Monday, November 30, 2009

For the Fallen

Over the weekend, a man walked into a local coffee shop where four police officers were preparing for their shift. He killed all four of them. Based upon sketchy early accounts, it's thought that one of them fought with their executioner and may have shot him before he fled.

As of this writing, the assailant remains at large and the cities of Tacoma and Lakewood are in a state of utter shock.

I've seen thousands of movies and television shows where this sort of conflict erupts, read many books where shots ring out, bad guys and good guys fall to the ground and the story continues to unfold without any indication that there was an effect on the wider community beyond the main characters. At most there is mention in passing that the events made the news. On days like this, I'm reminded how false a construct that is. No one in this community goes to work today unaffected by these events. This sort of attack affects the wives and husbands and kids of those cops. Every family of every police officer is affected from their cousins, aunts and uncles spreading into the surrounding community, a sense of loss and helplessness.

A month ago, a man who works with my wife was attacked by a disturbed coworker who remains at large. Since that day, a police officer has guarded her office, watching over her and her coworkers. Outside her office is a man or woman willing to put him or herself between my loved one and a violent attack. I cannot thank them enough.

My heart goes out to the families and friends of Sgt. Mark Renninger and officers Tina Griswold, Ronald Owens and Greg Richards, four members of our community who made the ultimate sacrifice. We will miss them even if we don't realize it.

Neil Gaiman discusses Audio Books with David Sedaris

From NPR's Morning Edition - 30 November 2009

It's a good news/bad news thing... Other ways to consume books

Barnes & Noble's new "Nook" eReader has enjoyed so much buzz that WIRED is reporting that pre-orders of the Nook are so heavy that deliveries of stock to the stores to sell off the shelves is being delayed until early December when they will begin to trickle into the highest-volume stores. Sony is reporting similar 'problems' (if being too popular can really be referred to as a problem). WIRED's experts predict that supply chain problems for B&N and Sony plays into the hands of Kindle, which has had production up and running longer and reports no delays. I was commenting to The Engineer over the weekend that this Christmas didn't have a big Hot New Thing to anchor it. Reports are indicating that the digital transition forced most of the people that would have been buying big-ticket items like flatscreen TV's to buy early. This leaves tech stores holding the bag on Black Friday. Add to this the fact that this is the first Christmas that we have a full line of eReaders going head-to-head and we might just have found the tipping point for the e-Book. Whether the temporary sales advantage of the in-stock Kindle parlays into their continuing market domination remains to be seen. I'm put in mind of the somewhat artificial cache of finding a Wii last year and an Xbox 360 the year before and the Playstation 3 the year before that. It's possible that a supply chain kink can actually help the Nook and Sony eReaders in the long-term. For now, however, it's "Advantage: Kindle". What about you, dear readers? What's the hot new electronic widget for you this Yuletide season?
Scott Walker Perkins writes literary thrillers and novels of suspense. His current novel is The Palimpsest and he is working on another tentatively titled 42 Lines. Contact Information Email: Blog: Pages to Type Before I Sleep
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Saturday, November 28, 2009

I won!

I officially "won" NaNoWriMo and I am enjoying my nice PDF certificate. I think the runners-up get a copy of the home game. Pages to Type returns soon. For the moment, I have to rest my weary fingers.

On The Media - On Books & Publishing...

Typically extensive and thorough coverage, featuring the likes of Neil Gaiman. Takes an interesting tack. . .

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Professor Plum in the Billiard Room with a Lead Pipe

… or, How My Homework Ate My Summer Vacation. A Guest Column by Elspeth

Imagine you are writing a murder mystery. You have devised a victim, envisioned the scene of the crime, chosen a sufficiently effective method of homicide. You choose to begin the story when your protagonist is called upon to investigate the murder of Professor Plum in the Billiard Room, apparently with a Lead Pipe. It is up to you to engage the interest of the reader, to choose how much you will reveal of your characters, their histories, motivations, even physical appearance. You have three goals: make it interesting, make it make sense, and keep the reader reading to the end. If something fails to serve one of those goals, you may – indeed, should – excise that thing from your manuscript, or change it until it serves you better. 

