Thursday, July 28, 2011

Reading Elimination Tournament - Round 1: Style Matters

These four books present distinct approaches to the first five pages. Each of them establishes a writing style which the reader can expect throughout the rest of the book.  Style can establish a unique narrative voice; establish the rules within the world of the book or the pacing of the action within the book.  Sometimes you don’t need a lot of conflict or action to hook the reader in… if you do it well.

Strawberry Tattoo – Lauren Henderson (1999)

This one has an interesting cover, but the language and description on the first few pages seems forced and not very engaging. The first two pages are taken up with a dream sequence and nothing really seems to happen. No hint of conflict (other than vague assertions that the character did something “very bad” due to a alcohol/chemical induced blackout). This provides no real hint of who the narrator is or what she wants.  It also claims to be a mystery on the inside cover flap.  If it is, it starts way too slow for a mystery and there is no evidence of a crime at all within the first five pages.  There is nothing here that makes me want to keep on reading. I'm eliminating this one.

Outlaw School – Rebecca Ore (2000)

On the first page of this book we encounter the protagonist, Jane’s, first memory; a memory of absolute terror.  Through this scene you get an indication of how bad of a mother she has and one of the obstacles that Jane will have to overcome even before she faces the Orwellian society outside of her family. Jane possesses great intelligence, and this doesn't fit within the society of this book. The first five pages presents a world where people are tightly controlled by the class into which they are born in, not by intelligence or abilities. An interesting world sketched within the first five pages that I want to read more about. This one goes on to round two.

The Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad – Minister Faust (2004)

First of all, an intriguing title earns a +1 bonus. The character (narrator) is an honors English major (another  +1 for an English major character… English majors always get a bad rap).  An epilogue at the very beginning of the book? Unusual, but this supports the style established by the unique book title and cover design.  The  narrative voice is interesting and engaging (+1). Character information is presented in a role-playing game-like sheet (I love when authors find clever ways of presenting or introducing characters in such a way that does not seem forced +1).  Pop culture references to Star Wars, Star Trek and comic books within the first five pages and on the back cover, not only helps establish the writing style, but all appeal to the geek in me (+3… one for each geek reference).  With the arbitrary +7 score, this one’s a no brainer and going to the next round.

Tokyo Sucker Punch – Isaac Adamson (2000)

This book has a protagonist from Cleveland which is a big plus. (I’ll even give this an arbitrary +1 score for that.)  Cleveland, like English majors, always gets a bad rap… I mean when was the last time you saw Cleveland mentioned in the national media without a joke attached to it? Having grown up in the Cleveland area (even though I don’t live there now) I still get offended by this… Anyway, I digress…

The back cover copy suggests an interesting combination part noir detective novel and part Chinese martial arts film. The first five pages have plenty of action, including the geisha in distress and a fight between the protagonist and Yakuza. It is sort of interesting, but not that engaging to me.  I can't put my finger on what I don’t like about it. The author isn’t from the Cleveland area though so this might end up being a sly dig on Cleveland (the butt of the joke again), but the Adamson does not come across this way (yet) Maybe I need a few more pages to make a definitive decision, but there are many good books in this round and the arbitrary +1 score might not be enough to save it from elimination this round. It is a maybe for now, but definitely leaning heavily towards elimination.

Books Eliminated So Far (and available if you want them):
  • 21 – Jeremy Iversen (2005) 
  • Farm Fatale – Wendy Holden (2001)
  • Freezing -- Penelope Evans (1997)
  • Stronghold: Dragonstar Book 1 – Melanie Rawn (1990)
  • Man of the House  Stephen McCauley (1996)
  • Strawberry Tattoo -- Lauren Henderson (1999)
Bonus Books! (because I've finished reading them)
  • Lord of Chaos (Wheel of Time Book 6) Robert Jordan (1995)
  • Crown of Swords (Wheel of Time Book 7) Robert Jordan (1997)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

15 Minute Goal Setting for Your Writing

This article courtesy of the duolit Blog is a perfect fit for The 15-Minute Writer. The article entitled: No Excuses: 15 Minute Goal Setting for Authors is an incredible use of a 15-minute writing session. Based on the 15 Minutes and You're Done feature in Real Simple magazine, the author breaks down the goal setting process into short, manageable tasks. It blazes through the goal setting process by having the writer list various goal categories, then list the possible goals within that selected category, next edit the goals to make sure that they are realistic and measurable, then break down that goal into small manageable tasks, and finally do some cleanup work such as adding due dates to the tasks and adding them to a calendar.

