Monday, March 29, 2010

Character Ingredients

I only have time for a quick post this evening, but I'd like to use it to share a quote from Isabel Allende that I've had written on a scrap of paper and shoved in a desk drawer for many years now. When asked what she believes every character needs, she said, "A complete biography, a defined personality, and an individual voice."

I'm not the best at any of these things; I tend to let the story draw it out by force (e.g. if I dropped Amarinne in a pool of sharks, what memories would she draw upon, what aspects of self would be revealed, and what choice words would she utter? Rather than meditate on these things without a specific situation as background).

Allende, of course, seems to have no difficulty in following her own suggestions, as her characters are some of the most vivid I've ever encountered in books. For me, though, it's advice to fall back on when I'm stuck.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Books, Books, Books

I assume we all read. Reading is important to writing, it is food for our process. They inform us as to what the industry is doing, and are the best escape created.

Well, movies/shows and video games also begin to offer writers' inspiration. Suddenly books are a part of a wider venue for written media than has ever existed before. This is affecting how books are sold and even what books are. While most people--especially us bookworms--do not buy e-books, that there is a trend toward e-books is certain. They won't take over by tomorrow. But certainly as far as nonfiction goes, e-books make sense.

What about novels?

I think its a question of context, and personally I'm waiting for technology to improve/integrate a bit more before I branch out to "e-books." Yes, branch out--as a reader I do not expect to ever leave print behind. But i can see particular instances where e-books are more practical.

A colleague of mine on this blog mentioned the downfall of globalism...because of corporations' failure, and I want to expand on this idea. I will disagree slightly. I think that what is currently happening is that the consolidation of corporations feeds the globalism and forces independent publishers (who will need to include e-book editions in order to compete with the Big Six) to go global as well. It is far easier to outsource now than ever before.

As booksellers (small stores as well as big corporate ones) go online, marketing, design, etc are outsourced. With publishing, the printers may well be on another continent entirely. In order to gain that salary, and that profit, you might need to be capable of selling to Canada at the very least. We are becoming at once more localized and more global. It is the same dichotomy as our Real Life and Online existence. We are both. Understanding the paradox of our existence will be essential to understanding the future of the industry. The small publisher will, at some point, be selling their books to English speakers/readers all over the world. The resources used to create the books, and perhaps even the printers, may come from very far away. Yet, somehow, the connection of people in this manner provides a tighter global network. This is provided that the internet produces the cottage-industry success I believe is "possible."

"Possible" is different from what may actually happen... still, I think as a reader and aspiring writer that the industry will be incredibly different in a decade. All we can do right now is wait and see what direction things go in. Until then, I am buying half my books (print) from Amazon. Sorry publishers, I like the pre-order option and the fact that I can order from my house. :D


Monday, March 22, 2010


I’m pretty bad at visualizing things. When it comes to writing, this means that although I don’t have difficulty with superficial physical characteristics (long black hair, deep blue eyes, etc), I’m hopeless at putting it all together in my mind and knowing what my characters actually look like.

Years ago, I tried to draw them, but unless my stories were populated with misshapen lumps, it didn’t do me much good. When I write, I see the scene happening in my mind. If I can’t see the characters clearly, I can’t accurately transcribe what they’re doing.

This weekend, I realized that I had lost several hours to scouring google images for the cast of Aya’s Wings. I had already found a few of them months ago, but I wanted to round out the rest. The above, for example, is an actress by the name of Maude Adams. She was very famous around the turn of the twentieth century and, by all accounts that I’ve found, she was a decent person as well. And she bears a resemblance to Amarinne Thelorian. Not an exact replica, mind you. Amarinne is blonder, younger, sadder. There are many photos of the lovely Miss Adams, but she only really looks like Am here. But it’s enough for me to work with.

