot stop your brain developing, and it is one of the tragedies of the half-educated that they develop late, when they are already committed to some wrong way of life – he had grasped the truth about the English and their Empire. The Indian Empire is a despotism – benevolent, no doubt, but still a despotism with theft as its final object. . . . The real backbone of the despotism is not the officials but the Army. Given the Army, the officials and the business men can rub along safely enough even if they are fools. And most of them are fools. A dull, decent people, cherishing and fortifying their dullness behind a quarter of a million bayonets.
First, ouch.
And yeah, that sounds like complaints we’re hearing today. We as a nation are pretty content and are developing late – I see it in my students, I see it in myself.
What is our backbone? Because we in the US have officials that are as useless (for the most part) as those Orwell describes, leaving the real work to be done by functionaries. The military-industrial complex comes to mind, but part of me thinks that’s too easy of a vaudeville villain to trot out – but it might be the only apt comparison. Because it’s the banks and industry that got the bailouts in 2008, not necessarily the forgotten men.
Are we cherishing and fortifying our dullness behind a quarter of a million corporate ledgers?
I don’t know. I’m like Flory – my brain is still developing, and developing late. How committed am I to a wrong way of life? Am I, like Dave Barry, much less interested (he wrote, as he looked at the notes he left himself) to ENDING WORLD HUNGER than I am to BUYING DETERGENT?
Possibly.
See, I have to have economics explained to me via cartoon.
He writes further:
It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator, but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahib’s code.
What is our code? It is increasingly twisted, in which we can show outrage when a black man is murdered by a neighborhood watchman but no national discussion ensues when two black teenagers kill an 88-year-old war veteran in a botched robbery. One is racism. The other is something that just happens, and, hey, there was no racial intent in the robbery. So it is not discussed. It is when we can discuss corporate profits overflowing while wages for the workers remain stagnant or slip as inflation increases. That cannot be discussed. It is when those who oppose abortion are called “Anti-choice,” by the press, though they would prefer to be called “pro-life,” and where the press immediately starts calling a man “she” when he announces that’s what he’d prefer. It is where there is an urge to tax churches the same as for-profit organizations because they dare to urge their members to speak politically, and then urge that those political discussions be censored, stifled, or otherwise drowned out in a sea of noise more to the pukka sahibs’ liking.
We are not colonialists, but we, just Orwell writes, are “creature[s] of the despotism, a pukka sahib, tied tighter than a monk or a savage by an unbreakable system of tabus.”

Monday, August 26, 2013

Do NOT, for the LOVE of MIKE, Publish the FIRST DRAFT

Or the third.

Or the fourth.
I don’t claim to know the magic number of drafts that a book should go through before it’s published, but I think if you’re going to take advantage of today’s liberated publishing opportunities, the draft number has got to be higher – in some cases, a lot higher – than what the author would like. And if a novel hasn’t been read by at least a half dozen or so independent readers, then the number of drafts before publication should be higher still.
The internet makes publishing easy. Too easy, many say. I kind of agree with that. I’m reading a book right now that needed a bit more peer review and revision before the author pushed that final button.
The author has an infatuation with the number two, for example. The character is two inches (!) away from the cow. He waits for two days, introspecting his navel. He walks two feet before he notices something. At least the dolphin has the decency to be three feet away from him before he notices it for the first time.
That’s not all. While he was two inches from that cow, an empty pail magically fills with milk – no magic intended; something’s just missing – and he drinks until he’s full. Then he goes outside and battles chickens for pie crusts discarded on the ground and he smells bacon and is ravenously hungry. Right after downing a pail of warmish milk that magically appeared where only an empty pail had been before.
Did no one tell the author about this inconsistency? Or did no one tell the author because no honest readers read it beforehand? I don’t know. I just know, years after the book was published, it hurts to read it. And I don’t trust the Amazon reviews. Maybe I’m just a grump – that’s quite possible. But I can kinda tell maybe, in this instance, I’m not.
There’s no why in this book. There’s emotional manipulative motivation – dead mother and abusive father – but there’s no why. Why is the hero – nearly two-thirds of the way through and the only even partially-developed character – the hero? So far, all we know is that he can follow orders. He’s got the emotional depth of a tuna sandwich. Do my characters also resonate this poorly? I don’t know. And there’s a lot more pairings – two days here, two weeks there. Come on. Nobody’s checking the calendar. Only mention the passing of a specific time period if it’s important. Not. Every. Time.
I don’t want the books I write and publish to hurt this much. I’ll probably make other mistakes. But slowing the process down and inviting several beta readers in on the gag seems smarter and smarter the more ebooks I read.

