Exploring the Black Hole

I didn’t plan to follow up yesterday’s post, but the comments, including one that I trashed, added to my online reading, changed that.

Here are purely arbitrary numbers that represent my impression of the topics on Kboards: 90% are concerned with writing as a way to earn a living (representative threads – What is the most you’ve made off of a single book? $5,000 a month or more with no sex? A controlled test of writing to Market with a space opera. How much do you spend on ads per month? 5% are concerned with writing tools, grammar usage, etc. 5% concerned with non-financial issues such as creativity.

This is not criticism, just laying out things as I see them. The essential take-home idea is that writing, particularly novels, is now perceived as a viable way to earn a living. When I see an article claiming that to be a writer you must watch tv, I realize that my growing awareness of science fiction as a movie and tv product that has little to do with books is just one small niche in the commercialization of something that was once considered a creative act.

Commercialization of creativity has always existed. What is different now is that it is the dominant factor. There is very little room for creativity that doesn’t start out with a dollar sign in front of it, and there is correspondingly less interest in it. This is why I see so many articles that mourn the lack of novels with large themes. Literary novels concern themselves with the agonies of the individual, and literary novelists win awards for books that turn over the same soil that has been dug up and raked over for a few hundred years. Genre writing is devoted to entertainment. In a world that is entering what may be the final stages of the great human species experiment, the most successful writing entertains, titillates, and constructs fantasies that allow readers to ignore the simple fact that their ship has hit an iceberg and is sinking.

Linking this back to yesterday’s post, my problem is not writer’s block as one would-be commenter offered, quite irrelevantly, along with a link to his radio broadcast about something or other. My problem is knowing that, in the long run, I’m writing for myself alone. I have no illusions that writing about global climate change and its effects on individuals will have the least effect in changing anyone’s awareness and perhaps their lives.

What made this particularly clear was coming across an article on Lit Hub this morning. When I saw What is the Writer’s Place in a Violent World? I hoped for something that would make sense to me, maybe lift me out of my slough of despond. What I found was the usual exploration of aesthetics, a foamy construction of soap bubbles of literary concerns, and ending with,

“And this is where I am today, wondering about the writer’s role when there seems there is nothing we can say to change anything. What I have begun to think: that before the word comes the image, that before we describe, we must first be willing to look. We must stare, then verbalize, then reclaim. We learn to comprehend what is in front of us by writing, by re-creating in such a way that we urge others not to turn aside.

“There are those who came before us, who have looked and written and forced our gaze toward greater empathy and our language toward greater capacity: here are just a very few: Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin, Be’alu Girma, Ousman Sembene, Assia Djebar.

“But they would be no more than mere voices, unintelligible words carried through empty space, if we, all of us, did not take part in their protest against silence, and read.”

And that is, apparently, the solution to violence, that we read the words of authors who’ve written about it so well, and then write about it ourselves. Between the lines, though, is the tragedy: that none of those writers have had any impact on the course of events, which have continued to wend their way to increasing violence, against other human beings and against the world we live in. Both the reading and the writing (and the writing about the writing) are comforting delusions that one is actually doing something useful.

Will I continue to write? Yes, but with less and less hope that it will do anything but entertain, even though that is the very last reason I would have for writing. Why bother? Because it’s something I can do well, that brings me a certain amount of satisfaction for its own sake. Because it is a way of keeping mentally active rather than allowing the downward slope of my life to become even steeper.

Black Hole

I’m having a hard time lately finding any motivation for writing — novel work, blogging, letters. I’m a big-picture kind of person, all too aware of the major currents that swirl around us, not a good way to live for someone prone to depression. When I’m down, physically and mentally, the trivia that dominates the media seems to be an ocean swamping anything of real importance, and making it more apparent that humanity is in the process of committing suicide, and trying to take as much as possible of the natural world with it. Whether it’s Trump, Byonce, ISIS, the latest jaw-dropping technologies, even the causes that I support, it’s all ephemera that is in the process of being swept away by forces we choose to ignore.

In the face of the larger realities, my own writing has little point or significance. I suppose I’ll continue — eventually, but not today.

 

Just in Passing

Written Sunday, in a state of profound boredom, so drop a shakerful of salt on it.

