Sunday, September 30, 2012

Getting the Wrong Message

We live in an age of t-shirts. They're like membership badges. You wear a shirt, and people comment on it, and it let's you know whether or not they're in your club. Unsurprisingly, I have several Star Wars t-shirts. I used to have a lot more, but most of them have been retired. Okay, so, yeah, I still have them; I just don't wear them anymore, because an awful lot of them are 20 years old and not really fit for wearing anymore. A have a couple of Sandman t-shirts, I have Animaniacs and "Pinky and the Brain" t-shirts, and I have this t-shirt:
(I also have a lot of other comic book related shirts, but I don't really have time to list all the shirts I have!)

I imagine that emblem is familiar to most of you out there, but, surprisingly, it's one of the least recognized shirts I have. It's also one of the most commented on shirts I have. Whedon fans will almost always say something, but, frequently, people who don't know anything about Firefly will say something like, "Nice message. We could all use more serenity." I just sort of nod and grin and say, "Yeah, we could," while thinking something like "if you only knew."

When I was in college, I was in this writing group. A lot of (pretentious) poetry was batted around during the meetings. One of the rules was that you were not allowed to claim your own work. We were also encouraged to comment on our own work so that no one would know it was ours by our silence. Non-committally comment, of course. That was hard for a lot of people, so most everyone just sat silently when one of their pieces was being read and commented on.

One night, there was a particular poem that was read. I don't remember what it was about, but, evidently, no one was getting it. The author of the poem was trying to restrain himself, but I could tell he was getting frustrated, and he was really fighting with himself to keep from blurting out how wrong everyone was. Including the professors. One professor in particular. Awkwardly enough, I was the one that caused him to explode, but it was because I got it right. I gave my interpretation, and he slapped the table, jumped up, and pointed at me yelling "Yes! Finally! Someone gets it!"

I felt kind of bad. Bad in that it was my fault he lost his cool. It was kind of weird that he lost it over his message getting through when he'd managed to hold it together through everyone getting the "wrong" message. But that's kind of the point: there is no "wrong" message. There is a failure to communicate the intended message, but it's hard to say that a message pulled from a reading is wrong. Unless, of course, you're Barney Stinson rooting for the bully in The Karate Kid. Barney just gets it wrong, but it's not like that for most of us.

No, most of us carry away a valid message even if it isn't quite the one the author intended, and you know what? That's okay. None of the people giving the "wrong" interpretation of the poem that night had messed anything up; they just didn't quite understand the point the author was trying to make. That doesn't mean those other points weren't there, because we weave into our writing things we have no idea are there until someone else points them out to us. And that's okay, too. That's why other people can see things about us that we can't always see, and it's why we can learn about ourselves through other people and the way other people read what we've written.

You know what else? I don't think Joss would be upset about people coming away with a message of serenity because if the t-shirt based on his movie. I think he'd say, "That's okay."

Friday, September 28, 2012

Before Ever After

Before Ever After is Samantha Sotto's debut novel. Samantha was one of the first bloggers I met, and she's a
Doctor Who fan, which has nothing to do with anything other than that I tend to like people that are Doctor Who fans. At least, I haven't yet met a Who fan I don't like, although you don't need to be a Who fan for me to like you. It just makes it better. But I digress...

Samantha is one of those tiny percentages of authors that get picked up by a big, old traditional publisher with their first book. Normally, I would start with the technical stuff, but, having been edited by a big, old publishing house, there's not much to talk about there. Okay, there's nothing to talk about there. Which is not always the case, but it is in this case (for instance, there were editing issues with Snow Crash; I just didn't bother to talk about them because there was so much else to talk about). I didn't notice even a misplaced comma during the whole read. Not that I was looking, but those commas like to jump out and try to poke you in the eyes with those little hooked tails, and I didn't have to even swat one away while reading Sam's book.

In fact, the whole book is just well written. It's clever. It's witty. It has great prose. From a qualitative standpoint, this is a great first novel. It even has a story that is interesting. I mean, it's interesting beyond the tension of "will boy get girl?" See, it's not just a romance; it's kind of a sci-fi romance.

But this book is the reason for many of the posts I've done this past week, because this is one of those books about which I would say, "This is good, but I didn't like it." And it's not that I disliked it; I just didn't like it. (See yesterday's post for more on all of this.)

But, see, I know why I didn't like it! The reasons I didn't like it are completely subjective to me and probably won't be a problem for other people. Well, unless these particular things are a problem for you.

The first thing that posed a problem for me is the style in which the story is presented. Not the writing, because  the writing style is (mostly) fine. As I said, Sotto is witty and clever and the writing is snappy and fun, so it's not the writing. The issue is one of flow... Let me explain:

I'm a chapter reader. That means I like to sit down and read until the end of a chapter where I have a clear cutting off point. It's not that I can't stop in the middle of a chapter, I just prefer not to. Books that have tremendously long chapters can wear on me, because I don't always (in fact, almost never) have time to sit down and read a 30-page long chapter. My comfort zone is probably in the range of about 12 pages. Unless! see, there is an unless, the author has scene breaks within long chapters, and I'm fine using those in lieu of getting to the end of the chapter.

Before Ever After actually had the opposite problem: too many scene breaks. I've never actually run into this before, aesthetically speaking, but reading the book was almost like looking at a series of snapshots from someone's vacation. Someone you don't know very well, at that, and don't have a lot of interest in. On top of that, the photos aren't really of interesting things but just of the people sitting or standing or eating and, every once in a while, there might be some landmark in the background, but, mostly, it's just lots of pictures. Now, this is kind of a theme in the book, the photo taking, so, if the author wrote it this way deliberately, it's brilliant, but I still had a hard time getting into the flow of the story because of it. Often, there would be multiple scene breaks on the same page, and it made me feel like I could just put the book down at any time, so I rarely read more than a couple of pages at a time. The result of that was that I spent six months reading the book, which was just too long.

Like I said, this is something about the way I read that got in my way and is totally subjective. It says nothing about  the quality of the writing.

Now, the book is loosely divided into three sections:

  1. Now -- what is happening between Shelley and Paolo
  2. Five years ago -- the story that Shelley is telling Paolo about her meeting Max
  3. Various historical time periods -- the stories that Max is telling Shelley during their trip five years ago
In relation to all of that, I liked the historical passages the best. They tended to be longer (fewer scene breaks). I don't know if I just liked those bits more or if I was able to get into them more because they lasted longer, but those were those most interesting to me.

Now, remember the other day when I was talking about David Eddings and I told you to remember the bit about clever, witty dialogue? Well, this is why. The present day characters (I'm including both the "Now" and the "Five years ago" characters, here) were all too witty and clever for me. That's kind of a problem for me and, also, probably my own hangup, and it may go back to Eddings. Maybe, if I never read Regina's Song this wouldn't be an issue. I don't know. What I know is that during almost all of the conversations, I felt like I was back in that book with all the characters trying to outdo all the other characters with their snappy patter, and it was distracting to me. It also felt unrealistic, because, even though we all like clever banter, most of us can't sustain it. It comes in fits and bursts and, usually, the witty comments don't occur to us until well after the conversation is over, so the fact that these characters seemed to always talk in witty banter made me roll my eyes a lot. Even Shelley has internal dialogue that is full of wit.

But it is witty! And clever! And I like witty and clever! It was just too much. Again, my own subjectivity, because, objectively, it's good writing. Any isolated passage you pull it will be good writing.

In the end, Before Ever After feels a bit like lobster to me. Or crab legs, because I did the same with both, but I think lobster makes a better example. When I was younger, I always thought I should like lobster. Not that I should but that, being me, I ought to. I like shrimp. I like crawfish. I ought to like lobster, too, right? But any time I tried it, I just came away thinking, "I really didn't like that." But I spent years trying it every time there was an opportunity to do so, because, you know, I ought to like it. Finally, I had to just admit to myself that I didn't like lobster.

Before Ever After has everything in a book I ought to like. Objectively speaking, it's a good book. It's well written. It has an interesting plot that, while not entirely unique, is presented from a perspective that I haven't seen before. It's witty and clever! I ought to like, but I could just never get into it. I do think it might make a really good movie, though, as long as it wasn't trimmed down too much.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Taking Out the Trash ( a further reflection on objectivity)

The ability to separate the subjective from the objective is something that most people cannot do. Okay, maybe "cannot" is the wrong word, but "do not" is certainly accurate. Actually, I think "cannot" is accurate, but I think it's only accurate in that most people have never learned to do it. Studies tend to indicate that many people simply cannot learn the skill, though, but I'm not sure if I'm willing to go that far. At any rate, for our purposes here (or my purposes, at any rate) "cannot" is the applicable word.

When doing reviews and making suggestions, I think this is something that's invaluable and something that needs to be distinguished. There is a difference between "I like this" and "this is good." Good, in this sense, being a qualitative, objective measure.

Most people don't see it that way, though. For most people, if they arrive at "I like this" it also means "this is good" and, likewise, "I don't like this" means "this is bad." This is why "everything is subjective" has become such an important mantra for writers and, well, all the arts. It's just not that easy, though, and people really do need to learn how to tell the difference between what is good and what they like.

