Monday, October 31, 2011

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

"Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you're doomed." - Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is a quite famous American writer.  He is often called a science fiction author, but he himself does not agree with the categorisation.  Most famous for his novel, Fahrenheit 451, he is also the author of 10 other novels (some of which are loosely connected short stories) and his short stories have appeared in many collections.  He also wrote a few plays and some non-fiction, including Zen in the Art of Writing.  He got married in 1947 and never got a driver’s licence. (Wikipedia)

(I found the quotation via @TheBookDoctors on Twitter.)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Tips on Scaling the NaNo-Mountain

Source.  Copyright Nintendo

Since NaNoWriMo is around the corner (that’s four days if you’re counting), I thought I’d do a vaguely NaNo-themed post today.

I think one of the biggest problems (and functions) of NaNoWriMo is the consistency at which you are forced to write.  That’s 1667 words a day.  If you take into consideration that Stephen King reportedly writes 2000 words a day, you’ll note that it’s quite a lot.

So, how do you keep up such a consistency?  Here are some pointers I’ve picked up in the past:

1)  Begin writing.  In Stephen King’s words, “The scariest moment is always just before you start.”  Just force yourself to write that first sentence or two, and the rest will come easier.

2)  Learn how to write in short bursts.  This is especially applicable to people with long hours at work, holiday preparations to make, and a family that needs a lot of attention.  Teach yourself that you don’t need two hours free time to write.  You can squeeze in a paragraph in the ten minutes the spaghetti takes to cook.  (In fact, this works wonders either way, since you’ll probably stop in the middle of a thought, making starting off again much easier.)

3)  Set smaller goals.  Use a trick they use for running.  To run a long distance, set up a series of short distances.  When you run, aim for your target (that can be anything from one metre to twenty kilometres away, depending on your fitness level), telling yourself “Okay, I’ll just run up to that point” and then when you get there, move on to the next point, making the entire distance that way.  It sounds crazy, but it works.  When writing, set smaller goals like 500 words.  It’s a lot easier to achieve.  It will not only motivate you more (by finishing of goals), but it will be easier to start if you don’t have such a mountain ahead of you.  (“Just 200 words more…”)

4)  Tell a lot of people about your effort.  You ego will help you here.  By telling people that you’re going to write 1667 words a day, you set up an expectation.  If you don’t finish because you were playing solitaire, you’re going to feel mighty stupid when someone asks how far you are.

That’s all from me.  Check out this post by Mood if you’ve always wanted to do an outline but it never seemed to work.  (Though it’s probably a bit late to start an outline now.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

No Choice in Voice

Source (copyright Square Enix)

Ah, voice.  The little Pandora’s box of the writing world.  Few people actually completely understands the concept, but everyone agrees that it is important (well, I’m sure not everybody, but most).

The first taste I had of voice was that it was simply the way you wrote.  I.e. the way you project yourself.  You don’t speak like everyone else, so you probably don’t write like anyone else either.  That’s why people tell you that voice develops by itself as you write.  Because as you go on, you will eventually stop trying to say something in a certain way and just say something.  That is your voice.

So I always had a little bit of trouble with this, because my native tongue is Afrikaans and not English (I have a similar problem with that piece of advice for better dialogue where you listen to how other people speak; Most people I am able to overhear is talking a language other than English).  My thoughts and speech all comes out in Afrikaans, normally, so how could I naturally project my voice in English?

I recently read about voice in Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel.  Here is what he said:

“(Voice is) not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre(*).”

So I might be saved yet.  The way you look at things and experience them is your voice.  Your outlook, your expectations.  All of these are you and you are your voice.

Some time back, I wrote about different characters with different voices.  When you write (from a point of view that includes the character, i.e. not distant 3rd person), the character whose POV you’re in will be a lens through which you put your voice.  Therefore, although every character is different and will see the world different, your own views will invariably dribble into the narrative so that your voice will still ring clear.

Your voice is you.  Your character has a voice of his own.  The combination of the two is the mask that you put on when you face the world in order to tell your story.

* I had no clue what this word meant, so in case you didn’t either, here is a definition.

Noun:          1. The works of a painter, composer, or author regarded collectively: "the complete oeuvre of Mozart".
2. A work of art, music, or literature.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

“To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” - Elbert Hubbard

Elbert Hubbard was an American writer who lived in the second half of the 19th century and the early nineteen hundreds.  He was also an artist, philosopher and publisher.  He is best known for his contribution to the Arts and Crafts Movement.  His most notable works include a nine-volume work titled Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great. (Wikipedia)

(I found the quotation via @TheBookDoctors on Twitter.)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Distractions (The Internet is Making us Dumber)

Last time, I talked about the rise of the instant-gratification age.  With it came the need for people to be constantly engaged in something.  Everything needs to be now.  In the same line of thought, it is possible that the internet is making us dumber.

