It’s the In-Between That’s a Killer

If you’re a fanatical planner/outliner, this isn’t a problem for you. I can’t deny it would make life easier if I could plan out every novel completely before starting to write. I always have at least a general idea of how the plot is going to work itself out, and may even have some of the details, and have written (sometimes just in my head) whole scenes and dialogues. But as a general rule, I go into the real work of writing with a skeleton that has lots of bones missing. In between what I do know is a tremendous amount that I don’t know, and that’s the scary part of developing a novel.

The number of questions that have to be answered can make the actual writing look like an enormous boulder with smooth sides that provide not a single handhold, no way to get from here to there, there being a finished work with all the problems solved. To an outsider, it may look as if the months and years spent before tackling the real work are just procrastination. You’ve given up in the face of the enormity of the task. And there may be something to that. But it’s in those months and years that the problems are solved, the questions are answered. And it’s possible that the solutions and answers work better than the ones you come up with when you’re trying to force your way forward, setting up some kind of deadline that you want to meet.

A Well-Educated Boy is what’s most on my mind these days, and it’s a perfect example of the virtues of “procrastination.” One of the important themes in the novel is the question of why Harte’s best friend killed himself. Why kill off a character if you don’t already know why he does it? This is one of the great mysteries of writing, that you can make your characters perform for you without having any idea of their motivations. They do what they do because the plot requires it. But you can’t stop there. Without real, believable motivations, they will be nothing but puppets, and the readers will most likely catch on to it.

So, for months now, I’ve been trying to find a reason, or reasons, why Zach would kill himself. I found plenty of them, but none rang true, none brought anything important to the overall needs of the book. Until a couple of days ago. The feeling, when that happened, was a lot like finding a missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle and sliding it perfectly into its place. But more intense. One more in-between solved. One more handhold on that enormous boulder. And a little less fear.

OmniOutliner to the Rescue

Now that I’m down to the last chapter of A Perfect Slave, I’m switching some of my synapses over to A Well-Educated Boy. It’s taken forever to decide what point of view I want to use, and have finally settled on first person. The other big question mark was about where to start the darned thing. For better or worse, I’ll be using a lot of flashbacks, in order to start where the real action is, but most of them will be very short, some as short as a single sentence.

And I just had a flash. One effect of the flashbacks is to show that Harte is obsessed with the past, especially about his dead friend, Zack. I hadn’t thought of him as being obsessed, but now I can see that it’s an important part of his personality and influences how he sees the world around him. Yes, even after five years of working with this project, I’m still learning about the central character.

It’s very possible that this will be my first novel that’s developed from a full-scale outline. I don’t normally do outlines because my stories are usually straight chronologies and I can allow them to grow organically. Boy is a different kind of beast. Not only will there be many, many flashbacks, but the story will move from the main events to where Harte is, geographically and psychologically, after the main events.

I’m a little slow on the uptake, but I did finally realize that I’m not going to be able to pull together a coherent story from a vague idea of what happens when. So I pulled out my ancient copy of OmniOutliner, hoping that it still works after a multitude of Mac OS upgrades. And it does, by golly. I bought it in 2007, it’s been a few years since I used it, and I’d only used it for a variety of lists. Organizing a novel in it will be an entirely new experience. OmniOutliner has a notes feature that makes all the difference from using an old-fashioned outline. And of course, all modern outliners allow you to shift things around easily, which is probably going to happen a lot, but being able to insert notes is pretty crucial.

One reason I’ve been putting off serious work on Boy is its complexity and the potential for a lot of frustration in pulling everything together. Maybe, using the outliner, it won’t be the problem it was shaping up to be.

A Well-Educated Boy — What’s it About?

The first step in documenting the development and creation of a novel: Tell the readers what it’s about, and how I envision it.

Boy is both a YA and a coming-of-age novel, but mainly it’s about dystopias — two of them, existing at the same time. Harte Simmons was born and grew up in one of them, a small town that, on the surface, is almost a utopia. Burgundy is crime-free, its schools are excellent, and all the adults are employed. It’s also a little unusual, in that it’s what was once called a “company town.” Burgundy is privately owned by a large corporation.

Steven Simmons, Harte’s cousin, lives in a suburb of a typical urban center. He’s a year older than Harte. The two families take turns visiting during summer vacations and holidays. Both boys have had reasons to be envious of the other’s life, but gradually they become less naive and less envious. Each town, in its own way is a dystopia, though they’re very different from each other.

This is Harte’s story, told after he’s graduated from high school and left Burgundy. He was a typical, privileged, alienated teen, certainly not a hero, but in his last two years of high school, he lost his best friend to suicide, was forcibly enrolled in an alternative school run by the corporation, and began to understand how the world works.

He lives just a few decades down the block from us. There are no aliens, no major catastrophes (this is not a post-apocalyptic novel), no world-spanning evil overlords of any kind. The technologies in use either exist right now or are in development. It’s a world that doesn’t look terribly different from our own. And that’s the central problem I have to work out. How do I show that a world that looks so much like ours is an ominous warning of the world we’re already becoming? That’s what I’ll discuss next time.

 

The Three-Act Structure? Oh. Finally Got It

I have a bad, lifelong, habit of automatically rejecting anything that I can’t understand immediately without having to work at comprehension. Very bad habit. Whatever it is that doesn’t ring immediate bells has to look as if it might be very, very interesting, or unpleasantly necessary, for me to take a second and even a third look.

So the subject of structure in fiction keeps coming up, and I keep trying to figure out why I should bother trying to understand it when structure seems to come to me pretty naturally. That might be my ego talking, of course, but everything I read about structure and the debates over how many acts a book should have, and why the three-act structure is the most natural, seem terribly abstract and unrelated to the reality of getting a story put together.

But in the midst of pondering the development of A Well-Educated Boy the other day, it hit me. Boy quite naturally and all too obviously, uses the three-act structure. So two things happened. First, I was sort of confirmed in my belief that I tend to find the appropriate structures for my books without having to give it much thought. Second, I could see how being consciously aware of the structure might be helpful as I develop the story.

Going beyond Boy as I thought about this new perspective on structure, my mind jumped to a novel I started on NaNoWriMo many eons ago and never finished. I would like very much to finish it, and I’ve struggled with it off and on over the past few years, only to end up frustrated. The problem has always been how to structure it, and intuition has failed me with this one. It has two protagonists whose stories converge and separate several times. How the heck do I tell two separate stories in the same book? I know it can be done because I’ve read book where it’s been done very well. So that’s something I’m going to have to look into in some depth. I’m not going to let myself get off-track to pursue it right now, but I can now see that a serious examination of structure might help me finish the darn thing — someday.

On another note, I plan to post another chapter of A Perfect Slave this week — maybe tomorrow.

Battle of the WIPs

A Perfect Slave isn’t really a WIP since it’s complete, but needing some final editing. I’m halfway through that, but I should be just about done by now, almost ready to publish. It looks as if it isn’t going to happen. Why? Because A Well-Educated Boy has taken possession of my mind and won’t let go.

I always spend a lot of time in preparation before I start writing, but what’s going on right now is sheer obsession, or something very close to it. Over the more than a year since Boy made its appearance as a bare-bones idea, it has morphed and grown into something far from the original, rather simplistic, concept. It’s become far more complex, and it owes some of that complexity to questions that several essayists have proposed lately.

It seems that I’m not alone in thinking that science fiction needs to pull its attention from battles that are distant both in time and place, and consider where we are now and where we are possibly going in the near future. I’m far more interested in dystopias than in apocalypse, but the majority of dystopias in current science fiction are written as if they happened more or less suddenly, and as if the entire world (or nation) is in a monolithic state against which the heroes (usually teens) must battle.

That kind of dystopia is, to put it bluntly, a fantasy. Even if we accept that certain trends may converge from many points, as in the world-wide increase in bigotry and fear about the other: people of color, refugees, gender nonconformists, etc., that they could converge into one monolithic, all-powerful government is so unlikely that its possibility approaches zero.

But those fears, taken advantage of by powers already in existence: corporations and the military, could certainly lead to localized dystopias of various kinds. Many dystopias can exist simultaneously, and function in very different way. A Well-Educated Boy will be about two of those possibilities, both of which are actually possible today, and some features of which are already in place.

We are all living in a period of serious upheaval and transition. Most of that is invisible to us because it is taking place over months and years, slowly enough that we become accustomed to what is going on and accept it as normal. For instance, in spite of increased flooding and endless warnings from scientists about sea level rise, some 60% of home owners in S. Florida are unaware of or unconcerned about it. It wouldn’t be that difficult to write a dystopia that focuses on coastal cities and the long-term effects of climate change on lives and property.

Writing this more realistic version of utopia is more difficult, though, when the protagonist is a high school student. How do I avoid turning him into some clichéd save-the-world teen hero? How do I show his gradual realization that there’s little or nothing he can do to change the world, even his limited, local world, without ending the book in a state of despair and hopelessness? What can I give him as motivation for not giving up in the face of overwhelming power?

Books like The Hunger Games and Divergent speak to young people’s need to matter in a world that has very little use for them except as consumers. But how can we expect them to be anything but consumers when heroism and rebellion are presented to them as impossible fantasies with no basis in the real world? What can we give them that will keep them from being consumed by the bigotry and violence currently showing its face in Virginia?

Publishing a fantasy about slavery just doesn’t seem important right now.

“Mystery.” Is That a Prompt?

What should I write about? Something about that question always gets under my skin. It’s an irritation that gets worse when the answer is a list of prompts or some discussion about using prompts. I’ve never used prompts. In fact, my attitude toward them is that if you need a prompt from somewhere outside yourself, then maybe you’re not meant to be a  writer. My brain is always overflowing with ideas because the world is overflowing with ideas. How can you be serious about being a writer — or wanting to be a writer — if you can’t figure out for yourself what to write about?

To be fair, my attitude is somewhat narrow-minded. I think about prompts in terms of lists made up by someone or other and offered as a form of inspiration. But what is that world out there, with its endless flow of subjects and ideas, but a never-ending source of prompts? What prompted this insight was one word from a post I read this morning, on a writing blog. The post was about an essential requirement for any novel or story: mystery. Any genre. Mysteries aren’t the only books that need a mystery or mysteries to keep the reader hooked.

And there, seemingly out of nowhere was a new, important detail about one of my in-progress novels. I wasn’t thinking about the novel at the time. In fact, I hadn’t thought about it at all this morning, and I’m not currently working on it. Like all my WIPs, though, it’s always simmering in the back of my mind, and there’s nothing unusual about some element being added or a problem solved, out of the blue, when I’m reading something completely unrelated. (I’ve mentioned this before.)

Why did the word mystery bring up this particular WIP and provide the answer to a question that I hadn’t even consciously formed yet? That’s a mystery in itself. Someone who appears at the beginning of the book to be an important character just fades away and disappears. I knew why he disappeared, and also knew that he will eventually come back, and why. I didn’t know when or under what circumstances, and hadn’t given that much thought. I thought I knew, but it turned out I didn’t. Because my original concept of his return was kind of boring. It wasn’t until I collided with ‘mystery’ that I even realized I needed a dramatic setting for his return, and that I had already set it up.

Oddly, ‘mystery’ isn’t a prompt in any way that we’d normally recognize. I won’t be writing about a mystery, which would be the normal outcome. Instead, what I think happened is that the word unlocked my awareness of an unstated but important problem that has been working away at an unconscious level of my mind. If that isn’t a prompt, I don’t know what is.

I’m a pretty literal-minded person, which might explain why I’ve viewed prompts in such a limited way. Maybe it’s appropriate that ‘mystery’ is the word that offered me a different perspective. It’s also appropriate that it’s still a mystery why that happened, and why it happened to one particular WIP.

Kickstarting (Kicking) the Muse

If I really had a muse, I’d be kicking its ass, trying to wake it up and encourage it to do its job. With health issues sapping my energy (mental as well as physical), I’m getting kind of desperate. I need to be writing. I want to be writing. But most days, writing isn’t happening. It’s partly my own fault, of course. Any sensible person would have no more than two or three WIPs underway, and even if they skipped around between them, progress would probably be visible.

But who ever accused me of being sensible? Well, I’m trying to be, so I picked out six WIPs out of the wild jungle of infinite numbers, and I’m going to let them battle it out for further attention. Only six? you say. Nothing sensible about that, but it’s what I’m going with — for now.

I’m hoping that somewhere in the process of figuring out how to evaluate them, and then doing the evaluating, a spark will leap up and I’ll know what to do. Yup. Sure.

In no particular order, here are the six I’m considering for immediate action and publication.

