Friday, February 25, 2011

Building a New Blog!

imageAs some of you have seen already, I’m transferring the “writing” portion of this blog to The WriteRunner. I’m looking for ideas about widgets and other things to do for it. I’ve already installed a comment system called Disqus and I’m using a new-fangled template.

My tentative launch date is March 14. I’m hoping to host a contest or blogfest or something. It also will celebrate the 2nd anniversary of the beginning of my writing career. Stay tuned for details.

Another thing I’ve done is to start echoing this blog onto Open Salon. Open Salon is an amalgam of many people’s blogs, where people can vote and promote their favorite content. Check it out and let me know what you think!

As far as this blog goes, once The WriteRunner is launch, I’m going to give this blog a makeover. I’m not sure what direction it will take but I can imagine that it might become more opinionated. The original purpose of this blog was to talk about my efforts to publish Dawn’s Rise but I never finished that project.

So feel free to point out what blog features you like using. Even if it’s not a “Blogger” feature I can probably find a way to use it.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Punctuation Schmunctuation

imageOkay, maybe I’m starting to reach for blog topics. It’s hard coming up with two of these every week. I’ve written something like 350 of these over the last few years, so after a while it’s hard to not keep running over the same old ground. But I think I’ve hit on one of those hidden gems that begs for a write-up: punctuation. Probably because it’s the most boring aspect of writing, yet it’s the one thing that seems to invoke the most passion.

This weekend, I almost got into a (another) punctuation argument with my critique group. About what? Single or double- space between sentences. A simple Google search reveals the answer: One space. Period. One space. Next sentence. However, about half the documents I review have two. I simply meant to remind them of the convention, because Word 2010 puts little green marks whenever I have a double-space. (Yes, I know I can turn it off but why?)

You would have thought I asked them to wear uniforms and salute. Use acid-free paper and dolphin-safe toner. Change the gender of their characters and call them Charley. I almost got my head chewed off. I just wanted to mention it and move on. “Uh, could you just use one space—” “NO! HOW DARE YOU SUGGEST THAT! NEVER! NEVER NEVER NEVER! We’ll settle this in the parking lot!”

Yowza. Like, who cares? I just want my green marks to go away. I’ve had other people yell at me, “IT’S DOT-SPACE-DOT-SPACE-DOT, NOT …! DON’T USE CURLY ‘ USE ' ! USE -- NOT —!”

Sheesh! Does anyone know what editors truly want in electronic submissions? This kind of reminds me of the old days of programming, before there were any standards and when you wrote code in the simplest of text editors. The huge religious argument consisted of “tabs vs spaces vs 2 vs 4 space etc.” When to indent, how to format comments, even down to something called “Hungarian” which is precise rules to name code variables. I’ve endured argument over argument over the name of variables that are used maybe a couple of times. Nowadays, all those arguments are moot, because “smart editors” use company-wide templates and force your code to comply to a certain format. These are called “code beautifiers.” Nowadays, if you want to know what a variable does, hover your mouse over it. Who cares what it’s called?

Does something like this exist for manuscripts, that fixes all the crap authors put in there? Or does any of it really matter? Should we just be cool with writers using spaces to indent paragraphs, using l instead of 1, (that’s little L if you didn’t notice) and hitting line breaks at the end of each line? When are we going to enter the 2lst century?

Guess I should be glad that I’m actually getting electronic copies instead of typed or—gasp—handwritten entries. (Well, I still get handwritten feedback, but there’s only one space after those sentences).

Friday, February 18, 2011

Don’t Be A Watson

watsonI’m going to talk about how the example of IBM’s Watson is a good object lesson on what not to do in your writing. Bear with me for a minute.

I was very impressed at how IBM’s creation Watson fared at Jeopardy. As a former computer scientist at places such as Google and Microsoft, I was actually more fascinated by Watson’s failures than its successes. Frankly, I was surprised that Watson didn’t answer every question correctly and faster than the humans. Watson missed obvious questions. To me, it seemed that the machine was great at trivia, the “fill in the blank” kind of questions. Things that any Google search can answer. But it failed at more complex problems, questions that involved things like metaphor and analogy, standard fare on SAT tests. It all led me to one conclusion:

We are still nowhere near achieving “artificial intelligence.”

