Thursday, March 5, 2015

What Are You Reading?


I've often stressed the importance of reading so, today, let's talk about what books we're reading. (And, yes, I got this idea from Chuck Wendig!)

At the moment I'm polishing off Brimstone , the fifth book in Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s fabulous mystery-thriller series featuring their quirky yet indomitable sleuth Aloysius Pendergast. Preston and Child know how to generate suspense. Their books keep me up until indecent hours!

I'm also reading—and, yes, this book has been on my to-be-read list for a while—The Secret History by Donna Tartt. For some reason I thought the book would be dry and academic, but when I picked it up at the bookstore it hooked me immediately. 

I like having two books cued up, ready to go, so my third book is J.D. Robb's (/Nora Roberts) futuristic mystery-romance Holiday in Death .

If I had to pick one book out as a favorite, one I've read fairly recently, I'd have to go with Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects,” but “Gone Girl” is fabulous as well. I highly recommend the audiobook since those particular narrators helped bring the characters to life.

What are you reading? What's your favorite genre? Please share!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What Bad Books Can Tell Us About Good Writing

What Bad Books Can Tell Us About Good Writing

Today I want to discuss what bad books can tell us about good writing. To do this I’m going to discuss the history of an intentionally bad book—Atlanta Nights—and tell you about something surprising (well, surprising to me) I’ve discovered.

Atlanta Nights


First, Atlanta Nights. This book was created as part of a sting operation against notorious vanity publisher, Publish America. James D. Macdonald organized a group of science fiction and fantasy authors to pull off this travesty, each author taking a chapter (one was computer generated!), with the goal of creating a story so bad only a vanity publisher would accept it. Appropriately, the group pseudonym they adopted was: Travis Tea. (See: Atlanta Nights)

Happily, Publish America accepted the book allowing everyone to ask a very good question: Why on earth would a respectable publisher, one who made their money from book sales, accept such absolute dreck? After all, it was so bad the publisher couldn’t possibly hope to make money on it. Unless, that is, Publish America wasn’t a respectable publisher at all. (If you’d like to read more about Publish America and the controversy swirling around it, head over to Absolute Write.)

What Atlanta Nights Can Tell Us About Good Writing


Here we have a rarity, an intentionally horrible book. It turns out (and this is the surprising bit I’ll go into in more depth at the end of this post) that writing a bad book isn’t easy.

Story vs Prose


Here’s how I look at things, writing—good or bad—is composed of two things, the prose itself and the story the prose expresses. I agree wholeheartedly that the story expressed by the prose in Atlanta Nights is awful, horrible, irredeemable. But the prose itself, it’s actually not that bad. It’s not good, but it’s certainly nowhere near as bad as the story it expresses.

From the outset, I’d like to make one thing perfectly, vividly, clear: Atlanta Nights IS a bad book. I know that’s not a technical way of putting things, saying just that something is ‘bad’ isn’t descriptive. So I’ll let you judge for yourself. What follows is a quotation from Chapter Two of Atlanta Nights:

The Atlanta sun slanted low in the west, rain showers predicted for later that afternoon, then clearing. Bruce Lucent looked from the side window of his friend's shiny Maserati sports car as they wheeled their way westward against the afternoon traffic.
"I'm glad you could give me a ride," Bruce Lucent muttered, his pain-worn face reddened by the yellow sunlight. "What with my new car all smashed and all."
His old friend, Isadore, shook his massive head at him. "We know how it must be to have a lot of money but no working car," he said, the harsh Macon County drawl of his voice softened by his years in Atlanta high society. "It's my pleasure to bring you back to your fancy apartment, and we're all so happy that y'all is still alive. Y'all could have been killed in that dreadful wreck." Isadore paused to put on the turn signal before making a safe turn across rush-hour traffic into the parking lot of Bruce Lucent's luxury apartment building. "Y'all'll gets a new car on Monday."
"I don't know how I'll be able to drive it with my arm in a cast," Bruce Lucent shoots back. "It's lucky I wasn't killed outright like so many people are when they have horrid automobile wrecks." (Atlanta Nights—this link leads you to a free pdf of the story; it’s on the website of Andrew Burt, one of the authors.)

This is certainly NOT good writing, and intentionally so. (This bit was excerpted from the chapter penned by James D. Macdonald.) I’d say the authors collectively called Travis Tea did a fabulous job creating a story no respectable publisher would buy.

But, as I said, there’s a problem. It turns out that while we all intuitively recognize this writing as bad, that, in one respect, it’s ... okay.

Let me explain.

I’ve been creating a program, a writing analysis program, that has the ability to analyze a book and compare it to other books along various dimensions.

For example, my program will look at how many “-ly” adverbs, wh-adverbs, how many superlative adjectives, how many verbs ending in “-ing,” and so on, a book contains. Based on this my program will generate a score for the book.

One thing I was curious about was how close my generated score (a score generated from objective and quantifiable characteristics) would align with the subjective scores I had assigned each book.

The Results


It turns out that the score generated by my program and the subjective scores I’ve assigned to each of the books are strongly correlated. 

So far so good. 

But there is a problem. It turns out that while my program generated scores are quite close to the user defined scores for the higher scoring books that the generated scores are off when it comes to one low-scoring book.

That book is Atlanta Nights.

It turns out that although humans have no trouble identifying Atlanta Nights as bad, it throws my program for a loop. While it should put Atlanta Nights in the same group of books as The Eye of Argon, my program consistently puts it closer to James Patterson’s books (and, while Patterson’s books aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, they certainly aren’t bad in the same way Atlanta Nights is bad.).

In the beginning, this caused me no end of concern. I thought something had to be seriously wrong with my program since it scored Atlanta Nights high.

