Saturday, October 30, 2010


Once a month, I devote a writing-day to winning the Critters Writers Workshop weekly Most Productive Critter award. It's a lot of fun, because I like winning stuff, and it's useful, because I get to see a lot of different mindsets behind stories. I heartily recommend it, but that's not the point of this post.

I want to talk about critiquing: what I get out of it and my approach to it.

First, how I get my work critiqued. Writing Excuses confused my terminology a bit, because they say "Alpha readers" for what Wikipedia calls "Beta readers". But I prefer it that way, since I use both.

After I re-read the rough draft and feel it acceptable, I stamp it manuscript and submit it, while letting Alpha readers take a look. The Alpha readers are my loyal corps of suckers whose work I'm familiar enough with to be confident they know what they're talking about. The manuscripts that have some controversial element or an especially experimental format go to the Beta readers, AKA Critters. Casting a wide net will reveal what people feel about the manuscript, and I'll know if it achieved what I wanted. Or get a new perspective on the piece that I can apply to the next one.

Second, how I critique. I roll through the manuscript and mark every part I liked and mention all that, then I talk about what I liked about the plot overall.

I'm not a copy-editor, so I don't worry about grammar and spelling. I'm not a co-writer, so it's not my job to comment on the idea, but rather to critique the presentation of the idea. So all you people writing zombie robot vampire assassin mysteries in a time travel re-telling of Biblical events, I will never even mention that that is ridiculous. Because nothing's ridiculous if it's well-executed.



Critters Writers Workshop
250 words? Yes
Short Story "Cosmast Rhyt"
- - - -
Reading - ?


Friday, October 29, 2010

Alcohol et al

Writers. Drinking. Writers whose Creative opinion I value, argue it out using quotes!


"The other type of drinker has imagination, vision. Even when most pleasantly jingled he walks straight and naturally, never staggers nor falls, and knows just where he is and what he is doing. It is not his body but his brain that is drunken." -Jack London


"When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky?" - Ernest Hemingway

Wait, is this good or bad? ohwhatever-Point!

"I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me." - Hunter S. Thompson

Darn you, Creatives! I'm going to have to make my own quotes now...


And now a clip that adds absolutely nothing to this post.

"Mr. Booze"

Oh, Peter Falk, your confusion is comical.



Wolves don't speak dog Latin! Also, they do not respond well to being grabbed the ears. Why are you playing with wolves in the first place? You're a terrible person, good night.

250 words? Yes
Short Story "Cosmast Rhyt"
- - - -
Reading - ?


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Teletubbies Porn

or "You Can't Write That!" as it applies to the hapless writer, whether because other people are saying it or because he's saying it to himself.

This spawns three sub-exclamations, in inverse order of applicability to my writing:

"That's an [unintentional] fetish!"
Man, Rule 34 will get you no matter how hard you try to avoid it. Sometimes you'll just have to live with that, sometimes you'll have to run a suspect story past a stable* of fetishists. Intentional fetish is a different thing, and is known as "characterization" if done well. If not done well, the problem isn't that you can't write it, it's that you suck at writing it.

"That's too silly!"
This happens a lot when I'm brainstorming. I force myself to write everything down, and some days it just all seems so goofy. On the other hand, I've read (and written) some stories that started with a goofy premise and made it great. A lot of Philip K. Dick's work, for instance, is an effortless blend of goofy and awesome (and meaningful).

That is, if you have a silly idea, don't throw it away. If it's a silly world, try to come up with a character and story to go with it. If it's a silly character, come up with a story. Whether "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" (Harlan Ellison) was the former or the latter, it stands up.

"That's a horrible thing to say!"
When I make a character, sometimes that character is going to say or do something horrible. Not just an antagonist declaring "I'll kill your little dog! And eat it!", but a protagonist doing unsavory things. Sometimes that "pro" is just a matter of degrees from the "anti". Sometimes the protagonist has his own reasons. Sometimes people just say and do horrible things.

This isn't just Blatant Evil. This is also the result of a character with a well-defined morality applying that morality to a situation in ways that are...grey. My rule for myself is to always know why the character did that, so that even if I don't reveal it explicitly there will be enough clues for the careful reader to piece together a motivation.

But, I'm a writer of Speculative Fiction. Speculation, because it goes beyond the norm, will sometimes be uncomfortable. It may sounds horrible or goofy"porny" (not often). But if I wince away when that happens I'm abandoning writing what has the potential to be good stuff.

I've printed out a big sign and hung it on the wall above my whiteboard.
I can write whatever I want to write.
...and so can you.


Doom lurches forward on pointed claw-feet, extending a grasping tentacle toward its victim, her knees bloody from crawling on them. This fallen lady (her name was Civilization) screams. But nobody is left to hear. She edges back, out of tentacle length, and falls into a crevice. "I'm free," she sighs, as she falls toward her doom.

You can't anthropomorphize doom. It just is.