Watson is just a machine, without emotion, drive, or ambition. I thought of a few questions I could easily ask it that it could never solve. “Who is standing to your left?” “How’s the lighting in here?” “Who does Ken Jennings remind you of?” “Fire! Please proceed to the nearest exit in an orderly manner.”

Yes, computer scientists have created something I call “programmed intelligence.” Intelligence in very specific domains, but as soon as you step outside the domain, the intelligence fails. Because “intelligence” isn’t just about recollection, computation, or pattern analysis. It’s much more about metaphor, symbolism, and relationships.

Think about a book for a moment. A book is really just a machine. It’s a Kindle with only one book available. The words are just dots of ink on the page that create letters. The letters form words, the words form sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Computers can be made to understand how to display and edit those letters and words, even spot incorrect ones. But a computer can never read a book and understand what’s in it. It can look up every word and phrase, but never truly comprehend the meaning, the story. And even a book can never judge your emotion reaction to the story and respond accordingly. There’s as much intelligence in Watson as in any book on your bookshelf.

There were other subtle things that Watson failed to do on Jeopardy. He couldn’t learn from his mistakes (yes, computers can be programmed to learn, but that’s the equivalent of fixing a typo). It seemed that the other contestants learned and began to challenge the machine on the third day. More importantly, Watson has no idea why he made mistakes to begin with. Watson has no insight, no self-awareness. Imagine if Alex Trebeck had said “incorrect” to Watson on even correct, obvious answers:

“Answer is: The color of the White House. Watson.”
“What is white?”
“Incorrect. Ken?”
“What is white?”

Watson would just hum along, completely oblivious. If Trebeck pulled that on Ken Jennings, he would storm off the stage or go after Trebeck’s throat.

So until we create a computer with emotion and true reasoning, we’ll never have intelligence, only super-fast trivia answerers.

So you’re wondering, “what does this have to do with my writing?”

The questions you should be asking yourself is, “How are my characters like Watson?” Do your characters react to their environment? Do they have their own agendas? Are they there just to provide other characters with information? Or are they living, reasoning creatures?

Another way to look at it is to ask, “What was at stake for Watson?” Yes, hundreds of computer scientists spent years on this project, but did Watson care? If there was indeed a fire alarm during taping, would Watson react? Do you think Watson really cared about how much money it earned? But every single character in your work cares about every interaction. There are stakes involved. They want something, and your other characters are either assistants or obstacles to those goals. Otherwise they are no better than the old books on your shelves.

So when you write your stories, keep one thing in mind: Don’t be a Watson.

NOTE: The writing content of this blog is moving soon! Check out the preview at The WriteRunner.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Romance Blogfest: Steam Palace

Romance Blogfest: Steam Palace

riflemanHappy Valentine’s Day everyone!

This is my entry for Jordan McCollum’s Romance Blogfest. Her instructions are: “Post a first meeting between two characters who will fall for each other (even if it doesn’t look like they will at the time!).” Please check out the other entries!

This scene is from the first chapter of Steam Palace where our Heroine Sophia is rescued by a mysterious stranger. Hank had been pursuing her, trying to force her to marry him.

Sophia’s world was crashing, burning around her. A man dead? she thought in disbelief. She looked at the four faces that surrounded her, all seeking her mortal harm. Two lifted Jim’s body onto his saddle. She had done that man a grievous wrong, and she ached to think of Jim’s family.

Despite the horror, Sophia would not be forced into a marriage with someone she did not love, no matter what the circumstances. That left only one path. Sophia ducked under Al’s arm in an escape move, breaking his hold, and ran through the woods with all the effort she could muster. She would fight them all the way to the gallows if necessary.

“You can’t run from this!” cried Hank behind her, no doubt mounting his horse in pursuit.

If she could just reach the mechohorse, the shotgun lay in its belly. Just as she reached the trail and spotted the machine, horses surrounded her once again, circling her. Sophia turned every which way but could not find an opening. Hank pulled out his pistol and shot at her feet, the reports echoing throughout the forest.