I wondered, as I was searching for them all, if this were not just an elaborate way to avoid actually writing. Procrastination in the name of inspiration. Uh huh, sure. But then I pulled out my old binder of Arylle things and there, tucked in the very back, were pictures I had clipped from magazines of the gowns that she wore, the way her hair hung, and even people who resembled Cor and her (without naming names, let’s just say that they were actors from a now-defunct soap opera). So I guess that this is just part of my process, and it happens to be fun as well.


Friday, March 19, 2010

The American Labour System: the Anti-Art System?

First of all, I want to apologise for not posting last week's blog entry. It was a very busy week, and I was completely out of it.

What I wanted to discuss this evening is writing in programming and Web development.

I've been a novice computer geek for the last two to three years, so there is a lot that I still have yet to learn about the technology. But what I have learned is that the skills of a writer can be transferred over to programming and Web development. When I say "programming," I include software development. Software is just a type of program that performs a tool- or application-like function and therefore a specific kind of task. For example, word processing software performs writing and editing tasks of human language (as opposed to machine language).

Like stories, articles and poetry, programs and Websites are created with human language (mostly English). They are not merely constructed like computer hardware and so take a greater amount of creativity to write. However, unless you're writing a game program or such, they are not narrational. Websites are often created with html (hyper textual markup language) and programs are created using any program language from COBOL to JAVA.

So with the ongoing rapid advancement of computer technology and the demand for more software and Websites, you can say that unlike the fine arts such as painting and sculpture, and unlike the literary arts such as fiction and poetry writing, Web development and program writing has a high demand for us artists/creators in the market place.

Actually, I'm sorry to say, that's wrong. At least as far as traditional employed work goes.

There has been a huge decrease in the demand for program writers and Web creators at the private sector levels at least during the last decade. I have been told by career developers and have read that because many huge companies have been hiring their Web developers and program writers from outside of the U.S. by contract, the need for such professionals is very slim. Why do the huge companies look outside the country for these services? Because they save money, of course, which big business (corporatism in other words) comes down to. And because it comes down to saving on the costs of such creative services what does this tell us about our economy? The U.S. economy, particularly through the private sector, is anti-art! And in a society that is anti-art the system, in the U.S.'s case the corporate system, will do everything it can to annihilate something that it feels is too damn impractical for a given aspect of its economy, in this case the the U.S. labour force.

However, with the downfall of corporate globalism due to the (Great) Recession that we are slowly but surely rising out of, this may all change. Will corporations in our country be able to continue affording to even pay for program and Web development services from outside the country? With the poor economy effecting other countries around the world, will such services even be as accessible? Perhaps the big companies will have to start looking toward the digital creators who have been forced to go nomadic as far as employment goes, and so will have to look to the independent contractors for these services a lot more. Or, perhaps better yet, they will have to start hiring people in these professions permanently like they did back in the 1990's.

Maybe we can answer these questions more precisely next week.

Until then. . .


Monday, March 15, 2010


If you had told me five years ago, while I was buried deep in a high school life I hated, that I would someday be delivering a three hour lecture, I would have probably run in terror. Nonetheless, that’s what I did last week and, in my opinion, I think I did a pretty decent job of it. True, I had been prepping for weeks. I read multiple books on the subject, sifted through a stack of articles, watched tapes, consulted professors. In the end, though, it all came together and if I stuttered through parts of it, my speech was mostly unobstructed.

Great, you may say, but what does this have to do with writing? Well see, for the past month of so, this lecture has been my life (not entirely true: I did have a couple of midterms in there to jazz things up a bit). Every spare moment I had was devoted to highlighting and post-it notes and scrapped outlines. I put in twelve-hour days at school, which I hadn’t done since the beloved tech weeks back in drama. I talked about Salvador Minuchin to anyone who would listen. And now it’s done.

