Saturday, April 30, 2011

All right vs Alright

Recently, Nathan Bransford mentioned that his usage of ‘alright’ brought out the ‘all right’ police. Which one is the correct term?
Here is what Merriam-Webster has to say.

All right :
1. satisfactory,agreeable
2. safe, well
3. good, pleasing – often used as a generalised term of approval
Alright means the same thing, though the usage of it is questioned. Alright appeared around 75 years after all right reappeared (apparently it had gone out of usage). Some critics still hold that alright is not the correct usage, and my own spell checker (UK English) shows it as a spelling error.

However, alright remains in use by some people, and was used by, among others, Gertrude Stein, a poet and writer, so I think using it is fine either way. Unless your editor insists on changing it.

All right – Used more often (and perhaps more in formal writing, I’m not sure).
Alright – Used less often, however it is common in fiction dialogue.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Making a Scene

This post is mostly inspired by the Scene-Creation workshop on Holly Lisle’s site. I love reading what she writes because she puts it in concrete ways – easy to grasp.

A scene is a single thing that happens in a story, usually out of one point of view and usually one place. But what is a scene, and what should a scene be?

Conflict. That is one part of a scene that is pretty important. The characters in the scene must have something they want, and at the end of the scene, they must either get it, or not. Things will stand in the way – these generate conflict.
Plot movement. A scene must move the plot forward in some way. Something in the scene must drag onward to the conclusion – instigate movement, development, whatever is needed. It can be a character that realises something (important), or it can be the discovery or mastery of some artefact. Whatever the case may be, the show/plot must go on.

That is the two most important things in a scene, I think. A character must want something that will move the plot forward, and something has to stand in his way. Then he must either overcome it or fail. End of scene.

Holly Lisle says it in the most concrete way possible, and I will remember those words every time I wonder what should happen in a scene. A scene must change something. In her words, “it isn't a scene until something changes; and once something changes, it's time to move on.”

That is the matter at hand. The thing that is important. Before a scene ends, something must change, be it a relationship, ownership, general feeling, the quality of the earth’s crust. When that something changes, you have a scene.

As a scene is the smallest piece of story, per se, that a book can be broken down into, the same can probably be applied to larger pieces. Could it be that each chapter must bring a change? Each novel must bring a change? Each series must bring a change? When you look at it, that should be exactly what happens.

Every piece of story brings a development of some kind (if it doesn’t, it probably doesn’t belong in your story). A scene is the smallest piece, but a very important one. Initiate change, move on. That is a formula I’ll keep in mind.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Putting in the Hours

To be a master at something, you have to put in 10,000 hours of practice. That’s a concept that attempts to identify the cause of success.
I’m not sure who came up with it – I think it was Malcolm Gladwell.

Let me do the math for you.
If you spend two hours a day writing, you will reach 10,000 hours in 5000 days. That is somewhere between 13 and 14 years.

That’s a long time.

Still, it is reachable, right? Consider the words of the age-old saying, “Practice makes perfect.” Now consider the words of Vince Lombardi, a renowned football coach, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

So now we combine these two things. It will take you roughly 13 and a half years of perfect practice to get good at something.

Why exactly 10,000 hours? Why perfect practice?

10,000 hours is not necessarily a specific number, but rather a number so high that average people will never reach it. Most people give up before they even get close. Thus, only those who persevere get success.

What I think Lombardi means by perfect practice is that it doesn’t help you to practice doing something wrong. That won’t make you better at it. It probably applies more to football than writing, but I’ll try to apply it anyway. Let’s say your pacing is bad. By practising bad pacing, you’re not going to get any better. The only way to get better is to see where your bad pacing is and where your good pacing is and putting in more of the good pacing.

That said, I don’t think it works as shut and close as it sounds. Writing bad prose lets you see how to improve. Everything you write helps you grow. Why? I have no idea. Maybe it can be explained by psychology beyond my understanding. Either way, perfect practice might not be the correct word. Rather we should say deliberate practice.

