January 26, 2011

SuperNotecard to the Rescue!

A major part of revision is the planning stage in which you figure out what you need to change in your story before you start actually making changes.

A major part of the planning stage is outlining your story using an ever more complicated system that allows you to procrastinate as long as possible before you start actually making changes.

I'm good at this part.

I want to admit this up front, because if you've noticed exactly how long I've been "preparing for the third draft" of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, you're going to be too busy laughing at me to read the rest of this post when I say that I recently started using some cool software that's helping me prepare for the third draft. So just know that I'm aware I have problem.

But I really think this software's going to help.

It's called SuperNotecard, and it's a versatile virtual index card application designed for writers. I've talked before about how much I love to plan revisions using index cards and other office supplies. I've investigated index card software before, but I'd never found a program that met all my needs.

I wasn't even sure that I wanted to use software instead of real, physical cards. I like the tactile experience of spreading cards out on the floor and moving them around. I like how index cards make it so easy to visualize an entire novel and then rearrange things repeatedly. And I like getting away from my computer for a while.

But there are drawbacks to real cards. When I want to work away from home, I'm reluctant to take them along, since they aren't backupable and there usually isn't room to spread them out. It takes a long time to write information on the cards, then more time to try to read what I've written in my atrocious print. Index cards can't contain an unlimited amount of text, and virtual cut-and-paste is far superior to the original version. Plus, I eventually wind up typing everything from the cards into my computer. So I thought I'd at least give a software solution a try.

January 25, 2011

More About A Little Book

A few weeks back, I discovered that I was in possession of an early novella by Jaimy Gordon, winner of last year's National Book Award.

I knew I'd been assigned CIRCUMSPECTIONS FROM AN EQUESTRIAN STATUE in a college creative writing class, and despite having no memory of the story, I had to conclude that I'd read it, because I had underlined huge portions of the text.

(I found it sort of interesting that I had no doubt I was the one who'd done the underlining. I expect to recognize my own handwriting, but I hadn't realized I'd also recognize the stroke of my underlines.)

As promised, I read the book to see if I could figure out why I went so wild with the underlining. The novella is a funny and engaging story set in 1866 in Providence and featuring Ambrose Burnside, the Union Army general who later became governor of Rhode Island. (That part is actual history.) The story also involves a ghost, a "magic lantern" machine that displays moving slides, and a doctor pioneering the field of gynecology. It's a comic work.

I wish I could claim that while reading, I had some insight into why I marked all the sentences and passages that I did. I started off reasonably enough, underlining the occasional phrase that might be important to reference in class or that looked like part of a theme or motif. Then as I went on, it seems like my bar for what was significant dropped lower and lower, until I was underlining words because they must be important because they appeared in the story. Maybe? I really don't know.

In case you were wondering, I didn't use any mind-altering substances in college.

I wish I had a more thrilling conclusion to this story. I even just flipped through the notebooks from my college creative writing classes (yes, I still have them) to see if there was any mention of this book, but all I found was a note to read it before the next class meeting. Plus a whole lot of in-class writing exercises that I don't remember writing. So that's another journey down lack-of-memory lane to take someday.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Benedicte Page at the Guardian Books Blog investigates extreme book cover design.

→ The new Diversity in YA Fiction site celebrates diverse stories in young adult fiction. (Thanks, GalleyCat!)

January 21, 2011

A Thank You to My Teachers

Today, I inched closer to fame with the release of the Winter 2011 issue of the Concord Academy Magazine, featuring a profile of me and my blog.

I was interviewed back in November by the editor of the alumni magazine for my old high school. Since then I've been eagerly anticipating that some of my former classmates, and even alumni from other eras, might show up here and find something interesting in what I have to say.

But it only just occurred to me that some of my teachers might make their way to this blog. So I'd like to take this opportunity to say, "Thank you."

Thanks to the teachers of Concord Academy for presenting me with big ideas and asking me to think about them. I learned a lot of information in high school, and occasionally some of it comes in handy, but the most important knowledge I came away with was a solid foundation in critical thinking skills. I draw on that in my work every day, whether I'm figuring out a problem with a scene, offering feedback to a critique partner, reading thoughtfully, or deciding how to explain some writing advice.

Thanks to the English Department for exposing me to important works of literature and allowing me to complain about them. I may not have liked WUTHERING HEIGHTS or THE GREAT GATSBY, and I still don't understand why you do, but the fact is that it's valuable as a reader and writer to know something of the canon, and almost all the classics and poetry I've ever read were for high school English classes. It's also valuable to be able to analyze why a story isn't working and argue that opinion, even if conventional wisdom says you're wrong.

