Come to My New Blog!

If you followed a link here from a comment I made on somebody's google blog, I would love to have you visit my blog, but this is no longer it. While I may occasionally post things here again once in a long while, virtually all my content will be at from here on out. If you were curious enough to come this far, why not give me one more click?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Why CTRL-F is an important tool for revision

I took a break from revising Vanishing Act this week to revise "Cabrón." Yeah, I know, the logic doesn't make any sense there. Revising is horrible, tedious work no matter what it's on*. But I had three short stories lying around the house, getting fat, and I decided to send them on their way. I had to spiffy them up a bit first, though.

I finished my first draft of "Cabrón" after finishing the first draft of Vanishing Act and before beginning the revision process. So it's several months old, but it's actually the most recent thing I've completed. I haven't looked at it since August or so, and I'm actually pleasantly surprised, coming to it now. I had convinced myself that it wasn't very good, but it's actually not bad at all. I was shooting for horror and really ended up more at dark fantasy, but it's not a bad dark fantasy. This my completely made-up origin tale for the chupacabras, featuring a teenage Cuban girl at a Catholic boarding school in Puerto Rico in the 1960s, and the creepy Brother ("temporal coadjutor," if you want to get technical) she has a series of increasingly alarming run-ins with.

Anyway, I've made a list of phrases which recur in the text, and then I've been searching for them using CTRL-F, to see if I'm falling into language ruts of using the same phrasing multiple times for the exact same thoughts, or if I'm repeating words too close together. (I don't think I'm explaining that well, but it's two separate problems I'm looking for. One is a problem of unoriginal phrasing, which needs to be solved by coming up with different ways to say what I mean. The other is a problem of word repetition in a short space, which I can solve by using pronouns or alternate phrasings.) Repeated words and phrasing is a bugaboo of mine, and I rarely spot it without the aid of technology. The text basically becomes invisible to me, as the context sucks me in. A lot of people have the same difficulty when it comes to finding grammatical and syntax errors, as well as typos or misspellings. For some reason, those surface errors tend to jump right out at me, while repetition doesn't. When I use CTRL-F to jump from phrase to phrase, though, I rip the text out of its context. I can see how often I'm using the same words, and how closely together, and make a judgment call.

Today, though, I spotted an entirely different kind of mistake thanks to this technique. Again, though, it comes down to being able to take myself out of the spell of the story so I can see the mechanics more clearly.

In this scene, Cristina, the protagonist and narrator, is calling her mother on a payphone and asking her to take her out of the school. It's relatively early in the story, and she has a sense that something is wrong, but, of course, it's still too vague for the adults in her life to put any trust in it--especially because she's been trying to get out of this school for weeks. And she's somewhat hysterical and not doing the best job of explaining herself either.

I answered her in English, like I’d been doing since that first summer we spent in America, ten years ago. Eventually, she’d switch to English too, without realizing it, just like she always did. “Mami, you’ve got to take me out of here. I can’t stay.”

She sighed before replying. “¿Ahora porqué?”

Because something isn’t right here.”

¿Qué cosa?”

There’s a brother who spilled hot wax on me and was smelling me, and that girl who died in my room, and another girl passed out in the same room tonight.” Christ. It sounded weak even to me. Was I grasping at vague coincidences, trying to assemble them all into some sinister delusion? Was this all a product of my unhappiness here? No, it couldn’t be. “There’s something going on here,” I concluded weakly, trying to lend strength to my meager examples by naked assertion.

Several paragraphs further down--do you see what I'm doing? Now you don't have the context either, so you can see what my Alpha Reader and I missed on multiple read-throughs:

You said the same thing your first month at Brookshire Academy in Nueva York, but then you made friends and you got used to it. Have you made friends yet? Have you tried?”

Sí, Mami,” I said, wondering if Elena and Clara counted. “I’m not homesick. Something is really wrong here.”

Brothers smelling you and spilling wax on your hand,” she said. Even over a phone line, I heard the skepticism in her voice.