Michael Offutt often talks about all the trashy TV he likes to watch. He kind of even glories in it sometimes. One of the things I really appreciate about him is his ability to say, "Hey, this is trash, but I like it anyway." That's an amazing thing that you just don't see a lot of people doing. You don't see people doing it, because, if they like it, they, for whatever reason, need to defend it and elevate it above trash. As my wife says, "It's okay to like trash as long as you acknowledge that it's trash."

Sir Peter Stothard, the chair for this year's Man Booker Prize, says, "It is wonderful that there are so many blogs and websites devoted to books, but to be a critic is to be importantly different than those sharing their own taste... Not everyone's opinion is worth the same." He adds, "As much as one would like to think that many bloggers opinions are as good as others, it just ain't so." As snobby and elitist as it may sound, I agree with him.

After all, there is a reason we go to a doctor when we're sick and not the grandmother down the street.

There is a reason we talk to astrophysicists about the origin of the universe and not the backyard astronomer next door.

Not everyone's opinion is worth the same.

Sure, only you can decide what you like, but you liking it doesn't somehow make it better than it is. A turd is still a turd even if you paint it gold.

No, all of this doesn't take away a degree of subjectivity that hangs around any artistic endeavor, but it's not all subjective, and people kind of need to own up to that.

For instance, even if you don't like The Lord of the Rings, you can't actually deny that it is a great work. Well, you can try, but that's sort of like trying to deny that 2+2=4. This is not a subjective view. Tolkien did something in creating Middle Earth that has never been equaled. The scope of his creation is staggering, the writing is intricate and wonderfully descriptive, the tale is timeless. I get that it might bore some of you, but your personal reaction to it doesn't make it "bad" as much as you might like or want to think so.

Also, as much as you might like The Hunger Games or Fifty Shades of Grey, it doesn't make it "good." It's kind of like eating candy or smoking; just because you like it doesn't mean you should try to fool yourself into thinking that it's good for you. Just own it. "This is bad, and I like it."

All of this brings me to the point, which is something I've said before, but I want to make clear again: my basic way of evaluating books. I say basic because it is a little more complex than this, because not everything breaks easily into good or bad or like or dislike, but I'm sure you can get the idea. So here is how I look at a book as I'm reading it and, then, reviewing it:

  1. This is good, and I like it.
  2. This is good, but I don't like it.
  3. This is bad, and I don't like it.
  4. This is bad, but I do like it.
This is important because, as I said back at the beginning, most people can't differentiate like this. Most people see "like=good" and "dislike=bad," and those things are not necessarily the truth. Yes, it is true that most often, if something is good, I will like it, and, if something is bad, I won't like it. BUT
As my wife says, I like the Dresden books, and it's debatable as to whether those fall into the "good" category. They are decidedly pulp fiction, that's how they're written, and many people consider that a lower art form, which goes back to subjectivity, but they're well written pulp fiction, and Butcher does deal with important issues. His problem is that he can get preachy about them and go on for pages, and, then, it falls into the category of bad, because he's stepped outside of his story so that he, the author, can lecture us. But, see, I like them anyway. My wife does not. They are my junk food books when I just need something fun to read. But, see, I know that, and I'm not trying to make them into more than they are.

The complication of all of this is that good and bad are opposite ends of a spectrum as are like and dislike, so it can all get kind of muddled. However, it is important to at least make the attempt to separate your subjectivity of an experience from the objective reality of it. Like being scared of a roller coaster. Subjectively, you may be so scared you're peeing your pants, but, objectively, you can look at the thousands and thousands of people riding and not dying and know that the chance of you dying is actually pretty small.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Eddings vs The Belgariad

I picked up The Belgariad the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school. The whole series. I think it was the first time I'd ever done that. I should point out that I don't do that anymore, but it wasn't The Belgariad that made me think that that was a bad idea. I was going off to camp, which I'd never done before, and I needed to take something to read. Well, I thought I did, anyway. I always had something to read; therefore, I needed something to read to go to camp with me. It was just for a week, so I didn't need five books, but I bought them and took them with me just to make sure I didn't run out of books. (Yeah, the thought of "running out of books was just about the most horrible thing I could think of when I was in high school.)

Not that we got free time for that. I don't know that I even opened Pawn of Prophecy on that trip. I had another week long trip a few weeks later, and I took the books on that trip with me, too. Somewhere during the summer, I made it through the first three books, and, then, just after school started, I got sick and missed a couple of days, and I read the last two books on those two days I was home from school. I laid in bed and read, and it was awesome. It was awesome because The Belgariad is awesome. Seriously, The Belgariad may be the greatest fantasy series ever written other than The Lord of the Rings. Eddings had a lifelong fan. At least, that's what I thought.

[I could go into why Belgariad is so great, but there's not really time to do that in  this post. You should just go read it. Unless you don't like fantasy, but, then, I don't know what to say to you, anyway.]

A couple of years later, Guardians of the West came out, part one of The Malloreon, a new five part series. Because I didn't want to have to wait a year or more between books, I waited until the entire series was out before I read it (although I bought them as each was released), then I re-read The Belgariad (just as good!) followed by The Malloreon. Now, The Malloreon was good, but it was good mostly because of getting to visit characters I loved again. It didn't cover any new ground; in fact, it was pretty much the same plot as the first series. But, you know what, I didn't care.


The problem came with the next series... The Elenium (3 books instead of 5 and not related to Belgariad) had come out during the same time period as The Malloreon, but I hadn't read that one, either, because I wanted to read Malloreon first. I went right into it, though, after I read Malloreon. And it was the same thing I'd already read. Eddings juggled the characters up some, but, essentially, it was The Belgariad all over again. I liked it well enough, but The Belegariad had been awesome! while The Elenium was just a pale copy.

And that was followed by The Tamuli, the 3-book sequel to Elenium, and it was also the same thing! Just the same plot over and over again. I was getting frustrated, especially since the characters from the two trilogies weren't as engaging as the ones from Belgariad.

But I stuck with him.

Let's jump back a bit. One of the reasons I was able to hold on is that while I was waiting for The Tamuli, I went back and read his first two books. The first was High Hunt, which came out almost a full decade before Pawn of Prophecy. It was about a group of guys on a hunting trip and, while not great, it was a good book. The other was a book called The Losers about a football player (if I'm remembering correctly) that lost his legs in a car accident. This book was also written in the 70s, but it wasn't published until Eddings had met with success through Belgariad. The Losers was an incredible book, and I'd actually like to go back and read it again. As soon as I figure out where my copy is. What I learned is that Eddings was actually capable of some other plot beyond the plot from Belgariad which, by the end of Tamuli, he'd used four times, so, see, I had hope.

And I thought that hope had paid off.

Two books came out in 2000: Regina's Song and The Redemption of Althalus. Regina's Song was actually an attempt at a different genre, so I really hoped for something good. And, true, the plot was new (for Eddings), BUT!

There was this character from Belgariad that was just everyone's favorite: Silk. Silk is the smart mouthed rogue of the group. Witty. Clever. Bad boy. I can count on two fingers the number of people I've known that would name any other character as their favorite. Where Eddings got Silk right, though, was not that witty banter but the flaws. Silk was not a perfect character. But the reaction to the character was all about the charisma and the cleverness, and the farther along in Eddings career we got from Silk the more every character became Silk, I assume from an effort by Eddings to recreate that chemistry from Belgariad. However, none of these newer characters were flawed. What we got was clever, perfect characters.

And that came to a critical mass in Song as every character spent their time trying to out clever every other character, and it was just too much. No one talks like that all the time, but all of these characters did, and it drove me crazy. It was a constant one-upmanship. [Remember this bit, because it's going to be important in an upcoming review. Yes, I will refer back to just this topic of too much cleverness.] Basically, it drove all the realism from the story and was the first time the writing in a book was "too clever" for me. Of course, it was clever in a completely predictable manner, so, maybe, it wasn't clever at all. So there was all of that and the fact that, although a horror novel was new to Eddings, he did nothing new with it, and the whole thing was completely predictable, and, if it hadn't been Eddings, I would have thrown it against the wall.

For some unknown reason, I read Althalus when that came up, and, even though  it was just the one book, it was Belgariad all over again, coupled with every character attempting to be like Silk, and I probably should have jumped up and down and screamed, but, instead, I just wanted to cry, because... because... well, THE BELGARIAD! And that was when I quit calling Eddings one of my favorite authors and only started saying that The Belgariad was one of my favorite series of books.

But it was a hard thing. And I wonder why, now, but, at the same time, I understand why.

At any rate, when his final series came out, The Dreamers, I looked at it long enough to verify  that  it was, once again, The Belgariad, and I put it back.See, you would never put back a book by your favorite author, right? And that was the end. I wouldn't suggest Eddings, as an author, to anyone, although I still think that anyone that likes fantasy should Belgariad. Both of my boys have read it, upon my suggestion, and loved it. My younger son has gone on to some of his other stuff but has agreed that, other than Malloreon (because you get to spend more time with Garion and company), there's not much point.

