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Red Ink

January 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Red Ink

I have a love / hate relationship with red ink. That seems really cliche, but the fact is that the red pen sits on the table in front me, and I imagine it is taunting me. See, the red pen is both critic and muse; a force for destruction and creation.

The pen sits on a stack of papers, themselves covered in red ink. Scribbles, symbols, lines, and words speak of the surgery I have performed on it. We don’t like tearing apart that which we destroy create. When I was younger, I built castles made of legos, and I dreaded the time I had to take them down. But that force of destruction is also a way to build.

First drafts suck; there’s no way around that. Typically they are nothing more than idea vomit on paper, at least for me. Sometimes my stories go through several revisions (I label these by letter, and the furthest along I’ve ever gotten in the alphabet so far is “H”). I have binders full of drafts–or rather–the dry bones of drafts that are covered in crimson.

I keep them because they’re instructive. I can learn from them, and I can see how my writing evolves over time. And I come to see that the red ink isn’t my enemy, it’s my tutor. Learning isn’t always a fun process. Often we are asked to unlearn things we thought were true, and more often demanded that we venture outside of our comfort zones.

Creativity is fragile, and it must be nurtured. But it is also prone to stagnation, so it must be challenged, not just by others but by ourselves. Maybe the things we create have no value to anyone but ourselves, but the act of creation itself demands change and growth.

An artist refines her techniques, life evolves from generation to generation, and humans learn from their mistakes. Creation and change are on the same coin, and maybe even the same side of that coin.

Musings on Writing in a Cafe

January 17, 2017 Leave a comment

I never really appreciated how sitting in a cafe can be conducive to the creative process before now. Before I saw them as loud, distracting things to avoid. But as I sit here, sipping Earl Grey and writing a book review, it strikes me how human it is. It seems to me that creative endeavors are human endeavors, and human endeavors are typically loud and annoying.

You could drown it all out by putting on headphones, but you miss isolated threads of conversation: “I was thinking…” and “That’s not how you…” What are they talking about, I wonder? The jazz music in the speakers overhead, the atonal beeps of the cash register, the whir of the cappuccino machine–the environment sings with activity, and the melody is alive and pulsing.

People talking, reading, studying–all with their own stories. So just look up and take it in from time to time.

Categories: Life, Musings, Writing Tags: , , ,

NaNoWriMo 2014

January 13, 2015 2 comments

I almost decided not to participate in the National Novel Writing Month this year. I missed over a week of writing time due to the elections (I was very busy for the first few weeks of November taking care of campaign-related issues). At the last minute, I decided that I would give it a try.

I chose to write a fantasy story that I came up with by accident. I can’t remember the exact details, but I was playing some kind of game with a group of my friends, and due to my sloppy handwriting, they read the title of a fantasy novel I might write wrongly. Thus, Ser Darkthor’s Court was born; a novel about a Knight Errant who travels the realm and solves crimes. It was envisioned as sort of a Sword and Sorcery version of Sherlock Holmes.

Here’s the synopsis that I put up on NaNoWriMo when I started to write it:

Jesper is a class of Knight Errant called a Red Moon. They are tasked with policing the realm of Ser Darkthor, First of His Name, Honorable and Wise Leader of (Insert Name of Place Here). Jesper’s travels take him to a small village which appears peaceful on the surface, but hides a dark secret that could change the balance of power or something like that. Jesper begins an investigation in a Sherlock Holmes-meets-medieval fantasy novel, and uncovers a conspiracy that does something. I’ll flesh it out. It’ll be great. I promise.

The story, obviously, is much more developed now. Th good news is that I plugged away for the three weeks that I participated and I managed to win! Yay! It’s the third time in a row that I’ve won, and it always feels like I’ve climbed a mountain or explored a new planet.

