writing

Hey, I wrote a story about that . . .

August 6th, 2014  |  Published in writing

When writing science fiction, every once in a while you will see something that you wrote about actually happening (much sooner than anticipated). It’s weird, but makes sense. But when writing fantasy, not so much. A while back, I wrote a story called The Ash Tree (it’s available for free at Broken ShoresSmashwords, Barnes and Noble, and elsewhere so you should go read it if you haven’t already). It was the first story that I wrote in the Broken Shores setting, and it is still one of my favorites. One of the central elements of the story was the eponymous ash tree in the courtyard of a residential block (thanks Azby Brown for the architectural inspiration) which had many kinds of fruit and nuts grafted onto it. So I was kind of surprised to read about just such a tree the other day. Granted, grafting isn’t exactly new, but some of the early readers had told me that the grafted tree was a little ‘out there’.

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Stories I Probably Won’t Get Around To Writing: The Silent and The Dead

March 17th, 2014  |  Published in Uncategorized, writing

Okay, let’s say that there’s a zombie outbreak and virtually everyone gets infected (99% or more).  What would that look like? I’m going to use Olympia as an example, as that is where I live.

The average population density of Thurston County (where Olympia is located) is 347 people/square mile. This could be better (the average for the US is 88) but it could be a whole lot worse (Los Angeles County has a population density of 2,100 people/square mile). Assuming “Walking Dead” style zombies, with a small group, you should be able to clear a square mile without too much trouble over the course of a week. The problem comes in when people get guns. Something like an assault rifle might be audible as far away as five miles. With sustained shooting, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that you would draw every zombie within a three mile radius. Not so bad, right? Wrong. A three mile radius gives you an area of a little over 28 square miles, with 347 zombies per square mile, you’re talking about nearly 10,000 zombies.

Now, let’s say that you’re a survivalist shooting zombies from their roof. Even with a 100% accuracy rate, you would be talking about 10,000 rounds, and at 28 pounds/1000 rounds, you would be talking about 280 pounds of ammunition, just to give you an idea of the amount of supplies you would need. Furthermore, what would 10,000 zombies look like? Shoulder to shoulder, that many people would take up something like one and a half football fields. In any case, I think that you get the picture. Things would not be good for our lone survivalist with his buried gold, canned food, and mountain of ammunition. I wouldn’t write about him.

Instead, I would write about the sort of group that would survive the math of the situation. They would need to be competent, not necessarily at killing zombies, but in organizing themselves as a group. A disorganized or fractious group of people with weapons doesn’t have many more choices than the a single armed person (in fact they may even have fewer, as their resource footprint would increase with their size). Weapons are force multipliers for individuals. Organization, on the other hand, is a force multiplier for groups.

The group would find a defensible place with a source of fresh water (and as far from survivalist types as practicable), and they would secure that area as quietly as possible, then gradually move out, clearing the area around them.  Once they had carved out a large enough area for themselves, they would create zombie traps, basically pits with sound emitting things (perhaps a shishi odishi for zombies?) scattered around the area’s perimeter. Every day or so, someone would head out the pits, dump in some gasoline, and burn the day’s zombies.

Wouldn’t they need that gasoline for their cars? No. First of all, gasoline goes bad and eventually will not work in your engines (but will probably still be viable for burning some zombies). Second, cars are loud (see the bit about drawing zombies to you above) and require cleared roads or paths. Finally, gasoline production would cease at the zombie outbreak (or shortly thereafter), and the group would soon find itself scavenging farther and farther away just to fuel their vehicles.

So what sort of stories would take place in this setting? First of all, there wouldn’t be much soap opera (which isn’t to say that it would be entirely absent, either), as it requires a fractious group and would likely get everyone killed before long. Instead, the story would probably focus on the various struggles from within the group, such as how decisions are made, and how to deal with divisive issues (51-49 votes are terrible for morale, see congress). The group would have to decide on its relationship to other survivors. I’m sure that there would be plenty of stories to tell in this setting. The main difference is that it wouldn’t be as annoying as much of what you see being made these days, which either assumes that people are basically bad (it seems to me that our world is an example of the opposite) or that people want to watch petty squabbling, or both.

In any case, I probably won’t write this, or at least not any time soon, but wanted to share the ideas anyway. If you do want to write it, feel free.