As you can read on Justine Musk’s blog here (you should read it, well worth it), deliberate practice is practising hard. You have to work on the edge of your ability. Push yourself to do the best you possibly can. You will fail, but to quote Justine (who might have been quoting someone else, I don’t know), “the important thing is that you’re failing forward.”

Humans learn from mistakes. Someone once said that the key to success is to make mistakes faster than your competition so that you get more opportunities to learn.

You have to practice and practice, making mistakes and learning from them as you go. The more this happens, the closer you are to success.
For more on deliberate practice, the Dip and other awesome things, read Justine’s post here.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Things that Inspire : Curtains

Curtains? Yes, curtains.

A curtain is a piece of cloth that blocks light or drafts. In general, curtains are mostly used to minimise light in a room. It can create ambiance or atmosphere. Another common use is for privacy reasons – hiding whatever is behind the curtain. Theatres use curtains for exactly this purpose, blocking the audience’s view as things are being prepared on-stage, or at the end of a play.

Curtains (sometimes veils, though generally the same thing) are often associated with border between things – such as the veil between the living and dead in the Sword of Truth series. It usually refers to an unseen but fragile barrier between two worlds.

Simply put, curtains are made to hide things. Hiding things – akin to secrets – create friction and, when discovered, conflict. When not revealed, but known of – either by the reader or another character – it creates tension.

In short, secrets (and subsequently hiding things) are great for stories.

Thus, curtains can be used to hide things or oneself. They can be used to separate two places – also a great story, since an unseen place often attracts people (aka curiosity), and accidentally tearing it will probably have consequences.

Herewith my attempt at flash fiction (feel free to leave an opinion or a piece of flash fiction based on the subject at hand – 200 words or less in this case – of your own in the comments):

John checked that his father was still asleep. A gentle snoring arose from the sofa. He had had a long day. Perfect.
Though he knew his father was a pretty sound sleeper, John worried that the absence of his master key could somehow make him easier to rouse, so he had taken off his shoes and sneaked down the metal hall in his socks.
The key turned easily in the big metal door that his father always kept locked. When he entered, he saw the room he had seen only a few times. Tables and electronic devices. Papers and notes. But the thing that he wanted to see – the thing that had drawn him here at a risk – was the thing that was hidden behind the wine-red curtain.  He wondered what it was that his father hid from him.
He stood before it for a full minute before he could gather enough courage to move again. He could hear bubbles from inside. The curtain moved smoothly against glass.
For a moment, John thought he looked in a reflection. Then he saw two more, each drifting in an enormous glass tank.
He screamed.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Affect vs Effect

Affect and effect are sometimes used incorrectly. Here is what Merriam-Webster says:

Affect :
the conscious subjective aspect of an emotion considered apart from bodily changes; also : a set of observable manifestations of a subjectively experienced emotion
1. to make a display of liking or using
2. to put on a pretense of
3. to tend toward
4. to produce an effect upon

Effect :
1. something that inevitably follows an antecedent
2. an outward sign
3. power to bring about a result
4. movable property (plural : effects)
5. a distinctive impression or the creation of a desired impression
6. the quality or state of being operative
to cause to come into being

That’s a whole lot of definitions. I’m going to pretty much ignore most of them and focus on the most commonly used (and confused) meanings. Basically, affect has to do with pretence; or the creation of an influence or effect. On the other hand, effect has to do with accomplishing something; or the result of something.

Affect – Doing something with pretence (e.g. I affected a happy mood despite being depressed); Bringing about an effect (e.g. My depression affected the moods of everyone else).
Effect – Achieving a final result (e.g. The board effected a change in the company); The result of a phenomenon (e.g. The change had a negative effect on the company’s profits).

Friday, April 22, 2011

Working with Exposition

Exposition is an important, but often ill-used part of writing. Internal monologue, as it is also called, gives the reader an idea of what the character is thinking. Too much of this (or rather, too much of the wrong sort of this) and your reader will start to skim – or just put the book down.