Browsing through Amazon’s best seller lists is always fun when there are more important things I should be doing.

“It’s the Annual Ambassadorial Ball in Glause, and Lady Isabella Farrah, the daughter of New Civet’s Ambassador, is feeling pleasantly scintillated. “ Described as “an inventive and funny mystery,” but I suspect the author didn’t intend readers to be amused by her unfortunate vocabulary choice.

Battlefield scenes are necessarily gross in the aftermath, but there’s no need to give the reader an additional reason to cringe. In this case, two additional reasons. “He knew what lay around him. Meat was meat – whether dead or undead. He hopped down from its perch onto a headless corpse, poking his beak into the cold yellow flesh where the head once rested. Slithers of meat were pulled away from the ragged stump…”

I downloaded a freebie from J.A. Konrath yesterday, out of curiosity, since thrillers aren’t really my thing. Konrath is a successful, popular writer, with a blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, that I used to find moderately interesting and useful. Lately, it focuses on his various publishing projects, so that’s dropped off my reading list.

Of The List: a Thriller, there isn’t much I can say. I quit reading about halfway through. I had anticipated learning something about setting up and maintaining suspense in a novel, but there wasn’t any. For a thriller, it was surprisingly flat and bland, with enough examples of awkward writing to make me wonder if this was another example of why some authors are so popular. They don’t really write very well, but they apparently are able to come up with stories that keep a certain class of readers coming back for more.

Book titles fascinate me. Sometimes I’ll read a blurb just because the title was catchy, or weird, or WTF? Happily Ever Now: The cover illustration clearly says this is a romance, and the title might have been reaching for a clever version of Happy for Now, or Happy Ever After.

365 Days of Clean Eating probably has something to do with not eating junk food or those horrible carbs, but it kind of made me wonder if it’s meant to accompany all those clean romances that are cluttering up what’s supposed to be the historical fiction category.

Stuck up Suit is by the authors of Cocky Bastard, so the authors obviously have a clever thing going. Do the books follow through? They’re romances, so I’ll never know.

Free historical fiction is littered with mail order bride titles, some of which proclaim themselves to be clean, and some even claim historical settings. This is one of the categories where actual titles just aren’t that important. “Mail Order Bride: CLEAN Western Historical Romance” is apparently enough to suck in the readers. Well, the title is on the cover, you say. Often enough, the title isn’t even legible. Maybe it’s the photo that tells readers whether they’ve already read and tossed it. I can’t imagine the authors who resort to extreme keyword stuffing ever producing anything actually worth reading.

I scour the free bestsellers almost every day because, yes, I’m cheap. The freebies offset the cost of the books that I do buy, and I buy a lot. Also, many brand-new authors put out their first books as freebies, so you never know when you’re going to stumble over something that makes you impatient for the writer’s next book. Alas, sometimes there isn’t a next book, and the author simply disappears off the face of the earth. And sometimes the next book isn’t that great.

Conquer Technology and Read as a Book

Yesterday’s mini-saga of trying to read Camp Expendable on my Kindle ended in a normally half-assed way. In Scrivener, I compiled it to a PDF, which Kindle finally accepted. But you can’t change the font size of a PDF on the Kindle. So my choice was to squint at the text in portrait mode or read in landscape mode, which enlarges the font, but doesn’t handle page turns very well. Still unwilling to wrestle with Amazon’s KindleGen, I tried one more ploy today. I compiled the novel as a plain text file, figuring that I don’t need the formatting details at this point. Writer just wants to read. And it turns out that when you download a text file to a Kindle, it translates it into Kindle format, complete with location and percent read. How about that! So now I can read Expendable as a book and change the font to a comfortable size.

The “Read as a book” Stage

I planned to compile Camp Expendable as a .mobi and send it to my Kindle for a readthrough that I couldn’t tinker with. Good idea, but it didn’t happen. I’ve never downloaded Amazon’s KindleGen, which Scrivener requires for that conversion, so I did that this morning, thinking I was on the verge of getting down to work. No such luck. One look at the instructions for installing it and I backed off as if I’d just put my hand down on a hot stove. I’ll get it done eventually, when I’m not in a headachey, brain-fogged state, and the instruction don’t look like gibberish.