I came home last Thursday night after a celebratory dinner with my boyfriend and collapsed in front of my desk, staring at the computer screen. My desktop was littered with versions of the powerpoint, stray articles, an occasional client write up. I cleared these away and stared at the aurora borealis image. It was only nine o’clock and I had no idea what to do with the next hour before I went to bed. What did I used to do with free time? Oh yeah, I would work on this story thing…

That settled it, to youtube I went. After a few minutes, I started twitching. There was a textbook next to me; surely I should be reading it. But no, I had already read the chapter for our next class. I had completed my observations for the week, prepared for the upcoming role play, and now the monstrous presentation was over. Around this point it occurred to me that I no longer know how to waste time.

I opened up my file hesitantly, the one called Aya’s Wings. I had left off in such an inconvenient place: Amarinne fighting against Karied’s flattery as Emins and Najerie return from their disastrous bout of equestrianism. Well, what happens next? Of course I knew; I knew all along. I began to write, a word or two at a time, as though afraid of picking up speed and not being able to stop. After about a page, I was drained, but I had written for the first time in weeks. I closed the file, fell into bed, and slept until the alarm went off at 5:30 to wake me up for work.

It was a little victory, but a victory all the same.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Writing Life

How does one become a full time writer? What is required?

The biggest and hardest thing is time management. For me, that's meant kicking myself in the rear and getting myself out of the house. My house is inducing laziness, making me feel like a bum. I need to be out and about in order to accomplish things. You know, like actually writing.

Because that's the next thing you have to do, is write.

But, as I'm learning, it isn't about writing "anything," as much as it's about writing "everything."
Only, the "everything" has to be specific: nonfiction and fiction--stuff I have the interest in researching and writing. If I want to be a full-time writer, I have to do both.

I have to set up a platform of things I am intending to focus on, and when I publish articles these become part of this process. So every step of the way has to be well-thought, thoroughly planned. Research has to be conducted for every step.

As such, I can't expect to support myself on this immediately. I'm expecting getting the first few articles published to be the largest hurdle. But once that is done, the goal will be 4-8 a month in journals/magazines that pay well. Some pay as much as a $1 a word. One a week at that rate--assuming pay on publication--can certainly present a decent income.

A mixture of articles and short stories can provide a large enough wage to support oneself, but the writer must be prolific. The queries have to be making the rounds continually. This is what it means to be a full time writer, and it wasn't what I originally pictured. Though this organized and intense level of writing appeals to my grown-up self, I am now fully aware of the effort it will take.

I have to like writing "everything" as much as I like writing my fiction. Determination, research, and a lot of elbow grease will have to see me through.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Back to Basics

This week I wanted to discuss something most of us learned in freshman english: the three basic plots.

When I was fourteen I found this whole idea terribly depressing. Not only had every story already been told, precluding any chance of originality, but there were only three of them?  The Universe was unspeakably cruel. Now, some years later, I find this truth fascinating. All stories as we know them are windows into the three conflicts of human experience. 

Just to review, the plots are these:

1. Man Against Nature. 

Obviously this encompasses all stories dealing with terrain, weather, and animal life. Think Moby Dick or Call of the Wild. Though I do not write, and only very occasionally read, such material what I do find interesting in them is the trick of the writing. Novels which feature this conflict as its central element are often written in such a way that the setting itself becomes yet another character and foil. 

2. Man Against Man.

This is the bulk of fiction I think. It is essentially any work which features two people at odds. Interestingly, it is this category, and not the third, which holds most fantasy. Even that dealing with 'supernatural' beings such as Elves, Dwarves, et al. This is because such beings are essentially taking the place of other human beings. Because they are written by humans, any being of higher sentience will act in accordance with basic human behaviors. We may dress them up in fancy trappings but, as with everything, we only have our own experience as a point of reference. Take Lord of the Rings for example. The Elves could be replaced with simply another sect of humanity without any significant changes to the plot. (LOTR fans everywhere will have my head for that assertion I am sure.) What I mean to say is that, though they may be a different species, such characters fill the same roles within a story as a human would.  

