Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Taking a... vacation?

Is that what it's called? I haven't taken much time off, in the last three years. Long story.

I finished a second draft of Disciple, Part V, and a first draft of Disciple, Part VI. So Disciple is done. It's currently clocking in at a total of 370k -- but I'm an under-writer, so that may grow a bit more by the final draft.

Up next:

Pimping for Part II. The Kickstarter campaign will be your chance to pre-order Part II and also get in on the Prologue offer... I wrote one, you see, back when I was getting settled into the Saints of War universe (that's what I call this fantasy world.) It was set before my main characters met each other, and it was a chance to feel out the magic system, their personalities, things like that. Much of the magic is inaccurate, now, but there are some important personal moments in there.

I offered the Prologue as a bonus gift, when I ran the Kickstarter campaign for Part I. Since I did get some pledges at that level, I'm committed to rewriting the Prologue and publishing it for only the Kickstarter pledgers by November 2013.

If you're interested, you can get in on that starting January 1st, over at Kickstarter.com.

I will be back after Christmas. Wishing everyone a peaceful, happy holiday season...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Unicorn Bell week: long crits

I will be critting in the long form (1 - 1.5k) over at Unicorn Bell this week. There will be a Tuesday post but then I will be on vay-cat-shun... no, wait, on holly-day... whatever those things are where you don't do anything for a while.

Index for future reference:
Intro
First Crit: logic questions
Second Crit: clarity!
Third Crit: dialogue and slow starts
Fourth Crit: voice and flashbacks
Fifth Crit: small details, subtle things

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Subtle Things #4: Thank you, Captain Obvious

(That's the snark I hear when I hit the publish button on my blog.)

I like subtle. I like writers who can lay out all the subtle clues on the table and then string them together into an interesting plot climax. Stories that rely on witholding some vital clue until the last moment don't have the same punch. I saw a good example of this, recently, in the movie Wreck-it Ralph -- who expects subtlety from Disney, right? Non-Pixar Disney, that is. Maybe because I didn't go in expecting it, it was a pleasant surprise.

Drama? Where?
What constitutes subtle, though? There's a continuum from the most blindingly obvious things like:

“Your foolishness will make you weak, and then there will be a winnowing.”

down to things that are only meaningful in hindsight, if at all:

I reached for him again, meaning to check his kir, but Kiefan handed me the book instead. “I am well enough, for now.”

Do you throw out plot clues subtly? Or should a character point a finger and announce: "He's trying to distract her with a book! That means he's fibbing!" It's a question of genre style and personal style.

What draws the reader's attention to things and makes them obvious? In an early draft of Disciple, Part I, one of my betas pointed out to me that something needed more emphasis. Here is the original text:
“’Twas your father who opposed?” Lady Lorcana weighed that. “But did not prevent, else you would not be here.” 
“The piglet died,” I said, and then had to go on to explain. “Father brought me home from the Order after my two years of learning, even though Master Parselev wanted me for his apprentice...
What deserved emphasis was the piglet's death -- the title of Part I is "For Want of a Piglet" -- and here it's kinda buried in the dialogue. So I revised the dialogue to single it out:
“’Twas your father who opposed?” M’lady Lorcana weighed that. “But did not prevent, else you would not be here.”  
“The piglet died,” I said.  
“A piglet?” Leix chuckled when she said it. “How did a piglet sway your father?” 
“Father brought me home from the Order ... 
The emphasis is provided by repeating "piglet" and asking a question that the reader might reasonably be thinking at that moment.

Some things that I've noticed writers can use to draw the reader's attention to things without blatantly pointing and announcing "This is important!":
  • Repetition, but don't do it too much.
  • Using formal, foreboding, "prophetic" language, as in my example about winnowing. This is on the less subtle side, and the more formal and stuffy the language, the less subtle it is. But this sort of thing can fit in well with the style/voice/genre of the story, or the character, so... use with care.
  • Lavish description above and beyond other story elements. Be careful not to break voice or bog down the action, though. 
  • Physically setting it apart, if it's an object or a person, so that there's nothing else to focus on. If this is an action or an event, then it's a relatively uncluttered one -- no interruptions, no ancillary plotlines involved. 
  • Drawing the character's attention to it, through movement or some important detail. This is different from the narrative drawing attention to things -- if your (convincingly real, sympathetic) character pays attention about something, hopefully the reader will too.  
What techniques do you use? What would you add to my list?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Cheers, Cavanaugh & Storybundle.com

I rarely know about blogfests until they happen. This is because I'm a space cadet who doesn't read the right blogs. But yesterday I got a laugh reading a bunch of posts for the Cheers, Cavanaugh Blogfest.


And I just wanted to add a respectful, completely non-silly namaste of my own. Because I don't do silly here, as you know. Writing is SRS BZNS. VRY SRS. So a serious thank you, Alex, for all that you do.

Disciple is in a StoryBundle!
I'm still amazed that I'm announcing this. StoryBundle.com is an interesting new ebook sales site -- they offer bundles of novels and the buyer picks the price for the bundle.

Yes, the buyer decides what to pay. The buyer can decide whether a portion of the proceeds goes to charity. There's an option to send the bundle as a gift. Storybundle also offers incentive books if the buyer pays a certain price for the bundle. So this is a win-win situation: a pile of books at a good price for readers, and great promotion with earnings potential for writers.

Disciple, Part I is one of eight books offered in the December bundle. I'm thrilled!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Book trailer: Disciple, Part II

Yup, I'm doing it again. I've tried to apply the lessons learned from the trailer for Part I:
  • Keep it short
  • Minimalism is fine
  • Sound effects aren't needed
  • KEEP IT SHORT 
  • Videos need critting too
So, all thoughts on this are welcome. Especially if you have not read Part I yet.



Saturday, drop on by Disciple of the Fount for the official cover reveal for Part II! Plus, I have some exciting news about Part I...

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Subtle Things #3: Department of Redundancy Department

When is something redundant, and when is something repeated for emphasis?

Repeating things to remind the readers of facts is a different issue -- I just spun that off into a separate post. This is an extension of Subtle Things #2, using adverbs, because many adverbs are in fact redundant once you use a more specific verb.

In general, you don't want to over-use words too much. We've all had situations where a semi-common word just happens to crop up three times in two sentences, and it jars the eye. It starts to draw attention to itself.* The danger then is in hitting the thesaurus too hard in the search for synonyms to keep from repeating yourself too much. That's its own problem: using the wrong word because you were so paranoid of using the right word again.

How much is too much? When does the thesaurus steer you wrong? These are judgement calls. Subtle things.

Redundancy also strikes in giving the reader information inefficiently. It happens a lot with actions involving directions -- see #1 and #2 below. These are attempts to be clear about the action, and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. But. IMO, it becomes a trust issue at a certain point. I'll explain more when I talk about the examples individually.

There's nothing grammatically wrong with the following sentences (all from Disciple.)
  1. Frida reached up to take [the baby] down and kiss his cheek.
  2. He slung [the severed head] and the envoy caught it in his belly, falling back onto his ass from the impact.
  3. His sword fell from his skeletal hand and he screamed, his companions screamed, and none of them saw Sir Rostislav coming.
  4. Anders touched the knot of kir it offered and knit it into shape, twisted it and pushed it into the sphere’s surface.
Well, okay, you can argue about my grammar but this post's about redundancy and repetition.
  1. Why is this a "trust issue?" It's not obvious, out of context like this: the baby is being carried by a rider, and Frida is standing on the ground beside the horse. If she's going to reach for the baby, of course she's reaching up. If she's going to take the baby from the rider and kiss him, of course there will be downward movement involved. Therefore, up and down are redundant, and I'm trusting the reader to know that. Because my readers are smart, observant people. If this were, say, the first sentence of the scene and there was no context, I would leave it as it is.
  2. Back, here is redundant for obvious reasons. If you're catching a high-velocity thing in the gut, it's going to be awful hard to fall any way but back. Don't insult your readers' intelligence. They are smart, observant people. 
  3. Repetition for emphasis. Something horrible just happened, and I want the reactions to hit the reader for extra oomph. Plus, in my head the close repetition echoes that microsecond it takes to realize what just happened and react: the guy it happened to first, then those close by him. I'm thinking I'm going to also use this sentence in a post about long vs. short sentences. One sentence, or three? 
  4. It is a very common word and it can put up with a lot of repetition. But this is a bit much, for my tastes. The third it is redundant. The first one refers to something in the previous sentence. This could stand some re-wording for clarity; I'll have to consider the whole passage for that. 
*There was an episode of Star Trek: TNG which drove me up the wall with this. It was a holodeck episode, casting Data as Sherlock Holmes, and the word footfalls was massively over-used. It got painful to watch, halfway through. Uncommon words need to be used sparingly so they keep their effectiveness.

