November 30, 2010

The Hutch school of writing

In Ira Levin's "Rosemary's Baby," there is a character who taught me something important about writing. Do you remember Rosemary's elderly mentor, Edward "Hutch" Hutchins?

There is a scene where Rosemary visits Hutch at his apartment in Manhattan. For those who haven't read the book (or seen the movie), he is her current landlord as the movie opens. He is a writer of boys' adventure stories, and he invites Rosemary to his apartment to tell her that his research has uncovered some unsavory facts about the Bramford, the grand, old building into which she plans to move with her husband. (For those who read the book, do you remember the Trench sisters who ate children? It was Hutch who told Rosemary about them.) Okay; scene set. Let's jump in.

Rosemary asks Hutch why he has two typewriters on his desk, each loaded with paper. In response, Hutch offers a simple and sensible answer: he writes one book on one typewriter and when he reaches a point in the story where he's uncertain how to proceed, he switches to writing a different book on the other typewriter. The process refreshes him.

I always remembered this bit of advice and as a writer, I found it to be a productive way to do things. I don't own a typewriter but I do have several books in Scrivener and often work on more than one, so it's easy to use the Hutch approach.

Of course, there are times when I'm deeply enmeshed in writing a book and won't pause until it's finished. It seems from the mid-point forward, I tend to work on one book to the exclusion of all others.

But I don't use the Hutch rule only in the narrow sense suggested by the character. I apply the concept widely. For me, switching between any writing-related tasks is helpful. Recently, I wrote here about switching from editing to writing because I felt burnt out. I do this all the time and benefit from the switch itself -- each activity refreshes the other. Moving from task to task seems to sharpen my mind. And it's not just writing and editing I'll switch between. It's editing and thinking, plotting and writing, coming up with new ideas and planning how to publish my books. There are many writing-related tasks, and switching among them seems productive -- at least, it does to me.

Slipping out of one task and into another is like taking a shower after a workout -- it's invigorating. So I am an official member of the Hutch school of writing. It works, and I like stuff that works.

Have you ever gotten a helpful writing tip from a fictional character?

November 29, 2010

TiVo and the internet

I'm an avid baseball fan. I know: you thought all gay guys hated sports. Not this one; I can't get enough of it. But this is a recent phenomenon for me, and for good reason -- baseball was unwatchable until a few, short years ago. The thing that made it palatable was the advent of TiVo.

Have you ever watched a baseball game? There are commercials built into the commercials, which often break for commercials. Even when the game is on, the sports announcers can't tell you anything without first saying "this bit of info is brought to you by . . . (whomever)." It's one big, boring, endless commercial. Enter TiVo.

Armed with TiVo's weapons, I can watch baseball and enjoy it! I just shoot through the commercials and the boring nonsense that constantly spews from the announcers' mouths -- I'm talkin' to you, McCarver -- and go directly to the next pitch, the next pitch, the next pitch, etc. It's seamless and only requires that I press a few buttons.

TiVo did a lot more than this for viewers. It lit up the entire field of TV programming. With TiVo, we can see not just a momentary snapshot of what's on but the whole picture. Suddenly we can call up two full weeks of TV programming and review this block of information at our leisure. This changed TV permanently. Once you've TiVo'd, you cannot go back.

But there is a price to pay. When you can see absolutely everything that TV has to offer, you understand how bleak your TV prospects really are. Before, we only suspected that TV offered little that was entertaining or educational. Now we know for sure that it's a vast wasteland.

The internet did a similar thing for our lives. Before it existed, we only saw bits and pieces of reality -- a story in a newspaper, maybe another one on an evening newscast, or perhaps we were lucky enough to catch ten minutes of a radio news show in our car on the way home from work. But no matter what we did, our view was scattered and piecemeal.

But then the internet opened the window wide and let everything in. Reality itself is now laid out for us in convenient panels so that we can browse it at our leisure. The internet TiVo'd reality for us. It's all there now, every little thing. 

But again there is a price to pay. The panoramic view shows us that American life is even shallower than we believed. Look around the American internet and you learn that we are a mad consumerist society with little regard for others and nothing much in the way of personal values. Oh, we talk about values a lot but it's obvious from our actions and inactions that this is just noise. Nothing truly matters to Americans except their convenience -- and never mind if someone else suffers in the process. That's fine as long as we end up with the best of everything.

Yes, these days it's all out there on the internet. Reality is viewable (if you spend the time looking for it) and we can finally see our world clearly. And it's all me, me, me -- or its about politics, which these days is merely a grab for power, and never mind what for.

I think it's us that we see on the internet. The internet is us. It's a mirror. And I don't know about you but what I see reflected there is frightening. I see a world without intellect, a world without judgment, a world of gullible, greedy, ignorant gits. The internet alarm is ringing loudly. It's saying, "Look at yourselves! Are you satisfied with what you are?" At least, that's the message I see there.

In a similar sense I want my books to be mirrors. I want readers to see themselves from a fresh new angle -- and I want them to ask, "What am I?" I don't think we know the answer to this question and until we do, we won't understand anything -- not the world around us, not our place within the grand structure of reality, and certainly not the value of our fellow man.

Maybe that's too big a job and I'll have to narrow my goals, but it alarms me that we're so terribly off-base. Most Americans believe in both torture and angels; we have a big, big problem on our hands. Can a work of fiction fix this? I doubt it. But when we read a book or see a movie, we open ourselves up to new ideas. I want to sneak some in before our brains shut down forever.

I have grand dreams to share with my readers -- hopeful, possible dreams. I want to wake the world up -- and I want to show them a good time along the way. That's why I write.

November 28, 2010

The Worlds: update

I just finished editing The Worlds, my first book, and in my humble opinion it sounds damn good. All it needs is a few new scenes and I'm ready to write them. I've got a page of ideas set up in my scene book. Tomorrow will be a writing day.

I'm so pleased with the sound of it -- the pace, the words, the style. I don't know if it will have wide appeal but I enjoyed reading it. That was my aim at the outset: to write a book that someone like me would find interesting. I think I did that and I'm thrilled.

Move ahead any way you can

When I'm not in the right frame of mind to write, I can still make progress. There is always some aspect of the job I can do.

If I'm editing (as I am today), I'm moving the book ahead and this certainly counts as progress. But if I didn't feel up to editing today, I would work on some other aspect of my books. 

If I'm deadened from too many days of editing, for instance, it's probably time to write something new, perhaps that short story I've been thinking about. I find it helps my brain when I juggle between writing and editing. Each gives me energy to pursue the other.

But maybe I"m not up to writing new fiction either. In that case, I might write something for the blog. It also represents progress because I need to attract an audience for my books. By blogging, I may be able to build an interested group of readers who will buy my books (when and if I ever get them out the door.)

Or maybe all I can do that day is think, so I put my pens and computer away and direct my mental energy toward coming up with fresh ideas for stories. Perhaps it's the perfect day to figure out a good ending for that pesky but interesting tale in the back of my mind. Or maybe I'll hit the big time and come up with the next great idea for a novel. On days like this I'll take anything. It's progress if it moves me ahead, even just a bit.

It's simple: if we don't move ahead we won't reach our goals as writers. For me, no day is allowed to pass without progress. It's my second most important golden rule (right under "Drink Espresso and Open Scrivener".  

What are your rules for writing (or painting, designing, etc.)? How do you get yourself to produce? 

November 27, 2010

The hairless monkeys of Earth

I stole the title from articles I've read on science blogs. I googled it this morning to try to find out who first used the phrase but couldn't pin it down. Sounds Carl Sagan-ish to me. In any case, that is who we are: the hairless monkeys of Earth. It's how intelligent aliens might catalog us after reviewing all the lifeforms that roam this planet.

The point I'd like to make today concerns patterns. This is how intelligence works: it sees patterns. For instance, you see the pattern of good social behavior in the people around you. This allows you to comply with social norms and fit well within your family and community. This happens in every area of life. I saw the pattern of good English in my reading and that is how I learned to write -- by emulating those patterns.

Being human is all about seeing patterns. But pattern recognition is also the methodology of science: it recognizes new patterns and attempts to correlate them with known patterns. This is how science happens.

"When there are clouds, rain may occur; rain will not occur when there are no clouds" is an example of a pattern that even our most primitive ancestors could grasp. (Undoubtedly, animals use patterns too: anything within five feet of me is a possible danger; anything 100 feet from me can be safely ignored. We're not the only pattern recognizers.)