Often, a character will think about an event in the past; mull over it. To avoid making the passage tedious, ensure that there is something new in there. Donald Maass, in The Fire in Fiction, says that by repeating the information that the reader already has does not increase the impact, but rather lowers the tension. And as you know, tension is the staple of good fiction. You cannot avoid letting a character think about the past – it is supposed to happen. But to keep the tension – or even heighten it – you have to let the character see something new. A new angle, a new question. Something he hadn’t thought of before (especially something that creates conflict). For example, say someone walked into Billy so hard he fell to the ground, then just walked away. When Billy thinks about this later, instead of letting him think about what had happened, rather make him realise that the person had grabbed his wallet.

When you turn to internal monologue, tension can be achieved by creating conflict within the character. By conflicting two emotions – often directly opposite – you create a tension inside the person as he struggles to deal with the problem. Using exposition, you create a conversation in that person’s head, mulling over the possibilities of both options. Say Billy, in my previous example, sees the guy who took his wallet in an alleyway. Firstly, Billy wants to get his wallet back, but secondly, his fear of the man – a burly guy – drives him away. In him is a struggle for dominance where he tries to decide what to do. By introducing something new – say Billy remembers that inside his wallet is the only photo he has of his deceased mother – you can tilt the scales to one end and force action.

Now Billy approaches this guy, his heart pounding like a blacksmith hammer. He somehow gathers up the courage to ask the guy to give his wallet back. The guy steps back and brandishes a knife. Now Billy is scared out of his wits and his conflict is back. However, he won’t be thinking hours of exposition in the face of danger. His mind will work quickly and his actions will show us the product of his thoughts. Exposition should only be in pauses between action – except if the narrator is an older I – and not when the action is happening.

Exposition is telling. Action is showing. It is two sides of the same coin – your character. You need both of these two to flesh your character and make him real. Contrary to popular belief, fiction does indeed tell – but only in the right places.

Feel free to leave a comment.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Should we be Dreaming?

When I say dreams here, I don’t mean the thoughts you get during REM sleep (though, they might have a connection there somewhere), but rather the goals you want to achieve. Specifically big goals.

Let’s say your dream is to get your book number one on the New York Times Bestseller list. This is a pretty unreasonable dream. The chances of that happening are close to nothing. Is it worth keeping? Or is it just going to make you feel disappointed when you never reach it?

Dreaming big sets up expectations in yourself, giving you something that you will associate with success (in this case the NY Times Bestseller list). So when you don’t reach it, you will feel as if you failed because you couldn’t reach your self made goal. This is made worse by any time constraints you attach to it, such as ‘bestseller before I’m 30’. By giving yourself a point where an ultimatum must happen – either win or lose – maybe you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

Does this mean we shouldn’t dream big? That we should only pursue small goals like writing a novel in 10 years?


I firmly believe that you should have something to aim for. By all means, set smaller goals so that you can feel success. But remember that you should always have something big to head towards, an oasis on the horizon if you will.
To have a target means that you will always aim for something. But it is pretty important that you leave it as a lifelong goal without a time limit, like ‘I want to have a book on the NY Times Bestseller list’. That means if you failed to get one book there, you’ll still have chances for as long as you live.

Technically, there is a time constraint for this too, since you only have time until the end of your life, but I think by that time you will have gained enough wisdom to realise that not all dreams are meant to be reached.

Some are only there to guide our path.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Things that Inspire : Umbrella

An umbrella is most commonly a canopy that protects against certain elements, usually rain or sun. In general, umbrella refers to the canopy that protects against the rain, while parasol refers to the canopy that protects against sun. The difference is in the material – an umbrella is waterproof while a parasol is not. An umbrella or parasol can be used as a hand held object, or it can be a permanent fixture. Other uses of umbrellas (besides protecting from rain or sun) include using it as a reflector or diffuser in photography.

Besides the factual information that you can get about things, your view will be altered by your own personal experiences and connotations (this is perhaps most important, as each person will have a unique view and thus a unique story). For example, I recently (repeatedly) saw an ad on the television where a guy opens his shop canopy thing when it starts to rain so that the people in the street could shelter under it. While this is not an umbrella, it serves the same purpose. Thus, an umbrella can be a great help to someone who gets caught in a storm without one.