But thanks not only to my high school teachers. Thanks also to the elementary and middle school teachers who encouraged my creative writing and nonstop reading. And thanks to the writing teachers in college and beyond for instructing me in the craft, giving me deadlines, and showing me how many different forms fiction can take.

I started writing stories when I was very young, and I've been learning how to do it better ever since then. I've been lucky to have so many excellent teachers along the way. Thanks to all of you.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Hannah Moskowitz asks tough questions about writing and not writing characters like ourselves.

→ Christopher Gronlund discusses How To Know You’re A Good Writer

January 20, 2011

Happy Release Day to Eleanor Brown!

Congratulations to Eleanor Brown on the release of THE WEIRD SISTERS, her debut novel.

The elegant cover features the text "See, we love each other. We just don’t like each other very much." The back of the book contains enthusiastic blurbs from Helen Simonson, author of another great recent debut, and from famous librarian Nancy Pearl. The first line is "We came home because we were failures."

Intrigued yet? I certainly am! I received my copy yesterday, and the prologue drew me in. I can't wait to read the rest.

Another cool thing about Eleanor? She writes at a treadmill desk!

January 18, 2011

Unconventional Time Travel

Sherman, set the WABAC Machine to December 2010, when I read a couple of books about time travel.

HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE by Charles Yu is the third novel I read at the end of last year with a title that sounds like a self-help guide. More interestingly, it's a book about time travel, but in a world (a science fictional universe, actually) where the mechanism of moving through time is less scientific and more literary:

The base model TM-31 runs on state-of-the-art chronodiegetical technology: a six-cylinder grammar drive built on a quad-core physics engine, which features an applied temporalinguistics architecture allowing for free-form navigation within a rendered environment, such as, for instance, a story space and, in particular, a science fictional universe.

If, like me, you find this early paragraph enchanting and amusing, you're going to love this book. If it turns you off, you may not want to bother, because it's like that all the way through. HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE is more experimental meta-fiction than it is science fiction, and it's as much about the narrator's relationship with his immigrant parents as it is about time travel.

The narrator -- his name is also Charles Yu, but I believe this is only mentioned once, at the very beginning -- is a time machine repairman who leads an isolated life inside his machine and outside of time, except when he's called for a job. After an unfortunate encounter with his future self, he goes on a search for his missing father, a brilliant but unsuccessful inventor. The heartbreaking family story appears both in memory and in visits via the time machine, and the novel suggests that these methods aren't so different. As speculative science, it's shaky, but as a powerful story, it works.

For a longer taste of the novel's style and humor, read this excerpt from the first chapter. Don't be scared away if you're unfamiliar with the term "retconned". I think the rest of the sci-fi references in the book are widely known to a general audience, so it doesn't require any special knowledge to appreciate.

MEANWHILE by Jason Shiga is a graphic novel involving a time machine and some other dangerous inventions. The book is interactive -- the reader chooses the path of the story by following tubes from page to tabbed page. The mechanism is ingenious, mind-blowing, and hard to describe. Here's a video in which a fan demonstrates how the book works.

The book's structure alone makes it worth reading, but it also has an engaging story, or rather, a multitude of stories. Little Jimmy happens upon an inventor's lab and is encouraged to play with the inventions: a time machine, a mind-reading helmet, and the Killitron 2000. From there, things tend not to go very well. As the book's introduction warns, "Most [paths] will end in DOOM and DISASTER."

Shiga is also the author of the excellent BOOKHUNTER, a thrilling look at the work of library police. You can read many of his comics online at his site.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Laura Miller looks at the way contemporary novels avoid and embrace discussion of contemporary online life.

→ Don't be embarrassed. Everyone looks at Bookshelf Porn. (Thanks, NeilFred!)

January 14, 2011

Recommended Books on Writing

I'm working on a follow-up column to the one I posted Tuesday, looking at dialogue again but this time focusing on what the characters say. As I was making a list of all the common problems that result in not-so-great dialogue, it occurred to me that my first novel contained every one of these rookie mistakes. And I'm of the opinion that dialogue has always been my strongest writing skill.