It's too bad I'm not writing an Encyclopedia Brown-type mystery here, no? "Who said anything about the wax being on my hands, mom?! ZOMG, you're in on it!!!1!!1!!ELEVEN!!!"

* That's why I've been slow to update. I haven't had much to say besides "Revising. It sucks." Over and over again.

EDIT TO ADD: In the above post, I use the phrase "using the same" twice. I use the phrase "but it's actually" twice, in consecutive sentences. I also have two consecutive sentences that begin with a single word, a comma, the word "though," and another comma.

See what I mean?

EDIT TWO: And in a meta-example of repetition, some of you may have noticed that the protagonist of Vanishing Act is named Chris, while the protagonist of "Cabrón" is Cristina. Um, yeah. That. I'll need to stay away from that name like forever, now. I chose the name Chris for VA pretty much randomly, as I recall. In "Cabrón," which, again, came later, I chose the name on purpose. There's a clinical vampire and, of course, much drinking of blood, and, near the end, Cristina uses her own blood as bait. The temptation to echo the Roman Catholic mass with Cristina saying, "Tome. Bebe." like some sort of twisted Christ-figure was too strong to ignore.

(And yes, the phrasing is anachronistic, because at the time in question, the mass would have been in Latin. I'm inclined to think it doesn't matter, since the reference is not intended to be overt.)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Go comfort a teacher being treated like crap.

Down on the left side of the page, where I link to other blogs, is my wife's blog, Iriarte Files. She's a teacher like I am, who is also an aspiring writer. She's a great writer of fun sci-fi action with tough-as-nails female protagonists, and she'll probably get her novel sold long before I do. She has a natural talent for things I have to work for years to get.

Go read her entry called "Education Sucks," see what they're doing to her, and see if it doesn't make your blood boil. Then, if you have anything nice to say, post in her comments. (If you say something like "suck it up," or you talk about how easy you think teachers have it, then I will track you down and beat you. You've been warned. Don't think I won't: I've learned a lot about torture from her books. I can kill you fifty ways with a spoon.) (She knows a hundred.)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Follow no rule off a cliff

That's what Linnea Sinclair always says. Actually, as I recall she says she got it from C.J. Cherryh.

I ran across this old blog entry today on the oft-repeated advice to "kill your darlings." Diana Peterfreund quotes Karen Hawkins, who recasts that advice as "Love the book, not the scene."

Now I've killed so many darlings in the last six months that I have a tag just for that. But those were things that needed to be cut. My protagonist playing a video game because I thought it might be fun to write about an old game I loved. Getting from point A to point B, because I'd done the research--I'd suffered for my art, and damnit, now it was your turn, dear reader. Scenes that weren't furthering the story--or that weren't furthering it enough to carry their weight in wordcount. The advice to cut things that are only in there because you wanted to put them there is good advice.

Love the book, not the scene.

I like it.

Love the story, not the phrase.

I have a tendency to write too long, so I'm always looking for things to cut. In Vanishing Act I resisted the temptation to take killing your darlings too far, mostly because I knew I needed to cut a lot more wordcount than I could by removing a phrase here and a phrase there. But in the past I've followed this advice off a cliff, and cut bits that weren't detracting from the story, that were actually good. I mean, come on, if writers cut out every turn of phrase they recognize as apt, poetic, clever, artistic, what have you, how does any great turn of phrase ever end up in a story?

Jesus, sometimes it feels like we need permission to use common sense.

Quick Question for all three of my readers ;-)

Does it violate tight third to say that a POV character blushed? Would it be better to say he "felt himself blush"?

I mean, he can't see himself blush, but he can feel it and he knows what's going on, no?

I could say something like, "He felt his face heat up," but I'm not liking it for a couple of reasons. Number one, it's longer and feels clunkier to me. Secondly, his face could heat up for any number of reasons. Maybe he's angry. Maybe he's feverish. Maybe he's about to spontaneously combust.