But, what I’ve come to suspect, is that the writers of Atlanta Nights did one thing well and one thing not so well. What they did well was telling an awful story. What they did not so well was WRITING an awful story. That is, they couldn’t help themselves, their prose itself (as opposed to the concepts expressed by that prose) wasn’t in the same badness category as, say, The Eye of Argon. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it was good! Far from it. But it wasn’t horrible. 

Now, I’m not at all trying to cast aspersions on any of the writers involved in the creation of Atlanta Nights. I’m just saying that, in a way, they failed. Their prose (as opposed to the story expressed by their prose) wasn’t all that bad. Or, rather, wasn’t as bad as some books that have gotten published by traditional, non-vanity, publishers (case in point: The Eye of Argon).

This seems to point to something truly interesting, and the reason I wrote this post: It’s possible that one’s prose style is built up over a long period of time—years—and becomes ingrained, like one’s accent or culinary cravings.

It’s possible that we, as writers, aren’t even completely conscious of our prose style and so find it very difficult to change, even when we want to!

What do you think? Whatever your opinion, I invite you to create a truly terrible microstory of 100 words or less.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Crafting An Effective Writing Prompt


As many of you know, for the past few months I’ve been posting one writing prompt a day on Google+ (I’ve begun archiving them on Pinterest), a practice which has given me ample time to reflect on a deceptively simple question: What makes a good writing prompt?

What Is A Writing Prompt?


First and foremost, a writing prompt is one that—as the name implies—provokes someone to write. In this writing prompts are a bit like jokes. Can a joke really be called a joke if it doesn’t make anyone laugh?

Some connoisseurs of prompts are picky and demand that one only write about one’s characters and then only in the third person. I disagree. I encourage folks to reply in whichever person strikes their fancy (and, let’s face it, prompts are an invitation to try out unfamiliar and perhaps quirky styles of writing, such as second person future tense). And if one wishes to recount something about one’s own life (or one’s re-imagined life), that’s fine! 

After all, writing prompts invite quirkiness, they invite experimentation and stretching one’s writing muscles by doing something one has never done before, whether this is writing about a certain subject matter or writing in a person or tense one has never tried.

3 Characteristics of Effective Writing Prompts


I’ll be the first to admit there is no formula for creating a writing prompt which gets people to put pen to paper and write something. But, with that caveat, here are a few qualities I’ve found most of my popular prompts shared.

1. An effective writing prompt is short.


A while back, I experimented with the length of prompts and discovered that the shorter the prompt the more responses it got. So I’ve made it a rule: If a writing prompt can’t fit on a 3 x 5 inch index card, it’s too long.

2. An effective writing prompt asks something about the writer/reader.


Or, possibly one of the writer’s characters. But I’ve tried posting conundrums having to do with one’s characters rather than the writer/reader themselves, and it seems to me that most of the popular prompts have asked about the latter.

3. An effective writing prompt has a clever twist, something that captures the writer’s/reader’s imagination.


This is something that is definitely more easily said than done. It isn’t as though one can sit down at one’s desk and say to one’s muse: I need a clever twist, please. At least that’s never worked for me, you may have better luck!

What I’ve found is that if a particular thought fires up my own imagination, if it makes me puzzle about how I’d write a response to the prompt, then it’s probably going to have the same effect on others.

Conclusion


Perhaps prompt writing is a bit like comedy in this sense. One has to expose one’s work to the public to see what will catch. If a person laughs (/responds to your prompt) it’s a keeper. If not, back to the drawing board.

That’s it!

If you’d like to read some fun prompts pick up a copy of “642 Things To Write About: Young Writer’s Edition,” or Ryan Andrew Kinder’s excellent volume of prompts, “1,000 Awesome Writing Prompts.”

Talk to you again on Monday.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

10 Favorite Writing Blogs


I’m fortunate. I’m amazed whenever I compare the sheer amount of excellent writing advice available today—for free!—to what was available when I was a kid. Which, really, was nothing.

Even in school, though we were encouraged to read and to write, no mention was made of character arcs or pacing, about how to build suspense or craft well rounded characters.

(Saying this, I feel a bit like the old codgers of my day who went on and on about having to hike 10 miles through the snow—uphill—both ways.)

These days we have a wealth of wonderful blogs on the topic of writing, blogs that regularly cover the bones of how to write suspenseful—which is to say, dramatic—prose. And, by taking a look at the material from a different vantage point each time, it is never boring.

I haven’t shared links to my favorite blogs in a while so I want to remedy that today. I’ve looked through my Twitter feed and written down a few names. Let me stress, though, that the names I share below barely scratch the surface of the number of blogs I read regularly. I’m sure if I had a complete list in front of me I’d be sharing dozens of names!

In any case, here they are in no particular order:

My Favorite Writing Blogs


That’s it! Good reading and writing, see you Friday. :-)

Monday, February 23, 2015

4 Ways To Create And Nurture The Habit of Writing

4 Ways To Create And Nurture The Habit of Writing



Creating and maintaining a writing habit is, like writing itself, simple but far from easy. I know. There are habits I would love to have but don’t. In part, this is because there are only so many hours in the day and, in part, because certain habits seemed as though they’d be more rewarding than they turned out to be.

These ruminations have been brought on by an article I read over at BrainPickings.org: Mary Oliver on How Habit Gives Shape to Our Inner Lives

The Value of Habit


This essay got me thinking, reflecting, ruminating, about my blog and about what has allowed me, despite my natural inclination to disorder, to blog more-or-less regularly over the past few years.

If I hadn’t formed the habit of blogging, this blog would not exist. And that would be a shame, because my blog has turned out to be one of the most personally significant undertakings of my life. Not—alas!—in terms of money made, but certainly in terms of the folks I’ve met. 

Creating A Habit


After the first year or so of daily blogging, it began to feel odd, even uncomfortable, if I didn’t blog. It felt as though a part of me had gone missing. I felt almost compelled to sit down and write. And so it was that my blog made the act of writing an important part of my everyday life.

Thanks to you, my readers, giving me feedback—or just stopping by to say “Hi!”—I’ve had (and hopefully will continue to have) the wonderful experience of reaching through the page to connect with others through my words. I’ve been able to share my thoughts, my musings, my hopes and fears, my triumphs and deep losses, with a community.

And all this thanks to something that can seem to some relatively trifling: a blog. Well, a blog and the habit it helped to form. 

The habit of blogging is really the habit of putting my butt in my office chair in the mornings on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and keeping it there until an idea finds me.

Of course, as you may be all too aware, that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes I cast about for something to write, something that grabs me, excites me, but nothing comes. Still, those days, I stick at it and, eventually, words find their reluctant way onto paper and an essay of sorts will take shape. The important thing, though, is that my butt goes in the chair and stays there until either, hours later, I’m convinced it’s a lost cause OR something happens. And, thankfully, it usually does. (Knock on wood.)

What gets me into trouble, what can always completely derail me, are two things: a big, massive, gargantuan idea, one much too involved and complex for one blog post and, second, tinkering with my writing analysis program (but that’s an entirely different post!).

In any case, for what they are worth, here are my tips for the creation and nurturing of a habit.

1. Take it seriously


I have the unfortunate tendency to think of some of my goals as unimportant in the grand scheme of things and so let other concerns crowd them out. When it comes to my blog, folks have actually said to me, “You shouldn’t prioritize it. After all, it’s only a blog.” I think there is something of a prejudice against blogging. Why, I don’t know. Perhaps because one doesn’t make money from it? Hopefully not, because that’s also true of many of the most satisfying things in life. In any case, I digress.

Whatever it is you are trying to make a habit of, it can be tempting—especially when time is short and other concerns are pressing—to minimize the importance of the thing, the activity, you are attempting to make habitual. Resist this! How? Through resisting the desire, the urge, to procrastinate. Again, how? Through recognizing that this urge, this desire, has been spawned by fear. (Or so I would argue.)

2. Fear is the enemy


To paraphrase Frank Herbert: Fear is the habit killer. 

Forming a new habit represents change and change can be scary. Whenever something new is created, something old must die. One minute spent writing is one minute away from your children, your spouse. It is time away from exercising, from watching movies and chatting with friends.

Fear of the future, fear of being laughed at, fear of pouring your heart into something and being rejected. These are all reasons to procrastinate, to let your new habit die on the vine. 

3. Do it for yourself


Create the habit because it will nourish you, because you will get something personal out of it. (Really, I think this is the secret to accomplishing anything.)

That may sound odd so let me use my blog as an example of what I mean. Yes, I think it is a good idea for writers to have a blog. For starters, I believe that regular blogging helps to build that mysterious thing called “a platform” (and, actually, that’s why I began blogging). But at some point every single one of those external reasons will be stripped away. At least, that happened to me. Those were tough times and I would have stopped blogging if the act itself didn’t fulfill something deep within myself.

4. Find, or create, a support group


It’s a rare thing, but if you find a support group—that is, a group of people who will encourage you to write no matter what—then treat them like the treasures they are. 

And, here, I’m not suggesting that if someone says to you: I’m going to quit my job and write full time because I know I can produce a New York Times Bestseller within the year,” that you should paste on a smile and say, “You go girl!”  

There is one very simple rule I follow when giving writers feedback: Writing is better than not writing. No matter a writer’s level of skill, there is only one way to get better: keep reading and keep writing. Ultimately, a good support group will encourage its members to do just this. 

So write! And if you’re not writing, read! Form those productive habits and, above all, never, ever, give up.

See you on Wednesday. :-)

Photo credit: This is a collage I adjusted and assembled with the aid of Photoshop.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Writing And Gaming: Tabletop RPGs, Character Creation And Conflict




I’ve already written about how many of my favorite authors are avid gamers. (BTW, Chuck Wendig—a long time gamer as well as a game designer—has written a fabulous article about gaming and its relation to storytelling: Twenty-Sided Troubadours: Why Writers Should Play Roleplaying Games.)

Recently, I’ve started gaming over at Storium.com and my interest in RPGs has come back with a vengeance. And not just because, as Chuck Wendig and many others have said, it can help exercise one’s storytelling faculty. As it turns out, gaming is fun. (grin)

Gaming Systems


In the past, whenever I thought of tabletop gaming I thought of Dungeons & Dragons. It hadn’t occurred to me there might be other gaming systems, systems which were significantly different from each other in important respects. I won’t enumerate the various systems here—a Google search will give you that—but I’d like to talk about one of them, RuneQuest.

RuneQuest


“In Britain in the 1980s RuneQuest was recognized by the gaming world as one of the ‘Big Three’ games with the largest market share, the others being Dungeons & Dragons and Traveller.” (RuneQuest, Wikipedia)

RuneQuest was published by Chaosium in 1978 (love that name, ‘Chaosium’). The reason I’m writing about RuneQuest is that, of the very few systems I’ve researched lately, it seems one of the most conducive to storytelling—or, really, group storytelling. For instance:

“In many ways, the [RuneQuest] system was developed as a response to more scalar systems, such as Dungeons & Dragons' level-based system. Through the removal of leveling, and the adherence to skill improvement, RuneQuest avoided many of the perceived flaws of such systems.” (RuneQuest, Wikipedia)

Pendragon


As I read about RuneQuest I stumbled across a reference to King Arthur Pendragon. This game is set in King Arthur’s England and has been described as a game with “a moral point of view” because of its use of virtues and vices in character creation. Also, it seems to succeed in closely wedding the game system with the game world. One of my goals as a writer is to ‘hook’ my characters and their actions into the setting, the environment. To make the environment both real and vital to the story.