Not all is lost, of course. I converted the book to a PDF, so I can still read it as a book. I wanted to be able to sit in my comfy chair, away from the computer, but it looks like that won’t be possible. The Kindle will supposedly read PDFs, so I sent it — twice — and nothing happened. It showed it downloading, but it’s nowhere to be seen. and the number of items on the Kindle hasn’t changed. Curses!

It finally showed up, but only after I checked to archive it. In normal portrait reading mode, it’s too small for me to read comfortably, and PDFs don’t allow you to enlarge the font. If I change it to landscape mode, the font is more readable, but less than half a page shows at a time.

So I’m in for a long spell of either reading a novel on my computer, which I’ve mostly been able to avoid since getting the Kindle, or tapping a zillion page turns.

The actual useability of my Kindle has severely deteriorated since the last software update, and that’s been typical of Amazon ever since I started reading ebooks. The way it handles PDFs doesn’t make me any happier about it.

NaNoWriMo 2016 — And Structure

Yes, it’s early to be planning for National Novel Writing Month, but that’s how I usually do it.

I’ve been nursing a story idea for several years, but not doing much about it. A few notes, a few questions, a few characters’ names. But some stories nag, while others are content to fade into the background and hope their day will come. This one nags. Constantly. And it seems to have been putting down roots in my brain because when I opened it today to make some additions, I found that the plot had developed quite a bit.

So, of two or three possible choices for November’s days of madness, Empire of Masks made the cut as the only possible one. It’s a fantasy of slavery and politics. There will be kidnapping, drug addiction and death, a degenerate emperor, murder (probably), and blowing things up. It will be very, very different from anything I’ve written.

The phase outline is already in progress, and there’s enough material now to start setting up chapters and possibly a formal outline. Itchy fingers are eager to get going, so it’s a good thing there are lots of plot points to be worked out, characters and their relationships to develop, and a world to create from the ground up.

Six and a half months to go, which is great for planning, not so great for the itchy fingers.

Story structure — again.

Obviously, story structure is very much on my mind lately. I’m in the middle of Weiland’s book, but also, as one outcome of cleaning off my computer desktop (cluttered with URLs, folders, texts, etc.)

I’m also reading a tiny book by Rachel Aaron: 2,000 to 10,000, Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love. The book includes, and is an offshoot of, her original blog post: How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day. My first reaction, when the post started making the rounds was just what you might imagine. Oh no. Not another speed demon telling everyone that they need to write faster. But it wasn’t like that at all. The post is descriptive, not prescriptive, and the book continues in that vein. It isn’t about writing faster, as such, but about getting rid of the things that slow us down.

She’s a full-time writer, and also a damn fast typist, if her word counts are to be believed. I’m neither. She has contracts and deadlines, and I have neither. The book isn’t “do as I say,” but “figure out what works for you and discard the rest.” Aaron has a sense of humor, and she knows how to lay out the essentials without taking forever. So, having started out poo pooing the idea of writing 10,000 words a day, I have to say that her little book  is probably the best $.99 investment I’ve ever made. Short, sweet, straight to the point. I’ll never write 10,000 words a day, but maybe I’ll be able to write more than I usually do. With a new novel coming up in a few months, I’ll have a chance to put it to the test.

 

 

What We Love About Books — Myths and Realities

It seems that Amazon is trying to replicate, or at least find an equivalent for, something that book lovers obsess about in physical books. A new Kindle — a very pricey Kindle — is now available and designed to arouse the same feelings of adoration that physical books supposedly do.

“For all of their conveniences, e-readers have never been able to replicate what people love most about physical books. The smell of an old leather binding; the crisp deckle edge of a new hardback; the way a dog-eared paperback feels in your hand. The way they look on a shelf, or stuffed into your back pocket; the way they show people at a glance what you’re reading, so you can connect with a friend or stranger over a shared affinity—or show off your good taste.”

Is this actually true for most people? As someone who’s been reading physical books for about 75 years, I can honestly say that what I love most about books is the words. The smell, the look, the feel: those can be pleasant, but they’re way down in the list of what attracts me to a book or gives me pleasure. And if you want your books to show off your good taste, then they’re simply objects that serve to enhance your ego. It’s been pointed out that reading an ebook in public allows you to hide your “bad” taste — good — but also prevents you from showing off your “good” taste — bad.

