Thursday, February 25, 2010

TOOL WEEK! Last but not least...

Do you use any of the advanced features of your word processor?  For example, customized AutoCorrect Options, AutoSummarize, or Track Changes?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

TOOL WEEK! Question #3

I mentioned authoring software yesterday.  By that I mean programs that go beyond word processing to help writers develop fiction in particular.

The ones I've seen are focused on a) organizing the work by chapter and scene, and b) allowing you to enter metadata for scenes, characters, locations, and items.  For example, you can enter the date and time of a scene along with the location and whoever appears in it.  In some cases they show you outlines and graphs of the data you enter.

I haven't used any of the commercially available ones because the advertising puts me off.  ("Learn the SECRET best-selling authors DON'T WANT YOU TO KNOW.  We GUARANTEE you'll finish your novel in 24 HOURS!")  The free versions look innocuous enough; a typical one is yWriter5.  I have used similar programs for screenwriting and was underwhelmed.  I already have a way to store notes, and I can already save my work by scene or chapter or whatever I like.

That said, there are lots of things I would love to have.  Here are a few.  I've even started writing my own programs that do these things. 
  1. See most frequently used words and phrases, including counts and distribution through novel
  2. See count and distribution of best-in-moderation things like "-ing" words, parentheses, semicolons, and dashes.
  3. See count and distribution of modifiers.
  4. See ratios and distribution of dialog, description, action, exposition, etc.
  5. See variation in sentence, paragraph, scene and chapter length.
  6. See all the written description pertaining to a specific character, location, or thing.
  7. See all the dialog spoken by a specific character. 
And this brings me to today's question.  Do you think any of this stuff sounds useful for the way your write?  What would you want to add?

Monday, February 22, 2010

TOOL WEEK! Question #2

Have you ever tried using authoring software?  Have you ever wanted to?  Do you even know what I mean by "authoring software"?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

TOOL WEEK! Question #1

My professional background is Systems Analysis.  I'm always fascinated by the processes people use to accomplish tasks, and the tools that (may or may not) help them be more productive.  In many occupations there is a small set of tools that are essentially industry standard.  Authors' tools are sort of interesting to me because there doesn't seem to be one tool that is standard, unless you count Microsoft Word, which in my opinion isn't actually an authoring tool at all.  Instead it seems we all use our own random combinations of tools.

So tell me, please, what tools do you use for creating fiction?
  • Word processor?
  • Authoring software?
  • Websites?
  • Office supplies?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Fantastic Story I Can't Tell You

You know, life really is stranger than fiction.  I've been collecting crazy real-life stories for ages.  The last time I told one at a party, the next person to tell a story prefaced hers with, "but this story is true!"  My story had been not only true, but easily verifiable via Google.  Alas, it was simply too fantastic.

Well now I have another one.  The most gripping one yet.

And I can't tell you.

It's acutely frustrating to have to keep this a secret for many many reasons.  But I can't tell you because of the nature of my own involvement in the story, because it isn't actually over yet, and because there is still a lot at stake.

*Sigh*  Maybe one day I'll be able to write the book.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Climbing the Walls

It drives you crazy, but life wouldn't be worth living without it.  I'm reflecting on suspense today, and it's required me to make up a word:  concludability*.  One way to categorize suspense is in terms of its concludability.

First, there are things you can be confident you will learn in a give time frame - the outcome of a contest, the sex of a baby, or whether you got into your first choice college.

Second are the things you may be confident you'll learn at some point, but you have no idea when.  Are they going to promote me or lay me off?   What comes after Blu-Ray?  Will I ever have children?

Third and finally are the things that you aren't confident you'll ever know at all.  Will I have great-grandchildren?  Have humans permanently destroyed the environment?  Does he love me?

In real life, suspense with a more-or-less imminent conclusion is usually both the most intense and the most enjoyable.  Certainly this explains why fiction is popular- the reader gets to experience suspense with the comfort of knowing (a) whatever happens won't actually hurt the reader, and (b) the suspense will end by the end of the story.

But in books, we writers get to play a special game.  We can simulate any kind of suspense we want to.  We can get the reader identifying so strongly with the protagonist that they can temporarily feel as if they might never know the answers.  The question is, should we?