In fact, Pendragon reminded me of a system for characterization I struggled to put together not too long ago. In any case, I thought it was interesting enough from both a gaming and storytelling perspective to share with you.

Character Creation in Pendragon


In Pendragon, personality traits are handled a bit differently than in other systems.

Personality Traits


Personality traits come in virtue-vice pairs:

1. Chaste / Lustful, 
2. Energetic / Lazy, 
3. Forgiving / Vengeful, 
4. Generous / Selfish, 
5. Honest / Deceitful, 
6. Just / Arbitrary, 
7. Merciful / Cruel, 
8. Modest / Proud, 
9. Pious / Worldly, 
10. Prudent / Reckless, 
11. Temperate / Indulgent, 
12. Trusting / Suspicious, and 
13. Valorous / Cowardly

The opposing values of each trait must sum to 20. So, for instance, if one has 17 points in “chaste” one will have 3 points in “lustful.” (While one can have a trait that is split 20/0—or, conceivably 0/20 although no gamer is likely to choose that since it means constant and certain failure—I take it this is discouraged by some game mechanic not mentioned in the article.)

Let’s say you want to jump a chasm and your Energetic / Lazy score is 11/9. If you rolled 1-11 on a 20 sided dice (d20) you would succeed in reaching the other side. If you rolled 12 to 20, though, laziness would win out, you’d miss your target and fall. 

What I love about this system is that it balances positive attributes with their opposing, negative, traits. If I were tinkering with it I think I would require symmetrical virtues and vices. For instance, if one pair was 17/3 another pair would have to be 3/17—though this might work out better for story purposes than for gaming ones!

I’m not sure if others have this problem, but I have the regrettable tendency to want my characters to be wonderful people who live pleasant, happy, lives. But that’s boring! This system helps remind me that (generally speaking) every plus comes with a minus.

Analysis


What immediately struck me about Pendragon was that the conflict in the story was being generated from the very essence of the characters. Contrast this with my experience with Dungeons and Dragons which was, essentially, that some sort of external obstacle blocks your progress and you must remove it, or get around it. Whether this occurs depends primarily on physical attributes such as how strong, or quick or or charming or intelligent, and so on, your character is.

In Pendragon, though, the conflict seems to be generated internally from a clash of virtues and what are called passions (loyalty, love, hate, hospitality and honor). Here’s an example adapted from the wiki:

Imagine your character has a high hospitality score. One of your character’s enemies, an insufferable snob, comes to your home and requests shelter. You would love to refuse him. You know he wishes you ill and, besides, he’s unpleasant to have around. The guy is an expert at one thing and one thing only: getting everyone within ear shot to hate him with a burning passion—which is probably one reason why he had to ask your character for shelter, no one else will have him!

You have a choice: turn the enemy away and incur a penalty for acting contrary to your character’s passion or do the hospitable thing and invite the man in even though you know he will take advantage of your generosity.

I believe the essence of conflict is two characters passionately trying to fulfill competing goals. That’s why I am so excited about Pendragon. There, since game conflicts spring from the core natures of the characters themselves, conflict is woven into the very warp and weft of the game.

Conclusion


If you’re interested in tabletop gaming take a look at RuneQuest. I suspect that certain systems—while one is not better than another—may be more conducive to generating the kind of conflict that makes a wonderful, suspenseful, character driven story.

Also, the Call of Cthulhu (CoC), first published by Chaosium in 1981, a game which uses the basic role-playing system first seen in RuneQuest, seems to have broad and energetic support from many gamers. Which I can understand. I mean, a merging of  occult and Holmesian style mysteries, what’s not to love?

That’s it for now! Thanks for reading. Good gaming. 

Links


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Talking About Detective Fiction

Talking About Detective Fiction



Have you ever read P.D. James’ insightful and beautifully written book, “Talking About Detective Fiction”? In it she gives an impassioned defense of mystery as an art form as well as a fascinating history of how the genre came to be. In what follows I focus on what makes murder mysteries unique.

The Essential Ingredients of A Murder Mystery


P.D. James writes:

"Although the detective story at its highest can also operate on the dangerous edge of things, it is differentiated both from mainstream fiction and from the generality of crime novels by a highly organised structure and recognised conventions. What we can expect is a central mysterious crime, usually murder; a closed circle of suspects, each with motive, means and opportunity for the crime; a detective, either amateur or professional, who comes in like an avenging deity to solve it; and, by the end of the book, a solution which the reader should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues inserted in the novel with deceptive cunning but essential fairness."

So there we have it:

a. A central mysterious crime.

b. A closed circle of suspects, often in an isolated, rural, community.

c. Each suspect should have a motive for committing the crime, the means to have done the dastardly deed as well as the opportunity to have done so.

d. A detective “who comes in like an avenging deity” to solve the mystery when the police are baffled.

e. A solution, one which the reader should be able to arrive at themselves from the clues left by the writer (clues inserted with “deceptive cunning but essential fairness”).

f. A respectable and prosperous setting.

g. James holds that the detective story proper is fundamentally "concerned with the bringing of order out of disorder and the restoration of peace after the destructive eruption of murder."

As James notes, this definition of a murder mystery came to us from those stories written in the inter-war years (roughly, 1919 to 1939), that period of time known as the Golden Age of Murder Mysteries.

Still, James feels that certain core elements of a murder mystery will be present in any murder mystery story. Namely, (a) and (e) above.

The Role of the Police


Generally speaking, while murder mysteries may portray police officers as “ineffective, plodding, slow-witted and ill-educated” they are never corrupt. James writes that:

“Detective fiction is in the tradition of the English novel, which sees crime, violence and social chaos as an aberration, virtue and good order as the norm for which all reasonable people strive, and which confirms our belief, despite some evidence to the contrary, that we live in a rational, comprehensible and moral universe. And in doing this it provides not only the satisfaction of all popular literature, the mild intellectual challenge of a puzzle, excitement, confirmation of our cherished beliefs in goodness and order, but also entry to a familiar and reassuring world in which we are both involved in violent death and yet remain personally inviolate both from responsibility and from its terrors. Whether we should expect this detachment from vicarious responsibility is, of course, another question and one which bears on the difference between the books of the years between the wars and the detective novels of today.”