This article has a way of making an intimidating process approachable and is a must for any writer who wants to write but has no idea how to get started. Using great examples in each of the steps, this article illustrates this process for the writer so he/she can imitate it.

I love the idea of making goal setting a 15-minute process. I highly recommend you check out this article. 

I’m also adding this blog to my blogroll for The 15-Minute Writer since the other content I’ve skimmed on the site is also excellent.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Reading Elimination Tournament - Round 1: Book Hoarding? or Just Procrastinating?

DSC_0090Maybe this is typical of a book hoarder… I don’t know.  But three out of four of these books I cannot make up my mind on.  They all set up future conflict in the book well, and all three of the situations are very interesting.  But, we are early enough in the process that I can afford to be lenient in the culling of my selections.  Or is this just procrastination? Hmmm.

@expectations – Kit Reed (2000)

This book was written before the prevalence of massive multi-player online games, but it definitely foreshadows the prevalence of online romance as well as how it can ruin a real-life romance. The interesting thing about Jenny the main character is that she's carrying on this romance in such a way that it seems like cheating, but yet her husband didn't tell her important information him, such as he has children and that they’d have to move away from where she lives. This is an interesting conflict, and I'm intrigued by this situation, but the writing doesn't really grab me.

I'm putting this one on the maybe pile for now, and leaning toward passing it on to the next round.

Skipped Parts – Tim Sandlin (1991)

I like the narrator in this one and the writer places us easily into the setting and sets up a situation for the conflict the narrator will encounter. He is a likable smart 13-year-old boy in a typical situation, being the new kid in town, and the struggles that come along with it. This seems to be a combination of a fish out of water and coming-of-age story.  I want to read more about this one. On to round two.

L.A. Woman – Cathy Yardley (2002)

This book seems to be another one of those domestic dramas so popular in the chick lit genre, as well as seems to be a familiar theme present within the books I selected for this tournament. On the back cover, we have promises of a stable woman in a relationship with a man full of excuses. The first five pages illustrates this very well. Good dialogue and a good argument over the phone establishes the conflict right away. Sarah's boyfriend is a jerk and something is going to happen very soon. Again I don't like these are domestic dilemma type books very much, but this one does set up a conflict with good dialogue right away, so I may give this one a chance to go on to the next round. We'll have to see what the quality of the other books in this round are.  This one is in the maybe pile for now.

Being Alexander – Nancy Sparling (2002)

I really didn't want to like this book.  The cover is ugly.  The situation established on the back seems trite, but the author does a great job creating sympathy for the main character Alex. Sparling does a great job of showing us the kind of abuse he puts up with before the promised transformation on the back cover. This abuse almost is beyond belief, but you find yourself wanting to see Alex getting even with everyone who has wronged him. I will put this one on the maybe pile but I'm leaning towards moving it onto the next round.

Books Eliminated So Far (and available if you want them):
  • 21 – Jeremy Iversen (2005) 
  • Farm Fatale – Wendy Holden (2001)
  • Freezing -- Penelope Evans (1997)
  • Stronghold: Dragonstar Book 1 – Melanie Rawn (1990)
  • Man of the House  Stephen McCauley (1996)
Bonus Books! (because I've finished reading them)
  • Lord of Chaos (Wheel of Time Book 6) Robert Jordan (1995)
  • Crown of Swords (Wheel of Time Book 7) Robert Jordan (1997)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Reading Elimination Tournament – Round 1: Make the Reader Care About Your Character

Another important question to answer within the first five pages:  Why should I care about what happens to this character?  Typically the reader is introduced to the protagonist within the first five pages of the book, and first impressions in fiction, just like in life, are critical in determining if you want to know more about this person.

