Monthly Archives: September 2013

Sorry for the gap …

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I would have liked to get more of the Revision Project up for you, but it’s been loony.

Suddenly finding a possible taker for The Horse Book (co-author S.A. Bolich) was good loony (that four-year-old draft looks ghastly and I need to make a revision to-do list first off).

Now, as we leap into NaNoPrepMo, let us leave thoughts of revision behind for December and go to how to organize our writing and research for a rough draft in November.

Revision 03e: The Story You Outgrew

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Save your first stories. Twenty years from now, you will find their forgotten box. A silly smile will cross your lips to read that title, see that opening …

Then the cringing starts. Wince. Groan.

You’ll find a mixture of the horrible, trite, and posturing with unexpected virtues and beauty. You can actually find a paragraph here, a description there, and even one or two concepts worth recycling. I wrote better about snow in the days I slogged through it than after many uninterruptedly tropical years.

Today, though, you’re stopped dead on a story that may be worth saving, but …
You wince right now.

Congratulations! In the process of writing even this far, you have learned so much that you have already outgrown the story.

Can revision of basic concepts can save this?

Usually, it can. Obvious Mary Sues can turn interesting, fan-fiction sheds its derivation, and stereotypes grow so you can’t tell they were ever cardboard.

You need to pinpoint problems to find solutions for each. They may include…

  • Arch or overwrought writing. If it makes you wince, you’re already past this stage. *Keep scenes and structure, but rewrite the way you can now.
  • Characters all sound alike: no one is more or less clever, more masculine or feminine. Characters all act alike, except for being good or bad. Any “different” characters are vaudeville stereotypes. Character motivations are thin or confused: the characters don’t have their own motivations, just obey author motivations to make the plot work. Characters act on or react to author knowledge they shouldn’t have. *These may take only cosmetic fixes, or may require a ground-zero plot revamp. You can characterize better than this now.
  • Plot secrets are obvious, or will be to anyone reading the cover blurb. Fan-fiction and self-publication admittedly have the merit of avoiding this major fault of regular publishers.
  • Pacing is slow, or all at one high level, or bumps up and down regularly as a metronome rather than building to a climax. Pacing keeps falling flat, lacking in excitement. You need high-level revision, dropping, adding, or changing scenes. A major problem like bead plotting needs plot rebuilding.

If you have to make bone-deep changes, unfinished is good: less to throw out, and you can feel revision leads to a first rough draft.

You may also decide this is too deeply flawed to be worth revision. You can start a new project fresh, freed by putting this effort in the Bottom Drawer. Sometimes “finishing what you started” is throwing good time away.

(Underlined items will some day be links when I get those blog items up.)

Revision 03d: The Plot Indecisive

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Sometimes you reach a point in a story and you can’t figure which way to go. Sometimes, oh allergic to writing things down pantsers, we forget what was supposed to happen, after a hiatus. Sometimes we read a blog that decries our choice we haven’t even written. Sometimes we have too many ideas.

If you can’t remember what your plot was, the grim reality is that if you can’t recover it through meditation, free-writing, or hypnosis, it’s gone. Take the pieces you have and make a new plot, cursing all the way, because we always know that the one that slipped our minds was just fabulous. Except it probably wasn’t or we’d remember it. It probably just seemed clever at the time. Very often, after you’ve written a new version, if you find the steno book or disc with the missing plot notes, you find they’re just so-so and you’ll be happy with the new one.

If the markets and your ideas conflict, you will discover one of two things. Either you are the kind of writer who can enjoy working to plan and modifying your ideas to suit — you lucky dog! — or you are the kind who is stuck writing what you have to write. (This does not excuse bad plots, junk characters, or derivative settings as being what you “have to write.”) What you will likely find is that after you have written one complete draft, you can put that away as “the true story.” After that, you can write “the fictionalized version” and feel free to modify it any way it needs to go. That, or you may find that you were thinking of the wrong market for this, and it’s really some other genre.