250 words? Yes
Short Story "Cosmast Rhyt" - in progress
- - - -
Reading - ?


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Public Writing

I'm tired of hearing people say that Writers can't give public performances. (Who are these people? Where'd you even hear that?) Shut up.

I'm going to blow your minds today by introducing a new performance medium which I have field-tested and approved.

Hook your laptop up to a meeting room or auditorium projector. Find an audience. Write a story. For the writer on the go, you'll soon be able to get a projector phone. Then all you need is a blank white wall somewhere and you're ready to roll.

Do it!

My very favorite story about the writer Harlan Ellison regards him going into a bookshop with a typewriter and sitting down and tapping out a story, all the while posting the typewritten pages on the wall for everybody to read. Well, I say to myself, I can do that one better!

This also works for making speeches and taking questions from the audience. They can speak their question and you can give a quick answer.

There are five benefits to this method:

1. More people can follow a story you babble-write better than one you babble-say, and you've got a convenient transcript of every thought that comes into your head.

2. You get audience feedback as you write. This is especially true if you're writing a comedic story, but it works just fine even if you're writing horror or suspense.

3. If you happen to be writing in Asia, it's a general fact that Asian speakers of English read a lot better than listen, and your audience has plenty of time to consult their dictionaries if you throw out a technical word and loads of time to unravel your grammar.

4. You'll write more if people are watching, and you'll write better because you want to entertain them. Your story will be more clear for having been written down in the same organic thought. Anyways, you can always clean it up later.

5. You won't need a microphone?

Yes, I know, you're amazed, shocked, stunned. But I'll let you in on a secret. I wrote this blog post using this very method.



Yes, that's right, I typed all that before a live audience and then Copied it to Use on my blog. Gasp! The librarian was scandalized!

There was also a picaresque flash fiction about a boy moving to the big city and having many adventures, mostly involving a corrupt policeman who has it in for country bumpkins, but I'll be editing that up a bit.

It shows promise, though.

250 words? Yes
Project "Untitled"
- - - -
Reading - ?


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Writer's Tools

A little bit of nuts and bolts today, but since I've built an assembly line I might as well share it. Here are the tools I use to write, edit and publish from start to finish.

I always write my roughs in q10, because it lets me type quick. Sometimes I'm writing by hand in a notebook, but it always ends up in q10 first.

q10 is a full-screen minimal text editor with a word count and a target word-count tracker. It also makes typewriter sounds when you type. It outputs to .txt, so there'll be no formatting issues if you don't make too many hard returns.
As I'm writing a story I keep notes in PageFour (it's like Microsoft OneNote but minimal and speedy), and I put each day of writing into it for convenience. It outputs to .rtf, but I mostly just copy paste. This is also where I make my Critters critiques when I roll through 10 in a week for an MPC.

This is an online personal/business wiki site that I use (along with Gmail) for backing up and organizing all the drafts, manuscripts and images. It's behind a password, so it's not available to the world. It's a pretty nifty site, and you can authorize Readers if you want to get fancy, or you can collaborate if you have a multiple-author project.

Right, draft done, time to get to editing. First off, I record the piece into Audacity using the microphone on my laptop. It'll output as .aup (the original file) and I can export it to .mp3. Obviously I use this for the blog, too.

While I'm reading the piece aloud, I'm marking odd sentences in red. I listen to it a few times for flow, especially dialogue. I make complex Art sentences, so my test is if I can read them right the first time. If I can't rattle through it like Groucho Marx, simplify, simplify, simplify.

Microsoft Word 2007
Right, now it's time to pretty it up, and the #1 best way to do that is with Word. Obviously, I use Word to get into Standard Manuscript Format when I submit to magazines

As for publishing, don't bring your Open Source problems to me, I don't care. I need to get a clean .doc file that'll convert to a clean .pdf and a clean .html file, and Microsoft Word does it all. I had to buy it, of course, but it's not that expensive and I use Excel and PowerPoint. If you don't know how to use Microsoft Word for publishing, check out "Smashwords Style Guide" (Mark Coker). It's short and has some pretty good tips even for an experienced Office user like me. For instance, handy shortcuts and how to play around with styles more efficiently.

When I want to make a cover or an in-text image (or an ad or a blog image), I use GIMP. It's free and easy, and runs much faster on my netbook than Photoshop would.

Good Stuff


Tools of the Future - 
Need List

-Adobe InDesign
If I'm going to start POD publishing, I'll need to get proficient in this. I'll probably just shell out for the Creative Suite when I do get InDesign, then I'll have Photoshop and Acrobat Pro, too. At the moment, though, I'm reliant on my netbook, so there's no real point. I'll wait 'till I get back to a situation where I have my desktop again. I'm a publisher-at-large.

-A better microphone so I can make quality audiobooks.

Want List

-Upgrade website.
I mean, I like Blogger and all, but I'll have to move on sometime. Time to study up on html.

