Thursday, February 28, 2013

Can't or won't? Neither?

Contractions are handy little language shortcuts we all use dozens of times a day. We would find it a little strange if we suddenly could not use couldn’t, won’t, isn’t or didn’t. 

In the book I’m writing the characters are like us in many ways and unlike us in others. I want the girls, as they age, to talk like human girls talk. They are pre-technological girls, though, so they won’t LOL. Neither will they say “won’t.” 

I wanted to signal some slight difference in their language; just a little reminder to the reader that they are not after all human. I could sprinkle their talk with invented colloquialisms. I will probably do that a time or two, but a little goes a long way. I chose, instead, to avoid contractions. The narrator is allowed to use them, but the anjels are not. 

I may keep myself in this little box, or I may get tired of it and break out. I’m too close to the novel at this point to worry about making that decision. I’ll wait to see how crazy it drives an editor.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Knowing When Not to Write

Yesterday, I wrote about discovering the ending to Anjels (working title). It is so tempting to write that this very minute. I mustn’t. 

As I wrote the other day, I don’t feel I can tell the story without sapping my energy to write it. I think writing the ending would be even worse.

Oh, I wrote it down. I put down two lines and a three-word quote that will eventually constitute the ending. But I did not write IT. I want to craft every word until it fits like a jigsaw puzzle with the last piece fitting perfectly. I want to do that now! But I have a few thousand details to fill in first.

There is a certain discipline to writing. For most, that comes in deciding how much time to devote to the craft and which hours to set aside for it. For me, sometimes, it is in knowing when not to write.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The End

I have an ending. As I said earlier, I have been outlining, so I have always had a tentative ending. I would have been disappointed, though, if I had written all the way through the outline to its projected end and actually finished the book with the ending I originally wrote down.

Sometimes you start with an ending. You just write the book toward it. My first two Wizard books were close to that. This time, I started with the characters. I knew I wanted to write about angels, but didn’t know where the story would start, let alone end. 

At some point I was thinking about mortality, immortality and how which you chose to believe in shapes your world view. Of course, none of us starts out “choosing” to believe anything. We believe what we are told to believe. If you are told that reincarnation is real, boom. That is what you believe. Most of us, though, start to question those beliefs at one or more points in our lives. Many then choose to redouble their faith in whatever religion they were taught. Many convert to some other religion, or follow some variation of the one they grew up with. Some never stop questioning.

So, I have been writing this book, inventing the world and creatures who inhabit it. More important to the story, I have been inventing their mythology. The majority of the characters believe in their tribal myth, but two or three question it. This is not usually something they do openly. 

In a sense, this is a book about losing one’s religion. For myself, I see that as positive. Yet, it can leave a large hole. This book was never going to have a happy ending.

Today, when the ending came to me, I saw a way to express the enormity of that loss with a few familiar words and a poignant gesture. It’s a sad ending, yet it holds hope for the celebration of the life we get to live.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Neutral Buoyancy

From time to time in this book blog I will ask for your help. I expect to do that when it is time to settle on a book title and maybe when testing covers. Today I need more than opinion. I need expertise.

Does anyone have a contact who I could talk with about the physics of flight? I don’t care about jets and hang gliders, just birds. I am acquainted with a couple of raptor experts, so maybe that is where I need to go. The rub is that I need to describe a method of flight that is quite unlike that of raptors.

The characters in my book are flying creatures. I call them anjels because that is evocative to anyone familiar with Christian mythology. It is shorthand to build an instant image in your mind. Then, throughout the book, I chip away at that image until the reader fully recognizes that these people are far removed from angels. 

My anjels achieve flight the same way a gas balloon does. At various times during the day they weigh more or less, depending on when they've last consumed a bulb from the freenel plant. Most often they are neutrally buoyant. That is, they drift around with little need of wing movement to stay in the air. Unlike many raptors they do not depend at all on thermals.

