Saturday, November 29, 2008

Title Theory and Dave's Daily Kick in the Pants

David Farland (Dave Wolverton) had some advice on titles in today's Kick in the Pants:

Step 1: Look for words that will put two disparate images in the reader's mind at once. If you look at the title of books that intrigue you, you will almost always find that they have either two words or groups of words that form separate images.

For example:
Chicken Soup -- For the Soul
Lord of the--Rings
The Da Vinci--Code
The Catcher--in the Rye
The Grapes--of Wrath

So you want to try to come up with two words that hopefully create disparate images. Yet it's not just disparate images that make the title intriguing. The images must almost beg the the reader to pick it up in order to answer the question, "What's this about?" Leonardo Da Vinci has a secret code? Are you kidding me? What kind of code? What's going on? Chicken Soup for the soul? I'll bet that feels good! I could use some about now.

Now, Chicken Soup for the Soul is a great example of what he's talking about. That title is created by juxtaposing two concepts. The rest aren't.

Sure, any four-or-more word title can be broken down into two or more groups. But claiming that that makes it a combination of two distinct concepts is a little post-hoc reasoning for my taste.

Perhaps I'd give him The DaVinci Code. However, that one is actually a Ludlum-format title - THE+NAME+ENIGMATIC-NOUN (The Bourne Identity, The Osterman Weekend, The Acquitaine Progression...). Dan Brown spiced it up slightly by selecting the name of a famous historical character, which adds emphasis to the name and makes it shoehorn into Dave's two-concepts concept.

Now, let's look at the rest.

The Catcher in the Rye. Actuating metaphor for the novel. Might possibly fit Dave's idea, although neither "catcher" nor "in the rye" have any standard meaning that I know of outside of baseball. The title becomes a cypher-- until the metaphor is literally explained in the text, it means nothing.

The Grapes of Wrath. Famous metaphor from the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I don't think it qualifies as "two concepts" anymore.

Lord of the Rings. It might be possible to give him this one, since the reader will ask "what rings?" But does "Lord" really qualify as a separate concept? In fact, wouldn't the second phrase be meaningless without the noun, and the noun naked without the phrase?

I think his overall point, that a title needs to draw the reader's attention and make the reader curious about the novel, is good. To that degree, I'd generally avoid titles that have been used multiple times, although you know that anything with "Dragon" in it does sell.

* * *

If you'd like to join Dave's list, then email davidfarland (at) xmission (dot) com and say "Kick me!"

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Advertising and Positioning - The Test

Okay, so here's a basic question about Advertising: when your public hears your name, what do you want them to associate you with?

That's what you call "positioning". If you write horror, you want them to think scary things. If you write adventure, you want them to think fun and excitement.

That's why Pepsi paid big bucks to Michael Jackson back in the 80s, because they wanted to seem cool and hip and filled with energy. That's why Pepsi stopped paying Jackson in the 90s, because they didn't want to seem icky and freakish.

Now, I ask you, who wants to advertise on a math test?

Hmmm. Who wants to associate themselves in YA minds as related pain?

Joanne Jacobs, who writes and blogs on education-related subject, notes that the answer for a San Diego-area school teacher who sells advertising on his tests and quizzes appears to be - an orthodontist.

Is that funny or what?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Eleemosynary vs Secular and Times vs Tribunes

Media Bistro's Fish Bowl New York feature points to a Interview with Sam Zell, who recently purchased the Tribune Company, parent company of the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and Boston Tribune, among others.

Zell talks about trends in the newspaper business in very blunt (ie money) terms, and Media Bistro PULLS this juicy quote about Pulitzers:
I haven't figured out how to cash in a Pulitzer Prize. There was a day when a newspaper put "Winner of Pulitzer Prize" on the front page, and people flocked to read the Pulitzer Prize story. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that that's the case today But I also think that there are scale issues. In other words, I think that if the goal is a Pulitzer, it's in the wrong place. In other words, we're not in the business of, in effect, underwriting writers for the future. We're a business that, in effect, has a bottom line. So as far as we're concerned, I think Pulitzers are terrific, but Pulitzers should be the cream on the top of the coffee. They shouldn't be the grounds. And I think there are a lot of scenarios in the newspaper industry where the entire focus is on Pulitzers.