I’m going to finish this story, clean it up, and probably serialize it on my fiction blog, Fictional Heuristics. Look out for that when it happens, because I happen to think it is an interesting story. It’s not the best fantasy, and I might have borrowed a teensy too much from Scott Lynch and George R.R. Martin, but I had a lot of fun writing it and I definitely think it is worth sharing.

I’ve actually thought about starting a patreon or something similar to that in case people wanted to chip in a few bucks if they like my fiction. I don’t have a lot of time to write, but if I can make some money doing it I’d carve out a niche for it. I think that’s something to think about for the future, if I can ever manage to get around to doing half the things that I say that I want to do.

Anyway, I hope that my fellow writers found success with NaNoWriMo last year, and I hope they continue to find success in the coming years.

The Challenges of Writing Part 2; or, Why Did I Ever Decide to Do This? (The Reckoning)

March 5, 2014 Leave a comment
This sea of red is a familiar sight on my rough drafts

This sea of red is a familiar sight on my rough drafts.

Okay, hyperbolic titles aside (for now), the last few weeks have seen me mired in pages of rough draft material in need of either a red pen or an X-ACTO knife (for when something has really got to go). The above picture is illustrative of the plight of the poor author. The story, which I had originally written a few years ago as a “writing exercise” in a creative writing class, is called “Fiction.” Before I took my red pen to it, the story focused on a technique called “framing,” which ask.com defines as “the usage of the identical distinct action, scene, event, setting or any element of significance at both the beginning and end of a creative, musical or literary work.”

In the case of “Fiction,” the framing technique makes use of an unfinished short story to drive the main narrative in the real story forward. I borrowed the idea from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in which Captain Walton creates a narrative frame through the use of his letters, which itself is called epistolary form. Seeking to add my own unique twist to the framing technique was only obvious, and I feel as if I pulled it off convincingly enough.

The red ink you see in the picture comes from the lack of good characters and a sensible plot within the narrative. And that was the main problem with “Fiction.” It didn’t have believable or interesting characters. I’ll be uploading the finished version of this series of rough drafts (I completed three, each with less red ink than the one before) to my fiction blog “Fictional Heuristics” soon.

I have a love/hate relationship with the editing process. I love writing, from putting the words on the page to making a polished final product. I hate that I have a compulsion to seek perfection in a work. There’s always one more thing that can be tweaked. One more sentence that can be improved. I’ve worked over the years to let it go, and I’m getting better at declaring a story finished. Still, the novel-writing process has stirred new concerns in my editor’s soul.

I was recently making notes for a review I’ll write eventually about Jacqueline E. Smith’s debut novel “Cemetery Tours.” I was jotting notes about writing and narrative style when I realized that one of the constructive criticisms I had made applied to a recent draft of the prologue of my novel.

This isn’t that unusual. Editing your own material is hard work, and I don’t often spot my own mistakes in style. One of the traps that writers fall into is becoming complacent with their word use. Things like beginning multiple sentences in a row with the same word, or using so-called telling words instead of properly describing a scene. In the case of my novel, I was using the word “she” too many times, and didn’t even realize how often I had used the generic word “smiled” at various points in the eight page, 2,500-word prologue.

There are a few ways to catch things like this in your writing. To avoid the repetition of words, keep a list of commonly used words like “some,” “said,” or different kinds of pronouns at the start of sentences, and within sentences. It’s a lot of work, but it really does help reveal how often you use certain words.

Describing a scene properly usually involves avoiding to be verbs like “is,” “was,” and “are” in any tense. For instance, a sentence like “He was concerned about his friend” has the effect of dragging the reader out of a narrative because you’re just passing on information. Keep the reader grounded in the narrative by changing that sentence to something like, “He pursed his lips and swallowed hard as his friend recounted…” By showing the emotion, and not just telling the reader “he was concerned,” you keep them grounded in the novel and allow them to empathize with the character.

Of course, describing the emotion and trying to avoid labeling it is hard work, especially because we often just associate facial cues with the emotion without describing what’s happening to the face. When someone is “angry” you have a pretty good idea about what they look like. If you write about how “his face, red and contorted, threatened violence” you might need more context for the reader to understand the emotion you’re trying to convey.

You’re looking mighty angry there, Spock. Guess Vulcans have the same facial cues as humans.

Another issue that comes up fairly often is the lack of grounding in the setting. You’re creating a world, full of exciting characters and challenging problems and…you forget to keep the reader in that world by neglecting to describe it or forgetting to use the setting after you’ve set it. There’s a world of difference between “She looked him in the eye, tears streaming down her face” as the whole sentence, and grounding the characters in their setting: “Her gaze met his, and he was unable to hear her whimper over the noise of the cappuccino machine and a customer dropping loose change.”

So maybe that’s not the best example, but it illustrates the point well. Your characters live in a world. Use it.

So what’s the point of doing all of that extra work? It’s arduous, thankless, and more than once it’s driven me to consider taking up the noble art of smashing things with hammers.

I believe that the ability to look back and see your evolution as a writer is paramount in the ongoing struggle to constantly improve your writing. Keep the rough drafts with all of the red ink, and keep the lists of words and the notes you’ve made about your mistakes and stylistic shortcomings.

This handsome volume contains rough drafts that have been rewritten. It's useful to go back and look at them if I'm curious to see the pattern of a story's development or old writing mistakes.

This handsome volume contains rough drafts that have been rewritten. It’s useful to go back and look at them if I’m curious to see the pattern of a story’s development or old writing mistakes.

When I'm currently working on a draft, I keep them together with paperclips. They'll eventually go into the binder when I've retyped the draft. I flipped the top one over because it's top secret.

When I’m currently working on a draft, I keep them together with paperclips. They’ll eventually go into the binder when I’ve retyped the draft. I flipped the top one over because it’s top secret.

Don’t let a passion for writing and telling stories decay into lazy sentences. Make your characters vibrant with adjectives, make their emotions empathetical by describing them instead of labeling them, and bring your world to life by constantly grounding the reader in it. Holding your own feet to the fire is a constant challenge, and sometimes writing something just the right way can distract from ultimately telling the story, but a reader will appreciate the extra work.

And in the end, you’ll see your skills improve.

Fictional Heuristics

March 3, 2014 2 comments

So what’s all this business about “Fictional Heuristics” and why should I care?

Well, gentle reader, I’ve decided to start a new blog that is separate from this one to post my fictional work. I thought about just posting it all here, but after consulting a few people I decided it would be wiser to create a different blog. I’ve been tossing around the idea of writing a semi-regular fictional series just for the internet and I already have a rough plan about what that would be. I think with a new blog that would be easier to realize.

Of course, this just adds another layer of work on top of all of the other projects I’m doing. A little crazy and reckless, yes, but in the end I just want to dedicate as much time as I can to this work because I love doing it.

I hope that you take the time to check it out because the primary motivation behind this enterprise is to improve my writing ability. And, of course, the only way to do that is to stick your neck out and hope that you can find people willing to critique your writing and give constructive criticisms.

I’d really like to become part of a larger writing community as well, because I like to help people improve their writing and I’m a fairly decent editor (having a degree in English and all). So lets see how this whacky experiment works out on Fictional Heuristics and whether or not I’ll actually manage to make my posts here more regular.

Categories: Geek, Writing Tags: , , ,

Writing Questionnaire and Other Things

February 28, 2014 3 comments

I snagged a questionnaire about writing from and thought I’d fill it out myself. It was actually really fun, and I got to take pictures and share them here. Well, here it goes!

1. Typed or Handwritten?

I have piles of notebooks and binders filled with handwritten manuscripts and story ideas.  In fact, I used to do a lot of my writing during class in high school and even when I was in college, and I never carried my laptop around with me to class. I never broke the habit of writing in notebooks and I still do it.

I also have a Remington Rand Noiseless Model 7 typewriter that I’ve traced back to the 1930s, but that was just an amateur investigation. I love this typewriter; it makes me want to type noir hard-boiled detective fiction with it as I sip on brandy and slowly work my way through a cigar. I have a number of short stories I’m working on that were typed from that typewriter.

Once I’ve gone over those typewritten drafts with a red pen, I usually type them up on my laptop. I’ve got a hard drive full of stories that I’m constantly backing up so I don’t lose any of the stories. Sometimes, if I feel a story is finished, I’ll print it off and put it in a special binder I keep for finished stories.

Remington Rand Noiseless Model Awesome

Remington Rand Noiseless Model Awesome

2. Cursive or Printed?

It’s really a mix of the two. When I write by hand, I’m usually writing in frenzied chicken scratches that looks like a mix between cursive and printed. I’ve been told it is impossible to read, and I’ve even lost points on handwritten essay questions on exams in classic civilization and English classes, but I can always make it out.

3. Show us your favourite pen.

I don’t really have a “favourite” pen so much as I do a collection of writing and drawing utensils that I use when needed. I usually just pick up standard Bic ballpoint pens when I buy them, so nothing too special. Here’s a few of the utensils I use most often.

Pens!

4. Where do you like to write?

Anywhere, really, as long as there’s a steady surface.  Most of the time I write in an office with a great desk. It has a great view of the back yard that’s really nice to look out on a warm, rainy summer day (especially with a nice breeze). The desk has a desktop computer that I can use to listen to science podcasts (like the Star Talk Radio Show with Neil deGrasse Tyson)  or other things while I’m working. The room also has a really comfy couch for when I feel like I need to lie down and decompress, or read to take my mind off the stresses of writing.

It's a pretty great setup. Notice David Tennant staring down at me, telling me that I should be writing.

It’s a pretty great setup. Notice David Tennant staring down at me, telling me that I should be writing.

Just a mess of science books and notebooks.

Just a mess of science books and notebooks.

5. Who are your five favorite authors in terms of authorial style?

Hm. This is a tough question, honestly. The first, and obvious, one would be Douglas Adams. I absolutely love “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series. After that I’d say Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Scott Lynch, and this last one will be a bit out of place compared to the others, Alexandre Dumas.

6. What are you your three favourite books on writing?

This is an excellent question. I still hold fast to “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White, even though I have a few problems with it. There’s another I have buried in a pile of books I can’t find right now that is really, really great for writing fiction. It gives pointers on how to plot, and the best strategies for starting a story. I also like a book called “Western Wind” because it systematically explains different kinds of poetry with several great examples. I’d also like to mention a book called “Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: I & Eye” because it’s an invaluable resource for CNF writing.

7. Have you ever competed in NaNoWriMo?

Twice, actually. The first was in 2012, and the last time was last year. I’m still working on both of the novels (life got in the way) but I’m very hopeful one will be finished in the next couple of months.

8. Have you ever won NaNoWriMo?

Both times I competed I won. You can find a link to my profile in my links. It was really hard work, and it’s really hard to catch up when you fall behind. November is a busy month for me because I have three birthdays on the same day, as well as my own six days later.

9. Have you ever had anything published?

Not yet. But I don’t usually write with the goal of being published. Perhaps I’ll try to see if enough people like my novel and go from there.

10. What projects are you working on now?

I have a lot of different projects, one which I’ll talk about in another post. The novel I’m working on is “The Rebel Thief,” plus I have a number of short stories and essays that I’m trying to write. I like to keep busy.

11. What is your soundtrack to writing?

Man, this question. I have a lot of different music that I love to listen to. A lot of it is classical music. Beethoven is a favorite. But I also like to listen to songs like “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel, “Surrender” by Cheap Trick, “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix, and “Kara Remembers” from the Battlestar Galactica Season 4 OST.

12. Do you have a writing pump-up song?

Yes. But don’t laugh.

EYE OF THE TIGER

EYE OF THE TIGER

It’s the original vinyl soundtrack. Amazing sound.