The problem I need to work out is how this may affect diving. Raptors are light, but they still weigh something. They will drop like a rock if they position their wings to do so. This is handy if you want to build momentum for a strike. How might a neutrally buoyant flyer do that?

I’m looking for a plausible way to achieve a strike while a hunting anjel remains buoyant. Without any weight behind them, what difficulties might they have?

I have a way to avoid this problem completely and I am willing to use it, but it will change at least one major plot point and require some rewriting. 

Does anyone have personal knowledge or a good contact?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Message from the Cave

Writing as an artform is relatively recent. Think of the caves at Lascaux. Painting has been around for 40,000 years. Writing, maybe 5,000. The novel has been with us for a shorter time, still.

Yet, it is our own experience, in our own minds that we think of as forever. I talk with people all the time who express their regret that electronic books are starting to edge out the printed kind. Printed books are all they’ve ever known, and they love them. There were probably some few readers of illuminated manuscripts who tut-tutted moveable type. And the Devil would surely have been behind the printing press, if Gutenberg had not wisely chosen the bible as his prototype.

Technology rolls along, picking up speed exponentially as it goes. Artists rarely use the walls of caves as their medium anymore. Writers are more likely to use a keyboard than a pencil.

Some persist in the old ways. I had an acquaintance a few decades back who longed to be a writer. He eschewed a typewriter and and used only pencils and yellow pads. He also believed that writing skills were innate and could not be taught. That belief probably hindered him more than the pencil. 

There are still writers, such as John Irving, who use a pencil and pad. There are some who dictate and have the whole thing transcribed. It is the words that are important, after all, not the technology

I urge readers to remember that. You may love the heft, the smell, the very idea of books. I do, too. But the words take you to another world, not the pages.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Books that Leak

I’ve heard it said that a writer should not read the work of others while working on their own fiction. There is a danger that some of that story will leak into your story.

While there is probably some truth to that--we are products of the lives we live, after all--I can’t see how one could possibly take that advice seriously. I am always reading. Am I really expected to give up my greatest joy so that I might spend time creating joy for others? The hubris of that aside, how would writers ever learn to write if they gave up reading for long stretches of time?

I just finished a grand little book called The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker. The main character is an adolescent girl, just as is my main character. Thompson's girl lives on earth, but it is an earth that is winding down to a stop. The days get longer and longer. Through that major disaster, she must still deal with terrors of adolescence: mercurial friendships, not fitting in, the first training bra, the first boyfriend. 

Will some of that leak into Anjels? Perhaps, just as may the icy sidewalks of January and the way my dog throws his whole body into the chase of a Frisbee. 

Walker’s book is expertly paced, subtle and riveting. If some of that seeps into my book, all the better. And, maybe that is the better advice. When you are writing, endeavor to read only books that will help you learn the craft of writing. Those books need not be about writing. They just need to be well written books.  

Friday, February 22, 2013

Coloring beyond the lines

How does one go about writing a book? Specifically, should you outline the story or is that too constricting?

For Keeping Private Idaho I used Post-It Notes to keep track of what was supposed to happen next. That way I could move scenes around as I reconsidered. It worked fairly well until the stickum began to fail.
For Wizard Chase, which was a total rewrite of an earlier manuscript, I outlined in some detail.

Part-way through Wizard Girl I read something Stephen King wrote about outlining. Most books on writing stress that you really, really should do it. He said not to worry about it. Outline if you wish, but don’t let it get in your way. That advice was freeing to me. I plunged ahead off the cuff letting the characters take me where they would. It enriched the landscape of the story greatly. It also nearly killed me when I went back to work on continuity. There are probably still some dangling plot threads in the book.

For Anjels (working title), I am trying something a little different. I know where I want to go and I know the scenes that I need to write to get there. I created a one line description of each scene and gave it a title. I use that same title in Google Docs and format each scene title as a headline. I have created a table of contents using those headlines so that I can navigate between scenes easily. If I decide to insert or move a scene it is easy to do. I also tweak the outline to match what I have done in the book. 

The table of contents and headlines will eventually come out of the final book file. I’m not sure how I will handle chapters, yet. At this point it doesn’t matter. I can go back later and break the long narrative into bite-sized chunks. That’s really a moot exercise, though, since no one will be able to put it down. Right?

This method of outlining, plotting and tracking continuity seems to work for me. I wish I had used it on an unpublished novel I wrote several years ago about working in radio (and kidnapping and extortion, of course). I have file after file of that manuscript living on a drive, somewhere. I’ve gone back a couple of times to try to resurrect it. The continuity is so exploded I just can’t do it.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

From whence the muse?

From whence the muse? From the air we breathe and the lives we live. 

Yesterday I got an email from a distant cousin in Seattle. She delights in sending friends jaw-dropping photos. This time it was a video and it was nearly six minutes long, with an admonition that I had to watch it through to the end. Sigh. I would probably have ignored the whole thing if it weren’t from Carol. She rarely steers me wrong.

I clicked play, and there she was, my muse! Everyone else who sees the video will see three kites performing sweeping aerial acrobatics. I saw Lasa and Talaka learning how to fly in synchronicity. I immediately switched to Google Drive and began writing that scene. It added a richness to the story that had been lacking. It added motivation and a touch of foreshadowing. 

I did watch the video all the way through. My frustration now is that I cannot seem to find the right combination of letters to mimic the sound my mouth made when that last kite landed.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

I don't watch the Superbowl

When I wrote this, it was Superbowl Sunday. The perfect day to address a question that comes up when people find out I am a writer and artist. They often ask how I get so much done. For instance, I wrote a young adult novel while finishing a graduate degree and working full time. I also mowed the lawn, cleaned the house and watched TV. 

I don’t think any of that is miraculous. It seems to me that the subtext of the question is something like, “Why don’t I ever have time to pursue writing or art?”

I may write more than you do. I may create a wider variety of artwork. I am almost certain I also watch more television than you do, I see more movies, and I likely read more books. You probably spend more time with your children and grandchildren, though. You run more often and ride your bike ten times as much. You spend more time with your friends and you eat out more often. And, you watch the Superbowl.

My pursuits are not more noble. They are just more visible. 

Each of us makes personal choices. They are often unfathomable to the people who make different choices. Writing and art are lonely pursuits. I am an introvert and prefer spending most of my time alone. Introvert is not synonymous with shy. It bothers me not at all to get up in front of 500 to speak--as long as I have something to say. I am comfortable leading a group of a dozen people in some task, brainstorming with them and having great fun. Going to dinner with those same folks, though, puts me into listening mode. Someone else is always a nanosecond quicker to interject and I don’t want to interrupt, so I stay quiet.

I prefer to gather my thoughts and put them on paper. 

So, I do not snowmobile, brew beer or go to the gym to work out. That is not a sacrifice for me. I would rather write or make a pair of earrings than do any of those things. 

So, why don’t you have the time to write? Maybe your life is packed with so many obligations that it is out of the question. Or maybe you have a hundred things you would rather do.

The secret to becoming a writer is tautological. In order to be a writer, you must write. If you wish you were a writer, yet always find something to do instead of writing, then you may as well wish for a unicorn. Let it go. Be a great runner. Be a great mom. Write great emails. Watch the Superbowl. But if you want to be a writer, you're going to have to write.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Everyone Needs an Editor

Everyone needs an editor. This came home to me when I opened the first copy of my first novel, Keeping Private Idaho. Two professors had read and corrected the manuscript. Two editors had done the same. My wife, who is good at copy editing, had also read it. I had read and reread it a dozen times. Yet, there it was. The first line of the book starts with a quote. Somewhere along the line that quotation mark disappeared. The first error in the book was in the first paragraph, the first line, THE FIRST CHARACTER.
I have learned since that it is a rule that everything you print is perfect until you pick up the first copy from the printer or publisher. It does not matter whether it is a brochure, a newsletter or a book, you will find an error in the first minute once it is too late to correct it. Call it Rick’s Rule.