Sometimes you reach the middle and you know your ending, but you just can’t decide by which road to get there. Sometimes you reach a point in the manuscript where you realize that, at this point, you could go for one of two endings, either of which is good. Or a character could be one of two things. In all cases, both are good — it’s not like one is soggy or undramatic or unsatisfying — but it makes it a very different book.

Worst of all is when the character, as you’ve been writing, has revealed itself to be something you’re not sure would be in some planned plot situations. Even though you had been decided on the plot, the character has made it all questionable.

Read the rest of this entry

Revision 03c: Ant on Mount Everest

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When you look at the place a scene needs to go and go blank, suspect this. I don’t mean a weary turning away from boredom: I mean where part of your brain is admitting “I don’t know how to do this. I want the scene to do these things, but I don’t know how to make it happen.”

Everything has a learning curve. Just because you can mix colours doesn’t mean you can paint a real likeness in a portrait or make a landscape not only convincing but dramatic. Equally, just because you can write sentences and paragraphs and have a good vocabulary doesn’t mean you know how to make a scene work dramatically or make a dialog zing.

Alas, the only way to learn to write a scene is to write it. If you don’t like what you get, keep the parts that work (not necessarily the cleverest bits) and rewrite it. Over and over. Trying again in a new way is what all creative artists do to get it right, to approach closer to their vision for the work.

It may be you have bitten off more than you can chew. Read the rest of this entry

Revision 03b: Face the Fear

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Before I could sell a book, I had to face why I was afraid to sell it. You may have to face your fear in order to finish your story.

Anyone not fearing one of these doesn’t understand what could be wrong with something as good as selling a book. Lucky them.

It’s usually about other people and your relationships. Try these on for size, and see how many apply to you.

“It will make someone I hate happy and able to brag that they know me if it sells.”
And they will, while ignoring or dissing you still. To their friends, you become part of their status. The cure: Quit cutting off your nose to spite your face. Imagine how they’ll get cornered when asked, that if they’re your great good friend, why their copy isn’t author-autographed or why their friends don’t get to meet you. Their bragging will actually boomerang on them. Smirk about it and get on with your work.

“It will make someone, whose goodwill I want, despise me for writing something they won’t approve.”
A lot of romance authors, let alone erotica authors, use pseudonyms. In other genres, serious academics may not want to be caught writing college comedies, heroic fantasies, whatever. If you’re a lay teacher at a parochial school, you mayn’t want to be associated with your Wiccan detective. This is what pen names are for.

“I’ll have to revise it and then try to sell it.”
That’s a lot of work, apparently more than you want to do. Remember, you control your writing. If it’s for fun, just do it — especially if it’s to learn how to write. You have to learn how to write before rewriting, and just learning to finish a novel is a challenge without stressing about quality. That’s what revision’s for. Have your fun, write it, and go on to the next. Revise if you feel like it. Share it with your friends. You never have to do more than you want. Really. I officially excuse you from having to do more than you are willing to do.

“It will make someone expect me to do more to meet their expectations of what I’m capable of.”
Especially a likely fear if your parents were/are perfectionists who demanded you live up to their ideals. But you don’t have to. You control your writing. If you write, sell, and publish this, you never have to write another single thing again except as it pleases you. This is another reason for pseudonyms: if you don’t tell them you sold a book, they can’t nag you about another.

If you fear you’ll never come up with another story after you finish this one, I assure you, I have never heard of someone who finished a novel who didn’t have another idea, connected or not, in a bit. If they lack sequels or prequels, they just invent a new idea to love writing about. It’s only the people who marry a series for ten years who forget how to dream anything else. That’s another reason I suggest beginners write three disconnected novels first. Then you won’t fear this.

So talk it out with a friend, your pet, or your journal. You deserve to get that story finished!

Revision 03a: Carrot or Carrot?

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My only method for finishing a terminally boring manuscript is bribing the Muse.

