Monday, January 29, 2007

Update: Happy In Fantasy Land

I try not to use this blog as a personal diary. After all, who wants to read my griping about tedious challenges or snoozing about how bored I may be today. Zzzzz. I hate diaries.

But right now seems like a good time to give everyone an update, because I'm happy! Yahoo! (Or Yeehaw! with apologies to Yahoo!'s trademark office.)

Seriously, things seem to be going much, much better for me after my having wandered aimlessly for so long through a vast, dry, and colorless desert in my mind; that is to say, through a failed novel. Now it seems as if I have finally crossed over that desert and I am back in what appears to be a lush, temperate rain forest — not just any forest, either, but one that's full of animals, fascinating people, mysterious events, and great courage. I like it here!

Thanks and many thanks to my wonderful and amazing partner for his continued advice about thinking skills, but also to my friends and blog readers for the great stack of reading materials that they suggested. By the end of this year, I will have read more than I have read in the previous ten. Each story has been a plot-training device, and my efforts appear to be paying dividends.

Always before, I would outline my novels with only about three hierarchical levels: one that was very general (too high in my hierarchy to be useful) and one or two that were right down in the details (too low for my crow). My one and only successful novel worked only because it was so simple that my crow could handle it. This time around, though, I seem to have learned some things.

The main lesson, as I said, is that a critical mid-point was missing from my outline, one where I could see my story as four or five major "events" instead of just one or many. Not only that, but I have learned that these key "events" can't be too generally defined so as to be useless. They have to express real action, such as "Adam wins the race and becomes the celebrated hero of Smalltown." Additionally, any one of these broad "events" may comprise many chapters in the novel, or just one; I neither know nor care early on.

I have also learned not to flush out these four or five major events too carefully at first. I have to let my mind play with them until the overall trajectory of the action seems to work. Even when I do go down into the details just a bit to test my ideas, I have to come right back up to rework the high-level plan, then I can go back down again into the details, expanding as I go — but not very quickly! I can't spend too much time in the details until I know for sure that I can't improve the four or five major events to any good effect.

I thought that I knew about this kind of thinking already. In fact, I was sure of it, but I guess I was wrong, or at least I wasn't doing a very good job of it.

I make no promises about when this current novel will be finished or whether it will be publishable (by my standards). I have progressed far beyond that folly! Still, there's reason to hope.

Oh, and there's one other lesson that I've been sorely reminded of: Write what you love! So far I am loving this story the way I love my favorite chair, blanket, cup of coffee, fire in the fireplace, and book in my hand. In other words, I enjoy going to work once again. That's a nice place to be — however long it lasts.

[Update: Edited for clarity. This is the hardest part of blogging for me. If I write on my blog as well as I write for work, then I won't blog very much. Then again, I can't stand to have crappy entries on my blog. Grrr.]

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Hound of the Baskervilles (reviewed)

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle.

On a more positive note, I just finished reading The Hound of the Baskervilles for the second time. It's a great classic of the mystery genre, and it's a fun read.

Writers often remark that dialog is easier and more interesting to read than straight narrative, especially where exposition comes in. This idea gets a lot of support here. Oftentimes Watson or Holmes will describe a long series of events by the reading of a letter, which may go on for several pages. The prose may look like narrative, but it's actually framed as dialog, which did seem to make it easier to read and more interesting. At least I thought so.

[spoiler follows]

Doyle also uses red herrings rather liberally. Right from the start, for example, he makes us wonder who the doctor named Mortimer might be and why he would have left his walking stick behind, but these questions merely served to introduce Watson and Holmes; Mortimer wasn't involved in the murders at all. Also, Mortimer had a dog, but it wasn't big enough to be the hound in the story. There were lots of other red herrings, but then, what do you expect from a mystery?

[end spoiler]

Doyle deftly switches from one scene to the next. Oftentimes he'll prep a destination in one sentence, then suddenly they've arrived at it in the following. He doesn't always do this, and that's where it gets interesting, because when he does give detailed exposition and description, the effect really stands out. For example, at the start of Chapter 6, Watson describes Baskerville Hall as he and the new baronet see it for the first time, including the surrounding countryside as they approach by train, then the road and the buildings as they approach by carriage. This is a remarkably different experience from reading, say, Henry James, where everything is burdened with description and nothing seems remarkable.

Anyway, I recommend this story, especially for fans of the mystery genre.


As on a Darkling Plain (reviewed)

As on a Darkling Plain, by Ben Bova.

This book is awful.

I hate to put it so bluntly — especially since I am a struggling writer myself and I know how tough it can be to write a tightly plotted novel — but this one is just inexcusably bad. An entire dream sequence is accidentally repeated almost word for word in two separate chapters. (Editors, what happened to you?) It has no flow whatsoever. The dialog is embarrassing. Characters do things inexplicably, suddenly, without any precipitating decisions or choices.

Okay, it's just bad, bad, bad. If you want to try reading Ben Bova, don't read this one. It's a stinker.

If someone else has enjoyed a different book by Bova — maybe one of his later novels, for example — feel free to speak up. I hate to knock the guy based solely on one of his earliest works. But the fact that he even considered this novel to be ready for a publisher has me scratching my head.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

In a Word: Irregardless

You may choose to do some things without regard for the consequences if you absolutely must, so long as your actions bring no harm to others. After all, it's your life. But you may never, ever do anything irregardless of the circumstances. That is not allowed. Not now, not ever.

People have died from saying irregardless. Seriously. And it's no quick and painless passing away, either. It's a horrid, vomiting, blood-gushing kind of rotting death that goes on for days and days. So please don't ever say that word again, regardless of how often you might hear other people saying it. Be a leader. You might just save someone's life — most notably your own if I happen to be nearby when you say it.