Why am I talking about all of this? A couple of reasons, actually:

  1. As I said, I have a book review coming up that reminded me of my experience with Song, and I figured I should supply some background as to why the whole "too clever" thing annoyed me.
  2. Eddings, through Belgariad, had a huge impact on me, but, then, the thought of the way I want to write came up, and I do not want to be like Eddings. I don't want to get stuck on one thing because it was successful, and I want to reproduce it. Eddings just stopped growing as a writer, and I don't want to be that way.
  3. Which is not to say I wouldn't want to write something as wonderful as The Belgariad, because I totally would. But I don't want to do it by accident, which, really, is what I think happened with Eddings. It's sort of like making the perfect chocolate cake because you measured something incorrectly and, then, spending the rest of your life trying to reproduce your error.
So, yeah, that was more than two, but who's counting, right?

Shut it.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

What Makes a Favorite Author?

When I was younger, a favorite author was all about favorite books. That seems like a natural thing, right? You have some favorite book, so the author of that book is your favorite author. It was all dependent upon the book.

So, in high school, my favorite authors were Tolkien, David Eddings, and Piers Anthony. Tolkien is probably self-evident enough that I don't need to explain him, but, even if not, I'm not going to explain him. I started reading Anthony during middle school. A friend of mine gave me one of his books, Split Infinity (a great title), as a birthday present, and I started reading everything he'd written. I followed him for years. I didn't quit reading his books because I quit liking him; there was just always something else I wanted to read more, because, well, it, whatever "it" was, was better. Eventually, I quit buying his books, and I haven't read anything new by him in nearly 20 years. Why? Because, honestly, his books just aren't all that good. At one point, I tried going back and reading some of the ones I'd loved as a teenager, and it made me wonder about myself. I mean, what was I thinking?

And then there was Eddings...
Eddings is the reason this post came into being, but that post is actually going to be the next post, because it made me think of this post instead. Eddings is all because of The Belgariad. I love The Belgariad; it's one of my favorite series ever, and, for a long time, I gave credit to Eddings as being one of my favorite authors based on my love for that series. But, you know, that's really all he has, and there came a time when I gave up on his books, too, and not just because there were other things I wanted to read more.

The whole "favorite" thing is tricky, which is why I don't have any favorites lists, but you can pop up to my "Of Significance..." tab to find out more about that.

Anyway... I remember when I realized that I couldn't claim Eddings as a favorite author anymore, not that I remember when it happened, but I remember it happening. I still loved The Belgariad, but I also realized that nothing else he did was ever going to be that good, or, even, close to that good, and I felt kind of betrayed. How could I love this one series so much and the author not be one of my favorite authors?

I had separation anxiety. Author/book separation anxiety to be exact. But that's really the point, an author is not the same as his work. That can be a hard thing to understand as a fan and as an author as so often we take someone's displeasure of our work as a personal attack. Well, sometimes that does happen, but, mostly, it's about the work.

These days, I'd say my top three favorite authors are Tolkien, Mary Doria Russel, and Neil Gaiman (yeah, I know, Tolkien hasn't changed and isn't likely to). I should probably make that four and include Stephen Lawhead. The interesting thing? There's not a book by Gaiman that I would point to as one of my favorite books ever. However, I love his style, and, pretty much, I will read whatever he puts out. Right now, anyway. The same with Lawhead, overall, although that could change after his Bright Empires series (you can read the review of the first one here). I wouldn't say any of Lawhead's books are among my favorite books ever, either.

And, then, there's Richard Adams and Watership Down. Watership Down has been one of my most beloved books for 30 years, and I know it is, because the only book I've read more than it is The Hobbit, but I've never considered Adams one of my favorite authors. He just wrote a book that I love.

I suppose what I'm getting at here is knowing how to separate what is a book you love from who is an author you love. What makes someone an author you love? For people that don't read much, it can really just come down to the author of their favorite book, like, right now, I bet there are women all over the place that would call that James woman their favorite author. But, for those of us that do read a lot, and read authors that write a lot, how do you deal with the disappointment of a bad book or string of books from an author you want to call your favorite? Do you cling desperately to calling that author your favorite even though s/he is writing stuff you hate, or do you toss that author aside in favor of some new shiny author that hasn't had the chance to disillusion you yet?

I'm not even sure that "favorite" is a term I can adequately use anymore. There's Jim Butcher and his Dresden books, and I love those. That's my "favorite" series fiction at the moment, and, when I was younger, that would have meant that Butcher made my favorite author list, but not anymore. His books are my popcorn, and, though I love popcorn, I don't want to live off of it. I need stuff with a little more substance and a little more to say as my regular diet.

Anyway... where I am now, my "favorites" are the authors that I read and think "wow! I want to write something that good some day. I want to write like that." However, I will never write like Tolkien. I'm not sure anyone ever will again. What I'm saying is that the author doesn't have to write my favorite story, s/he just has to write excellently. Sometimes, it's difficult to separate those things. At some point, maybe Gaiman will write a book that affects me like The Sparrow did, but it's not something he needs to do for me to look at the way he writes and really admire it. I might love The Belgariad, but I don't want to write like Eddings.

I don't normally do the whole question at the end of the post thing, but I am this time, because I'm curious as to how this works for you guys. Are your favorite authors just the writers of your favorite stories? Do you have favorite authors that have not written any of your favorite books? What do you do when a favorite author falls off the author wagon (starts producing the same old crap over and over again)? Who are your "favorite" authors/books and do they match up?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Revisiting Blackberries

My daughter and I have been out picking blackberries again. Over the last few weeks, we've had three cobblers, and, OH MY were they awesome. Two of them were straight up blackberry cobblers, and the other was a blackberry-peach cobbler. Oh, the goodness. We even had homemade vanilla ice cream with the first one. We need to get out there at least once more before there quit being any blackberries to pick, but this past week has been too busy, and it doesn't look like that's going to change in the next few days. We want to make homemade blackberry ice cream, though, so I better figure out how to make it happen.

All of that aside, my wife told me I should write another post about blackberries like this one from last year. However, I don't think I really have anything new to say about blackberries. That's a pretty good post I wrote way back then about blackberries and writing, writing is still like picking blackberries for me, and I suspect it will always be that way. Which makes me think of something that Neil Gaiman said once, well, actually, no, it reminds me of something that Neil had said to him once after saying something like, "I thought after I finished my first book that I'd figured out how to write books, but this one is as hard as the first." And the author he was speaking with responded with something like, "You never figure out how to write books; you only figure out how to write the book you're writing." And that, to me, is like picking blackberries.

Anyway... All of this discussion about revisiting old topics got me to thinking about how the blog has changed since I started writing it a year and a half ago. I mean, back then, I would never have believed that I would spend any amount of time talking about grammar and punctuation. How boring is that? Didn't we want to escape school because of that stuff to begin with? But it's important, and there is an obvious lack of discussion about it if you spend any amount of time looking at independently published manuscripts.

I also had no idea how important reviews and honest reviews would become to me. There needs to be a lot more talk about that stuff, but, at least, that discussion is happening, especially with the (somewhat) recent news of authors buying hundreds of fake reviews to boost their exposure.

Still... it makes me kind of nostalgic for some of my older posts. My blog is not the same blog as it was back then, and it's hard to write those same kinds of posts these days. My mind just isn't in the same place, now, as it was then. Kind of like not going back to crawling after you've learned to walk. Except, in writing, it's like learning to walk over and over again. And over and over again. And again. So I've decided to start linking back to some of my more favorite posts from time to time, especially on Shadow Spinner release days. That seems like a good time for that to me. So, today, I encourage you to hop back in time and read the Blackberry Writing post if you weren't around to see it the first time. [And feel free to comment there, too, if you'd like. Just because it's an old post doesn't mean you can't comment!]

Speaking of Shadow Spinner!

Today is the big FREE! release of "Part Five: The Police Car." Did I say FREE!? Because it's FREE! So, yeah, you really have no excuse not to go over and pick it up. Of course, you might say, "But I don't have the others." Okay, well, to help you out, "Part Four: The Cop" will also be FREE! today. Sorry, but you're kind of on your own with parts 1 - 3. Amazon only gives me so many free days per quarter, and, as much as I'd like to make these FREE! all the time, I just can't do it. Believe me, I tried. So, to recap:
"Part Five: The Police Car" is FREE! Friday, September 21 and Saturday, September 22.
"Part Four: The Cop" is FREE! Friday, September 21 only.
This installment marks a turning point in the story. The new cover is a clue.
You should also pop over to Briane Pagel's blog to see what he has to say about Part 5, specifically,  and Shadow Spinner in general. I can't help including a couple of quotes here, though:
"...the first five chapters so far have less in common with Potter or the Pevensies than it does good Stephen King."
"I'd say Leon is reinventing the book, but really what he's doing is reintroducing the book to us..."

I didn't put him up to that. I promise. Makes it hard for me not to glow from the praise, though, which would be awkward for going out in public.

Also, because I've been meaning to for a while and still haven't put up a link on the side, you can find  me over on Goodreads here. Really, I'll get to the side link... sometime.

One last thing:
This is not precisely a follow up to stuff from my A to Z posts, but it kind of is. NASA is working on faster than light travel. I don't mean this in a purely theoretical sense either. There are actual laboratory experiments happening. Read the article here. Between this and the whole quantum communication thing, interstellar travel could be here within a generation or so. Boggles my mind!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

On the, comma (or Don't Tell Me When To Breathe)

Oh, the comma, that bane of punctuation. But, first, a story:

A woman, a blond, if you must know, needed to have her hair done. She called around to find out if there was anywhere that would do her hair while she was wearing headphones. Finally, after calling a dozen or so places, she found one, and she went in. However, the hair stylist was surprised to find the woman wearing  actual headphones rather than earbuds, which is what she had expected. Who still wore actual headphones?