I don’t really know what’s changed – because I’ve read some stinkers that were published traditionally as well; getting published traditionally doesn’t seem to have had an impact on quality of writing, though maybe the rotten ebooks are more prevalent today because the traditional barriers and gatekeepers aren’t there. But they didn’t stop stinkers from being published before.
Maybe this is how critics are born.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Passing of Elmore Leonard

David Haglund, writing at Slate.com, riffs on the death of author Elmore Leonard by noting – with some satisfaction – that Leonard’s famous rules for writing are full of caveats and qualifications that demonstrate, as he puts it, writers shouldn’t break these rules unless that writer is good at breaking them.

That, in a nutshell, is why writing is so much fun, and often why my students find it a frustrating discipline. And it’s why I encourage experimentation. Or as Haglund puts it:
[W]riters who are after their own distinctive voices will have to forge ahead and try some of those things – and probably a few other risky techniques besides.

Sometimes, we’re gonna fail, and fail hard, when we experiment with our writing. Maybe we’ll succeed. But we won’t know what we’re good at and what we’re rotten at unless we try everything. I, for instance, favor sentence fragments and dashes. Maybe they work. Maybe they don’t. But as I seek my own “distinctive voice,” those are the things that keep coming out. I need to find out if they work with my voice, if I can use them to better or greater effect, or if I need to dial back on their use so they stand out more. That’s all part of the experimentation.
That said, I think Leonard’s rules for writing are good rules, caveats included. That, along with the Steinbeck he mentions, is the best writing advice I’ve heard.
The listicle (which does not include the caveats) is here.
The full article is here.
I love especially what he says at the end:
[I]f proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Surrender Dorothy . . .


My answers, she says, are too simplistic.

