Chapter 9 – Zen and the Art of Automobile Maintenance

As I left work today, I realized I needed to replenish some supplies before I returned home. I was in a hurry and it was very hot, so I stopped at at the convenience store.

For some reason there’s always a line of people buying lottery tickets at the convenience store, but it still beats fighting the late afternoon crowd of blue hairs at the grocery store. I waited my turn patiently, but with a stern look of disapproval that I’m sure will dissuade these people from returning in the future.

After paying the clerk, I returned to my car. It was at least 100 degrees outside and even hotter inside; sweat immediately dampened my shirt. I unfastened a top button as I inserted the key into the ignition, eagerly anticipating a cold blast of air from the vents. I turned the key.

Nothing. Nada. Not even a click.

I sat there for a minute, fiddling with the various controls. Of course I’ve started my car thousands of times before, but part of my brain clung to the hope that I had just done something wrong, violated some automotive ritual. If I could just get the sequence right, the automotive gods would smile on me and she’d fire right up. I turned the key again.

Silence. The sweat was starting to bead on my forehead, so I cracked the door open to let in some relatively cool air. The door chime rang once, then fell silent.

Yep, pretty sure that battery is done for. Dead, deceased, finito.

But that couldn’t be right. The battery was only three years old and hadn’t given any indication it was dying. No hard starts, no dimming lights. It must be something else.

I popped the hood open and stepped out of the car. I’m not sure what I was expecting to find, but it seemed like the manly thing to do.

Yep, that’s the battery all right, just where it’s supposed to be. Not much to be done. I wiggled the battery terminals just the same.

Of course that did nothing. Time to call in some reinforcements. I phoned my friend John, who immediately drove over. We attached some jumper cables and waited several minutes. There, that should do it.

Click. Click. Dead. Hmm… a little better, but not even close to turning over.

Time for a new battery! There’s an AutoZone not far away, but I didn’t have any of my tools with me to extract the old battery or install the new one. In hindsight that was rather foolish. I have an extensive set of tools at home, but they weren’t doing me any good there. I could have gone home to retrieve them, but that’s all the way downtown. It probably would have taken an hour in rush hour traffic, and I didn’t want to inconvenience my friend any further.

So I bought a new battery at AutoZone, along with an assortment of wrenches, and a pair of pliers, (just in case)–$200 worth of automotive goodness in total. Hopefully the automotive gods would be pleased with my sacrifice and grant me the power of internal combustion.

Every now and then the stars align. We installed the new battery and the car started right up. I shook John’s hand before driving off and made my way downtown, finally arriving home two hours later than I originally planned.

Well, it was just two lost hours. No big deal, right?

You don’t understand–I had plans! I was going to watch “Dead Poets Society” and write an inspirational blog about how I was going to start the third draft of my novel tomorrow. My routine was totally ruined! Why must life be so unfair? Argh!

Well, sometimes life has its own plans. I still ended up watching “Dead Poets Society” and writing this blog entry–just at the same time. It was a pretty good evening.

I do want to write something about starting my third draft tomorrow, but in the interest of time, I’ll condense my original entry thusly:

I took six weeks off from my novel so I could approach the next draft with a fresh set of eyes. Those six weeks end tomorrow. Like my car, my brain now has a new battery, and I can’t wait to get back to work.

P.S. Thanks, John!

P.P.S. Carpe Diem!

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Chapter 8 – Who Said That?

“Let’s talk about dialogue attribution!” exclaimed Kirk enthusiastically.

Haha, that’s a pretty bad one. If it’s not obvious why, hopefully it will be in a moment. But first, let’s make sure we all know what I’m talking about.

Dialogue attribution is simply assigning a quote to a specific character.  The most common form is “said,” as in:

“That’s one dull sentence,” Kirk said.

The “Kirk said” let’s you know I’m the one speaking (although you might have already guessed that from the brilliant dialogue).

Before I started writing a novel, I never thought much about dialogue attribution. It was just a couple of words after the quotation mark–what’s the big deal?

Well, apparently it is a big deal to many readers and writers. These could be the same people who will be judging your work some day. I’m not saying you should pander, but if you’re trying to get a book deal, you might want to know a few things that could turn these people off before they even give your book a chance.