She said to the woman, "I can't do your hair while you're wearing those."

"You said on the phone that you could."

"Yes, but I thought you meant earbuds."

"What's an earbud?"

The hair stylist just blinked at the blond woman with the headphones on. They stared at each other for several awkward moments until the stylist said, "Look, can't you just take those off long enough for me to do your hair?"

The blond woman became instantly irate, "No! I can never take them off! Never!"

They stared at each other some more.

Finally, the blond said, "Can't you just work around them?"

Shrugging, the stylist said, "I can try."

The blond took her seat in the chair, and the hair stylist went to work. But it was more difficult than she thought it would be, and the piece of metal going across the woman's head was in the way, and the large pads on the woman's ears were in the way, and the stylist kept wondering what could be so important that the woman needed to leave the headphones on for. When she'd had about as much "working around them" as she could take, and the blond woman looked rather like she'd dozed off, the stylist thought, "Surely, I can move them just for a moment to get this last bit and put them back on before the woman even knows I've moved them." So she pulled the headphones back from the woman's ears.

Immediately, the woman began gasping and clawing at her throat and she fell to the floor and resembled nothing more than a fish that had been spilled from a fish bowl.

In a panic, the stylist called 9-1-1, and the ambulance came, but it was too late, and the blond woman was dead. The ambulance took the woman away after asking many questions about what had happened. The police came and asked more questions about what had happened, then they went away, too. After everyone was gone and just the poor hair stylist was left alone, she saw the headphones lying on the floor up under the chair where they had been forgotten by everyone. She picked them up, finding that they were still attached to the old fashioned walkman with an actual cassette tape in it.

Overcome by curiosity, she put the headphones on and pressed the "play" button. This is what she heard:
"Breathe in... Breathe out... Breathe in... Breathe out... Breathe in..."

At this point, you might be wondering what that has to do with commas, and you'd probably be correct to wonder that, but it does relate, so just give me a moment. (Mostly, though, I just think it's funny.)

Commas! Why are commas so difficult? Really, why are they? There's one fundamental reason that they've become such a difficult piece of punctuation to figure out. People are confused by what they do and what they're for. Those are two completely separate things, but, because they do this one thing, people have come to think that's also what they're for when it's not at all what they're for. What they do is merely a byproduct of what they're for.

Have I confused everyone yet?

Before I go on, let's talk about what a comma does, because this is what causes all the problems, especially the problem that I hate so much, the comma after the conjunction. See, what a comma does is to tell people where to pause in their reading. Or, as everyone likes to call it, where to take a breath (as if people mostly read out loud, when, in truth, people hardly ever read out loud). What happens, then, is that writers start throwing in commas where they would pause if they were saying their sentences out loud. This leads to commas in places where they don't belong as in the sentence, "But, he went home." That sentence shouldn't have any comma, but, for some reason, people want there to be a pause there, so they throw that comma in to indicate the pause.

So here's the thing: don't tell me when to breathe! No, really, don't do it. For one thing, the vast, VAST majority of my reading happens in my head, so I don't need any help with breathing when I'm doing that. For another thing, I, um, know how to breathe. Really, I don't need your help, and, if I did, I'd probably have a larger problem than what a comma could fix.

Also, don't try to tell me how to read. If your writing is good enough, you don't need to tell me how to read your sentences, the sentences will lead me in the reading. So don't try to tell me how I should go about reading the sentences you write. If I can't figure it out, there's either something wrong with my reading ability (and there's not) or you need to work on your writing some more. Or you're just being totally anal about the whole thing and want people to only read the same way you do, and that's just not okay.

And that takes us to what a comma is for. A comma is meant to convey meaning. As it is with adverbs, the comma is to provide clarity, or, in the words of wikipedia: "...the comma is used where ambiguity might otherwise arise..." See, this has nothing to do with telling the reader where s/he should take a breath. That kind of advice is just for music and swimming as far as I know (because, well, it's not good when you take a breath when your face is in the water).

Now, I'm not going to go through all the specific uses of the comma, because, frankly, there are just too many, and most of you are probably loosely acquainted with them, anyway. And some of them are optional and use the word "may" (as in "you may use a comma with a long prepositional phrase"), and that can lead to all sorts of confusion, because how do you know when you should or not? What I will say is this: if your comma doesn't add to the meaning of the sentence, you probably don't need it. By that I mean, if there could be confusion without the comma, you should have one. Unless you need a semicolon instead, but that's another issue, and I'm not going into that, right now (just know that almost all of you (and I don't mean you you, I mean people you, because people hardly even know what that little guy is called anymore) out there need to learn how to use the semicolon. He is your friend and should not be so overlooked).

However, I will mention one comma usage rule that everyone should go learn, because this is the most common error I see. Yes, even more than that stinking comma after a conjunction, and I think this is the one that causes that particular confusion anyway. Adverbial phrases should always be set apart by commas. Um, did I say always? Because I mean always. If you've written your sentence, which contains an adverbial phrase, correctly, you can pull that phrase (or dependent clause) right out of the sentence and still have a sentence remaining. It shouldn't mean the same thing without the phrase (because, if it does, you don't need that phrase to begin with), but you should have an intact sentence (you know, with a subject and a predicate (a verb)) remaining. This is the important thing, so pay attention:
Adverbial phrases, without the commas to set them apart from the rest of your sentence, can easily become entangled in your sentences and cause confusion. That's why adverbial phrases need a comma on both sides.
[One other note: there are some adverbs that always require commas, but it's really because they act as adverbial phrases all by themselves. You should learn these words. There really aren't that many of them.]

Here are some examples of correct ways of punctuating adverbial phrases:

  • <adverbial phrase>,<independent clause>, <conjunction> <independent clause>. OR <adverbial phrase>, <independent clause> <conjunction> <dependent clause>.
  • <independent clause>, <adverbial phrase>, <conjunction> <dependent or independent clause>.
  • <independent clause>, <conjunction>, <adverbial phrase>, <independent clause>. OR <independent clause> <conjunction>, <adverbial phrase>, <dependent clause>.
  • <independent clause>, <conjunction> <independent clause>, <adverbial phrase> OR <independent clause> <conjunction> <dependent clause>, <adverbial phrase>.
As you can see, I could go on with those for... well, quite a while. But that should give you an idea of the basics. Of course, you have to know the difference between an independent and a dependent clause, which I'll have to talk about at some point, but, really, that's a basic thing, and, if you don't know, you should go back and chastise every English teacher you ever had for not drilling that into your head. Or flog yourself for not paying enough attention in class.

It all looks and seems so much more complicated than it actually is; that's all I can really say about it. But, if you look at the above sentence structures, you may be able to see what causes these common mistakes:
<independent clause>, <conjunction> <adverbial phrase>, <some clause or other> -- The conjunction is NOT part of the adverbial phrase, so there NEEDS to be a comma between the conjunction and the phrase so that the phrase can be "lifted out."
<independent clause> <conjunction>, <some clause or other> -- This one is just wrong. That comma ALWAYS comes after the independent clause and you shouldn't have one after the conjunction unless there is an adverbial phrase (or a long prepositional phrase). [If you have a word like "however," there should be a semicolon involved, but we're not getting into that, right now.]

But let's make it even easier, because easier is better, right? Do this:
Write without any commas. After you've finished your section or whatever or waited a few days, gotten some distance from what you've written, or, even better, get someone else, go back and read through it and look for places where the writing is confusing. If it's confusing, there's a good chance you need a comma. Or commas. Look for places where the comma dispels ambiguity, not places where you want your reader to breathe.

As one final note, I will say this:
The Internet and texting are in the process of changing comma rules once again. We use them less, mostly, because we write shorter, less complex sentences. Personally, I use more commas than I specifically need to when I write, because I tend to put them in everywhere they're "supposed" to go. You know, by following all of the comma rules. However, I would say that the only real rule you need to know is "Commas are for meaning not for breathing." If you get that down, you should be okay. If the comma doesn't add to the clarity of the sentence, take it out. If not having one causes confusion, put one in. And watch your adverbial phrases, because they run into your clauses and cause confusion. You might know what you mean, but there's a good chance your reader will get confused.
In the end, too many commas are better than not enough as far as meaning goes, so, if you're not sure, put that comma in there. As long as you're not telling me to breathe!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Remember that one teacher?

You know the one, right? That teacher that everyone dreaded getting. The one with the hard rep. The one you couldn't make excuses with or sluff assignments. The one that gave you nightmares...

There were only two types of students in that teacher's classes, the ones that made A's and everyone else. The ones that made A's were few, and no one made B's. You either worked your... bottom off or you did poorly. That's just how it worked. You know, except for that one kid that just made good grades without breathing, and everyone hated that kid. You're pretty sure even the teacher hated that kid but couldn't do anything about it.

I think I'm that teacher. Not at school. The kids love me at school. Even though my creative writing class is extra work for the kids (because it's an elective), the students frequently tell me that it's their favorite class. No... I'm that teacher here. Sort of. At least, that's the rep I think I'm getting for all the grammar stuff and my reviews. People are starting to ask me to not read their stuff because they're scared of the review they might get.