Do you think about what sort of suspense you are setting up in a story?  Many successful novels set up a neat problem on page one, answer it on the last, and everything in between is either part of the problem or part of the solution.  Other successful novels meander are more complex.  Do you have a preference?

*No idea if this is already a word, but it's probably misspelled anyway.

Monday, February 15, 2010

NPR Three-Minute Fiction Contest

I spent a little time writing today after all - a first draft entry for this contest.  The gist is to write 600 words or less inspired by this photo.  The winner will be read on NPR's All Things Considered.

The deadline to enter is February 28.  Let me know if you decide to go for it too.

(For those of you outside the U.S., NPR is National Public Radio.  All Things Considered is the rush-hour news show heard by commuters across the country.  It's quite a big deal.)

In Which I Try to Educate Myself

I have the day off!  It's ME ME ME Day!

So obviously I'm spending it writing. 

Or not.

Actually, I'm spending the day on education.  A little while back I made a list of things I liked about a good book and then compared my own novel to that list.  That process was so fruitful that I'm trying to take it a bit further.  Today I'm going through another novel - one with a structure similar to the one I'm going for - with a pack of 12 highlighters and a graph-paper notebook.  I want to get to the bottom of this structure.  For example:
  • How much of it is dialog? action? backstory? description?
  • How many words are used to describe settings?  characters?  props? 
  • How frequently are characters introduced?  props?
  • How many hints are dropped?
  • How are Important Facts revealed - in dialog? in internal dialog? in action?
I know books about writing go on endlessly about this stuff in general terms, but I simply like to see these things for myself.  And of course I don't intend to the copy the structure of the specimen novel any more than I would copy the story.  I just want to see what a really great book is really made up of.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day

A friend of mine from high school, also married with small children, posted this on facebook.  This pretty much sums up how I feel about Valentine's Day in this phase of my life.
The good news is I did something special for my wife this Valentine's Day Weekend. The bad news is it was taking down the Xmas lights.

Friday, February 12, 2010

So. Maddening.

Not wanting to be left out, North Texas decided to host its own record-breaking snowstorm yesterday.  DFW airport got 12.5 inches in 24 hours.  This may sound like a light dusting campared to other places, but Texas being Texas, we only have two snowplows and a couple boxes of Morton's to deal with it, so we're just as shut down as the East Coast.  In fact, I haven't even been able to work from home because while I have power, the computers I connect to have lost it.

Now, I'm a pretty glass-half-full kind of person, and of course I'm glad we're all safe and warm and have food in the house, but this has been extremely maddening.  Having two days where I can't work-work is supposed to be a gift from heaven.  Bonus writing time!  Unfortunately being cooped up with two cabin-fevered kids and a husband who is working from home means that gift is just out of reach.  A big fat tease.

And so it goes.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Na'vi Yourself

I am not an artist, and this is not a blog about art, but this tutorial, showing how to turn Tom Cruise into a Na'vi, is just really cool.

Also, if you haven't seen Avatar yet, it is really and truly worth seeing on the big screen.  It's even worth a few extra bucks to see it in 3D -- as long as you aren't prone to headaches, don't go when you're too tired, and don't sit too close to the screen.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Thanks, Maybe Genius!

Maybe Genius has tagged me with the Honest Scrap Award!  This means I have an excuse to tell you ten random-but-true things about me.

1. My day job is at an internet company that you've heard of.

2. Before the internet age, I was studying to become a molecular biochemist.

3. As far as I can tell, there is only one other person in the United States with the same first and last name as me.  She’s a molecular biochemist.

4. A close observer may notice that I am slightly less symmetrical than most people.  I’m no Quasimodo, but my ears are not quite level (making off-the-rack sunglasses look stupid), one of my feet turns out when I walk, and my boobs are only fraternal twins.

5. I had Lasik six years ago.  It cost me 3400 US dollars.  I love not having to wear contact lenses (let alone crooked glasses) so much that I would pay $3400 every year if I had to.  I have high hopes that there will be a similar cure for presbyopia by the time it befalls me.

6. I’m 35.

7. A lot of my friends have published books, but none have published novels.

8. My annual clothing expenditure is less than $500, including outerwear, shoes and accessories.

9. My annual budget for flowers, including landscape plants and cut flowers, is $750.

10. Texas is a very interesting place, especially when it comes to politics.  When I tell people I live here, I sometimes feel the need to make it clear that I’m not “from” here.  I’ve even been known to drop the name of the Elitist/Liberal/East Coast/Ivy League school I attended just to drive that point home.  Unless of course I'm speaking with a Texan, in which case I talk about flowers.

