Monday, December 31, 2007

2007 Retrospective and 2008 Goals

Well, everyone in the western world seems to be taking a look back to the past year, and making goals for the next, so I guess it is my turn. I am not big on New Year's Resolutions, mostly because there is this expectation that everyone will fail anyway, so if you fail, "Join the crowd." I had some specific goals last year, one was to finish writing my first novel before I turned 40. I set this goal a few years ago. I worked toward it steadily, and I didn't make it. At that moment, when my goal wasn't reached I knew I had a choice. Set a new goal, or quit. My tendency in life is the latter. My wife and friends have said on more than one occasion that I've never finished anything. Well, the older I get, the more I realize that finishing well is much more important than I used to believe. Finishing well as a father, as a husband, as a business owner, as a bread winner, as a bike rider, as a dish washer, as a laundry doer, as a lawn mower, as a pergola builder, as a novelist... whatever I start, I need to start it believing I will finish it. Working till I finish it. Starting something and not finishing it, basically says I am a liar.

So this past year I've improved in some areas, I am trying very hard to be a better husband to my wife, she deserves nothing but the best. My kids are growing up so fast, both just had birthdays this month and will be gone from the house before I know it. I've got a long way to go yet, and hopefully God will give me time to finish well on all of the things I have begun in my life, that pergola in the backyard still needs a few more nails, the bike in the basement is collecting dust (and my waist is expanding because of it). So really, that is my goal for 2008. Keep moving forward. Try every day to reach a little more toward the finish line. Admit when I've failed, and set a new goal. A very wise friend of mine said that if you can just shorten the time between each attempt at a goal, eventually you will realize that you worked toward that goal, more often than you didn't.

If I do that. Any goal I set will have a positive affect on my life, and the lives of those around me.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Reading Level

I found this nifty little site that looks at your blog and judges the reading level needed to read it. My blog came out at a High School level.

cash advance

I remember reading an article a while ago about running your writing through a reading level test. The writer quotes some statistics from the book: Fiction Writer's Brainstormer by James V. Smith, Jr. He did a study where he took several commercial and literary writers work and looked at four areas: Passive Voice, Number of Characters per Word, Readability, and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scale.

He found that the best selling authors, read by the majority of adult readers in the US, wrote at a fourth grade level. From this study, he created his Ideal Writing Standard. Now as a writer, he revises every SCENE in his books to the following average standards:

No more than 4.25 characters per word
Passive Voice: 5% or less
Readability: 80% or more on Flesch Reading Ease scale
Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 4-6

When I reached 100K words on my book, I ran the entire thing through the tools found in Microsoft Word, and came up with the following:

4.3 characters per word
2% passive voice
77.5% reading ease
5.7 Grade Level.

Also, as a test to see if my editing impoved or degraded my results, I just ran the statistics on my first chapter, which at this point is about as ready for publication as I can get it:

4.3 characters per word
0% passive voice
82.5% reading ease
4.5 Grade Level.

I felt pretty good about this. What it all means I don't know, but if paying attention to readability helps my writing appeal to a broader audience, I am all for it.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Just Because!

Ok, I got a little sidetracked the past couple of days. It is the holiday season, I'm not in a working mood, so I decided I wanted to update the skin on my blog (coming soon), and I thought it'd be cool to have a nice, color illustration for the masthead. So I started working on colorizing the sketch I did of a Vurmierg. I've really been wanting to take a stab at this for a while, so I just did it. My dream when I was in High-School, College, was to be an illustrator for fantasy novel covers. Somewhere along the line I realized I wasn't quite up to snuff and pursued other interests, but still that dream lingers. I don't think I'm of the caliber of most of the greats (Hildebrandt, Vallejo) by any stretch of the imagination, but I have fun anyway.

One thing you may notice is that he now has a tail. Well, the simple fact of the matter is, I kinda forgot to add that when I first did the drawing. Well, what do you expect, it isn't like I know the author personally, and know every minute detail of his characters.

Monday, December 17, 2007

She Spoke to Me.

So I've been jumping back and forth between finishing up the rewrite of the ending of Crimson Swarm, and editing the early chapters. On Saturday I spent a couple hours editing chapters two and three. Two is nearly complete, three still has a bit of work. While editing chapter three I had one of those great experiences that writers love to have. I realized that much of the dialogue didn't make sense based on changes I had made to the first two chapters, so I cut a big chunk of it out. Then I needed to come up with something new for one of the characters, Elise, to say. So I closed my eyes, and I tried to get in her head. Something dreadful just happened to her, so I tried to feel how she would feel. Say what she would say. Then I opened my eyes and started typing what she said. It literally felt as if I was hearing her speak. For about a half hour I typed as fast as I could, trying to catch every word from her lips. When I got done, I went back and read it, and man, it was pretty darn good. All of the sudden I get a sense for who she is. Not just some two dimensional blond with a sword strapped to her hip. She had depth, she was someone I could respect.

Now if I can only get a few other characters to talk to me this way, I may just have something here. C'mon guys, tell me your stories.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Where Are They Now?