Of course, I also have more requests to read than I can keep up with, so I'm sort of okay with the requests to not read.

But here's the thing:
It's not the bad grammar, improper punctuation, and lack of editing that bother me. Not in and of itself, at any rate. If you're doing your best, you've sought out the best help you can find or afford, and you're trying to improve, I can overlook some bad grammar and splotchy commas. It's the people that shrug it off as not important that bother me. That's when  the bad grammar and lack of editing get me all riled up.

The thing that makes me most upset is when the author has the attitude of "hey, I wrote a book, and you should worship me for that." That bothers me. I mean, it really bothers me. And I find that a lot more than you'd probably like to believe. That attitude of "why should I worry about grammar, punctuation, and editing? Those things aren't important, because I wrote a book!" And I want to respond with something like "well, actually..."

It's the attitude that writing is all subjective anyway and therefore doing it correctly isn't important that bothers me. When I see a manuscript out for public consumption that looks like something one of my middle schoolers handed in, and I'm correcting their stuff and helping them to get better, but the author of said manuscript blows off the poor writing as "just my opinion," well, that makes me mad. Because, honestly, that attitude is wrong.

Here's the truth. Are you ready for it? I think it's a hard truth and one a lot of people have an issue with and don't really understand. The TRUTH:

Stories are subjective; writing is not.

It's that simple. Whether I like your story and how you tell your story is completely subjective, but, whether the writing is good or not, well, that's something else entirely. The writing is something that can be graded, and I know, because I do it. Actually, to some extent, stories can be graded, too, or, at least, subjected to objective measures like "hey, you have your character in two places at once, right here" (yes, I am (still) talking to you Snow Crash).

[Oh, and I have a good example of this coming up in a near future review. A story where the writing is very good, perhaps excellent, but the story just never grabbed me.]

The idea of writing being subjective is, honestly, just an excuse to excuse poor writing, and everyone has bought into it to such an extent that that part of it can't be seen anymore. Before I go on, there's a lot here that could be said about agents and publishers and all kinds of stuff, but I'm not talking about any of that. What I do mean is that people, when told their manuscripts need work, fall back on the whole "it's all subjective" thing. That, or they revise every time someone says anything, but they just keep changing the story rather than dealing with the underlying grammar issues.

[Okay, I need to insert here: when you're told that your manuscript needs work and there are a bunch of story suggestions included, that is subjective, because that person is just telling you what your story needs for that one person to like it more. However, when you're told your story needs work and there's a list of grammar/punctuation issues that need to be fixed, that's objective. That's stuff you should pay attention to.]

Before I get off on about 20 different tangents, I'm just gonna stop. This is a complicated topic and it changes from person to person, but, basically, if my rep is becoming that of some kind of grammar fascist, I suppose I'm okay with that, because there's not enough attention on proper writing, right now. Not from indies, certainly not from small publishers (who often have editors with no better than a high school diploma if they have editors at all), and not even from larger, more traditional publishers who have been canning editors to cut back on costs and increase profits.

All I really wanted to say, to clear up, is that I'm not so hard about all of this as it comes off. At least, I'm not so hard on the people that care, are trying, and actually want to improve.

However, I have no sympathy at all for those people who just blow it off as a non-issue or a subjective issue. If you want to have an analogy, and look! I do, it's sort of like a fireman that decides he's only going to put out fires that happen in bathrooms and children's bedrooms. The other fires just aren't important. They may not even be there, you know. Maybe that person wanted that fire in the middle of his living room floor. For roasting marshmallows, you know. Or, maybe, that stove top fire is supposed to be there, like for roasting a pig. It doesn't matter how much work that fireman puts into putting out the bathroom fire, the house is still gonna burn up.

And NOW on to other things!

Friday will be the free release day for part five of Shadow Spinner: "Part Five: The Police Car." Part five is the reintroduction of the Man with No Eyes: reintroduction because there was this post way back when that had him in it (and that exact scene from the linked post didn't actually make it into the book), and, also, reintroduction, because I posted this stuff a long time ago when I was first writing all of it. Anyway, all of that to say, well, be prepared for Friday, but, also, I want to give you a peek at the cover for part five, because it's amazing!
Drop by and tell Rusty what an awesome job he did!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

On Grammar and Punctuation: Most People Do It Wrong

As I've mentioned, now that school is back in session, I'm teaching my creative writing class again. It's going to be different this year, though, as I will be teaching two days instead of one, and one of those days will be devoted to the technical aspect of writing. Story structure. Plot. And, yes, grammar and punctuation. I expect that I will start having more posts, um, start having posts devoted to these topics as we (my class and I) go through the year. Actually, I already have a post started all about that wily rascal, the comma, and class hasn't even started, yet. [Okay, actually it has, but I wrote this before it had.] Oh, and there was that post about adverbs which has actually been sitting around for a long while. See, these posts aren't being inspired by  the class; they're being inspired by the lack of correct grammar and punctuation I'm seeing all the time in people's projects and the tendency of said people to just brush it off.

Now, look back up at my title of this post. No, really, read it again. Do you see it? I'm guessing most of you don't see it. Actually, I'm guessing that none of you see it, but, hey, I could be wrong. If you see the problem, raise your hand. Anyone? It's wrong. Specifically, "wrong" is wrong. The word in that spot should be an adverb, because it's (supposed) to be modifying how people do it. The appropriate wording would be, "Most people do it incorrectly."

Why do I bring this stuff up? Aren't grammar and punctuation subjective? Can't you just kind of do it however you want to? No, not really, despite what a lot of people, including some (bad) editors, would have you believe. There are rules for grammar and punctuation for a reason, and, frankly, I'm getting tired of seeing comments like this from authors:
"I write first person because that way I don't have to know any of the grammar rules."
I'm sorry; that's just lazy and irresponsible, and, honestly, if you can't take the time to learn the rules of your job, then you shouldn't be allowed to write.
The problem, though, is that editors, also, don't want to learn the rules of their jobs, and publishers don't care as long as they're going to make money, and more and more of them are cutting back on the editorial staff to increase profits and "allow the audience to get involved in the editing." (Yes, that's a real quote from a real publisher (but I'm  not gonna say which one).)
While we're at it, why don't we let drivers get involved in the process of building cars. Without training.

So, yeah, I'm being kind of ranty, but the attitudes around this stuff are (frequently) just wrong! (And, see, that time the "wrong" is correct, because it's an adjective telling what kind of attitudes. Wrong ones!)

Here are two things that I've experienced recently that I want to point to:

1. In providing feedback about a manuscript recently, I made a punctuation error. Yeah, I did, because no one, and I mean no one, is ever 100%. Part of it was just that I don't go back and proof blog posts and emails and things like that quite as thoroughly as I do a work I mean to publish. I just don't have the time to proofread these things quite as fanatically as I will something I want someone to buy. Part of it was just that I was having a brain fart and was thinking about the word incorrectly, so I punctuated "although" in the manner that you should punctuate "however." All in all, it was a relatively minor mistake, and it wasn't a repetitive mistake; it was a singular slip. However, I made this error while providing grammar correction to someone. And there were a lot of corrections in the other manuscript, and they were all repetitive mistakes. See, that means the person in question didn't know what s/he was doing and needed someone else to say, "Hey, you're doing this incorrectly," or, in the vernacular, "You're doing this wrong." A third party responded by pointing out my mistake and saying that I had no business offering grammar corrections, because, LOOK!, I'd made one, too. Basically, if I couldn't be 100%, I had no business giving advice.

That is a ludicrous statement. In fact, if you take that out to its full implication, no one would ever be able to teach anything. Because why? Because no one is ever 100%. Not all the time. If I'm operating at, say, a 90% capacity and you're operating at, say, a 30% capacity, it's just ridiculous to make the statement that I shouldn't be allowed to make the assist on you getting better. This attitude of having to be at 100% just supports the idea that anyone can do whatever they want any way they want to because there's no one qualified to make them better. HOW STUPID! I just want to say: take the help you can get and the help that's offered and learn as much as you can. If you can see that someone else is more qualified than you, don't be a dunce and dismiss him/her because s/he's not 100% qualified.

2. Someone recently posted her first chapter and asked for feedback on it. Now, this was supposed to be in "final" condition. As in, she was getting ready to send it off and was asking for final thoughts. This also means that she was "finished" with her editing process, whatever that was. I'm assuming, based on comments, that it included feedback from critique partners. I figured I might as well give it a glance. I was barely able to do that.

The very first sentence had a punctuation error in it. And, I have to say, it was one of those that is really beginning to bug me, because I see it everywhere. Still, I thought, maybe it was just a slip, so I kept reading. The piece was full of errors. The dialogue was rarely punctuated correctly, and every instance of the type of sentence like the first sentence was punctuated in the same incorrect manner. Clearly, the piece needed editing, and I only made it about 1/3 of the way through before giving up. I left a comment noting the error in the first sentence and stating that I was unable to finish the piece because of all the errors.

The author asked for examples. Well, I felt I'd already given an example, so I related to her that I was busy editing another piece for someone, but I would try to give her 1st chapter a pass when I was done with the other project. Her response was, "Oh, no, I have critique partners for that; I just wanted an example of the punctuation errors you were talking about."

Clearly, her critique partners had failed at their job.