It's nice to be reminded that I've made appreciable progress as a writer since I started that first novel almost ten years ago. I've improved because of all the time I've spent writing, receiving feedback from excellent critiquers, rewriting, and studying the fiction I read. I have also learned from explicit writing advice that I've received from books, presenters, and blog posts. I don't know how many times I've read an analysis of some element of fiction and gone, "Oh! Yes! That's exactly why I haven't been able to get that scene to work!" No matter how much I learn through my own writing experience, I never stop benefiting from the intelligent guidance of other people who've thought hard about writing.

In last night's #writersroad Twitter chat, we discussed books on writing, so I thought I'd recommend my favorites here:

SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Renni Browne and Dave King - Every chapter of this book was eye-opening for me. It's a great place to start if you don't know how to approach your manuscript critically so that you can start revising. It's a funny book, too.

SAVE THE CAT! by Blake Snyder - Even though this book is about screenwriting, it's widely recommended among novelists. I didn't understand how to construct a plot until I read this book, and if you're in the same position I was, I recommend giving it a try.

THE FIRE IN FICTION by Donald Maass - Maass has fantastic ideas about how to take your story and ramp up everything: increase the tension, raise the stakes, make the reader care more about your characters. I've used so many of his techniques to make my manuscripts work better.

DEEPENING FICTION by Sarah Stone and Ron Nyren - This was the textbook for the class I took with the Stanford Continuing Studies Online Writer's Studio. It's a pretty expensive book, but it contains a huge amount of writing discussion, a small anthology of short stories by noted writers, and analyses of these stories to illustrate the discussions. The book is aimed at intermediate and advanced writers, and I appreciated that focus and the amount of attention given to revision. Highly recommended if you want to do some self-study to strengthen your writing.

HOW NOT TO WRITE A NOVEL by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman - This book is hilarious. It's also embarrassing, because you will realize just how many of the mistakes you've made in your own writing. After you've laughed at the wonderfully painful examples of what not to do, you'll be sure not to make the same errors again.

STEERING THE CRAFT by Ursula K. Le Guin - My writing group worked through this book many years ago. Le Guin's presentation of the elements of fiction is smart and unconventional. I'm usually uninspired by the writing exercises in books, but I enjoyed doing these and liked many of the short pieces I produced.

READING LIKE A WRITER by Francine Prose - Novelist Prose examines passages by renowned authors and explores what makes them effective. This book reminded me how poorly read I am in the classics, and I once again resolved to do something about that and then didn't.

THE POWER OF POINT OF VIEW by Alicia Rasley - It was so exciting for me to read a book by someone who is more geeky about POV than I am, because most writing guides don't cover the topic in nearly enough depth. Rasley analyzes each possible narrative perspective and discusses when it might be appropriate for your story.

WRITING THE OTHER by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward - An exploration of the problems writers encounter when trying to write about people different than themselves and advice on doing it well and avoiding common mistakes. The focus is on race and culture, though other differences are discussed. The main problem with the book is that it's too short.

I guess I must read a lot of books on writing. I'm always eager to get recommendations for more writing guides worth reading.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Livia Blackburne thinks about The Blogification of Writing Tips, offering excellent reasons why you might want to read one of these books for some more in-depth advice than you'll find online.

→ At the Office of Letters and Light blog, Sarah Mackey writes about Books on the big screen.

January 11, 2011

Dialogue Tags and Beats

This post first appeared as the December "Write & Rewrite" column in WritersTalk, the newsletter of the South Bay Writers branch of the California Writers Club.


Dialogue is an important part of most stories, and one that many writers have trouble with. The core of any dialogue is the lines that the characters speak, but the words outside the quotation marks also matter, and there are many ways to wield them clumsily.

This sample dialogue demonstrates some common problems. (Note that one mistake not illustrated is incorrect formatting. The passage follows standard conventions for punctuating dialogue in American English. If you aren't familiar with these rules, take the time to learn them.)

"Margot!" Wesley bellowed. "You left the milk out again."

"I didn't," she objected grimly. "It must have been one of the children."

Wesley looked at her. "Couldn't have been. I put the milk back in the fridge just after they went out."

"So?" Margot stood up and got a glass of water. "Does it feel good to think you can prove me wrong?" she queried, looking over at Wesley.

"It's not only about how you never pick up after yourself. It's a health hazard," he snapped angrily.

"But skydiving, on the other hand, is perfectly safe," she responded sarcastically. "Every weekend, no risk at all."

"That's what you're angry about?" he queried in surprise.

"I'll put this away," Margot grimaced, taking the milk carton from him. "Wouldn't want us to be in any danger."