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Recursive Geekiness

January 6th, 2014  |  Published in announcement, logic, writing

I’m about 7,700 words in on the Broken Shores story that I’m currently working on and I’ve started to run into some problems, namely that I need to know where everyone on the island is at a given time. This isn’t an insurmountable problem, as there are only seven people on the island, but it can be a bit tricky. One way to do it would be to just write things so that people are wherever the story needs them to be. This approach would be fine if I were only writing a single story in the setting, but as it is part of a larger series, it would lead to inconsistency. So on my lunch break last Saturday, I went ahead and started to make a schedule, which is where the title comes from (sitting in a room full of people, some of whom I enjoy talking to, using my phone/keyboard combination to create a spreadsheet that tracks the schedule of fiction people on a fictional island in a fictional world, and I couldn’t use a regular calendar program because my world has eight-day-long weeks due to my decision to play around with calendar stuff, raise your hand if you feel normal now).

The work will likely pay off as it will make writing the story much easier, but it brought up something else that I found interesting, as well. Making the schedule I learned a lot about the island, such as who was likely to be close to whom and how important seniority was. In addition, it helped to define the group dynamic, after all not everyone can have the best schedule, creating tension. Finally, it will likely result in the stories being more interesting, as it places some limits on who is available at any given moment. For example, if Emera needs help, the best person to provide that help might be Ran, but what if he is on watch? What if he is dead tired from a long stretch of work? Emera now needs to either find someone else or find some way of convincing him to help her despite very good reasons not to. This is much more interesting than being able to simply write: Emera found Ran and asked for help or having to make up reasons for him not to help her. It will also likely feel more realistic, more relatable to those of us who have to work around scheduling conflicts.

In short, if I had to sum it up in a rule concise observation, the more you know about the world you’re creating in your fiction, the easier it will be to make that fiction interesting. I’m sure that I’m not the first person to say this (in fact, I recall hearing a piece of advice that when you run into a dead end, find out what your character’s hobbies are), but it bears repeating. Also, I think that this applies to all kinds of fiction, whether it be speculative or straight literature set in modern day Chicago, there are things that won’t be immediately obvious about a given character, and if you find yourself running into a lot of walls in your writing, you might want to take the time to dig a little and learn something new about them.

On a final note, I think that this has some bearing on the nature of creativity. Creativity is often viewed as creating something entirely new, or recombining existing elements in an interesting fashion (I personally believe the latter is vastly more common than the former, if you doubt me, go spend some time at TV Tropes), but that is only the starting point. Good narrative is two things: something new and the logical consequences of that something new. If you do only the first, you get a confused mess, if you do only the second (logical consequences sans something new) you get something even worse, boredom. I will end by disagreeing with Einstein, who said “Logic will take you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” Imagination can take you to fantastic new places, but without logic, you will find yourself earthbound, wherever you may land.

And now for some shameless self-promotion. I’ve written two stories that are part of the particular storyline I’m talking about, “Induction” and “Trust and Vulnerability“. They’re free and you should really check them out. “Induction” is also available (for free) on Smashwords for just about any format, I hope to get the rest of Broken Shores up there as well, this year.

Brought to you by the American Guinea Pig Council

April 11th, 2013  |  Published in writing

Last May, for ShoStoWriMo I wrote a short story titled The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, an element of which was the rise of Guinea Pigs as a common food in the US (as one friend said, “I think of that story every time I see a Guinea Pig now.” Sweet savory success.). According to NPR, it seems that I was ahead of my time. Which reminds me, I need to put together a cover for that story and publish it, so that you can read it.

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Uncharitable Thoughts About Other Writers

March 9th, 2012  |  Published in writing

Some things that have occurred to me recently:

  1. In attempts to make books “Adult” writers often seem to mistake graphic sex and violence for maturity. Making a book suitable for only adults does not make it mature, it is more like an adolescent trapped in an adult’s body. I realized this while reading Crystal Rain and realizing that the characters actually felt like adults (this shouldn’t be so rare, but it is). Remember, sex and violence are tools, and to use them in service to something other than the story is to waste them.
  2. Science fiction writers can be like raccoons. Sometimes they write about concepts and technology so shiny that they get transfixed, and forget that they are supposed to be, you know, telling a story.
  3. A story needs to be anchored in time and space. This isn’t to say that a story needs to begin with a timestamp and GPS coordinates, but that the story’s environment should be defined in some way early on, as should the main character’s attitude towards it.

Enough of that. I’ll stop complaining now.