But they work.
Michelle checks in, once in a while. “You’re sure you don’t resent that I don’t have a job.”
Of course not. And I mean it. And we also mean it when we discuss she does have a job – Mom to three kids, volunteer with the Boy Scouts of America. They’re jobs. She doesn’t get paid for them. She doesn’t care. I don’t care. We have enough. More than enough. We have enough to pay the bills and to set aside for retirement – the thought that her parents have laid aside just over a million for retirement doesn’t faze us. It’s a goal.
But my answers are too simplistic. Too limiting for my wife. Though they are her answers too.
Jessica Grosse, writing for Slate.com, says I’m hindering my wife’s career prospects by having her stay at home to be a mom:
The other response is that one parent should stay home if a family can’t afford childcare. But that too is a simplistic answer. Childcare isn’t the only expense—most families need two working parents to feed and clothe their offspring. Also, if one parent—and yes, it’s usually the woman—stops working for a prolonged period of time, this has a ripple effect on the future earning potential for the entire family. For every two years a woman is out of the workforce, her earnings fall 10 percent.
Her solution is to have government subsidize daycare so both parents can work and earn money to provide for the family they now both see only a few hours a day because both parents are working. Emphasize quality time over quantity time.
I’m not sure the government owes us anything. And after thirteen years of being a parent, it’s become apparent to me that the quality time with my kids comes only because we as parents have a lot of time in which to find those quality moments.
I don’t disparage mothers who work, or fathers who stay home for that matter. What Grosse says, in part, is true. Most families need two working parents to feed and clothe their offspring. We’re lucky in that we do not.
Or is it luck?
I have two jobs – a full-time job as a technical writer, and a part-time job as a university instructor. Both jobs pay the bills and let us put money away for a rainy day.  We’re lucky in that.
But we’re also pinch-pennies. No cable TV. No smartphones. No car payments  -- our vehicles are old and paid for. We don’t dine out a lot. We bargain-shop for everything. I can’t recall the last time we paid the suggested price for a piece of clothing. Neither one of us have expensive hobbies. Most of the maintenance work at home we do ourselves, barring the stuff we can’t do. And we learn to do a lot of what we can’t. Two years ago, installing a sprinkler system would have been an impossibility. Now it’s nearly done, and all I’ve done is pay attention when my brother helped set up the initial works. And I paid for the parts.
Maybe my answers don’t work for everyone.
But they work.
What other answers are there?
What do we give up for the so-called career? I’m reading another article today that offers this:
The summer before I left for Oxford, I found myself back home, drinking beer with a high school friend in a pickup truck parked next to the river. His name was Karl, and he'd stuck around to lend a hand on his family's dairy farm. Most everyone else from our crowd had moved away, part of the ongoing small-town diaspora that will someday completely depopulate rural America. Our old buddies worked on salmon boats in Alaska. They dealt cards in Las Vegas. They sold Fords in Denver. Some, having grown fed up with low-wage jobs, were studying computer programming or starting small businesses with borrowed money. I had a hard time imagining their lives, especially if they'd married and had kids, but I didn't have to: they were gone. I was gone too, up a ladder into the clouds. Up a ladder made of clouds.
"So, what are your views on Emerson?" Karl asked me.
We'd been discussing books, at his request. He'd looked me up that night for this very purpose. While I'd been off at Princeton, polishing my act, he'd become a real reader and also a devoted Buddhist. He said he had no one to talk to, no one who shared his interest in art and literature, so when he'd heard I was home, he'd driven right over. We had a great deal in common, Karl said.
But we didn't, in fact, and I didn't know how to tell him this. To begin with, I couldn't quote the Transcendentalists as accurately and effortlessly as he could. I couldn't quote anyone. I'd honed more-marketable skills: for flattering those in authority without appearing to, for ranking artistic reputations according to the latest academic fashions, for matching my intonations and vocabulary to the background of my listener, for placing certain words in smirking quotation marks and rolling my eyes when someone spoke too earnestly about some "classic" work of "literature," for veering left when the conventional wisdom went right and then doubling back if the consensus changed.
Flexibility, irony, class consciousness, contrarianism. I'd gone to Princeton, and soon I'd go to Oxford, and these, I was about to tell Karl, are the ways one gets ahead now—not by memorizing old Ralph Waldo. I'd learned a lot since I'd aced the SATs, about the system, about myself, and about the new class the system had created, which I was now part of, for better or for worse. The class that runs things. The class that makes the headlines—that writes the headlines, and the stories under them.
But I kept all this to myself; I didn't tell Karl. He was a reader, a Buddhist, and an old friend, and there were some things he might not want to know. I wasn't so sure I wanted to know them either.
My cynicism had peaked, but later that summer something happened that changed me—not instantly but decisively. A month before I was scheduled to fly to England and resume my career as a facile ignoramus, I came down with a mild summer cold that lingered, festered, and turned into pneumonia, forcing me to spend two weeks in bed. One feverish night I found myself standing in front of a bookcase in the living room that held a row of fancy leather-bound volumes my mother had bought through the mail when I was little. Assuming that the books were chiefly decorative, I'd never even bothered to read their titles, but that night, bored and sick, I picked one up: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Then I did something unprecedented for me: I carried it back to my bedroom and actually read it—every chapter, every page. A few days later I repeated the feat with Great Expectations, another canonical stalwart that I'd somehow made it through Princeton without opening.
And so, belatedly, haltingly, and almost accidentally, it began: the education I'd put off while learning to pass as someone in the know. I wasn't sure what it would get me, whose approval it might win, or how long it might take to complete, but for once those weren't my first concerns. Alone in my room, exhausted and apprehensive, I no longer cared about self-advancement. I wanted to lose myself. I wanted to read. I wanted to find out what others thought.
Education and career, it seems, aren’t limited to schools and the grand office-buildings of the Zeniths of America. It seems the same things many strive for are many of the same things they mock when they read Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt. The posing. The aspiring, The aping.
But I know families where both parents work. I don’t look down on them. I don’t know their situations. What works for us may not work for them, and what works for them may not work for us. To say there is one definition or one lifestyle that stamps us all the same is to be as rotten a liar as those who say the lifestyle my wife and I are leading is stifling.
Humans never cease to surprise me with their adaptability. We find ways to deal with what life hands us. Most of us. Some of us don’t cope. But most of us do. And our ability to cope waxes and wanes – it’s never constant. Circumstances change and what was once a simple situation is now complex and overwhelming.
Walter Kirn’s most valuable lesson comes in the last sentence of his essay: He wanted to find out what others thought. That’s what we need to do, before we judge, before we launch edicts. What does the other think? That’s different than saying you think you know what the other thinks. Because you don’t. Unless you talk to them. Which most people won’t.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