What do you think?

Hehe . . . oops . . . poll no workee. Maybe this weekend I'll figure out what's wrong with the code. Oh well . . .

Poll: Does reporting that a POV character "blushed" violate tight third person?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Testing again

Testing . . .

EDIT: W00t!

EDIT AGAIN: I should probably give credit where credit is due. Mary Robinette Kowal occasionally posts password-protected stories on her journal, allowing some of her readers to comment on them without jeopardizing any of her publication rights. I thought that was insanely kewl, and was immediately jealous that nothing like that appeared to be possible with Blogger. My friend Google helped me find the next best thing, though: Vincent Cheung's Javascript Encryption code. Very cool!

In the future I hope to do the same as Kowal, and put stories up here, inviting reader input. (I am not asking for critiques of the snippet above, though. That was just some more testing.)

Incidentally, the decryption key for this post is "joe".

Thursday, February 5, 2009

My own self-important rant on what is Good in art

I'm cross-posting this from a comment I posted on Nathan Bransford's blog because it's long, and because he gets like three hundred comments for every entry, and I didn't want something I'd spent time composing to get lost in the crowd.

Bransford's post was occasioned by Stephen King's comments in USA Weekend denigrating Stephanie Meyer. Bransford's question: Who decides what is "good," anyway?

I think the problem that comes up every time this issue is raised with respect to art is that we claim to be arguing about one thing, but we are actually arguing about another. We're not really arguing about what is "good." We're arguing about what is "better."

If your work of art moves someone, touches someone's soul, it is good. That's it.

Just one, I say. Who can set a minimum threshold, and say that X people have to agree that your work is good? The novel Ordinary People saved my life, I believe. If every other person who'd read that book hated it, would that make it not meaningful? Is there some Platonic Ideal Book somewhere that books are measured against, making them good or bad independent of the effect they create in a reader?

I don't think so. I think art exists only to act on the observer*. Therefore, the only meaningful measure of quality is whether or not a work succeeded in touching an observer, and it's not about discrete criteria, nor is it a numbers game.


Stephen King: Good. Obviously.

Stephanie Meyer: Good.

James Joyce: Good.

Judith Guest: Good.

René Magritte: Good.

Jackson Pollock: Good.

*gulp* Terry Goodkind: Good.

Their works have resonated; their works have been powerful for someone. How can I possibly say that what resonates with me is meaningful but what resonates with you is not? Well that's exactly what we say when we say that Stephanie Meyer is no good.

The problem, I think, is that some people think something is just plain wrong if we equate Meyer's accomplishment with Herman Melville's. So we look for some way to say her art is less good than his. Or less good than Updike's. Or less good than King's. We look for flaws to point out as evidence of this. But it's all bogus, because grammar, characterization, prosody, plotting, etc. are all just means to an end: the effect on the observer. And now we come back to the fact that one observer isn't worth more than another.

All we can make are personal pronouncements. And we can certainly give reasons why we individually feel as we do, but when we try to use those as some sort of objective evidence for the universal truth of our personal pronouncements, we're missing the point. We're either saying that these criteria are more meaningful than the cumulative effect a work has, or we're saying that the effect a work has on some other observer isn't worth as much as the effect it has on me.

I'd say that Stephen King is a better writer than James Joyce. Of course, what I really mean is that King's works have moved me, entertained me, and been meaningful for me, whereas the single work of Joyce's that I read failed to affect me on all three fronts. Does that mean King is really better? No, it means King was more effective in moving me. It would be the height of arrogance for someone else to suggest that moving or impressing some famous literary critic is a more meaningful accomplishment than moving me is, but there's an awful lot of arrogance in the world.

* Of course, the artist is an observer too.


Know what's worse than catwaxing for two hours? Catwaxing for two hours and having the person you were trying to amuse not get it. :-\

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Locus's 2008 Recommended Reading List

So I can find this on my phone next time I go book-shopping: