Friday, June 29, 2012


It's amazing how a lack of sleep can feel like a hangover.

Last night was One of Those Nights. You know how it is--you go to bed at a reasonable hour, maybe read for a little bit, talk to the spouse, and then you drift and float off to dreamland.

And then you wake up. You don't know why you wake up, but you do. Maybe your spouse moved or there was a noise outside, or the dog jumped off the bed and started digging at the carpet in the corner of the room, but you wake up. And now you're awake.

An hour later you're still awake, but now your brain, which was in shutdown mode, is firing like you've downed a double cappuccino and washed it down with a bottle of Jolt Cola (a college roommate of mine used to drink that stuff. The label proclaimed, "All the sugar, and TWICE the caffeine!"). And then the dog starts in again, because there was a flash of lightning out the window and a rumble of thunder, and the dog has become totally neurotic when it comes to storms.

So now it's three AM and you drag the dog downstairs and surf the net and wash the leftover dishes, and surf around the TV for a while and the next thing you know, it's closing in on 4:30 and you have to get up in an hour-and-a-half. The good thing is by now the storm has blown over and things are calm and the dog has settled down, and you can get a little sleep, at least. But when the alarm wakes up, it's like being hungover without the upset stomach (or the headache, or the shakes, but other than that, it's JUST like having a hangover) and your day feels shot before it's even started.

On the other hand, it's sunny today, and the rain has left things looking and smelling clean, and there's a refreshing, spring-like feel to the day. So, that's good. It will be a good day.


Thanks to Lisa L. Regan for the Inspiring Blog Award, and to Patrick Stahl for The Fabulous Blog Ribbon. I've always been kind of spotty with regards to awards, so I apologize for not passing them on or completing the assorted tasks associated with them. I do appreciate them, though.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Musical Monday: Across The Universe

Attributed to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, I'm pretty sure this one was John all the way. This song is gorgeous in its use of language.
"Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letterbox They tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe"
This is one of my all-time favorites.

Thanks to all for stopping by Matt's blog last week to have at my query. If you haven't done this (i.e., had your query vetted in such a fashion) I recommend it. And thanks to Nancy who kept pushing me to do it! I learned a lot and it's given me a fresh perspective on my query.

Between that and this weekend's graduation events (which was yesterday, at the lovely setting pictured below) I'm pretty wrung out. I'll be back on Friday, see you then!

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Book of the Future

"Can it core a apple?"
"Oh, it can core a apple!"

Those lines come from a classic episode of The Honeymooners titled "Better Living Through TV." In it, Ralph buys time during a movie broadcast and appears as The Chef of the Future, presenting a tool—The Handy Housewife Helper—that will revolutionize the kitchen, a tool that will "do the work of all these old-fashioned gadgets." I thought of this earlier in the week when Nathan Bransford (you do read Nathan, don't you?) speculated on The Book of the Future.

Nathan compared the Book of the Future to the introduction of color to motion pictures in the 1920s and 30s. Once used as a 'special effect', color has become the default for movies and TV. If you're using B&W, you'd better have a damn good reason. Nathan wonders if a similar revolution is occurring with books. The technology exists, he points out, for books to be "colorful, interactive, three-dimensional. Imagine," he goes on, "the ease of a hyperlinked choose your own adventure novel or instructional videos within a cookbook." 

It sounds fun. Marrying technologies to produce a true multi-media experience is not necessarily a bad thing. Imagine having your Chilton manual on a tablet with a 3-D image of your car's engine so you can really see where that cotter pin is, and being able to rotate the image and zoom in on it, for example. Or being able to see on video the moment your egg whites turn to meringue (though my own limited experience with this is you really do need to go by feel, not by look). For fiction, maybe there's some way to have a truly interactive experience with your book wherein you get to guess the identity of the jewel thief or the mysterious lover. There are a lot of possibilities. Sony's Wonderbook seems pretty cool, but right now it still looks like all style and no substance, a lot of flash and sizzle, and little more than a video game masquerading as a book. For this to be truly innovative, it will take thinkers with more imagination than me thinking outside the box. I am not that guy. I worry too much that technology will manifest itself in little more than a cheap grab for cash (see my earlier blog post on this subject).