Today, we see an enormous number of patterns in our world -- such as the way the moon's orbit affects our tides, and the way planets orbit stars. It's what they do; it's their pattern. We recently noticed the pattern of everything in our nighttime sky moving away from us at high speed, and we learned from this pattern that space is expanding. We see patterns of behavior on the quantum level, and patterns of disease in populations exposed to carcinogens. Patterns are everywhere. We've come a long, long way in terms of pattern recognition.

But we are still the hairless monkeys of Earth. That fact cannot be changed and it means we are limited by the brains we inherited from our ancestors. These brains can only see what they are capable of seeing. There are undoubtedly endless patterns all around us but we are unaware of the vast majority. Still, we do the best we can as, little by little, we discover new patterns. Because of our diligence in seeking out these patterns and attempting to understand their meaning, science leaps ahead.

I'm convinced that the answers to everything are hovering right in front of us but our inadequate, hairless-monkey brains just can't suss out the patterns. If we were smarter or were equipped with finer senses, they might be startlingly obvious to us -- but they're not.

Undoubtedly there are beings elsewhere in the universe (or the multiverse) who can see such patterns. To them, the patterns are like any others -- easily grasped. Their minds, descended from different evolutionary processes that occurred on their home planet, are of a higher order. This isn't a shocking prediction. What would be shocking is that we are the pinnacle of intelligence, that no other creatures in the universe or multiverse are smarter than humans. It is inconceivable to me that we are the highest example of evolutionary "progress".

(Note that I put progress in quotes because evolution has no aims, no goals; it simply happens as living creatures interact with each other and their environments, and mutations randomly occur. It is the "blind watchmaker," to use Dawkins' terminology.)

If only people recognized our natural limitations, they might not be so . . . arrogant. They might not think that they, the hairless monkeys of Earth, had all the answers. They might be open to new things.

Right now, science is resolving crucial issues and coming up with solutions for our most pressing problems. We will find less destructive forms of energy to power our world. We will come to understand the keys to life and we will become masters at manipulating the code of creation. In the distant future, we will know the answers to our most pressing questions. We will become aware of new patterns and we will harness their secrets. It's only a matter of time.

But none of this will come to pass if fools are allowed to ruin our present world and cut us off from our rightful future. That this is a real possibility is the saddest thing I know. Read books, people! Learn about science and follow the science news. You have no idea the exciting things that are going on right now. (Large Hadron Collider, anyone?)

The universe is opening up to us right this second, and the patterns all around us are begging to be seen. We must create a functional present for ourselves if we want to ensure a positive future for our descendants. I know it's hard to do this, what with us being hairless monkeys, and all. But we must if our race is to survive.

The future counts. We need time (and safety and peace and prosperity) to see the patterns.

Editing update

I'm almost done with the edit of my first book, The Worlds. Thanksgiving took a big chunk out of my work schedule but I'm back on the case. The edit should be complete within a couple of days. I'm closing in on the last chapter.

Once the editing is done I'm going to write several new scenes for the book. One of my characters is about to have a very strange romance. It's an intriguing idea and I can't wait to paint it onto my screen. Thankfully, it's almost time to get out my scene book to lay out the new terrain. I can't wait.

November 26, 2010

Writers' tools: a name book

One skill every fiction writer needs is the ability to name characters. The right name can bring a character to life. It should sound fresh and perfect -- and that's not an easy combination to dream up.

My naming skills are fairly pathetic. Just ask my pets. I once had two cockatiels named Chuck and Corky. Those were the best names I could come up with. What can I say? I also had a white one once and called him Blanche. Not bad, what with the gay connotations. But that's about the best I ever did with a pet name. (Full disclosure: I once had a cherry-headed conure named Tallu, and that was a great name. Unfortunately, someone else suggested it; I get no credit.)

So when I started writing fiction and realized I had to come up with names for my characters, I might have felt inadequate. But inadequacy isn't my style. In the first two books, I named characters as they appeared in my sentences. I just typed the first name that occurred to me and that was that. With the exception of one change necessary for clarity, I have never renamed a character. Oddly, in those two books I don't think I did too badly. I like the characters' names that I stumbled upon.

But by the time I wrote the third book, Xmas Carol, I had devised a technique for naming characters. The thing is, I love names. I smile and enthuse over them all the time. In my opinion, names are the best part of TV newscasts. I often marvel at the names that fly across my screen. Some are simply stunning and it's hard to believe they didn't emanate from central casting. They're actually the names were born with!  One night, as I relished yet another fabulous name in a newscast, a simple idea occurred to me.

Thus began the era of my name book, and it has served me well. What I do is this: each time I hear a great name, I write it into a small, staple-bound Rhodia notebook (image above; I get them at WritersBloc, the best stationery store ever). I don't write down entire names, mind you -- my intention is not to kidnap people's identities and stuff them into my books. I only take half a name.

If I hear a first name I like, I write it in the left column of a page in the name book. If it's a last name, it goes on the right. I don't combine them; I just collect separate piles of first and last names. Then, when it's time to name a character, I pull my name book out and mix and match from the two lists.

I have come up with the coolest names this way. I'm especially fond of the unlikely combinations that result when I mix nationalities. It's a joy to play with this tool, which turns a common writer's burden into a naming festival. It's fun, it's easy and it works.

How do you name your characters?

November 25, 2010

New, low-bandwidth version of this blog

I know what it's like to be on dial-up, so today I created a low-bandwidth version of The Worlds. It's got all the same posts but skips the cheesy graphics. Why, there isn't even a picture of me there!

I hope this helps some folks to read the blog (and comment; you guys can do that, you know). The link will remain in the left column until the end of eternity. To see it now, click here.

Is religion what's wrong with the world?

Religion is humanity's most pressing problem. It is the great evil in our midst, sucking minds and energy into into a meaningless void. Religion is indeed what's wrong with the world. If this sounds simple it's because it is. Here's how it works.

If you don't know the difference between reality and nonsense, you have no common sense. This means you have a complete inability to think things through in a logical manner. You lack judgment and this has dire consequences. You can't tell right from wrong when you don't know what's real. You're impaired.

Letting mush preside in the center of your brain like a creamy chocolate filling is not a sensible way to go through life. How can you see the world clearly if you have to monitor and control your thoughts so they remain consistent with the fairytales you believe? Before you begin the race, you have already given away the car. You can't judge anything. You tossed that all away. To beat the analogy into the ground, if your brain was a car we would be forced to take away your license. I repeat: you are impaired. 

(And of course, you can't tell religious folks about this and expect them to understand what you're saying. They're like Appleby in Catch-22, when he can't see the flies in his eyes because he has flies in his eyes. Oy.)

This is the primary reason for America's current know-nothing, ignorant-git state of affairs. Too many Americans believe in gods, devils, angels, demons and other assorted voodoo -- to the exclusion of believing in each other. We control our lives, not some invisible being in the sky. But religious people will never see the obvious truth. They're happy (joyful, even) to abandon all intellectual integrity in pursuit of absolutely nothing. And the dissonance! Let us consider the dissonance.

There are allegedly intelligent people in this country who call themselves religious. Well, I'm sorry but I can't believe a word they say. If you're smart then you know there's no god. It's far too ridiculous an idea to maintain in your brain if you can actually think.  And smart people are generally good thinkers. This is where the dissonance sets in.

These are the ones who have fallen the farthest. They know there is no god yet they tell themselves (and any damn fool who will listen) that they believe in a god, and fervently no less. But holding two mortally-opposed concepts in one brain creates dissonance, and dealing with dissonance is a frightening, all-consuming task. As a result they become unable to think about anything in a rational manner. Just turn on Fox news if you don't believe me. There you'll see a host of insane, ignorant people of this variety. They literally have no idea which way is up. 

Religion erodes minds. Estimates range, but somewhere between 50% - 80% of Americans believe in angels -- and this in the year 2010! Until this changes, until Americans put their angels away in the toy closet where they belong, we will remain a country where no one makes sense and no one succeeds. (And they'll kill us all in the process.)

PS: I see the pope finally stumbled into a seemingly sensible position on AIDS and condoms. He seems to arrive at "good" positions by railing against them for months or years, and then saying something else only when the world reacts with disgust and horror to what he's already said. Then he takes the next position, saying dreadful things along the way to offend everyone he can. And when he finally arrives at the right position through a process of elimination, everyone cheers and conveniently forgets all that went before. Really, you've got to give the little feller high marks for infallibility. When this guy does infallibility, it can even go in two opposite directions! Wattaguy!