“Dance, Duchess, dance!”

A different boom rattled the trees. A lone horseman stood on the trail. A black hooded coat draped his head and shoulders. He rode on a magnificent chestnut mare worthy of the King’s Guard, holding a long, smoking rifle at the ready. “I shall not miss again,” he called.

“Hey, get the hell out of here!” cried Hank. “This ain’t your business. This woman killed one of my men, and we aim to have our revenge.”

The dark rider leveled the rifle and peered down the sight. “Say the word, milady, and I shall dispatch these men to their graves. This is a repeating Spencer, boys, fully loaded.” His voice spoke cool and calm.

[a lot of fighting and shooting ensues including an airship attack]

Sophia crept out from under the belly of her broken mechohorse. The dark rider rode his mare out from under a tree where he had hidden from the airship.

“Are you hurt, milady?”

Sophia examined herself for a second, and then looked up at the man who had saved her endless grief. “I am quite well, thank you. To whom do I owe gratitude?”

The man removed his hood. “Thomas Putnam, formerly Captain in the Third Aivy. This is Lucy.” He patted the mare.

“Thomas?” Sophia had not heard that name for years. Thomas was the son of the town’s only physician, a foreign woman from Charlottiana. He had been in the Aivy, the Air Navy as it were, for many years. “Thank you so much. I am forever in your debt.”

Sophia studied him. He looked terrible, with sunken eyes and many days’ growth of beard, quite unlike the tall, strong boy she remembered. His dark wavy hair lay plastered to his scalp. But she saw something else in his eyes, a strength of character missing in most men she had encountered in her life. She instinctively knew she could trust him.

“Do you require any further assistance?”

Sophia glanced at the mechohorse. “I believe she is done for. Might I request a ride to my home?”

“It would be my honor.” A hint of a smile crossed his lips.



research-cat-lolcat-706798I don’t think I’ve ever talked about the subject of research in novel writing. Research is a critical part of any story project. Research can be divided into 4 broad categories:

  1. Genre – This means reading a lot of works in your genre. You need to find out what’s been done, and what are the standard tropes of your genre. It can also involve in-person conversations. For Steam Palace, for example, I attended a few Steampunk conventions where I asked a lot of questions of steampunk enthusiasts as to “what makes a story Steampunk.” Other sources can include blogs about your genre, magazines, and reviews.
  2. World Building – If there is any kind of historical context or setting to your story, it behooves you to research the area in question. If you are writing SF/F in a “second world” setting (not a real Earth setting), your research may involve mythology, scientific studies, and other speculative works. Visit the settings in your book, talk to the locals. If it’s a made-up place, find a real-life place that is close. Make the bridge of your starship something like the bridge of a decommissioned aircraft carrier that you can visit.
  3. Character – Whether or not you base your characters on real people, it’s always good to have an idea of who your characters are. Biographies, memoirs, and genealogy are all sources of characters. Learn what made them do what they did, and see how it can apply to your story. Some characters are mixtures of many people, some are just certain aspects. If your character is in a specific profession, talk to people in that profession. Make sure you do this research for all your characters, not just the main ones.
  4. Story – This one is a little harder to define. This is more about learning about story structure beyond the standard of your genre. But it also involves interacting with your writing peers, whether at conferences or in critique groups. Find out what are the characteristics of good writing, and explore various styles of writing. Learn what the best way to tell your story should be.

How much research is enough?
I feel there is probably 2 main periods of research. The first comes before anything is written, when the story is still a concept. The second would be during the writing process, especially revision when you are trying to flesh out details. In terms of how much, I feel that if you are continually interrupted during the writing process to look something up, then you might want to dedicate a period of time to really understand your subject. But of course the actual amount of research will vary by subject and scope.

Please Note: The writing portion of this blog will soon be moving soon to That site is currently under construction but go ahead and subscribe so you don’t miss anything! This blog will remain active with non-writing topics. will include a helpful index of all my writing posts. Watch for the official launch!

Friday, February 11, 2011

One Person CAN Change the World

One Person CAN Change the World

Wael-GhonimMany novels, possibly the majority, revolve around a single character’s actions. And in many cases, the character is thrust into a position where he must challenge the status quo and fight “The Powers That Be.” It is a powerful message, especially in Western culture. We value the power of the individual to conquer the forces of evil, especially those who are well-established such as dictators.

We have plenty of great individuals in American history: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson, Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, and thousands more who fought the powers. I have many in my own family, from my cousin Barney who I’ve been posting about, to my Uncle Oliver who earned medals in WWII flying dangerous missions into the Far East.

The events of the last few weeks highlight to world what the power of individual is all about, and how one man can take down an empire, especially a corrupt empire. It all start when Google employee Wael Ghonim created a Facebook page that led to a rally to honor the memory of Khaled Said, a man who was beaten to death by police last June. Fittingly, that protest on January 25 led to more beatings, detentions, and deaths of the protestors. Ghonim was arrested. For a while it seemed like once again, the forces of evil would prevail, and the budding revolution would be quashed.

But here’s the thing, novel writers. The thing to remember is that events always move forward, and once the genie is out of the bottle, it cannot be replaced. Doors are opened that cannot be shut. The protesters refused to leave Tahrir Square. The government tried everything. They “released the hounds” and sent gangs of thugs, some armed with guns, against the protesters. But the protesters were willing to die rather than surrender. The government tried arresting the people.  They sent in the army, they arrested and beat up journalists, they closed off the internet, phones, and shut down transportation.

But the protesters still came. They grew. What started with one man putting up one Facebook page grew into a Revolution. The government tried pleading, bargaining with the protesters, giving them small concessions and freeing the detainees. Too little, way too late.

This morning, the Mubarak administration fell, literally without a shot being fired by the protesters. Ghonin called into CNN and said, (I’m paraphrasing), “my work here is done. I just want to go back to my job.” A classic Reluctant Hero. One can only hope he stays involved and help shape the future of Egypt.

When you are writing you own novels, think about what those protesters faced, how hard the opposition was (not to mention the freezing nights, lack of food, water, sleep, and sanitation), and how through sheer perseverance and sticking to their principals, they were ultimately able to overcome the great odds stacked in their favor. If you can capture even a portion of the emotion the Egyptians felt in this process, from utter despair to sheer joy, you’re probably in good shape.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Big “Nooo!” Moment

The Big “Nooo!” Moment

khanFirst, a quick word about my last post. After carefully reading the responses, I realized I may have made some generalities about readers’ expectations about why they read fiction. I think their point is well-taken: be careful when blogging to not make assumptions. However, I also feel that you should be unafraid to make strong points, because it leads to interesting discussion.

Now on to today’s topic. We’ve all seen it. It’s been parodied to death, yet many books and movies still use this tried-and-true method. Something happens that the character cannot control, eliciting the proverbial “Nooo!” or some variation. Darth Vader kills Obi-wan, and Luke says “Nooo!” and is dragged away. Frodo sees Gandalf die. “Nooo!” Sarah Connor first sees the Terminator (in Terminator 2). “Nooo!” Captain James Kirk’s “Khaaan!” counts, by the way.

Called the “Big No” trope,  it clearly signals an important turning point in the story. It’s a moment when the Bad Guy has his victory, when everything falls apart for the Hero. There’s only one thing left for the Hero to do: scream. But this “Nooo!” is more than just an outcry. It’s the Hero’s sudden recognition that not only is he facing physical harm and mental distress, it is that he is also facing the greatest enemy of all—Death. The stakes have been raised to their utmost.

Now when writing an adventure story like I have, I always had a couple “Nooo!” moments in mind. Especially writing Steampunk, there is one aspect that lends itself nicely to this: Airships. Airships are disasters waiting to happen. The Hindenburg proved that. But there are other dangers, one of which speaks to one of our basic fears: falling. And what happens when you combine an airship with falling? A “Nooo!” moment.

His hand slammed across Sophia’s face, a blast of pain that threw her to the deck. Viola shrieked and charged at him with clawed hands. He stepped aside and slammed the back of her head with the pistol. Viola stumbled, hit the railing, and flipped over with a scream, disappearing into the night.