To me the beauty of books is their very simplicity. They use words—only words--to paint the pictures, set the scene, make us think and feel, to present ideas. That’s it. Words on a page, nothing more. Change what it's printed on, from rag to pulp to a video terminal or touch screen; go from ink to pixels to whatever; cover it with leather or cloth and wrap it in crinkly plastic slipcovers: In the end it's still words on a page, words with power. It doesn't need anything else. It's my hope that, for The Book of the Future, technology never trumps story, that pictures and video inserts or sound never get in the way of the beauty of words. Long live books. Even if they can't core a apple. Have a great weekend, everyone.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

This Just In

I have been informed by Matt at The Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment that my query for Parallel Lives is up for review. So light your torches, sharpen up your pitchforks, and get your red and blue pencils ready. Read it today, tear it up tomorrow. That will give me all weekend to lick my wounds and recover. Except that the Magpie graduates high school this weekend, so I'll be even more of an emotional wreck. Thanks in advance, I'll be back tomorrow with my regularly-scheduled bit of nonsense!

Monday, June 18, 2012

The WiP Whip

I need a WiP Whip. 

Hard to believe that a month ago I was complaining about being stuck in the middle of my WiP. I had a beginning. I had a middle. In fact, at 75K words in, I was past the middle. I should have been wrapping it up, bringing things to a thrilling close. But I was stuck.

Barton's Women has gotten out of control. In a coda to my Random Act of Kindness post, I relayed how an e-mail exchange with Donna K. Weaver helped get me out of the middle. I cranked out the verbiage and wrote the ending of the story.

And now it's totally out of control. In the month since I wrote that first post about being stuck, Barton's Women has grown. It has currently reached--I kid you not--116,000 words. That's way too long.

What happens is after I get the bones of the story down I go into backfill mode. I still see scenes in my head, hear bits of dialogue, create new subplots. It's a fun part of writing for me, because the pressure is off. When I'm doing the real first draft of the story I have no idea where or how it's going to end, so there's always a certain degree of pressure I feel to get to that point. To have a point. Once I hit the end, that pressure is relieved to a huge degree. The story has a beginning and an end and most of a middle; these bits just help make it...more. These scenes provide depth to characters, tension, and help to drive the story toward the conclusion I've already written (and sometimes they help change what comes later, too). But 116,000 words?

The good news is that the 'backfill' scenes for Barton's Women have finally started to dry up. I don't have things in my head related to it that are begging to get out on paper, no fresh ideas or sense of 'this MUST happen.' No, now it's time to read the damn thing--all 116,000 words of it--and start cutting.

Thinking of the way this story has ballooned makes me think of Hercules fighting the Hydra. For each head Herc cut off, two grew in its place. So cutting is a scary proposition, because we all know how the editing process can go. Maybe I need something like this instead of a pair of scissors or a sword.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Information Overload

"Too much of everything is just enough" -- I Need A Miracle, John Perry Barlow/Bob Weir

At some point in the latter stages of the last century--and trust me, though we are now a decade into the twenty-first century, I still think of 'the last century' as meaning the 1800's--we entered THE INFORMATION AGE. It is largely great. When I hit the 'publish' button at the top of this page, my thoughts and ramblings will be available to anyone with access to a computer and the internet. If I want to find out more about haberdashers in Victorian England, I can do it without having to leave the comforts of home, without getting buried by a pile of books in my local library, or without having to wait weeks for my library to get those books on inter-library loan. I can get real-time information on stocks, watch a solar eclipse as it happens--in Australia! Check my credit score. I can access nearly any newspaper, check out the traffic at Exit 45 on the Long Island Expressway, or see just what business is  on the corner of Chestnut and Main in Sheboygan.

For writers in my particular stage of development, the Information Age is awesome not just because of what it brings to our work, but because of the speed it allows us to query at, and the window it gives us into the process. But sometimes I have to wonder: Is it too much?

The web giveth, and the web giveth some more. In the case of querying agents, the web giveth uth specific information on each agent. "Send a query and five pages," says Agent X on her agency website. "Submit your query by e-mail along with a synopsis and three chapters embedded in the e-mail," says another. "Attachments are fine," says a third. Great information to have, easily found, and we tailor our queries to give each agent what she wants.

But the web giveth more. The web giveth uth (right, I'll stop that now) pages upon pages on how to write a good query. And the web giveth us sites like Query Shark and The Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment (where yours truly is likely to end up some time soon) and Absolute Write's Query Letter Hell, where your query can be deconstructed like it's Dickens in a literature class, ripped apart for you to rebuild into the Six Million Dollar Query, able to stop any agent or editor in their tracks. The web gives us contests to post our queries and first two-fifty, all in the name of helping us get better, helping us get published. And you have myriad sites where you can discuss the craft ad infinitum, where you can ask if prologues are bad and how long your chapters should be, and whether you should use 'that' or 'which'. And while I've wondered before if all this information makes us lazy, the fact is, it's a great thing. But again, is it too much?

Earlier in the week I found myself poking around on Query Tracker, looking at the comments posted about Agents I've Queried and Agents I Plan on Querying. Generally, querying is a 'Fire and Forget' exercise. There are some who are insanely fast (two minutes! My personal record for a rejection was five hours), but by and large, the best thing you can do is send the query, move on to the next one, and when you're done with this batch, get back to writing something new. I've gotten mostly good at doing this, but I've also found myself checking agent blogs and Twitter feeds, trying to see where they are ('status: read all queries through 4/15; if you sent before that and haven't heard anything, resend'), trying to figure out where my little old query is in the process. No doubt, you've seen these kinds of things on boards that deal with this sort of thing: "Oh, no! This person submitted after me and got a request for partial! What does that mean?" Or "SuperAgent's response time to fulls is X weeks and I'm at X weeks + 1 day--should I nudge?"

By and large, the thing to do is chill out. Write the letter, send the letter, log it in your little spreadsheet or notebook or whatever. Fire and forget.

Yeah, right.

Have a great weekend, all!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Severus Snape, On Writing

Little-known fact: In addition to his long, illustrious career as Potions Master, his brief, but notable tenure as Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor, and his regrettable term as Headmaster, Severus Snape also taught Creative Quilling 101, a course for literary-minded witches and wizards at Hogwarts. Here he is, answering Harry Potter's question, How do you know when your story is done?

I think that about sums it up, don't you?

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Wing Man

First, before anything else, I must acknowledge the passing of arguably 'the greatest sci-fi writer in history' (though he would no doubt argue with the designation 'sci-fi writer'), Ray Bradbury earlier this week. He was apparently writing pretty much to the end. You will be missed.

Next, this post is not about a guy running interference for his bud who is attempting to score, as in this rather obnoxious Coors Light commercial from several years back. This is about the mysterious act of 'Winging It', writing by discovery, or, as so many insist on calling it, 'Pantsing.'

Since my dislike of the term 'pantsing' is so deep, and 'discovery writer' is rather cumbersome, we'll just stick with Wingman.

How does writing work when you're a Wingman? I suspect it's like so many other things for writers: It all depends on who you are and how you work. There are probably as many different ways to wing it as there are to outline, which seems strange, doesn't it? You would think as a Wingman I'm essentially just sitting down and writing whatever comes into my head. And while that happens to some extent, for me at least there's a lot more planning than you would think. The thing of it is, almost all of the planning goes on in my head. I'll use as an example of how this works my current WiP, which does have a working title, and has for several weeks now, a title that I hate, a title that will surely (hopefully) be changed, either by me or by some as-yet-to-be-determined publisher: Barton's Women (no, it's not about a harem or a brothel, and bears no relation to the old Star Trek episode, Mudd's Women. It's just the title that keeps popping up in my mind.).

Anyway, I believe the idea for this story first popped into my brain when the blackout associated with Hurricane Irene threatened to leave the Magpie stranded at her friend's house (our own house was still at maximum capacity, however, as the Catbird had a friend who had spent the night with us). The idea percolated in the Back Room of my mind for some time, while I was busy reworking Parallel Lives and getting it ready for query. When that was done, I actually turned to something else at first, 2010's NaNoWriMo, which I decided to polish and see if it had anything. I still think it does, and made some good progress around it at Christmas time, but when the Magpie went back for an overnight at her friend's house, it popped up again, and that weekend, a prompt in my Writer's Group about a man in a garden spurred a short bit about a man and two teenage girls (one his daughter, one her friend) working to turn a swath of lawn into a vegetable garden. It wasn't planned. It was the melding that occurs between Back Room (blackout) and front room (the story of a man in a garden). And I liked it.

So, what comes next? Well, for this Wingman, a lot of thinking. The scene I had written was not the opening of this new book, but I knew it was early. What it gave me was a fixed point to work from, and a lot of questions: who are these people? Why are they doing this? Why is it so important (because there was a definite sense of urgency in the piece I wrote)? Answering those questions, in my head, led me to writing both forward and backward in the story.

When I'm into a story, it's on my mind almost constantly. I think about it all the time. Doing the dishes? Thinking about the story. Driving to town? Thinking about the story. Running circles around the lawn on my riding mower? Story. But what's happening during that thinking? It's not so much an outlining. I don't think, "Well, A just happened, so therefore I'll have to write a scene where B happens." Not usually, anyway. What happens instead is I see the characters doing this, hear their conversations, sort of like watching a movie. I actually at times sort of dictate in my head. I'll hear bits like, "Kevin's back ached when he bent to retrieve the shovel". Yes, seriously. I'll hear lengthy bits of narrative while I'm doing other things, and then when it's writing time I'll sit and try to retrieve it. In essence, I'm transcribing the narrative in my head, and changing it as I go along.

Now, there is also a lot of logical thought that goes into this. I'll look at the story as it's developing, and I'll know I need something more here or there. I'll know there's something lacking in the tension department, or that I need a bigger push to get a character to do something. And sometimes I'll even outline where I've been and try to use it as a way to help me get to where I want (or need) to be for the story to really work, but mostly I work off the running narrative in my head, and that can take me in unexpected places, because things have a way of either changing between the time I first thought of it and when I'm committing it to paper, or because I sometimes run out of 'pre-thought narrative.' And then anything can happen.

For me, this is just the way I write. What about you? If you are a Wingman (Wingwoman? Wingperson?), how much pre-thinking do you do? If you outline, how much of your actual writing is wung (That is so completely not a word, but it has to work. 'Winged' just doesn't sound right, and we'll skip over 'wang' entirely)? I'm always interested in hearing how others approach writing.

Thanks for stopping and sharing, have a nice weekend.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Quote

At the end of last week we watched V for Vendetta, a 2005 film based on a graphic novel. It was a fine film, a great blend of action, ideas, and a bit of romance. A number of things said in the film stood out, but perhaps none (for me) more than this from early in the film:
"Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth."
Powerful stuff, that, and there's nothing I can add to it.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Ick Factor

One of the more interesting and simultaneously repulsive animals I have ever encountered is the Mudpuppy, (Necturus maculosis, for you science geeks out there). The Mudpuppy, known in some places as the Waterdog, is a large, wholly aquatic salamander. How large? The can grow to about 16 inches long, which is about the length of the one we had.

It's bigger than it looks!
It's a shy creature, spending its days hiding in crevices, beneath logs, under rocks. It forages by night for small aquatic vertebrates and invertebrates, and pretty much gulps them down in its extremely large mouth. The most distinguishing characteristic of the creature is the ruff of feathery gills around its neck. Amphibians in general lose their gills when they reach maturity; the mudpuppy is one of the exceptions.

We had a mudpuppy, purchased from a biological supply company, that we used to take our to schools to educate children about wildlife and the environment. On the morning of the program I'd track it down in its tank and corner it. On a good day I could get it in a net. On a bad day, I had to use my hands.

Like most amphibians, the mudpuppy's skin is coated with a layer of slime that lubricates and protects the mupuppy from injury. It also makes the creature extremely difficult to hold. The body of the mudpuppy, quite frankly, is icky. Picking it up, it's got a soft, squishy quality, like picking up a rotting cucumber. Blech.

Actually holding onto the animal was even tougher than picking it up in the first place. First, there's the body shape, which is long and slim. Its legs are stubby. When the animal pulls its legs tight to its body it becomes eel-like. And then there's that slippery skin and slimy coating. But the real tough part is the body, as soft and squishy as it feels, is really all muscle. That's the thing about animals, by the way: there's no wasted muscle on them. They are strong (ever have a little canary or parakeet sit on your finger? What a grip they have). When the mudpuppy pulses its muscles in a wriggling attempt to get out, it's hard to hold. The only time I ever picked this creature up was to move it from its tank to its travel bucket. And I never handled it in a classroom – it would surely have slipped my grasp and slithered around the classroom floor, and probably ended up injured or dead as a result.

Writing can belike trying to handle the mudpuppy. There are times when the writing state is slippery and easily slips through your fingers, when you just feel like you can't hold onto it. In those times, for me, I usually have to just power through, have to find some way to maintain my grip on that squirming, slick creature that does not want to be held. Lately on my WiP, the problem has not been with holding onto the slippery writing state, or catching it in the first place. I've been having trouble with the Ick Factor. My WiP has taken a turn for the icky, leaving me wanting to scrub my hands on my pants to wipe off the slime, and I can't help wonder how it will be received when it's ready to share.  

Discomfort is not a bad thing. I've watched movies and read books that have left me uncomfortable, shifting in my seat and grimacing like I've got a bad case of indigestion. And I've also walked out of those movies or closed the book at the end, and thought, "That was great." Not in a feel-good sort of way, but in a way that made me think, even as part of me wanted to get rid of that slimy, mudpuppy feeling. It's never a bad idea to make people think. The question is, what will they think? I guess that will be answered someday when this is ready to be seen by others.

Have you ever written anything that's made you uncomfortable, or made your readers squirm? I'd love to hear about it. Have a nice weekend, all.