An Ebook "Carr" Wreck?

As Nathan Bransford predicted, we’re seeing a flood of “ebooks are in decline” articles, thanks much to an article written by Nicholas Carr, who has much to say about how computers and other electronic devices are ruining our brains and attention spans.

Bransford concedes we might be seeing a plateau in the desire to purchase ebooks “at least, if you look strictly at Q1 [2013] numbers” he says – but what others are not point out but Bransford does is that ebook sales in the first quarter of the year are up five percent when at the same time overall physical book sales are down five percent.
He also points out that ebooks for the first time seized the lead in the adult market, with 33 percent of sales in that first quarter going to ebooks, with 30 percent to paperbacks and 22 percent to hardcovers.
That doesn’t sound like a decline to me.
Robert Rosenberger, writing at Slate.com, extrapolates this “decline” in the ebook surge as evidence that people don’t want to read ebooks on tablets, riffing on Carr’s familiar technology-is-killing-our-attention-span blues.
Should we be surprised that multi-function tablets are edging out dedicated e-readers? Not at all. In our options-crazy environment, why spend some money on an electronic gadget that can do one thing well when you can spend a little more and get a device that does that thing well, along with a lot of other stuff?
Additionally, I don’t buy the tablet as distraction model that Rosenberger is pushing (as he paraphrases a TechCrunch article):
[T]ablets are distracting to readers because they offer other enticing things to do.
He turns again to Carr – can we ever get any other experts cited here, or is Carr the only authority on the matter – to explain that using computers and such for reading leads to hyperactive hyperlink clicking and page surfing is fundamentally rewiring our brains.
Maybe so. But where’s the evidence?
As I’m reading physical books, I find many things to be distracting – including other books. If I’m reading a book that’s a tough slog, many the time comes that I set the book aside and read another book, or another few books, and then get back to the slog. No electronics or brain-rewiring involved. Same goes for the attention-sucks that are television, writing my own novels, family activities, work, blogging, teaching English, and any other activity that cuts into my dedicated reading time. Even sleeping is a distraction. I’ve had a cold this week, so the time I usually spend on the bus home has been spent sleeping this week. So many distractions, and not a tablet in sight.
Yes, this is anecdotal evidence. But I’ve got more.
I’ve read more ebooks this year than I ever have. I’m not contributing to the surge in ebook buying, though, as I read only (so far) the free classics. But I’ve read more of the free classics on my Kindle Fire with all of its distractions than I ever have in the physical sense. Having the books electronically is encouraging me to read them – choosing between the physical book and the Kindle version is easy; the Kindle wins every time.
Rosenberger also laments it’s easier to scribble in the margins of a physical book, or to turn the edges of the pages into a flip book. That may be. But I’ve gotten more concrete help out of annotating an ebook for inspiration in the books I’m writing than I have elsewhere, and I’ve done lots of physical book annotation, which I have always transcribed into a Word file for easier portability, mixability, and citability. Electronic annotations make it easier for me as a reader and a writer to use the annotations I make.
A Reddit user is also using ebooks to analyze the writing of authors he likes – an important tool for writers who want to be better writers, as I think we all do.
(And again, we have readers here offering we writers excellent writing advice:
[T]he best way to do it is through sentence structure and flow. Shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs convey more happening in more immediate spans of time … Sentence arrangement can also help achieve an effect. Putting the important things first, or arranging things so the word order helps follow the order of action.)
Yes, all anecdotal. But it’s just as pertinent information as Rosenberg and Carr are pushing, and more enlightening that mere dismissal of using technology to read. I think the experts are wrong in this. We’ll have to see.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What If My Books Were Good?