The consequences of my making an error in this blog are small. Thousands will not die if I leave out a word or misplace a comma. I would like perfection, but Rick’s Rule still applies. I write this little book blog a few days in advance. I always read each post several times. Still, when it is time to post something, I give it one more read and often find an error or two.

So, expect some errors in this blog. Expect some errors in the book, regardless of the skills of my editors. Ric’s Rule.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Coming to Her Senses

I recently attended the Learning Lab’s Lunch for Literacy, in Boise, as I have done for about 18 years. I was a board member for three years and have supported the organization ever since. 

This year’s speaker was Alyssa Harad, author of Coming to My Senses. She specializes in writing about perfume. The big takeaway for me was that we have so few words to describe what we smell. Try describing that special odor when the thunderstorm has spattered up the dust across a desert of sage and bitterbrush. Just try. 

The odors on another world would certainly be different. How do I describe them in human terms, when it is so difficult to describe even familiar smells? My olfactory powers are fairly limited in the first place, as my wife will attest. I practically have to dip my beak in a bottle of perfume to register any sensation from it. 

I can evoke the scent of sagebrush by writing the word, if you have smelled it yourself. How will I get you to experience the odor as a ragoar works up a sweat? It is a puzzle that would stump Rubik.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Let's talk about sex

Everyone who will read this probably has at least a basic understanding of the human reproductive system. Most of us have some level of obsession with it. On this blue marble nature has come up with countless ways for a species to reproduce. Many involve a male and a female. Many do not.

Same thing where anjels live. There is much about an anjel’s anatomy that resembles the anatomy of humans. They nurse young anjels in exactly the same way a woman would nurse a baby. Producing that baby in the first place is quite different.

Some scenes may make you blush, less because of what they are doing than what you think they are doing. You, dear reader, come with your lifetime of sexual luggage that will spring open in just the right places in this book. I will have a little fun with that, but for reasons stated earlier will say no more about it.

I mentioned in my first post that this is an adult book. It is bloody by necessity. It is also sexual by necessity, which is the other reason I would not label this a book for children or young adults. Some younger readers will love it; some mothers will be scandalized. The distinction between human reproduction and the reproduction schema of an alien species will be lost on them. I’m confident of this, because I have some experience with readers who misconstrue my intention. For a good example of that, check the review of Wizard Chase by Melissa Peterson on Amazon. It took me quite some time to figure out what the word was that offended her. We had a little exchange about that. Those pesky words that have multiple meanings sometimes hamper communication.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

About My Reader

Tom Trusky was my teacher, mentor and friend. You can read more about his amazing life on Wikipedia and the Facebook page Remember Tom Trusky.

As I mentioned yesterday, Tom taught me much about writing. He taught me the discipline of learning the traditional forms of poetry and why you really should not break the rules until you understand them well.
One thing he hammered home was that you should not share whatever you are working on with anyone before it is finished, or at least in completed draft. Doing so saps your energy. If you tell your story to someone, in a way, there is no longer a reason to write it.

In this book blog I am dancing on the edge of Tom’s rule, while desperately trying not to break it. You will not know the story of Anjels (working title) by reading this blog. You will know about technical decisions I have made and something about the world anjels live in. 

Tom was not a fan of science fiction. I only rarely foisted any on him in the eight classes I took from him at Boise State University. Every writer writes for someone, consciously or not. Sadly, he will never read this book. Nevertheless Tom will always be my reader.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Writing inside the (strange) box

Would someone living on another planet speak English? Of course not. Given enough time (and maybe monkeys and typewriters) I could invent an alien language. Then I could teach it to my readers so that my characters could speak in their ‘native’ language. I think I might lose a reader or two along the way. Instead, my anjels speak English. If the book is translated into French, they will speak French. You could consider the whole thing a translation from anjel, no matter what language of Earth we are using.