How much is too much, for you?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Subtle things #2: Using adverbs correctly

Correctly? Never use adverbs!

In general, yes. Saying "never!" is certainly simpler than trying to explain all the situations where they could be used correctly, if the conditions are right. Plus, English is a great language with tons of specific words and it will let you make stuff up on the fly -- you can cut down on your adverbs just by taking advantage of that. So do that.

But. Adverbs can be used to convey information that doesn't easily go anyplace else. It's a judgement call on the writer's part, so it's difficult to argue about without being either very situation-specific or very macro-level non-specific (as in, "never!"). I'm going to be very situation-specific, to try to illustrate a pattern.

Some of my transgressions in the raw draft of Disciple, Part VI, with adverbs highlighted:
  1. His one short, melancholy letter was tucked safely away at home.
  2. The pavilion cleared quickly; even the steward and the pages left, once they’d cleared the trenchers.
  3. At bow range, Arcea would surely return fire, and my widest shield… “I won’t be able to protect them all,” I had to admit.
  4. The armsman in front skidded in surprise and nearly fell.
  5. I could feel his pulse, faintly.
(Searching for "ly" in my manuscript points out two words I'm guilty of over-using: only, and nearly. That's a whole 'nother post, on quirky habits, though.)
  1. This adverb is 95% redundant. Things that are tucked away can be reasonably assumed to be safe, IMO. Delete.
  2. This one, I would keep. Pavilions can clear slowly, so quickly is carrying important information. Clear is not a terribly specific verb, but I'm summarizing a nonspecific group of actions. What might be more specific? Emptied, but it's also not very specific. Evacuated and deserted have the wrong connotations, and indicate that the pavilion did the action. I could go into more detail about people lingering to chat, or who left right away, but I need to get to the important stuff. Short sentence, adverb, extra detail to specify how empty the pavilion is, keep moving. 
  3. Surely here is... 75% redundant, because the enemy will return fire. There's no question of it. This one is a voice issue, my gut says. I'll probably delete it, but it bears some thought. 
  4. Why not almost fell? Voice. But does this adverb convey important information? Skidded indicates loss of control. It's close to falling already. I could be more specific, here -- did the armsman fall to one knee? Manage to keep his balance? Run into a wall and catch himself on that? I'll have to look at the surrounding sentences to make a final call on this. 
  5. Faintly does bring important information about the patient's health, but what I have to reconsider here is whether the feeling is what's faint or the pulse. And, actually, it's the pulse that's faint. This should be an adjective, not an adverb: I could feel his faint pulse.
So out of five adverbs, I would keep one. Maybe two.

Given those five adverbs, you would probably do something different. That's the nature of these "subtle things" I've been ruminating on. (See Subtle Things #1, explanation's at the bottom.)

And looking at it now, I have to invoke another Subtle Thing: "Arcea would surely return fire." No, they won't, because they're using bows. Fire came mean shoot only after guns were invented and fire got involved in the process (cannons, matchlocks, flintlocks, etc.) Ha! I've been fighting to keep the language period-accurate, but one snuck through. That's a whole 'nother post to do... 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Meme: a story I haven't written

Picking this up from a favorite author of mine: Martha Wells. This meme requires audience participation, though, so let's see what happens...

Tell me about a story I haven’t written, and I’ll give you one sentence from that story.

You post the gist of the story in comments, and I'm supposed to come up with something snappy. Looking at other memers (kateelliot, kristine_smith) they sound like catchy first lines. I bet it would be fun if other readers posted their own first lines, too.

Challenging? Fun? I finished Disciple last night, and my head is strangely empty. Random thoughts are banging around loose in there. Anybody want to get some creative exercise with me?


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Subtle Things #1: Character innocence

I was watching The Cabin in the Woods -- I'm not much of a horror fan, but I am a Joss Whedon fan, so it had to be done. Joss's commentaries are always thought-provoking, too, which was part of why I wanted to see it. And one particular scene jumped out at me because 1. it's a reliable hallmark of good writing, 2. it's something I'm wrestling with in writing Disciple, Part VI and, 3. it's a subtle thing and I've been compiling a list of those lately.

The scene was an excellent example of character innocence.

1.
We're all going to die, aren't we...
What do I mean by "character innocence"? (It's just the term I came up with.) Joss's characters don't act according to knowledge they don't have. They're completely innocent of "authorial knowledge" -- those things the author knows about the story, which can leak into the characters' behavior in subtle ways. The scene that so nicely illustrates this is when one of the characters in Cabin is going to try to go for help. He takes a moment to say good-bye and sketch out some plans in case various, quite reasonable, things go wrong. None of which are what actually goes wrong, of course -- and that's the entire point.

The character doesn't know he's in a horror movie. As far as he knows, he's out in a cabin with his friends -- who he treats as friends, because he doesn't know they're going to die -- and weird, bad things are happening. He acts like the reasonable, stand-up guy that he is, in response to that.

The observant viewer of the movie knew what was going to happen. It creates either dread, for the observant, or a gut-punch for those who forgot about the set-up and got this nasty reminder.

"Well, of course the character wouldn't know he's about to die." Yes. But keeping characters in the dark can be easier said than done.

2.
Disciple is told from a first-person perspective. Mostly. Because of that "mostly," the readers know some things, going into Part VI, that my narrator does not. My narrator is trying to deduce what those things are, and it's difficult to write because I hate for her to be wrong -- and because I know the truth in great detail. I wrote it. It happened.

Why can't she just come to the right conclusions? Because -- like what happened to the guy in Cabin -- the truth is something she has no reason to expect. Letting her make that kind of intuitive leap, without sufficient clues, would ring false. It would take away her "innocence."

3.
Authorial knowledge creeps in very subtly. It can be very difficult to put your finger on. In a lot of situations -- genre movies in particular -- the audience is more than complicit. They expect it, to a degree. And yet the story is always better when the characters are completely innocent.

A lesser writer, to go back to Cabin, would've had the guy just announce "I'll go get help!" and head off to his doom. Because it doesn't matter what he says or thinks -- he's going to die. This is a horror movie and characters are expected to die. The fact that a character didn't say or think, in such a situation, is a form of admission that he knows it doesn't matter what he says or thinks.

But in Cabin, the characters gathered round for a moment to give meaning to this one character's departure. It validated that this was real and serious, to them, which is what real people would do.

No real person wants to be the redshirt. So no "real" character should act like one.

Subtle things
I've been collecting a list of "subtle things" as I've been thinking about that vast, foggy land between "serviceable writing" and "excellent writing." We've all heard the standard writing advice maxims: Show, don't tell. Characters need to be sympathetic. The story needs to progress toward a goal. Don't forget to add a backdrop for the action. Etc.

All of those are guaranteed to improve one's writing. But they won't win you a Hugo. At a certain level of writing skill, personal tastes, audience expectations and artistry come into play -- and it's no longer a matter of whether you did something right, it's whether you sold it to the reader. The elements of good writing that can be pinned down become -- subtle. Small. Argue-able. A sentence here, a few words there. Which, if taken out of context, may not look particularly good in and of themselves.