I know it’s a popular thing to dump on the Star Wars prequels, but this is pretty good. And you know what – it’s also a pretty good exercise in being a better creative writer.

The first bit is an excellent exercise in showing, not telling. I know when I watched this film the first – and only – time, I never figured out the relationship between Anakin and Obi-wan. I felt like they were relying too much on us just assuming along with them that their friendship had formed after the first prequel was in the can but before the time of the second sequel arrived. I suppose that’s fair – Anakin was just a weenie little kid in the first episode – but I agree with this guy in that we needed to see more. Says he (emphasis mine):
If you don’t show them being friends, it doesn’t matter that they become enemies. In George’s version, we literally get one scene of them in the elevator when they’re like “We’re friends.” And then moments later Anakin is a d*** to Obi-wan and then they like branch off and do their own separate thing for like the whole movie. It’s not enough to simply tell us that they’re friends. We should be seeing it in their actions.
As writers, we have to show. We can do a little telling, but most of what we have to do is show or we’re going to lose our readers – and our careers – pretty early. This is something I’m keeping in mind as I revise my novels.
There’s more. Consider what this guy says about the growing conflicts between Obi-wan and Anakin, and how they could have been developed:
We get to see that they’re good friends and that they have each others’ backs.
We get to see it. As writers, we have to show it. We can’t just tell it. We can’t just assume that our readers will accept that relationships between our characters are as they are. Again another something I’m working on as I revise my novels.
I know I’m saying I’m working on a lot of this during revision. I think that’s fair. In the first draft, I admit I’m pretty aimless, just trying to get from the beginning of the story to the end. As I revise, I see where I need to show more, to make my readers care why I took them on the journey they’re on as they read. I’m hopeful I can get better at this kind of thing as I write more.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Metadata . . . Metadata . . . Morne Plaine.

I’m sick of the metadata, or XML data, or whatever the hell it is, showing up when I do a copy/paste from a Word document to a web WYSWYG editor. Because it’s really turned that into a What You Don’t Want Is What You Get, Bub, editor, and that’s not nearly as helpful.

I despair having to spend minutes cleaning the metadata out of the way, only to have it screw up the presentation on the screen because I left something in or took too much out.
Yes, there is a way around it in Word 2010, as explained here.
But why does Word need to pick up the metadata when a copy command is executed? Can anyone explain that to me? All I want is the words. The words, that’s important. I can fuss with the presentation, or whatever it is that data is meant to provide.
I have tried this with this document (typed first in Word, then copied over) to see if it works. Will let y’all know so you can ease off on the tenterhooks. (One thing I’m discovering right now: Editing the document adds more XML data, as does the act of SAVING THE FREAKING DOCUMENT. So we’ll see if I can make all that go away.

Well, it's not all gone, but it's a heck of a lot better.
Wikipedia laughably tells me XML is meant to emphasize “simplicity, generality, and usability over the internet” as it helps to make documents human-readable and machine-readable.
I call that hogwash. Because when the XML data shows up in my HTML view, or suddenly inserts extra spaces between my paragraphs (some of which I can remove, others which I can’t) when I paste my words into my Blogger WYSWYG, it’s not making it simple or usable, and it sure as hell isn’t making it human-readable.

So I like that Word offers an option to strip the data from my document. But shouldn’t that be a default when a copy/paste is requested? I can do so in Word 2010 if I copy/paste in Word 2010; I get the option to keep the source formatting, merge formatting, or just take the text over. Not so in any other Word to web application I’ve ever tried. The XML data is there in all its ugly glory.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Revision

I used to think that when you wrote a first draft, what you ended up with was a puzzle in which you could see most of the picture, but needed to fill in the rest of the missing pieces.

No.
A first draft is a completed puzzle. Revision comes not in making the pieces smaller or filling in the holes, but in adding to the picture by adding on to the puzzle.
And the puzzle pieces you keep finding stuck to your forearm or on the floor beneath the table aren’t necessarily to the same puzzle – you get bits to one novel and bits to another, all waiting for some alchemical process that’s going to get them all to fit together.
Writing a novel is easy. Revising a draft, not so much.
That’s why I laugh whenever I read tips from writers on where to get ideas. I don’t need ideas. Ideas just come flying in and squash on the windshield and I collect them in little bins to sort out later.
I’ve tried the tried-but-true: Setting a novel aside and just collecting the ideas, hoping at some future, undetermined date to do the revision. I’ve tried printing them out and reading them, holding alongside a crib sheet of additions and other ideas to see where they might fit into the puzzle. Neither method has met with much success. And yet I know the puzzles, complete as they are, could be more resplendent, more colorful, more detailed – better – with the little bits and bobs I’ve collected.
Back to the writing books, I suppose. Let’s look at revising.
But in the meantime, progress must be made.
I’ll go at it the slow, plodding way. Print them out. Read them. Look at where ideas might fit. Because I’m certain that’s what I’ll find as I pore through the books on writing. There is no other secret way to do it, but hard work. There may be little frills and decorations and pips to spit at the process, to be sure, but the process will remain the process, no matter how much wishing one might do.
The best tip I’ve found so far: “Think big. Don’t tinker.” That from the Scott Foresman Handbook for Writers. Revision is “re-seeing,” not copy editing, poking around with silly little commas and such. That’s what I try to communicate with my students – commas and punctuation and capitalization and word choice, that’s all easy. Re-seeing is hard. As I know.
I read in a technical writing forum over the weekend an author’s post in which he decries revision. If something needs to be revised, he says, then the initial writing process that led to the writing is flawed and needs to be examined. Or a different writer needs to be assigned to the project. A piece of writing should be perfect the first time out, or that effort was wasted and only the revision counts as positive energy.
He is, of course, wrong.
Another revision tip: Pose specific questions. A study quoted here shows students produced “better” stories when they responded to a teacher’s specific questions on what was written. So I have to ask myself: Is this bit necessary? What questions would my readers ask at this point? But those are pretty general. Re-seeing also means re-reading. Or, in many cases, reading for the first time. The best approach: Read as you would if you were reading a book, but this time, annotate the text with questions you would ask the author. Forget that the author is you. Ask hard questions. Call them on the carpet for faulty plotting or thin characterization. Make the author be honest.
Another reminder: Successful revision is not correcting grammar. That is editing.
Yet another reminder: Collage. Start with the idea of printing out what you’ve written, cutting apart individual paragraphs or chapters or sentences, then rearrange them. Glue them to a big roll of butcher paper. Glue in visual cues of things you might want to add: Photographs, links to video and sound clips, other ephemera – is there a computer program or app that would let me do this? Or should I create one of my own?
Another reminder: Book trailer. Write a book trailer. Or better yet, look at what you’ve written and storyboard it. Find out where there are conceptual gaps by drawing things out – literally. Doesn’t matter if you’re a bad artist or not. Just draw things. Sketch them out. If you’re bad at art, do collage. Collect old magazines or scour the internet for pictures – no copyright worries here, you’re just re-seeing, sometimes through the eyes of another. You’re not publishing their stuff. Just re-seeing your own.

Never mind that this video references filmmaking. Storyboarding is storytelling whether you’re writing a story or making a movie. Do it.
Or just go to storyboardthat.com.
Another reminder: Consider things from a different point of view. See how a scene might be better by changing how a character is presented in the narrative. Like this:

Also, follow the KISS method: Keep It Simple, Stupid. If the computer programs are overwhelming, of you know you’d spent too much time tinkering and not thinking big while using them, then use paper, glue, and scissors. That’s the direction I’ll be heading.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Genius, Explain Thyself

Writing about music, Martin Mull is supposed to have said, is like dancing about architecture – Implying that the application of one discipline to the other doesn’t necessarily make sense.

That’s what came to mind when I read Matteo Pericoli’s piece “Writers as Architects” in the New York Times’ Opinionator column, in which he describes his MFA students working with architecture students to create visual representations of the underpinnings of a short story or novel.
While there’s an awful lot of gobbldedygook in his essay, and in the descriptions his students offer of their architectural renderings of, say, Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” – is there really “magic,” as he says, in bringing “two students from very different disciplines coming together, now sharing a common language, knowing exactly where to meet, and why”? – I applaud the basic tenets of the exercise: Studying a novel or short story to examine its basic structure in order to understand if the structure itself lends to the story, its longetivity, its readability, and how readers relate to it.

I’m not much of a planner when I write – I just like to see where things go. Sometimes, they go nowhere, which reveals the shortcoming of my writing style. On the other hand, I have tried to be much more meticulous in planning things out and researching them, and find, for the most part, I’m not able to write the story. Maybe I’m the kind of writer who has to get stuff out on paper before I can discern the structure a story is going to take. That’s why we have drafts – and that’s why architects design their buildings time and again, consulting with engineers and such, on paper before any dirt is ever moved. I could learn from this concept.
I have done some visualizations – line drawings, character trees, etc., as I write, in order to help me see things. I have done some very rough storyboarding as a way to help me see more visually. So I get the concept that getting something on paper besides words is a great way to help a writer be better at the art of writing. But the craft still has to be there.
I’d be interested in being a fly on the wall in one of Pericoli’s classrooms, seeing how and if his students take the concepts they’ve learned and apply them to their own writing. Looking at how other writers write is well and good, but until you can look objectively at how you write, and how you could improve your writing through such analysis, such classes and such projects are really only meant to employ MFA instructors and keep the local arts and crafts supply warehouses with steady customers looking for knives, glue, and cardboard.
That’s the thing, though – is this a useful exercise that gets novels written? One rather snarky commentator on the article says this:
Sometimes when I read the NY Times I feel very inadequate. This is one of those times. I just don’t equate writing with architecture.
I just completed my first novel and am trying my best to get it published. Perhaps I should add a drawing in my query letter to agents. Maybe I’ll get lucky! The novel is titles Passports Out of Crazy Town, so I could construct a few buildings that are slightly askew and a bridge leading to another group of buildings that are perfectly balanced. So much for wracking my brains to write a decent synopsis, just a rendering of this may work wonders. I’ll keep my fingers crossed!
Obviously, a writer who spends too much time with the pre-visualization but who never actually goes on to the writing is probably better off working as a model builder, not as a writer.
Here’s an example of what I mean (once you get past the clich├ęs – doesn’t everyone “push the limits” of their craft? Well, they should. But they shouldn’t say it that way).
I think this is what Pericoli is shooting for in this class and exercise, but ironically he’s too interested in explaining the process to help us connect the dots as to why this is a valuable exercise for writers: Visuatlization leading to better, more vivid writing. I hope he helps his students connect the dots between the exercise and their own writing.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Simpsons LEGO

LEGO announced today they’ll start making sets based on The Simpsons in 2014. I have a few thoughts on that:

I hope the Homer Simpson head doesn’t come with the little knob on top, but rather just has the little streaks of hair. Because a hairy Homer, well, that should not be done. In fact, I almost hope the characters come with sculpted heads kind of like they did for Patrick Star and Squidward and Sandy Cheeks when they did their SpongeBob Squarepants line. Marge without her blue bouffant would look weird.
I also hope that rather than just sticking to themes – Moe’s Tavern, the Simpsons house, Springfield Elementary, etc., the creators at LEGO look at some scenes and build sets around them. On that, I have a few suggestions:
Homer’s BBQ Pit:

Springfield Monorail, featuring Leonard Nimoy and Mayor Quimby:

The Simpsons Encounter the Boogeyman:

Homer Cleans the Garage:


Stop the Planet of the Apes, featuring Selma Bouvier and Troy McClure:

Fire Drill, featuring Monty Burns and Waylon Smithers:

Homer’s Brain, featuring random Disney characters and the Flanders Family:

Homer, trapped in the vending machines, featuring Lenny and Carl:

Homer as Terminator, featuring the Flanders Family:

Fat Guy Hat:

A guy can dream, can't he?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Bezos and the Washington Post

So Jeff Bezos is buying the Washington Post.

Interesting. But it seems like a good fit for this quixotic figure whose mind's inner machinations are an enigma. His Amazon.com has shaken up the retail industry while losing gobs of money – the losing gobs of money is likely to continue as he ventures into journalism.