I may be alone in this, but I fail to comprehend how the smell or feel of a physical book enhances the reading experience. The most desirable feature of a novel is that it allows you to escape the real world and immerse yourself in an imaginary one. Nonfiction books convey new knowledge. Neither of those require an awareness of the physicality of the container. I’d even insist that any book that leaves you aware of the container has failed in its task.

I appreciate the hell out of my Kindle, but it’s just a different container. It has advantages over physical books, and disadvantages. If you’re really a book lover you’ll choose the container that works best for the book, the time, and the place.

Book Lovers Obsess Over Books. Could They Ever Feel the Same About a Kindle?

 

It’s Cruel to be Kind

When someone asks why they’ve failed at some endeavor, do you tell them it’s because they’re up against people who are cheating their way to success? Or maybe that they’re being too self-critical, and their effort isn’t as bad as they think? Or do you tell them the truth — that their effort is poorly done? When a writer asks why a book that’s been available for a long time (more than a year) has only one or two reviews, and those are mediocre, what do you tell them?

It should be considered a kindness to let them know why they failed, but these days, that can provoke a tantrum rather than a willingness to take another look and try to discover what they’ve done wrong. Truth-telling is a kindness, but if it’s asked for and rejected, all you can do is shake your head and move on, knowing that the questioner wanted sympathy and an easy solution, not hard truth. This morning, I joined another person in replying to a pained query, both of us pointing out significant problems, including writing that would probably get a grade of C- in a fifth grade English class. It will be interesting to see what the reaction is. Or if there is one.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Oh, that eternal question that besieges writers. Why would anyone even ask unless they can’t dream up ideas with any regularity (if they’re writers) or stand in awe of such mysterious creativity (if they’re readers)? What’s mysterious to me is why anyone would sign up for something like NaNoWriMo and then post on the forums complaining that they can’t think of a good idea for a novel.

You just never know where a story idea is going to come from. In my world, they crawl out of the woodwork, pop up from drains, blow in with the wind, populate the spaces between the lines of almost every news story that I read. They’re like bedbugs in being where you’d least expect them (fine hotels are the physical world equivalent) and it’s impossible to stop them breeding.

I do not need any more story ideas. I do not want any more story ideas. But the little monsters keep coming. The latest one just sprang from a blog post by Peter Watts, one of my favorite SF writers (and thinkers). The bulk of the post (you can skip the intro about his dental implant) was about The Walking Dead, a show that I probably wouldn’t watch even if I still had a tv. But that didn’t keep me from reading.

“…those who complain about the lather-rinse-repeat cycle of Sanctuary-found-Sanctuary-Lost are completely missing the point. It’s almost as though they think The Walking Dead is a show about zombies or something.

“It’s not, of course. It never has been, any more than The Road was about asteroid impacts. The Walking Dead is about lifeboat ethics— about what people are willing to do, to sacrifice, to stay alive.”
Modern life is increasingly becoming about lifeboat ethics, and that simple idea can lead in many directions, including some very bizarre ones. Watts goes on to say, “(Here’s a new direction for you: The Bobbing Dead, the upcoming second season of the WD spin-off Fear the Walking Dead. Survivors on yachts, safe from zombie depredations until bacterial methane bloats enough walkers to let them float out to sea after the escapees. Tell me you saw that coming.)”

And there it is, another plot bunny, bedbug, story idea. No, not floaters. I’ll leave that to Watts. Lifeboat ethics and the coming great flood of climate change. We know there will come a day when tourists visit Miami via scuba diving gear, but what will happen when incoming waters chase the very rich out of their seaside gated compounds? Will they settle peaceably for having one less mansion? Maybe, but not likely. After all, the whole point of living on the Florida coast is access to sun and surf. They’re entitled to private beaches. Their bank accounts tell them so.

Their bank accounts always come in handy when dealing with local bureaucrats, and this dire situation is no different. Suddenly, inlandish neighborhoods are condemned for reasons that you have to be a lawyer to understand. Clear the bastards out, tear down their pathetic middle class shacks, and rebuild to your own specifications. Lifeboat ethics at its very best.

Thank you, Peter Watts.

Book Reviews, Scrivener Labels, Currently Reading

I read a lot of book reviews on Amazon — even of books I have no intention of buying. The most interesting ones are the one and two-star reviews because they tend to say more about the reviewers than about the books. It’s just another way of studying the human mind, I suppose, but you can also chalk it up to plain old curiosity. What other excuse can there be for devoting so much of my life to trying to understand humans?

There are all sorts of reasons for slamming a book with one or two stars and a negative review, and most of those can be skipped over without any loss. The ones that keep me reading and, sometimes, laughing, are those that set out to explain why the book is a very bad book. What they usually accomplish is the revelation that the reader is only semi-literate. Simply being able to read and comprehend, individually, the words in a book isn’t true literacy. At least some of these semi-lits admit that they don’t like the book because… and it turns out that what they’re looking for is either action or emotion, or both. No complexity, please. No characters whose personalities aren’t straight forward and easy to comprehend. No ruminations, or “navel gazing.”

The rest of the semi-lits critique style, pacing, story line, characterization, all with the intention of showing that they know better than the author how those things should be done. One of their favorite bits of wisdom is about the books believability because people just… don’t… act… that… way. Maybe not in their limited experience and shallow understanding, which they have no problem showing off. The net result is that all they’ve displayed is their inability to comprehend what they’re reading.

Unfortunately, the proportion of semi-lits to actual readers seems to be growing at a truly frightening rate. Which means that I’ll soon be deprived of a harmless source of amusement, because there always comes a time when you’ve seen all the variations and permutations, and there’s nothing new to look forward to.

Scrivener — Still on the prowl for ways to use Scrivener more efficiently. I downloaded a bunch of free templates created by various people, including Scrivener’s developers, hoping to find some tweaks that I could use to make my own template more useful. David Hewson’s was the only one I didn’t trash after a thorough look. Not surprising, since it was his book that got me thinking about templates in the first place.

Looking at all those templates was a great visualization of the variety of ways writers approach and organize their work. All very different from my own. What Hewson’s template persuaded me to use, after have read about them many times, was Labels. Their use just never clicked in my mind as something I needed. But now that I’m trying to grasp story structure as something that could improve my writing, a use for labels jumped right into my face.Scrivener labels

I want to trace Casey’s arc to see if it follows the three-act structure, but even with each scene given a name, it’s difficult to keep track of what’s happening where. Dividing the word count by four let me set up the chapters to conform to the 25, 50, and 75 percent structure. I don’t know yet why Weiland sets up the second act in two pieces, but I’ll probably get to that today. Anyway — now it’s easy to visualize which act I’m dealing with,  and the chunks are smaller, also making it easier.

This is still very experimental, so I’ll see how it goes.

Currently reading: The Raven’s Seal, by Andrei Baltakmens — free on Kindle.
The author is a Dickens scholar and it shows. This is a long, slow mystery in the style of Charles Dickens, right down to the sometimes excessive detail and authorial opinionating. Which is to say, that if you like Dickens you’ll probably like The Raven’s Seal. I’m only on the third of 24 chapters, so I can’t really review it, but from what I’ve read so far, I think I’m going to enjoy it. The hero is about to fight a duel for the insulted honor of a poor but beautiful girl, which leads to his being thrown in prison. I suspect that he will eventually be freed and will marry the girl, even though she is beneath him in both class and fortune.

Odds and Ends — Reading and Writing

This isn’t what I was going to start with, but Amazon is, at this very moment, updating my Kindle software. Not an unusual occurrence except for one thing–I had it set on airplane mode. So this means that Amazon can turn it on any time they want, for any purpose? Call me paranoid, but I find that slightly alarming. And now that the update is complete, it’s showing me my main page and it’s still in airplane mode. Any comments?

Another odd–or end–I’m writing this in WordPress’s quick draft mode which I just discovered this morning. The first thing I learned is that you can’t format anything while you’re in it. The second thing? Wait a minute while I save it and see where it takes me when I click on it again. Okay, it takes me to the normal “new post” page. Is there any advantage to using it? Yes. The last three drafts are listed on the dashboard now that it’s activated, so I don’t have to click over to the “all posts” page and then click on the draft to finish writing a post that I’ve left for later. So that’s a very minor, but nice feature.