I’ve searched the world over to come up with a few simple guidelines for the modern writer. I’m not saying you have to agree with the rules (I don’t always), just be aware of them.

Rule #1 – Use “said” and “asked”—period.

There are two basic types of dialogue: statements and questions. It follows that you should only need two words to attribute this dialogue: “said” and “asked.” These words are practically invisible to the reader; anything else is just distracting.

Furthermore, if your writing is strong enough, you shouldn’t need to inform the reader that something was exclaimed, whined, or yelled; the reader will already know it.

How do I feel about rule #1? Meh. I’ve read plenty of books that don’t follow this rule, and it didn’t bother me in the least.  That being said, now that I’m aware it irks some people a great deal, and these might be the very people critiquing my novel, I try to avoid alternate attributions like “cried” or “growled.”

Then again, sometimes “said” can just seem so dry:

“Your hair’s on fire!” Bill said.

How do you feel about the use of “said” in that sentence? I hate it. It just seems so flat. I mean, my hair’s on fire, and Bill is just saying it as if my shoe was untied? Shouldn’t he be yelling or screaming? Just how good of a friend is this Bill, anyway?

Well, I have to somehow let the reader know Bill is speaking, but if I can’t say he “exclaimed” it, what’s a writer do? I could just ignore the rule (and from time to time I certainly do), but maybe I can rewrite the whole sentence like this:

Bill jumped to his feet and pointed a bony finger at my head. “Your hair’s on fire!”

Ah, my faith in Bill as a friend has been reaffirmed. But you say I just avoided using dialogue attribution in the first place? Why, yes I did, which leads me to the next rule:

Rule #2 – Don’t Use Dialogue Attribution Unless Absolutely Necessary

Now here’s a rule I can get behind. Take the previous example but slightly modified:

Bill jumped to his feet and pointed a bony finger at my head. “Your hair’s on fire!” Bill said.

There’s no need to add the “Bill said” on the end there. We already know Bill is speaking–his bony finger is in my face!

This rule appeals to me because it speaks more to function than aesthetics. People can argue all day whether “exclaimed” is good dialogue attribution–it’s a matter of opinion. But if something is redundant, then it’s redundant. That’s a fact, Jack!

Besides, I prefer books that read fast; all those extra words just slow me down. If you don’t need the words, cut them like Freddy Krueger.

Rule #3 – Don’t Use Adverbs in Dialogue Attribution

Ah, the infamous Tom Swifties! You know, those old books where that spunky kid… um… you know, the one with the hair… um…didn’t he have a dog with a hat?

OK, I didn’t read those books either. But I have a pretty good idea what a Tom Swiftism looks like:

“Shut your trap,” Bill said angrily.

That adverb on the end is what makes this a Swiftism. Apparently the Tom Swift books were full of this sort of dialogue attribution. I don’t know for sure, but sometimes it’s just best to believe what you read on the internet.

Anyway, what do I think of this sentence? It’s not great, but I don’t think it’s horrible either. The “angrily” does seem unnecessary, but I don’t find it all that distracting. If every quote had this sort of attribution then it would probably grind on me.

My main beef with this rule is that sometimes that hated adverb can completely change the meaning of a sentence. For example:

“Your hair’s on fire!” Bill said merrily.

See? Now Bill and I are no longer friends.

Sometimes an adverb is the most efficient way to convey your meaning. Sarcasm, for instance, can be difficult to express unless you tell the reader someone is speaking sarcastically. If your writing is less clear because you’ve chosen form over function, you may have a problem.

My advice here would be to use adverbs sparingly, but if you feel it’s the best tool for the job, don’t be afraid to use it. After all, the rules are more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules, matey.

Rule #4 – Dialogue Attribution Order

This one’s interesting. There appear to be two camps when it comes to whether the noun or the verb should come first in dialogue attribution. The first camp believes the noun should always come before the verb like this:

“Your hair’s on fire!” Bill said.

The verb should never come first like this:

“Your hair’s on fire!” said Bill.