-Upgrade PBworks account.
Would provide more flexibility with permissions (for alpha readers) and better support, as well as more space to store stuff and better collaboration potential.

Wish List

-A real artist to do cover and interior art for a book and art for that upgraded website (and a graphic novel?)

-A collaboration project with other Creatives

250 words? Yes
Short Story "Cosmast Rhyt"
- - - -
Reading - ?


Monday, October 25, 2010

Alternate History, The Good

Continuing from Alternate History, The Bad. What might have happened if this post had not been written? I don't know, but it would have been pretty bad. Probably something about what I ate today. That would have been pretty lame...

What makes good Alternate History?

It's Epic, but It's Personal
There's a lot going on, but the reader can empathize with all the characters. Alternate History with historical figures as characters is like a mystery novel, the reader should be trying to figure out how this historical figure will react to this new situation before the author reveals it.

A well-written history book is interesting, because it's not just dates, but about people being people. Everybody who's a people empathizes with people. And all the history stuff will keep the sociopaths interested, so you're golden.

The Alternate History is just as interesting as the Real History
That is, it stands up as a story unto itself. If the reader has Done The Research, they should be able to See Your Work, but if the reader doesn't know Istanbul from Constantinople, they should still have a good time exploring the streets.

Unless you're writing an alternate history of the Civil War, because then you'd better not patronize them or they'll reenact burning you in effigy. Those guys are hardcore.

It Makes You Laugh
at least once. Richard Nixon as a gas station attendant. Ha!

It Makes You Think
Just like good historical fiction lets you empathize with The Past, alternate history lets you empathize with The Present. Like all good Speculative Fiction, it should also prepare you to empathize the Future.


Since it was a two-parter, I would be remiss if I didn't have a related video clip. From the other great game by the same company set in a somehow even softer Alternate History, I present to you the Greatest Cut-Scene of All Time.

"This is the Pentagon."

Short, and Sweeeeeet. Once again, those of you afflicted by nostalgia will be much more affected by the first appearance of Kane.

Anyways, that was my first primer on introducing a character.


I drink a lot of caffeine, and I prefer to take it in the form of green tea. It has zero calories and is easy to make in large quantities so as not to disturb my writing.

It is also incredibly cheap if you don't get all picky.

250 words? Yes
Short Story "Cosmast Rhyt"
- - - -
Reading - "Tai-Pan" (James Clavell)


Bonus: Link

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Alternate History, The Bad

I just finished writing a rather good alternate history short story ("Kritarchy"), so I'm in the mood to discuss the genre and why I like it. Also, how you and I can prepare ourselves to write it better. Part I!

There's nothing more embarrassing than bad alternate history. "What's bad Alternate History?" you may ask.

Mixing hard and soft alternate history.
Alternate History (AH) asks the question "What if X Happened?" & "What Happens Next?"
Hard AH focuses on the question "How could X have happened?"
Soft AH focuses on the question "Wouldn't it be cool if X happened?"

Both are fine, it's a range. But! if you posit a world where zeppelins rule the skies and sea and construct an alternate history out of the sequence of events and historical divergences it would have taken to make that happen, you've done Hard AH. If you posit the same world with the statement that "Religion banned mankind from going over [Zeppelin Top Speed] mph!" you've done Soft AH. If you don't bother to give a reason at all, you've written Steampunk. I suppose we could call that "History Opera".

Basing the whole plot on a single point of divergence.
Using the above example, even if the Hindenburg hadn't exploded, zeppelins wouldn't have been the primary means of air (and/or sea) power and transportation. It's not a binary conclusion.
(Rahul Kanakia continues along those lines over at Blotter Paper.)

Too much history, not enough people.
or Too many people know too much about history.

"It's a good thing we Spanish beat the English with our Armada in [year X], or the world would be a Different Place (Author nudge nudge Reader wink wink)! For instance, we might not be Space Papists in [year X+500]!"

Well, it's not always that egregious, but just because it's about history doesn't mean you should break Rule One: character is key. Think about the people you know (who aren't researching an Alternate History piece). Have they ever mentioned a historical date when talking about their day to day life or technology?

If it's Soft AH, feel free to include a "alternate history textbook" or an "alternate historian", though. That's traditional.

I'm going to cut it in half here. This post will be The Bad, tomorrow will be The Good.

This is the very first Alternate History to which I was ever exposed, and it simultaneously manages to achieve all the Bad features above and Be Awesome. Those of you who had a similarly squandered youth will feel my nostalgia, the rest of you will suffer and love it.

"I wonder if it will be raining"

One of my favorite video game openings.

That and "Guns of the South" (Harry Turtledove) were my gateway drug to Alternate History.


In my alternate history, court women dress in funny clothes and wave fans coquettishly in front of their bad teeth.

Wait, that's just history.

250 words? Yes
Short Story "Cosmast Rhyt"
- - - -
Reading - "Guns of the South" (Harry Turtledove)

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