Now I'm supposed to tag some more people, but I think every blogging writer I know has already been tagged.  I need to get out more.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


This week I learned a secret.  It got me thinking about the difference between secrets in reality and in fiction.

A secret is simply a fact obscured from a particular observer.  Like any other fact, it's like a celestial object; it exerts force on everything around it and ultimately impacts you whether you can see it from your own backyard or not.

Characters in fiction are often occupied with observing effects to deduce a secret cause.  But in real life, unless we're being paid to do this, we rarely do.  To analyze the flow of events, discern the shape of individual ripples, and interpolate the pebbles from which they emanate would be considered futile at best, and more likely a combination of paranoia and vanity.

Then there is the question of revelation and what we do about it. This is where fiction and reality really part ways. 

To being with, if someone simply tells us a secret in real life, whether or not we believe it at all is rarely a function of reason and evidence.  (How many people still believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya?)  But this phenomenon is mostly ignored in fiction.  Many, many stories exist for no other reason than to reveal a secret.  That it will be believed is assumed, since the author has spent so much time preparing you to be delighted by it.

Furthermore, in fiction, the revelation of a secret is virtually always an inflection point.  The trajectory of characters' lives are changed as a result of the revelation.

In reality, for most people most of the time, the revelations are no more than a little extra noise in the pattern.   It is the secret itself that has already made the waves.  When the economy is a mess, does it really matter to you personally whether or not you know the names of the people who made the greedy decisions that got us here?  Or does it just matter that you don't have a job?

The fact revealed to me this week was interesting, but at the end of day I've already been dealing with the effects of it for a while and will continue to.  Learning the truth behind them simply hasn't changed anything.  It wouldn't make a very good story.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Useful Exercise

I've mentioned before that my goal this month is to find a solution to the central problem in my novel, or revise the problem into one I can solve.

Well, however I've been approaching this for the past two months hasn't worked, so tonight I tried something a little different.

In the past week I read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  I thought it was an outstanding book, so I spent a few minutes jotting down a bullet list of what I thought made it so good.  I've done this with other books before, but it's always been a purely academic exercise, as meaningful as reading a to-do list out of a book on writing.  Also, frankly, it's depressing.  While great books often look easy, analysis invariably reveals layers upon layers of ingenius storycraft.  In other words, a whole lot of work if you're smart enough, simply impossible if you aren't.

That said, I never before had a first draft novel to compare to a freshly internalized list like this one.


The list turns out to be a magical pair of specs.  Suddenly I can see that the problem I can't solve is entirely the wrong problem.  The stakes aren't high enough.  The motivations are too murky.  I know what I have to do.

Wish me luck, and let me know if you've tried something similar to get out of the weeds.

Remember Your Audience

I tend to forget that my family reads this blog.  Today I was talking with my awesome dad, and apropos of nothing he says, "You know that shit you write is really off the wall sometimes -- but I like it."

(Excuse me while I blush with pride.)

Of course, earlier Mom had mentioned that he didn't realize my Rabbit Hole post was fiction when he first read it.  That post takes on suprising and alarming new dimensions if you read it from the POV of a concerned parent.  In case you didn't get it either, let me explain: Rabbit Hole Kate is an amalgamation of bad writing cliches, and her friends are her critique partners.  More to the point, in real life I personally am not crazy, in an abusive relationship, or a temp.

Anyway, in honor of Dear Old Dad, here's another dad who might make you laugh.  (Warning: not for the delicate.)

Monday, February 1, 2010


I have a confession to make.  I've been largely avoiding my novel since I finished the first draft two months ago.  I've been hiding from one particular monster of a writing challenge.  I call this monster Rubik.

It's like this.  In the first draft, I managed to introduce a beautifully complex problem.  Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out how to satisfactorily solve the problem I invented.

Novels are like Rubik's Cubes.  You don't get points for mixing up the colors.

The ending I did write is utterly lame and tantamount to peeling the colored stickers off and trying to restick them on the right sides.  It won't fool anyone, and it has to be scrapped.

So this is my goal for February: Find a good solution to the problem, or revise the problem into one I can solve.