As a writer, your goal is to get the reader to buy into the character, to love the character as if he/she is a member of her family.  You need to do this with mystery, an interesting situation or a strong emotion. And you need to do it fast.  Throw the character in the middle of a situation or conflict. Show the character in action giving us a hint of what to expect out of the character throughout the rest of the book, and maybe even show us a glimpse of this character’s “fatal flaw.” Pick up your favorite books and read the first five pages again. Does the author establish the character within these pages?  I’m betting that he does. Give it a try.  Post comments about how this worked within your favorite books.

Silicon Follies – Thomas Scoville (2001)

The opening scene of this book is intriguing. I like this image:
 “It was a sea of cubicles. Every twenty yards an oversized potted palm rose up like a desert island, a cluster of a upholstered chairs marooned and huddling at the base. High overhead, box girders braced up a brooding sheet metal sky."

These opening paragraphs establish the setting of the book, a soulless Silicon Valley high-tech company, and we are introduced to Paul, our protagonist, a writer who somehow has found himself in a mind numbing programming job that he hates. Here we go again with another writer protagonist and one that is in a high-tech job that they hate. This sounds all too-familiar to me, and like a winner.  Onto the next round.

The Man of the House – Stephen McCauley (1996)

I bought this book off of the clearance table at Half-Price books for $.50, which might explain why bought it in the first place. The back cover copy is mildly interesting, but yet not so much so that it carries my interest. In the first five pages there isn't much going on. This appears to be another domestic drama without a lot of conflict or action immediately apparent. The character has some interesting insights, but none interesting enough to answer the most important question: Why should I care about this character? Therefore I'm eliminating this book.

Downbelow Station – C. J. Cherryh (1981)

I have no idea how long I’ve owned this book, but it's about time that I decide whether to read it or not. And even though the book does not introduce any characters during the first five pages, the narrative sets up an intriguing situation that I want know more about.  This book already feels like it's ahead of its time so I want to read more. Some books just break all those rules that you establish for them. On to round two.

The Book of Joe – Jonathan Tropper (2004)

I’m a sucker for writer protagonists.  What can I say?  This is a personal bias that you just are going to have to put up with throughout this tournament. So, a writer protagonist (+1), a killer first line:

"Just a few scant months after my mother's suicide, I walked into the garage, looking for my baseball glove, and discovered Cindy Pozner on her knees, animatedly performing fellatio on my older brother, Brad." (+1 for the line, +2 for including allusions to death and sex within the first line)

A jaded author narrator who wrote a best-selling autobiographical book so incendiary, that his entire hometown tried to sue him for libel. (+1 for introducing conflict). And now he must return to that town to deal with his father stroke (+1 for setting up a situation where the character needs to confront this conflict immediately).

In addition, we learn a great deal about the character (+1); that he's having trouble with relationships, that he still loves his high school girlfriend, that he's been a jerk to her, and that he seems to have regrets about what happened with the town. Lots of conflict, a solid narrative voice and killer first line and the arbitrary +7 number equals going to the next round.

Books Eliminated So Far (and available if you want them):
  • 21 – Jeremy Iversen (2005) 
  • Farm Fatale – Wendy Holden (2001)
  • Freezing -- Penelope Evans (1997)
  • Stronghold: Dragonstar Book 1 – Melanie Rawn (1990)
  • Man of the House  Stephen McCauley (1996)
Bonus Books! (because I've finished reading them)
  • Lord of Chaos (Wheel of Time Book 6) Robert Jordan (1995)
  • Crown of Swords (Wheel of Time Book 7) Robert Jordan (1997)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Are You Ready for Disaster? (Part 2)

In Part 1 I discussed how to manage your files (both paper and electronic).  Part 2 covers how to handle some trickier (and potentially expensive) problems.

Dealing with hardware failure

Courtesy of David Baker via Flickr
Equipment has a way of breaking down at the worst possible time.  Either in the midst of trying to meet a critical deadline or needing something to print out without smudges or fading ink as the cartridge starts running out.