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On Perfection

February 27th, 2012  |  Published in writing

If you spend enough time going through writing advice, you will eventually come to something about not allowing the need for perfection to prevent you from actually finishing anything. Or “Never let the perfect become the enemy of the good”. Perfection is, after all, something that we strive towards rather than something we achieve. What has me thinking, on the other hand, is the flip side.

Back in July of 2011, I had finally finished The Root of All Things. It wasn’t perfect, in fact I think that it was probably the weakest of the Broken Shores stories, but it was good I had reached the point where I wasn’t sure what needed to be done to improve it. So I posted it and started working on the next story, Trust and Vulnerability (which was about a different character so there was no continuity to worry about), which turned out much better. Then I posted The Forked Path late last week, which continues the story begun in The Root of All Things.

Only after looking at the site stats over the weekend and seeing a bunch of hits on The Root of All Things but none on The Forked Path did I realize my mistake. Of course there’s nothing to be done about it now (perhaps I should have just put in a link for The Forked Path and noted that it was a continuation but could stand alone, who knows). I guess that the take-away from all of this whinging is that when it comes to perfection, like in so many things, the Middle Path is what we should hope to achieve. A prospect more difficult than it sounds, I am sure. Back to writing.

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DIY e-book Covers 102: Text

February 22nd, 2012  |  Published in writing

As I mentioned in my first post on the subject, you can do a lot with nothing but text on your covers. There are four things (in my opinion) to think about when dealing with text: font, size, placement, and effects. I will go through each of them in turn below. Keep in mind that these are all guidelines, and that once you know what you are doing, you can break them.

Font

Pick a font that fits your story. Do not go for an embellished, script-style font when writing science fiction. Similarly, don’t use an angular, modern font when writing fantasy or historical fiction. When in doubt, choose a plain font over a stylized one. And you should probably stay away from Comic Sans (unless you are writing a story called “I Hate Comic Sans”).

Once you pick your font, stick with it for the entire cover. Consistency is often shorthand for “professional looking”.

Size

A perfect example of well done text.

Since you are working on a cover for an e-book, there is something you need to remember about your text. It has to look good and be legible when shrunk down to the size of a postage stamp, because that is how people will see it when they are browsing through Amazon or Smashwords or wherever. What that means is that your title should be in as big of a font as possible (short of running into the edges).

After that, remember that people will automatically assign importance to the words based on their size. Which means that your name should be in a smaller font than the title. You will notice that the more popular an author, the larger their name is on the cover. That is because they are a brand, and readers are more interested in finding books by them than with what the actual title is. If you fall into this category, you don’t need this guide, just ask your graphic artist to make the book look good.

What this means is that once you figure out how big to make your title, drop the font size down a notch for your name and stuff like “a short story” or “a novel”. If you have blurbs from people, those should be smaller still.

Placement

Fortunately, if you got the size right, you can place things just about anywhere, people will pick up on it (which is how a tag cloud works, when you think about it). In general, people (who speak English at least, other languages have different conventions) will read from left to right and top to bottom, which means that its hard to go wrong with having the title up top (but centering it works well, too).

The more important part is having sufficient whitespace (or blank space for those of you not using a white background) around your text. If you don’t, things will run together and be difficult to read (impossible to read at postage-stamp size). Furthermore, whitespace around your words will make them stand out, so giving them a bit of a buffer will make them seem larger and more important. As a general rule, the importance of something on a page is inversely proportional to the amount of whitespace surrounding it.

Effects

Plain text may seem boring, but there are all sorts of things you can do with it. You can play with the colors (think of the Google logo), the alignment, the orientation, all sorts of things. I’m not going to talk about this much, as once you start paying attention to covers, you start noticing ones that use nothing but text and look amazing (the cover image above is a good example). So experiment and see what you can come up with.

Next time I’ll start to talk about images. If you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments.

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DIY e-book Covers 101

February 6th, 2012  |  Published in writing

This is a very simple cover I did a while ago. The only graphic in it is the leaf above the i, and it was public domain.