3. Man Against God / Self / The Supernatural.

Now, here is where I am going to be a bit ornery. Many would say that Self belongs in the second plot category and not the third. Obviously, I disagree. Even putting aside the schools of thought which assert that the Self is God, I believe that Self belongs here because it is an intangible struggle. This third category is where a character faces the wider Universe, the Numinous, the Supernatural Other. I believe Self belongs here because the main experience of these stories is the widening of awareness and, oftentimes, the fear which accompanies such widening. And what is a conflict with Self but a widening of awareness? And is it not often filled with a great deal of fear? The conflicts here do not necessarily involve a physical struggle or a linear plot. 

Most fiction incorporates elements of all three because human experience incorporates all three. Even our earliest stories, folklore and myth, are profound examples of  this. Oftentimes they are a chaotic, intense mix Nature, Man, and the Supernatural coming against the protagonist in a large and unknown world. We may have refined our sensibilities over time but there is no denying that humanity has simply been telling the same stories throughout the ages and across all cultures. 

Monday, March 8, 2010

A building is a symbol, as is the act of destroying it.

All this talk of death and different types of love stories is a result, I think, of me recently seeing the movie V for Vendetta. This is my new favorite movie – seriously, why had I never seen it before? It’s got everything I love in a story: drama, romance, disfigurement, death, and revolution. V’s death, however, got me thinking.

I guess that was a spoiler. But the actions that V takes in the first few scenes of the movie cannot realistically end in anything other than his death. Once the first bomb explodes, we know he’s a goner. Likewise, it was a pretty good bet that Evey, V’s at first unwilling accomplice, will make it to the end suffering only the death of her illusion. Thus, while the ending of the movie is tragic, anything else would have been a betrayal of the story.

I consider this type of death to be a good one. It’s not as though we, as readers, want the character to die, but we understand that there is no other way. Es muss sein, as Kundera says. It must be. Or at least, this is how I justify it to myself when I kill off my characters like this.

The inevitable type of death is distinct from the deaths that make me want to throw the book against the wall. The noble sacrifices (generally made for characters who don’t deserve it, a la Sydney in Tale of Two Cities), the freak accidents (damn Sirius), the ones that, in my opinion, just didn’t need to happen. Whether the author does, in fact, feel that these deaths were necessary or just wants to torment his audience is usually unknown.

Another category of death befalls characters who suffer from what my sister and I call Terminal Beth Syndrome. Named after the second youngest little woman, these are characters who are simply too painfully nice to remain living. Their deaths are accompanied, at least from me, with a sigh of relief.

Anyone else want to chime in with an example of a fictional death done well (or badly)?


Friday, March 5, 2010

The Spontaneous Art of Handwriting

My laptop's adapter went out on me and so I've been without a laptop for a whole week and because of that I've been forced to do my outside writing by hand. Normally that's how I write my first drafts anyway. This is especially so with my fiction. Then after I've revised my first draft to death, and therefore to the p0int where I can no longer squeese in any more revisions because each page is already scrawled over with them, I'll type everything into my computer and save it on my flash drive.

Now, you're probably saying, "In this modern technologically advanced age, with all kinds of electronic devices that you can so quickly write your material with--electronic devices such as desktop computers, laptops (or notebooks), mobile text messaging gadgets, and word processing software--why would you want to go through the labourious pains of writing not only your stories but anything by hand?" You're probably wondering whether I'm some sort of crazed idiot living in the dark ages. Well, yeah, I am living in the dark ages as far as my first drafts go, but I'm no crazed idiot for doing so because I know what I'm doing. I'm doing what I like about writing, which is I am making my mark. When Zorro goes after the bad guys, he makes his mark, which is a "Z" that he slashes into a surface with his sword, hence "The Mark of Zorro." No, I don't ride a horse and chase down bad guys, and then slash an "S" (my first name initial) with a sword on a surface in some hoodlums' hide-out or even on the captured hoodlums' themselves like Zorro does. But I "slash" my mark, or marks more literally speaking, on paper with my ink "sword" (pen) when I go on adventurous quests in my imagination, and so when I write my stories, both fiction and non-fiction. And so I write my initial drafts by hand because my handwriting is exactly that--mine.