Fact,” I observed with some chagrin, “is slower than fiction.” 

My friend Scott replied, “I'm constantly reminded that [while] fiction has to make sense, reality is under no such imposition of plot and pacing...” 

How right he is. 

Now, imagine again that you begin with Professor Plum, lying skull-crushed in the Billiard Room, a bloodied Lead Pipe chucked in one corner. This time, you are writing a scientific doctoral dissertation. Here are some of the questions you may be called upon to consider: 

What were Plum’s age, gender, and country of origin? Had he signed willing consent to participate in this homicide? Did he have previous homicidal experience, either as perpetrator or victim? How was Plum recruited? If Plum was not randomly selected, what steps did the murderer take to ensure that Plum’s experience would be generalizable to a larger population? Or is this a case study? Or preliminary work with a prototype (in which case please describe how you would make the next iteration of this murder more efficient, effective, and user-friendly)? Was Plum limited as to the amount of time he was allowed to complete the experience of being murdered? If Plum had been allowed unlimited time to complete the experience, how might that have changed the results? 

Next, how did you choose the scene of the crime? Have murders been committed in Billiard Rooms before? If so, are there validated, peer-reviewed studies upon which you can call to hypothesize as to the results of your murder, before it has been committed. If so, please summarize in your chapter on previous work. Make sure to note any differences between your Billiard Room and previous examples of murders in Billiard Rooms, not omitting analytical conjectures as to the likely effect of variations between those venues and your own, nor your estimate of the validity and importance of any such previous murders. Be certain to provide a clear history of any and all fictional murders of relevance in similar locations, as the reader will need to clearly understand the landscape in which your murder stands with regard to choice of location. Did you consider trying this murder in each of the other rooms in the house to determine which was most effective? 

Now we move on to the method of murder. A lead pipe, you say? How many murders have been committed with lead pipes as a percentage of the murders in English literature? And what of worldwide literature (if you do not read all other world languages you may rely on survey articles for this question, provided they have been peer-reviewed)? Can you think of any other weapon you could have chosen that would have been more effective, or less expensive? In a Billiard Room, could you not simple have used a pool cue as a club? Please speculate on the likely difference in results between assault on the human cranium with a lead pipe and a pool cue. Cite references. If a pool cue was your original choice and you later replaced it with a lead pipe, make an analytical conjecture as to why the pool cue would not have worked. Describe the metallurgical composition of the lead pipe, and its density relative to the human skull, as well as to all metal pipes (lead or other) used as homicidal weapons (potential or actual) in the genre of murder mysteries. Make sure that your acknowledgements section thanks the funding agency whose grant paid for the lead pipes used in your murder and in the pilot studies.

Given the age, gender, and professional characteristics of Professor Plum, the environment provided by the Billiard Room, and the known physical properties of the Lead Pipe, how many times would you have to commit this murder to prove to a statistically significant level (α > 0.05) that this subject did not die by chance? Provide power calculations and vector diagrams. Using terms that will not antagonize your thesis committee, speculate on how this method might apply to the larger academic population. 

Finally, describe the contributions of this work to the field, and your plans for future murders to build on the results of this one. 

Oh, and don’t forget to make it interesting and keep the reader engaged and comfortable! 

Meanwhile, this morning, my father sent me this link. Considering the source, I hope it's not a suggestion!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Writer's Wife

It has been said that the hardest part of being a writer is convincing one's spouse that staring out the window is work. Recently, a friend on Facebook asked about organizational skills everyone uses to manage large projects. She had a bunch of irons in the fire, including a major writing project and my wife responded before I could.
Living with a writer I would say set your self a certain number of pages each day to write and don't think about anything else during that time. This time will vary on a daily basis so don't stress if it takes you 1 hr one day and 5 hours another day. Just figure out about how many pages per day are needed to reach your goal. Be sure to leave yourself time to edit afterwards. Most of all, step back everyonce in a while and take a couple of deep breaths.
I was pleased to note that she didn't mention anything about the post-its on the bathroom mirror when I'm plotting a new story or any of the quirkier bits of living with a writer. Essentially she summed up my philosophy of maintaining a working relationship with my current project. 