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Jekyll and House

Speaking of TOS, I highly recommend an article in the latest issue (Winter 2006/7) titled "Mr. Jekyll and Dr. House: The Reason-Emotion Split as Manifested in House, M.D." The author is Gena Gorlin, and she does a remarkable job. Her writing is clear, concise, and purpose-driven; her arguments read like an arrow that flies straight to the bullseye. It's no wonder Miss Gorlin was a two-time winner of The Fountainhead contest (that, according to her bio in TOS). She stays on theme throughout, and she hits the issue from several different angles, but each angle feels fresh and illuminating.

You do not have to be a fan of House, M.D. to benefit from the essay. In fact, I've never seen the show. Anyone who is familiar with the prevalent mind-body split in today's heroes (like Spock on Star Trek), will know precisely what Miss Gorlin takes issue with about the show. In any case, she provides excellent examples and descriptions.

The issue of the "cold hearted" advocate of reason versus the unhinged emotionalist is near (but not dear) to my heart. In fact, I so can't stand to see this dichotomy play out in a character that I will turn off the television, return a DVD unwatched, and even get up and leave a theatre rather than subject myself to the punishment of watching it.

Thank you, Miss Gorlin, for not merely skewering the mind/body idiotarians of the art world, but especially for illuminating the right alternative.

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

New Delights

Art lovers would be well-advised to check out a new blog by Dianne Durante. It's called Forgotten Delights, and it foreshadows her forthcoming book by the same name.

Miss Durante is the author of one of my favorite articles to date in The Objective Standard: A Journal of Art and Politics (here's a link to TOS). That article, "19th-Century French Painting and Philosophy", appears in the Fall 2006 issue. Miss Durante also lectures on art and has written at least one other article for TOS. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati.

By the way, while I'm on the subject of TOS, I must congratulate them for creating such a value-oriented publication. It's about time that positive values — whether art, education, history, etc. — receive at least equal play with polemics. This is not to say that the polemical pieces contain no positive values — indeed, it can be a kind of pleasure to discover some new insight or integration that may be advanced by such clear thinkers, even in the context of bashing, say, Bush or the Democrats, which is hardly new territory for an Objectivist — but to see a better theory of, say, history or art appreciation advanced is to gain new tools for succeeding at one's own productive enterprises. (Or at least that's what it means for my life, given my interests. I'm no polemicist.)

Update: I just discovered that Miss Durante already had a website at (not a blog). This site includes several essays on art, several of which look interesting to me.


Friday, January 05, 2007

Two Novels and a Short Story

So I'm working on two novels and a short story. By "working on", I don't necessarily mean writing. I mean planning, dreaming, sketching, and that sort of thing.

The first novel is SF/Adventure. The idea for it came to me about five years ago, but it was just a kernel then, what I call a situation. Maybe there was a bit of the character, too, in that hazy dream of an idea, but not much of one.

I'm still not sure if this story is ever going to find its way from seed to tree. The body of it is there, but its limbs and several vital organs seem to be missing. I'll just have to let it lie in state for a while longer until something new and compelling comes to light. This is exactly the situation that got me started on my quest to understand how page-turners work. It's supposed to be my job to know how to take an idea like this one and turn it into the real deal. Well, I'm working on it.

The other idea for a novel came to me just the other day. This one's pretty much pure fantasy. Not surprisingly, it's been done before — a thousand times, in fact — but I don't care.

People fall in love; we write about it. People die for a just cause in war while others die tragically for causes they don't believe in; either way, we write about it. Corrupt people use power to manipulate others; we write about it. A heroic man guards his honor because it's the only way to get his true love; we write about it. I could go on for pages.

In fact, I believe I'll do just that...


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Do What You Do Do Well

In an introduction to Stephen Brust's novel To Reign in Hell, author Roger Zelazny has this to say about the many types of writers:
"Most good writers have one or two strong points for which they are known, and upon which they rely to carry a tale to its successful conclusion. Excellent plotting, say, can carry a story even if the writing itself is undistinguished. One can live with this. Good plotting is a virtue. Fine writing is a pleasure. A graceful prose stylist is a treat to read — even if the author is shaky when it comes to plotting or characterization. And then there are the specialists in people, who can entertain and delight with their development of character, their revelations — even if they are not strong plotters or powerful descriptive writers. And there are masters and mistresses of dialogue who can make you feel as if you are witnessing an engaging play, and you can almost forget the setting and the story while trying to anticipate what one of the characters will say next."

After having read many stories over the years, I long ago discovered that readers can be very forgiving. What makes a reader stay with a story partly depends on the reader. Some will get wrapped up in well-written, highly dramatic dialog even if they have no mental image of the setting, characters, or even the point of where the story is going (e.g., social dramas). Others will stick with a story so long as it has enough eye candy such as fascinating space ships and weird aliens (e.g., hard SF). And so on.

Every story must convey at least something that's particularly compelling — after all, it must attract someone. Still, I think that no tale can utterly and completely ignore all of the other aspects of story. For example, even hard SF must have a believable character or two and a discernible plot, even if it's as shallow as a teaspoon.

So here's a liberating truth for struggling writers, one that I personally need to be reminded of from time to time: Don't worry yourself sick over getting every aspect of story right the first time. Just "Do What You Do Do Well", as that happy song by Ned Miller instructs. Who cares if you're not the best character writer or the most thematic? Just write what you like, have as much fun as you can doing it, and never stop learning as you go, for as Stephen King so famously advised, it doesn't work to do it any other way.