A good solution for this is to hold on to an old working computer and printer. At a minimum it should have a working CD-ROM drive and internet access.  You can also keep it protected using free anti-virus and anti-spyware programs. They don’t have to be fancy, simple programs such as avast! or AVG Anti-Virus & Anti-Spyware for virus protection and Ad-Aware and Spyware Terminator  for spyware protection are powerful enough to keep your computer safe for a short period of time.

You also might consider keeping the old system loaded with the common software programs that you use (even just an older version of them), or use cloud applications such as Google Docs to do your work while your primary computer is getting fixed.

If you don’t have an old computer available, you can always check out Craigslist to find cheap used computer equipment and printers.

A backup printer is pretty inexpensive.  You can get a good one for well under $100. Most printer companies make money from printers through replacement ink or toner cartridges these days.  This shouldn’t be a huge factor though since this is a backup printer. Since many stores bundle inkjet printers with a new desktop computer purchase, there are many people who already have a printer who might not necessarily need an extra one and sell them on eBay or Craigslist for $50 or less. This is a worthwhile investment if you ever have a desperate need to print a document.

Addressing the loss of primary phone service

Losing phone service is a little more tricky to deal with. Most people now have mobile phones that can serve as a backup in case that your landline goes down, but if you’ve gone completely wireless, a service such as Skype setup on your computer might be a good option for you.

Handling the loss of internet access

Losing internet access is a pain but the easiest problem to address. With all of the businesses offering free Wi-Fi these days, the cost of Internet access could be as inexpensive as a cup of coffee or an order of fries. In addition, many libraries offer free Wi-Fi access so all you have to do is bring your laptop or your cell phone to download critical email or information. Learn where your local free Wi-Fi access points are so you know where to go in the case of Internet access emergency.

Are there other writing disasters that you have encountered?  Comment below and let me know about it.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Reading Elimination Tournament - Round 1: "What Happens Next?"

DSC_0077The most important objective a writer has to achieve within the first five pages of a book is to compel the reader to ask the question: “What happens next?”  If you can manage this, you might have them hooked, but in order to set the hook completely, you need to provide an answer to another question: “Why should I keep reading this?”

Lord Foul's Bane – Stephen R Donaldson (1977)

This book has been one of those legendary staples of fantasy fiction that I never have managed to get around to reading.  I have probably owned this book since junior high school.  If the yellowing pages aren't a definite indication, the Dee’s Paperback Exchange stamp on the inside cover tells me that I bought it in the town I grew up in a long, long time ago.

The book starts out as Thomas Covenant is walking two miles into town to pay his phone bill while the reaction of the people he passes by suggests that he's done something horrible or frightening.  He has a rare disease that desensitizes his nerves which requires him to be aware of inadvertently hurting himself. The disease seems to be very depressing or debilitating. No words seem to be spoken to him during this walk, and most of the conflict has been set up through his thoughts and reactions of the people he passes. This conflict is engaging enough that I want to read more. I'm sending this on to the next round.

Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry  (1985)

The fact that this is a Pulitzer Prize-winning epic masterpiece of the American West, should be enough to pass it to the next round, but I need to be fair. The first five pages are filled with sensory details that give you a clear picture of the world of Lonesome Dove.  The text helps you get a sense of who the characters are even though the only one we've met so far is Augustus.  There is no definitive sign of conflict so far, except for some hinted at between Call  and Augustus. This is enough to get me to read more.  On the next round.

Stronghold: Dragonstar Book 1 – Melanie Rawn (1990)

This book turns out to be the first book in a second trilogy, and assumes that you have read the earlier trilogy, and familiar with the characters presented on the first pages along with the historical events alluded to.  Going to have to pass on this one and give it away to someone who has read the first series of books.

The Outlaws of Sherwood – Robin McKinley (1988)

This book is a retelling of the legend of Robin Hood, and on the first page we learn that he's more of a fletcher (arrow maker) than he is an archer. There are a lot of big paragraphs dense with words and description which make it hard for me to get interested. But McKinley is a Newberry Award-winning author, and I may be willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I'm not sure I'm that interested in continuing to read this book. I will put this down as a maybe for now, and see what the other books in the round may bring.