“VIOLA!” Sophia jumped to the rail. “VIOLA! VIOLA!” No answer. She turned back.

Dunstan stood stricken. “No, no, nononononono.” He dropped to his knees, mouth agape.
– excerpt from Steam Palace 

What’s your favorite “Nooo!” Moment, from either your own work or popular movies/ fiction?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Conflict, Tension, and Stakes on Every Page

Conflict, Tension, and Stakes on Every Page

funny-pictures-cat-does-not-want-to-get-neuteredThis post was inspired by these blog posts:
The Literary LabLies You Believe
Victoria Mixon5 Writing Rules You Should Break

There has been some question about what the statement “You must have [conflict, tension] on every page [of your fiction manuscript]” means. I want to present my view on this, and hopefully demonstrate my argument as to the truthiness of this statement.

First of all, let’s be clear about one thing: There doesn’t “have to” be anything on any page. If you want a recipe on one page, a description of a setting sun on another, or an author’s treatise on the basics of fly fishing on another, go for it. I’m just going to demonstrate why generally you should have more.

First, some definitions for this argument:

  • Conflict – A character has wants or needs and faces obstacles to fulfillment of these. These could be internal, such as the sometimes opposing need for love and autonomy.
  • Stakes – The possible outcomes, good or bad, of a situation. Note that these also can be internal, like self-worth vs self-loathing.
  • Tension – The doubt as to the outcome of a given situation, coupled with the reader’s desire to learn the outcome of a given situation.

My first posit is that all scenes contain conflict, stakes, and tension, on every page. The question really is, is the level of conflict, the depth of the stakes, and the degree of tension sufficient to keep a reader’s interest?

Let’s use a quick example of two teenagers, Mary and Sue, who have met to go to a movie:

Mary: Hey, let’s see Swords of Flame!
Sue: Cool! I’ve been dying to see it!
Mary: Let’s go!
Sue: Awesome!

It’s a simple scene. The conflict is almost non-existent: they agree. The stakes are low: the movie might suck. The tension is low: they are excited. The major question I have for you right now is: do you care what happens next? Did we even need to show that they agreed to the movie, or should we just fast-forward to the movie, or even later?

Now let’s take that simple scene and ask ourselves: what can I do to increase conflict, stakes, and tension? For conflict, we’ll get them to disagree (which is one of myriad ways to introduce conflict. Conflict is not always argument).

Mary: Hey, let’s see Swords of Flame!
Sue: No, you promised that we’d see Runes of Ruin!
Mary: But Jesse tweeted that he was going to Swords, and I replied. We have to go.
Sue: But I told you that my cousin Ralph is in the credits. We have to see Runes!

The conflict is obvious. But now, there are stakes. Sue has a familial connection with Runes, and feels an obligation. She also feels that Mary betrayed her, and wants Mary to keep her word. But Mary’s friend Jesse is going to Swords, and she wants to make a connection with him. For tension, hopefully there’s a interest in the reader in what happens next. Does Mary apologize for changing her mind? Do they go separately? Does this lead to more conflict between the two?

What I want to state is that there is not a binary there-is-or-there-isn’t conflict/tension on every page. There probably is some. The question is really how much? Can you increase it? Do your lower-tension scenes truly contrast with your higher-tension scenes?

I’ve heard it said, “well the reader needs a break. Not every page needs to be high-tension.” Yes. Not every scene is “defuse the bomb in thirty seconds or we all die.” But if you go on and on with low-tension scenes without conflict, then you really must ask yourself, “who is going to find this interesting?” The next question to ask yourself is “why should a reader care about any of this? Why should they keep reading? What’s going on that’s entertaining? Is there sufficient doubt as to the outcome, and are some of the outcomes pretty bad?”

It kind of goes to the heart of why you are writing this in the first place.

The reason readers read fiction is to find out, “what happens next? Is all the crap the character is going through going to be worth it?” The way to achieve this (among other ways), is to always consider the conflict, stakes, and tension level of every page, and increase it as much as you can.

For an exercise, take a look at any random page of any published novel (except for the last few pages where everything has been defused and random backstory prologues) and see if you can identify the conflict, stakes, and tension. Let me know what you find in the comments.