PPS: Oh, wait, he's screwed it up already. AP reports the latest version of the story: "Condom use less evil than spreading HIV." Way to go, popey. Protecting yourself against HIV infection with a condom is evil. You can do it, see, to protect someone, see, but it's evil. Does this guy know how to frame the issues or what? But again, you must commend him on his infallibility. He's confused the world on this issue how many times in just the last week? Yup, infallible. That's our popey.

November 24, 2010

What have you got to lose?

You hear people say, "I'm going to write that book someday." But no book ever appears. They honestly want to write the book but somehow don't get around to it.

This seems like a tragedy to me. If you have the urge to write -- and especially if you have the talent (or think you do) -- you should do it. What have you got to lose? I say write that book or story or play right now. It's simple: just begin.

Think about it. You could close this browser right now and open your word processing program and start that book. What's to stop you? You have an idea in the back of your mind; you know you do. It's been there forever. So why not take your idea out for a test drive?  Give it a shot: write a part of your book, any part at all. It all begins with a sentence and you know you can do that.

If you never take a chance, if you never write that first line, your idea will remain just an idea. I'm serious when I suggest that you start your book right now. Just think of an angle to approach the story and visualize the first scene that occurs to you. You don't have to know everything about the scene. If you can see its beginning, go for it. Write that first sentence and once you've put a few words down, keep going. Write as much as you can without stopping. 

Just think -- no matter how the writing session goes, when you're done you'll have something to look over, to consider. And you know what? You're already on your way. That's a bit of your book that you're holding in your hand (supposing you printed it). Already your idea has entered the real world. It exists. And if it went well, you may have just written your first scene. (And if you didn't, don't worry. Your writing will improve with practice.)

Sure, you may toss it away in the end, but so what? Once you've written a scene (or even part of one) and stepped into your fictional world, you'll find it soon becomes familiar. You'll feel more comfortable the next time you return to it because it won't be alien territory. You've been there and have something to build on.

Of course, you'll need to think through your book at some point. I don't mean to minimize the work you'll have to put into into it. Everything won't happen in a flash the way this scene will (if you take my advice and try it now). I suggest this method only to jar your mind into seeing your book as a real possibility in your life. If you take my suggestion you may end up saying, "I really can do this. I can write this book!"

That's all it takes: that first step and right away you're doing it. You're writing and it's not just a dream anymore. If you've been fearful about starting your novel, getting through the first day of writing will help to drive away the willies. And I think you'll find that as your fear diminishes, your view of your book will change. You will become more comfortable with your fictional world, and more willing to return to it.

The transition from fearful non-writer to excited writer can happen in a flash. All you have to do is take that first step. I'll say it again: what do you have to lose?

November 23, 2010

Make sure your characters are consistent

When we first create a character we may not be sure of his, well, character. We introduce him in a scene and decide we're fairly happy with him so he remains in the book. By book's end, we know him so thoroughly that we don't have to wonder what he'd do in a particular situation. We can predict his actions because he's fully formed.

So when we finally read our completed novel, how does this character sound in his early scenes? This is an important question and here's my advice. Be prepared to rewrite your character's early appearances to match your now-seasoned understanding of his makeup. There's a good chance he'll need at least minor touch-ups to make him comport with the personality you've come to know.

It's easy to see this problem in terms of some of your favorite TV shows. Think of a show you love and then consider the first episode of the series. Ask yourself this question: in the premiere episode, were the characters right? In that first episode were they the same characters who appeared in the third or seventh year of the show? For me, and probably for you, it is glaringly obvious when they're not.

Many good writers nail their characters down before they create their shows. Others fine-tune them along the way -- and this happens even in good shows. How many different colors was Data's skin in Star Trek? And how much did Worf's appearance and personality change during the series? Sometimes it's not nailed down beforehand but as fans we forgive the creators of the series. In fact, Data's changing colors are kind of fun to observe (as is the development of his actor's wrinkles).

The best sitcoms don't seem to have this problem. A few do, but not many of the big success stories. The characters are finely honed in the launch episode and they still act the same way five seasons down the road. That's good work on the part of the creators. (Mind you, characters can grow and change; that's not what I'm talking about here.)

You can usually get away with problems of this sort on TV because each episode is a standalone presentation -- but it's not that way with a book. Each chapter is not a new event that will be viewed in isolation. Readers remember. In fact, many readers will devour a whole book in one sitting and they, above all others, will certainly be aware of inconsistencies. There is only one book so we must keep our characters in line.

I hate to rewrite scenes as much as the next guy but it's worth it when you're refashioning a character to make him consistent. Don't hesitate to touch your characters up once you realize who they really are. It's always worth the effort.

Postscript: Scrivener can be very helpful in this regard because you can call up only those scenes in which a particular character appears, allowing you to see all of his or her scenes in one fell swoop no matter where they appear in the book. This is extremely helpful when trying to guarantee consistency in your characters.

November 22, 2010

Aunt Ellie and the big questions

I owe at least some of my direction in life to one of my aunts. Her name was Eleanor Jannuzzi and she was a freethinker way before it was fashionable. Beautiful, funny and wildly intelligent, she was a painter, sculptor and interior designer -- and did all three while raising five small children. She's not alive today but her spirit lives on in me and many others.

My favorite memories of her come from when I was 11 or 12 years old. My family had moved to the braindead borough of Queens, much to my horror, while Ellie still lived in our old neighborhood in lower Manhattan. (And when I say "lower" Manhattan, I mean it. It's so low that no one knows it's there. Behind the Municipal building is an entire world known only to local residents. If you're a Manhattanite, walk through and check it out sometime. You may be surprised by what you find on the other side.)

Ellie was a lightning rod for me at a time when my almost-teenage mind was just waking up. I gravitated toward her for one reason: she was as interested as I was in the big questions: What is life? What is reality? And what the heck is really going on?

This was about 1959 or so, perhaps five or six years before the advent of hippies. Back then we had beatniks and I guess Aunt Ellie was one of them. Her black hair was very long, she had a permanent cigarette in her mouth and she dressed like a hippie before such creatures existed. Each day, she held court at her wonderfully messy apartment, welcoming anyone who stopped by. Her paintings were stacked along the walls and a paint-spattered easel always held her current work, though it would remain under a cloth until she was happy with it. Sketches, sticks of charcoal, tubes of paint, brushes and overfilled ashtrays were scattered throughout the apartment, and if she had been sculpting that day, there might be a bust drying out in a corner. It was such a friendly place to visit.

She always seemed to be creating, darting around in a sea of ideas and she would readily share her insights, always with laughter and kindness. You could see a vast intelligence peering out at the world through her eyes. She was fast, always taking in everything around her without missing a trick. She was life itself, bubbling over with creativity and happiness and her apartment was a grand place for a young person to visit.

Now and then she would invite fascinating, brilliant people over for a candle-lit evening of coffee, cigarettes and soaring conversation. I was only an occasional visitor at these events so when I was invited, I jumped at the opportunity. She would actually invite specific people because she knew I'd enjoy them. How many aunts would do such a thing for a 12-year-old? It was great. I'd hop on a subway and head for her apartment with two fresh packs of Pall Malls in my pocket, knowing I had a wild evening of philosophical conversation ahead. (Yes, I smoked a lot when I was 12; I've since stopped.)

It seemed the beatniks had all studied philosophy and we regularly discussed the greatest thinkers of all time. We went through them one by one. What did they believe? Did their arguments make sense to modern ears? We smoked and drank coffee and laughed and talked about everything in the universe, often into the wee hours of the morning. Ellie's kids were welcome at the table and sat with us at first. She would never push anyone away. If you were alive, you were welcome in her world. But after a time, the kids grew sleepy and retreated to their bedrooms. I had the opposite reaction: these evenings were like speed to me. I couldn't get enough.

We pondered the meaning of life and sharply questioned the accepted version of reality. Could we really trust our senses, our minds? And what is a mind, anyway? We didn't take anything at face value. And of course we wondered whether there could possibly be a god. Nope. 

To get a real sense of these evenings you have to understand that the beatnik thing wasn't a put-on. Sure everyone wore black; there was a union rule about that, or something. But it was serious business. In each beatnik there was a fierce drive, a pressure to understand it all -- right now, this very second. It wasn't comfortable being a beatnik. We (I included myself in their number after a time) were unsettled and suspicious, and rightly so, we believed.

Our discussions roamed everywhere. Nothing was sacrosanct. Could it be that we are all asleep and our existence is only a dream? Can we be sure that we have ever been awake? And if not, what might "waking up" mean in such a context? We talked about these things endlessly, intensely interested in the conversation. I was never bored.