Even so, there are elements of language that would jar the reader coming from an anjel. Idioms are banished. For instance, an anjel better not say “she is pulling my leg” unless someone is actually pulling her leg. She would not have the context to understand that phrase means that someone is teasing her with a little lie.

Anjels can use a language of Earth, but they cannot use a reference to Earth. Neither can the narrator. This severely limits the use of metaphor and simile. The planet where anjels live has little that is familiar to us. There are no dogs, ducks or Dodges. There are animals and birds; grass and trees. There are mountains and rivers and canyons. 

So what do I call mountains, rivers and canyons? Mountains, rivers and canyons. The wind is the wind and rain is rain. A flying creature might be a bird, but it is certainly not a goose. Anjels have their own names for whatever uniquely inhabits their world. They have their own names for each other, so you will not read about Sue and Becky, rather you will get to know Lasa and Talaka. 

Eliminating earthly references and severely limiting metaphor and simile builds a tight little box for a writer to work in. My writing mentor, Tom Trusky, taught me how important it is to do that and how it forces your mind into a creative space. Next time a bit more about Tom and why he might warn me not to blog a book.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Give them a hand

Bats do not have hands. This is an important point if you were planning to pass one a pen, I suppose, but most people don’t give it a lot of thought. The wings of anjels are patterned loosely after bat wings, though, so I needed to decide just what capabilities they might have when it comes to picking up a pen or a spear. Bat wings are really hands modified by evolution. Count the bones in a bat’s wings and you can identify its ‘fingers.’ Four of those fingers are elongated and webbed into wings. The thumb still has some use as a stubby little digit.

I wanted my anjels to be capable of grasping, so I gave them two fingers and a thumb. They would still be terrible touch typists, because each digit is crowned by a claw or talon. They can do some things that people do with their hands and fingers. They can touch each other, comb each other’s hair with their fingers and grab hold of a bone.

In the book, I wanted to remind readers that though they are frequently referred to as women, these are not women in the sense that we know them. They have fingers, but their biology dictates that their arms are used most as the leading edge of wings, so they have no real hands.

Anjels do have feet. Flying creatures have little use for Jimmy Choos, so it seemed silly to pattern their feet after a human foot.  Here, I chose to pattern the anjel foot after birds of prey. I’m still deciding on whether or not to have three toes in front and one in back (most common in raptors) or two front and two back. I’m leaning toward the latter. 

Raptors have hooked beaks, which allow them to tear into prey. Most of our non-verbal communication comes from facial expression, so I gave myself a break and let anjels keep their human faces, relying on their finger talons to fill the job of beaks.

Next time, a little bit about personifying aliens and the use of familiar language.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Is this the real thing? Is this a fantasy?

So, a book with often beautiful, sometimes terrifying women flying through the air must be a fantasy, right? One would surely think my Wizards Trilogy, which features dragons, wizard, gryphons and magic would get that classification. Wrong on both counts.

Astute readers of the Wizard books recognize by the end of the first one that it is actually science fiction. Even the, let’s call them ‘less astute,’ get that by the end of book two. The whole point of those books is that, as Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.” What seems to be magic to the residents of Kimyra is actually poorly understood technology left behind by an advanced civilization. Your great grandparents would have thought you were magic, too, if they saw you create moving pictures at the push of a button on your remote.

Anjels is not a fantasy, either, though its central subject is a race of creatures we know from mythology. I use the word ‘mythology’ here not to imply that religion is something that is untrue. We can have a discussion about that over coffee. The first definition of myth, according to the elves at Webster, is “A usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.” The word can be used to describe something that is unfounded or untrue. That is not my intent. The intent of the book, however, is to prod readers to think about what is true and what may not be.

I digress.