A Perfect Slave is technically the third Boundaries (Hand Slaves) novel. It’s finished, but could probably benefit by one more run-through. I sent every copy, including backups, to digital oblivion, thinking I’m through with slavery fantasies. But it won’t leave me alone, so I dug it out of the Time Machine (thank you, Apple).

Privileged Lives and Other Lies is not only finished, but published. It’s hardly sold any copies, but I can’t give it up. I’m almost finished with a thorough revision. If I choose it, I’ll shorten the title to Privileged Lives, and create a new cover. Does it make sense to republish an old, unsuccessful book when there are so many new ones waiting in line? Good question.

Gift of the Ancien is somewhat vampirish, probably the most mainstream novel I’ve written, and potentially the one most likely to sell more than one copy a month. It’s complete, but needs a massive revision that threatens to drown me every time I look at it. It’s also one of my oldest pieces, so there’s this nagging pressure to get it out there.

Empire of Masks has been kicking around in my head for several years, and on my computer, collecting notes. It’s another slavery fantasy, but mostly about a society gone amuck and, like A Perfect Slave, rescued from digital death. With only 1,000 or so words written so far, it’s the least likely be finished any time in the near future unless I abandon every other WIP and concentrate on it exclusively. When have I ever concentrated on one book exclusively? Only during NaNo, and I don’t think I have what it takes to do that again.

Bentham’s Dream is a prison story dear to my heart, but unlikely to attract many readers. It’s depressing, for one thing. Half to 3/4 done, with the hardest parts still ahead of me.

A Well-Educated Boy takes up most of my imaginative daydreaming lately, but I’m only a few thousand words in, and there are critical parts that still aren’t coming clear. Set in the near-future, it’s a look at two possible co-existing dystopias not so different from today’s realities. It might do well, since it’s basically YA.

So this is me, thinking out loud, and now looking back at what I just wrote for clues to the way ahead. Nope. Not yet. But it’s a start.

Trapped by Details: an Epiphany

One of the side effects of a medication I’ve been taking for a couple of months is insomnia — serious lack of sleep. There are moments when I think this could be a good thing because the hazy state between sleeping and waking is often the source of ideas and insights — and there has been a lot of hazy state . Alas, those ideas and insights seldom carry over into the daylight hours. If I could just lie there in the dark and dictate into a recorder, who knows what marvels of novelistic fiction I could create. Well, that’s never going to happen, but once in a while, something worth pursuing does survive until morning and daylight.

A recent night was one of those frustrating on/off sleep/wake stretches that had me wanting to just get up, wander around the apartment, find something to do, and forget about sleep altogether. But I stuck it out and let my mind do the wandering. And what happened was that I had a sort of vision. I haven’t been able to write at all for the last two or three months, so part of the night’s mental meandering is often about trying to select the ongoing WIP most likely to have a chance of sucking me in and getting my fingers back on the keyboard. Gift of the Ancien is always one of those being considering — and discarded.

But last night, I saw that novel in an entirely new way. It was as if I was standing off from an actual, physical construct, and seeing it as an object independent of details like voice or characterization, and stripped of my personal interest in and attachment to it. I can’t regain much of the feelings I had about this new view, but the image itself is still fairly clear in my mind — and its meaning. Although I can’t reconstruct or explain how I came to it, the meaning of the image is that this particular novel (and several others), has been a challenging puzzle to work out, and that challenge is completely independent of the novel’s importance to me. In other words, I’ve been sucked into an ongoing attempt to solve a puzzle (or a handful of puzzles), fascinated by the challenge just as certainly as any game player. It’s the intricacies of that particular story that I’m attempting to work out, without any consideration of whether it has enough value to me to justify the time and energy I’m putting into it.

I also had brief glimpses of a couple of the other WIPs being bounced around as possible ways out of the black hole of wordlessness. Most of the insights are gone, damn it, but there was the sense, however vaguely I can see or express it now, that those WIPs had value apart from the details. Their value — their meaning — to me, personally, was more important than the puzzles they represent, or the working out of the puzzles. Ancien, on the other hand, even though it would have value as a published novel, and possibly of more value than the others, has no other value to me.

On a superficial level, this all boils down to the question of why I write: for money, or for myself. But now I can see it isn’t that at all. The real question is: is this a story I really care about, for its own sake, or is it just a container for intriguing puzzles? I turns out that anything I write for myself has a boundary far beyond me. It’s an idea or collection of ideas, that I hope will draw readers looking for more than entertainment. Of course, every novel is a series of puzzles to work out; maybe that’s a big part of the appeal for writers, especially writers who aren’t particularly successful in the fame and fortune arena.