As I'm nearing the end of writing my first draft, for the second time, I'm discovering that I am losing track of where everyone is. I found myself bringing a character into a scene and then saying to myself "where did he come from?" I'm sure there are writers out there that have no problem with this, but my brain has limited ability to remember even what I had for lunch yesterday, let alone keep track of the location of 20+ characters throughout a 115,000 word novel, which spans two continents (and in some cases thousands of years). So yesterday I took action and came up with another tool in my arsenal. Now whether this is just another tool to keep me distracted from my true need to just write, or beneficial, is maybe a bit difficult to see, but overall I think it was a good idea.

Basically I created a spreadsheet. Dates down the left hand column, and names along the top, in the chronology that they appear in the story. If you remember I already keep a calendar in Outlook to keep track of the chronology of the story, so adapting it to keep track of all the characters was relatively easy. Take a look:

As you can see characters are introduced as the story progresses, and there are a few places where I've placed a black line indicating the character leaving the story, either by death or other means.

A couple of interesting things came out of this. One was there is a big battle toward the end of the story (This is fantasy after all) and in the battle I had 14 main characters, the one event that brought them all together, and not a single one of them was killed. Now I'm not completely sure any of them should be killed here, but it seems likely that some would be in a battle of the scope I've written. So I'll have to ponder a bit about that.

Another thing, more what I thought I would discover, is people appear and disappear in various scenes with no indication of how they got there. What happened between the time we saw them last and now? I even had two characters that magically combined into one somewhere along the way. (not on purpose) So in this respect this was a very helpful exercise. Try it, maybe you'll discovers some things that really make you question how your brain works (or doesn't).

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Even Tolkien Struggled

I have been reading a book titled The Company They Keep - C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community by Diana Pavlac Glyer. I am not sure I can recommend this book wholeheartedly, but I am getting some good insight from it. The book seems to be a Doctoral Thesis, and is geared more toward making a specific argument about a point of view. Namely that the member's of the Inklings influenced each other's writing significantly. I was expecting a more "writerly" look at the romanticism behind the group. If you haven't heard of them before, the Inklings were a group of writers that met for nearly two decades each Thursday night to read portions of their writings to one another and offer encouragement and criticism. Lewis and Tolkien were the two primary members.

As I've said in previous posts, some reading I have done on Tolkien in the past, and how he wrote, really inspired me to pick up the pen (keyboard) and try my hand at writing a novel again. I read a section of The Company They Keep today where the Glyer describes a time early in the writing of The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien was stuck. Apparently Tolkien wrote, and rewrote the first few chapters, and then was unable to go any further. He had a notion of how he wanted the story to go, but really no direction. He had Lews, and his publisher, Rayner Unwin read the chapters, and the general consensus was the writing consisted of too much "hobbit talk". Tolkien created a story that delved deeply into the Shire, and the goings on, but was unable to move beyond the light-hearted "Hobbit" story. For five months in 1938 Tolkien was unable to write any more of the story.

Then Lewis commented, "...hobbits are only amusing when in unhobbitlike situations." It seems that this comment changed the direction and feel of the story completely. It became darker and more serious, very "unhobbitlike". Then Glyer gave this example. Toward the end of the chapters Tolkien had completed was this scene originally. It takes place as Frodo, Odo and Bingo (the original names for Frodo's two companions) were walking in the Shire:

"Round a turn came a white horse, and on it sat a bundle--or that is what it looked like: a small man wrapped entirely in a great cloak and hood so that only his eyes peered out, and his boots in the stirrups below"

The horse and rider stopped near Bingo. "The figure uncovered its nose and sniffed; and then sat silent as if listening. Suddenly a laugh came from inside the hood." It is Gandalf, who calls out, "Bingo my boy!" as he throws aside his wrappings."

Sounds vaguely familiar doesn't it? So Frodo and his two friends were out for a stroll in the countryside of the Shire and this white horse rides up and Gandalf, in high spirits, greets them. But what to do next? How it Tolkien going to get the story moving at this point. Then Lewis made the above comment, and Tolkien rewrote this passage to look like this:

"Round the corner came a black horse, no hobbit-pony but a full-sized horse; and on it sat a large man, who seemed to crouch in the saddle, wrapped in a great black cloak and hood, so that only his boots in the high stirrups showed below; his face was shadowed and invisible.

When it reached the tree and was level with Frodo the horse stopped. The riding figure sat quite still with its head bowed, as if listening. From inside the hood came a noise as of someone sniffing to catch an elusive scent."

Wow! What a change. One is this light-hearted romp, and the other is full of fear and darkness. I can picture Tolkien's train of thought, and the direction the story began to take after this. "Where is Gandalf? Who is the Black Rider? Why was he sniffing?" I love that last one. So simple a thing as keeping the sniffing in from the first draft to the last can build so much depth to the feared enemy. Tolkien built this whole idea that the Black Riders couldn't see, but used their sense of smell, quite possibly from that single word.

This is what I love about the method Tolkien used to write. He did not map out the plot and every element of the story. He painted in broad strokes, and let the story go in the direction it wanted to go. Did he even know that the black rider was one of the "nine" at this point? Maybe not. From what I've read before he had no idea why Gandalf didn't show up.

So I guess the broad themes we can learn here is "Listen to your friends" and "Don't be afraid to go where the story takes you." I think both of these things make the story much richer in the end.