So what’s his game?
Bezos likes to be an industry-shaker.
Here’s what the Washington Post itself says about the sale:
Seattle-based Amazon will have no role in the purchase; Bezos himself will buy the news organization and become its sole owner when the sale is completed, probably within 60 days.
And here’s Bezos on Bezos, per the WP:
“I don’t want to imply that I have a worked-out plan. This will be uncharted terrain and it will require experimentation. There would be change with or without new ownership. But the key thing I hope people will take away from this is that the values of The Post do not need changing. The duty of the paper is to the readers, not the owners.”
The sale, interestingly, includes a spate of smaller newspapers in the greater Washington area, a printing plant which publishes several military-oriented titles, and washingtonpost.com. Not included in the sale are Foreign Policy, Slate.com, the company’s headquarters in Washington and other property the company owns in and around Washington.
Part of me wonders if this is just the beginning of a long-term trend of flagship papers being bought by eccentrics who have money to burn (note the Boston Globe was purchased last week by the owner of the Red Sox baseball team for $70 million, considerably less than the $250 million Bezos is paying for the WP. Warren Buffet is also dabbling in papers, and Wisconsin’s Koch brothers have toyed with buying the LA Times. The eccentrics will either continue their eccentricities or turn the papers into political engines (well, more political than they are currently, obviously).
But a bigger part of me just assumes some journalistic/journalism public service arfhebung is now in the making.
Bezos, via Amazon, thumbed his nose at traditional publishing, selling ebooks at bargain-basement prices and forcing Apple and the publishing houses into an embarrassing price-fixing scandal. Amazon is now a publisher. Amazon is willing to take risks that impact profitability in order to experiment. Amazon has Amazon Prime – a potential paywall model to end all paywall models (though I haven’t succumbed. Yet).
Interesting newsie reactions gathered here by Poynter. Last one is the most laughable: Bezos won’t need WaPoLabs – he’s a lab himself. And will hire top men to study journalism now. Top men.

Happy Birthday, Curiosity

You know, I’d still work for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. If I had the brains. And the ambition. And the desire to live in California, where the cost of living is so high. Just to be involved in something like this.


But it’s not about me. It’s about Curiosity – and the fact that this SUV-sized rover has been on the surface of Mars for a year now. Sending back pictures that look remarkably like Idaho.
It’also about the kooks. Who tend to have British accents for some reason.
And yes, it HAS to be EITHER a dinosaur or a large AMPHIBIAN with its head down. It could not be a rock. Because of pixels. Those nasty pixels will get you every time.
Here’s a year, in glorious black and white:

Friday, August 2, 2013

50-Miler

Last summer, we did a 50-mile bike ride with the scouts. I drew two pictures -- recently rediscovered -- to commemorate the event.


Thursday, August 1, 2013

Oh Boy! 3 AM!



It’s the kind of thing you hear about. It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to puke.

Inspiration. Fine and dandy if it comes to you, smug if it comes to others. And in such ways it comes to them. Like this:
So here's the dream that had me awake a few minutes before the alarm this morning: Two feuding New England towns, divided by the ice trade that plies the lake that lies between them, are giddy with delight as the feud nears an end due to the impending marriage that will join the two rival ice houses. There is ice skating and rabbit raising for all -- until he returns. He, of the black suit, thin mustache and uncompromising nature, is the one who terrorized the bride-to-be as a child by daily smearing her with his peanut-butter-encrusted fingers (I know the historical timing is a bit off, can't help that) way back in grade school. His presence in town upsets the wedding plans, thaws the ice and causes the rabbits to go all runty. Will the towns' plan to run him out on a rail succeed before their villages are back to feuding? Will he once again smear the bride-to-be? Or will they go off to raise rabbits of their own?
It’s also a musical.
Of course, since I’m fine and dandy with this, you bet your boots this inspiration came to me.
Now, where did it come from?
Partly this. One of my favorite documentaries, all about the cold, including a bit on Frederic Tudor, the so-called “Ice King,” who pioneered commercial ice delivery by harvesting ice off ponds in frozen New England. He became one of America’s first millionaires when being a millionaire meant something. So that’s in the background.
I’m not sure where the peanut-butter came from.
So yes I’m going to write this. Not now; I’ve got other projects in the hopper. Nice to have an idea in the can, though.