And that's the point, really: "Most people do it wrong." Critique partners when used as editors are entirely overrated, because, honestly, they don't know any more than you do. If you think you're going to get what passes as editing from your critique partners, you're going to be incredibly disappointed in almost every instance. They can't catch those comma errors, because they don't know they are errors. Do you know, without looking it up, the difference between a coordinating conjunction and a subordinating one? I guarantee you, your CPs don't have any more clue than you. And that's an easy thing.

While it's true that grammar and punctuation and, heck, language change over time, that does not mean that it's subjective. That just means it changes. Speech changes, and writing changes along with it to reflect those changes, but that doesn't mean that it's subjective, although there are often cases where rules can be argued (But that's just like science. Remember, science still doesn't know what glass is). Rules exist in grammar for a reason and while, yes, fiction is allowed to play with those rules more than non-fiction, it's not a reason not to know them or to break them because you don't know them.

I get that writing how we talk is all in vogue, right now. The first person experience has become this holy  thing and everyone is getting on board, but what comes out of it is a lot of garbage because people don't actually know how to write. First person has become the short cut to actually doing the work, and, yes, that bothers me. Writing, even first person writing, is not like speech. It shouldn't be. Writing is a separate discipline, and it should be treated as such.

I'm going to end this with a quote by C. S. Lewis. Specifically, he's speaking here about using italics in writing, but the idea can be expanded to all of writing, especially 1st person writing:

I am now inclined to think that this was a mistake - an undesirable hybrid between the art of speaking and the art of writing. A talker ought to use variations of voice for emphasis because his medium naturally lends itself to that method: but a writer ought not to use italics for the same purpose. He has his own, different, means of bringing out the key words and ought to use them.

What this really says to me is that a writer should learn to write. A writer should not be someone that just copies down what people say. Speaking and writing are different and should be different. Make words your tools and learn how to use them.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

12-year-old Drunken Fantasy

[This is a follow up to the A to Z Challenge in that I mentioned Snow Crash in this post and in this one. I talked about a lot of books during the challenge that I had never read, and this is the second work I've read from those I mentioned back in April, the first being "Pygmalion's Spectacles," which was also mentioned in the Virtual Reality post and I talked about it again here. Having finished Snow Crash, here is my review.]

My first impression of Snow Crash came from my  younger son who was looking at it as it laid on the table waiting for me to get to it. He said something like, "The main character's name is Hiro Protagonist?!" and burst out laughing. Being incredulous, I grabbed the book and looked and, sure enough, that is the main character's name. The thoughts in my head ran something like this:

  • "That is so dumb!"
  • "That sounds like something that would come from a bunch of guys sitting around drinking." You know, because they're drinking, they think it's funny.
  • "Stephenson must not have realized the next day that it wasn't as funny as it seemed when he was drinking."
  • "It sounds like the kind of thing my oldest would have suggested when he was 5 and wanted to name his not-yet-born younger brother Hot-Speeder." You know, if he had known the word "protagonist" at 5.
  • "That is so dumb!"
The thing is, though, Stephenson evidently did realize it was stupid, because he acknowledges within the book that it's stupid by having another character tell Hiro he has a stupid name. It didn't dissuade him from using it, though. His secondary character has a similar name in  that she's called "Y.T." which seems to have been used just so there can be confusion and have people call her "Whitey."

The second impression followed closely on the heels of the first. Hiro delivers pizzas (for the Mafia, but that's another story). Hiro is also an elite hacker and the best samurai swordsman in the world. He delivers pizzas. As I digested this information, I flashed back to an idea my oldest told me about when he was about 12: a ninja on a motorcycle, swords crossed on his back, delivering pizzas. He, at 12, thought this was a wonderful idea. At 12, it probably is. At this point in the book, I began entertaining the idea that this was just some kind of delusion from the hero, Hiro; that might have made the book interesting. But it turned out not to be; everything is supposed to be as it's presented.

As you can see, my view of the book wasn't shaping into anything positive. But it gets worse... oh, it gets so much worse.

See, the back of the book says the book is "...a mind-altering romp through a future America..." A future America. And that's the hinge that broke the whole story for me, because it's not set in the future at all. Whoever wrote the back cover blurb must not have actually read the book, and that's without excuse. It is even more without excuse that that's been allowed to stand through 19 printings of the book. It makes me wonder if anyone in the publishing industry ever actually read the book.

Let me break this down for you.

Hiro's father fought in World War II. Not his grandfather, his father. To be at all plausible, the story can't really be taking place any later than the mid-90s. The book was published in 1992, so, really, the story was happening "now" as it was published (because 3 years into the future is not a "future America," at least not as it's presented in the book). So, basically, what we're dealing with is an alternate timeline world, which would be okay if
1. it was presented that way
2. there was some reason for the HUGE differences between the world of the book and our world

  • what caused the divergence (which happened sometime after WWII and, probably, after Vietnam)
  • how in the heck did the technology get so advanced (because it's decades (at least) more advanced than what we have now (two decades after the book was written)
Which is to say that I just couldn't buy the book from that perspective, because the world as it's presented in the book could never have gotten to the state that it was in in just a couple of decades from the divergence point. It's utterly ridiculous.

So... I'm reading, I'm not very far in, and I'm having huge issues with the book. And it gets worse.

The "partnership" between Y.T. and Hiro is only there because the author decided it would be. The characters have no motivation toward it. They meet and Y.T. says "hey, you wanna be partners?" and Hiro says "yeah, sure." The problem is that Y.T. is a 15-year-old girl and Hiro is a 30-something guy with no job. The relationship is never mutual, either. Y.T. just feeds information to Hiro while occasionally being bossed around. She gets nothing in return other than getting to say  he's her "partner." It was dumb.

But it gets worse.

Early in the book, after Hiro has lost his pizza delivery job because he crashed the pizza car (see, so now he's a completely unemployed samurai hacker (pun intended)), he's in the metaverse, the virtual reality world of the book, trying to get intel he can sell. Some stuff happens including Hiro getting into a fight that just happens so that we can see Hiro's virtual sword skills. But! In the middle of all of this stuff in the metaverse, we cut to Y.T. who has gotten herself thrown into "the Clink." She needs to be rescued, so she calls Hiro to get her out of her jam. This is pre-partnership and, I suppose, the impetus of the partnership. Anyway, Hiro shows up and rescues her, and they part ways. THEN, we go back to Hiro right where we left him in the metaverse about to have this fight. Basically, Hiro was in two places at once, because there is no explanation ever given about how these two events happened at the same time. Basically, Stephenson needed to break to the other character and never took into account the conflicting time frame.

This is not the only time we see Stephenson have issues with keeping things like this straight, and this next bit has spoilers, so skip ahead if you have the misguided notion of wanting to read this book. Otherwise, read on!
1. Near the end of the book, Hiro is explaining everything to some dudes (you know, your basic telling instead of showing, but it's worse than that (but I'll get to that in a moment)), and one of the guys asks Hiro why he needs to get the clay tablet. The problem? Hiro hadn't gotten to that part yet. Basically, Stephenson just has the guy ask a question that he, supposedly, knows nothing about so that he can dump the info to the readers. It made me want to gouge the pages. First, I don't need to have stuff explained to me (especially more than once!), but, if you're going to explain to me, don't do it in a stupid way like having a bunch of guys who don't have a clue about what's going on start asking questions based on info they don't have.
2. During the climax of the book, the main tough dude bad guy is on a helicopter. He's been on the helicopter for a while. Except when he's suddenly needed to kill a bunch of people, he's somewhere else killing them before the helicopter arrives at the location. No explanation. Nothing. He's just already there. After Raven has killed all the dudes he needs to kill, then the helicopter with the head bad dude shows up. The helicopter that Raven had been on for chapters and chapters. I wanted to rip the pages out of the book (but I'm going to trade it in at the used book store for something that's actually good, so I refrained).

There are all of these specific issues of stupidity in the book, way more than I've mentioned here, but the worst thing about the book had nothing to do with those things. And those were bad enough. I mean, if I hadn't been trying to find out why the book is such an "important" sci-fi book, I wouldn't have read it. I would have stopped at the point where I realized it was set "now," because, really, that was a deal breaker for me, except I wasn't to anything, yet, that was giving me a reason why it made such an impact, so I had to keep going to find out.

The beginning of the book has a bunch of inane action that has nothing to do with anything before we actually get to the inciting incident. After that, someone shows up and gives Hiro a special computer thing, and, basically, the computer tells Hiro everything he needs to know for the rest of the book. He never does anything to discover anything. The computer just tells him the story. And, you know, it's this long philosophical discussion with the computer (that goes on for, like, 1/3 of the book) that, again, reminded me of a bunch of guys staying up late drinking and someone says "what if language was a virus?" and they just went on and on about it thinking themselves all deep and crap and everyone wakes up the next day and realizes what a stupid idea it was. Except, well, everyone but Neal Stephenson. He wakes up the next morning and decides to write a book about it with his other stupid, drunken idea, the name of the protagonist, oh, yeah! Protagonist! And then threw in the stuff he fantasized about when he was 12, namely being a ninja hacker pizza delivery guy with a hot 15-year-old girl.

Oh, yeah, did I mention that Y.T. is 15? Because she is. And she spends a goodly portion of the book being concerned with what a hot 15-y-o piece she is. (Yes, I know I mentioned it, but OH MY GOSH it's so constant in the book.)

