Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

A little insight into the writer's process by Robin Hobb

I've been trying to get away from posting a blog entry that just points to another person's blog with no new content or wisdom to add, but this one bears noting.

Robin Hobb, who doesn't post enough for my taste but whose novels are always (or almost always) stellar, talks a bit about her own writing progress.

It's a good, insightful read, and I was pleasantly surprised to find I shared some of the feelings she talks about when going through my own writing.

[ Amazon Featured Short: The Inheritance by Robin Hobb ]

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When To Stop Reading, Part 3: Short Stories

Frustrated-Man-thumb

A multi-part series where I address the question, When to stop reading?

This is part 3 in what's become an ongoing series on when to stop reading a book. Each post stands alone, but feel free to read part 1 and part 2 before jumping into this one.

We often think of only novels when someone poses the question,

"At one point do you give up on a book?"

Maybe the question is better phrased as:

"At one point do you give up on a story?"

Short stories, whether standalone or as part of a compilation, fall into the 'when to stop reading' conundrum just like novels. Especially those which infringe into the length territory of novelettes. The further we get, and the more our frustration grows, the more likely we're going to put (or throw) that book down.

For purposes of this discussion, I'm going to use an example: The Solaris Book of New Fantasy. TSBONF is a compilation of shorts by such notable authors as Mark Chadbourn, Janny Wurts, Jeff VanderMeer, Chris Roberson, Lucius Shepherd, Steven Erikson, and others. I just finished the book, so I'm at a good point to discuss it's highs and lows. In particular, there were stories I stopped reading simply because they were going nowhere or just weren't holding my attention.

Some people say you have thirteen lines in which to hook the reader of a short story. I found this to be more or less true as more often than not I knew just by looking at that first page whether or not the story was going to hold my attention. It's not a hard and fast rule, of course, but it's often easy to get a good feel for what the story is about and if it's your cup of tea.

In the following list I'm going to use some clever graphics to indicate whether or not I finished the story. "Thumbs up" means I finished. "Thumbs down" means I flipped through the remainder of that story and went on to the next one.

1. "Who Slays the Gyant, Wounds the Beast", by Mark Chadbourne

thumbsup

2. "Reins of Destiny", by Janny Wurts

thumbsdown

3. Tornado of Sparks, by James Maxey

thumbsup

4. Grander the the Sea, by T.A. Pratt

thumbsup

5. The Prince of End Times, by Hal Duncan

thumbsdown

6. King Tales, by Jeff VanderMeer

thumbsup

7. In Between Dreams, by Christopher Barzak

thumbsdown

8. And Such Small Deer, by Chris Roberson

thumbsup

9. The Wizard's Coming, by Juliet E. McKenna

thumbsup

10. Shell Game, by Mike Resnick

thumbsup

11. The Song Her Heart Sang, by Steven Savile

thumbsdown

12. A Man Falls, by Jay Lake

thumbsup

13. O Caritas, by Conrad Williams

thumbsdown

14. Lt. Privet's Love Song, by Scott Thomas

thumbsup

15. Chinandega, Lucius Shepherd

thumbsup

16. Quashie Trapp Blacklight, by Steven Erikson

thumbsdown

A quick tally shows that I finished ten out of the sixteen stories in TSBONF, or 62.5%. Six stories remained unfinished, or 37.5%.

I don't know what ratio indicates I didn't waste my money. I read ten stories, most of which I enjoyed. I remember a couple leaving me a little dissatisfied, but nothing like the sheer "WTF is this about?" I thought as I skipped through the six stories I did not finish.

For me, this is a lesson. Not only in what I like to read, but also what elements keep someone from putting a book down. I can only attempt to instill such elements into my own writing.

As always, I'll end with a question: What makes you put a book down?

Backing up is (not) hard to do

harddrive-crash

Computer crashes and lost data are all the rage these days. So many people are beholden to their computers and other electronic devices, backing up your data at regular intervals is more important than ever. Of course, and unfortunately, it's a process too many people fail to integrate into their daily process.

As writers, we all know the consequences of not doing regular back-up's can be catastrophic. We labor for weeks, months, even years on a story or feature, only to lose it in a nanosecond because of a hard drive failure.

Not good.

There are many options available for making backup copies of our work:

  1. Make a new copy of the file in question at regular intervals. For my current work-in-progress, I like to prepend the date to the document filename each and every day. This way not only do I have more than one copy (in the case of file corruption) but it also gives me a sort of poor man's version control.
  2. If your application supports a "make backup copy" feature (like Microsoft Word), use it.
  3. Periodically copy your data files to a secondary hard drive or, if possible, another computer. Other options might include an external hard drive, USB key, or CD or DVD. They all work, and mostly just come down to convenience as to the choice. An alternative to copying the files is to use a backup solution. I just started using Windows Backup. It comes with most versions of Windows and, so far at least, seems to work.
  4. Make backups to removable media, like a DVD, and take that media to an off-site location. This might be a bank safe deposit box or your workplace. Just make sure it's secure if you're storing sensitive data. Having multiple copies on different mediums inside your house or apartment is great, but what if there's a fire?
  5. Use cloud storage. Amazon S3 is a relatively inexpensive option. If you use Firefox, there's even an add-on available that eases its use. (see Amazon S3 Simple Storage Service - Everything You Wanted to Know for more information on S3 and the utilities that make it a breeze to use)

The above is more or less my backup strategy, minus #4 which I have not yet utilized.You can take it even further if you so desire.