Mine will not be bullied. Some people can say, “If I don’t finish this, I don’t get to watch my favorite TV show, or I have to do extra exercise or scrub the toilet.” If I’m royally stuck, I’d rather scrub my toilet — and yours, too — than stare at the screen with nothing happening behind my eyes. If nothing else, when I get jammed, the house gets clean and organized and I get fitter.

Bribes, though, can be very small and cheap. Free, even. Like a sense of accomplishment.

I make a list of all the scenes and bits that need finishing. I print it out, and get to cross off completed items. This To Do list proves motion toward the goal to me. To me, that’s a reward, with a sparkly completed manuscript at the end.

But I also examine that list. It may be time to change some things.

First, I ask why I’m bored. Is it dull? The reader will think so, too, so I need to introduce something exciting or even turn the scene inside out (this can change the plot, but usually for the better). If it’s incurably dull but necessary — I cut that scene and sum things up in a Tell, if that much. You probably will find this improves the pacing no end.

If the problem is plot fizzle, then it’s time to invent some sparklers and fountains. In short, re-examine it and make it zing. This is revising the original idea, but no one said you couldn’t! That’s what revision is about: re-envisioning and changing things. You don’t have to finish a draft of a bad idea. Stop and make it good. This alone can restore the fun and re-excite you into finishing.

Double-check to make sure that you aren’t actually cringing at how bad this seems now. That’s another problem, not boredom.

When I absolutely can’t get going, I put “*****” at every gap (I’m a grasshopper, not a railroader). Then I go to each one in turn and write one sentence forward. Just one, if that’s all I’m capable of. “C’mon,” I tell myself, “you ought to know by now at least ten words’ worth of forward info.” Don’t limit yourself to one sentence if more arrives, but force at least one.

By the third time through, if not sooner, I’ll write somewhere to a scene finish, if only not to see the rest again. Then I can take a break.

Railroaders — you can stand anything not physically damaging for 15 little minutes. Pull your head together. Start the timer* and type fast for 15 minutes with no pauses whatever. Type anything to do with the scene. It doesn’t have to be pretty or salable (crafters, loosen up). If desperate, interrogate the scene.

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*Every writer needs a 15-minute timer, whether a software alarm or a wind-up plastic chicken. You will find me sharing several writing kinks that require a timer. It works because you don’t have to watch a clock, but can concentrate on the writing. Clock-watching can be an excuse to not really write, when all these involve diving in and doing nothing but writing in order for them to work.

Revision 03: Dead in Its Tracks: What’s Stalling Completion

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Most writers, at some time, will have stories they can’t finish. If you’re not doing this for money, or hope of it, you probably never will finish the story, not even for an audience. The huge number of unfinished stories at FanFiction.com tells us that, as do any number of people I’ve known with unfinished MSS piling up.

For railroad writers, having one scene stall is a real disaster: you can’t get past it to the rest of the novel!

Call it Ingraham’s Law: You must have a finished draft to sell, or you don’t have anything to sell. No editor will buy unfinished first novels, because you may never finish. (Amateurs are excused as usual, but you might like finishing, if you could.)

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The basic reasons a first draft stalls (as opposed to lacking any time to finish it) are–

1) Boredom/sloth. This is too much like hard work. No one warned you that writing is sand-hogging for your mind. Now that you know how the story works out, you’ve had your fun with it and don’t need the actual completion.

2) Fear. You’re afraid to write those scenes, because they touch sore spots of yours, or someone will disapprove. If you finish, someone will expect you to do something with it. If you finish this, you’ll never have another idea and your fun of writing will be over.

3) Lack of Skill. You’re in over your technical head and don’t know how to pull this off. You can’t figure how this scene would be played to get where you need to go. You can’t make the writing approach your vision. You don’t like what you’ve written and wish you had a collaborator who could do more with the material you’ve built in your head.

4) Confusion/indecision. This is sometimes the result of any of the above, but it has other sources. Trying to write commercially can have publishers’ preferences at odds with your Muse. You may have been away from the work long enough you’ve lost track of the plot. You may simply be pulled along either of two possible stories.

