Thursday, February 25, 2010

"Writing" Tools

A couple of weeks ago, I was thinking over some of the details of an urban fantasy novel I'm tentatively calling Death Scene. It will be the second in my urban fantasy series set in Atlanta, only magic works.

As part of the story, one character has to convince another to leave Atlanta and go somewhere "nearby" that is still within reason for people to travel kind of on a whim, but has places remote enough that, say, a body will not be found for three years. You know, just for example. :)

And you don't want to call up the forestry service and say things like, "So, I'm an author doing research. If I were to want to dispose of, let's say, a body, where would it be least likely to be found for a few years? Hypothetically."

Or maybe you do. I have no idea. I've never done anything like that. :)

Google okay, but it's limited in what it can show, so I started casting about for some tool to help me figure out where to set the scene.

I thought, "I could buy a really detailed map of Georgia." So I searched on Google for "detailed map of Georgia."

And what came up was Google Earth.

Now, I've resisted the siren song for a long time and just never found a good enough reason to want to install it. But, that day I thought I'd give it a chance.

Oh. My. God. :)

I'm completely hooked. Not only did I find some nice "wilderness" areas in Georgia (which gives me an idea where to concentrate my research, even if I have to go there), but now when I hear a place mentioned, rather than just looking it up in Wikipedia, I call up Google Earth.

I was listening to a podcast just now where one of the hosts was talking about his volunteer work several years ago on the island of Fogo in Cape Verde. I've never heard of Cape Verde, much less Fogo.

So I whipped out Google Earth and typed in "Cape Verde" and it zoomed into an archipelago off the coast of Senegal in west Africa. Fogo turns out to be a little volcanic island dotted with settlements and a couple of larger cities. And I can zoom in on those population centers and see how they're laid out. Or I can click on YouTube videos or pictures people have uploaded that are tagged with GPS coordinates that put them in that area. It's...just astounding.

I highly recommend Google Earth.

For writing, that is. Yes, as a tool for writing. Not wasting time zooming in on places you've never been and never expect to see with your own eyes.

Research. Yeah, that's it. Research.

[Crossposted to my new site.]

Monday, February 22, 2010

Why I Write: A Ramble

A lot of people who write—whether or not they ever get published, or even try—do so because we have "no choice." I said in a recent post that I write to get rid of the voices in my head. And while I meant that humorously and facetiously on at least one level, to a certain extent, it's also true: stories and characters do have a tendency to knock on the inside of my skull from time to time.

But that's not the whole story (<rimshot>). For me, at least.

See...I may be 44 years old—soon to be 45—but I still want very badly to open a wardrobe door and find myself in Narnia. No, literally. Those books...changed reading for me. I read dozens of books before The Chronicles of Narnia, but I never wanted to crawl into any of those, curl up, close the door, and stay forever.

To make an analogy with drugs that almost pains me to type: Narnia was like my first line of cocaine. I got an amazing high, and I never wanted to come down. But come down I did, and then it took more and more and more to give me that same feeling. Now I'm strung out on multi-book series like Xanth, Discworld, The Dresden Files, The Belgariad, The Malloreon, The Sword of Truth, and The Wheel of Time. All in some hope of recapturing that initial awestruck craving to go there that I had with Narnia.

I would give almost anything if I could wake up tomorrow in a world where it's possible to go to Narnia.

Alas, this is reality. Damn it. And because it is unfortunately reality, the only way I'm ever going to get to visit Narnia afresh—or Oz, The Land, Phaze/Proton, Middle Earth, Prydain, Hed, Majipoor, Earthsea, Discworld, Ringworld, Green-sky, Landover, Pern...or yes, even Xanth—is to create something like them in my own head and then write down the stories in the hopes that it affects other people in the same way that Narnia or Green-sky affected me.

Hmm. To continue my drug analogy from above...that would make me a pusher. Maybe that's not such a great analogy after all. Okay, ignore that part.

The point is that part of the reason I am driven to write—and to (I hope) improve my skills as I go—is to give back some of what other writers were able to do for me.

And even if no one ever reads them, they brought me joy in the making. And for a while, I got to visit Mr. Tumnus. As it were.

[Crossposted to my new site.]

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Persistence of Humor

Prompted by a podcast I just recently started listening to—Podictionary—I looked up the book to which this post is linked: The Jests of Hierocles and Philagrius, by (duh) Hierocles and Philagrius, and translated into English in 1920 by the Rowfant Club in Cleveland, OH.

These are jokes—and I use that term rather loosely—that are at least hundreds of years old. And yet...

...And yet, some of them are ones I've heard before and thought were original with someone else. Take, for instance, this lovely selection from page 21, Jest 18:
A certain person meeting a pedant, said, "The slave you sold me died."

"By the gods," replied the other, "he never did such a thing when he was with me."
Sound familiar? It should. You've probably heard the joke 1000 times in some other form. The host of the podcast even made the point that it bears a resemblance to the famous Monty Python "Dead Parrot" sketch.

Or how about this one, Jest 13 from page 20:
Two pedants were complaining to each other because their fathers were living. One of them asked, "What do you wish? Shall each one strangle his own father?"

"By no means," replied the other, "lest we be called parricides. But if you are willing, you shall slay my father and I will kill yours."
Therein lies the plot of Patricia Highsmith's 1950 novel Strangers on a Train (and the subsequent Alfred Hitchcock film by the same name; and I'm told "Throw Mama from the Train").

In a book I read recently, Hightower said that the idea just popped into her head of two people meeting by chance who trade murders. I wonder if she had read some part of the Hierocles and Philagrius, or if the idea is one that crops up from time to time, like a bad case of ergot poisoning.

Some of them are clearly the precursors of blonde jokes or <Ethnic> jokes or little idiot jokes that I remember fondly from my childhood. Take this example of Jest 3 from page 17:
A certain person coming to a pedant who was a physician said, "Doctor when I awake from sleep I have a dizziness for half an hour and then I recover."

The physician replied, "Get up after the half hour."
I think I detect the "Well, stop doing that!" punchline lurking somewhere in the dim recesses of that Jest.

It seems that some humor is truly ageless. And then, there's this. Jest 45 from page 29:
A pedant visited his mother by night and, being beaten for this by his father, he said, "It is only a short time since you were with my mother and you suffered nothing from me and now you are angry at finding me once with my mother."
Paging Mr. Rex. Paging Mr. Oedipus Rex. Please proceed to the white courtesy phone.

But there are ways in which humor has changed over the years, or perhaps Hierocles and Philagrius wrote for an audience that was far more learned than those of today. I've read Jest 76 from page 38 a number of times, and even looked up "propitious" to make sure it means what I think it means, and it still just makes no sense to me:
The priest, upon giving the suppliant's olive branch to a pedant who was entering the temple of Serapis, said, "The god be propitious to you." He replied, "The god be propitious to my little pig for I do not need it."
I got nothin'. And a whole lot of it.

And then...well, I don't even know what to say about this one, Jest 48 from page 30:
A pedant was tying on some new sandals. When they squeaked, he paused and said, "Do not squeak or you will injure your two legs."
There is a footnote in the text after this one. It very dryly says, "The sense is not clear." Well, no duh, Einstein. It continues, "Eberhard gives two readings with the conclusion utrum verius sit diiudicabit qui intellexerit."

Um...sure, yeah. that totally. Verius sit indeed diiudicabit qui intellexerit...uh...dude. Get down with your bad Latin self.

I started to just look up the one Jest mentioned by the podcast. An hour later, I was still reading one or two of them during lulls between bouts of protracted C++. All the examples I've used here are just from the Pedants section. There are some 16 sections.

I will no doubt read the entire thing. I hope I've intrigued those who might be reading this enough to give it a try for themselves.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


It's easy to see why it is that so many people believe that Everything Happens For A Reason™.

"Everything Happens For A Reason," they say, especially after you've just told them a bit of bad news.

"I fell down some stairs and shattered my kneecap," you might say.

"Oh, that's terrible!" they exclaim. And then they add, "But, you know, Everything Happens For A Reason."

And you can't argue with them by asking, "What possible, sensible reason could there be for me shattering my kneecap?" because it usually just starts a discussion that you can't win about the motives of some god, God, the universe, Fate, or whatever Big Controlling Influence they happen to subscribe to.

Our brains are hard-wired to look for patterns. We see them everywhere, every day. And sometimes, we see them when they aren't there (pareidolia with maybe some apophenia added, to taste).

A perfect case in point is what just happened to me during lunch, and I found myself actually looking for the chain of coincidences that led to it. Because I couldn't help myself; it's human nature. :)

Last night, I decided to have chili from Los Arcos for dinner. I love their chili, and it's quiet and never crowded, and makes a great place to read.

As a result, I stayed up a little later than normal because my stomach was slightly upset. (I love their chili, but it doesn't always love me.)

Before I went to bed, I shoved a few unread books into my bag so I would have a choice of what new book to start today.

As a result of the late bedtime, I slept an hour into my alarm this morning.

As a result, I ended up getting breakfast late, and thence to work late.

As a result, I decided to have a late lunch, because tonight I'm going to my writers group meeting, and will therefore have a late dinner, as well.

At 12:30, when I left for lunch, I grabbed a book on writing from my bag, thinking it would be a good book to start.

In my car, I decided on a whim to go somewhere I don't often go, because it's a good fifteen minutes from work. And they have mango pie. :)

I arrived at the restaurant and ordered my food, then sat down and began reading.

At a nearby table was a guy diligently writing on a yellow legal pad. After he finished, he got up and started cramming his stuff into a backpack. As he did this, he happened to glance over in my direction.

And saw the book I was reading. Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith. He apologized for the intrusion and asked me how it was. I told him I was on page two and had no idea, yet.

He told me a couple of writing books he had read. I had read both of them. I countered with another couple. He had read those.

He writes screenplays. He asked me if I knew of a decent writing group. I told him about the two I attend.

We exchanged names and mnemonic devices ("I'm Jeff Lastname," he said. "Jambalaya Jeff. What do you like that starts with a 'g'?" And without thinking about it too hard, I said "Gumbo, in keeping with your theme." Thus, I am "Gumbo Gary." I think you probably had to be there....)

I fully expect to see him at least once at the Forum Barnes & Noble on Tuesday night. Probably not tonight (for it is Tuesday as I write this), but maybe soon.

Now, people who believe that Everything Happens For A Reason might be inclined to make more of it than there is. All those seemingly random things that had to happen to get me into a seldom-visited restaurant at an odd time of day and reading the one book of six that I picked up that had to do with writing. And for him to notice it. And for him to have the moxie (Do people use the word 'moxie' anymore? If not, they should.) to speak to a total stranger. And, for that matter, to get him into that restaurant at that time of day.

It must have happened For A Reason. Someone or something—some outside influence—must have had some purpose in setting up all of those seemingly random coincidences.

Nah. It was just that: a series of random events that only take on significance from hindsight. If I hadn't met him at the restaurant, I would not have thought twice about all those seemingly (because they are) random occurrences.

Because that's really the whole point, here. No one—well, no one in their right mind, at any rate—would decide to have chili for dinner and think, "Aha! This is setting off a pattern of coincidences which will lead me to something significant!" Down that path lies insanity, I fear. Or The Celestine Prophecies, which amounts to the same thing. :)

What brought this all to mind was the last thing he said as he left the restaurant. "I don't believe in coincidences. Everything Happens For A Reason. I was supposed to run into you, today!"

And while I don't subscribe to that belief, at least it's harmless. :)

And who knows? I suppose I could be wrong. Maybe Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, or Urania were bored and had nothing better to do. Maybe if you plot out all the subtle occurrences that conspired to get us both into that restaurant, it spells out a complex move in a chess-like game for some vast, alien intelligence that spans megaparsecs, and we're merely the pawns on the cosmic chess board.

But I'm gonna stick with 'random' and 'coincidental.' Your mileage may vary. :)

Monday, February 08, 2010

Quelling the Voices

Used to be, I thought I only had one or two stories in me. That once I wrote them down, I'd be done, and could go back to mindlessly watching reality TV whilst eating Cheetos and drinking Coke Zero. Because, you know...that's what you do. (Okay, that might not be what you (would) do, but I don't drink alcohol, so Coke Zero's about as strong as it's going to get.)