I still haven’t settled on a WIP to drag me out of the creativity black hole, but at least I have a better basis for making that selection. Ancien, as strongly as its puzzles fascinate me, needs to be put aside where it can’t tempt and distract me. The same is true of several other WIPs in various stages of development. Maybe if I can get them shoved under the carpet and use the imagery from my vision, I’ll find the piece that will inspire me to get back to writing.

 

 

Turning Dry into Drama – Bentham’s Dream

This is an unplanned followup to yesterday’s post. It may be somewhat disorganized, even a little incoherent, since I’m thinking with my fingers. Bentham’s Dream was originally intended to be part of a short story collection about prisons, from about the early 19th century to the 2060s or thereabout. Somehow, Bentham’s Dream took over and shoved the other stories out of sight. Credit the last few years of research about the death penalty, solitary confinement, and other aspects of criminal justice. The story has grown, from some 8,000 words to 26,000 words and is still a long way from being finished.

I think it was at about 25,000 words that I realized I had a problem and needed to do some very deep thinking about where the story was going. More important, and I think yesterday’s question about why anyone would want to read it was a trigger, the problems coalesced into one question: how do I turn a somewhat dry subject and two talking heads into a story that will fascinate rather than send readers off into slumberland.

This might serve as a metaphor for any subject that might grab a writer, but seems to have little potential for attracting readers. Fortunately, science fiction allows a lot of latitude in topics, and any serious sf reader probably has fond memories of books dealing with subjects that they never would have considered worth their time. This is worth thinking about in this age of formula writing. How many Hunger Games clones can you bear to read? How many zombie novels or post-apocalyptic end-of-the-world reruns?

There are thousands of possible topics waiting for the science fiction writer with some imagination, someone who’s willing to take some risks and walk away from the clones and clichés. But it won’t be easy. It’s probably been well over a year since I started writing Bentham’s Dream. My original concept was fairly limited, but turned out to be nothing more than the skeleton from which to hang something much more complex and, I hope, more dramatic. Something I discovered about my writing is that I tend to place my characters in very restricted circumstances. Well, there’s nothing more restrictive than a prison where there is zero chance of prisoners causing any problems for the staff. So, no riots, no murders. None of the clichés that we associate with prison stories. Just two people wandering around the prison, observing the prisoners, and talking about it. How in the world can I introduce action and drama into such a setting?

Originally, the main protag, an inspector for the region’s penal system, does his job and then leaves, trying to decide how he wants to slant his report. He and the warden have had an interesting and enlightening discussion, but never touched base with each other as human beings. Dull, dull, dull. After much backing and forthing about POV, I’m writing the story in first person, from the point of view of Jerry Stanton, the inspector. This puts us closer to him than third person would be, but also limits what we can know about Chandler, the prison warden. Since Chandler starts off as an efficient bureaucrat, Jerry’s point of view is important if we want to see him as a human being, possibly with doubts about his job.

As the story evolved, Chandler turned out to be the key to the drama, and to a very different ending than I had planned, one that will be, if I do it right, a shocker.

The Solution is… Second Person Point of View

How many times have I been amazed when the solution to a longstanding problem appears suddenly, all by itself? I suppose I’ll continue to be amazed, and continue to wonder why the solution is so obvious once it arrives that I wonder why it took so long to arrive.

My nonfiction death penalty WIP has been stalled for over a year in spite of my having a ton of research material, and knowing what topics I want to include. New insights keep coming, about what I want to say, but exactly how I need to say it has escaped me. I’ve made a certain amount of progress, eliminating completely any hint of scholarly objectivity, and giving more weight to what the condemned themselves have had to say than most books do. Death penalty literature runs mostly to fact-heavy arguments for or against, or collections of death row prisoner writing, with commentary by the editors. Neither is what I’m aiming for.

What I want to do is break the mold of writing about the death penalty, to reach into the emotional core of readers and move them in a way that hasn’t ever been done. I want it be the kind of book that makes readers tell their friends, “Here, you have to read this book.” That’s a pretty tall order, I know, and probably far beyond my ability to achieve. But I keep thinking that if I can find the right structure and tone, I can come close.