5) Growth. You’ve outgrown this story. It’s too primitive, juvenile, or derivative, and now you see it. It makes you hairball, or at least cringe.

How Really to Prep for Doomsday If You Seriously Believe It Is Coming

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Get good with your religion. Face it, the whole thing to doomsday is that most people will die, if not all. You are not the focal character in a book or movie, so you’re as likely to die as anyone, just from bad luck. No matter how good your shelter, if you are at Ground Zero for the bomb or the meteor, it’s all over. Adjust.

Next, try to avoid natural disaster areas. Yes, that’s me laughing like the Wicked Witch of the East. It’s not easy to find areas that are not subject to —

•    tornado,
•    hurricane,
•    tsunami,
•    earthquake (remember the New Madrid quake or the Helena, Montana quake: these are hard to get away from),
•    wildfire,
•    drought,
•    volcanoes,

— let alone supervolcanoes or snap glaciation, and nowhere is safe from comets and asteroids. But really, living in some place that goes to the sandbags every few years is not my idea of a good place anyway.

Mind you, you have to have a job or two in the place. If you just have to live in a disaster-prone area, you can practice prepping for doomsday by prepping for the more likely disaster every few years. Don’t live in Tornado Alley without a reinforced storm cellar. It’s your first level of doomsday shelter, right?

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Preppers without Gardens

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We’re not supposed to call them survivalists. Survivalists are those folks who have gone back to the land out in the boondocks, living as if civilization has already pretty much collapsed, and not enjoying the goodies still available.

Preppers, from what I can see of various shows on TV, are yuppie survivalists. No, they’re just prepared for the violent collapse of civilization or the destructive earth changes due any day now.

In many or most cases, these folks are running on some internal nightmare — too many zombie pictures, maybe — and not applying much logic to what they are doing. Survivalists at least have logic on their side. (Someone ready for the next hurricane is not a “prepper”; that’s just a sensible person with normal foresight, puh-leez.)

It struck me that these unprepared preppers are acting out rituals of safety, making gestures toward doing something that satisfies their sense of danger, but not really working to make themselves safe. They are buying a bottle of Dr. Feelgood, not actually making a workable plan. A very expensive bottle, but it works for them so they can sleep at night. (Those really prepared — obviously, I’m not talking about you in this.)

This was brought home by the story of one single mother who was so proud that her teenish son saved the seeds from store-bought fruits and vegetables they ate: tomatoes, bell peppers, apples, oranges. He dried them and stored them so that when they emerged from their shelter, they could grow their own food.

Just like that.

The gardeners in the audience may now groan and cuss. You know how much work it is to get a food garden going as a beginner.

These people are ignorant of how to survive and will not face the fact. They walk around happily insulated in their dreams of how it ought to work and feel so superior to us foolish folk who won’t survive.

One: If you’re going to have to do it then, you had better learn how to do it now, and practice until Doomsday. The folks with guns and judo have that idea, but I think that’s because shooting guns is fun, learning judo is a fun sport, and it doesn’t require the knowledge and patience of the not-so-fun stuff, like gardening.

We should notice these seed-storers were buying their tomatoes and bell peppers at the store. That means they weren’t learning how to garden by planting a simple veggie garden in the back yard. I set one up most years on the lanai in pots, simply because I’m tired of tasteless vegetable. Living in a house, they don’t have to buy dirt: they have no excuse.

The seeds they are saving are from supermarket hybrid varieties: they may be sterile. If not, our preppers need to know what kind they are and if they’ll grow in their area, and if so at what time of year. They may have been shipped in from a very different clime. And did you know you have to ferment tomato seeds before you dry them? They certainly won’t know about staking without killing the plant (no, not like staking vampires) or how to recognize and what to do about parasites, diseases, or even the signs of over-watering.

Then you want to realize that they will have to nurse apple seeds into seedlings into saplings finally into trees over the years until they can start to bear fruit. Unless they are assuming the earth will be swept clean and no other apple trees left, they would be better off looking for a neglected orchard to take over.