One of the services that traditional publishing still provides is art. Many writers aren’t graphic artists, or at least not illustrators, and when I saw a post over at Cheapass Fiction, I realized that people might be able to benefit from my experience. First, let us define what we want to achieve with a cover: We want people to buy/download our stories. To make that happen, the cover should be professional looking and eye-catching (in a good way). Ideally it would have artistic merit in its own right and give the potential reader some idea of what the story is about, but both of those things, if poorly executed, will detract from point #1 (being professional looking). So, how do we go about doing this? Here are some basic rules:

  1. Read the guidelines. If you are going to publish at Amazon, check out their guidelines. Same goes for Smashwords. Same goes for Apple (apparently they reject anything that has a web address on it). Same goes for anywhere you want to put it that isn’t your own website.
  2. Keep it simple. Many people will be viewing your story from a list, which means that they will see a thumbnail. Many will also be viewing it on a smartphone. What this means is that your cover needs to look good postage stamp sized, so keep it down to what is necessary: Title, Author, image, and possibly story type.
  3. Use a light or white background. As a general rule, the darker a background, the more difficult it is to make it look professional. This is partially because you need high contrast for the image to look good as a thumbnail, and with a black background that means white or light text.
  4. Use a border. The problem with a light background is that it can blend into its surroundings, which is bad. So add border in black or grey.
  5. Use as high quality graphics as you can find/afford. If you are a photographer or know one, this can be to your advantage. Same goes for illustrators. If not, go with professional stock graphics from places like iStockphoto.com or dreamstime (dreamstime has a catalog of free royalty-free images that you can use). You can usually get what you need for $20 or less. A tiny, professional icon is almost always better than a large-scale piece of amateur art. I hope that this next bit is unnecessary, but attention to licenses, do not screw other artists by stealing their work.
  6. Look at how everyone else is doing it and don’t be afraid to ask them. Find covers that you like, and figure out what makes you like them. Also, if you see an author doing their own covers and you like it, ask them about it, they will probably tell you, this is how I learned about iStockphoto, I asked Tobias Buckell how he could afford to do the covers for his short stories, and he told me.

Keep in mind that these are just guidelines, all but the first can be broken once you know what you are doing. Also keep in mind that I’m not a professional Graphic Designer, and I’ll probably look back at the stuff I’m making now and wince, so if you have anything to add, feel free to drop a line in the comments.

If you look at the stories in the sidebar, all of them with the exception of the Drones cover were created by me, and all of them inexpensively. In a future post, I plan on spending a bit more time on how to actually make them, and will probably post a template or two for you to use.

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Cliche and the Use of Language

November 22nd, 2011  |  Published in writing

The dictionary on my computer defines cliche as “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought”. I’ve never heard it used in a positive way, it is always a criticism. There is a good reason for this, prose that relies on cliches is flat, stale, dead on the page. Another way to define cliche is a phrase that is so familiar that it has lost virtually all meaning, it no longer engages the reader in any meaningful way and the work would most likely be better served by a direct statement. In short, avoid cliches.

The opposite end of this is purple prose in which the writing is so ornate as to distract from any point that it might otherwise make. This has traditionally happened in pulp novels, but has also started to happen in literary fiction. When you remove Plot, your only recourse is character and style, and there are only so many books about dysfunctional families that one can read, so it becomes easy to abuse style. (Yes, I do realize that I am painting with a very broad brush here. I am not saying that all literary fiction suffers from this, just some.)

As a general rule, I believe that the effect of any flourish, be it vulgarity or flowery prose, is inversely related to the frequency of its use. Which is really just a long way of saying that the more uncommon an element, the more impact it will have.

All of that being said, I now get to my real reason for writing this post. In my last weeks at Borders, I found an excellent book for adding a little freshness to prose: Merriam-Webster’s Easy Learning Spanish Idioms. It contains common Spanish idioms along with their direct translations and explanations. For example: “ser como en un entierro” which means “to be like a guitar at a funeral” and is analogous to “stick out like a sore thumb”. Obviously some of the phrases can be used verbatim, but I think that to do so exclusively would be to miss an opportunity. Through something like this, you can see how idioms arise from culture and history, which should get you thinking about what idioms arise from the culture and history that you are writing about (I’m thinking of the fantasy genre here, but I think that it applies equally well to the idioms that arise out of something even as small as a town or a family). If you don’t like that one, there are plenty of books about the subject, like I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms from Around the World.

The point is, if you want to write fresh and engaging fiction, there is a whole world of diverse and fascinating people out there to draw on. Just do so sparingly.

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Lord Of The Rings and The Chosen One

June 22nd, 2011  |  Published in Comedy, Fantasy, writing

I don’t know how I never noticed it before, but in Lord of the Rings, the hero is not the Chosen One. That is to say that Frodo is not so special as to make me unable to relate to him. He is not part of a prophecy, he is not the rare person born with a one in a million special ability, he is simply a better than average example of his people. How is it that modern fantasy has emulated everything else about Tolkien (trilogies, worldbuilding, obsession with description) but has managed to forget about this one key aspect?

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