Like their signature, a person's handwriting is unique--even if in the most inconspicuous of ways--to anyone else's. So like genuine art, such as a painting, a drawing, or sculpture, or what not, each person's handwriting has its own natural style. The markings come from that particular person and that particular person only. And so, even though most of us don't think about it, the very handwritten characters themselves are art, and therefore are their own calligraphy. In Chinese culture, the handwriting of characters is an art, especially the spontaneous, Zen-influenced ones. In the Middle Ages of the Western and Islamic worlds (and even in much of Islamic culture today) , handwritten characters were made through an artistic, rather than a merely practical, mind state. Therefore in the same way that I like to think of my stories based on my own, more or less, spontaneous ideas as coming from my heart rather than from a literary formula, and therefore from my natural mind state, I want the very printed characters of my work to come from my heart as well.

Many of you are probably saying something like, "Well if you want to make money off of your writing you have to type it or editors won't read it." That's mostly true. If I were to mail off any of my handwritten manuscripts for publication, editors are going to toss them in the waste basket before they even read one word of any of them. But here's my point: I'll write my first drafts and even my first one or two rounds of revisions in them by hand because since doing so is a more spontaneous, more natural act that inspires my creative energy more than typing them into a computer. Since manually writing with pen and paper is more natural in the experience of the act than typing on a computer would be, I feel more like I am doing the creating rather than my computer. And so it's the initial draft stage where writing in this way helps me to get a good start on a writing project and so helps me to complete it good too even if that completion is with the help of a word processor.

Now someone's probably asking "Who the hell is going to see your artistically unique markings on the paper of your first draft?" Mostly myself, the writer, will see them. Because in cases such as writing, I'm going to see my thoughts more clearly and more insightfully if I see the manner that the letters on the paper are handwritten in. In working with my writing this way, I feel like I'm working with my writing rather than the computer's that displays it in digital characters on the screen in a style of font that the machine offers. A machine can only offer so many fonts.

So then why do I use a computer to complete the final stages of my writing? First of all, when the publishers and editors and then the masses after them see it, it will be assured that everybody can read it. Second, the electronic version or the electronically printed version simply looks neater when you send it out for publication. That may be a neatness that is based on consensus. But when you want to speak to the masses as a professional and when you want them to see credibility in you, you will do whatever it takes in the submission stage to get your writing to be taken seriously. A third reason that I use a computer for my writing is that when I write under deadlines, which is mostly the case with my paid non-fiction for certain Websites, I am writing within a more practical circumstance. Therefore in such a case, I'm writing not as much for aesthetic purposes as I am for practical ones and therefore for purposes of bringing in income to pay my expenses.

Now as far as my beautiful, self-styled calligraphy goes, perhaps after my life on this world (or perhaps even after my life on any other world for the matter) my handwritten drafts will be admired so much due to my published works having been so successful, they may get put on display in a museum. Who knows where our writing successes will lead to? Edgar Allen Poe didn't know that his writing would become much more successful than it already had (which was actually very modest) after his death.

Until next week . . . !


Thursday, March 4, 2010

An Aside

Today was an important day for California young people. Lots of my friends protested the rising of student fees, and the cuts to the entire college system in California. About seven years ago, I and a bunch of other community college students at the time, marched on the State Capitol. We didn't want the student fees to rise from $11 a unit. I was interviewed for Sacramento City college's newspaper, the Express, a year later, when the discussion again arose.