Let's start by considering the many verbs that appear in place of "said." While an occasional expressive verb such as "bellowed" might make a scene more vivid, it's usually better to save the interesting verbs for action, not dialogue tags. Alternatives to "said" draw attention away from the characters' conversation but rarely convey any information about the scene.

There are many ways to ruin a dialogue tag with a pointlessly creative verb. For example, it's redundant to use "objected" for Margot's objection. Instead of telling readers that Wesley "snapped," a more powerful tactic is to show it with the words he speaks. And I challenge anyone to demonstrate how Margot "grimaced" out that sentence. No matter how many times it's repeated, "said" is always an appropriate choice. Like the ubiquitous "the," "said" is a purely functional word that slips by unnoticed, so don't worry about overusing it.

January 10, 2011

Unread Count: Many

After I reorganized all my books, I intended to figure out how many of them I hadn't read. I was guessing that even after getting rid of a bunch of books that I admitted to myself I would never read, I had only read about half my collection, but I didn't really know. When The Book Roadie posted last week about her unread books, I remembered to make a count of my own.

I decided only to consider the fiction, because that's what mostly what I read and that's the fastest growing part of the collection. (See, I got rid of all those books last month, so I get to buy more, right?) This section currently has about 250 books (mainly novels, a few short story collections). Sure enough, my calculations show that I've read only a little over half of these, with some 115 books that I've never read.

I guess this is supposed to be a bad thing, something I should be embarrassed about. It's true that I do feel a little silly when a friend examines my shelves and asks about several books in a row that I have to confess to knowing nothing about. And I suppose Kyeli does have a point when she writes of her book buying ban, "The addition of new books is fun, alluring, tempting -- but not fulfilling. How can it be, when I just add them to a stack of others? I'm not getting anything out of the books, but I'm giving up space and money for them." Every time I buy a new book, or even borrow one from a friend or the library, a voice in my head asks me why I need this other book when I have so many perfectly good books still to read at home.

But you know what? I already have enough irrational guilt in my life. I'm taking a different perspective on these unread books: Hooray, I'm never going to run out of perfectly good books still to read at home! When the zombie apocalypse comes and I'm trapped in my house and there's no more internet to download from, I'll still have plenty of new books.

Or taking a different but more reality-based perspective: Nothing requires that a personal library be a record of books read. That might be what it is for some people, and maybe these are the same people who frequently take down old favorites for another read. I'm not much of a rereader, and while I held on to all the books that survived my culling because I believed I might look at them again, perhaps I should be justifying having so many read books in my collection. I've gotten what I wanted to out of these books, they're taking up space, and they could be providing value to somebody else. Any minute now, I'm going to start feeling guilty that I didn't give away all the books I've read.

Instead, I'll keep on gradually reading the unread books on my shelves and gradually acquiring more unread books, and I'll try to remain free of guilt about this particular issue. I'll save my energy for preparing for the zombie apocalypse.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Shannon Page writes about the problems of characters not behaving the way you intended: "You don't know the characters when you write the outline. I mean, you sort of do; you invent them, after all. But they're a paragraph from your imagination at that point. Now they are 400 pages of action and thoughts and crappy decisions and love and drama and *living*. They are alive and real, and they don't like being pushed around any better than the rest of us do."

→ Kevin Hartnett at The Millions resolves to stop blaming the Internet: "What I realized then is that the opposite of the Internet is not concentration. That morning I was indeed successful at staying off the Web, but so what? I fiddled with my pen, adjusted my socks, stared out the window, filled and refilled my water bottle, went to the bathroom. It turns out there are a lot of ways to fritter away time that don't involve a computer screen."

January 7, 2011

A Little Story About A Little Book

When I sorted through my book collection recently, I found I still owned a lot of books from college English classes that I hadn't necessarily read at the time and definitely hadn't thought about since. Certain of these books demonstrated a tendency among the creative writing instructors to assign books by writers connected to the creative writing program. I was unable to recollect any sentimental attachment to most of these books, so I put them in the giveaway pile.

I took one back out of the pile when I noticed the extensive underlining it contained. I don't remember reading this book, but either I did, or in an intense fit of boredom, I simply went through the pages madly underlining. In some sections there are more words underlined than not.

January 6, 2011


It's an early January tradition to look at the year ahead and make proclamations about how we're going to live better or improve our circumstances before another year passes. And let's be honest here: It's also traditional for those resolutions to be the very same ones we failed at the year before.