Aunt Ellie wouldn't reveal my age to the others at the start of the evening because they might think I was too young for "serious" conversation. As long as they weren't told, they seemed to think I was in my late teens or early twenties, and accepted me. I was already 6'4" and looked nothing like a child at 12, especially since I was a heavy smoker.

At evening's end she would reveal the shocking secret: they had been talking to a 12-year-old all night. The beatniks would ooh and aah in wonder that they'd had such an involved conversation with a child. In other words, she was praising my intelligence to them. She was proud of me and she let me know it, publicly. She always did things like that, reinforcing the good in everyone around her. What a great person she was.

Sadly, no one seems to talk like this anymore except philosophy students and their teachers. From what I can see of the world from my present perch, most people no longer wonder about life's meaning. Apparently that is no longer an interesting question. They either hold tight to pinhead religious beliefs, refusing to think about anything at all, or they "think" but don't do it well and end up believing a lot of mush -- or at least saying that they do. These folks don't even know there are questions out there. It seems that only atheists, scientists, artists and liberals think anymore. It's quite sad.

Aunt Eleanor is gone now and as I've said, a lot of people miss her. I'm just one of many. It would have been great to continue our conversations down through the years. But her ripple effects are still felt by many people. I know because I hear from them all the time. She pointed me toward the interesting questions that eventually led to my having a richly satisfying mental life. I might have gone this route without her but she was kind enough to point the way. I will always be grateful for that.

Was there someone in your life who influenced your intellectual development in a positive way? Go ahead, give them some props in the comments.

PS: That's a drawing by one of our kids. His name is Conor and he produced this when he was about five or six. He's become a talented artist since those days. The image seemed fitting for a beatnik post.

November 21, 2010

Kinds of writing

I write. It's what I do and it's not limited to novels. I write all day in one form or another. It comforts me.

I write in my journal at my computer each day, making five or six entries a day which amounts to about 30 typed pages per week. What do I write about? Everything. For one, I live-blog my day for a nonexistent audience. I can always find out what I was doing on a given date by searching my journal. It's also where I hash out plots and scenes and ideas. I discuss them with myself and find this helpful. Often I copy a paragraph from my journal into Scrivener and then work from it the next day.

I email with interesting friends and enjoy coming up with funny stories. Email should cheer people up.

I write my ideas in notebooks. As I've said elsewhere, I keep five notebooks in use at all times. This is how I capture my ideas and begin turning them into stories.

I have a scene book where I lay out coming scenes from my novels when I'm actively writing. This is a great help when it comes time to write.

And I write my novels. That's the big item in my writing world, a six- or seven-month haul, and I love every minute of it.

Also, because I'm a fountain-pen nut I write with each of my 14 fountain pens every day. It keeps them flowing. This writing is almost gibberish -- whatever occurs to me at the moment. I enjoy forming the letters. To me, it's a sensual experience to feel the pen slide across the paper. It calms me down, like petting a dog or holding a baby. I'm convinced it lowers my blood pressure.

And of course, I write here. It's what I do: write. What do you write about and do you do it in many places?

November 20, 2010

It speaks

So the pope appeared in the news today. In a back-and-forth about AIDS with a reporter he spouted complete nonsense, apparently thinking he'd said something with, you know, meaning. Here's the exchange:
Reporter: "Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?"
The pope: "She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more humane way, of living sexuality."
Nice. Very clear, pope guy. You sure straightened everything out with that comment. Now we understand . . . uh, duh . . . no, we don't. In fact, your response means nothing at all.

I love this part: ". . . in a movement toward a different way, a more humane way, of living sexuality." What in blazes does that mean? And you're the sexuality expert, eh? Well, you did have to delve into the field, what with all your priests having sex with innocent children and all.

So, pope guy, are you going to revisit South Africa now to tell the people there to use condoms, after you just told them not to? Maybe you can engrave those new, immortal words of yours on stones and drop them on the people from a plane. You know, to get that clear, new message out. Hallelujah!

He just goes around doing good works, doesn't he? Watta guy!

UPDATE: Here's a new quote from the AP about the popey guy's remarks:  "Pope Benedict XVI says in a new book that condoms can be justified for male prostitutes seeking to stop the spread of HIV." Nice. "Normal" people can't use condoms but prostitutes can -- and it's male prostitutes he's talking about. What a twisted creature.

The hardest thing about writing

The thing I find most difficult about writing a novel is coming to the end. It's like losing a child. For months, the story has been with me day and night, even in my dreams. As I write a book, in a very real sense I live within the fictional world that I create. I'm so familiar with every aspect of that world; I know its ins and outs. And why wouldn't I? It's been my home for so long.

And then, boom! I write "The End" and it's gone, just a memory. It feels like someone pulled the rug out from under me. This book that I spent every minute of six or seven months with, this wondrous story that so captivated me as I wrote it . . . is over. It's painful.

I think I go into shock after finishing a book, I truly do. I don't know who I am or how to spend my days. I look around and everything seems strange. Things even smell funny.

The thing is, I can't jump directly into the next book because it's not time to write yet. I need to recharge my batteries before launching into the next project. And so for a time I don't write -- and it feels like the end of the world.

During these times I bump into the truth that without writing, I'm lost. It's like breathing to me now, something I need to do every day. The days or weeks between the time I write "The End" and the moment I begin the new book are a bleak time.

But then one day I realize I'm back, I'm recharged and it's time to write another one! And the process begins again, fresh and clean and filled with dreams.

November 19, 2010

Speaking of which . . .

The second book in my sci-fi trilogy, The Pod, the God and the Planet, includes a highly familiar character.

Yes, the pope is a character in book 2 of The Worlds!  Hooray!  The book opens in the 2050's so this character is actually a future pope, not the guy below. I have a lot of fun with the little feller and I think regular readers of this blog will get a kick out of the way he's portrayed.

Creating this character was amazing fun. I actually laughed as I wrote the scenes in which he appeared. It was a joyous act of creation. And when and if you read the book, in the end I think you'll agree that I was fairly kind to the man. I do not inspire hate for the character, only empathy. Mind you, he's still an old fool but we understand his motivations and he is not a monster. For an actual monster, see below).

The gay-hating pope

Note: I had this post up about a week ago but then decided it might be too much for visitors and took it down. That was silly of me and I've changed my mind. In fact, I'll be trashing the pope regularly. Here it is.

The creature who now calls himself pope is one sick puppy. Please tell me why this man feels compelled to lash out at gay people at every opportunity.

Oh, wait. I already know. He's a closet case, that's why. I think every gay person recognizes, through gaydar, that the pope is gay. His self-hatred, then, is immense.

This is the creature who said this year that gay people are "an attack on creation." He said this in a world environment where gay people are often attacked and murdered because of their sexual orientation. In other words, this lowly man foments hatred and murder against gay men, lesbians and transgender people. This is undeniable and inexcusable.

We should not be surprised, however. This same creature went to Africa last year, in effect, to kill a lot of people who live there. He actually told these folks, who live in a country where AIDS is rampant, that condoms do not protect you against AIDS.  Let's repeat this in clear terms: The pope lied to people in a way that will cause their deaths. This is the type of man he is. This is the type of organization he heads. (I roar with laughter when the church speaks of a "loving god." Pompous, evil twits, all of them.)

The anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-progress, anti-democrat, anti-sex, anti-life pope still sits on his magic throne, making believe he represents a mythical and needless god. He is the definition of hatred. He is an animal.

I write the pope an email every time he does something vicious. In other words, I write him every week or so. If you'd like to write to him, try  This is the address announced by the Evil Empire when he became empress, er, I mean pope.

I have no idea if anyone reads the emails, but they don't bounce back. I imagine the vatican set it up to throw off the faithful. Actually, I don't think anyone has ever read any of these emails, though they might have told some poor nun to do it.  But then they wouldn't pay attention to her if she told them anything about any of the messages -- because she's a woman. Sounds right, actually.

Go ahead, let the old, self-hating fart know what you think about this religion of his, and how he handles himself. He could use some rational mail. 

Please note: This is not a hateful attack on the pope. It is an attack on the pope's hatred. Different species.

Kid characters

I've come a long way on the kid front. When I was younger, I avoided children, thinking I might break them. I even supposed that I didn't like them. Mind you, up to that point in my life I hadn't interacted with any, you know, real children. My feelings were based on theory.

Ah, but then my sister had two boys. That's them in the photo, when they were little. They're 15 and 16 now and I couldn't be more proud of them. They grew up right next door and I involved myself in their lives willingly and extensively. They were at my house for at least two hours every day for nearly ten years. I had the after-school to dinner period on weekdays, playschool on weekends, and invited them for a sleepover once a month.  I was there.

Seeing these fascinating infants turn into people in slow motion was the best experience of my life -- and that's why I include child characters in my novels. I love them, they're fun to have around -- why not include them? Kids are idealistic, good-hearted, creative, learning machines, so capable in their early years that it's astounding. 

So yes, there are child characters in all three of my books -- and not just in minor roles. Kids count, in my view. In fact, child characters are heroes in two of the books.

If we are clear-headed, it's obvious that kids are the most important creatures in the world. Their continued health and safety is our main responsibility in life. I try to foster this idea in my books. Nothing matters as much as children. Nothing. 

(Please note how we atheists have no problem understanding the basics of morality. Religion is unnecessary and completely uncoupled from morality.)

Like gay people, children are a part of normal life and both will always have a place in my stories. Have you included children in major roles in any of your fiction?

November 18, 2010

Work update

Just a note to say I'm continuing with the edit of my first book, The Worlds. I've completed nine of fourteen chapters so I'm getting there. When this is done I'm going to write several new scenes for the book. That should be a lot of fun since it will give me a chance to visit this fictional world again. I had a ton of fun writing The Worlds. 

It's a long trek from idea to finished book -- it seems the work is only half done when I finish writing. Then it's time for readers, comments, re-thinks, rewrites and endless edits. So maybe half my time as a writer is spent writing (okay, maybe less). At least, that's how it works in my world.

I'd love to hear about other writers' experiences when editing their books. Chime in.

Shining a light on society's ills

There are times when I gleefully rip into religion in my novels. It's such a delicious, overripe target. I can't help myself. But religion is not the only thing with a bulls-eye on it in my fiction. Stupidity, ignorance, cruelty and irrationality also get my attention. I like to point out the idiotic things we humans do, and as we know, there's certainly no shortage of material out there.

When we do this as writers, when we shine a light on society's ills, we perform a vital function for our world -- especially now that journalists have, for the most part, stopped doing (or even understanding) their jobs. Without a Fourth Estate, this job may now be up to fiction writers. Think of what Dickens' writings did for the London of his times, and Mark Twain's witty dissections of the society of his day. This is a hallowed tradition. I can't aspire to those heights, of course. But I can do my part. I can shine a light on the ugly things that need fixing.

Of course, any writer who wants to go down this road has to decide how to go about it. What tone should we assume when performing this service in short stories, novels, plays and screenplays? What is the most effective way for us to get the job done, given our own, particular talents?

In our times, snark has become an art form. People are getting better and better at it and article after article on the internet leaves behind a verbally bloodied victim. It's our primary spectator sport these days.

But snark is such an easy out, so close and convenient and raw, like ripping open a vein. It's always there; we can always do it. We simply direct a venom stream at our target and let loose a volley. The stronger the venom, the louder the thud as the victim falls to the floor, senseless. It's a quick fix, a hit that satisfies -- at least, momentarily. We use it all the time on blogs and I say "Go, girl" to that. But should we bring a current trend, a faddish way of speaking and writing, into a work of fiction that we hope might be around for a few decades?   How will it sound in 2025 if the people of that day are not constantly at each other's throats?

So I asked myself if I wanted to bring this verbal style into my books. Did it sound inviting? Did I want to write many scenes that ended in verbal bloodshed? The answer was no. To me, snark doesn't fit with my style, so I decided not to go that route. Snark's fine -- and believe me, I can do it -- but I don't see a place for it in my stories. I have other ways to accomplish my task, using humor and perhaps a frightening level of honesty.

I write scenes that hold up a mirror to show us what we really are, and what we're really doing. There are aspects to our behavior that are hidden under rocks, not only from others but from us. As a writer, I'm merciless about lifting up every damn rock I see and cataloging what lies beneath. That's what I do: I let the reader see situations from odd angles, showing them something they never knew was there. And I try to throw in a laugh to soften the blow. That's how I like to do it.

I think it's devastating enough to show the vast emptiness at the heart of religion by telling the story of someone who is harmed by it. I don't need to rip anyone apart verbally. Just put the reader in the right situation and it's so easy to see -- and recoil from. I create those situations. That's how I shine my light on the ills of society.

How do you address this in your fiction? Does snark play a role in your current work?

November 17, 2010

Basing fictional characters on real people

One of the greatest things about writing is the creation of fictional characters. It's such a freeing thing to be able to create anyone I want. It's almost dizzying to have such power. Which makes a certain type of question from readers rather strange.

Now and then a reader will ask, "Is that me in your book?" Uh, no. I don't (usually) draw characters who "are" a particular person. That sounds limiting and oppressive, actually. We can make anyone up so why rely on a real-life model for a character?

On the other hand . . . I did it once. There is a character in my horror novel, Xmas Carol, that is highly reminiscent of one of my best friends. I didn't do it because I was fresh out of character ideas that day. It was a more ambitious thing.

I wanted to build a character that was like my friend in many ways.  My goal was to take that character on a fictional journey that represents my hopes for my real-life friend. In essence, it was a joyful tribute to my friend's worth. And that was the only time I did this.

One reader commented about a character, "I knew who he was right away! It's you!"  Uh, no. It wasn't. I don't appear in any of my books. (The odd thing is that this reader picked a character who meant very little to me as I painted him onto my screen. He was so minor, an afterthought, really.) 

Are there aspects of me in my characters? Certainly. I'm sure all writers inject their personal traits into characters. We know ourselves so well and we use this knowledge when we write. But there is no character in my books who is me, nor do I think I'll create such a character in the future.

Tell me, do you use real-life models in your fiction?

November 16, 2010

Where do they go?

A very long time ago, I read a short story that haunted me. I think I was 16 at the time so it must have been about 1964. I think it was in a book of short stories . . . but it could also have been an issue of Amazing Stories. If it's the latter, it may truly be lost to time, though Feedbooks is doing a bang-up job of republishing those old Amazing Stories for today's electronic reading devices.

I remember the name of the author as being Howard Fast but I've never been able to find the story and there doesn't seem to have been a Howard Fast who wrote sci-fi or horror. At least, I haven't been able to find him. As for the story's title, I have no idea what it was. I would love to reread that story -- but it's lost. On the off-chance that someone stops by here and can tell me where to find it, here is a summary:

A family is moving into a new home. I have the impression that they are poor and the home is a bit of a wreck, but I can't be sure. The family includes several young children, as I recall, perhaps five ranging in age from 6 to 12.

The story concerns a mirror. I think they find it in the new house but they may have bought it used. The family thinks it's very nice but it seems some fool painted the mirror's surface black. There are layers and layers of paint so the family sets to scraping it off.

They complete this task and as they move away from the mirror, we the readers see the red-eyed, hellish, clawed, long-toothed creatures as they skitter over the edge of the mirror and slip into the room. As the story ends, the ravenous creatures are heading toward the family room to eat the children. The story ends before they get the chance.

I know, I know: it doesn't seem like much. But I remember being terrified by it, perhaps because of the writer's skill or perhaps because I had a fever and was delirious. I can't be sure of anything because it's a lost story. I still think of it at times, and always with longing. I want to read it again!

Have you lost stories, books or treasured writers over the years? Maybe we can help each other find them. Tell us about yours in the comments.

November 15, 2010

Keep a tape recorder by your bed

How many great ideas occurred to people as they were falling asleep and were lost forever when they couldn't recall them in the morning?

The first time this happened to me, I thought, "Oh, I can remember that," and promptly fell asleep, losing my idea for all time. It drove me nuts the next day. I could still feel it but it was just out of reach. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't latch onto it.

As writers, our ideas are our lifeblood so losing them is a real tragedy. After seeing too many ideas disappear into the mist, I became determined to find a way to capture them. The next day, I bought a handheld digital recorder at Amazon and it has lived on my night table ever since.

Has it saved me? Many times! It is so great to wake up, vaguely remembering the outline of an idea, and then be able to pick up the tape recorder and play back my thoughts. And there it is: that great idea -- saved!

This came up last night when I had a wonderful notion about the ending for a short story I've been planning to write. I love the concept of the story but I had hit a brick wall with the ending. Nothing seemed to work. Well, it came to me last night just as I was drifting away and I managed to reach for the recorder and mumble my idea into it before slipping into unconsciousness. Now I can write that story! 

Pads and notebooks are great but if you're like me, when you're falling asleep you don't want to turn on the light and sit up to write an idea down. It's so easy to push a button in the dark, speak my piece and drift off to sleep.

Save your ideas. Figure out systems to record them. And then write, write, write.

We improve our writing by writing

Now that I've written three books and am working on a fourth, I've noticed that my writing has improved with each book. It makes sense, of course. Practice is how we learn a skill.

I can't help but notice as I edit The Worlds, my first book, that I'm a lot better than that now. The story is wonderful but in its present form it lacks the depth of the later books. This is a strange thing to discover as I proceed with the editing. I wasn't aware there was such a difference between the earliest and latest books. There is so much more I could have done back then if only I'd known how.

The thing is, I do now. So I'm reinforcing the book as I edit, building greater character depth and improving the story. Another interesting thing is that the last time I read book 1, I hadn't written book 2. Now that the second book is complete I can tailor the first book accordingly.  After all, I'm familiar with the next fifty years of this fictional world's existence. I hadn't realized this, going into the edit. It's great.

Looking back, I can see that I was in a race with myself when I wrote The Worlds, wondering all the while, "Can I really do this? Can I write a book?" I rushed to the end like it was a finish line. But times have changed. I can do more with The Worlds now.

In other words, I suspect my 87,000-word book just got a lot longer. In fact, I think I'm looking at a major rewrite. Such is life. I'll do whatever I have to to make my books the best they can possibly be. I owe it to them.

I'd love to hear from other writers about their experiences editing their fiction.  See that comment button down there? You can click it, you know.

November 14, 2010

A cover for "The Worlds"

Recently, I described a cover for The Worlds to my cousin, Carmine. It was just something that popped into my mind, and it seemed appropriate.

Within a couple of hours, he produced this image with DotMatrix, a free Mac app. (That's why there's tacky advertising on it.) It's actually similar to what I'd envisioned, though there should be many more Earths, and of course it would have to be a higher-quality image. This would be the background for the cover. 

(For those of you who haven't read The Worlds -- which is just about all of you -- the image is a hint as to the content of the book. I've been keeping the idea under wraps until publication. It won't be long until you can buy a copy and find out for yourself.)

Update: I've been reading The Worlds today and it's going well. However, I'm rewriting quite a bit of it. Everything can be improved, it seems. Because of this, I'm not zipping through the book. Editing is not reading. It's slowing me down. Actually, I have no idea when I'll be done but I'm enjoying the process, so it doesn't really matter. And in the end, I'll have a better book. 

After that, it's time to address the cover problem.

Five notebooks

I keep five notebooks for recording story ideas. Could I write all my ideas in one book? Yes, but I work on several books at once so that would only make it harder to find a specific note. For this reason, I use a number of notebooks.  That's a photo of my current workbooks above.

There is a separate notebook for each book I'm currently writing. One is for Xmas Carol, which I'm still working on. (The book is out to readers at this time and I got a great call this morning from a reader who just reached the climax. Lookin' good!) The Xmas Carol notebook is the large blue-green one on the right end.

A second is for Ink, which Is also a current project. It's the medium-sized yellow notebook. I've got another book just for new story ideas. It lists idea after idea, and this is where I go when I want to write a new short story. I can't tell you how happy I am about the ideas in this book. There's good writing ahead! The book for new ideas is the medium-sized avocado notebook.

I also have a large black notebook for the third book of The Worlds Trilogy. The story isn't written, nor is the plot set in stone. It too is a work in progress, though it's only in the planning (i.e., thinking) stage.

And finally, I have a small copper notebook to carry on my infrequent forays into the world, dog forbid an idea occur to me and I find myself unprepared to record it.

Each notebook you see above is a Clairefontaine Basics notebook. The paper is unbeatable and is so friendly to fountain pens, which I always use when writing by hand. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have leather covers handmade for these notebooks at Renaissance Art. It's not as expensive as you might think.

(Note: they don't make perfect items, instead producing friendly, unique covers with all sorts of imperfections. I love them. Each is like an old friend, wrinkled here and there. In other words: perfectionists beware. Me, I think I've bought about 10 of their covers and I'm perfectly happy.)

This is my arsenal. Whatever idea occurs to me, no matter which book it concerns, I have a place where I can record it. This is very helpful when I sit down to write the book or story.

On the other hand, I also notice that each thing I write down in these notebooks essentially transfers the idea permanently to my brain. I can go to the computer the next day and start writing, often without looking at my notes. I think this says something about how the brain works. Perhaps by writing the words manually, they go directly into secure storage in the brain.  It's as if my contact with the idea is more intimate when I print it in a notebook by hand. I'm just musing here but it seems that way to me.

Write your ideas down in an organized way. Trust yourself. Know that your ideas are good and worth recording. This way, when you want to write something, you won't find yourself saying, 'But what will I write about?"

Works for me. What works for you?

November 13, 2010

Do you eat during a day of writing?

When I'm writing, the world disappears. There is no world. If I have music on, I don't hear it. If something crashes outside my window, I only register a distant noise. None of it matters. There is nothing in the universe except what I'm writing.

One thing I've noticed is that I never eat when I'm writing, not because that's the plan but because I don't think of it. I do not feel hunger and I never lose energy: I am a writing machine. The only thing that can get through to me when I'm writing is my own thoughts.

Writing always feels like a rush. I have the sensation of flying as my fingers dart across the keyboard. It's like a drug in many ways (and I'd know, take my word on this). When druggies are on a toot, they don't eat -- and I think the writing rush causes a similar effect. We tap into our adrenaline reserves as we write, and as is typical with this raging chemical, we rise above mortal concerns. Lift that truck? Sure! Hunger? Meh. It just doesn't come up.

And when it's over it's like coming down from speed. I find myself wondering when I last ate, and can't answer the question. I'm shaky and feel like I'm about to collapse. At the end of a day of writing, the lack of calories hits me so hard that I can hardly walk to the kitchen to prepare something to eat.

Afterward, in the evening, the rush is still there -- though in a gentler form. It remains behind, glowing, buoying me up. I just feel so damn good when the writing's gone well.

But there is a price to pay for this wild ride. I find the constant rise and fall of my writing days takes a lot out of me, especially when I'm closing in on the end of a book. Then, I can't let go and after writing diligently for two or three weeks to finish the story, I crash back to Earth and fall apart.

For days after finishing a novel, it's actually hard to think -- or rather, I don't think at all. I'm like a zombie. And when I try to resume writing after a long run and a period of rest, it's a struggle to get myself going. It's the exhaustion from riding the wave. 

Still, I'll take the rush of writing and bear its aftereffects stoically, every time.  My opinion? It's faaaaabulous!  Any of this sound familiar? Tell me about it in the comments.

Reading "The Worlds"

It's very peaceful in the country, something I never suspected when I lived in Manhattan. Or maybe I thought "peaceful" meant boring. Turns out I like it. This is a photo of the pond in my backyard. (When the water vapor rises from the pond surface like that, I always hope a dinosaur will pop out. Never happens. Darn!)  I'm still amazed that I don't live in a concrete jungle anymore. Mind you, I loved my concrete jungle and cast no aspersions in NYC's direction.

As promised, I began reading my first sci-fi book, The Worlds, today. I was hesitant to begin. After not looking at it for over a year, would I be in for a rude awakening? Would I learn that I've been dreaming for the past two years and the book isn't good? I still get those fears from time to time.

But lo and behold, I'm enjoying it a lot. I tried to read it as an ePub on my Sony Reader at first, but that didn't work. I can't look at my words without an urge to improve them, so I went to the computer and read it in Scrivener instead. This gave me the freedom to change a word here and there, not that I did very much of this. It sounded fine.

In fact, I think it sounded quite good. I'd be proud to release this to the public, and I suspect that time is not far off. Hang on, the book is coming.

November 12, 2010

Nonsense creatures are not scary

I've always loved horror novels. I spent my entire life with my nose buried in a book (including during school hours) and half the time it was a horror novel. So when it came time to write one, I was certainly well-versed. Should be easy, right?

But then the obvious problem hit me: I've grown up and picked up some knowledge along the way. There are no witches, goblins, ghosts, gods or any other sorts of supernatural creatures. People don't come back from the dead, flesh-eating zombies are absurd, and not one single person on Earth needs an exorcism. I can't be frightened by nonsense. I'm all growed up.  If I included a monster in a book, it would have to be a real one.

To me, horror has to seem real to be frightening. The reader must accept the premise of the story for it to be effective. And while sizable American audiences seem happy to immerse themselves in any ludicrous idea at all, that's not the road I want to travel as a writer. No wizards, spells, demons or gods will find their way into my books. (The "god" in "The Pod, the God and the Planet" is not what he seems, to say the least.)