Humans have the basic instinct to get distracted.  That is our default state.  While this is very useful in situations where we need to look out for constant danger, it impedes our ability to concentrate on a task.

Nicholas Carr is of the opinion that the usage of the internet is training our brains to think more widely and less deeply.  Reading a webpage filled with hyperlinks, or a stream of short Twitter messages distracts our minds.  Increasing the speed at which we find information seems to be becoming more important than understanding it.  We are sort of skimming all the time, instead of just using skimming to find information worth reading.

Most people would recommend blog posts to be around 250 to 400 words long.  Any longer than that, and you will lose readers.  This is not untrue.  I’ve often skipped posts (or at least postponed it) because it would take too long to read the entire thing.  Short bursts of information are easier to digest and take up a lot less time.  Since we are so inclined to do everything quickly, we give up on long, time-consuming tasks and rather turn to things like Facebook and Twitter that gives us a slew of short information bursts.  There are a lot of blogs that go over that word limit, but they seem to be dwindling from what I’ve seen.

The internet (and other distracting media) does have its benefits (besides the obvious).  It increases the speed at which we process things and keep track of them.  Nicholas Carr says that it can increase our ability to monitor a lot of signals at once, like a pilot or surgeon does.

Directly opposed to the internet that spreads our attention to multiple points, our own trade as writers, books, focuses attention into one spot.  But even they have been affected by the speed change that society has undergone.  Readers demand more immediacy and less content that does not contribute directly to the story.

Do short blog posts and the internet as a whole make us dumber?  Not really.  But we are in the process of sacrificing depth in order to get speed and width.  Carr mentions a Roman philosopher who said, “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”  It might be the very cliff over which we are currently standing.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Pages of the Ages

Times have changed, and with it, the people.  Nowadays, we live in an age of instant-gratification, where we expect the things we want in the smallest amount of time possible.  Fast food, the internet, the new best super lose your weight in two days diets, etc.  As Queen said, we want it all and we want it now.

With this change in attention span, writers had to adapt to stay alive.  Where in the olden days we were allowed to start with backstory, it is now recommended that we start with a hook and action.

To illustrate, I’m going to quote the first paragraph or so of four books.  Dracula, by Bram Stoker, first published in 1897.  Dune, by Frank Herbert, first published in 1965.  Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, first published in 1985.  And finally, The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, first published in 2008. (Publication dates via Wikipedia)

            3 May. Bistritz.—Left Munich at 8:35 P.M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late. Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse which I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets. I feared to go very far from the station, as we had arrived late and would start as near the correct time as possible. 
The story is told through a series of journal entries.  The opening paragraph gives us a summary of where Harker had gone, and a little trivia (i.e. the train that was late).  In fact, there is little to no hook.  The only question that could arise from that paragraph is where Harker is going.

          In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, the old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.
          It was a warm night at Castle Caladan, and the ancient pile of stone that had served the Artreides family as home for twenty-six generations bore that cooled-sweat feeling it acquired before a change in the weather.

(There is a quoted paragraph from a scripture of the Dune world before this paragraph, but it is not really a part of the story, so I left it out.)  We are given a place and an action (going to Arrakis) like in Dracula, but in the very first paragraph, there is already a question.  Why is an old crone coming to visit Paul’s mother?  And who is she that she can visit someone in the castle?

Ender’s Game
          “I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.  Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”
          “That’s what you said about the brother.”
          “The brother tested out impossible.  For other reasons.  Nothing to do with his ability.”
          “Same with the sister.  And there are doubts about him.  He’s too malleable.  Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”

We start off with detached dialogue.  We don’t know who’s speaking (note that this is something writers are usually warned not to do).  There is no place described, but numerous questions raised.  What will the “he” do, for which he is the one?  How did the speaker listen through his ears and see through his eyes?  Why was the brother rejected?  Why was the sister rejected?

The Hunger Games
          When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.  My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.  She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother.  Of course, she did.  This was the day of the reaping.

We begin with Katniss waking up (another alleged no-no) and looking for her sister Prim.  We get a feeling of poverty (“rough canvas” and the fact that they have to share a bed).  Then at a quick pace, we get a huge question.  What is the reaping?  More so, we get a feeling of tension because the reaping would give Prim nightmares.

As you see, in progression from 1897 to 2008, the questions start to rise earlier and involve bigger things.  In the first few paragraphs, Dracula has no real questions, Dune raises one mildly interesting one, Ender’s Game raises a few mildly interesting ones (though Card quickly throws in a big one a few lines later), and then The Hunger Games give us a tension-filled question.

Since there are many instant-gratification sources in this age, (i.e. television, internet) we need to convince readers to keep reading.  In 1897, reading was probably the easy entertainment (except maybe for super-literary pieces), so they didn’t need so much constant tension.  Today, the written word has to contend with moving pictures, and tension (i.e. questions) is the only way to achieve that.

The point of this overly long post is that you have to keep your audience in mind when writing (and taking writing advice).  If Bram Stoker gave you advice about putting in backstory to ground the readers or something, you have to remember that you’re not living in 1897.  So unless you write for time-travellers from the late eighteen hundreds, you have to pile on tension and keep it going ‘til the end.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

“You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you're working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success - but only if you persist.” - Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov was a science-fiction author of over 500 books.  He also wrote countless short stories.  He was the original creator of robotics, including the three laws of robotics which achieved a great deal of popularity.  He is considered to be one of the “Big Three”, masters of hard science fiction, the other two being Arthur C. Clarke (author of 2001: A Space Odyssey) and Robert A. Heinlein (author of Stranger in a Strange Land).
His most famous works include “I, Robot” and “The Bicentennial Man”, both short stories.  The latter was later turned into a novel, and then into a film.  “I, Robot” is a more famous movie, but the script was not loyal to the short story and the whole theme of robots overthrowing society was in fact exactly the opposite of what Asimov tried to do in his stories.  The film contains similarities to two other short stories of Asimov, namely “Robot Dreams” and “Lost Little Robot”.  (Wikipedia)

(I found the quotation via @TheBookDoctors on Twitter.)

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Doll

First up, click here and look at those pictures.

Creepy much?  Yeah.  My blogger-buddy J.C. Martin has a novelette called The Doll that features the very island (and legend).  Creepy dolls, black candles and more.  I read it a while ago when J.C. gave it away via her newsletter.  If you haven’t had a chance to look at it, you can buy an ebook copy for $0.99 here and $2.99 here.

But there’s more.  J.C. has launched a contest on her blog (click here to go there) in which she gives away a bunch of things (including… wait for it… a Kindle Touch – though this is only applicable if The Doll manages to sell 400 copies by November 1st).

I read it quite a while back, so I can’t write a very useful review of it, but I do remember that I quite enjoyed it, and judging by the amount of positive reviews, others did too.

Join the contest on her blog and spread the word.  Who knows, maybe someone will win a Kindle.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

4 Functions of Revision

I used to think revision was for fixing problems, and within that mindset lay the majority of my problems with revision.

Maybe I’m not the only one who thought/thinks that, or maybe it’s just one of my ‘aah’ moments (wherein I realise something after some time which has thus far been obvious to everyone else).  Regardless, here is my revised (pun intended) list of things revision is for.  But the previous one consisted only out of one point, so it wasn’t really a list.  So, rather, here is my first list of uses of revision:

Fix problems
When you write a first draft, you’re supposed to spam it down as fast as you can, not stopping for anything (Sort of what NaNoWriMo tries to teach you).  Thus, if you come to a point where Pete needs both his arms to escape the lair of the nefarious Lester, but you amputated one of them in an emotional scene back in chapter 5, you’re going to want to go back and fix that.

But the smart people say that you should just make a note of it and go on, as if it’s already been fixed.  You can then fix the problem by revising all the parts that need to be different because of Pete’s two arms and the replacement of the amputation scene etc.

Find and strengthen theme
If you like Stephen King’s metaphor of a story being a fossil that you’re uncovering (I do), a theme will emerge during the first draft.  (Donald Maass said, “What do you want your reader to think about as they’re reading your novel, or later? That’s your theme.”)  In fact, there’ll be quite a few.  When you read your first draft, they will occur to you and you can make a note of which ones you like.  Then, during revision, you find the parts where your chosen theme is highlighted and highlight it even more (but do it covertly).  Then find the parts where other themes are highlighted and tone it down.

With revision, you can look at the different parts of a character’s personality and decide which ones are important.  For example, it is crucial that you give the readers a reason to like the protagonist early on, so with revision, you select an attribute that is likable (i.e. loyalty) and see how you can change your first five pages to reflect that attribute.  Just so, you can select parts of your character that you want your readers to know about and find ways in which you show them through actions or dialogue or appearance.

You can also introduce new characters to fill a void or merge two existing secondaries to make a stronger character.

Tighten Prose
Stephen King says (and he knows what he’s talking about) that the second draft equals the first draft minus ten per cent.  Revision is also a time in which you reduce the mass of your story into more tightly packed pieces.

You take a look at an important sentence and ask yourself, “How can I change this sentence to make it clearer?”  You take out scenes that drag and don’t advance your story.  You edit scenes that need to be there, but are too slow-paced or too unclear.  You take out overzealous adverbs and passive voice that bogs down the action.  You put in details that bring the environment alive.