I could argue that Anjels (working title) is science fiction, even though the science may not be obvious. There are no rocket ships; there is no teleportation.  The science comes in world building. The world on which the anjels live is not Earth. It may never have a name, since the tribe is quite a long way off from realizing that there are other worlds out there. Building a plausible world requires quite a lot of thought. Things must work. If an anjel is roughly the size of a human, how can they fly? Duh, wings! That seems to have been good enough for angel artists throughout history. Just stick wings on them.

If this is science fiction, or speculative fiction, that isn’t good enough. How does the musculature work? If they have arms AND wings, won’t those separate muscle systems be enormously complex, if they can work at all? And, even if you figure out the wings, how big would they have to be to get a 150 pound creature off the ground? Ostriches weigh about what a human does. They have wings. You can search the sky in ostrich land all day and not see one up there.

Next time, let’s talk about feet and hands.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Where does a story come from?

Where does a story come from? It is not surprising that humans came up with the idea of the muse. Stories seem to come from nowhere, though rarely fully formed.

As an artist I have been making mixed media angels (see photo at the top of this blog) for about a year, now, inspired by Louisiana artist Kelly Guidry. The reaction to those has been very positive and I learned that there are many fans of angels out there. My copper and wood creations rarely match the popular conception, though they have some elements that people seem to like. My angels are necessarily more bat-winged than bird winged, because of the material from which they are made. Meeting a full-sized angel like this would inspire awe. The word awesome is so overused as to have nearly no meaning at all anymore. In the original definition, though, my artistic angels are awesome. I started thinking about doing a book about angels. I could use one of my own creations for the cover (though I have since dropped that idea) and I could tap in to the broad angel market.

I thought about the book as an urban fantasy at first. In that genre angels would appear among us in everyday life. They would likely appear only rarely and under certain conditions, but they would be part of a hidden, dark landscape. 

Somewhere along the line, I started thinking about a story of a culture that discovers its own mortality. For that, I needed an allegorical story. Anjels (working title) was born. It went from urban fantasy to what some would call science fiction, but which I prefer to call—in the tradition of Harlan Ellison—speculative fiction. More on that next time. More on Harlan sometime.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Angels v. Anjels

These anjels did not step out of the Bible and bear little resemblance to angels. For one thing, they are all women. My brother, who knows about these things, tells me there are no female angels mentioned in the bible. These anjels have wings. Though popular representations of angels show them with wings, I am told the Bible of Christianity makes no mention of wings. Cherubs have wings; angels not so much.
If you have solid proof that statement is wrong, I would be happy to hear about it. It matters not to the novel.

Winged or not, these anjels have no relationship with Christianity or, for that matter, people. They have their own beliefs, their creation mythology and taboos. They do not live on earth or coexist with us in any way. 

The name, anjel, is a convenient way of plugging in to the Western mythology of angels. I can say the word and you have an image that is a good starting point. As the book progresses, that image will gradually change until you have a full picture of an anjel in your mind.

Saturday, February 9, 2013


Welcome to the blog for my new adult novel, Anjels (working title). I wrote my young adult novels, Wizard Chase, Wizard Girl and Wizards’ End with readers fourth grade and above in mind. I expect most readers are a little older. Many of my readers are adults. So what makes this one an adult novel? In a word, it is bloody. I did not set out to write a bloody novel, but quickly found out there was no way around it. This book is set in a pre-technological society. Survival is job one. The culture of these female tribal members centers on hunting.

I consider it an adult novel, too, because it deals with the reproductive lives of its main characters. I fully expect that will disturb some parents. That this part of their lives is quite different from human sexuality will make little difference to parents who prefer to teach children about reproduction in their own way and in their own time. That is their right.

In this blog I will discuss writing, publishing, story telling and whatever comes to mind that is related to the new book, which will be released later this year. I will not tell the story of the book, however. More on that a bit later

Please join me in this little experiment. You will meet some beautiful and terrifying women and girls, along with an assortment of creatures both familiar and strange. I am likely to try out some names on you. Importantly, I will eventually ask your help in naming the book.

Thanks for your interest.