The second camp doesn’t think the order matters all that much; either order is fine, at least with proper nouns.

But with pronouns like “he” or “she” you should always put the pronoun first, unless you’re speaking the King’s English, said he.

Where do I fall on this rule? This is one of those things I didn’t even think about when I wrote the first draft of my novel. I found myself casually switching between the two forms.

But now that I’m aware that there’s a group of people who just can’t stand reverse-order, I try to put the noun first. I figure the second camp doesn’t care either way, so I’ll cave to the tyranny of the first camp. Unless it just sounds too awkward.  Then the first camp can go pound sand.

That’s my quick and dirty guide to dialogue attribution. Is there anything else about dialogue attribution that just drives you mad? Let me know before I make the same mistake!

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Chapter 7 – An Ideal Reader?

As you write your novel, do you have in mind an ideal reader? Is this person your spouse? Boyfriend/girlfriend? The cute girl at the bookstore who doesn’t even know your name?

In any case, this is the person you imagine reading your work as you write–your target audience. As you finish that difficult passage or put in that unexpected plot twist, you might be thinking, “Boy, old so-and-so is going to flip when they read this!” Or maybe it’s more like: “They’re really going to hate this. Time for a rewrite!”

Either way, this person shapes your writing, gives it focus. Maybe they inspire you to push yourself further. They could be the reason you started writing in the first place.

Sounds pretty great, no? Well, I have a confession to make. I don’t have an ideal reader.

Nope, no ideal reader. Sure, I hope people like my novel, but more in a general sense. I’m not imagining any specific person as I write it. I just write for myself with a considerable dose of blind faith that if I like what I’ve written, others will like it, too.

Is this a huge mistake? Honestly, I don’t know.

I think as human beings we tend to be very self-focused. Basically no one is as interested in me as I am. It’s only natural. After all, I spend 100% of every day with myself. Everything I know or experience passes through the filter of my brain, giving my world a distinctive “me” flavor.

The vanity of an artist is thinking others will be equally interested in this flavor. Sometimes they’re right. I suspect more often they’re not.

With that in mind, does it make more sense to focus on an ideal reader? To step outside of yourself and imagine your work through someone else’s eyes? Maybe this allows us to broaden our appeal, to gain a certain perspective.

Then again, maybe it’s a form of pandering. I mean, if you really believe in the quality of your work, why should you care what anyone else thinks?

I ponder these questions as I begin the third draft of my novel. What do you think? Should I find my ideal reader?

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Chapter 6 – The Plot Thickens

Let’s talk about plotting. Not whether you should have a plot (I hope you do), but how you create it.

It seems to me there are two schools of thought. First, you have your planners. Followers of this school believe in working out the plot before they even start writing. This can be anything from a rough outline to a detailed chapter-by-chapter synopsis.

Then there’s the “make-it-up-as-you-go” school of thought. These writers start with a premise or a situation, then just start writing. The idea is that you will discover the plot as you go.

I suppose each school has its advantages and disadvantages. By plotting your novel ahead of time, you can ensure you don’t waste time wandering down dead ends. Your writing gains a certain focus– every word serves to advance the story to a common goal. I’m a big fan of tight writing, so this aspect appeals to me tremendously.

But there are disadvantages to plotting. The biggest might be paralysis by analysis. Frankly, it can be difficult to preconceive all the major twists and turns of your novel before you even start writing. You don’t really know your characters yet, so how can you predict how they would react in a given situation? All that planning can be overwhelming, perhaps preventing you from starting your novel in the first place.

This leads to the second danger of plotting: the dreaded Deus ex Machina, or God of the Machine. By having this preordained plot, you run the risk of forcing implausible solutions, or having your characters react in an unrealistic manner just to satisfy the plot. The good news is this is entirely avoidable! You just need to remind yourself that your outline is there to serve you, not the other way around. If you find yourself forcing your writing to fit your outline, don’t be afraid to alter the plot. It’s not the ten commandments, for crying out loud.

So what about the anti-plotters? These writers prefer to start with setting–a character, a place, a situation. Then you just start writing. With a little luck and a little intuition, hopefully you discover a plot worth writing.

