February 25, 2010


Not a big fan of poetry, but here's a nice litte poem with translation.



Waka waka bang splat tick tick hash,
Caret quote back-tick dollar dollar dash,
Bang splat equal at dollar underscore,
Percent splat waka waka tilde number four,
Ampersand bracket bracket dot dot slash,
Vertical-bar curly-bracket comma comma CRASH.

February 18, 2010

In Dubious Battle **

** In Dubious Battle, John Steinbeck, 1936

In the interest of full disclosure I'll say up front that I'm a big Steinbeck fan. I was turned onto Steinbeck by a cab driver in San Francisco who took The Woman and me from the city to the Oakland airport in the mid 80s. My favorites: The Winter of Our Discontent, Tortilla Flats, Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday.

There, that's done. The other thing is I have another 3 or 4 Steinbeck novels on the To-Be-Read shelf that I'll get around to one day.

So, I read the back jacket of this Penguin paperback version and found this:

In Dubious Battle cannot be dismissed as a 'propaganda' novel - it is another version of the eternal human fight against injustice. . . It is the real thing; it has a vigor of sheer story-telling that may sweep away many prejudices. -New Republic

When the New Republic tries to convince you that this isn't a propaganda novel, it becomes pretty clear that where there's smoke, there's a Red. !!!

So, I began the novel with some misgivings and discovered that it was a bit of a polemic. And, as a veteran of a fiction industry rife with propaganda and agendas, I can spot this kind of thing.

Here is where the New Republic is right. It should not be dismissed as simply a propaganda novel. It's more a very well written propaganda novel with fully realized characters and a decent plot. Much different. Ha!

I enjoyed it, but did have to power through some of the invested-capital-interest vs the-poor-working-stiff verbiage. YMMV.

Update: I wrote this a few days before Joe Stack decided to fly his Piper Cherokee into the Austin IRS office. As I read his inane rant of blame of everyone else for his own choices*, I was reminded of some of the dialog in In Dubious Battle. Stuff I read and thought, "People don't think like that anymore." Turns out, they do.

*Stack joins the tax revolution of the 80s to escape paying income tax and is hit with penalties for tax evasion. What a shock! He takes a premature distribution from his IRA and is surprised that it must be counted as income. Read the fine print, Joe. He files a return prepared by a CPA that doesn't report $12,700 of income, doesn't check it for accuracy before filing, and is hit with penalties for underpayment, and he's surprised? [Last year my CPA missed $9K of income I clearly told him about. I made him redo the return and and then found another CPA. It seemed like a better idea than flying a plane into a building.] And this is all somehow other people's fault? The only bright spot in this nightmare is that he didn't achieve the high "body count" he wanted, although even the one casualty being reported at present is an unacceptable cost.

February 11, 2010

A peek into the process

On this blog I mainly talk about what I'm reading, not what I'm writing, and almost never about the process of writing. But I'm powering through the first draft of my next novel and I thought one or two of you, or maybe even all three of you, might like a peek behind the plywood barriers into the construction zone. If not, move along. Nothing to see here.

When people find out I'm a writer, many of them say they want to be a writer. My response is, "All you have to do is write." It's really that simple. If you write on a regular basis, you're a writer. You may be a bad writer, but you're a writer.

But what most people mean when they say they want to be a writer is that they want to be published. That's another thing, entirely.

As James Scott Bell said a few days ago, "Many people say, I have a book inside me! Usually that's the best place for it." I would have stopped there, content to discourage the competition, but he continued with, "Learn the craft and write more than one."

I'm going to explain some of the mechanics I go through. This is not really part of the craft of writing, but it's something I use to keep track of my level of productivity, which is important when you're working on a deadline.

When I'm in first draft, I keep a log of hours and word count. It looks like this.

The first column shows the number of words in that session, then the date, start and end times, total hours, words per hour, then word count and hour count per day and per week.

You can see that in this period my words-per-hour ranged from 182 (on what evidently was a particularly bad day) to 500+, which is where I like to keep it. (I once got up to 800+ words per hour in the final chapters of the first draft of Hell in a Briefcase. Oh, those were the days!) Most serious novelists have a word count target for for the finished work and a daily word count target.

My routine is to set aside 2 nights a week and a significant chunk of the weekend when I'm working on a novel. As you can see from my journal, I'm not all that consistent, but I track my progress and if it gets low, like those two weeks where I only worked one day each, I kick myself into gear the next week. My goal is 8 weeks to a completed first draft. I started this novel on 12-18-09 with a 1-hour session of 330 words. My target is to be done by 2-18-10. I will cut myself some slack if I don't make it since I had to take some family time for the holidays.

I recently read a biography of P. G. Wodehouse, who wrote 90+ novels in his 90+ years. He was always very aware of word count and productivity. He did a daily 2,500 words or more during the bulk of his career, and when he was in his 80s and 90s, he still averaged 1,000 words a day.

When he was 69, he had a day where he produced 27 pages while working on Barmy in Wonderland, beating his previous record of a 26-page day while working on Thank You, Jeeves, noting that "there is life in the old dog, yet." Figure 250-300 words per page and you can see he hit around 7,000-8,000 words that day, which beats my top end so far for this novel of 4,332 for an 8-hour day on New Year's Eve.

