Thursday, July 28, 2011

Show Off

It's been six months, so I had to go to the dentist. *cue ominous music* Before leaving the house I made sure to brush and floss, twice. Then I thought to myself, "Isn't this like cleaning your house before the maid comes over?"

I know that no matter how much I brush and floss the dentist will clean my teeth better. So, why do we spend the extra time getting ready? (You know you do it too.) I think it's because, deep down, we're show offs. We want to look good for other people.

Don't fight it. You know you are. So, let's use it to our advantage: Writing Groups.

One of the ways my writing group helps me is that I'm motivated to step up my game. I spend a little extra effort polishing. I double-check my grammar. I make sure I have clear descriptions, the conflict is front-and-center, internal reactions draw the reader close, and the whole chapter moves the story forward but still leaves them with questions. In short, I'm trying to show off.

By stretching myself each week I've found that my best is getting better. It's not that my first drafts are awesome now. Ha! But my ability to fix and polish on the second (third, fourth, fifth) draft has improved markedly.

* Smile picture taken by joyousjoym can be found on Flickr.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Janitors by Tyler Whitesides (Book Review)

Before I get into my review there are two things you must know.

First, this book doesn't come out until Fall of 2011, so you'll have to wait.

Second, everything in this book is absolutely true. I used to work as a Janitor and still remember the daily battles with Toxites. I miss my magic brooms, vacuum, and dust rags. And I'm incredibly jealous that Spencer and Daisy got to use mops. Mops! My boss never let me use the mops.

My Review: Janitors by Tyler Whitesides

The other day, I had several new books I wanted to read. Sadly, I can only read one at a time, so I decided to skim through the first chapter of each one. I picked up Janitors first and didn't close it until I'd finished the entire book.

Janitors is a fun and zany story with a good middle-grade voice and lots of wonder and action. If you are 8-12 years old, or have kids in that age, or (like me) you still act that age you'll enjoy this book.

Back Copy

Have you ever fallen asleep during math class? Are you easily distracted while listening to your English teacher? Do you find yourself completely uninterested in geography? Well, it may not be your fault. The janitors at Welcher Elementary know a secret, and it's draining all the smarts out of the kids. Twelve-year-old Spencer Zumbro, with the help of his classmate Daisy "Gullible" Gates, must fight with and against a secret, janitorial society that wields wizard-like powers. Who can Spencer and Daisy trust and how will they protect their school and possibly the world?

Janitors is book 1 in a new children's fantasy series by debut novelist Tyler Whitesides.

You'll never look at a mop the same way again.

* This ARC was given to my wife, who is also a book reviewer, so no give-away this time. Sorry.
* The copyright to the Janitors book cover is held by the publisher. I hope it's okay that I used it here. If not, I will gladly remove it upon request.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Editing Speed Bump

Please help. I need some suggestions to solve a problem.

I'm editing a big project right now, and editing always goes slower than drafting. One reason it takes so much time is because it's harder to mull over.

You see, when I write I picture the scenes in my head during the day, so by the time I actually sit down and start typing I have a strong framework to build on.

Not so when I'm editing. I don't have a typographic memory (that's like a photographic memory except with words), so it's hard to do much away from my computer.

Here's my wish: I want to find a way to take my draft with me during the day and make notes.

I loaded my draft on my phone as an eBook. That worked great except I couldn't take notes. I've tried several Android eReader applications and none of them allow notes. *sigh*

There's the low-tech solution: I could print out my scene. The downside is that I don't ever have paper with me anymore, and rarely a pen or pencil. I suppose I could buy a binder, but I'm not terribly excited about that.

Here I am, stuck trying to find a solution to a problem of my own making. Isn't that the way life is?

Since I have a blog, I thought I'd foist my problem on you ask your advice. What suggestions do you have? What have you done to overcome this problem? Even a little commiseration would be appreciated.


*Speed Bump picture by veggiefrog can be found on Flickr.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The (Not Yet) Great Gatsby

A few weeks ago author and vlogger, John Green, announced he would be reading The Great Gatsby and commenting on it through the summer. Since I've never read it before, I thought about picking up a copy, but never did.

Until author, blogger and former literary agent, Nathan Bransford, asked "Which book do you most wish you had written?" His answer: The Great Gatsby.

I couldn't argue with both John and Nathan, so that day I swung by the used-book store and picked up a paperback copy complete with notes scrawled in the margins from the previous owner. I'm now six chapters into the story.