Of course, not plotting has just as many advantages and disadvantages as plotting. Many of these are just the flip-side of plotting. Again for me, the biggest advantage of not plotting is you can just start writing. No planning, no outlines, no rules. Just write, man, just write. Can you dig it?

Another advantage is your characters will drive the story, not the other way around. Without an agenda, your characters are free to react in a realistic manner. You don’t have an itinerary to follow, so if your character feels like turning left, by all means, turn left!

The disadvantages are probably obvious. By not having a destination, you risk writing a novel that wanders aimlessly. No one likes to read a few chapters and think, “Well, that was pointless!” Of course, this is all fixable in the editing process, but it involves substantial cutting. No author likes to “kill their darlings,” so be prepared for some difficult choices.

In reality, I imagine most writers fall somewhere between these two schools. I doubt many writers plot every little detail before writing a single word. And I would be surprised if anyone writes completely in the dark with no idea where the next sentence might lead. If you do exist out there, please write me! I would find your process fascinating.

My own process leans heavily towards the “make-it-up-as-you-go” camp. When I decided to write The Woodlander, I literally had no plot. I just knew I wanted to write a novel.

So how did I start? Well, for reasons I don’t fully understand myself, I decided I wanted to write a story with talking animals. Not a happy Disney-esque story where little Jimmy learns to share. I wanted my world to be dark and gritty, a talking animal story for adults.

In my mind I pictured this dive bar built into the side of a molehill (I briefly considered calling it “Mole’s”). It’s closing time as a squirrel stumbles out. He makes it up the steps of the bar, and then…

What happens next? I had no idea. I just started writing. Fortunately the setting provided plenty of ammunition. Why is the squirrel drinking? Maybe he’s depressed, but why? Because something horrible has happened. But what?

As I wrote more and more, the characters came to life. They all had a back story. I didn’t know where they were going, but I wanted to find out.

As the squirrel stumbles from the bar, he bumps into someone. Someone big and mean. Now what?

As I continued to write, something magical happened. I discovered the plot. Or at least a vague idea of what would happen next. For me, the best feeling in writing is when I surprise myself. This was one of those times. I now found myself halfway between the plotters and the anti-plotters. I still never made an outline, but I had a direction. I had a plot.

So what’s your plotting process? Let me know, I’d love to hear it!

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Chapter 5 – The Writer’s Toolbox

Can we discuss writing tools for a moment? I don’t mean the abstract tools like plot devices or character development wheels. I’m talking about the nuts and bolts–hardware, software, all the tools we use to realize our fantasy worlds. I suppose there are people out there still writing longhand, or perhaps even using a mechanical typewriter, but for most of us this means computers.

Some of you might turn up your noses at such a pedestrian subject. After all, a wise woman once told me it’s not the tool that matters, but what you do with it.

For the most part I would agree, but there’s part of me that can’t help but geek out on an artist’s gear. If I was talking to a guitarist, for example, I wouldn’t be satisfied just knowing he or she played guitar. I would want to know the following:

  • The year, make, and model of guitar
  • The brand of strings, their thickness, and how often they change them
  • Their pick of preference
  • Their amplifiers, and all the settings they prefer (does it go to 11?)
  • Their effect pedals, and again, all the settings they use to get that sound

If none of that interests you in the least, this might not be the post for you. But don’t worry, I’ll have plenty of other posts where I talk about the “art” of writing. But for the rest of you, come geek out with me!

When it comes to writing, I prefer laptops. For reasons I’ve already outlined here, I don’t care to sit at a desk when I write. That’s just me.

I don’t alway work on laptops, but when I do, I prefer Apple. I don’t want to turn this into an Apple versus PC thing. Believe me, I use Windows PCs all the time. My home theater runs off a PC. My work laptop is a PC. I have Windows servers for streaming media and backups. Windows 7 and Windows 2008 Server are fine operating systems, and I’m genuinely excited about the upcoming Windows 8. But for writing, I’ve chosen Apple.