Now, the situation is dire. California State University at Sacramento is experiencing furloughs that affect courses and teaching. Due to record unemployment (of which I am a hidden statistic, I have not collected unemployment, and I am almost a year out of work) many of us are returning to school. I am currently re-enrolled at SCC post a degree at CSUS. For my Excel class, the professor has assigned us a project requiring the names, ages, and majors of our classmates. I was astounded to realize that I, at 26, was still among the youngest in the class. There are many in their 40's and older. There are other "graduates" as well, who (like me) seem to be in their latter 20's.

The State of California is sliding into a hole so large that it has begun systematically burying all tiers of its college system. The University of California system has boasted UCLA, UCSB, Cal Berkley, UC Santa Cruz, UC San Diego... but what happens to these nationally respected schools when the budgets are cut? Then there are the California State schools. San Fransisco State has a nationally acclaimed MFA in Creative Writing. California State University at Monterey Bay has programs working with Moss Landing. California State University, San Jose has the only Library Science degree in Northern California. Yes, that means the UC's don't have one.

What does this have to do with writing? Everyone I have brought into this writing network I have known in college, or through someone I met in the course of my 8 year college career. Classes were the best center for meeting other writers, for learning about groups, and so forth. When I went to World Fantasy Convention last fall, some of the authors were open about working in colleges and universities. Others had degrees in creative writing. Some had degrees in something else...knowledge and writing seem to go hand in hand. How can we hope to nurture future readers and writers if we can't assist our universities?

And... besides...there was the picture of the cool dude with the protest sign that read: "What Would Emerson do?" Because, my friends, you can't beat that.


Monday, March 1, 2010

Writing Rules

A friend recently posted a list of various authors' rules for writing.

I, being the geek I am, love reading them. Some, like Margaret Atwood's #3: 'Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch pieces of wood or your arm will do', make me laugh. Others, like Helen Dunmore's #4: 'Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn't work throw it away', are painfully hard to acknowledge. (Throw it away? What do you mean throw it away?)

There are more that are contradictory, depending on who you decide to listen to and more yet that I'm pretty sure don't make sense at all.

And then there are ones like Elmore Leonard's #3:

'Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in'.

This one has become the bane of my existence.

I like my dialogue tags. And I get bored of 'said'. But he has a point. The readers I've spoken with say they do tend to skip over 'said' so that it barely even registers.

As best as I can tell, verbs like 'gasped' and 'lied' have their place carrying dialogue just as 'said does. And from now on I will certainly be watching my dialogue more closely.

*All quotes taken from 'Ten Rules for Writing Fiction' published by

"Of love, Daroga. I am dying of love."

From love, we move to death (how dramatic!).

There are few things more perilous than being one of my characters. Chances are good that you’ll either die or be horribly mutilated by the end of the story (if you weren’t deformed to begin with). I’m not sure why I kill off so many characters. It’s not because I don’t like happy endings. Quite the contrary, actually – all of my favorite books have characters go through extreme trial, but then (for the most part) they come out all right. Books with sad endings break me. I cry over them; I ruminate. The ending of His Dark Materials, for example, while not strictly tragic, depressed me enough that I didn’t read another book for months. It’s a grieving process.

So why do my characters have a penchant for noble sacrifices and the misfortune of falling prey to deadly diseases? I’m not sure. Some people say that killing characters is lazy storytelling. It’s more difficult, they claim, to think of what happens to someone next than to drop a piano on him. My characters’ deaths, they would say, illustrate a severe lack of imagination. If I were a better writer, I would create futures for characters instead of dropping them so neatly.

I disagree with this logic. When one of my characters dies, I feel that I don’t have a choice in the matter. In fact, many times I have struggled to rewrite plots with a happier outcome, but I’ve always felt that this betrayed the integrity of the story. There is no other way, as much as it hurts.

The novel that I’m working on now is less bloody than the first one (actually, that’s kind of an ironic statement for those who know the plot), but there are still a couple of characters who don’t make it out alive. That’s just the way it is.

This topic will continue next week.


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