So you will see these posts pop up, as they come to me and as I find examples. What are some subtle hallmarks of good writing that you've noticed? I've got seven more on my list...

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving thanks, 2012 edition

It's Thanksgiving Day, here in the US, and I am thankful for the amazing, empowering year it has been.

I'm thankful for my Kickstarter supporters and the opportunity to self-publish. I'm thankful for all the reviews I've gotten and overwhelmed by how positive they have been. I'm thankful that the first draft of Disciple, Part VI is so close to being finished -- only a few more days of writing left. Including today, since obsession doesn't take holidays.

I hope everyone is enjoying a peaceful day, good food and good company.

Today Disciple is featured over at Cup of Porn! I wrote a character interview -- it is safe for all audiences, but if you go clicking around over there, make sure there are no stray eyeballs looking over your shoulder. I threw this interview past my betas and they told me it was amusing, so if you'd like to hear a bit of Prince Kiefan's side of the story, check it out.

And speaking of Kiefan...
I've been working on materials for my second Kickstarter campaign, which is coming in January and wherein you will be able to pre-order Disciple, Part II. Below is the first draft of the banner for the project page, which will be the basis for the blog tour button and more.

It's also a sneak peek of the cover for Part II. There's more to the cover, but this's the important part. The pretty boy. Feedback is welcome!


So, on my to-do list for the next year:
  • run the Kickstarter campaign in January, pre-selling Part II to pay for its production,
  • blog tour in January to promote that,
  • publish Part II by April 1st, 
  • publish Part III sometime late in the summer, 
  • I'd like to try my hand at convention panels, 
  • and oh, maybe write something different. I've got all that hard science fiction lying around, still.
Yes, I'm a little odd. I make resolutions in May and write yearly to-do lists in November. What's on your to-do list for next year?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Controlling the plot bunny population

Spay and neuter your plot bunnies!

Good luck with that. Now that I'm reaching the end of Disciple, I've been suffering an explosion of plot bunnies. In case you didn't know, "plot bunnies" are story ideas that pop out spontaneously -- usually branching off an existing story. Good stories tend to inspire a lot of plot bunnies. Plot bunnies interbreed freely and can lead to some wild stuff, especially on the porny side of things.

I picked up the term from the fanfic community. I wasn't a writer of it, but I did read a fair amount.

Since Disciple's my own story, these aren't fanfic ideas so much as potential future stories -- but not all of them are going to work, necessarily. Some are quite vague. Some would set precedents that I don't necessarily want in this universe. Some are openly non-canon and I'm not going to go there at all. Some are more or less porn, and... well, okay, I've written some of those already but nobody needs to know about that.

Plot bunnies are a good thing, in the long run. The headline is a joke -- don't try to control their population. Let 'em breed. I write them down once they're at least a sentence long. I check on them every so often. They mutate when you're not looking. Cannibalize each other. I've been working on Disciple for a long time, and facing its completion... and knowing I'll soon be tending my plot bunnies... it's bittersweet. A bit disconcerting. But I thought I had it under control.

And then I was assaulted by a completely unrelated tribe of plot bunnies. After starting to write this post, I watched this episode of NOVA (there's a link to the video there) and had to beat the plot bunnies off with a stick. The strongest absorbed the others, got his teeth into me, and I had to add him to the Brainstorm Zone -- which is a whole Scrivener file I created for ideas.

It brought to mind a recurring writer-interview question, since I've had to write a lot of those recently: where do you get your ideas? Good Lord, where don't you get ideas? And I've never quite understood why people are so protective of ideas. They're a dime a dozen. It's execution of the idea that takes work, talent, and ought to be protected. And charged for access to.

So watch the episode. Your plot bunnies will be different from my plot bunnies. Your final story, if you write one, will be different from mine, if I write it. No worries.

How do you manage your plot bunnies?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Raising expectations vs. becoming ridiculous

Continued from this post. So I need to write a series of kick-ass magical duels for Disciple, Part VI.

I'd like to do something more nuanced than: Blast! BLAST! BIGGER BLAST! DESTROY EVERYTHING ... it's not easy. Defining a character's ability to kick ass always runs the danger of not impressing anybody. Therefore, the temptation is to go straight over the top -- but that will create its own challenges the next time you need a magical duel. How is this one more dangerous/exciting than the last one? Constant one-upmanship is its own problem.

Sure, Kenshin, you can do that with just a sword...
Which you will see if you watch enough anime. Case in point: the Ruruoni Kenshin TV series (which involved no magic.) After a ridiculously long and ever-one-upping series of katana duels with the enemy's pack of cronies, Kenshin was having to conjure miniature black holes through force of will and swordsmanship in order to create any sort of wow factor. It was falling pretty flat at that point, though.

Conventional wisdom is that tension must always increase as we approach the climax, and that subsequent stories (or scenes) must have higher stakes than the previous. We've all seen this happen: first the characters have to defeat a particular bad guy, then an organization of them, then an evil deity, then we have to save the entire universe and then... You've got to take a step back, at some point -- or pass the story to new characters.

But let's get back to kicking ass; so you want that emotional satisfaction of the good guys winning. You want all of your characters' hard work and sacrifice to pay of in a suitably -- within the parameters set by your world-building -- spectacular way. And maybe you need more than one of these scenes.

Raising the stakes works, up to a point. Survival is always a good goal. Saving loved ones. Working with handicaps. I need to keep realism in sight, though. I brought this up a while back -- don't stack the deck against your characters so badly that their success becomes implausible. Relying on luck or reinforcements arriving in the nick of time isn't as satisfying for the reader as a character overcoming personal fears, limitations, what-have-you, to succeed.

And yes, I'm having to fight the urge to make these a cakewalk for my characters. Maybe it seems like I'm tough on them, but I've got my squishy side too. So I'm thinking of these duels as graphs charting increasing power, increasing complications, and increasing risk. That's three dimensions, already.

I tend to think of stories as being a walk through a three-dimensional web, anyway, so that fits right in.

What examples of stories losing touch with realistic conflicts come to your mind?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The importance of kicking ass

Back in high school when I was writing piles (and piles) of crap, I gave them all to a dear friend to read and he critiqued them (though I didn't know about critting at the time -- we're talking late 80's here). We also read a lot of books and analyzed them at great length together. Through both of these things, my friend taught me two important things (though I didn't know that at the time either):
  1. The fickleness of reader sympathy, and
  2. The importance of letting kick-ass characters kick ass. On stage. In full view. 
I am currently up against this in Disciple, Part VI. I need to write not just a kick-ass magical duel, but more than one of them. There was some magical dueling back in Part III and a little in Part IV, but now it's time for the gloves to come off. Time to kick ass.

I've been looking for reference visuals, and I've been struck by how rarely you get an onscreen, kick-ass magical duel. There are, of course:
  1. Harry Potter vs. Voldemort et al. (which had its good moments, but overall... eh.)
  2. Gandalf vs. Saruman (excellent duel)
  3. Gandalf vs. the Balrog (powerful, though it was shorter than you think)
  4. and the magical duel in Willow (was interspersed with other things going on)
Psychic dueling, a still from Akira
but I've been looking for new visuals and longer scenes would be better. This tends to steer me toward anime. Anime can do a lot of ass-kicking, when it puts its mind to it, though you may have to sift out the martial arts aspects. I find my mind wandering back to one anime in particular that I watched with my high-school friend: Akira. Which isn't fantasy, but if you've seen it you know why I'm thinking of it. Onscreen, kick-ass duel.

The literary example that my dear friend always held up as the yardstick was the magical smack-down at the end of the first Thomas Covenant series -- which I read about a thousand years ago and have only dim memories of. But it was kick-ass. I think.

Stay tuned, I've got more thoughts on this. One-upmanship is a problem in these sorts of situations. If you've got a favorite kick-ass magical duel, recommend it!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Unicorn Bell week: characters

It's my turn to blog over at Unicorn Bell, so things will be quiet here this week. I am also blog touring, this week, for Disciple, Part I so there will be some updates over at Disciple of the Fount.