Yeah, I’ll freely admit Apple products are expensive, but man are they nice! Let’s start with the aesthetics. Late model MacBook Pros and Airs are things of beauty. The unibody aluminum cases not only look great, but they feel great, too. They are a real pleasure just to hold. I also appreciate the minimal advertising–no garish stickers proclaiming the manufacturer of the processor inside or the choice of operating system. No tacky logos, just a simple glowing fruit.

But like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, aesthetics only go so far. There has to be some substance. This is where Apple’s tactile interfaces shine. First of all, their keyboards are sublime, offering just enough key travel and “clickiness” to be extremely satisfying as you bang out your latest tome. It sounds like a trivial thing, but when you’re typing thousands of words, it really matters. Second of all, Apple’s touch pads are the best I’ve ever used. They are responsive without over-registering false hits from the heel of my hand. And once you get used to all the different touchpad gestures, it’s difficult to use a laptop without them.

So what model do I use? I wrote the first draft of The Woodlander on a 15″ 2011 MacBook Pro. It has the upgraded 1680×1050 matte display, so text was plenty sharp, and the table lamp next to my couch didn’t produce too much glare. I know that sounds picky, but more laptops should have matte displays!

Anyway, the laptop worked pretty well, but I did have a few problems with it. First of all, we’ve already established I like writing on the couch. The 15″ model was just a tad too bulky to be comfortable. To make matters worse, MacBook Pros tend to run pretty hot. I found I had to be very careful not to have certain applications or websites open while I was writing or the darn thing would get unpleasantly warm in my lap. I even went so far as disassembling the entire laptop and reapplying thermal paste to the cpu (I read somewhere that doing so could reduce CPU temperatures considerably, but I didn’t notice any difference).

So I was on the lookout for a new computer, but I didn’t want to buy anything until Apple’s new line of Ivy Bridge laptops was announced. Apple came out with the new MacBook Pro with a Retina screen in June, but it was only available in the 15″ model. It’s a thing of beauty, but what I was really hoping for was a MacBook Air with a Retina display. Oh well, maybe next year.

I bit the bullet and purchased a 13″ 2012 MacBook Air.  I just got the base model with 4 GB of ram and 128 GB solid state drive. I figure I’m just using it for writing, and for that purpose it should be plenty. Besides, the Retina display Airs could be coming out soon…

That MacBook Air is what I used to finish the second draft of The Woodlander (and what I’m typing this post on right now). I like the 13″ form factor a lot better for couch-writing. I briefly considered the 11″, but after playing with one at the Apple store, I dismissed it as too small. Now if I need a travel computer some day… nah, focus, Kirk!  The MacBook Air still gets a bit warmer than I would like, but it’s much cooler than my old MacBook Pro. I wish the display was sharper and had a matte screen, but maybe next year.

Let’s talk software. I can’t imagine writing without some sort of word processor. I use Scrivener. Before I even started writing The Woodlander, I scoured the web for recommendations on writing programs. Scrivener came up often, and it seems to have a loyal and active fan base. It wasn’t too expensive, so I gave it a try.

My favorite thing about Scrivener is that it separates the formatting from the writing. You still have the basics like underline and bold, but you don’t have to worry about line spacing, font, and all those types of things. When you’re ready to “publish” your work, you tell Scrivener what format you want and it outputs a copy in that format. It has several built-in formats like manuscript and Kindle e-book. That’s pretty convenient.

The second thing I like about Scrivener is the organization. It’s fairly easy to move chapters around, put together an outline, use notecards to organize your thoughts, generate word counts and word count targets–all sorts of things. Honestly, I’ve only used a fraction of the features available so far, but I like knowing that they’re there.

I hear an iOS version of Scrivener is coming out. I wouldn’t want to write an entire novel on an iPhone or iPad, but that could be handy for those times when I’m away from my computer. Many nights I’ll wake up with an idea I don’t want to forget. For now I type those ideas into the Notes app on my iPhone, but it would be nice if I could type them right into the Scrivener project.

Which reminds me, I save my Scrivener projects to Dropbox. Besides providing some level of backup, this makes the project available to me from any computer. I might not be able to open the Scrivener project on my PC or phone, but I can still open the RTF files that make up the individual chapters. That has come in handy more than once. I think you get 2 GB free with Dropbox, which doesn’t sound like much, but that’s a lot of text.