From all this information (including my own), I could quickly glean two things that stand out.
1) An umbrella is waterproof and a parasol is not, though they look pretty much the same.
2) An umbrella can be a help to someone caught in the rain.

Why these two things? Because I can see potential conflict in them. Conflict drives a story, thus selecting conflict-potential situations, I can get a story from it.
Say with 1, there is the possibility that, say, someone gets an umbrella for his boss or girlfriend, but when it rains, the water seeps through because it was a parasol.
Number 2 incites the implication that people without umbrellas would be drawn to people with umbrellas. Also, someone with an umbrella might feel it a moral duty to give shelter to someone without an umbrella. Thus, it could lead to someone luring people with an umbrella for some nefarious purpose, or someone leaves his umbrella at home and uses that as an excuse to get close to someone so that he can, say, kill him.

Both of these work because I see a conflict that can result from the particular situation.

Herewith my attempt at flash fiction (feel free to leave an opinion or a piece of flash fiction based on umbrellas – 200 words or less in this case – of your own in the comments):

It was the day. Sean walked five paces behind Peter and the boss so that they wouldn’t see him calling the rain. He muttered the words under his breath – the words he had spent weeks learning. He would surely get the promotion now.
Peter was still sweet talking the boss and Sean knew he couldn’t compete. But Sean’s stunt would gain him the upper hand.
Dark clouds were beginning to build. Thunder rumbled and the boss looked up then his face turned to alarm.
“They said that it would be sunny today!” he said.
Just as the rain started to fall – with perfect timing – Sean hurried closer and whipped out the umbrella he had bought the previous day.
“I thought it looked like rain this morning, sir,” he said in his sweetest voice, ignoring Peter’s glare.
The boss looked delighted as Sean held the umbrella over his head. The promotion was his.
Just as he noticed a little sticker on the underside that said ‘Happy Parasols’, the rain started dripping through the material. The boss got a drop in his eye and scowled at Sean.
It looked like he wouldn’t get the promotion after all.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

If vs Whether

The ‘whether’ and ‘if’ I’ll look up today is the conjunctions. Merriam-Webster’s definitions:

1. a:in the event that
    b:allowing that
    c:on the assumption that
    d:on condition that 
The rest of the definitions are not related to the usage of whether.

1. until the early 19th century a direct question involving alternatives
2. an indirect question involving stated or implied alternatives
3. alternative conditions or possibilities

Ergo, the two words do share a meaning in certain places. In general, both ‘if’ and ‘whether’ can be used to indicate alternatives, while ‘if’ is used to indicate possibilities. Also, when any of the two can be used, ‘whether’ is more appropriate for formal writing.

If – Indicating possibility or alternative. (e.g. If I get there early, I’ll grab a beer ; I wonder if he’s going to do it)
Whether – Indicating an alternative, usually in choice. (e.g. I wonder whether he’s going to do it)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Taking the Time to Describe

Description is one of the elements that a story can be broken down into. (I mentioned the other three last time: dialogue, narrative and exposition)

For me, description is a very hard subject to tackle. I always find myself in the middle of the two extremes, too much and too little. Description should be used not to pad, but rather to create a setting for the reader to imagine. Now you often hear the advice that you shouldn’t underestimate readers and explain everything in extreme detail – the same goes for description. It should supply enough information for a reader to imagine the place where the character is, but – perhaps most importantly – it should be seen through a character’s eyes.

To this day, the best description advice I have read comes from Holly Lisle, “Only describe what is different.” And to further enhance that that, describe only what is different for the current POV character.

Another use for description, thus making it part of the onward-moving story, is to characterise. You can do this most effectively by describing the same setting through the eyes of more than one character. One sees friendly people and lively atmosphere, another sees constricting masses and fake smiles. This is one of the most powerful ways to show the reader who your character is and how he sees the world.