Did you miss the big announcement? Disciple, Part II will arrive by April 1, 2013.

I'll be talking about how I develop my characters, over at Unicorn Bell. Index of posts, for later reference:

Those strange beasts
Grass roots
Getting to know them
What's on the page
Two more thoughts

Thursday, November 1, 2012

NaNo: Cheering you on

Confession: I don't do NaNoWriMo. I can't keep up that kind of pace. So you NaNoers are all braver than me.

If you follow my Twitter feed @LBlankenship_sf maybe that sounds silly. I post Tonight's Word Count (TWC) every night, with #amwriting, and if I'm not writing, I report on what writing-related things I did -- net gain/loss in revision with #amrevising, 500 words of notes or whatever.

I post my TWC because I know some people out there feel like they need a kick in the pants, sometimes. Personally, I don't worry about my output and I don't set goals for myself. But yes, I'm fairly reliable and it makes for a nice data stream that might help somebody reach their own goals.

Because with discipline ingrained into habit, you can be a steady writer. That's what NaNo is about, too. I have the habit, and I think my data stream is proof that it works.

Why don't I do NaNo? My spread is 750 to, oh... I break 2k now and then, but that's when I'm on a real tear. NaNo needs a consistent 1600+ per day and to be honest, my average is more like 1200. No, I  haven't done the math but I know how many days it's taken me to write each part of Disciple, and falls  short of NaNo's 50k/30days.

Could I do it? Just devote a little more time? Bear in mind that I have no life, already. Seriously. My day is maximized toward writing, and has been for some time now.

But I hope my Twitter feed encourages people about the cumulative effect of regular writing. In 2011 I wrote about a quarter million words. I'll be doing better than that by the time I finish Disciple, Part VI. What will happen in 2013? Who knows?

Writing on a regular schedule is a powerful thing, over time. Habits are powerful things. I like to think my Twitter feed proves that, and I hope it's encouraging rather than intimidating.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Demonstrating maturity

I talked a bit about perceived age, a little while ago, and I got some insight into the ongoing challenge of portraying teenagers accurately -- faced daily by MG, YA and the New Adult authors. (Thanks to E.J. Wesley for that.) What stuck out to me was how much of a social construct labels like "teenager" are; portraying that age bracket accurately is a challenge because it's so well defined in current Western culture. Once you move outside our current culture into fantasy or science fiction... what is a teenager?

Physically, teenagers are adults. Mentally, emotionally, they're rapidly maturing -- maturity takes a lot of work, and it's a life-long process.

The line between immaturity and maturity is hazy at best, and everyone reaches different stages at different points of their life. Different cultures measure one's progress differently, and they assign a variety of values to different aspects. We can all backslide, too. We tend to think of certain actions as demonstrating maturity -- like getting married, taking out a mortgage -- though of course actions aren't always backed up by the emotional development that we think they need.

I came up with a few general areas where maturity, or lack thereof, is most obvious. I'm sure there are tons of self-help books out there with more exhaustive lists. I'm also trying to phrase these in general terms, because a writer will always need to tailor things to their story's particular situations.

Thinking of the impact on others
This is a learned behavior. Some people pick it up more quickly than others, but the ability to see how our own actions help or harm others is something we grow into. Tied into this is the ability to see others as real people with feelings, expectations, histories, etc., that you don't necessarily know about.

When you were a kid, did you ever meet one of your school teachers outside of school... and you were surprised that they existed outside of school? What would the equivalent situation in a fantasy world be? Or does that small-town life make it impossible to not be aware of others' lives?

It's not about you
Psychology calls this egocentrism: believing that everything is connected to you. Everything that goes wrong is your fault, and everything that goes right is for your benefit. I've heard it said that the roots of this are in how crying, as a baby, got you the things you wanted so obviously you caused everything to happen... well, it's all downhill from there, isn't it. Life is one big disillusion about how important you aren't.

Practically speaking, this is the ability to not blame or praise yourself for everything and look at events more objectively. Superstitions grow out of a lack of this ability. Some would say religion does, too, but that's a can of worms I'm not going to get into.

Awareness of how things work
This is a more practical thing. Kids don't necessarily know what's happening inside an ATM -- it just spits out money, as far as they're concerned. They're not worried that the bag of fast food handed to them at the drive-through was put together by tired, poorly-paid human beings surrounded by flashing lights and annoying beeps. They don't know that when a pipe starts leaking, you need to set a big enough bucket under it, shut off the water main, and call a plumber.

Then again, life is so complicated that we adults don't know these things half the time. For a fantasy or science fiction story, this will be an intersection of character and world-building and a chance to explain your world to the reader either through explaining it to the character or by following their actions.

Awareness of why people do things
Since we're all writers here, this is an especially interesting subject. Stories hinge on why people do things. I love it when things are set up so that a seemingly bizarre course of action is perfectly reasonable.

The amount of thought that writers put into why people do things is unusual, though. I think we all need to take care in not letting (all) our characters be (too) perceptive. I'm qualifying that statement because a cast full of insensitive characters isn't in a writer's best interests either.

What would you add to my list?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Wordiness: clear as mud

Mooderino wrote a nice post on wordiness, on Tuesday. I wanted to comment, but that's one of many blog pages that won't let me post comments (see this for more info) so I'll write a post of my own instead.

Mooderino pointed out that wordiness has its place, and that it's very useful in setting the pace of a scene. The tricky part being, of course, knowing when is a good time to slow the pace of a story down and when's a good time to let it rip.

Most people will agree that action sequences should move fast -- which for me begs the question: when would you want a slow action scene? Most people would think that highly emotional scenes should go slowly -- should they? How does the impact of emotion change when the scene moves quickly?

These are things you learn by consuming other stories alertly -- with awareness of what the storyteller is doing and how they're doing it -- and through the experience of writing your own stories. Your gut has its own opinion of what feels like a good story, and it's a mix of all the stories you've consumed along with your own creative instincts. Which is then smoothed out by the practice of actually doing it over and over.

Revision comes into play, too, because it can be very enlightening to rewrite a scene to change its pace or tone -- both of which are directly impacted by wordiness or lack thereof. This is on my mind because I just had to do it the other night. I'd written a scene with a recently captured prisoner who had a passive, defeated attitude, but on further thought I realized it would be useful if that prisoner had an interest in cutting a deal. In rewriting it, the dialogue shortened, descriptions dropped out, the verbs turned more active, and overall I hope tension came through rather than passivity.

I didn't necessarily set out to shorten the dialogue, drop descriptions, and active up the verbs; for my gut, that's just a natural consequence of upping the tension in a scene. It took a long time for me to gain that kind of reflex for what I was putting on the page. For years, I just spewed out words and was never quite sure why some things worked and some didn't. My grammar was always decent, but I was guilty of some pretty epic and sprawling ruminations that were about as speedy as molasses. With a lot of practice, the awareness began to seep in.

Have you rewritten scenes to change their pace and tone? How did it impact the language you used?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Wall-to-wall action!

... is exhausting, to be honest. For the writer and, fortunately, for the reader too. Disciple, Part VI, is looming on my horizon and it's going to contain a lot of action. Part III also contained a lot of action, and I need to keep in mind the things that it taught me.

Writers and readers need to take a break from the action every so often, with the caveat that action is not the same as tension. Don't take breaks from tension. The action needs the occasional break in order to do some important clarifying and organizing.

Define the new situation
You've seen this in movies: our character stands on the littered battlefield, breathing hard, and looks around wondering who's survived? Use the moment to see who's okay and who's hurt, who's dead, what's been destroyed and what's still standing. Who's still in the game, and in what capacity? Did we win? What are the options now?

Not all stories need action sequences to accomplish their goals, but after any stretch of dramatic events it's good to take stock of what has changed. Sometimes it's obvious: the Death Star was destroyed. The villain kidnapped the girl despite our hero's best efforts. Or maybe it's something more subtle.