The History of Murder Mysteries


I confess I didn’t know very much about the fascinating history of the murder mystery genre before I read “Talking About Detective Fiction.” James takes the reader on a journey from Edgar Allen Poe and his detective, C. Auguste Dupin (1840s), through Wilkie Collins' “The Woman in White” (1860) and “The Moonstone” (1868). That’s just the beginning, of course, she ruminates about the changes brought to the world by the end of the Second World War, the differences between American and English murder mysteries, and much more. James makes the history fascinating and I would highly recommend the slim volume for this section alone.

What I’ve discussed here barely touches the surface of the wealth of material in P.D. James’ extraordinary book. I highly recommend it to any and all readers—and writers—of detective fiction.

Well, that’s it for today. Thanks for reading and good writing!

Photo credit: Halloween.

Monday, February 16, 2015

About Words

About Words



I’ve been obsessed. That’s my excuse for not posting anything for the past week or so. Like Dr. Frankenstein, I’ve been busy creating (in my case, programming) my own personal monster.

Yes, this is the very same writing analysis program I began creating months ago as a way to figure out whether Stephen King was taking his own advice when it came to adverbs.

Writing: An Art or a Science?


Lately I’ve become interested in, perhaps even obsessed with, the question, “What is this thing we do, writing, and is it an art (a dark one!) or a science?”

If writing is an art—which it undoubtedly is in certain respects—then we wouldn’t expect there to be objective criteria for success or failure in the same way there are in, say, engineering or physics.

Engineers know the tensile strength of various substances. They know how they react when exposed to various conditions. If a beam breaks when it encounters a specific force then we expect that whenever a beam composed of the same material in such and such conditions is exposed to that very same force it will break as well.

This is, of course, not true when it comes to writing. The very same story will have the power to reduce one person to a puddle of tears but will leave another cold. And, yes, certainly, this has a great deal to do with these individuals’ different life histories, as well as their differing temperaments, but the fact remains that we cannot predict the effect a story will have on someone in the same way we can predict the effect a blow will have on, say, a pane of glass.

Further, in science we have objective measures regarding whether various statements are true. What lies at the heart of the scientific method is testing two hypotheses against each other, two statements that make contradictory predictions concerning observable phenomena.

In art, though, no such rules apply. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

When you write, you are free to write about whatever you choose in whatever manner you choose. I love that about this peculiar form of expression. As Stephen King has said, writing is an extension of our souls; it is a way to reach across space and time to share our thoughts and emotions with others.

So there IS a kind of measure of success. Did you communicate what you intended? If so, you succeeded.

The Craft of Writing


I’ve always, somewhat stubbornly, held that there must be a quantifiable difference between strong and weak writing.

To quantitatively define this difference is the purpose of my program. (Yes, I know. Tilting at windmills. ;)

Two Qualifications


1. I’m not saying that some writing is good and some bad.
2. I’m not talking about story, just about prose.

At one of the writing conferences I attended, a workshop on pacing, we were urged to read (or re-read) the Da Vinci Code with an eye to plot and pacing. Sure, when it comes to prose my taste runs more to Neil Gaiman or Margaret Atwood, but Dan Brown is no slouch when it comes to setting a brisk pace.

And James Patterson, while he did win the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel, has purposefully, self-consciously, changed his style. He uses short sentences made up of short, easy to understand, words. He is, in many ways, every bit the craftsperson other writers are, but his focus is on producing easy to read, fast paced, suspenseful prose. Stephen King may not care for Patterson’s prose but it is the way it is through effort as opposed to inexperience or inattention.

Groups A and B


I don’t want to use the terms “good books” and “bad books” because I view these terms as shorthand we all use, myself included, to talk about books which we like as opposed to those which we don’t. Instead, I’m going to talk about literary books versus non-literary ones.

Group A

These books are National Book Award winners as well as finalists and semifinalists for various prestigious book awards.

Group B

“Fifty Shades of Grey” is in group B as is “Atlanta Nights” by Travis Tea. You get the idea.

There are other books, Stephen King’s “Needful Things,” for instance, that occupy a no-man’s land between the two groups. I love King’s writing. He is a skillful writer, but there is a difference between, say, “Under The Dome” and “The Goldfinch.” I’m not saying one is better than the other, or even that one is more skillfully done. But there is a difference.

The Point


So, where am I going with this?

For me, writing is fundamentally about the communication of thoughts and feelings. Certain types or kinds of writing can do that better than others. That itself is something objective, something publicly observable.

Yes, of course, good grammar has a part to play in this, but there are more subtle factors at work. At times, the writing itself can be distracting. For instance, an over-reliance on “-ly” adverbs can distract one from the thoughts the writer is attempting to express, as can overuse of verbs ending in “-ing.”

Similarly, liberal use of “very” and other modifiers can make one’s text feel bloated and difficult to read.

Yes, the thought expressed by two sentences, one bloated, the other not, can be the same, but folks are much more likely to skip the former (tl;dr) and read the latter.

In any case, what I’ve been spending every spare nanosecond on is looking at the words that have been used to express various stories and seeing if there’s some sort of a … well, a regularity. I’ve been hoping to pick up on something objective, something that could help me figure out whether a certain book is closer to Group A or Group B.

So, really, I guess I’m looking for an objective measure for a subjective impression.

In any case, I’ve gotten my analysis program to the point where it assigns a book a number that represents whether it’s closer to Group A or Group B.