What Media Bistro DID NOT include is the next four sentences from the interview that finished the above thought:
The entire focus is on becoming an international correspondent. I mean, I know that because our newspaper sent somebody to Kabul to cover the "Afghan Idol Show." Now, I know Idol is the No. 1 TV program in the world, but do my readers really want a firsthand report on what this broad looked like who won the "Afghan Idol" Show"? Is that news?

Read the whole interview. Zell is clearly rethinking the whole business, which is good. I won't say he's coming to all the right conclusions, but when the industry is eroding in the double digits, everything has to be on the table to save it.

If you're wondering about the blog entry title, eleemosynary is a word Zell uses for what he isn't - a charity.

Late Bloomers

The living Scotsman posts a top-ten list of Late Flowering Debut Novelists - people whose first novel was published "late in life", with the youngest on the list being nearly fifty at time of first publication.

Compare, as well, this strange piece in New Yorker first claiming, then debunking, the idea that genius has something to do with age. It also states some interesting theory on different kinds of creativity that bloom early or late:
Mark Twain was the same way. Galenson quotes the literary critic Franklin Rogers on Twain’s trial-and-error method: “His routine procedure seems to have been to start a novel with some structural plan which ordinarily soon proved defective, whereupon he would cast about for a new plot which would overcome the difficulty, rewrite what he had already written, and then push on until some new defect forced him to repeat the process once again.” Twain fiddled and despaired and revised and gave up on “Huckleberry Finn” so many times that the book took him nearly a decade to complete. The Cézannes of the world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition.

On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all. Prodigies are easy. They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith. (Let’s just be thankful that Cézanne didn’t have a guidance counsellor in high school who looked at his primitive sketches and told him to try accounting.) Whenever we find a late bloomer, we can’t but wonder how many others like him or her we have thwarted because we prematurely judged their talents. But we also have to acccept that there’s nothing we can do about it. How can we ever know which of the failures will end up blooming?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Rooting For the Terminator

Over at Varkat's journal, there's an interesting piece by Tor Romance author Patti O'Shea

She says "No One Roots for the Terminator..."

One of the biggest mistakes I think writers make is that when they write a kick-butt character, they create a kind of softened version of the terminator. Or in an effort to add some vulnerability, they'll give the hero or heroine an issue to deal with, but if it can be pulled out of the story without impacting the scenes or the character, then it's not a real complication.

The point is quite well made.

Her later example from one of her own books also illustrates what I think of as a universal truth - every advantage is a disadvantage, every character strength is a weakness, and vice versa.

To a character with a hammer, everything seems like a nail. Sometimes that's useful, like when the something is a snake that's attacking you. Sometimes that's disastrous, like when the something is a crystal vase that your spouse gave you.

Any time that you can take what looks like a strength, and use it against your character, you will please your audience. And that's what it's all about, isn't it?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Zen and the Art of Convention Footwear

A friend pointed out an article by Dan Simmons on Zen and the Art of Writing Well. I'm not sure that a writer would get anything out of it, unless he/she already knew quite a bit about zen. On the other hand, there is an interesting part late in the article on Simmons' prescription for writers who have no empathy for their cardboard villains -

If you’re a great African-American novelist who cannot see into the human soul of a white man or woman because all you see is racism and historical inequity, quit writing fiction. If you’re John Steinbeck who knows every niche in the human heart of the displaced and powerless Oakies but has no clue as to the thoughts and feelings of the lettuce-growers and ranchers, admit defeat and do not publish fiction. (Or, if published, have your ghost call back the books and have them posthumously pulped.) If you have received the Nobel Prize for your sympathetic fiction-portrayal of the Oppressed and Downtrodden in South Africa but have no real understanding of why the landowner grandsons and granddaughters of colonists acted and thought as they did, pack it in. If you’re the screenwriter who drove Thelma and Louise triumphantly over the cliff of the Grand Canyon in a world where all men be slime, rent a Cadillac and go thou and do likewise.

Hmmm. Well, I think that's a bit harsh...

But here's my own little Zen story -

Zen and the Art of Convertion Footwear

Once, Joshu left the monastery to go to a writer's convention in Kyoto. There, he found the head monk Nansen in the back of the main hall, snoring deeply. Joshu, noting Nansen's inattention, decided to play a trick.

Joshu removed the head monk's sandals and replaced them with black pumps, then painted Nansen's face with Goth makeup. He hurried home to await the results.

Hours later, Joshu was trembling with suppressed humor when the head monk returned to the monastery shortly before dawn. Nansen entered, still wearing the makeup and shoes, and set about his daily routine. The other monks came and went, apparently oblivious to Nansen's change in attire.

Finally, when the evening meal came around, Joshu could hold his humor no longer, and asked, "Master, I am puzzled. What does white makeup and black shoes reveal about the Buddha-nature?"

"Kwatz" said Nansen, clouting Joshu on the head. "Only the lack of a matching belt."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Myths About YA (?)

Over on the Swivet, guest Courtney Summers blogs about some myths about YA.

Honestly, I don't know that these beliefs are common and I don't know that they are totally wrong, either.

For instance, to what degree can you swear in a YA novel? In any novel?

I find swearing, by which I mean the literal depiction of particular swear words, to be intrusive and to negatively affect my reading experience. Sure, most people swear, but most people poop, and most people pick their noses, and that's just to get started, eh? We don't generally show pooping in stories, at least not as much as we actually do, because it's pretty boring and icky. So is swearing.

The question is, what function does it perform in the story? I'm not really talking about an occasional "Damn", I'm talking pervasive f_ing foulmouthedness. Hollywood types think it makes their show "edgy", or gets them the coveted PG-13 rather than the PG the story would deserve without the gratuitous nastiness.

In any case, I'm not sure that anyone believes you can't get away with gratuitous swearing, sex, drugs etc in YA, since clearly there are books that do.

I'm also not sure that you actually can get away with them, since they are so easy to do wrong, and if you do do them wrong, your book will not sell to libraries and will die a sad, lonely death.

My suggestion - write an awesome story, where the characters are so frelling fascinating that the reader won't notice that they aren't shagging each other and vomiting meaningless epithets and imbibing mild organic poisons.

Do that, and don't worry about the myths - you'll become a legend.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Andy Meisenheimer on Show and Tell

As a guest blogger on Rachelle Gardner's Blog, Zondervan fiction editor Andy Meisenheimer gives this and more on Show versus Tell:

[Showing is...] Letting the audience put together the clues; presenting simply a sensory experience through the lenses of a character’s viewpoint. Passing no judgment, but allowing the characters to speak for themselves.

Down in the comments, he adds this:

Telling can be very useful. Think about when you tell a story to a friend over coffee. "So, my brother, right? He's totally paranoid. Get this--yesterday..." And instead of showing me paranoid, you told it to me, but that's the only way to make the following story funny or interesting or whatever. Telling is usually reflective of your point of view character.

So he's using "Tell" to include viewpoint attitude or tone, rather than just being a level of detail or summary in the writing.


Monday, November 17, 2008

Your Favorite Author Intrusion

"Author intrusion" is a phrase most often used for writings where the author puts his own, barely-disguised opinions like political infodumps where suddenly the narrator will pontificate about, oh,

  • why a world where only the (ex-)soldiers can vote is THE CORRECT WAY TO RUN A SOCIETY-- kaff Heinlein kaff kaff -- or
  • why there is NEVER SUCH A THING AS VALUE ADDED BY GROUP ACTIVITY-- kaff kaff Ayn Rand kaff.
  • Why girls have cooties and should be avoided.

You know, important stuff.


So, what's your favorite author intrusion?

Economy The New Terror?

No, that's not a political manifesto (thank god).

Smita Jain (author of the new book Kkrishnaa's Konfessions)
asks here
For example, many thriller writers almost went out of business after the end of the cold war between the USA and USSR. Till they found terror. Perhaps it is time to think the same economically?

For some reason I couldn't leave a comment there, so here's my thoughts -

(1) For suspense you need a villain. Who is the antagonist in an economic suspense novel? Another corporation? Been there, done that.

(2) Remember that publication is on a two year delay, more or less. A story keyed to an economic environment rapidly becomes dated (although economies do cycle).

(3) It doesn't work to write about what everyone else is writing about. Just write what you think people would actually enjoy reading, especially people like yourself.

(4) I believe that upbeat stories are more likely to be successful in the coming climate, but that's just an educated guess.