The two main variables here are the pace at which you define the situation, and how much of it you define. What does the reader needs to know right now versus what to hold back to raise tension later? Updates can be done in a very brief, up-front way -- an officer runs over and rattles off the casualties, the current troop movements, and off we go to the next part of the fight. In other genres, readers expect a more careful exploration of the results -- the characters need to discuss, do research, or travel someplace new.

Maybe all the implications of an event take time to unfold. That can raise the tension nicely in a story. Or maybe you want to drop an oh crap we're screwed bombshell. It's your roller coaster ride -- how do you want it to go?

How much you say and how much you don't say can be tricky for another reason. Readers are not stupid; if your character's mentor was killed, they can figure out most of the problems that's going to cause. If you write those out explicitly, it will look clunky and patronizing. It's better to point out only those things that are not immediately obvious, but are important to the story. But without being clunky or patronizing. That's a whole 'nother blog post, I think.

Regroup
New situations require new plans. New plans can require new resources, or at least enough of a break for everyone to lick their wounds, get some sleep, and prepare for the next assault. Perhaps we need to meet new characters and bury our dead.

I'm using battle terminology because Part VI is a war. Metaphorically speaking, this applies to Victorian comedy-of-manners romances, too. Drink some tea, collapse on the couch in the parlor, and strap yourself into a fresh suit of armor -- whoops, I meant "a new evening gown." Emotionally, these aren't as different as they might appear.

Caveat
As with all writing "rules," you don't have to do this when it suits the purposes of your story. If it's your intention to show the readers just how exhausted your characters are, don't give them a break. I tried to do this back in Disciple, Part I when my characters are harried by packs of monsters.

Did you let your characters catch their breath, or did you keep pushing?

Also: did you see my Goodreads giveaway?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Next Big Thing blog hop

My post is over at Disciple of the Fount, and it includes my "Now Available!" announcement -- I am currently for sale as a Kindle ebook at Amazon, paperbacks at Createspace. The paperbacks should arrive on Amazon soon. B&N is currently confirming that the IRS knows who I am. Kobo is up next, then Apple and the rest of my list. Then I've got interviews and guest blogs to write...

And I've started writing Part VI, so the rest of my brain is spoken for. If I keep referring to "deploying" my book online and organizing sorties, it's because there's a war going on in my head. There's a certain appropriateness there.

Shout out to Michael Offut for noticing me. You probably already saw his post -- everyone knows Michael, right? Heck, I know Michael and I'm so head-in-the-clouds that I have no clue what's going on in the blogosphere.

Oh, and I don't have a blog post for tomorrow. You figured that out already.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The lure of reviews

I have been soliciting reviews for Disciple, Part I on Goodreads, and I've gotten a few nibbles, sent out a few copies. Didn't expect someone to read and review so quickly, though. I saw the "1 review" indicator on my author dashboard and...

When I set out, I told myself I wasn't going to read any reviews at all. Because I've heard the same horror stories of nasty reviews, authors shooting off at the mouth and destroying their reputations. It's ridiculous to think that everyone who picks up Disciple will love it. There's bound to be someone who finds it -- I don't know -- pretentious or twee or whatever. Gratuitously graphic.*

But I clicked before I could think. And then I read the first half before I fully realized it. So I might as well finish, right?

So much for resolutions. I am weak. It was a nice review, too, so I'll probably be weak until I hit a nasty one.

The only good can of worms to open.
Photo by stef~, on sxc.hu.
This is a whole 'nother can of worms, because my main character, Kate, is a sixteen-year-old girl. Somebody is bound to think "This is a YA book" at some point and then be horrified as the plot developments of Parts II - VI roll by. I'm sure I will be hearing about that. DISCIPLE IS NOT AIMED AT THE YA MARKET. Though teenaged readers are certainly welcome. I don't think that sheltering teens from the ugly real world does them any favors.

p.s. Tomorrow I'll be doing the Next Big Thing meme/bloghop over at Disciple of the Fount -- and there will be a big announcement! Though if you go over there now you'll probably notice the new tab and figure out what it is for yourself.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Busy freaking out...

I don't have a post for today, for a variety of reasons:
  • Need to work on the practical side of the emotional arcs in Part VI. It's all well and good to write they gradually start talking again in the outline, but I need to sketch out the steps. 
  • I am not at Viable Paradise, sadly
  • I expect to be finalizing the ebook and print versions of Disciple, Part I soon, which means it's time to start seeking reviewers, fulfilling KS pledges, and deploying it to Amazon et al. so it will be out there for the official drop date of Nov. 1.
  • Part II is resisting all my attempts to blurbify it. Then again, not much happened. (heh)
  • It's been one year since Viable Paradise and I'm suffering withdrawal... well, at least I will be seeing some VPeeps at Capclave this weekend.
Depending on how things work out, I may slide down to blogging once a week, here, through November. Expect to see guest blogging notices, at least.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Immortality and love

Immortality is a problem right from its definition. Does it include beings that can be killed, but that won't die of natural causes? Are only impervious, eternal beings like the Greek gods "immortal"?

I'm going to use the broader definition here, because it includes vampires, Highlander-style beings, and my own creations, the saints. I touched on some of these issues during the A to Z Challenge, in I: Immortals, and now I'm at the part of Disciple where I'm thinking about it again.

Relationships and love being a central part of the human experience, the implications of outliving all your loved ones are vast. The scars left by losing them can be significant. Since mere mortals lose loved ones, too, it's reasonable to extrapolate that pain to multiple tragedies and over centuries. The image of a chilly, withdrawn immortal saddled with sad memories of lost lovers comes easily -- and it makes for perfectly good stories. Such a character can inspire the reader's sympathy and a desire to see them healed by new love. Or, they can make good villains with valid motivations.

Withdrawal is one reaction. Downplaying the loss is another. I know I've had to do this with the various cats I've loved and buried over the years. It's sad, but they lived good lives and in a few months I'll meet another cat and bring it home. No need to get too bent out of shape about it.

Is that a good way to handle human relationships, though?

I've been questioning, in specific, the ability to fall in love after centuries of love-and-death cycles. The chemistry may still be there, physically, but what role will experience play? Would an immortal be able to throw themselves into that giddy falling-in-love feeling, or would it be tempered by knowing what comes next? "Next" being 30-50 years down the road...

The answer is, of course, "that depends on the immortal's personality." But I can't help thinking that some of that "pet" attitude will creep in. After one has fallen in love, lived together for 30 years, and then buried one's lover a few times, you know for an absolute fact that there are more fish in the sea. You know what you're willing to put up with and what you aren't. Would you do less compromising? Invest less?

Do relationships become more "disposable"? Is it simpler to just ride the chemical high of infatuation and walk away when the shine wears off? The Greek gods seemed to follow that school of thought. Or maybe a "friends with benefits" arrangement makes sense.

It does challenge one's ideas about the function of love, sex, and long-term relationships.

Have you seen the cover for Disciple, Part I? Did you enter in the giveaway for an advance copy of the ebook? Contest ends Friday!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Maturity, perceived age, and development

Perceived age of characters is a tricky thing. Since I'm currently 41, it's been a long time since I was a teenager. My teenage years aren't exactly memories that I cherish, either. My main character Kate starts Disciple at sixteen years old. The story will finish before she turns eighteen -- or not long after, at worst. I do not consider Disciple a YA story, though I don't doubt that teenagers might find it interesting.

Kate has been confronting me with questions like what is "maturity" and how is maturity demonstrated and what is "appropriate" for a given age and level of experience -- partly because she starts out "more mature" due to the cultural expectations put on her, and partly because she goes through so much in the course of the story.

In the course of preparing Part I to publish and revising Part II, I got some whiplash from meeting the (slightly) younger, (much) less experienced version of Kate.