In truth, even after these considerations, a large part of me wanted to write a ghost story. I'd been raised on them; they called to me. I even considered suspending my judgment, holding my nose and writing one for posterity. That salty, ramshackle beachfront mansion wanted me to write about it. It was so hard to resist! Couldn't I please write one? Please!? 

But I couldn't because there's no there there and that's an insurmountable problem. Still, I couldn't let go. But how could I possibly write a ghost story if ghosts don't exist? I refused to relinquish the idea; I gnawed at it for weeks. There must be a way, I thought.

Finally, I asked myself a question: What is like a ghost?  And therein lies the tale of Xmas Carol.

PS: I'll be reading the first book, The Worlds, tomorrow and probably won't post till late in the day. It is so strange to read your own books. Any other writers want to chime in? How do you react when you read your own stuff?

Self-publishing? Yup.

I've decided not to submit my books to a traditional publisher. I haven't stated it clearly before now, but I intend to self-publish. I don't have the time do deal with publishers, editors and book tours. I'm going to be 63 this month and I need to spend every minute writing the next books. Plus the time for my books is now, not later. I have no urge to enter into a painfully slow process. Submit your book and maybe we'll get back to you in four months? I don't think so.

There's more to it than this, of course. The pay structure is excellent for self-publishers, with the bulk of the money going to the author. Also, traditional publishers seem to be in denial about the pricing of ebooks, selling them for much more than they should. I'm thinking $2.99 is a good price. I want more people to read it, not less, and that price strikes me as sensible for an intangible thing like an ebook.

As for the benefits of being published by a reputable house, meh. Being famous is not something I crave -- quite the opposite. Awards and fame sound oppressive. As for the basics, I don't need an editor because I edit my work. The only thing a publishing house could do for me is create a cover for the books. But I'll work that out on my own.

That's only touches the surface. Publishers expect things of you and they have rules. I don't do the things other people want me to do. I never have. I'm a loner with his own vision and his own loose rules. While it would be wonderful to meet someone who could give me excellent advice about my writing, that seems a fantasy and I'm not at all convinced I would find this in a publishing house. But mainly, I just don't have time for this.

In the early part of 2011, I will publish "The Worlds". It may take a while for people to find the book without anyone advertising its existence, but I'll do my best to get the word out. And I'll have readers. That's really all I want.

Do fat books need a diet?

Now, I love a long book -- if it's a good one. Who doesn't? (I know, I know, just about everyone lately.) But it seems to me there are a lot of sci-fi and horror books out there that are way too long, for no good reason at all.

Dean Koontz, I love ya, guy but your books should be half as long. When readers skim through sections because they're not essential to the story, you have a problem. I admire your stories and recognize your tremendous talent. I just wish the tales weren't . . . let's see . . . buried under extraneous elements. 

Stephen King, you out there? I can't say I love you but I used to, I really did. Your first book, "Carrie", was a masterpiece -- a short masterpiece. Your talent was so raw and vital that it raged across every page. The story moved swiftly, showing readers only enough and never more. But now you write endless tomes that should be one-fifth as thick, by my reckoning. And if the raw talent is still there, I can't find it under such a heavy pile of words. Sorry, but I'm being honest. I miss that guy who wrote Carrie (and Pet Sematary) and I wonder if he'll ever rise to the surface again. I sure hope so.

Lately I find myself wondering if this a common writers' disease. Is it catching? More to the point, am I already infected and exhibiting the symptoms? The three books I wrote ended up being progressively larger. If the three manuscripts were sitting side by side on a table, you could identify each by its size.

"The Worlds" is 88,000 words; "The Pod, the God and the Planet" is 135,000 words; and "Xmas Carol" weighs in at a meaty 202,000 words. So have I caught Book Growitis? I sincerely hope not.

In fact, it seems my size progression may be turned back in the next edit of "Xmas Carol", the horror novel. I'm getting feedback that the beginning may be too slow. Everyone is interested at the start and it seems they're fairly interested for a while after, but it's only at the halfway point that the book seems to take off for readers. Their interest jumps there and is enthusiastically maintained all the way to the finish. At least, that's what I hear.

I grok what my readers are telling me: the pace is too slow between the opening and the mid-point. I suspect this means I need to cut, cut, cut -- something I've done little of in my short writing career. At least, I think that's the problem. It also could be that I need to insert a new, exciting element in the early portion of the book. I'll know when I read and re-edit it a couple of weeks from now (after all the readers are done).

The short version is that I think the story needs to pass through the character-building sections more swiftly. I can fix that. Once readers have pointed a problem out to me, it's a simple matter to jump in and fix it. Without my readers I don't know what I'd do. Readers are invaluable, and I thank mine here and always.

Back to the Big Boys. I'd like to edit either DK's or SK's books if I had the time. There is too much there, and that's a fact. Under it all, they're fabulously imaginative, of course, and I admire both men. Each have written gems. But these days, if they used less padding in their books I think we'd find it easier to dig our way down to the good stuff.

On the other end of the spectrum, of course, are novels that deliver a tremendous impact without using 1,000 pages. Though I'm sure many would disagree with me, I find Whitley Strieber's "The Hunger" to be a nearly perfect book: precise, compact and elegant. Another is "Sliver" by Ira Levin, a slim book about an improbably thin building, told in the most spare language imaginable. "Rosemary's Baby" is in the same class. Less is more.

What do you think? Any other writers you'd like to put on a diet?

November 11, 2010

When your story takes a sudden turn

So you have your book all planned out and you expect smooth sailing ahead. Nothing can stop you now. But then out of nowhere comes a thought and you realize something is very wrong with your plot, your premise, your character (or whatever).  The new idea is important and you can't ignore it.  You feel hopeless. Your story is ruined.  It seems there is no way to write the book the way you'd originally planned -- and this hits you like 100 cold water balloons.  Now what?

Something like this happened to me a couple of days ago.  I was happily intending to write the next section of "Ink" when I realized something crucial was missing.  But to insert this change, I'd have to rewrite everything that came before it (only one long scene at that point, luckily) -- plus my thinking about the ending of the story would have to be retooled.  Damn.

But late that night I realized this was a positive turn of events and not a tragedy at all. The newly inserted idea actually resolved a much bigger conflict I was going to have to face at the end of the book.  (As I said in an earlier post, I don't work out all the details of my stories beforehand, preferring to wing it, at least partially.)  So not only wasn't the new idea a problem -- it was just what I needed.

This is another example of living with your idea, letting it roll around in your head and allowing it to change and grow.  Writing is an organic process.  It lives, so it shouldn't be surprising that it exhibits signs of life.  During the course of writing a book, I find the story weaves this way and that, bowing to the pressures of logic and storytelling.  It goes where it needs to go, if I let it.

Don't let your plans slow down your progress.  Adapt, and keep on writing.

The only slogan that works

I was feeling worn out today and didn't think I could write.  However, I employed my fabulous mantra -- Drink Espresso and Open Scrivener -- and it worked. It always works.

I wrote the next section of "Ink" today, the book within which my short stories will live. Since there are four short stories to surround, I need five scenes for the "outer" story.  To date, I've done three of the needed scenes and have inserted three short stories within this framework. It's sounding good so far, IMHO. Only one more short story to stick in, meaning I've only got to write two additional scenes and the book is done.

Okay, okay, not the "book", the novella. And is that a sad fate for fiction, or what? If the only thing you can do with short stories is give them away, the novella probably occupies a rung even lower on that ladder. How many readers see "novella" and think, "oh, goodie!"? Uh-huh, it's a bad length.

Nevertheless, I like the idea of writing a book to showcase my short stories. I'll decide what to do with it later.

Thing is, I wrote today, which makes me a major success.

Around the writers' web

A couple of days ago I read an interesting article. Bored of Edukation is a post written by Jay Stringer at Do Some Damage, a crime fiction writers' blog. 

He's a writer -- and he's dyslexic. Interesting combination, no?  I encourage you to read the entire post, but I particularly liked these words:
"But writing is different, just as with my extended example of video editing. It's taking a block of text, or a blank page, and arranging patterns around until it looks right, until those patterns click together in a way that is telling a story, and has an ebb and flow, a rhythm. It's 3D mapping; taking the structure and flipping it, spinning it, chopping it. Beating on it until it's the right shape."
I'm not dyslexic but I identify strongly with this description. That's it: seeing the patterns. That's how you know to move this scene to that spot, to place mention of a clue right here, and it's how you know that what you've written works. You see the pattern and it's just right (or it's time to rewrite.)