I also track information on each chapter to try to get consistency in word count when possible, to make a note of what happens in each chapter, and a color-coded indicator that helps me in various ways depending on the project. Here's the chart for the first 16 chapters of EV. (The first chapter is numbered zero, so Chapter 15 is really the 16th chapter.)

I like to keep chapters under 2,000 words because it creates frequent stopping points, making the book more convenient to read without losing track of the story. This project is in third person with multiple viewpoints, so I'm using color coding to keep track of which character perspective the story is being told from to get a sense of where gaps might exist in the narrative. You can see in the sample above that the first 10 chapters are told from 10 diferent points of view. That's kind of risky, but I think I can make it work.

In the sample below, you can see that the rainbow we had going earlier in the book has become less variegated. For nine scenes in a 3-chapter stretch, from 29-31, we only get two points of view. That's 5,000+ words, 17-20 pages of the novel. If I didn't have this chart, I would have to read through the entire book to get a sense of where I might need variety to break up long sections dominated by one or two characters. With a chart like this, I can see potential problem areas in a glance.

When working on my first four novels, I color coded plot lines rather than POVs, but for the same reason. If I saw a long gap where a particular subplot was not addressed, I knew I had to work in a scene to keep the plot going in the mind of the reader so they wouldn't see it pop up 100 pages later and think, "Wait, what was that about? Who is this guy?"

There. That was a bit long, but perhaps a few found it of interest. It also shows you how much of a writer geek I am and how much I obsess about this stuff. Yep, I'm a geek and I own it.

February 8, 2010

Quotes From Stuff I Like - L'Amour

In 2007 I read the entire L'Amour Sackett canon, all 19 books, as research for a writing project which got back-burnered in 2008.

To give you an idea of how unorthodox this project is, I also read the entire Wodehouse Jeeves canon, all 19 books, for the same project. That's 38 books I read for a single project which got as far as the middle of Draft 2 before being shelved. The moral lesson for wanabe writers is left as an exercise to the reader.

That being said, as I read I collected quotable lines as fodder for a character in my project. Here they are. The Sackett Brand evidently was particularly good ground for gleaning said quotes.

“See her, Sakim?” I said, half-turning. “That is why I dream.” “I see, I do indeed. But she is not to dream about, my friend, she is the dream!” –Barnabas Sackett in Sackett’s Land, Ch 12

. . . then I was through the curtains and found myself facing a burley fellow with more confidence than is usually permitted a man. – Kin Sackett in The Warrior’s Path, Ch 13

. . . judging by the size of his stomach, he was a very important man. –Echo Sackett in Ride the River, Ch 4

“How many are there? Of the Sacketts, I mean?” “Nobody rightly knows, but even one Sackett is quite a few.” –Echo Sackett in Ride the River, Ch 19

. . . who, judging by disposition, was sired out of a Missouri mule by a mountain lion with a sore tooth. –Tyrel Sackett in The Daybreakers, Ch7

“Boys,” Pa used to say, “avoid conflict and trouble, for enough of it fetches to a man without his asking, but if you are attacked, smite them hip and thigh.” Pa was a great man for Bible speaking, but I never could see a mite of sense in striking them hip and thigh. When I had to smite them I did it on the chin or in the belly. –Tell Sackett in Sackett

“You have been led upon evil ways, “I explained, “and the way of the transgressor is hard.” –Tell Sackett about to correct a wrongdoer in Sackett

Drusilla looked slim and pretty as a three-month-old fawn. –Tell Sackett in Sackett

If he was killed I was going up to that town and read them from the Book. –Tell Sackett in Sackett

She was medium tall, with a way about her that set a man to thinking thoughts best kept to himself. –Tell Sackett in Mojave Crossing

She was beautiful . . . taller than most girls . . . and shaped like music. –Nolan Sackett in Mustang Man

He’d fight anything at the drop of a hat; he’d even drop it himself. –Nolan Sackett in The Sackett Brand

I’d tackle hell with a bucket of water. –Tell Sacket in The Sackett Brand

She was little but she was doing her share where it counted, judging by the way she shaped out her clothes. –Tell Sackett in The Sackett Brand

Over half the country stood on end, and it was crags and boulders, brush and fallen trees. – Tell Sackett in The Sackett Brand

She was young, all right, maybe not more than 17 or 18, but there was a kind of wise look about her eyes that made me think that, girl-wise, she’d been up the creek and over the mountain. –Tell Sackett in The Sackett Brand

The men who hung out there were hard cases, men with the bark on. There were men who came into that place so rough they wore their clothes out from the inside first. – Tell Sackett in The Sackett Brand

I wanted a horse whose color would fade into the country, not one that would stand out like a red nose at a teetotal picnic. –Tell Sackett in The Sackett Brand

Many a time a man with whiskey in him is apt to talk too much, and suddenly realize he wished he was somewhere else. –Tell Sackett in The Sackett Brand

It was rare to find two such beautiful girls in one area. Yet, on second thought, that wasn’t unusual in Texas, where beautiful girls just seemed to happen in the most unexpected places. –Milo Talon in The Man from the Broken Hills, p 144-145

February 4, 2010

Two O'Clock Eastern Wartime ***

*** Two O'Clock Eastern Wartime, John Dunning, 2001

This may be my favorite John Dunning novel, ever. I really like the Janeway books, and taken together I guess I like them better. This one started slow, but when it gets to the power of the old radio serials and the sheer intoxicating of writing, I was sold. And the thriller part of the story is not bad, either.