I thought that eventually, the voices in my head (read: stories trying to get out, not schizophrenia; as yet the voices have never told me to kill anyone except my characters) would shut the hell up and leave me alone.

But that turns out not to be the case at all. Au contraire, chers lecteurs!

That turns out to be the farthest thing possible from 'the case.'

I recently wrote my 2010 Writing Goals in the form of a short story. I use "short" here in the sense of "not a novelette, novella, or novel." Sucker came out to 7000 words. Or so.

First, I went into the Place I Keep All My Writing™ and looked over all the stories and fragments thereof.

Then, in the goals story, I wake up to find all my characters from all my other stories have come to life and are inhabiting my house, with the implication being that they aren't going anywhere until I get rid of them by finishing (and submitting) their stories. Between the tentacled alien in the shower, Death (incarnate!) in the closet, three time machines, several vampires, some angels, a murderer, and a few assorted fantasy creatures (I banished the centaur and faun to the back yard; the hooves were wreaking havoc on my hardwood floors), it was rather a full house.

I have three novels knocking on the inside of my head wanting to come out. One of those is clearly the first of a trilogy, and it has been knocking for some 20 years. Or more. I think the first seeds of it appeared in a horribly Mary Sue story I wrote when I was eleven. Yes, eleven.

The other two are the first two in a Dresden Files-esque series.

In a "sanity break" at work, I was just going through the application where I jot down story notes and ideas as they occur to me during the day and discovered ideas for at least two more novels in that series (Get a load of me, talking about a novel series and I haven't even finished one of them, yet!), and that didn't even go back past November of 2009.

In the goals story, I identified no fewer than 14 short stories in some form of completion and the three aforementioned novels. Those short stories range from ~1200 words to whoppers of nearly 20,000. Which is a novella, not a short story. (Over the years, my "short" stories have developed pituitary problems.)

And the funny part is, I managed to miss a few. I totally lost three novellas each of which I had written a good bit of. (Diagram that Grammar Nazis!) Can't find 'em. Gone. Zip. Whoosh. Into the æthyr. (That's writer talk for "it ain't nowhere.")

I guess the good news is this:
  • I won't run out of ideas any time in the next 70 or 80 millennia.
  • I am getting better as a writer; I can tell by looking over some of those early stories that...basically, I sucked as a writer.
  • I'm in no danger of becoming hooked on reality TV or Cheetos. (Coke Zero is already a lost cause.)

Unfortunately, the bad news is that
  • There are so many stories fighting to get out, I don't have time to work on them all.
  • Any time I get the least bit bored or stuck with a story, I put it on ice and work on something else. Which is what got me into this situation in the first place.

But as far as real goals go, I made one. Or some. Depending on your viewpoint.

There are two writers workshops this year that sound like something I would really enjoy. One is called Taos Toolbox and the other is Viable Paradise. TT is two weeks in the desert in the summer; VP is one week on Martha's Vineyard in the fall. I would be thrilled—THUH-RILLED—to be accepted to either one of them. Both have good instructors and involve a lot of intensive writing.

Toward that end, I'm working on the finished story that I think stands the best chance of getting me into one of them. The story was fully written and critiqued by my weekly writers group. I just never went back to it because in my mind, I was done with it. But after that goals story, I just couldn't get the characters out of my head.

It's a pure science fiction story with (what I hope is) an odd twist at the end. It involves time travel. I got it all edited and was done with the thing, then uploaded it to another writers group so they could critique it...and then read it again and noticed at least two plot holes large enough to drive Jupiter through. And at least three of its innermost moons. Without touching.

Unfortunately, said story is 11,500 words, and the limit for both TT and VP is 10,000. Hmmm. I smell editing in my near future.

I've already said a lot of this on both LiveJournal and FaceBook, but I thought it bore repeating. Because if I keep talking about it, I'm more likely to follow through.

Also, the deadline for the quarterly Writers and Illustrators of the Future contest is rapidly approaching (51 days, I believe), and that's another potential submission destination for Killing Time (yes, the title blows goats).

So...I'm going to try to keep this more up-to-date as a "writing journal." We'll see how I do. :)

[Crossposted to my new site.]