And speaking of backups, I’m pretty invested in the Apple infrastructure, so I use TimeMachine. It’s simple to use and pretty reliable. I don’t like having an external drive attached to my laptop, so this necessitates a network attached storage solution. So far, I’ve resisted buying a TimeCapsule from Apple. I’m getting by with a free piece of software called FreeNAS 8 hosted on a Windows server. The latest version has TimeMachine support built in, but it is tricky to set up. It has worked pretty well for me so far, but lately I’ve been experiencing some problems on my MacBook Pro that have required me to periodically rebuild the backup. If that problem continues, I’ll probably cave in and buy the official Apple TimeCapsule.

Whew, that was more than I expected to write! I could go on for pages, but in the interest of brevity (heh), I’ll go ahead and wrap things up. Thanks for geeking out with me. I’d love to hear about your own setup!

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Chapter 4 – The Workspace

What is your ideal workspace for writing? In my head, I imagine a cabin in the mountains. A log crackles in the fire as I sit at my vast but spartan desk. Through the window I can see snow gently falling. These are the only distractions as I type vigorously, the inspiration rushing over me like a fever.

Yeah, my real workspace is nothing like that. As I write this, I’m sitting with my back against the armrest, my legs stretched out until they nearly reach the other end of the tiny couch. I live in a small condo in downtown Austin, Texas. It’s near 100 degrees Fahrenheit today, and the air conditioning struggles to keep pace. You don’t have to listen long to hear the firetrucks racing from the fire station across the street. My condo is noisy, hot, and cramped, and I love it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d still like to have that cabin in the woods some day, but I find couch writing quite manageable. Sure, I could sit at my desk and write, but I sit at a desk eight or nine hours a day at work, just staring at a computer all day. When I get home, the last thing I want to do is sit at a desk. So I sprawl out on the couch, and I write.

Now that’s not to say there aren’t concessions. The ergonomics are quite bad. My neck is bent at an awkward angle, sometimes for hours. My arms are pinched inward until I look like some sort of brainy T-Rex. And there’s a reason manufacturers now call laptops “notebooks.” They can get quite warm. Not hot enough to burn, mind you, but warm enough to be uncomfortable in your lap on a hot summer day. Let’s just say there can be perspiration and leave it at that.

But you know what? Once I start writing, I mean when I really get going, all that goes out the window. I forget all the minor annoyances and lose myself in the fantasy world I’ve created. I can go for hours, ergonomics be damned. I guess what I’m trying to say is my ideal workspace is the place I feel most comfortable, not necessarily in body, but in mind.

For me, that’s always been home.

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Chapter 3 – I Could Do That!

“Hey, I’m writing a novel!”

“Really? Why?”

Sound familiar? Maybe they don’t say it out loud, but you can see it in their eyes–a look of bemusement, skepticism, or worst of all, flat-out pity. Why, oh why, indeed?

It’s a fair question. I suppose everyone has their own answer. Some will tell you that they have to write, that they’re compelled to write, that they couldn’t imagine life without writing!

I wish I could say the same. It seems like such a deep response–so artistic, so profound. But if it was true, why did I wait half my life to write my first novel? Clearly I was alive before, wasn’t I? And if not, who’s been drinking all my juice?

No, I’ve always been more of a reader. Like most readers, I always thought I could write a book if I really wanted, but I never actually bothered. It seemed like a lot of work (spoiler alert: it is!).

So why start now? For one thing, I’ve been reading a lot more lately. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the rise of e-books and their sheer convenience. Maybe it’s a deep-seated need to fill my mind with something intellectually stimulating. Maybe there’s just nothing good on television anymore.

Whatever the reason, I’ve been reading more.  I wish I could say it was all great literature, but truth be told, most of it is pop fiction. You know, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Game of Thrones, Hunger Games–popular books like that. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed them all, sometimes immensely, but as I read these books, part of me can’t help but think, “I could do that!” Do you know the feeling?

I could do that!

I wonder how many careers started with these four words? Then again, it probably ranks just behind “Watch this!” for famous last words.

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