I've known too many people who tell me how desperately they want to write a book. They pick up a book off the shelf and say "I could do that" and then continue not to, thinking that someday they'll whip out a masterpiece in a long weekend. Worse yet are those who or throw themselves into the task willy-nilly with no appreciation for the sort of work and dedication necessary to complete a book-length idea in a publishable form. Most never get anywhere with it, ending up discouraged and viewing those of us who have managed it with a suspicion bordering on torches and pitchforks. 

I think maybe this is where my flirtations with journalism continue to pay me dividends, because even though I write out of a love affair with the written word, I'm also able to view it as a job. I set a daily goal and work until it's done. Sometimes I stay on and do other writing-related tasks, but the writing itself is always first and foremost. By viewing it as a job, replete with often self-imposed deadlines, I can generate actual words on an actual page, despite the many distractions of the gardens, the house that's semi-permanently in a state of mid-remodel and the other myriad things that are part of home life. 

During that time, I'm in work life.  

On days when I am at home rather than in the cafe doing my writing thing, I still get up with my wife, do my morning puttering, make coffee and put on real going-out-of-the-house clothes. After the Engineer leaves for the office, I sit down in my corner of the library and work my butt off. I try to keep the staring out the window to a minimum and live by my seven rules plus a few others. 

Writing is my job. Most of the people I know who successfully work from home follow this same pattern. The inherently casual feel of knocking around in your pyjamas is fun for a couple of weeks but after awhile, you notice that it lends to a less serious approach to your work. 

I know that a lot of agents, editors and other professional writers (not the ones participating, I assume) view the NaNoWriMo phenomenon with a jaundiced eye. Fifty thousand words in a month, especially for an inexperienced writer, is a bit much and perhaps expecting one to come out of it with a literary gem is too. But by planting a hundred thousand butts in a hundred thousand chairs, the organizers of NaNoWriMo are teaching the participants how to generate work. How to set goals and how to achieve them through relentless work habits. Even if the product of all that typing is a waste of ink and paper, what we learn about our work habits in the course of the event is not a waste of anything.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

eBook Update...

Always keeping an eye on the evolving eBook market (even during NaNoWriMo!) Sony says your books belong to you. Sony exec says: "Our commitment is that you bought it, you own it," Haber said. "Our hope is to see this as ubiquitous. Buy on any device, read on any device. ... We're obligated to have DRM but we don't pull content back." via BoingBoing Meanwhile, GoogleBooks is trying to thread the needle of copyright law. Anti-trust investigations and myriad lawsuits levied against its deal with the Author's Guild. Resolves some concerns about access and restrictions that will be placed upon materials in their collection that are still covered under US Copyright law. Key also was the handling of funds belonging to 'orphan works' whose authors could not be located. via Yahoo! News & Reuters Independent Booksellers in the digital frontier. IndieBound has launched version 2.0 of their ebook app for the iPhone (and presumably for the Droid as soon as it occurs to them that people are buying the things...) You can get your eBooks and support the independent bookstores in one go. via IndieBound

It Builds Character (A Letter To My Nephew)