I saw some vintage photos, recently, of child laborers from the turn of the 19th/20th century, and wondered what they were like as people. Were they angry that they had to work, or did they simply accept it as "normal," maybe something they felt obligated to do to help support their parents and siblings. Did they "act out" in reaction to it? Some of them had cigarettes in their mouths; it's entirely possible they were drinking, too. What did "adults" think of that -- did they pull up a stool at the bar and commiserate, or did they shake their heads and dismiss it as childishness?

It's possible some of them were sober, hard-working, kids who never questioned that this was what they wanted. Maybe they welcomed the responsibility of a job and felt it was a validation of their worth.

People come in all flavors, after all, at every age.

Getting back to Disciple, I'm more worried about Kate sounding like a 40-year-old than about her sounding like a 16-year-old. It's my opinion that the maturity level we perceive as "appropriate" for a given age is highly dependent on culture and affluence. But, as has been reported in a variety of (fascinating) places, the teenaged brain is noticeably different from the adult brain, and that needs to be taken into account.

How those difference manifest is heavily shaped by culture and affluence -- which is why I brought up the child labor photos. Compare those kids' lives to a well-off high school grad who's working a part-time summer job because s/he wants to, not needs to. People talk about how kids are in such a hurry to grow up (usually with a shake of their heads). I doubt anyone said that of the child laborers.

This post is already turning into a ramble. In short, I feel comfortable with Kate "sounding" older than 16 because in her culture, she's expected to be married, a mother, and running a household at that age. Due to the story, she's actually responsible for much more than that. And yet, I can't have her acting with all the mature perspective (lol) of a 40-year-old.

What does your character's culture expect of children and teenagers?

See also: Demonstrating maturity

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Cover reveal for DISCIPLE, PART I coming!

Disciple's cover reveal will be on Saturday! (Oct. 6) I'll be giving away an advance copy of the ebook over at the book's blog!

Anybody want to join in the reveal? Email me: blankenship.louise(at)gmail(dot)com. I'll be glad to return the favor when you're putting together a cover reveal, giveaway, blog tour, etc.

Tis the season for cover reveals -- my RSS feed reader has been filling up with them. Tis the season to start thinking about the holidays, too, and I'm sure everyone's aware that most self-published ebooks are priced in the "impulse buy" range. Also, the "stocking stuffer" range... do we need electronic "stockings" these days? Or do you just go with gift cards?

Speaking of gift cards, what about those first few weeks of January when people have gift cards to spend?

Those are all things self-publishers need to think about. I am going to be blog touring in November after Disciple is first published -- and I'm thinking of doing a second one in January.

What are your plans for the holidays, fellow self-publishers?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Post-UB thoughts on self-promotion

I spent a week talking about self-publishing over at UB. The last post was about promotions, which a lot of writers dread. Myself included. Self-promotion isn't easy, but you need to do it.

I dread housework -- but that has to be done, too.

I strongly believe that there is an audience for anything. Any movie, any book, any music album, there's a paying audience out there who will enjoy it. The difficult part is finding them and telling them why your book/movie/album would be enjoyable for them.

Everything about self-promotion ties into either finding your audience, or communicating with them.

And yes, it's a lot of work because there are seven billion people out there and even with all of the internet's gee-whiz social networks, those audiences are hard to find.

And no, it's not easy to communicate why your book is interesting in the small amount of time people will give you before they tune out or are distracted by some shiny thing. There's a dose of luck involved too, which you can't plan for.

They say the first rule of self-promoting is to get out there and be a real person with real interests and real input to give. I'm not so good at that; I read many blogs, each day, and have nothing to add. Move on to the next one. There are many blogs that I simply can't post comments to (I wish I knew why, and yes I've tried to get around it.) There are some online communities that I wander through on occasion, such as Absolute Write. I tweet once or twice a day. I mark books I've read, on Goodreads, but don't have enough opinion to write a review. Pinterest has fallen off my radar for a variety of reasons.

Maybe I'm not a real person with real interests. :)

But my audience is out there somewhere. I know a few things about them: they like stories that move, active characters, authenticity and detail, darkness without being hopeless, and a dash of whimsy.

I just need to find them.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

BTW, this is going to be horrible

I recently finished Disciple, Part V, which turned out to be an unusual story -- it contains three chunks, and one is a novella (37k), one is a short story (10.5k) and one is... what are you (6.5k) anyway...?

In any case, the same plot structure applies to each chunk as in a full novel: inciting incident, first plot point, subsequent plot points building to a climax and then a resolution.

The thing that I'm going to talk about being: I nearly dropped the ball on both climaxes, this time. Luckily, my gut notified me that it was going to fix that, and the phrase it used is going to become part of my stock vocabulary:
BTW, this is going to be horrible

This is what did NOT happen.
Photo by Gavin Spencer, on sxc.hu.
because -- and I'm not clear why, no -- I had plotted out both the novella and the short story with these soft, squishy scenes for climaxes. Maybe it was because I was still recovering from the end of Part IV and I wanted to hug my characters, tell them everything was going to be okay, and give them hot chocolate with marshmallows. 

Well, around here you don't get that: you get pummeled with snowballs and... no, no spoilers.

Why do I say the scenes were squishy? There was a lack of tension because the stakes were not high enough. Stakes being all those things that the reader is supposed to worry about: the character's survival, physical health, mental wellness, current and future happiness, etc. I generally put stakes in two categories:
  • Long-term: a character's survival and happiness over the course of the next few months/years/stories -- including the rest of their lives. 
  • Short-term: a character's immediate survival and well-being. This covers the next few chapters, possibly to the end of this story. 
A scene can have an impact on the long-term stakes, short-term, or both. When it comes to a climactic scene, the more the merrier. I would go so far as to say that a climax that doesn't threaten both short- and long-term well-being isn't much fun.

In both the novella's and the short story's climax, I had laid out how important this was to the long-term stakes of the entire Disciple story... but neither one offered much threat on the short-term scale. Surviving the scene was not an issue, and to be honest one of them was a little too close to fun rather than tense.

Not that my characters aren't allowed to have fun, mind you, but these were serious situations with serious implications. In both cases, the antagonists needed to bring their A game and establish what they were willing to do to get their way. They're here to win, too, after all.

But the short-term threat can't be something so unexpected and irrelevant that it's obviously tacked on to raise the tension. While I'm revising this raw pile of Part V into a first draft, I'll be trying to give the reader a feeling that there's another shoe that's going to drop.

How many things are at stake in your story's climax?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Perceptual distortions in combat

I posted over at Science in My Fiction today -- more detail on perceptual distortions reported by people who have been in combat situations.

This is related to a popular post about panic back in February -- well, it gets a lot of panic-related Google search hits, at least.

This also ties into the O entry from the A to Z Challenge: On Killing, and my attempts to understand institutionalized killing. Or at least the rationalizing that goes into it, and what the men who are doing it need from those around them in order to handle it psychologically.

I mean, it helps that I could build a society where the main religion is not pacifistic by nature (so that an OK for violence has to be tacked on, as with Christianity) and there is both a justification for and an expectation of certain levels of violence at both a personal and a societal level. And there isn't the mental dissonance of a universal love thy neighbor message. Though how much impact that message has can be hard to judge...

Let's stop before this turns into a ramble about societal structures that permit violence. I'll try to save that for a real blog post.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

If I can't trust the online reviews...?

I'm late to weigh in on the kerfuffle over paid reviews and using sock puppets to write your own reviews. So I figure you already know why it's happening.

I understand why authors pay for reviewers and use sock puppets. I sympathize, even. There's so much out there to distinguish yourself from -- it's a sea of people screaming for attention, waving promotional flags, and shooting off rockets. The deck is stacked against you, and it's a huge deck.

A blogger posted recently that he was struck by how he can't trust any online review of a product, when he thinks about it. And that's true. Who are you going to believe: fifty reviews on Amazon, or your mother saying "I couldn't put this down"? My mother and I don't always like the same books, of course, but there are a lot fewer variables involved in deducing whether I'd agree with her than whether I'd agree with fifty random people who may or may not actually exist.