Books Eliminated So Far (and available if you want them):
  • 21 – Jeremy Iversen (2005) 
  • Farm Fatale – Wendy Holden (2001)
  • Freezing -- Penelope Evans (1997)
  • Stronghold: Dragonstar Book 1 – Melanie Rawn (1990)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Reading Elimination Tournament – Round 1: The Next 4 Books

DSC_0069Sometimes a book can be eliminated by something such as a boring cover design, or in the case of one of these books, a layout that is difficult to read.  This might be because of the use of tiny print, such as when a publisher decides to print a large book, but still wants to keep the paper and print costs low.  All elements of publishing a book need to be carefully considered during the process.  A poor cover can lead to lost sales, no matter how brilliant the words behind the cover may be.

elsewhere – Gabrielle Zevon (2005)

The first 4 pages are told from the POV of Lucy, a dog, and it is an interesting narrative voice. Page 5 introduces us to Liz Hall, the presumed protagonist of the book, in a strange place. The back cover promises an interesting story by using a letter Liz wrote to one of her professors. Here is the first line of that letter:  “By now, you have probably heard that I’m dead.” That is the way to hook a reader in to keep his/her interest.  This one was an easy decision: on to the next round.

100 Years of Solitude – Gabriela Garcia Marquez (1992)

A book by a Nobel Prize winning writer and selection from Oprah's book club which is of course very high praise and credentials. It starts off with a vivid description as well as an interesting situation with the character obsessed with science and discoveries. It is intriguing and maybe I will give it a few more pages, but am not sure where this book is going. I'll put it in the maybe pile, leaning towards eliminating it.  I think it has not been eliminated for certain because I feel very conflicted about dumping a book from a Noble Prize winning author this early in the reading.  I’ll have to see on this one.  In the Maybe pile for now…

Black Water – Joyce Carol Oates (1992)

This is a short book using short chapters with a style of narration that seems to start from the end of the story, and moves backwards from that point, telling us how we got to that end. This seems like a difficult story structure to attempt, and I’d like to see how it Oates does this. It could be an excellent books showcasing how the plot and structure of fiction works.

Even though there is little dialogue, the voice of this book hooks you in and hooks you in good. It was hard to put down even after reading the first five pages. This one goes to the next round.

Freezing – Penelope Evans (1997)

DSC_0072This book has a design flaw which is a strike against it.  The words are crammed together in a tight formation with little white space. The words are large enough,  but  I still don't like the crowed layout of the pages.

The back cover promises a conflict between real life and a computer online fantasy game, which is why I probably bought the book in the first place. There is little dialogue in the first five pages, and a lot of narrative introducing many characters quickly, but not allowing me to differentiate between any of them. Nothing here sticks with me or pushes me to continue reading. This one is eliminated.

Books Eliminated So Far (and available if you want them):
  • 21 – Jeremy Iversen (2005) 
  • Farm Fatale – Wendy Holden (2001)
  • Freezing -- Penelope Evans (1997)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Are You Ready for Disaster? (Part 1)

A severe thunderstorm rolled through the area Monday night. Several lightning bolts struck fairly close to the house, one of which managed to blow out our cable modem. This was quite a challenge for us, I need to have Internet access and phone service for my day job, not to mention that my wife is currently taking an online class, so any downtime is a huge problem.  And, of course, the cable company couldn’t  replace the modem for until over two days later. So I sneaked off to local caf├ęs and McDonald's to sponge off their free Wi-Fi in order to check e-mail and do just enough to keep up with things.

There isn't much we could've done about this, but this does bring to mind many other potential disasters and all writers should be prepared for:
  • Losing critical project files
  • Misplacing paper copies of notes  and information
  • Dealing with the failure of critical hardware, such as a computer or printer
  • Addressing the loss of primary phone service
  • Handling the loss of internet access
Losing critical project files
This is the easiest disaster to prevent, but the hardest for some of us to remember to do.  Scheduling daily backups is critical to avoid the most painful of situations: file loss.  Whether through file corruption, equipment failure or simply losing your storage media, there is nothing (and I mean NOTHING) worse than losing your only copy of a novel or book proposal.