In Donald Maass’s The Fire in Fiction, I’ve learned a lot about setting as well, and much of it can be incorporated in description. If your POV character is a long inhabitant of a town, instead of showing readers the white walls or the red roofs, show them the things that new visitors would miss. Show them the dark mark on the pavement where the blood had fallen when Mrs Smith was killed last summer. Tell them that it doesn’t wash off. Show them crater where all the kids hang out when it rains.

Description is as much about character as it is about setting. Everything your character sees is seen through a lens that is his disposition about the place. It is that lens that makes his view unique and your story interesting.

Did I miss anything? Do you disagree with anything? Feel free to comment.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Set up a Routine

Do you have a specific time that you devote to writing? Or do you just write whenever you get the time?

Setting up a routine allows you to automate certain actions, freeing you from having to think about it. But more importantly, routines creates expectations for your mind about what to do next and can help you get writing done.

Writing every day is one of the best pieces of advice there is. Not only does it allow you to get in constant practice, it also lets you create a habit. Ergo, every day – after you’ve made a routine – your mind will switch into creative mode (hopefully) in preparation for the creative work that it expects to come.

If you don’t have the time to devote specific times in your life to writing, and you just cram in as much as possible in the spaces in between, you can achieve pretty much the same effect through use of a ritual of kinds.

Let’s say that you finally get time to yourself. Before you start writing, do a series of things that you will repeat every time before starting to write. Say, making yourself a cup of coffee and putting on a specific playlist or lighting a candle. Anything, as long as its unique. Sharing the ritual, per se, would lower the effect when you need it. So create a unique sequence that you can learn to associate only with writing.

In the same manner, you can also create a bad routine. Say you get into a routine of skipping your writing for the day. By doing that, you are conditioning yourself to not write. Obviously, this is not a desired result unless you’re a recovering writaholic. If you realise that you made such a routine, you have to consciously break it and create a new one (preferably one where you write more) in its place.

In the end, a routine can help you a lot, especially if you have a thought-demanding day job that distracts your mind from thinking in creative ways or whatever the case may be.

What routines do you use to get your mind into a “writing mode”? Or are you just permanently in that mode? I guess that’s the difference between the two types of writers that Charles Peguy mentions: “A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.”

Monday, April 11, 2011

Objects that Inspire : Apples

Apples are among the most popular fruit for humans. Most of Earth’s produce come from China, who provide about 35% of the total. The apple tree originates from the Alma in western Asia.
In general, the apple is considered to be a sacred or at least special fruit. It is often considered as a forbidden fruit, and is said to be the fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden. In Greek mythology, the apple is associated with Aphrodite and thus love.
Because of Snow White, the apple is sometimes associated with poison or witches.

This stood out for me, apart from the obvious:
1) Apples are a popular fruit
2) Apples have value beyond nutrition

For number one, because apples are popular, it is implied that many people both eat and like them. Thus it wouldn’t be hard to get someone to eat one, which leads to malicious intent (or maybe that’s just me). Poison seems the easiest way to harm someone through the eating of the apple. However, to go a little further, one could inject some sort of genetic engineering cells into an apple, thus making the eater an experiment or subject. Either way, anything that can be carried over through food can be easily carried over through apples because they are so popular.

Number two implies that apples have a special quality that other fruit don’t have, but it could be that only a certain farmer’s apples have that special quality – let’s say it can grant eternal youth. That would lead to people wanting to get those apples and perhaps the farmer is a sort of guardian of the secret. Or it can be mass produced to enhance someone’s army. The possibilities are endless.

Herewith is my attempt at flash fiction (feel free to leave an opinion or a piece of flash fiction based on apples – 200 words or less in this case – of your own in the comments):

Earl stood and brushed himself off. The tree stood before him, fifteen feet, rising just over the walls that closely surrounded it. The owner of the tree, Orlando, a self-righteous farmer, didn’t want anyone eating from it. Eternal youth was not for humanity, he had said.
The luscious red apples hung just within reach, as if grown for Earl to pick. He reached out and grabbed the fruit, then tore off a chunk with his teeth and swallowed.
Instead of feeling younger, he felt a dull pain in stomach. It escalated so quickly that he fell to the ground, clutching his abdomen.
He heard the squeak of hinges and saw feet approach him. He looked up and saw Orlando.
“The poison’ll kill you in a few minutes.”
“What?” Earl managed.
“I poisoned all the apples so no one could eat them.”
Earl couldn’t reply – it took all his strength not to faint.
“When you try to grab eternal youth, you’ll find only quick death.”
Orlando left, closing the gate behind him and leaving Earl to become one with the earth.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Each other vs One another