A Result


In part, I began this program as a reaction against claims that certain words are inherently weak and, therefore, shouldn't be used.

It can make sense that certain words, for example, “things,” are inherently weak because they are so vague and, as such, should be shunted aside in favor of more concrete terms. Instead of “things” talk of seashells and clouds, cats and alligators. Trade in the nebulous for the specific.

Sounds good, doesn't it?

But what would you say if I told you that Group A books have a higher frequency of use of “things” than do Group B books? They do!

That particular result knocked my proverbial socks off!

For example, Margaret Atwood uses “things” 153 times per 100 thousand words in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Similarly, Marilynne Robinson uses it 214 times per 100 thousand words in “Lila,” a National Book Award winner. In contrast, E.L. James in “Fifty Shades of Grey” uses it only 30 times per 100 thousand words.

In Conclusion


What does this mean? I’m not sure it means a whole lot, but it is a reminder not to take admonitions, especially when it comes to writing, at face value.

I’m not saying that just because, for instance, a National Book Award finalist used a certain word in her book that you should go and do the same. Not at all! I’m just saying that, clearly, one can use “things” quite a bit and still write a hell of a book!

As I continue to measure my expectations against reality I hope I will continue to be amazed. Thanks for reading!

Photo credit: "random" by Robert Couse-Baker, CC BY-2.0.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Pens ’n Prose

Pens ’n Prose

I’m always looking for a new, better, kind of pen. Perhaps you’ve heard the quip about the writer who owns enough pens and journals to open their own stationery store. That’s me.

I’ve written about how I began my practice of writing all first drafts longhand as a way to defeat writer’s block. I’m not sure why this works for me, perhaps a different part of the brain is engaged while writing longhand versus typing? Or perhaps it’s simple association: I write my first drafts longhand therefore I feel more comfortable doing so.

As a result, I’m always looking for new and better pens! I’ve tried pricey pens (Montblanc, etc) but find them too heavy. After even 20 or 30 minutes of writing, my hand begins to cramp. Gel pens write well, but I’ve found—while they start off gloriously smooth—the ink jams while the cartridge is less than halfway used. (Grrrrr!)

After years of buying and using just about every kind of pen known to humankind, I’ve found one that is, unambiguously, hands down, my favorite:


I swear to you, I don’t have an affiliate deal with Bic! This is the smoothest writing, most comfortable pen I’ve ever used.

Now, I do realize my love affair with this particular Bic could be the result of some quirk of my temperament. Your taste in pens could be completely different. That said, if you’re at a stationary store, and you have the opportunity to try one out, I encourage you to. 

Well, that’s it for today! An oddly practical blog post, especially if you’re a scribbler, like me, who fills up her journals with rough drafts. (And, yes, this blog post began its life as scribblings in my journal.)

I’ll leave you with a link to something else practical, Joanna Penn’s excellent blog post: Productivity For Writers: 5 Ways To Become More Productive.

Good writing! I’ll see you on Friday.

Photo credit: Original picture: "Miss Omija writing time" by Raheel Shahid, CC BY 2.0.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Storium: Collaborative Storytelling

Storium: Collaborative Storytelling



You’ve probably heard of Storium by now. Chuck Wendig, a creator of one of it’s 59 worlds, describes it this way:

“Storium [...] aims to circle back to the old way of telling stories — collaboratively, around a campfire. Except this campfire? It’s digital. This is old-school storytelling given a 21st century upgrade. It’s a story world you can play in. A novel you can live inside.” (Read the rest here: The Storium Kickstarter)

What Is Storium?


Storium is fun! I’m currently playing a few games with writers I’ve met on Google+ and am having a blast. 

My first attempt at playing Storium, at indulging myself on the meat of communal story telling, on the collaborative creation of an imaginary universe, went horribly, devastatingly, wrong. 

I’d just contributed to Storium’s Kickstarter—it was the week after—and was chomping at the bit to try it out. That’s when I made a huge mistake: I joined a group of complete strangers. (I think this is fine if you’ve played a few games and have a grip on how things work, but if you don’t ... well ... “recipe for disaster” comes to mind.)

I don’t think any of us were familiar with how to play, and the narrator—Storium’s version of the dungeon master—made Joseph Stalin look positively huggy feely.

Not fun.

I didn’t give up on Storium, though, and have gone on to have wonderful experiences with it.

I’m sure there are many people who have spent longer enjoying the wonderfully imaginative ecosystems enabled by Storium, but here are my observations. Keep in mind that these come from someone who has always wanted to indulge in role playing games but never before had the opportunity. So, in other words, a complete newbie.

1. Friends are A Good Thing.


Especially if the narrator is brand spanking new and has no more idea how the game works than you do!

If a group of friends go in together and view the first game as a learning experience—if, that is, the group goes in to have fun, help each other, and not worry about winning—then your first experience in Storium is guaranteed to be memorable ... and in a Krispy Kreme kind of way, rather than a day old boiled spinach kind of way.

2. Discover new and previously unsuspected possibilities for your plot.


Storium gives you the chance to prototype characters and plot ideas. Also—and this is probably one of the most awesome things about Storium—other people, the friends you’re playing with, will come up with completely unexpected solutions to the problems you pose. (And if you didn’t anticipate them, chances are your readers won’t, either.)

It’s awesome! And enormously fun.

3. Narrators: Don’t Take It Personally.


With Storium your fellow players will occasionally have the ability to take over a scene; effectively, they elbow you aside and become the narrator. This means they can finish the scene any way they choose.

Sometimes how a scene finishes might not be how you wanted—or needed—it to finish. Relax! You’re the narrator which means you’re the god of the story world you and your friends are traipsing around in. You’ll have plenty of time to do what you want down the road.