I have a pretty good grip on the structure, but it’s the tone that will make the difference, and that’s what has been escaping me. Until yesterday morning, when I woke up thinking about the book, and writing scenes in my head, all of which were in second person. I was addressing someone in the place of a prisoner, experiencing what it would be like to live for the rest of your life, however long that might be, in a tiny room made of cement and steel. “You are pacing this space for the first of thousands of times, becoming familiar with every inch of it, trying to imagine yourself never seeing the sky again, or being touched by another human being, except accidentally, as you’re put into restraints for the short trips — to the showers, to the cubicle in which you’ll look through bullet-proof glass at your visitors — if you have visitors — those trips that are the only part of the world you’ll experience outside your cell.”

I usually forget all those wonderful little bits by the time I’ve washed, dressed and fixed my first cup of tea. And usually, I don’t worry about it because there’s always more where that came from. But sometimes I forego all the getting-up rituals because what has been drifting through my sleep-fogged mind is too important to forget. Well, I did forget what I was addressing that person about, but not that I was addressing them, personally, as if I were talking to them. And that was it. That was the tone I was looking for. Not for the entire book, which could become wearisome, but interspersed with the quotes and my own commentary.

Second person isn’t used very much in fiction, and when I Googled it, I found that its most usual use is in instruction-type writing, or self-help books. When it is used in fiction, it’s meant to provoke an emotional response. “… second-person breaks the fourth wall on your work and results in your prose directly addressing and commanding the reader. This can have the problematic effect of popping your reader out of their suspended disbelief because it’s actively calling attention to them as a reader. It implies that the reader himself is the acting character of the prose.” “…at its most simple level, the second-person point of view serves as an invitation for the reader to come fully into a piece with all of their baggage, all of their expectations, and, for a moment, to become fully immersed as a character in the work.”

I was sure, as soon as I was aware of what I was doing, that it was the tone I needed. But it was good to learn more about second person POV and confirm that my instinct was right. And now that I know it, I wonder — why did it take so long?

 

The “Why isn’t My Series Selling?” Lament

Every time I see someone asking forum members for help for a poorly selling book or series, I’m tempted to stick my rude two cents in and say “Maybe it just isn’t very good.” I never do, but it’s pretty darn tempting. The beleaguered author lists all the things they’ve done right that should suck readers in and keep them coming back for books two, three and four. Is it really necessary to say that they usually haven’t done everything right? And even if they have, that’s no guarantee of success.

Every so often, I take a look at the book that is supposedly perfect and can see plenty of reasons why readers might not even finish reading it, much less go on to the next one. In this case, the cover was okay, the blurb was too brief for my liking, and wasn’t entirely clear, but we’re trying to find out why people do buy the book, but don’t finish it or enjoy it enough to buy the sequel. I’m well aware that most readers aren’t turned off by poor grammar or typos unless they’re bad enough or frequent enough to be distracting. I was skimming the sample pretty quickly, so I might have missed a few boo boos, but the only thing that really struck me was that invisible bugbear, the repeated word — (“that that”).

So what was the problem? Even a slow start might not be enough to turn readers right off, if it’s a genre they like, and the blurb has led them to expect an interesting story. But this was supposed to be an action novel, with a tough heroine, and it dragged, and the heroine immediately sounded like an idiot. If that wasn’t bad enough, the author was apparently trying for a literary touch, and sprinkled in irrelevant and awkward metaphors when he should have been concentrating on the action. Continuity problems? Oh yes. Like the villain saying he was going to take his time about killing our heroine so she could appreciate it, and then, just a few paragraphs later, saying he was in a hurry to make an appointment and could only take two minutes to finish up this little job.

All of that might not turn the average reader off right away, but it’s a safe bet that the flaws of the first dozen or so paragraphs are going to show up again and again. After a while, a little bell is likely to go off in the reader’s head, and she’s going to notice that something’s rotten in Denmark. All the lame metaphors, and the details that don’t work, will have a cumulative effect just below the conscious level. It’s when they reach consciousness that the reader is likely to sign off.

I read some of the Amazon reviews, noting that only 47% of readers gave the first book five stars. And 16% of only 19 reviews gave it one or two stars. Another 16% gave it three stars. Most of those poor reviews were spot on, even for the short excerpt that I’d read. So maybe the real problem for the author — the most important thing that he did wrong, was to not pay any attention to the reviews.

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.