Each other and one another is, as far as I know, a problem we all wondered about at least once. Here is what the smart people say:

Each other: 1. each of two or more in reciprocal action or relation
One another: 1. EACH OTHER

So, apparently, the two phrases share a meaning. However, the formally correct usage is using each other when referring to two, while using one another when referring to three or more.
Even so, writers have been using the two phrases interchangeably for a long time. So it’s probably okay to each either one.

Each other – two things (can be used for three or more)
One another – three or more things (can be used for two)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Setting the Pace

When writing a story (especially a novel, but shorter stories as well), it is important to give attention to pacing. Pacing regulates the speed at which readers read. In this, writers have control over how people think. Tom Waggoner mentioned four types of pace in an article on Writer’s Digest (Feb 2008). Normal pace, fast pace, atmospheric pace, and suspenseful pace.

When you break down a story into its parts, there are four main categories, namely description, narration (action), dialogue and exposition (internal monologue). Utilising these four parts of a story, you can change the pace.

The normal pace is when things are going normally and there’s no specific pace you need your readers to read at. It can be used to provide breathing room in between fast paced scenes or even slow paced scenes. To achieve normal pace, all you have to do is try to even the amount of the four parts of a story. This divides the reader's attention and keeps the pace steady.

Fast pacing lets your readers run through the text. By focusing on only one part of the four, you can effectively speed up the pace, as there is only one thing to concentrate on. Keep in mind that a fast paced scene shouldn’t go on too long – it can exhaust the reader.

Atmospheric pace, according to Waggoner, is when you need to create a mood or foreshadow events. This can be achieved by a combination of description and exposition. Contrasting the environment with the character’s emotional state can create specific moods or atmospheres. This pace also effectively slows things down.

The suspenseful pace is when you need your readers to be on the edge of their seats. You use action that doesn’t just work toward a specific point, but also delays it. Along with that, you put in details, providing a step by step description. If you did this right, readers will want to read quickly – to find out what happens – but they will be slowed, increasing the suspense in the end.

Along with these four, I think there is at least another, which is a sort of focus pace. When something big is happening – say a bear coming at the hero – time will effectively slow down. This is a human reaction to fear. When we experience fear, the brain does not actually slow down anything, but records more information – probably an instinct that allows us to know what to do in later, similar situations. In any case, the point is that a slow pace can be different from both the normal and atmospheric pace. By slowing down time and showing all the details (action and description), we create an impact and tell the readers that this part is important. However, watch out for adding anything other than the current focus (eg. The bear). When a bear attacks you, you won’t be thinking of the time when a mongoose bit your leg. The mind goes into a tunnel vision.

Lastly, here are some hard and fast rules that seem to be generally accepted as true:

- Dialogue speeds up
- Narrative slows down
- Hard and sharp verbs and short sentences speeds up
- Flowing words and long sentences slows down

I hope this was at least a little bit informative. If you have anything to add to the use or methods of pacing, feel free to comment.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Scrap Plan B

I recently read a post on Michelle D. Argyle’s blog about self-publishing. Something she mentioned rang very true and I managed to warp it so that it fits other areas too.

In the first point she makes, she suggests not to self-publish as a last resort. I couldn’t agree more. Like she said, using your last resort means that there was another resort that was better.

Somewhere else, (in an unrelated incident) I read of someone that said you should not have a plan B in careers. Such as a mother’s son studying drama for example, and she tells him that he should make sure he has a plan B in case the drama falls through.
Doing that, creating a plan B, enables you to think that it’s okay to give up. You’ll always have the backup plan.