Ka-boom (lightning)
Photo courtesy of Leszek Leszekcynski via Flickr
With high capacity flash drives costing less than $10 at any store, you should have a couple of them around at all times. But other methods for backing up files are available, such as using a rewritable CD in your CD-ROM drive for your daily backups.  Just let the new files overwrite the old ones.

There are also online solutions such as Dropbox, Google Docs or even e-mailing critical files to yourself at the end of the work day. These types of solutions are also good because they provide off-site storage.  That way even if your house burns down or is flooded, you always have your backups in another location.  If you don’t feel comfortable relying on online storage for off-site storage, consider storing back up files (either on flash drives or CD-ROMs) at a friend’s house or even in your car.

Misplacing paper copies of notes and information
Managing paper is one of the biggest challenges any writer faces. Little is more frustrating than digging through reams of paper and notebook pages to find those critical notes you took from a phone interview or careful research.

When I start a new project, I select a hanging file folder, label it clearly, and put it in a prominent place in my work area. Then I simply put any information related to that project into that hanging file folder.  I also use manila file folders to organize information within the hanging file folder. That way all of the information is in one place and harder to lose.

Another option to consider is to create electronic copies of your paper files by using a scanner or photocopier.  With multi-function printer/scanner/copiers costing less than $100 at many electronic and office supply stores (probably even cheaper on Craigslist), this might be an excellent way to “back-up” your important papers.  You can also use a digital camera or a phone camera with a decent resolution to capture info quickly.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Fiction Elimination Tournament – Round 1: The First Four Books

Just because a book gets eliminated in the first round doesn't necessarily mean it is a bad book or that it is poorly written.  It just means that the book didn't grab my attention for whatever reason or it just wasn't for me.  You'll occasionally hear an agent say something along those lines.  "Good book, but I'm just not into it."

Evaluating writing, anyone's writing, is always subjective. Every reader will bring unique life experiences, preferences, and personal biases to the pages.  For example: Charles Dickens is considered to be one of the greatest writers of all time.  Many read and love each and every one of his works.  I find them too long, overwritten, and boring.  I can get the essence of any of his books through Cliffs Notes, because I simply cannot read one of them without a collegiate dictionary sitting right next to it.  This spoils the "suspension of disbelief" for me when I'm reading.

Layover - Lisa Zeidner (1999)
I've never heard of this writer before, but it has many positive critical comments on the front and back cover and on the first few inside pages. The back cover copy suggests a great deal of conflict. The first five pages present the protagonist Claire as likable. We learn right away that her child has died and through her actions can see that she is still grieving. These are little actions such as lying about having a grown son, staying extra days in hotel rooms without being charged, and avoiding calls from her philandering husband. This reaction feels realistic, the conflict has been established and I want to continue reading. This one goes on to round two.

Farm Fatale – Wendy Holden (2001)
What was I thinking on this one? Boring cover, sort of intriguing back cover copy, but that is it. The first five pages sets up the trite premise. Girl tired of living in city. Boy likes living in city. Girl tries to convince boy to live in country. Conflict and hilarity will ensue. The problem is I don't care. It's not enough to keep me reading. This one is eliminated.

About the Author – John Colapinto (2001)
The narrator is a wannabe writer, but seems to be coming up with every excuse not to write. Because of the back cover copy, you can conclude that his roommate is writing about the narrator’s exploits in the party world. The narrator brings home a girl who is a palm reader for a one night stand and she determines that he is going to come into a lot of money very soon, and at the end of the five pages the roommate’s laptop has been stolen. The narrative voice is interesting even though the narrator is somewhat unlikable, but you want to know more. This goes on to the next round.

21 – Jeremy Iversen (2005)
Dude. The story starts out with frat boys getting wasted for the protagonist, Brad's, 21st birthday. This is a set up for the requisite party scene and the dialogue is pretty boring. The first five pages doesn't allow me to care about what happens to the character. And that is the most important thing you have to do in the first five pages: Make the reader care. Maybe this is just slow starter, but unless there are a lot of other crappy books in this pile, I think this one is eliminated… Bro.

Books Eliminated So Far (and available if you want them):
  • 21 – Jeremy Iversen (2005) 
  • Farm Fatale – Wendy Holden (2001)