They need to find out what heritage varieties — naturally bred for stability — of vegetables work in their area and get good at growing them now.

Two: Many expensive secret redoubts are a joke. Some are several sick jokes.

Preppers are generally wealthy enough to have both a home and a country retreat, their redoubt. Their doomsday shelter is often a fairly expensive steel tank installed “secretly” in the ground.

That is in quotes because when they bring in the backhoe to dig the hole, the giant truck with the shelter the size of a double-wide mobile home on board, and spend a couple of days setting up the crane to move the shelter. Ah, folks? Everyone in the vicinity knows what it is and where it is. The proprietors of the local diner, gas station, and possibly church will get to that well-stocked shelter before the owners do (see below on travel).

As a matter of game design, I spent a lot of one decade studying nuclear war survival skills and the like. My Dear Husband is a SAC veteran. Generally, these people are doing it all wrong to survive nuclear attack or accident, let alone killer comets. If we ran the local gas station, I’d loot their shelter for supplies, but never move in.

Every single one we saw had only one way in or out. That’s called “a death trap.” Every fortress needs a sally port (oh, yeah, studied fortification, too.) or at least a fire escape.

Most shelters are only buried under maybe three feet of dirt. That’s barely enough to get earth-arching (see Cresson H. Kearny on that). If I’m spending the cost of a new Cadillac on the thing, I want it down twenty full feet. Otherwise, they usually leave a lump, and the entry is just hanging out there. Of course, if it’s set shallow, you can’t plant much more than grass on it. That’s another advantage to deep-set shelters: you don’t plant trees, but you do plant bushes, especially to hide the hatch. You don’t have a big stairway down except for loading it up beforehand. When things look tight, or just when you’re finished, you bury that sucker,  and have one hatch here, one at the end of the escape tunnel. Maybe you just have an uncompleted tunnel with two feet left to dig out so there’s no hatch for an invader to find.

They don’t usually have filtered air supplies to protect them from Martian poison gas and bio weapons. The air source is a pipe sticking up out of the ground. A PVC pipe, at that.

Every time we see these shelters, my DH and I just pretend that we’ve thrown in our lot with the vicious biker barbarians (because we have good skills and a bad attitude). One of our skills is getting people out of their shelters. First, we bash away their unarmored electronic periscope device (we can’t see why the people in that episode bothered). Then we set a fire of greenery at their air intake and smoke them out. If that doesn’t work (someone actually had air filters!), with the ceiling only three feet down, a couple of burly outlaws can uncover a section pretty quickly, and we set a bonfire going there and roast them in their tin can. Just like setting a Viking hall aflame; they can come out or die in there.

Twenty feet down? I don’t thing you can get the average band of reavers to work that hard. That’s like starting on the roof of a house and digging down to the basement. They also shouldn’t make it so easy to find the air intake. That’s why you look for or create a hollow tree or two to disguise it. A cement “dead tree” is a lot less likely to be spotted as an air intake than a white pipe sticking out of the ground.

Three: They aren’t going to get to it, anyway, which may be a mercy.

These ritual preppers usually still live close to their urban job, but plan on driving the 300 miles to their rural redoubt when things turn bad, whether it’s the quake that sank Manhattan or their friendly neighborhood nuclear plant starting to glow. Some even take combat driving courses so they can get through anticipated wreckage and armed road blocks.

“Yeah, the comet’s coming. Let’s take our guns and baseball bats and make sure no one leaves the city.”

Huh? No, really, who is it they think is going to stop them leaving? People will either be flooding out, creating rush-hour traffic jams, or following the preppers, going, “They must know a safe place to go. We’ll go with them.” It will be days or weeks later, after the stores have been looted out, before brigands set up to shake out every car passing.

This is where the preppers who live at their redoubts make sense. Those shown were usually the pros, I notice, who teach shooting, combat driving, and the rest. Some of them have tin cans, but they also garden, can and dry the food, have laid out their main house for long-term defense, and are only two minutes from the shelter.