I’ll take myself as an example. I started to study accounting early on, but then the numbers started an insurrection and I let that go. (Needless to say, I’m never going back if I can help it.) I have virtually no skills other than being able to speak English and Afrikaans. If this whole writing thing fails, I have no future. I’d probably be stuck working a job that I hate and die of heart failure before I’m thirty.
So every time I get stuck in writing and ask the ever-present question “Who are you to think you can be a writer?”, I push on, because I know there’s no other path. No plan B. That’s what gets me through the hard parts.

Accept only the best.

The same applies to publishing a book. If you write a book and you know that you want to publish it through a publishing house, that’s your plan A. Don’t, after a hundred rejections, create a plan B and decide to self-publish. Rather find a way to get to plan A.
Self-publishers are often seen as people who don’t get traditionally accepted, but that’s a wrong perspective. Some of them are, yes. That is what I don’t like. They went to plan B instead of going on with plan A.
I thought a bit after reading Michelle’s post, and I realised that it works the same the other way around – though it doesn’t happen as often.
If you have a book and you have specific reasons for wanting to self-publish, that’s your plan A. Don’t chicken out later and decide to publish that book traditionally (unless there is a GOOD reason, as in you’re broke and can’t pay self-publishing costs, but even then, you’d be better off waiting for a time when you can afford it). That means you’re going to plan B.

Plan B is the plan you don’t want to follow. You want plan A. Don’t accept anything less than the best.

Plan A is your dream. Plan B is giving up.

Monday, April 4, 2011

People that Inspire : Postman

A postman (or mail carrier if we want to be politically correct) is a person who delivers mail. Mail carriers are employed by post offices generally, though there can be private mail couriers that would still count as postmen in my eyes.
The earliest mail system belonged to the ancient Persians – though no one can apparently pinpoint the exact point of invention. Either way, post people have been around for some time.
In those early times, the mail carriers were given the mail and sent off with a horse to deliver them. Along the way – apparently in day intervals – there would be people waiting with fresh horses and the mail carrier would then swap his horse for the new one to ensure the speed of the delivery.
Postmen in modern times – and probably ancient times as well – are forbidden to open mail addressed to someone else, enforced by federal law.
Though in this age, paper mail is quickly dying out (much like paper books) to make way for electronic messages and mail.

To forge a story from something like this, you must figure out how it can be different than it seems. From the things I wrote above, three things stand out. Thus, I see three things that can be manipulated into something that differs from the norm to form a story.

1) There were new horses waiting for postmen in ancient times to ensure the speed of delivery.
2) Postmen are not allowed to open other people’s mail.
3) Paper mail is a dying form.

In number one, the deviation is this. What if there wasn’t a horse waiting for a mail carrier on a tired horse? He may be holding an important letter. Speed was essential for mail delivery in those times. What does the mail carrier do? Why wasn’t there a horse waiting?

Number two. What if a certain postman sees something on a letter that intrigues him and decides to open it, despite regulation and law? Upon opening it, he finds a letter to someone important with dangerous information in it; threats or illegal dealings or worse. Maybe there is information inside that puts the postman in danger when the wrong person sees him reading it.

Number three. With paper mail dying, the future could be one that has no post office. A dying old man – the last of the postmen – is recruited by the government – afraid of interception via electronic means – to take a message across hazardous land, using all the skills and talent he had as a postman to achieve it.

To paraphrase Orson Scott Card, always ask what else could happen.

Herewith is my attempt at flash fiction (feel free to leave an opinion or a piece of flash fiction based on postmen – 200 words or less in this case – of your own in the comments):

Bill quivered in front of the massive oak desk that housed the Lord of Mail. The huge man finally put down the paper he had been reading and turned his attention to Bill.
“What is it?”
“Sir, you should look at this,” Bill said, sliding the letter in his hands across the impossibly smooth desk.
As the thin eyes scanned the lines quickly, the Lord of Mail’s face grew more furrowed.
“Where did you get this?”
“It was in my bag of mail and–“
“You opened someone else’s mail?” the Lord of Mail yelled, slamming his fist on the table.
“Yes, sir, but for a good cause! The president is planning on betraying his country.”
“You know what the penalty is, don’t you? Execution of your entire family.”
Bill’s throat felt like a postbox.
“But sir, the president...” Bill began.
“Joshua, take care of this.”
The Lord of Mail’s personal body guard appeared behind Bill and slit his throat. As the red ink in Bill’s veins dripped to the floor, Bill felt the guilt of sending a copy of the letter to Internal Affairs fade away. No one would open the mail, of that, Bill was sure.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Lie vs Lay