It's not my kind of book. This isn't meant to be derogatory in any way. There are many, wonderful books out there and we all have different tastes. What makes this book interesting is that it could be my kind of book.

If you'll permit me to share a personal anecdote in illustration. You see, my wife and I like visiting art museums. Every few years we decide to see what's on exhibit, but we are different in our approach.

My wife, she prefers to skim through halls sampling many different works until she finds something that speaks to her. Then spends time admiring the details, reading about it, and surveying the works around it.

I, on the other hand, plod through the halls. I prefer to study each work--teasing out the fine points and reading the factoids until I appreciate something about it.

In the end, we both feel enlightened and have tired feet and are ready to go out to eat. My wife's approach allows her to see many more works and discover some that move her. My approach allows me to open my mind to new ideas, new techniques, and appreciate the amazing complexity involved in making something appear simple.

So, here I am with The Great Gatsby. I said before it's not my kind of book, but it's not unpleasant. In the first six chapters I've discovered many things, but two stand out.

First, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a master of flawed characters. Each one flawed in their own, unique way. In fact, unlike many books I've read, this book seems to be built on the characters flaws more than their strengths.

Second, He is also a master of word craft. Sentences, lines, paragraphs, and sections have cadence and rhythm. At times it feels like the words themselves are drawing me forward through the story.

So far, I'm enjoying myself. I think I'll stand here and gaze a bit longer. Who knows what other parts I'll learn to appreciate.

* Mansion photo courtesy of pmschlenkler can be found on Flickr. The Great Gatsby cover image was found online. If you are the copyright holder, I will remove the image if requested.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Salute to the Harry Potter Writers

My wife and I went to a Harry Potter marathon last night. We saw both parts of Deathly Hallows. Then we spent a half-hour trying to get out of the theater parking lot while hundreds of other people lined up for the 2:30am showings.

I'm sure there will be hundreds  thousands  millions  billions(?) of reviews out today on blogs, twitter, Facebook, Google+, websites, newspapers, morning news shows, morning exercise shows, informal conversations with total strangers, . . . So, I'm not going to write a review.

I'm going to salute writers--specifically the writers who created the screenplays. Not only was the writing just plain great, they also did an amazing job of translating the feel of the stories; the personalities and voices of the characters; and the multiple world and character arcs. This is not an easy task, in fact, it is extremely hard to do well. And they did it well.

Harry Potter Screenwriters--I salute you.
As a writer, myself, I know that any great writing is the work of more than one person, so I also salute the family, friends, peers, editors, writing groups, and anyone else who helped polish these scripts. Great job!

I can't forget J.K. Rowling.

She is a masterful storyteller with the enviable skill of writing stories which appeal to young and old alike, flawed characters we can't help but love (or hate), and a fascinating world we all want to visit. Her words brought YA Fantasy to millions of new readers. I, and many others, hope to find success following the amazing trails you blazed. 

I salute you. Twice.

* The Harry Potter Deathly Hallows poster image is not mine. I wasn't able to identify the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner, I will remove this image at your request--after I recover from hyperventilating.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Less is More

After my two posts on best and worst writing advice, I got some advice about my blog. I don't know if it is good advice or not, so I'm going to try it out and see what happens.

Blog Advice: Shorter is better. Try to keep your posts to 500 words or less.

This makes sense to me. In fact, when I read through blogs I skim posts that look too dense, or I read the first paragraph and move on. I took a good, long look at my posts and realized I'd probably skim or skip them, too.

Goal: For the next several weeks, I will be brief but not shallow.

What is your favorite post length? When do you start skimming?

* Saffron picture taken by zoyachubby can be found on Flickr.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Worst Writing Advice

The other day, I wrote about the best writing advice. Today, I'm going to the dark side and writing about the worst advice. The funny thing, is that I get this advice all the time, and so do you. I even enjoy getting this advice now, but I have seen it mess up a lot of stories over the years.

What is this bad advice? First, let me tell you a seemingly unrelated story.

The other day my daughter complained about her ear hurting, so I took her to the doctor's. After filling out paperwork--Seriously? More paperwork?--and waiting--I got half a chapter edited--we finally got in. The doctor performed several checks then stated her diagnosis: My daughter had swimmers ear. Ouch! The doctor went on to prescribe drops for her ears and antibiotic pills. We thanked the doctor, followed her directions, and now my daughter feels much better.

So, what does this have to do with writing advice? Let me tell you another story; this one more obviously related.

Back when I started writing I decided to take my story to a workshop. I've always had a bit of a thick skin, so I volunteered my writing as an example. My pages were read, then each of the instructors gave me feedback in front of the whole group--about 45 people. You can guess what happened? My writing had many holes in it, but there was one big glaring problem that each and every instructor talked about: the mother character didn't work for them because she needed to care more about her children. A few of the instructors explained many things I could do to have the mother show and feel concern.

It was great advice, and it was wrong.

Let me break it down. Each of the instructors saw a flaw in the story. (so far so good) They shared their diagnosis with me--the mother character wasn't believable because she should be more concerned about her children. (so far so good) Then they prescribed several ways I could fix the character. (Nooooo!)

And that brings me to the topic of this post: Prescriptive Advice.

When someone else notices problems in your writing that's great, but as soon as they begin to tell you how to fix it, you need to be careful. Often, people will even skip the diagnosis and jump straight to the prescription: "The MC should think of her father here, it will add tension.", "Drop Greg from this scene.", or "The conversation in the car wasn't working for me, maybe it would be better at the fire station." All of these are prescriptions, they don't tell me what is wrong. Your friends, family, or even other professionals don't know how to fix your story.

These days, any time I hear prescriptive advice I have two strategies:

1) I ask the person why they think the story should change. If they don't know that's fine just let it slide and go on to the next strategy.

2) Think about the advice and try to tease out why. Was there not enough tension? Was the scene too confusing? Was there too much external action detracting from the conversation? After you have the why you can then discover your own how. Maybe you decide to take their advice exactly. Maybe not. Just remember, it's your story.

As for my non-empathetic mother, the solution to that scene was to make her even more harsh. I think I also added an addiction to pain-killers. After all, she was supposed to be an awful, selfish person who has to be shocked to see the real world. Once I wrote my own prescription the scene worked much better.

Question: What's the worst advice you've been given?

* Pills photo taken by Erix! can be found on Flickr.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Non-writing Writing Tip: Vacuum

"If it weren't for my novel, my closets would never get cleaned."

I wish I could remember who tweeted this quote, but it's true. (Note: If you know who said this, tell me and I'll link to them.)

I've been on writers forums and email lists for years and one topic that often comes up is housework. There are the writers who bemoan their cluttered house, and the writers who suddenly feel the urge to clean something instead of editing that scene--you know that scene, the one you should've edited a long time ago?

Here's a quick tip--from a guy who happens to be a bit of a clean freak--to help everyone: Use your vacuum.

Instead of pulling out the broom, pull out the vacuum and use the bare floor setting. It will suck up all the mess and get into the corners and under the fridge.

Instead of pulling out a dustpan, the wand attachment works well inside cabinets, in bathrooms (if the mess is dry), and under furniture.

Lost a small item, put a bit of old panty hose over the end of the wand and snap on the brush attachment. When you're done the item will be stuck in the panty hose. If you have lots of small items put the panty hose on loosely so it forms a longer pocket in the wand.

Need to dust, get some canned air. Place the vacuum wand on one side and use the canned air to spray the dust into it.

Need to clean up crumbs on the counter or table (as long as they're not greasy), attach the brush attachment to the wand and clean up. Then finish off with a couple swipes with an anti-bacterial wipe.


Now, get back to writing.

Question: What household shortcut do you use to find more time to write?

* Fun housework photo taken by "the Italian voice" can can be found on Flickr.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Why I Chose a Pen Name

Pen Name, Pseudonym, Nom de Plume. Whatever you call it, I have one.

There are many reasons to use a pen name, and you can find good information online that explains the pros-and-cons. For this post, I'm going to explain the reasons I decided to use one.

Online marketing is becoming more and more important. The internet is a wonderful way of leveraging a writer's time and money. You can promote your works to hundreds and thousands of people without leaving your home. You can listen to and interact with many great writers, publishers, editors, and agents without getting off the couch. It's awesome. That's why we always hear about building your brand.

That's where I ran into trouble.

I like my "real" name. I have a family name with generations of history behind it. If I could, I would choose to use the name my parents gave me. I debated a long time with myself and others before finally decided to take on a different one.

My last name isn't very common, but the problem comes with my first name. Of all the names in my family, my first name is, by far, the most common. During my research, I learned that my first name has been a family name for many generations and in many different lines. When I went online to search for my name (I know you all do it, and it's a good thing to do), I found over 2 million hits. Even using my middle initial and quotes turned up over half-a-million pages.

Doing a quick Google search turned up a high school, a Canadian politician, a professional hockey player, a lawyer, and a musician. Argh! It got even worse when I searched Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Blogger. In order to come up with anything consistent, I would have to use "MyNameAuthor1". I guess there's another budding author out there with the same problem, because "MyNameAuthor" was taken on one of the networks. Sigh.

I didn't want to compete with all these other people, so I decided to use a different name. It took weeks  of searching to find a name that was available. I tried searching on lists of last names, but in the end my name came from somewhere much closer.

Why I chose John Waverly:
  • It's unique. It's available on all the different platforms I wanted.
  • It resonates with my audience. "John" is very common and "Waverly" appears in many places: towns, streets, TV shows, companies, etc. So, while John Waverly is unique it is also familiar.
  • It's easy to spell. Online searches will find me. I can't tell you how many times I've searched for a common-sounding name only to find out the person uses a strange spelling of the name. That's great once people find you, but it's frustrating the first time (or even the first few times) you search for them.
  • The clincher is that "Waverly" was my grandfather's name. How awesome is that?
I'm happy with my decision, but it has come with a lot of extra work. I'll talk about the challenges in another post. In the end, I feel the challenges will be worth it.

Question: Do you use a pen name? Have you considered it? Do you think I've made a good decision?

* Name tag picture by Alan O'Rourke can be found on Flickr.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Writing Craft vs. Writing Science

If you've spent any time hanging out with writers you've heard about The Rules. Over on Rachelle Gardner's blog she has a good post on Writing Rules written by guest-blogger Rachel Hauck. Unlike many pieces about The Rules, this post doesn't go over the top in either direction and lays out some basic arguments in a clear way.

I liked the post so much, I started writing a comment. Three paragraphs later, I felt my response would be better served as a full blog post.

If you haven't read the post, you should. It's not very long. Go ahead. I'll wait. (And if you don't make it back here, I'll understand. There's some good stuff over there.)

I like the architecture analogy, and I want to take it a step further. For most of history, designing buildings was a craft. Not until recently has it become a science. What's the difference?

In a craft, the knowledge of practitioners is passed down as tenets, maxims, and guidelines: "The ratio of a column to its supported beam must be x." This knowledge is gained by trial and error. This allowed building designers to build strong structures that looked pleasant. The apprentice's buildings looked very similar to the master's, but you didn't have buildings collapsing all over the place.

With the advent of advanced mathematics, physics, material science, and other disciplines, building design moved from a craft to a science. We now know the underlying LAWS that govern the building. We can model new ideas and test them without building the whole thing. We discovered that some of the previous RULES end up being hogwash, some were unnecessarily strict, some were good rules but based on faulty reasoning, but most were good advice and are still followed today.

I propose that fiction writing is a craft. This is why people can ignore the rules and still make it. This is why some advice conflicts with other advice. And since a broken story isn't as dangerous as a broken building, we have many people trying new things and discovering new rules.

I still hold that the rules are important. Not because they are the end-all-be-all of story. But simply because following them will maximize the chance for telling a successful story. After all, they have been handed to us by some of the best masters in the field.

Question: What rules do you think are most important? What rules are hogwash?

* Cathedral picture by Steve Parker can be found on Flickr.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Best Writing Advice

I listen to The Appendix podcast. They host a fun podcast where they interview many different authors and play some hilarious live games. This week they asked the question: What is the best and worst writing advice you've received?

In this post, I'll answer the first half. The best writing advice I've received isn't limited to just a single piece of advice. I know that may be cheating, but I'm sticking with it.

Over the years, I've heard many different writers explain how they write their first drafts. Some outline incessantly, some just start writing; some start with character, others with scene, others with an idea; there's three-act structure, five-act structure, seven-point structure, and the snowflake method. In fact, there seems to be as many different ways of writing the first draft as there are writers.

And this is my advice: Write, write, write and if you run into a roadblock try something else and keep writing. The only way to write a book is to write it. One word at a time. Line after line. Page after page.

Here are a few great quotes I like that relate to this advice.
"The first draft is for what you want to say, the next draft is for how you want to say it."
"Writing is like lumber. In the first draft you cut down as many trees as you can. Then in the next draft you trim them to useful boards."
Each of these quotes helped kick me into gear to finish a draft, and in the end isn't that what drafting is all about.

Question: What is the best writing advice you've been given?

* The wonderful image created by the trial can be found on Flickr.
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* Background image based on Night Sky theme by Ray Creations