Oh! Oh, wait! So, yeah, there's this huge discussion with the computer, right, where the computer tells him everything. Blah blah blah. The whole plot is just explained to us without any action to go with it. So that's bad enough (actually, it's horrible, because, like, that's the HUGEST no no of writing: Show, don't tell, but Stephenson apparently thinks we wouldn't be able to figure it out if he showed us, or, maybe, he just couldn't figure out how to show us his deep, philosophical conversation with himself), but, at the end, he has to re-tell it all from Hiro's perspective to make sure we understood what he already told us, so we get to spend another couple of chapters with Hiro explaining the plot to people that aren't really important. Except that they are, but we never knew that until just at that moment when Hiro needs to explain everything to them so that they can take care of  the bad guy. Basically, the book spends a lot of time telling us the story with action mixed in that's only loosely related to the plot.

The only interesting thing in the book is Stephenson's vision of virtual reality and virtual worlds. Way back in '92, I guess I can see people getting excited about what he did with that stuff, since the whole virtual world thing didn't really exist, yet. Of course, it still doesn't exist via virtual reality, but virtual worlds are virtually a dime a dozen these days (sorry for the pun but not sorry enough to take it out (see what I did there? acknowledging it but leaving it in)), and some of them are even modeled on the idea of Snow Crash. It doesn't make up for how poorly written the book is, though. It's not the worst written book I've ever read, but I think it may have been the stupidest. I mean that. It has so many plot issues and plot holes and, well... maybe I shouldn't expect more, but, yeah, I expect more from big time books from big time publishers (and, remember, this was before the breakthrough of independent and self publishing). Someone, at some point, should have said... something. Something like, "Go back and fix this." But no one ever did.

Which brings up a whole slew of other questions, because this book was a big deal. So, as far as being a money maker, I suppose they were correct to release it the way it is, but it's actually what I would call a piece of garbage, and I don't say that very often. I mean, I hated (hated) The Sword of Truth books (after the first one), and I wouldn't call those garbage, but this book has no redeeming qualities. It has no real plot structure. The protagonist (and I can barely even use the word in connection with the book, because the author had to tell us who the protagonist is so that we would know) doesn't do anything to facilitate the story except write one computer program that's mentioned, basically, as an aside and that he does because he's bored. It's a linear story, but the author couldn't keep track of when things were supposed to be happening so there are conflicts all over the place. The bad guy is taken out by the equivalent of a car crash. And there is no denouement at all. It just ends right there. So the questions it brings up all have to do with critical thinking and reading and, maybe, I need to do a post about that, but, right now, I can't figure out whether I envy or pity people who don't engage in critical thinking when they read.

I've heard that Stephenson has some good books out there, but, then, I also head that this was a good book, so it's really highly unlikely that I'll ever look at anything else he's written. Snow Crash is easily the worst book I've read this year. Not the worst written, but the worst in concept and execution for sure. In fact, I can't think of any book that I've read that I would say is worse. Even books I couldn't finish.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Have Some Milk with Your Serial

Today is the release of part 4 of Shadow Spinner
"Part Four: The Cop" is available for the Kindle for FREE! Monday, Sept. 10 -11! Go get it now for FREE! Also, just to be nice, "Part Three: The Bedroom" will also be FREE! Monday only. Go grab them now and, remember, click the "like" button and come back later and leave a review. It would be a great help! Thanks!

And, now, on to other things... sort of...

I started this whole serial release of Shadow Spinner as a bit of an experiment. While I'm not quite ready to reveal the details of said experiment (I still need a few more releases to figure out what I'm seeing as results), I will give you some background on the whole serial thing and part of what lead up to my decision to do a serial release.

Marketing is my bane. I hate it. It's something I wish I didn't have to spend my time on, because it takes away from time I could be, oh, working on actual writing like on Brother's Keeper, because, yes, now that school has started, I have several kids a week (at least) asking me when it's coming out. Of course, I'm trying to finish Shadow Spinner first (okay, I am going to finish Spinner first), but they don't care so much about that because they just want the sequel to The House on the Corner. Then there's the part where I'm pretty sure I would have finished Spinner already if I didn't have to spend time doing marketing stuff.

All of that to say that one of the things I've seen kind of over and over again in doing marketing research is that serializations are BAD! Bad in the same way that adverbs are BAD, and not you or anyone else should ever ever ever release a novel in a serial format. It made me wonder WHY.

I mean, why not do it? There is a long tradition of authors releasing their novels in a serial format. Charles Dickens did it. He even used it to get audience reaction to his stories so that he could make tweaks to stuff before the book was finally released as a book. Heck, the whole end of Great Expectations changed between the serial release and the final book release. All of Isaac Asimov's early stuff was released serially. The whole Foundation Trilogy (when it was still a trilogy) was released that way as well as all of his early robot stuff (which turned into I, Robot).

Sure, it's not done so much today, but, really, why not do it?

So here's something about me that you might not know... or, maybe, you've managed to figure it out, I don't know. Anyway... Telling me that something is wrong or bad for no other reason than that it is wrong or bad is a pretty good way to get me to try doing it. Or, at least, to take a closer look at it to see why you're saying that. You need to have a good reason for what you're saying is what I'm getting at here. In a like manner, telling me "this is just how it's done" and so you should do it this way, too, is a good way to make me look at other options. Give me reasons not dogma.

[I just have to throw in here that my first, great Magic deck was built because someone said a deck couldn't be built around the Kird Ape. I became feared in tournaments because of that deck. Yeah, I know that's completely off topic: I blame Michael Offutt for bringing up Magic: The Gathering on his blog recently.]

At any rate, that question wouldn't leave me alone, "Why not do serializations?" I couldn't find any good reason not to, so I decided to try it out.

Which brings me to my point:

It appears that Amazon Publishing is setting up some deals for some serializations under a new imprint they're going to be starting up just for that purpose. First, I didn't realize that Amazon had its own publishing imprints, but they do (several, actually, including one for sci-fi), and, now, they want to add a new one just for serialized novels. They're looking at it as the "logical next step" in publishing, evidently, because people like things in smaller bites, and like them in forms that work on  their portable devices.

It looks like I'm not the only one to ignore the whole "don't do serializations" thing. And this is why you should ignore the whole "no adverbs" thing, too. People just like to say NO for no other reason than saying it. And you can't get good reasons as to why not, because they don't have any; they just know that other people said NO, and that's good enough for them.

I don't know how this whole serial release thing is going to work out in the end, but I'm glad, now, that I'm doing it. Not that I wasn't glad before, but, see, I'm not jumping on any bandwagon here. Not that there will be a bandwagon, but, if there is, I was here first!

Just sayin'...

Friday, September 7, 2012

Unexpected Applause: Chasing the Sandman

Way back at the beginning of the year, I did a review on a book by the guys over at A Beer for the Shower. It's a good book, so you should all click the link, read the review, and go buy the book. But that's not what we're here to talk about today.

Today, we're here to talk about the first solo release of the Brandon half of the Beer team, Chasing the Sandman
This is a collection of short stories that Brandon has written over the years and finally collected into one place. As such, I mean, as such that it is short stories, I should probably say right here at the beginning that I'm not the biggest fan of short stories. Which is not to say that there have not been some that I've really enjoyed or even some that have been very influential in my life, but, mostly, I just feel like there's not enough to them, so I tend to avoid short story collections. It's also why, I suppose, that I don't really write short stories either. What I think is going to be a short story when I start out always becomes something bigger than that (The Evil That Men Do is a good example).

Now that everyone is expecting me to trash the book, let's get to the technicals. As is generally the case with independently published books, this one could have used an editor; however, it wasn't too bad. Other than  the repeated issue with the comma after the conjunction with an independent clause following (my current peeve), there were no consistent errors. Just the occasional typo and left out word. All in all, it's a pretty good job that would say is a B. If not for that one comma thing, I'd say a B+ to an A-, but, then, there's the comma thing. That's probably a bigger issue for me than, well, pretty much everyone else, though (and I have a whole post about commas coming up; won't that be fun!).

But let's look at the book itself. Great title, right? I think it's a great title. My only issue with it is that it didn't seem to have any relation to the stories within the book. Often, with a collection like this as with the title of an album, the title will have something to do with a theme for the stories or with one story  in particular. There are no stories with the same title nor is the line used anywhere, so, unless I missed the theme, it's just a cool title. I'm not sure how I feel about that, although I'm sure it won't bother a lot of people. That's probably just me and my hang up with titles, but you can blame that on Samuel Delaney.

Jumping into the book, though, there is a lot of good to be said about it. Most of the stories are quite good with a twist that you can see coming but can't quite figure out. It makes them interesting in a way that most things of this genre are not. In fact, I'd love to go through them individually, but I don't think I could say anything of substance about them that wouldn't give away more than you'd want to know, so I'm not going to do that.

I will say that the first story hooked me immediately, for reasons I can't say, and kept me going even though... well, see, I can't say that, either. What I can say is that "Graveyard Shift" is a freaky story even though I think it probably shouldn't be, and that says a lot for the author. It made my skin crawl, and I'm not even afraid of... yeah, see, I can't say that.

"Runaway Train" is unusual and sad. Sort of a unique perspective.

"Spirit House" is great even though I saw where it was going. But, see, it's one of those that I really wanted to be longer. I felt stifled by the shortness of it.

"Spirit of Christmas" is one where you think you know what's going to happen but the author pulls one over on you. You know there must be some twist coming, but you just can't figure out what it could be, and, then, when it happens, you smack your forehead. Brilliant!

Amidst all the horror slips "Into the Deep," a great little sci-fi piece that hints at a lot more. There's a bigger story there, but the one that's told is a good one.

"Seeking Shade" is great. I probably have a particular fondness for it due it's shadowy theme. There are some interesting things going on there and more to be told, I'm sure.

And I loved "1st Appearance"! The comic book thing is right up my alley and is the kind of thing any comic nerd dreams about. Okay, well, probably the second thing any comic nerd dreams about, but we can't talk about the first one in polite company. Okay, so, really, the main thing any comic nerd dreams about is getting super powers, but if you leave that one off the list... Just forget that I'm talking. Except keep reading.

All of that aside, the story I liked most, "Spilled Ink," was also the one I was frustrated with. It's a great example of what I think of as a story that's too short. It's a great idea and well written, except the author makes a couple leaps of logic that I have to assume were made to the story an acceptable length, except that I would much rather that it be twice as long or three times as long to get all the story in there rather than have it be whittled down. So I think it's a great story, but it's definitely too short.

As is the last story, "Denatured," although I didn't like that one as much. However, I might have liked it a lot more if it didn't fee so sparse. The ironic thing about that is that I think "Spilled Ink" and "Denatured" are the longest stories in the collection.

With 21 shorts, there were only a few that I didn't care for at all, and, I think, that's saying something. Generally speaking, for me, in a collection like this, I'd only be finding a few a actually liked, and I'd be dismissing the rest as inconsequential, but this whole collection, for the most part, really kept me going.

If you like horror and suspense, this is definitely something you should check out. You can see hints of the humor and wording from The Missing Link in here, and that, to me, is very interesting. Interesting in that I can see how the Brandon half of Beer works with the Bryan half to make their stuff work. But, again, that's probably just me. Overall, I'd give the collection a good B hedging to the higher side of the B. The stories are definitely above average and do a good job of defying expectations. You go read it and let me know which ones you like best. That's kind of the most fun with short story collections anyway. Especially if you love one that I hated. Okay, so I didn't hate any of them, but, with 21 stories, there have to be a few on the lower end of the scale.

And remember to come back on Monday!
For the FREE! release of

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Struggle for Confidence (an IWSG post)

This post is part of Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writer's Support Group blogfest thing. Click the link for more information.

High school is a time for two kinds of people: those with superiority complexes (the jocks and cheerleaders) and those with inferiority complexes (pretty much everyone else). There's not a lot of middle ground there. Go watch pretty much any of the 80s high school movies by John Hughes to get a good look at what it's like. At least, what it was like in  the 80s. Or Better Off Dead (which is not by Hughes but still gives a good look at the chasm between the superior and the inferior).

However, the general consensus in psychology is that the superiority complex is just an act. Basically, at the root of both inferiority and superiority complexes, we find vast insecurities. Questions of worth. Belief in inadequacies. It's a hard thing to deal with. And, really, as much as we'd like to think we do, writers do not corner the market on any of those things.

Dealing with one's insecurities is a tremendous task, and it's a task that we are more and more sabotaging in this current day and age. That, also, is not just something that writers do, but I think it can be clearly seen amongst the blogging community of writers.

But let's back up a moment. What is the answer to feelings of insecurity? What do you do to make those pesky things go away?


Yeah, that's easier said than done, right?

I mean, what is confidence? I'm gonna keep it simple, so we'll just say that (self)confidence is a belief in one's own abilities.

Insecurity undermines confidence, and the thing that makes insecurity so common these days is the lack of reliable feedback from, well, everywhere. We live in a positive feedback society, and it makes it impossible to know if you're really doing well or not. [All of this ties into what I said here and all of the related stuff I've been saying since then. And before then.] If everyone is busy saying "you're doing great!", how do you know if you really are?

There are two responses:
1. the traditional: I must really suck, and no one wants to hurt my feelings.
2. the new-fangled: I'm awesome! (if you read yesterday's post, you'll have heard that this response is on the rise in the good ole USofA, right now (as in, it's becoming an issue in the American workforce)).
Both of these come out of an inability to judge our own performance because of a lack of reliable information due to faulty feedback.

You know, I get it. It feels so much better to surround yourself with people that say "oh, you're so great! you're so awesome! I love it and I love you!" It makes you feel better, and it makes them feel better, too, because they don't have to deal with any fallout from saying something negative. But, really, it's just like a diet of constant sugar. Sure, it tastes good, but, ultimately, it's gonna kill you. And, on the way to killing you, it will make everything else taste just godawful bad (see this post for more on how sugar ruins taste (or, actually, how much taste you will discover without sugar)). You will never develop confidence, actual confidence, surrounded by people who only say how great you are.

I mean, face it, how many people do you know that are actually made of AWESOME? Now, how many people do you know that think they are? Or, at least, espouse to that belief.

The thing is, confidence comes from within. It comes from knowing, I mean actually knowing, that you're good at something. Knowing it objectively, not feeling like you're good at it. All that feeling like you're good at something doesn't mean a thing if you actually suck. The problem is coming to an objective knowledge, and you can never come to an objective knowledge of something if you surround yourself with people who only ever tell you good things about it.

So I'm hearing some of you out there right about now protesting that there are no objective measures in something so subjective as writing, but that's where you'd be wrong, because there are objective measures (which I discussed, in part, here), and that's why we get books that a vast majority of people can agree are good and some that people will agree are bad. Sure, it's hard to pinpoint the specific things within a work of art that make it objectively better than some other work of art (do any kind of research on the popularity of Star Wars to see this), but that doesn't mean that those objective things don't exist. When a vast majority of people can agree that something is better than everything else, you can bet there is something objective behind it even if you can't measure what that objective thing is.

We all want to feel confident. We all want to have some ability to judge ourselves. Unfortunately, this starts with having people around us that are willing to tell us where and how we are screwing up. After that, it comes from repeated reliable feedback. Sometimes, as with an athlete, this comes from actual objective, indisputable data: "you ran this race in x seconds, the stop watch says so." Sometimes, this comes from people that are skilled in a particular area and can just tell you where you're falling short: "you're not bending your knees enough." Whatever the source, we need it. We need that thing that is willing to be honest with us about how we are doing if we want to get better.

I actually think that some of us don't want to get better. It's too hard. We'd rather just have people around us telling us how great we're doing and keep right on being sub-par for, well, forever as long as we can keep people around us to tell us we're great and awesome. I guess what you have to decide is whether you do want to get better, and, if you do, find those people that will help you to get there.

And just to give you some personal insight (that I don't think I've previously shared (although I could be wrong)):

For me, all of this started back in college. Well, really, in high school. Or before that. Anyway... I've known, on some level, that I was a good writer since elementary school. It was in high school that I figured that writing would always be a part of my life. It was in college that I decided, somewhat pretentiously, that real writers are poets. I spent my personal writing time (meaning non-assignment related) working on said poetry. I was in this writing group (not just any writing group, but a school group that you couldn't join without first... well, let's just say it was prestigious to be accepted into the group), and I was really pumping out the poetry for it, because, as I said, real writers are poets. The writing group was presided over by the English faculty, so it wasn't just a bunch of students patting each other on the back. We had people with experience in there. Anyway, one day I had this piece that I was particularly proud of that I'd read to an adequate response, meaning what usually happens with poetry, the ones that didn't "get" it said it was good, because they didn't want to be seen as not "getting" it, and the ones that did get it said it was pretty good. Well, except for one professor (the one that all the students feared and dreaded having, but who was the best English prof around). He didn't say anything specific during the meeting, but he did ask me a lot of pressing questions about the piece, questions about why I'd done particular things in my writing, etc, and it wasn't very comfortable, because, at 20, I didn't always have good answers for those things. After the meeting, he pulled me aside and said something to me that caused me to re-evaluate everything about my writing. He said, "This is great prose, but it's horrible poetry." I was too shocked to even be mad or upset about it. I'd never had anyone say anything like that to me before. He went on to tell me that that was often his response to my poetry, that it would be so great if it wasn't poetry. He suggested that I go back and re-write it as prose.

See, the thing is, he was right. I did go back to my room and read that piece again. And again. And again. Later, I wrote it out in paragraph form and read it again. I tweaked bits and parts and filled it out to make the language work, and it was great. When I took it back to the next meeting as a paragraph of writing and read it that way, no one had issues with understanding it, and everyone loved it. It was because he was honest with me, though. What's more, he allowed me to look at my own work from a more objective viewpoint because he had been honest with me about it. As much as I'd like to be, I am not gifted in poetry. I still work with it sometimes and, occasionally, come up with some things that are decent, but it's not my strength. I only work with it as a writing exercise that makes all of my writing stronger.

The point, though, is that we all need someone who can speak to us like that. Someone that will say, without fear, "this is horrible." Someone that we trust to be saying that out of a desire to help rather than put us down or just to make us feel bad. Yeah, that person can be tough to find, but we all need at least one of those.

The path to confidence requires courage. The courage to be honest and accept honest feedback. I hope you all find the strength to walk that path.