At 60 mph, that 300-mile trip is going to take 5 hours — yeah, ignore the speed laws when the world is ending. But they obviously anticipate that they aren’t going to just zip out of town on clear roads. Putting in traffic jams until the flood of cars splits up enough, makes this sound more like an 8-10 hours on the road. Hope they have a long-range gas tank, because you know the locals out in the country will have drained the rural gas stations first, while the city folk were still trying to get to the suburbs.

So they must assume that they will get at least half a day’s notice of the end of the world, preferably with everyone else left in ignorance. Less than that, and they’re going to find themselves with nothing but their car roof between them and the meteoric debris. If the nuclear plant goes quickly, they can have fatal doses before they know to leave or they can get far enough on the choked roads to get out of range.

Four: Assuming they get there, and they’ve built it well, or the catastrophe is such that what they’ve built isn’t challenged, they have to live in that puppy.

Your 1950s bomb shelters weren’t generally palatial. In fact, they could just barely hold the bunks for the family of four or six for whom they were built. Frankly, most people thought they wouldn’t be in there but a week, until the rescue trucks came to take them out of a really bad area, or they just walked out of a fringe area. Tempers were going to be thin, we bet.

Preppers are frequently stocking their redoubts for a stay of *two years.*

Think about it. Two years in a studio apartment with the windows and doors boarded up, living off what you have stored in the closet, with your spouse and children. Bored children, scared people, who are used to running all over in cars and on bicycles, now in this small space. The people who get two-tank shelters with a corridor between make perfect sense, because you can get away from others for a while, look at a different set of walls.

Submariners have the best chance of coming through sane.

Figure the water requirements alone: 4 people = 4 gallons minimum of water per day (2(365 days)) = 2,920 gallons. Then you need water for bathing, cleaning the shelter and cooking equipment, and flushing the toilet. A 3,000-gallon tank is a minimum, 5,000 preferable. At plastic-mart.com, you find a 3k-gal water tank is 102″ in diameter and 93″ high, while 5k-gal is 119″ x 112″ high. That’s 8.5 feet across x 7.75 feet high (2.59 x 2.36m) and just about 10′ across by 7.75′ high (2.6 x 2.36m). It is kind of fun to have the physical picture of all this water in one place: it’s a room full of water.

You have to get one, adding one or two thousand dollars to the shelter cost (because the tin cans we saw didn’t have this) and bringing in another notable load. Then you bury it next to the shelter, plumb it in, and fill it from somewhere. Many of these rural redoubts are on unimproved land, with no house or well, so that means bringing in a water truck. Then you hope the water doesn’t go bad in the last six months, and you have no plumbing problems.

Many of these ritual preppers will tell you they’re having no problem with boredom. Their shelters include a giant monitor on the wall (and we will assume a huge library of DVDs), and computers.

Where does the electricity for all this come from? For that matter, how about the electricity for the lights in their shelter?

Generators need gasoline. How many gallons a day will the generator consume? Picture 2 of those 5000-gallon tanks of petrol. Buy them, bury them, hook them up, and have the tanker truck come fill them up. Nah, no one will guess you have a shelter there.

One poor prepper had his generator in a shed on the surface (?!?!) and someone stole it while the land was uninhabited. You can’t put something generating carbon monoxide as well as electricity in your shelter with you. It needs its own remote buried shelter, but with air-tight access from the main one to keep monoxide away, and its own air supply for burning the fuel.

If they plan on generating light (and running air pumps and giant plasma screens and laptops) off people pedalling bicycles, they need a lot more food per person. As radio amateurs who have set up practice emergency stations know, pedalling a bike attached to a generator is no ride in the park, unless your park is on the side of a mountain and all the paths are steep, and you have no low gears. Again, if they are thinking this, they are failing to try it out in advance.

NEXT: My opinions on actually prepping, which I have no intention of doing, beyond normal hurricane preparedness.