4. Keep It Simple


I’ve only recently become a narrator—I was bamboozled into it!—and if I had one piece of advice to pass onto other narrators it would be this: Resist the temptation to plan out every scene in immaculate detail. For the most part this is wasted. Storium is a game. Unexpected, unpredictable, events will happen—that is, after all, half the fun! So rather than plot out every scene as you might in a book ...

a. Have an idea of the theme.


Is this going to be a horror story? Fantasy? Cyberpunk? A space adventure? Urban Fantasy? Storium helps you here by predesigning certain worlds filled with card suggestions. (BTW, for a wonderful article about the mechanics of the game, see: Tell Cool Social Stories Today.) 

b. Have an idea about the outline.


Know how the story begins, what happens in the middle as well as a possible ending or two. (You could have different outcomes depending on how the players chose during the game.)

Most of all, have fun!

One of the benefits of Storium, for me, was that it’s helped make me less self-conscious about my writing.

The snippets you write during gameplay are first drafts, but you get immediate feedback. Not on sentence structure, and so on, but on the story itself.

Thanks for reading! Happy writing.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Unintuitive Findings About Weak Words And Their Use In Strong Writing




Today I’m not going to talk about the structure of stories! We’re taking a break from that for a while. Today, rather than look at the macrocosm—the structure of an entire story—I would like to examine the microcosm: words. Specifically, whether there are any words we shouldn’t use.

Eight Weak Words


Recently, thanks to Pinterest, I came across this article: 8 Words to Seek and Destroy in Your Writing). The author, Bobbie Blair, selected eight words that writers are better off not using. That is, words which don’t add anything to a sentence; words which are just so much meaningless padding: [1] 

1. Suddenly
2. Then
3. Very
4. Really
5. Is
6. Started
7. That
8. Like

I’d like (doh!) to note, here, that Blair’s view of these words is widely held. These words are often singled out as examples of weak words, filler words, words that one is better off not using. I say this because I don’t want to make it seem as though I’m singling out Mr. Blair. He’s written a wonderful article that a lot of skilled writers would wholeheartedly agree with.

Further, I agree with him. These are words I tend not to use—or try not to use—in my own writing, and for the reasons he gives.

 But what I want to look at here is, do in fact writers of books I think are wonderful—books I would be proud to have written—avoid the use of these weak words?

In what follows, I’ve looked at three books I think are well-written and compared them to a book widely regarded as poorly-written. What I want to find out is which book uses the (above) weak words the most. 

It turns out the well-written books use seven of these eight weak words more than the poorly written one. That was a result I was not prepared for.

The Test: The Books Used


Here are three books I consider good examples of strong writing:

1. “Gone Girl,” by Gillian Flynn
2. “Under The Dome,” by Stephen King
3. “American Gods,” by Neil Gaiman

(This is a very small sample set so I’m not saying my results are statistically significant. This is just for fun.)

Here is a book I consider a good example of weak writing:

“The Eye of Argon,” by Jim Theis

“The Eye,” was, I believe, Jim Theis’s first book, written at the tender age of 16. I’m sure that many of us have unpublished manuscripts of similar quality safely tucked under our beds or hidden in trunks, never to see the light of day. Unfortunately for Jim Theis, his book was published.

SFX Magazine called Theis’s book "one of the genre's most beloved pieces of appalling prose.” Lee Weinstein, writing for the The New York Review of Science Fiction, called it "the apotheosis of bad writing.” (For more information on this sadly fascinating book, see “The Eye of Argon” over at Wikipedia.org.)

I hope I’ve convinced you that “The Eye of Argon” is an acceptable representative of weak writing. If you’d like to read the book and make up your own mind—always a good idea—you can find it here: The Eye of Argon.

The Test


If you’re not interested in reading about how I arrived at the following numbers, then skip down to “The Results,” below.

The frequency of a word has to do with how many times that word was used in a particular book. For instance, Gillian Flynn used “suddenly” 33 times in “Gone Girl.” That’s the frequency of that word in that book. But all the books are different lengths, so it’s difficult to compare frequencies across books. For instance, Stephen King uses “suddenly” 55 times in “Under The Dome,” but that’s a much larger book than “Gone Girl.” 

What I needed was a number that represented how often a certain word was used, independently of the length of the book.

I solved this problem by converting the frequency into a percentage. So, for instance, if we look at the frequency of “suddenly” as a percentage of all the words used in “Gone Girl” then we come up with a number: 0.022. Let’s call this the total percentage for that word. Now we’re ready to look at the numbers.

1. Suddenly.
The Eye of Argon: 0.026
Gone Girl: 0.022
Under The Dome: 0.016
American Gods: 0.014

2. Then
American Gods: 0.412
Under The Dome: 0.364
Gone Girl: 0.285
The Eye of Argon: 0.158

3. Very
Gone Girl: 0.128
Under The Dome: 0.065
American Gods: 0.062
The Eye of Argon: 0.026

4. Really
Gone Girl: 0.136
Under The Dome: 0.052
American Gods: 0.046
The Eye of Argon: 0.00

5. Is
Gone Girl: 0.618
American Gods: 0.428
Under The Dome: 0.372
The Eye of Argon: 0.193

6. Started
Under The Dome: 0.052
American Gods: 0.033
Gone Girl: 0.033
The Eye of Argon: 0.009

7. That
American Gods: 1.04
Under The Dome: 1.0
Gone Girl: 0.95
The Eye of Argon: 0.483

8. Like
Gone Girl: 0.53
American Gods: 0.327
Under The Dome: 0.303
The Eye of Argon: 0.088

The Results


As you can see, it was only for the first word, “suddenly,” that “The Eye of Argon” came out on top. For each of the other weak words, “The Eye” used the word the least. (And, again, that result is a percentage so it doesn’t matter that “The Eye” is much shorter than the other books.) 

A Possible Explanation: Dialogue


Honestly, I wasn’t expecting this result. One possibility is that the majority of weak words were used in dialogue. After all, giving a character a corny saying, or having them consistently misuse the word “literally” or “inconceivable” can help to tag them as well as reveal their character. 