Scrivener — There’s always something new to learn. Someone mentioned templates the other day, and I decided: Okay, why not give it a try? I always start a new project with a blank page, but since I set up all my fiction projects the same way, it doesn’t make sense to hassle with filling in all the binder settings every time. It was easy as pie, in case anyone is wondering. Open a blank project, set up your binder the way you want it, and Save as Template. That template will be listed with all of Scrivener’s templates. What I’m particularly happy about is that “Journal” is now always at the top of the binder. This is something Alicia suggested, but if I don’t have some kind of reminder right in front of me, I’ll forget all about it.

I’ve been in more or less of a sulk for the last two days, frustrated with Camp Expendable, and not feeling well physically. Maybe I needed a mini-vacation because the brain seems to be coming back online today. So — I’m having a sitdown with Casey, not an interview as Audrey Kalman suggested, though that may still happen. I haven’t gotten too far into it yet, but I’ve already found an aspect of Casey’s relationship with Jake that I’d never thought about.

Currently reading — Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, by K. M. Weiland

I’m only about a quarter of the way through, but I’m finding it helpful, to some extent. I doubt that I’ll ever be an adherent of any of the formal structures, whether it’s three or four or however many “acts” are considered vital. Just breaking my chapters into scenes was a bear because there’s rarely any action or clear demarcation that lets me draw a line between “this” and “that.” I’ll probably write a short review when I’m finished.

End of Odds.

Character –> Revisions –> Frustration

Working on Camp Expendable has become an exercise in frustration. I want it finished and it doesn’t want to be finished. I put the first three chapters through ProWritingAid yesterday, and my overall impression was that the writing is better, so there isn’t as much to be corrected as there would have been only one or two drafts back. But… I was still finding details I was unhappy with that required further tweaking. Will this never end? Apparently not.

To make things even worse, while I was reading K.M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel last night, Casey’s personality and my problems with it intruded. Casey is the primary protagonist, and it’s his actions that direct the novel. I think I’ve developed him fairly well, but all through the various revisions, I’ve felt that there’s something lacking in how he comes across. That lack is weakening the novel, and even though I can see the problem clearly, I haven’t been able to figure out what to do about it. Until last night.

Here’s where I would love to turn the novel over to beta readers because I don’t know if I can trust my own judgment that he’s coming across as a whiner with a bad temper, whose stance changes with every shift in the wind. He’s also very strong when he needs to be, and very caring, but extremely vulnerable because there have been so many losses in his life. He’s conflicted.

But I’m being stubborn about getting this book published as soon as possible, so waiting for beta readers (if I can even find more than the one faithful one who’s been so much help to me) is simply out. I don’t have the patience, or the time.

I recently broke each chapter into its scenes so I could have a better overview. That may stand me in good stead now because I can go through the named scenes and track Casey’s arc, which is something I should have done earlier. “Arc” is another concept I’m just now getting around to in thinking about structure.

I now have a better handle on how to present Casey’s conflicts, even if the details are still  fuzzy. But that’s the pantser aspect of my work. There’s always a lot that doesn’t come clear until I start digging in. Unfortunately, all this insight means a fair amount of revision. The word count is probably going to go up, which is fine, except that most of my chapters are already quite long (around 4,000 words), and I may have to break up some chapters. That means more editing before I can put the “final draft” (the second or third final draft) through PWA.

I think I’m going to go make a batch of cookies now and eat myself sick. (I’m a frustration binge eater.)

A final note. This is something I’ve thought about off and on. Much of the discussion and advice about how long it takes (or should take) to write a novel, is based on stories that depend heavily on plot. Such stories can be outlined, with approximate word counts and deadlines set before the first word is written. Stories that depend almost entirely on characterization can not be written that way. I was learning about Casey long before I wrote the novel last November during NaNoWriMo. So, he’s been on my mind somewhere between six months and a year. And that still hasn’t been enough time to know him as well as I need to. Think about someone you thought you knew very well after years of being friends, and then they surprise you with an aspect of their character they’d never shown before. You may have to rethink your whole relationship, and your view of who that person really is. That’s Casey.