So I make this bold statement with full awareness of just how many years in a row I've been saying it, but not too much shame about that fact: This is the year I'm going to make it.

For me, right now, "making it" means getting an agent, and then getting a book deal, and eventually (though this part is certainly more than a year away) having a book in print and for sale everywhere and -- why the hell not? -- on bestseller lists. I mean, if I'm going to think positively, I may as well think really positively, right?

Succeeding as a novelist, even when you count success as something more modest than bestseller status, takes a long time. Writing is slow and revising is slower, and novels have a lot of pages. It takes time to learn about how to get your work in front of publishing professionals and more time to actually do it, over and over again until you start getting somewhere. I don't imagine that any writer heads down the path of seeking publication without a full glass of optimism. It's far too much work to bother with if you don't believe you're going to make it.

I believe this is my year. December may prove me wrong, but I don't see any way to move forward except with optimism.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jason Black lays out how to establish your characters in a book's opening.

January 5, 2011

What I'll Be Reading

It's a new year, so it's time to come up with all sorts of wacky personal improvement schemes to hold ourselves to (and optionally fail at). One of my schemes is that at the beginning of each month, I'll pick four books that I plan to read during the month.

I'm not committing to finishing all four books by the end of the month (though I'll make an effort), so rolling over to the next month is allowed. What I do hope is to start all of the books close to the beginning of the month. I've discovered lately that I do more total reading when I'm working on multiple books at once, since at any potential reading time I can choose the subject and format that suits me best right then. With three or four books on the go, maybe I'll end up getting to read a few more of the books on my nearly infinite list.

My to-be-read picks for January:

RED MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - I started reading this book last month but am only 14% through (I'm reading the Kindle edition on my phone). Fascinating so far. The book is about the first human colony on Mars, and it was recommended by a couple of friends as being science fiction that focuses heavily on both the technology and the characters. I didn't even think about this before I started, but this book turns out to be an excellent follow-up to PACKING FOR MARS by Mary Roach, a hilarious and educational nonfiction book I read recently that discusses the unglamorous practicalities of putting people into space.

AURORARAMA by Jean-Christophe Valtat - I first heard about this book on the blog of Melville House, the publisher, and then it was mentioned on the Bookrageous podcast. The setting is "New Venice, the pearl of the Arctic," a city located close to the North Pole, and the era is Victorian. And notice that airship on the cover? Yup, this is steampunk (the Library of Congress subject heading on the copyright page even says so), or as I imagined everyone must be saying (but apparently few are), it's icepunk or snowpunk. I started reading yesterday and was drawn into the story right away. Plus I learned the excellent word "septentrional".

In further adventures of things I believe I don't like in books despite evidence to the contrary, when I learned from the front flap that AURORARAMA is "Episode One in an astonishing new series," I thought about not reading it after all. I have this idea that I don't like to read series. Astute readers will note that RED MARS is first in a series. Scarily psychic readers will note that this is in fact one of the qualities that drew me to Robinson's book. Really, my brain is a strange and confusing place. Please stay out.

THE CITY, NOT LONG AFTER by Pat Murphy - This is a post-apocalyptic story set in San Francisco, so I'd been planning to read it anyway. Then I found out that Pat Murphy will be one of the honored guests at the first FOGcon in March, so the book went to the top of the list. The Friends of Genre Convention (FOGcon) is a literary-themed science fiction and fantasy convention to be held March 11 through 13 in San Francisco. Will I see you there?

NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro - This is a reread for me of a book that I first read in 2007 and then recommended to everybody. I maintain that this is a book you should know nothing about going in. In particular, avoid the Library of Congress subject headings on the copyright page, which spoiled me the first time. On my previous read, I found both the narrative style and the premise brilliant, and I'll be interested to see how they hold up on a second read. I'm rereading now because a movie based on the book came out this fall, and I want to enjoy the book on its own again before checking out the movie.

In other January book news, I'm looking forward to the January 20 release of THE WEIRD SISTERS by my blog buddy Eleanor Brown. "A winsome novel that explores sibling rivalry, the power of books, and the places we decide to call home" -- sounds like a book I'll be reading in February!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Beck McDowell, guest posting at Pimp My Novel, is in a new reading threesome: "That’s right. From now on, it’ll be e-books, tree books, and me."

→ At Edittorrent, Theresa Stevens presents a rule for using coincidences in fiction: "If the coincidence creates a complication, it can remain in the plot. Otherwise, get rid of it."