I’ve always wondered how people can say that revision is their favourite part of writing, but now I know.  The revision reveals the true story.  To continue King’s fossil metaphor, the draft is the shovel that opens the fossil and revision is the small brushes that mark out the details.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

“A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”  ~Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades, 1947

Paul Thomas Mann was a German writer of epic novels and novellas, as well as short stories and essays.  He fled to Switzerland after Hitler came to power in 1933.  Soon after that, World War II broke out and he moved to America.  He eventually returned to Switzerland in 1952.  Mann is best known as one of the exponents of the Exlliteratur (the exile writers).  Some of his most notable works include The Magic Mountain and Death in Venice.  (Wikipedia)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Anatomy of the Sword

If you write any sort of story that plays off in the medieval and related times, or even in the distant future where technology had to start from scratch (think Terry Brooks’s Shannara series), at some point, there will (hopefully) be mention of a sword.  For that reason, I will elaborate on what makes a sword tick and the related terminology.

For starters, here is a handy image (from Wikipedia) that describes all the visible parts of a sword.  Know your hilt from your pommel.
Click to enlarge

(Interesting note: The fuller’s main function is to lighten the blade without losing any of its strength.  But it is also called by another name, a blood groove, because it allowed a stabbed person’s blood to flow from his wound with the sword still in it.)

Real combat swords have two main qualities that replicas lack.  First is the material used to make the sword.

At the start of swordsmithing, the people used bronze.  But after discovering iron, they realised that they could use that rather than bronze to make swords easier and in greater quantities (though iron was weaker than bronze).  After a time, they figured out that by adding a bit of carbon during the smelting process, they could make steel, a far superior metal in strength and durability (these days, it is commonly referred to as carbon steel).

Traditional swords are made of carbon steel, not stainless steel (the difference is in the chromium content).  Which means two things.  They rust if not regularly oiled and they have a dull sheen, rather than the mirror-effect of stainless steel (the part in the movies where a hero sees an enemy in the reflection of the blade is heavily exaggerated).  Carbon steel is more stiff and hard (i.e. stronger) than stainless, which is the reason it is used for swords (knives are generally made with stainless steel, because the blades are less likely to break/bend because they are so short).

Second, the tang.

The tang is the part of the blade that extends into the grip.  Many replica swords have the hilt welded onto the blade, rather than having a tang that extends into it.  A full tang means that the tang remains the same thickness as the blade, as opposed to normal tangs that thins into the grip.

A form of tang, called the rat-tailed tang, is also used and sometimes referred to as “full tang” (which in modern days may only refer to the existence of a tang whatsoever), while it is in actual fact only a thin rod welded onto the blade and extending into the grip.

If a tang is not present, or it is a rat-tailed tang, the sword can easily break at the welding point.  Therefore, good swordsmiths will always make a tang that is a part of the blade and extends into the grip, threading the end to allow a pommel to be screwed on.  (Interesting note: Japanese swordsmiths often put their mark on the tang underneath the grip.)

Now you’ll know a cross-guard from a fuller and a rat-tailed tang from a proper one.  (You’ll also be able to make better guesses at which swords are replicas.)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

No Pain, No Gain

Would you pay someone to beat the crap out of you?

Though it’s a bit drastic, that might just be the right way of thinking to reach success.

Everyone has the potential to be great.  Whether it is to be a great accountant or a great writer, everyone has something that he or she has the potential to do greatly.  The problem is finding that specific “sweet-spot” where all your being intersects.

You can’t be great at something that you hate.  You can be good at it, but not great.  If you don’t have a passion for your job, you’re not going to strive to become better at it and you will continue to do it in the easiest manner possible.

You get better by living on the edge of your abilities.  A landowner can’t expand his borders by remaining safely inside of them.  He has to go to the edges and explore the parts he does not know about.  Though it might be frightening and dangerous, it is the only way he can get more land.

Just the same, if you sit in the middle, the easy way, and never challenge your abilities, you can’t grow.

Especially in this age, living a comfortable life is pretty common.  Having enough money to study a respectable course at university, getting a steady job via a family contact and then simmering until you die someday.  You were comfortable and ended a fairly happy person.  But did you achieve something?  Were you great at something?  Did you leave the world better than you found it?

Life is supposed to be hard.  Just ask John from Brave New World.  If everything is going easy, you’re stagnating.  You’re not growing.  Make a choice to increase the difficulty in your life instead of decreasing it.  You can piddle away at some stories and a WIP novel for years and decide that you will eventually get it right, or you can increase your writing time and work harder on your novel, pounding away at the keys night after night until you get the characters just right and the plot flowing smoothly.

Creep over your borders and see what lies there.  What you find there might surprise you.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

“True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, as those who move easiest have learned to dance.” - Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope was an English poet that lived in the early eighteenth century.  He is famous for his translation of Homer, the author of Iliad and Odyssey.  His poems were known to be satirical, such as The Rape of the Lock. (Wikipedia)

(I found the quotation via @TheBookDoctors on Twitter.)