It made me think of Pandora. Pandora.com uses a "genome" (Music Genome Project) to analyze the music you tell it you like, and introduces you to new music based on that. It's done a good job on me, overall. It figured out that I like David Bowie, on its own, and it introduced me to a number of musicians who I wouldn't have found otherwise. It's had trouble figuring out why I don't like Led Zeppelin, but I have trouble explaining that in any case. (I ought to. I just don't. Pass the Pink Floyd, please.)

For example, here's why Pandora said it picked a particular Celldweller song for me: Based on what you've told us so far, we're playing this track because it features house roots, four-on-the-floor beats, electronica influences, danceable beats and affected backup vocals. Now, I don't know what those terms mean in a technical sense, but Pandora's right. It's a track I like.

Maybe we need a system like that for books. TvTropes has been kind enough to create a definition for nearly every story element under the sun, so the "genome" exists already. We just need a way to tag stories appropriately and software that takes your profile of likes and matches you up.

Because I have as much trouble finding books I like as anyone else. In all the upheaval that ebooks have brought to the publishing world, there's one definitely good aspect: the free samples. I've downloaded dozens of free samples of ebooks, and I've bought exactly one of them. There's a second that I've been meaning to buy, but my physical TBR pile is a big enough problem.

If people are worried about the honesty of the reviews they're seeing, I can be rigorously honest about why those dozens of samples failed to sell me their books. But I'm not here to be a grouch.

LOL: look for my new blog, Book Grouch, wherein I will beat up your sample... submit your sample and wear your honestly earned bruises proudly...

So: if we can't trust online reviews, is there a better way? Or is risk simply a part of life?

In other news, I am blogging about self-publishing over at Unicorn Bell this week, so see you next Tuesday.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Unicorn Bell week: self-publishing

I will be posting about self-publishing at Unicorn Bell this week!

Index of self-publishing posts:
Intro/credentials
Nuts and Bolts
More Nuts and Bolts
Am I Ready?
Promotions

I will post tomorrow, because I wrote it a while ago and it's getting stale, but not on Thursday. Meanwhile, thinking about what's next. Finished the raw draft of Part V last night...

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Three tips for learning Photoshop

Michael Offutt (of Slipstream fame) commented on Tuesday's post about getting comfortable in Photoshop Elements and how Adobe's Creative Suite is big and scary (true) -- so, a few thoughts.

Photoshop is a huge, powerful piece of software. I've been using it for 15+ years and I still learn new things about it every so often. I have never used Photoshop Elements, which I understand to be a pared-down version of the full monster. So bear in mind that these comments are based on the full Photoshop. 

If you want to teach yourself to use Photoshop, there are tons of how-to books out there. Just jumping in and playing around with the filters and the healing brush is fun, too. But if you really want to get comfortable in P'shop, here are some things I advise you focus on mastering. Not just playing around with.

Selection tools
To be completely honest, upwards of 75% of the time I spend in P'shop is just selecting the pixels I want to do something with. It can be surprisingly difficult. There are dozens of ways to make selections, but these are the ones I've found most useful.
  1. Pen tool - Take the time to get good at adjusting those Bezier corners. They're flexible and very precise -- the pen tool draws a vector path, not a line of pixels. This skill will serve you well in Illustrator, too.
  2. Quick mask - Not to be confused with masks in general. What quick mask does, basically, is allow you to use any of the brushes, gradients, etc., as selection tools. Using gradients for selections is very useful for making gradual changes to an image. 
  3. Lassos and the magic wand - They have their uses and they can be quick, but in low-contrast or complicated images they can become frustrating. Of them, I use the magnetic lasso most -- but it needs a high-contrast edge to work best.
Color correction
My only regret in being a print-oriented person is that I was trained to CMYK color correction. I can look at a photo and tell you which of the four primary colors is off and how to fix it.

The online world runs on RGB, though, which is a whole different universe that I do not understand. So I'm advising you to start with RGB and build up experience with color correcting in that gamut.

The main tools you want to master for any color correction are Curves and Levels, which are under Image>Adjustments. You can apply these individually or as adjustment layers so that you can tweak them later (I recommend the latter. See the next point for why.)

Layers and masking
The Layers palette is your friend. Imagine each layer as being a sheet of clear plastic that you've laid over your original picture. You can paint on it, make adjustments, mask, etc., and then you can turn it on or off at will. 

One thing you'll learn quickly in P'shop: you want to keep your options open. You want maximum flexibility, and layers give you flexibility. (Putting your color corrections on layers is included in this.)

Masks are pieces of art that block out parts of the picture below -- like actual masks do. P'shop masks can be large or small, sharp-edged or fuzzy, transparent or opaque, and they can blend in a variety of ways. Masks are one reason that you spent so much time mastering your selection tools, because once you have that selection you can turn it into a mask and play around with that bit of your picture with impunity.

Masks are applied to layers. They are independent of the layer's content, though, and can be edited separately (or together) for maximum effect. It's very much worth your time to learn to think of masks and layers as separate things that interact with each other as well as with the underlying image. 

Conclusion
And now you can see how easy it is to go on and on about P'shop. I spewed all this out in about half an hour, and I didn't even go into any real detail. 

If anyone's interested, I could do the same for InDesign, but that's not a program that anyone's going to buy on a lark and play around with. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Creating eBooks

When I decided to publish myself, I knew I'd need an editor and a cover artist -- and I planned to do all the graphics myself. I put the money I'd spend on that into paying for a better editor and artist. I'd never created an ebook before, but how hard could it be...?

Attempt #1: InDesign CS5
I've been making a living as a graphic designer for something like 15 years now -- print-oriented, got into it by way of proofreading, and I've been a one-woman prepress department. Naturally, in generating the layout for the print version of Disciple, Part I, I took it to InDesign and threw it down. No fuss, no muss.

Online, I went looking for how to export InDesign files to EPUB (the format used by non-Kindle readers.) I quickly found that while Adobe did put together a pile of helpful PDFs and web pages at some point, very few of them are still available and you tend to get dumped onto the "You need to buy CS6!" page.

After six hours of tweaking options and slogging through the results, I had an EPUB that made my Nook reader sprain its brain every time it tried to open the file. I might have been able to fix the files, but my butt-cheeks were beginning to ache.

Attempt #2: HTML from scratch
I kept Guido Henkel's excellent guide to creating an EPUB from scratch open and used jEdit (which was probably overkill) to create an HTML file with a simple, embedded CSS.

Calibre kindly added all the metadata and the cover art, then output it as an EPUB that looks lovely in my Nook reader. Next up: MOBI conversion, which Calibre will do too.

Clear winner: build it from scratch.
Photo by Pablo Medina,
free at sxc.hu
Total time invested: 3 hours, and all it needs is the final cover art. Seriously. I'm the kind of person who never pays for free software, and I'm going to send Calibre $20.

If you're comfortable with basic HTML coding -- I didn't use anything more complicated than style and span commands -- you can do this. Guido's guide includes a sample CSS that you can copy/paste and then tweak to your liking. Calibre does all the heavy lifting. The whole thing was quite painless.

Needless to say, I'm rather disappointed in InDesign. But I'm over another hurdle and closer to publishing Disciple.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A 15-second word sketch

In the last blog post, I talked about voice in a little snippet of Disciple. I also want to draw a connection here between this and my blog post about seeing. So here is a bit of context for that snippet. This is an example of my "practice seeing" put to use -- this is a 15-second word sketch:
He fixed me with a steady look and spoke slowly. “We meant to bring the Elect, but lacking him — this is no place for a girl that’s not discipled to Saint Woden. So keep your hood up. We’re hunting lamia. That is what you’ve been told.”

My head cocked, on reflex, weighing that. There was more to come, I didn’t doubt. “Yes, m’lord,” I responded, quietly. “I see.”

I thought I saw the corner of his mouth pick up a little, at that.
What I'm trying to sketch, here, is the connection that my MC making with another character -- by way of what she's not being told, the existence of which she's acknowledging. This establishes that they understand each other, without them saying it to each other and, more importantly, without me telling the reader straight out.