Perhaps I'm a bit paranoid, but I've not lost a file in longer than I can remember. I know one thing: I'd rather jump through hoops making sure my precious data is safe than take the chance I lose years of work.

Recommended Reference - The Synonym Finder

The Synonym Finder

I'm starting a new blogging series to focus on reference sources I find useful on a day-to-day basis as I'm writing, editing, and proofing. Think of it as a recommended reading list, though it may encompass other blogs that focus on the craft of writing or even web sites. Really anything of value to the mechanics, style, or general process of writing.

This, then, is Part 1, to focus on my 'go to' thesaurus of choice, The Synonym Finder, edited by J.I. Rodale. I've got a copy of Roget's International Thesaurus (Fifth Edition), but it became a secondary reference source not too long after I bought The Synonym Finder.

This begs the question: How is The Synonym Finder different from any other thesaurus? I'll use Roget's (Fifth Edition) since that's the other thesaurus I own as comparison.

The Synonym Finder reads like a dictionary, except instead of word definitions it's chock full of synonyms. To find a synonym, you simply flip open the book, find your keyword alphabetically, and you're presented with a listing of synonyms. Straightforward and simple.

Roget's, on the other hand, has an index at the back of the book. You start by looking up your keyword, which in turn either has a page number next to it or, alternatively, a short listing of words or phrases which might be synonyms or might simply be words you might be looking for. Each of those words or phrases has a page number next to it. Once you've decided on a word, you go that page number where you are presented with a listing of synonyms. If you're unsatisfied with the results or simply chose the wrong 'similar' word or phrase, then it's back to the index where you need to repeat the process.

To explain better, let's run through an example. This will also serve to demonstrate which reference book provides better results. This may be a wash, but let's give it a try.

I'll randomly flip open to the index of Roget's and select a word. I've got "noodle". Roget's quirky index shows:

noodle
n member 2.7
head 198.6
brain 918.6
v think over 930.13

Let's say I'm really looking for synonyms of the second entry. I'll go to 198.6 as it suggests. It shows:

198.6 head, headpiece, pate, poll, crown, scone, noggin, brow, ridge

Not bad. But I don't like that I had to flip to an index, figure out what word I really want, then I have to flip again to find the synonyms.

Let's see what The Synonym Finder has to say. I flip to "noodle" (it's easy since everything is alphabetical) and immediately see a block of entries--easily more than what Roget's has listed. We have:

head, skull, cranium, cerphalon, brainpan, poll, pate, sconce, mazard, costard, think tank, thinker, upstairs, upper story, belfry, noggin, dome, bean, nut, nob, crumpet, gourd, conk

The Synonym Finder comes up with 23 possible synonyms for "noodle". Roget's? 9. Seems as if, in this case anyway, The Synonym Finder wins by offering me more than twice the number of possible synonyms.

Granted, this was only one word, but there's a reason I keep The Synonym Finder nearby whenever I'm writing or editing. Nothing beats its ease-of-use and it gives me results fast.

No wonder The Synonym Finder is the first book I look to when I need a synonym.

Dealing With Distraction

We live in a connected world. Once you've sat down in front of your computer, you've got access to it all.

connected-world

Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, email, blogs. They're all popping up notifications or beckoning you to check for new comments or to see what's new. Even blogging comes with its own set of distractions.

But what if you're at your computer with the intention of getting some real work done? "Real work" for purposes of this blog is writing, so let's focus on that.

Start by asking yourself a simple question: Am I a creator or a consumer?

Chances are, you're both. But spend too much time on one and other suffers.

Jennifer Murphy Romig, a legal writing and research instructor at Emory University School of Law, notes that interference with writing has always been present. A few years ago, it was computer solitaire, she said, and before that it was the old-fashioned crossword puzzle. But she describes today's distractions -- including texting, e-mail, BlackBerry messages and online news alerts -- as "more aggressive."

Agatha Christie once said, "I enjoy writing in the desert. There are no distractions such as telephones, theaters, opera houses and gardens."

Distraction. It is the bane of those who want to get "stuff" done.

I'm as guilty as the next person. Digsby pops up a new twitter. Or I see that there's some new blog entries to read through. What began as anticipation of a good solid hour of writing becomes an hour wasted.

So how do we keep from being distracted?

You can go old school: turn the computer and cell phone/blackberry off, and go find yourself some nice white paper and a pencil. But there are diminishing returns for such an approach, as in you're giving up your word processor. I don't know about you, but I can't write without my word processing software, not to mention all the outlines, notes, and other reference material I keep on my laptop. I'd be lost without it.

Instead, try something a little less radical:

  • Close your email application.
  • Shut down your IM client.
  • Turn off your cell phone or other device.
  • Stay away from your browser or RSS feed reader.
  • If you want to go a little more extreme, unplug your network connection.

All of this requires self-discipline, of course. Stay focused on what's important--getting your work done. The other stuff isn't going anywhere.