Well, now that the questionnaire is wrapped up, I’ll get to the other things. I had an extended absence from posting on this blog for various reasons, but I do have a lot of ideas about things to write. I’ve been collecting posts from my Facebook feed that I put into a file called “Amusing Internet Bullshit” that I might write a bit about. Some of the things people believe without checking the facts are pretty amazing. Zero-point energy, myths about HIV, all kinds of things.

Anastasia Klimchynskaya has started a great new blog called “Monitoring the Media” where she writes about the media and how it plays into her passion for literature and science fiction. She has a lot of great ideas that she’ll be developing and posting as time goes on, apart from the things she’s already posted. The writing has a bias to Sherlock Holmes and Star Trek, but that’s not really a bad thing. Anastasia has a lot of interesting things to say about both fictional works.

The Notebook as Mirror

December 13, 2013 1 comment

About six years ago, when I was a sophomore at the University of Michigan with pie in the sky ideas about the things I might be able to do with a degree in English, I trudged along State street in Ann Arbor with a mission. My head was full of all of these stereotypical ideas about what a writer must possess to be a real writer. I had a laptop computer that I could cart around to coffee houses to write as I sipped at a piping hot cup of Earl Grey, making sure that people could really hear the clacking of my keyboard. What I lacked was a notebook.

Sure, I had normal spiral bound notebooks full of the kinds of random, self-absorbed musings that are so popular with the young. I even color-coded the things I wrote based on topic because I was convinced it lent my scribblings a mantle of legitimacy. But I didn’t have a Moleskine notebook, which seemed to be part of the costume of the Writer™ that I wanted to wear.

So that morning I set out for the Borders on the corner of Maynard and Liberty. The freshly-fallen snow crunched beneath my boots as I weaved through the sidewalks, crowded with people and chairs, even in the dead of winter. Borders itself was a large store, a rectangular prism set beside the road and across the street from a vintage theater.

The notebook was sitting on a rack, one of many different varieties. Hard covers and soft overs and mini-notebooks led to confusion and feelings of authorial inadequacy. I was failing a vital test, it seemed, if I couldn’t even figure out which kind of notebook I needed. Should I get lined pages? Blank pages? The selections were endless.

In the end I grabbed a softcover notebook that had lined pages and stuck with it, hoping that was the end of my tribulation. So I packed my laptop and my new notebook and hit the city, on the lookout for interesting things that might spark my imagination so I could start scribbling in this magic notebook.

Such a simple thing, isn't it?

Such a simple thing, isn’t it?

When I realized that walking around in the bitter cold with a notebook wasn’t really the smartest idea, I walked into a coffee shop and picked out a seat close to the big window near the sidewalk. I could people watch and have my computer out to write, and my notebook could be proudly displayed as an accoutrement of my craft. According to my very wrong view of writing I was doing everything that it seemed a writer needed to do.

As the hours passed and I looked at more pictures of cats on icanhazcheezburger than I care to admit, I realized that the notebook was looming over me. I put it away in my backpack to break the storm cloud that started to form over it and get back to the important business of cats obsessed with ground beef.

Days passed, and the notebook stayed in my backpack. I was sure that the ideas would start coming. That the intimidation would break and I would finally think of something to put into it and, man, would it be the genesis of a brilliant writing career. I could point to this notebook as the manuscript for a hundred different ideas, and when they needed personal notes of mine to aid an exegesis of my work, this is the notebook that they would use.

Okay, maybe I wasn’t that conceited, but it isn’t entirely far removed from the truth. Perhaps that self-absorption was important for the inevitable realization that my writing suffered from several defects, as it still does. But the notebook was eventually removed from my backpack and stuffed into my desk, to be forgotten until almost two years later, on a date.