That's the really important part, because I dislike (on a gut level) narratives that spoon-feed me everything that's going on. I don't want to be told, in narration, "We agreed that there would be more to the story later." The characters saying it out loud is even worse. I want to figure these things out for myself.

The body language does most of the work. I show it to the reader because we are all sensitive to body language (or we ought to be) and I trust them to see what I see. This makes me prone to writing down my characters' every twitch, though, so I have to keep an eye on it.

I've now spent two blog posts unpacking the content of a hundred words (less?) in a minor scene -- and I bet it's not much surprise that I could do that. I bet you could do it with any hundred words of your story: explain what's going on grammatically, its voice, the character-building context, the world-building ("a girl that's not discipled to Saint Woden"?), how it's moving the plot... I didn't even get to those last two.

Part of that is because as its creator, I could talk about my story all day long. It's also because every bit of a story is important; every bit has several jobs to do and should be treated as such.

One more note: the voice I use in Disciple is very different from the voice I use in my science fiction stories, but no matter what I write, I'm always going to assume that the readers are paying attention and seeing the things that I don't tell them directly. That's a part of my personal voice that I've identified and I'm going to stick to it.

What aspects of your personal voice have you identified?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Final polish: voice vs. grammar

I'm putting the final polish on Disciple, Part I: For Want of a Piglet. Then I'm going to publish it.

The line edits I got from my freelance editor (Debra Doyle, respectful namaste) are great. She targeted the places where I was genuinely unclear or poorly structured, and didn't complain about all the stuff I did to create a narrative voice.

A little red-inking that I did a while back.
Which is difficult. I certainly have trouble discerning between Disciple's voice and what's unclear, which is why a line edit is a must. It got me to thinking about what voice is and how we balance it with clarity and grammatical correctness.

Voice is a difficult thing to define, from what I've seen. It's hard to talk about in a concrete way, but I'm going to take a stab at it. Here's a random snippet of Disciple:
My head cocked, on reflex, weighing that. There was more to come, I didn’t doubt. “Yes, m’lord,” I responded, quietly. “I see.”
Now, when it comes to grammar, sentence structure, and voice, I tend to be more instinctive than rigorous. I let my gut make the call, most of the time. My gut says there's nothing wrong with that excerpt. OMG adverb! Yes. And an adverbial phrase, too. That's a different blog post. Let's also skip the first sentence for a moment and consider the second one. I could have said:
I didn't doubt there was more to come. 
and that would be fine and correct. It would fit the voice, even. My gut made this call, and now that I'm looking at it with my brain I'd have to say that I structured the sentence as I did because the emphasis here isn't on what's to come, it's on the narrator's lack of doubt. (The last thing in a sentence carries the most weight.)

The first sentence is more complicated and potentially unclear. I could have said:
My head cocked, on reflex, as I weighed that.
but I dropped two words to shorten the sentence. It's a quick action, a snap judgement. It's got a good, snappy verb in cocked and the implied action of weighing. The next sentence is slower, as the MC thinks a bit, and the verbs are was and didn't. Then we get into what she actually says aloud, which in my head has always been a bit slow and thoughtful. That's probably why I used a big, soft dialogue tag like responded and slowed it down further with an adverb.

Two stylistic sins, by most standards. Get the cat-o'-nine-tails and flog this writer! I will plead voice in my own defense -- but that's not a card you want to pull often. Voice is not an excuse for unclear, sloppy writing. I think you can earn an adverb and a soft dialogue tag with five thousand words of good, tight stuff, but that's only my opinion.

The quote above is just a small snippet; the reader breezes through this in no time. Which is as it should be. This is all supposed to be invisible under normal circumstances. This blog post constitutes far more thought than I usually put into three sentences. I've also slid from talking about grammar into touching on rhythm and pacing at the sentence level -- which is part of voice, too.

Stay tuned for another topic I'm going to pull into this snippet...

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The sin of prologue

Photo by Guenter M. Kirchweger,
available at sxc.hu
In Part IV, I committed the sin of prologue. Let's skip the attempts to rationalize, for a moment.

Why are new writers told not to write prologues? 
"This is irrelevant, but I'm going to tell you anyway." That's how prologues tend to come across. That's what a lot of them end up being. Because, honestly, if it was relevant to the story then it would be where the story began. If it wasn't a good place to start the story, it could be a flashback scene later on.

The "I'm going to tell you anyway" aspect makes a lot of prologues into an info-dump of sorts, and we've all read about the dangers of starting your story with an info-dump, yes?

But it's got lots of action and dialogue -- yes, but is it immediately relevant to the story? Does it introduce the reader to the main character? Maybe the reader does need to know that your character's older brother died tragically. But they don't know this is the character's older brother, yet; when they're reading the prologue, the older brother is the main character. And then he dies tragically. Now you want them to care about the main character and you promise you won't kill them too? (Are you GRRM?)

Why do people keep doing it?
Let's admit it: there are a lot of prologues out there. In published books. By good writers. Why do they get away with it when I can't?

Partly because they've proven that they know what they're doing, and I haven't. But he can't write his way out of a paper bag. No, it's not fair. I'm trying to rise above the dross of a vast, self-published market, so I have to hold myself to high standards.

Partly because it's hard to shake the feeling that this is important to the story, but it doesn't quite fit anywhere. It's some bit of character development, or world-building, or setting the tone of the story. It happened before the main event. Whatever the reasons are, the compulsion was there. Your gut demanded it, and as I've said -- trust your gut.

Do people read them?
I usually do, I'll admit, though I mildly resent them. Some readers skip them.

So why did I do it? 
Well, it is Part IV. It's not actually the beginning of Disciple -- we're a good 165k in by now. And the prologue ended up being larger than most chapters -- it would have been awkward to drop such a large chunk of flashback into the story later on. I did introduce a character I wanted the reader to care about, and I introduced something that will be increasingly important later on.

But this is all rationalizing. Why did you commit the sin of prologue?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Beta readers and the drafting process

A CP and I got to talking about betas, recently, and it set off a number of thoughts about the process of writing and the process of revising. The analogy of sculpting came up -- the progression from a raw chunk of stone to a rough form (first draft), then a refined form (second draft), and then the small details and polish (third draft and onward, or however many drafts any of these stages require).

The questions that came up were about getting beta reader feedback at various stages, and trying to match up the reader to which stage you were at in the process. That's an issue because writing definitely does involve that can't-see-the-forest-for-the-trees problem -- or, to stick to the sculpting analogy, that you have your nose smack up against the rock.

After some digesting of the question, my gut feeling is that beta readers will crit to the "done"-ness of the manuscript... regardless. If they see macro-scale problems, they'll mention them rather than fine detail problems. I mean, if someone asks me to crit a story where the antagonists seem so clueless that there's no tension, there isn't much point in me giving feedback on narrative voice. If the characters have no distinguishable motivations, that's more important than the dialogue.

The process of fixing the lack of tension, or giving the characters motivations, is bound to change the narrative voice or the dialogue along the way. Everything in a story is connected to everything else. To stick to the sculpture analogy, all those fine details are directly connected to the underlying rough form. You can't have a perfectly sculpted hairdo just hanging in space, after all. (Unless this is a science fiction story...)

When it comes to the refinements of a story -- the narrative voice, the grammar, fine-detail world-building, the particulars of dialogue that make it snap -- I have my strengths and my weaknesses as a beta reader. Everybody does, since they reflect our strengths and weaknesses as writers. At that level, I can see why you'd want to pick and choose your beta readers carefully. Before that, though, I wouldn't worry about it too much.

I suspect that who you hand your early drafts to has more to do with how much you trust them to read that crap and still respect you in the morning. :)

I find I'm more comfortable when I respect my beta readers' writing while still seeing its rough edges. Hopefully, they still respect mine after seeing its wrinkles and bloodstains and the occasional gaping hole.

Do you have your beta readers "labelled" by what they're good at critting for?
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