Dear Jared, Your mom tells me that you have a story to write for school and want some advice on creating and introducing characters in a way that doesn’t detract from the storytelling. The most important thing anyone ever taught me was that stories don’t ever begin and they don’t ever end. We always join them in the middle and leave before they’re done. I know that sounds odd, bear with me for a moment. Say, for instance, that you are a character in a short story. The story is about what you did last Saturday and it begins with waking up Saturday morning and ends with you going to bed that night. Saturday is your story. But you didn’t spring into existence on Saturday morning and you won’t wink out of existence at the end of the day. Sunday morning, you will get up and do Sunday things. Your story didn’t begin with the first sentence of the story and end with the last sentence, your Saturday did. You existed before it began and you’ll go on once it’s over. The story is just a snapshot of one day. That’s probably the most important thing to keep in mind when you’re crafting any story, because you have to decide where you’re going to jump into a story that’s already in progress. There’s a name for that, by the way, it’s called “In medias res” which is Latin for “In the middle of things”. Characters are much the same. They have a beginning (they are born), the have a middle (they live) and they will eventually have an end (they die). But unless your story is ten thousand pages long, odds are you’re going to have to leave some of that out or your reader will never get to the good parts. So, we will almost always join them in medias res -- in the middle of their story. So, what do you leave out? What do you put in? Think about Harry Potter. How much do we know about Harry at the beginning of the books? He’s got messy dark hair and he wears glasses. Oh, and he has a scar on his forehead. JK Rowling takes a hundred pages to tell us that he’s a wizard with a tragic past. That he’s destined to fight Lord Voldemort has to wait another hundred pages. And we never get a complete description of the characters. We know Hermione has bushy hair and we know Ron Weasley is a freckle-faced redhead -- anything more than that is discovered later through the storytelling. For now, all the author needed us to know is that he’s a kid with glasses and a scar and that’s enough to get the story rolling. When you create a character for your story, it’s vital to keep in mind that they’re supposed to be a person, just like you or me or your brother, mom. dad, or teacher. We’re going to see a small fragment of their life in the story you’re writing and all we need to know about them is what’s important for the story you want to tell. Introduce characters quickly. Tell the audience as little about them as you can. Fill in the details as you go along. Another cardinal rule of writing is “show, don’t tell.” Rather than telling the audience all about how this kid with the scar on his head is really a wizard and has this evil enemy lurking in the shadows, just waiting to strike and he’s the chosen one… JK Rowling told us the bare minimum and let the rest of it come to light as the story progressed. She didn’t tell us, she showed us. How you show us will largely be a function of how you’re choosing to tell the story. And that means talking a little about Point of View. The key elements of storytelling and characterization will be mostly decided by how your readers are seeing the story. If the story is told through the eyes of a specific character, your readers only get to know what that character knows. This is called “first person”.
First Person: “The lady walked into my office. She had a hat the size of a super-deluxe pizza with all the trimmings. I could tell she was going to be trouble the moment I laid eyes on her.”
We only know what the guy sees, and more importantly, we only know what the guy bothers to tell us. He leaves a lot out because he’s obsessed with her wacky hat. It’s a great way to keep from having to tell your reader too much by having your character focus on the wrong thing. It’s a lot of fun to write like that and a lot of writers do it, but it gets really hard to write in first person because you can’t tell the readers anything that your main character isn’t there to witness and describe. Often this leads to some pretty preposterous stories because you have this one guy running all over the place, doing crazy and unrealistic things simply because the writer needs them to be there to tell the readers what’s happening. If you are telling your story from outside, seeing all the characters as if they’re in a movie and you’re not inside the head of any of them, that’s called “third person”.
Third Person: “Jordan dropped her cigarette as she tumbled out of the car. He took a step back and held up both hands as she glared at him with all the dignity she could muster. Now that he had her out of the car, he looked surprised rather than angry. An average-looking fellow of about thirty, bearded and tanned around the neck of the faded flannel shirt. Her gaze dropped to the dried mud on the knees of his jeans, pegging him as a gardener. “Smoking isn’t allowed on the school grounds, miss.”
Even in third person, description is kept to a bare minimum because your reader wants something to happen, they don’t want to sit and read Jordan’s resume. Almost all of my books are told in this style and this is an excerpt from my most recent novel. The two characters have just met and all we know at this point is that Jordan is a woman who got caught smoking (and she's a bit clumsy) and the man who caught her is average-looking, bearded and dressed like a gardener. It’s another twenty pages before you learn his hair color. I chose the passage above for two reasons:
  1. This is the only description of the main character that the reader ever gets.
  2. The character isn’t a gardener. I’m using Jordan’s perception of him in his grungy clothes to mislead my audience into believing that he is. At least for the moment. This is because, even though I’m using ‘Third Person’, I’m only telling the readers what the characters know about each other.
That last part is important. When you’re introducing a character, don’t venture much beyond what the characters could see if they looked at each other. Think back to what I said about characters being like real people. How much do you know about the average customer that walks into your parent’s store? You only know what you can see and what they tell you. Even when you’re talking about a good friend, you only know so much about them. Only show your readers what they absolutely need to know. My early novels and stories were almost all fantasy novels, which is what I believe you’re currently working on. It’s difficult sometimes to get this same information across in a fantasy setting because you’re worried that your reader doesn’t know as much about your world as you do. They won’t, and that's ok. They might not know specifically what a Ranger is, but all they really need to know is that the character spends a lot of time in the woods. Any special abilities he gets from his status as a Ranger (or a rogue, thief, wizard or whatever) can be unveiled in the story. And if you don’t get to it? Don’t worry about it. If it didn’t come up, it wasn’t worth worrying about and you have something saved for the sequel. -Uncle Scott

Friday, November 13, 2009

Ain't nothin' but a family thing...

Family fascinates me endlessly. The examination of familial bonds and the burdens and joys that they bring is a theme that runs through most of my writing.

Because America is an immigrant nation, that extends back in time to the patriarchs who made the long trek across the oceans to join our squabbling and rambunctious nation, grafting themselves on to our Family. I especially like how age can wash away scandal. "Great great grandpa Morgan was a bloodthirsty pirate" sounds dashing, whereas "Uncle Bob siezed an oil tanker yesterday and is holding thirteen crewmembers hostage" might not be bragged about so loudly. Yet, they're essentially the same thing, separated only by time. Romanticized by the historical context, the pirate of yesteryear is the movie hero and the pirate of today is the blood-thirsty terrorist.

Blame Hollywood, if you like. I know a lot of people do. But that doesn't change the fact that it's equally true of "Uncle Bob ran numbers for the mob back in the forties, isn't he sweet in that funny hat?"

The most scandalous hushed-up events of the past become the badges of honor worn by the present. I think of it as a sort of psychic recycling. Relations and families are the incarnate stuff from which any story could be woven. Links to the old country, scandalous forebears, mysterious family heirlooms, vendettas handed down from father to son... these are the stuff that dreams are made of. All of them real, all of it perfectly plausible hooks to hang a story on.

On our money it says E Pluribus Unum... "From the many, one." A singular unit drawn from the plurality. One Family of diverse elements. And like our country, our families don't always get along, and aren't always cut from the same cloth, yet instantly unite against external forces.

I tend to view history as a familial connection stretching back into infinity. Every man may not be my brother, but they are my cousin. And I think it's more interesting that way, that it makes what is otherwise dry historical information grittier and more immediate. I pepper my novels with characters whose familial connections are interwoven into the plot, whose ancestors aren't always paragons of virtue, but blood is thicker than just about anything else. Which is part of why I refer to the things I write (when I'm not moving giant robots across the landscape) as "Literary thrillers" than anything else. Thrillers, because these are characters in peril and the stakes are wide-ranging, but literary because it's ultimately about the interactions between the present and the past, the familial elements that make history matter.

And if there's not a career's worth of writing to be found in that, then I don't know where else you could look.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Get Unstuck!

Especially during NaNoWriMo, I get people asking me how to deal with writer's block. I admit that used to be a real problem for me until I developed methods of dealing with it when it happens, writing around it and generally stripping it of its power to hurt my productivity. Back in April, I compiled my 7 favorite tips for breaking out of a cul de sac:
  1. Kill someone. The Classic method of dealing with a roadblock - at least in mystery writing - is to "Throw another body on the floor." I generally find that about 40,000 words into any book I will hit a wall that can only be solved by killing someone. Writer's block really can be murder.
  2. Give 'em the finger. One of my favorite mental tricks comes from Larry Dixon in a toast he gave at a writer's party I attended some time back. "Imagine the 'Microsoft Pointer-Finger' is giving you the finger," he said. "Unless you're writing, it's sitting there just flipping you off and you can't make it stop unless you're putting words on the page."
  3. Take it on the road. Sometimes what a scene needs is a new location. If I'm having trouble with a scene or series of events, it often helps to re-set the scenery. This can either entail the characters getting in a car or just moving the location of the events to a new place.
  4. Send 'em to the showers. If you've written yourself into a corner, or if you're in one of those situations where the characters seem to be running away with the story and you don't know what comes next... do what comes naturally. I find that characters become more human in my head if I allow them to do human things, like use a restroom, shave, smoke, change clothes, call their parents, answer email, cook a meal... or take a shower. It adds verisimilitude, moves the scene forward and if it's too much, you can always delete it later in the rewriting and editing stages.
  5. Write the next word. It sounds so simple until you're sitting there staring at the keys, being mocked by the 26 innocent-seeming letters. But you have to get the next word out there into the aether. And then the one after that and the one after that. It may be the wrong word, they all may be the wrong words, but you're writing and that ain't nothin'. Writers have a tendency to be so self-critical that if we wake up on the wrong side of the bed, nothing we do that day is going to satisfy. There's nothing wrong with that. But you have to write anyway. Get it down on the page. Rough edges can be smoothed later, just get it out there.
  6. Go get a cup of coffee. Seriously. Get up out of your chair and go do something else for a bit. Get a refill, take a walk, garden, or fill out a silly online quiz your friend sent you. The longer you sit there staring at that &%$ cursor giving you the finger, the hard it can get to write the next word. Walk it off.
  7. Remember the secret... There are 26 letters on your keyboard. They're the same 26 letters used by Joyce when he wrote Ulysses and by Huxley for Brave New World, Hemingway for The Sun Also Rises, and Nora Roberts for the fifteen novels she put out last year. It's all about perspective, really.
And a bonus 8th way to get over a writing drought... Write a blog post about writer's block. Now if you'll excuse me, I have pages to write before I can sleep. --- What are your tricks for dealing with Writer's Block? Or are you immune to writer's block? I want to know! Leave your tips and tricks in the comments.

Work Habits II -- The Laptop

Because of NaNoWriMo, I've put 14,600 words into my laptop in less than five days... and boy are my hands tired! And I am reminded of those crazy videos they showed us back in high school... SPEED KILLS! Or in this case, causes carpal tunnel and a host of other problems that could put the pinch on your writing comfort right quick. After all, what good does it do to win the world by writing your novel if you're unable to sustain production and parlay it into a writing career?
"The reason is simple - with a fixed design, if the [laptop] keyboard is in an optimal position for the user, the screen isn't and if the screen is optimal the keyboard isn't. Consequently, laptops are excluded from current ergonomic design requirements because none of the designs satisfy this basic need." -Cornell University
In the picture I posted of my little writing nest, what's missing is a lap desk or pillow that would raise my workstation up to a level where neck and shoulders wouldn't have to slump at a disagreeable angle in order to type. (Being a touch-typist helps, because I can keep thundering away without looking at the screen as I am doing right now, but that it's not a panacea.) Every writer I know uses a laptop almost exclusively. According to statistics delivered at a recent distance-learning conference my friend Andy Duckworth is tweeting from, 88% of college students own (and presumably use) laptops. Carpal tunnel doesn't care if you're a Mac or a PC. The Cornell website I quoted above includes some great tips on keeping your body from suffering for your writing habit. CUergo is a site dedicated to helping Cornell students (and everyone else) survive the demands that working at a computer place on the human body. I know that a lot of people tune out the moment I start talking about ergonomics. But if you want an extended writing career, it's going to require an appreciation for the demands you place on your body as you type furiously away in the passionate embrace of the muse. Nothing will make a laptop ergonomic. You can plug a keyboard and a monitor into the thing and use it like a regular compter, but that sort of defeats the whole purpose of having a laptop. So at least take those minimum steps unless you have more faith than I do in the future functionality of VOIP dictophones.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


Twenty-six letters in the Latin alphabet, 170,000 unique combinations of those letters in current use, 291,000 words have been defined and untold numbers are waiting to be let into the cool kid's club... Hiding among them are the stories -- my stories, your stories, the unknown plays of William Shakespeare, the lost works of William Blake, the stories that have been told and the stories that are yet to be told. All stories are made of the same elements combined in different ways. Stories are constructed of words and enthusiasm, drawn together by human will and sewn together with the clattering, whirring machines. I have thirty days to find my story. Thirty days as Rodin said of sculpting The Thinker - to take away what is not the story and and leave only what is. This is NaNoWriMo.