To commemorate my discovery of Merriam-Webster dictionary, as well as an attempt to teach myself some of the things I mess up with, I’m going to make a post on a problematic usage of words or grammar every week.

The verbs lie and lay have always confused me somewhat.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives the following definitions that are relevant in this case :

1. to be or to stay at rest in a horizontal position
2. to assume a horizontal position
3. of an inanimate thing: to be or remain in a flat or horizontal position upon a broad support
4. to occupy a certain relative place or position

There are some others, but for now these will do.
As for lay, Merriam-Webster has the following (that is relevant):

1. to put or set down
2. to place (something immaterial) on something

Apparently ‘lay’ is getting more popular with people so this post may be obsolete by then. But carrying on, here is the difference and usage.

Lie is mostly used to speak of something already in a state of rest and for when something puts itself into a state of rest while lay is used to speak of the act of putting something into a state of rest.
To make everything even more confusing, the past tense of lie is lay.

Here’s a breakdown:
Lie, lay, lain – Something is in a state of rest. (e.g. The book had lain on the table.)
Lay, laid, laid – The act of putting something in a state of rest. (e.g. The man had laid the book on the table.)

I’ve used ‘lied’ for the past tense of ‘lie’ so many times before, it’s embarrassing. I’ll watch out for this one in the future.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Employing Dialogue

For some writers, dialogue is the tricky part, while others see it as the easy part.
Here are some tips that I found useful.

- Listen to people talk
Not necessarily what they’re saying, but how they’re saying it. As in, how do they react, how often do they interrupt each other and so on.

- Dialogue in fiction should not be transcriptions of real speech
When we talk, we waste a lot of time on saying non significant things, like small talk. In fiction, your dialogue should not include the obvious things as much, such as:
“How are you?”
“I’m good, and you?”
This is pretty boring. Try to cut out the parts that do not further your plot or characters.

- Say it out loud
Read your dialogue out loud. People might look at you funny, but it actually works. By hearing the words, it’s easier to figure out if something sounds unnatural since your ear is used to natural dialogue coming from, you know, real people. Some people even suggest acting it out, as in switching positions every time another character speaks.

- Read other people’s dialogue
Learn from the best. Pull out your favourite novel and see how the author managed to pull off dialogue so efficiently.

- Use conflict to make it interesting
Conflict does not necessarily mean arguments. I will quote examples from Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction (an excellent book by the way). Instead of writing:
Would you like some sugar for your tea?”, write,
I suppose you’d like some sugar for your tea? Never mind. Of course you do. Your type always does.”
By doing this, you create tension, and tension is the tool that allows you to keep the reader reading.

- Sometimes words aren’t necessary
Silence can characterise very effectively. Put in pauses, breaks, things that your character does that reveals something about him or her. Having someone hesitate before answering a question can covertly suggest a lie or a suspicion about the one who asked the question.

- Find each character’s voice
Some people can just jump into the skin of a character and play the part. When you write dialogue, you have to limit your own voice and write as if you were the character that is speaking. In fact, each character should talk in their own way to such an extent that you can write dialogue without any tags and still know who said what.
Education, class, and even gender can affect the way that someone speaks. Listening and reading can help you with figuring out the differences between manners of speaking.

- Said bookisms
Avoid using weird dialogue tags like hissed, interjected, said angrily and so on. This distracts the reader, while a simple said would have done the same thing. By using the right words in the speech (and maybe even description), you should be able to show that someone is angry, instead of telling readers that he said it angrily.

That’s it, I think. Feel free to add any tips you use/know of or disagree with me in the comments.