Go read the full post if you have an interest in the topic. I've always found dyslexia wildly interesting. I commented on the article, by the way, adding an observation from my own life.

Note: I like Do Some Damage because the five or so writers who blog there often speak about the experience of writing.  It's a nuts and bolts site where the writing process really steps forward. Too bad they write in a different genre.

November 10, 2010

Seeing the next scene

The paper I use for scene books
I need to see a scene clearly in my head -- or at least see the beginning clearly -- before I can write it. If I can see it in my mind, I can create it on paper. All I have to do is go to the computer and begin.

On the other hand, when things are going poorly and my writing slows to a crawl and stops, it's always because I can't see the next scene. I know where the book is going but I'm not clear on the exact steps needed to take it from here to there. I'll say it again: I can't see the next scene. Stops me dead, as it should.

That's when I reach for my scene book. I put my writing aside for a day or two (okay, even longer) and focus only on visualizing the next few scenes.  (Why stop with one, right?  When I'm dead in the water, I try to nail down four to seven new scenes before I resume writing. Then I can really get on a roll.)

For my scene book I use an annotation-ruled notebook, the kind pictured above, that has a quarter column down the left side and ruled lines on the right.  (I've only seen them at Levenger, though surely they're available from others.)  This is where I carve out the details of upcoming scenes.

In the left column I write a title -- anything that will clearly tell me what scene this is. For instance, "Harry insults Nigel ".  On the right I list the components of the scene, using words and phrases that will bring the idea to life in my brain when I next look at them.  As I've said elsewhere, snatches of dialogue are always good to get a scene up and moving, and I often include dialogue in a scene summary.  Sometimes I write the beginning of the scene, just as it will appear in the book.  If the words occur to me, I may as well get them down.  This is of course a great help when I sit down to write the scene at the computer -- it's already going when I start.  But mostly the scene book contains brief notes that swiftly summarize a scene idea.

Good, I've got one scene laid out. It's in my scene book and that makes me feel so secure. I know that when I look at what I've written, I will be able to write the scene  Time to move on to the next one and go through the same process, writing down the result in my trusty scene book. 

(Not that it's necessary but I use a different ink color for every scene idea. It makes them distinct so that I can tell right away where one ends and another begins. I find this makes it easier to scan the notes later, and I suspect that scanning through my scene book would be a murkier affair if everything was in blue-black ink. Plus, I love color and always work it into my day. Hey, I'm a hippie. Sue me.) 

A scene book with four or five (or seven!) scenes laid out is the greatest asset I could have as a writer. The notes act as guideposts, easing me into the process of writing.  With a fleshed-out scene book at my side, I'm unstoppable.

Try it -- or perhaps you have other secrets you'd like to share in the comments.  This one works for me.

I wrote today

That's the name of the game. The only question for any given day is: did you write today?  If the answer is yes, I consider myself to be a Major Sucess.  I scream, "Yay!!!!!!!!!" in my journal.  I really do.  And I deserve it because I've done my job.

Today I wrote the next scene for Ink, the book that contains four (I've shaved it down to four) short stories, surrounded by an "over-story".  The short stories are already written, though they need to be edited.  What I'm doing during this off-period -- while I'm waiting for readers to get back to me about my horror novel -- is trying to finish up this odd book.  It's a spare-time project.

There are still aspects of the plot that I have to hash out, but today I think I did a good job of setting up the premise, the trick of the outer story.  It's getting there.

That's what it's all about: writing and moving ahead, and in the process creating new worlds.  I love being a writer.

November 9, 2010

Okay, okay, I'll do it! Now stop nagging me!

I'm doing absolutely nothing to get my books out the door.  It's time to deal with this issue.  Like every writer, I feel it's enough that I write the books. Obviously, someone else should market them.  And like every other writer who thinks this way, I've got to get over it and do the job.

This weekend I'm going to re-read my first book, "The Worlds". It's been at least a year since I've read it and if I'm planning on sending it out into the world, alone and unprotected, I have to take one final look.  Is it ready for prime time?  That's what I need to determine.

I still have to find someone to create a cover, but I'll deal with that when I get there.  I will read the book this weekend and report my reaction here.  It's time.

The Goldilocks Zone

As readers know, I've written two sci-fi books (and haven't yet submitted them to a publisher; more on that in a future post).  One of the concepts you have to consider when writing sci-fi is how far in the future you want to set your story.

I have always adored sci-fi.  I can't even imagine how many sci-fi books I've read.  Tons is as close as I can come to a figure.  Some of the stories took place in our century, or even the last century.  Others took the reader on a journey that stretched thousands of years into the future.

The thing is, although it's great fun to imagine the distant future, it's sometimes hard to connect our lives to those of the characters.  It may be a great tale, but as a reader I note that this will not be my future.  I think it's more exciting to read something that seems like it could happen to us -- the people alive today.  When a story holds out a carrot like that, I grab it.

So I set "The Worlds" in the year 2030, not so far off that we can't relate to it, yet not so close that we have trouble believing there could be such an amazing new technology discovered within that timeframe.  It's the sci-fi Goldilocks zone.

The thing I hope people will say when they read The Worlds is,
"I want that!"  I think the book delivers on this score.  It does indeed seem like something that could come along one day.  Maybe 2030 is a bit optimistic but at some point in time we will be able to experience a scientific wonder like the one I made up -- a technology that revolutionizes the very concept of life itself.

I want my worlds to seem reachable. I want us to long for them. I want us to dream.

November 8, 2010

Politics of the day

For me, this is the iconic image for our era.  It says it all.

For the most part, this blog won't be a place for politics, at least not from my end.  Enough good people are covering it all, in intensely nauseating detail.  I commend them but I don't have the stomach for it.  When things change and there are some good guys too root for again, I may change my tune.

But for now, there's nothing to say.  I see no light at the end of the tunnel.  It's disheartening but it's also the very thing that drives me to the computer to write.  If the world is going to be a huge disappointment, I'll just have to make some other reality so I can spend my time there.  Makes sense to me.

Writing fiction is the way I keep myself sane.

Seeing the connections

(I finished my morning's work of editing and may go back and write a new scene this afternoon.  This was for the book of short stories.  It's called, "Ink".  Sounded good.  I'm pleased with it.)

If you're trying to move your idea onto the page and write a novel or a short story, and have had problems getting yourself to actually write the darned thing, perhaps this will help.

There are movie makers like Alfred Hitchcock, who go into a project already knowing everything about every single scene.  He literally saw each frame of his movies before he made them.  Similarly, there are writers who do this with their works of fiction.  They know everything, going in.  However, I suspect this type of writer is rare.

Coming up with a plot that works is a mental exercise. But for most of us, it's an ongoing process that occurs during the writing of the book.  In other words, we don't know everything before we dive in.  I've read a lot of fiction writers' blogs, and some wing it all the way, while some try to figure it out beforehand and then aim for that design.  How you do this is up to you.

In my third book, Xmas Carol, the one that's out to readers now, every single thing I brought into in the book comes together at the end to provide a bang-up climax.  I tied up every loose end.  But did I know about all that when I began?  No.

The thing is, as you become intimately involved with the plot, and you spend time writing the book and thinking in your off-hours about the characters and situations -- you begin to see connections.  That's the magic of plotting: the connections.

They arise naturally from the story.  A capability in one character comes into the story when it interacts with another character's beliefs or activities (or whatever).  It's natural that these things come together, and by letting the story live in your head, and visiting it every day, these things become apparent to you.

It's in our nature.  We see things in other people, right?  We see how things develop and we suspect this or that will happen.  Same thing with a book.  You come to know your characters so intimately that the action in the book arises from this knowledge.  Of course they do this or that; it's their nature.

More and more, these connections become apparent and you work them into the story.  But you'll never notice the connections unless you spend time thinking about your plot.  Be with it, come to know it, spend all your off-hours with it -- come to live it.  If you do, you will see the connections in your story, and amazing things will happen.

There are times when I'm in the middle of writing a book and I'll be, for instance, with people in a room, and I'll leave to get a cup of coffee or something.  When I return to the group, I realize I've been in my worlds during that trip.  I actually go into my fictional world, as if I'm a character who lives there!  It's so wild.  It's like multi-tasking reality.  You live in one world and then when you start writing, you live in two.  It's so refreshing.  I find that jumping from one world to the other gives me energy to apply in either world.

It's an all-encompassing thing.  Let your story possess you.  Think about it all the time and the connections will become apparent to you.  Connections = plot.  It's that simple.