I had ordered tickets to an AC/DC concert at the Palace of Auburn Hills and was looking forward to this outing as my first real date with a woman I had met at U of Michigan, Aida. She was a sassy and intelligent spitfire who hailed from Bosnia-Herzegovina. A survivor of the Siege of Sarajevo, she had many fascinating stories to tell and she saw fit to share many of them with me.

Call me a hopeless romantic.

Call me a hopeless romantic.

The day before I was to take her to this concert I had been going through a pile of old things that I had packed during a move and came across that empty notebook. I picked it up with reverence, sliding the band and flipping through the empty pages. Maybe enough time had passed; maybe I could finally think of something to add to it.

So I took it with me to Auburn Hills. There were many experiences that would have merited entry into the notebook. The couple behind us lit a joint and started to “puff-puff pass” to the people around them. The excitement of the crowd was electrifying. It was the first time I had ever been to such a venue and I just wasn’t used to the noise. When AC/DC finally came onto the stage, and the rest of the crowd stood to jam with Angus and the band, Aida and I remained seated, just listening to the music and enjoying our time together.

I remember looking into her brown eyes and being enraptured by her smile. She was wearing a purple/blue blouse and a bracelet  with rather large, smooth stones. She had a small glittery clip in her hair that left a few marks on the side of my head as the night wore on.

I had finally thought of something to put into my notebook; something that, even at the time, I felt was too cute by half. I was in a playful mood, and I hoped that she was as well.

It is really cheesy.

It is really cheesy.

Well, she was. And as the band played on, and the energy started to affect even us as we sat there more in tune to each other than the boisterous sea of people, she brought her hand to my cheek, turned my head, and kissed me. She smiled, and then stood up, grabbed my hand, and made me dance with the people around us to Hell’s Bells.

Unfortunately the relationship didn’t last long after that, but it broke the spell I had placed on the notebook. After the concert and a long drive home, I opened the notebook and started to write on the last page a short missive on how the first and last pages of the notebook like this were scary, and why I have to fill them up first. I thought that if I had filled the last page first I could write throughout the notebook freely. Where before I had imbued the notebook with a mystical sense of destiny, I now treated it as a repository of random scribblings, marking events such as a first kiss or an observation of human behavior.

I think it was at about this time that I started to carry the notebook around with me everywhere again. Most of the pages are still empty, but the ones that I have written on have no overarching purpose. Indeed, a few pages are dedicated to a list of science fiction books that I want to buy that I picked up from the first volume of the science fiction journal Extrapolation.

Some of these books are hard to find.

Some of these books are hard to find.

The notebook is battered and, at places, torn. These defining characteristics are what make having it so attractive, however. I don’t place so much importance on the self-important vision of a the Writer™ anymore, but it’s something that’s hard to completely get over. It’s just an old dream. Foolish, yes, but still bearing the whimsical and unrealistic hopes of my youth. I’m more likely to write a bad joke about biologist porn (“prepare to accept this most generous donation of haploid cells”) than I am anything truly noteworthy of the human condition, but every now and then I do catch something worth writing about. Perhaps a semi-biographical short story about my grandfather based on the wild stories he tells of his youth, or a meandering piece exploring the story behind an older man walking around with a five year-old newspaper tucked under his arm.

The point of all of this is that I realized that the notebook I carried had only to be a reflection of myself, and not a canvas on which to paint high-minded and slightly pompous pictures of the human condition. Once I filled in the first page with the cheesy shot at romance, and the last page with a note on how last pages aren’t the end of a story, it was so much easier to jot the thoughts that flew through my mind.

I think that this, of all things, was my first real step in my development as a writer. My stories are supposed to be representative of me, and who am I? I’m certainly no Melville or Milton. I don’t have the depth of DeLillo nor do I have the foresight of Asimov. I am a little boy from nowhere, who trudged along in the snow one morning to buy a notebook because he thought he had to do it to be a writer. I am part fool, and I am part dreamer.

And maybe one day I’ll be able to write a book that reflects this. A book that I can call my own. A book that, with any luck, a few people will read.