Unfortunately, I can’t go through all the words in all the books and check whether the weak word in question was used in dialogue, but I did do it for one word in one book, Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods.” Here’s what I found:

Of the 28 times “suddenly” was used in “American Gods” 5 of those times it was used in dialogue.

So, most of the time “suddenly” was used it wasn’t used in dialogue. I don’t have any idea whether this pattern of use is true for the other weak words on the list, I’d have to check each book for each word manually, and I just don’t have time to do that.

In any case, I thought this was an interesting, counterintuitive, result and thought I’d share it with you.

Thanks for reading!

Notes:


1. In the original article there were eight words and phrases. I’ve changed things slightly. “Very” and “really” were grouped as one point and the author included a phrase—“in order to”—that I haven’t examined.

(This blog post was first published on karenwoodward.org under the title: Unintuitive Findings About Weak Words And Their Use In Strong Writing.)

Photo credit: Original photo: Untitled by Thomas Leuthard, CC BY 2.0. Altered by Karen Woodward.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Three Kinds of Micro Fiction: The Drabble, 55 Fiction and The Twabble

Three Kinds of Micro Fiction: The Drabble, 55 Fiction and The Twabble



Today I want to do something different. I’ve just finished a five part series on the structure of genre stories and want to turn to the other end of the spectrum: micro fiction.

Why Micro Fiction Is Awesome


Let’s talk about the shortest possible kinds of fiction: Drabbles, 55 Fiction and Twitfic (also known as Twabbles). I’ll discuss what those are in a moment, but first let’s look at why writing short fiction is A Good Thing: 

There’s value in finishing a story and it’s much easier to finish a 100 word story than it is a 120,000 tome of fantasy fiction. (G.R.R. Martin’s works are magnificent but those suckers double as paperweights!)  

On the subject of the value of finishing a story, John Ward posted a link to a wonderful video made by Scott Sigler about how to get started writing—or, perhaps, what it takes to become an author. It’s excellent.

Not only does a micro story take less time to write but the structure is, of necessity, much simpler. Often there’s only one character, the protagonist. This strips a story’s structure down to its simplest elements and exposes it in a way that a longer story can’t, and it lets us play with it, tweaking the Inciting Incident, the protagonist’s response, and so on, and seeing how that changes the emotional impact.

Here is a structure I’ve noticed in some micro fiction:

1. Inciting Incident. Something happens.

2. Protagonist Acts. The protagonist reacts to the thing that changed their world.

3. Consequences. The protagonist and her world is changed because of her actions.

Kinds of Micro Fiction


As I mentioned, there are various kinds of micro fiction. In fact, I’m sure there are more kinds than I’ve heard about! But here’s three:

The Drabble


Although definitions differ, the general consensus seems to be that a Drabble is a short work of exactly 100 words. 

The history. Drabbles were inspired, in a roundabout kind of way, by Monty Python. Wikipedia tells us that “the 100-word format was established by the Birmingham University SF Society, taking a term from Monty Python's 1971 Big Red Book. In the book, "Drabble" was described as a word game where the first participant to write a novel was the winner. In order to make the game possible in the real world, it was agreed that 100 words would suffice.” (Drabble)

Drabbles are also popular in fan fiction (just google Drabble and Draco, or Drapple, if you don’t believe me.)

Below is an example of a Drabble. This story was first published as a response to one of my daily writing prompts.

Fossil,” by Brian Holt Hawthorne


She was twelve when she found the box with the golden watch. The instructions read: "To stop time, press and hold the red button. This function may only be used once."

She almost pressed the button, but decided not to waste the chance.

She kept the watch with her always, waiting for the moment when stopping time would enable her to save the world or obtain her heart's desire.

She had a career and a husband and children and a happy life.

She lay alone on her death bed and held the watch. She pressed the red button.

Time stopped.

I love that story! And I owe Brian a big thank you, not just for giving me permission to publish his story on my blog, but for introducing me to the terms “Drabble,” “Twabble” and “Twitfic.” Although I’ve been reading and writing micro stories for a while, Brian introduced me to their names. 

55 Fiction


An even shorter form of micro fiction is known as 55 Fiction where, you guessed it, the story must be exactly 55 words long. (Although sometimes any story of 55 words or less is thought to fall within the form.)

55 Fiction originated with a contest organized by the New Times of San Luis Obispo, California, in 1987. For that contest a story had to:

- be composed of fifty-five, or fewer, words.
- have a setting.
- have one or more characters.
- have some conflict.
- have a resolution. (Drabble, Wikipedia)

Further, the title could not exceed seven words, but was not part of the overall word count.

Here’s an example. I wrote this together in a few minutes, but hopefully it will give you the idea:

Awakening


I woke surrounded by darkness. Mother wept. Slow organ music. Voices murmured.
I tried to sit up and hit my head. Hard.
“What was that?” someone said.
Silence.
I rolled over and slammed into a velvety barrier.
My bed teetered.
Mother screamed.
Footsteps approached.
A creek of hinges.
Startled eyes.
“You’re not dead,” someone said.

Twitfic


An even more abbreviated form of micro fiction is the Twitfic or Twabble. Drabblecast.org, defines a Twabble as a short story of exactly 100 characters not counting spaces or punctuation. (Though I think that, more generously, a Twabble might be anything you can fit into a tweet.) For example:



Here’s a challenge: Take the next 15 minutes and write a complete story of 100 words or less. It should have a protagonist, a challenge and an ending. Then post it (or a link to it) as a comment! I’d love to read it.

That’s it! Have a great weekend and good writing.

Thanks for reading.

Photo credit: Original photo: "Journal Entry" by Joel Montes de Oca under CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo altered by Karen Woodward.