Defining Love

Okay, this one got to me.

From Cara Putman's Blog The Law, Books and Life

A four year old child whose next door neighbor was an elderly gentleman who had recently lost his wife.

Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy went into the old gentleman's yard, climbed onto his lap, and just sat there.
When his Mother asked what he had said to the neighbor, the little boy said,

'Nothing, I just helped him cry'

Hat tip Timothy Fish.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Regrowing Body Parts a Reality?

SF Girl reports that the U.S. Army has announced progress in actually regrowing body Parts using somethign referred to as a "nano-scaffold" . Apparently came from a report in the Vancouver Sun.

The technology works by placing a very fine apparatus called a scaffold, which is made of polymer fibres hundreds of times finer than a human hair, in place of a missing limb or damaged organ. The scaffold acts as a guide for cells to grab onto so they can begin to rebuild missing bones and tissue. The tissue grows through tiny holes in the scaffold, in the same way a vine snakes its way up a trellis.
The military plans to announce the breakthrough at the 26th Army Science Conference - which attracts more than 1,600 international military scientists - in Florida next month.

Listed in various contexts in the story are regrowing fingertips, bladders, even a uterus.

Strange New world, indeed.

Vampire Kits, Fairy Lamps, Southern Gothic

Cool circa 1800 Vampire Killing Kit just came up for auction. I blogged it over on Abandoned Towers.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Recessions and Writers

Lit soup has an interesting piece listing points why recessions are good for aspiring writers.

Of course, all of these points simply amount to "What else do you have to do for the next year anyway?"

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Explaining to Do

Galleycat reports that Seinfeld is getting $7 million (and up) bids for a new book proposal. According to sources quoted in the New York Observer, "whoever ends up winning is going to have some explaining to do."


Oh, and $2.5 million for Sarah Silverman, who according to wikipedia is a sort of Jewish female Andrey Dice Clay. Who'da thunk it?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Unlikeable Characters

Hat tip to The Swivet for pointing out the discussion of Unlikeable Characters over on BookEnds LLC.

The comments are quite interesting, mentioning the "Save the Cat" strategy and, of course, the TV character House.

I'd add the personal fact that, given a truly unlikeable narrator or MC, I'm likely to stop reading even if I'm interested in the plot or mystery or whatever. Cory Doctorow's award-winning Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom - which you can download for free here - lost me because the main character was annoying, insane and stupid, even though the milieu and the mystery were fascinating.

Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys nearly lost me for similar reasons.

For me, I won't spend six hours with someone unless I'd enjoy, um, spending six hours with them. Life's too short to read bad books.

On the other hand, there are lots of books I've read and loved, that I currently can't stand. Mark Twain comes to mind. It's entirely possible that someday I'll come back and read Magic Kingdom and absolutely love it. And in any case, I'd happily pay full price to see the movie.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Food Meme

From Squidoo's Food meme.

Are you a good cook? Very.

What is your speciality? Chicken Gumbo.

What was the last meal you ate? Pasta with ground turkey marinara sauce. Raw carrots. Braeburn apples dribbled with Menifee County molasses. Promised land 2% milk.

Last night was a venison lentil stew with garam masala and curry seasonings. The fresh venison was courtesy of a generous cousin's hunt on Sunday.

Do you eat breakfast? Yes, EVERY day.

Name a food you dislike? Liver, sea urchin, anything horribly fatty, anything really fishy tasting. Haggis isn't all that bad, though.

What is your favorite fast food restaurant? Chick-fil-A. Also Panera Bread Company, which isn't strictly fast food but has drive through sandwiches that are awesome.

Where do you like to eat with friends? Friends make any food and any place better.

Hmm. Picnic on a gazebo in the rain sounds nice.

Pancakes or French toast? Belgian waffles, actually. But both of those are good, too.

Are you a coffee drinker? Or tea? Both! If you went through my pantry and freezer, you'd find at least 6 different coffees and 25 different teas.

How do you like your eggs? As quiche. Also, I keep hard-boiled eggs on hand for snacks (throw away the yolk and the white is only 25 calories).

I also make a breakfast dish from eggs, rice, vegetables, fresh basil and any available breakfast meat. It's vaguely related to Chinese fried rice.

What kind of jam do you like on your peanut butter sandwich? Strawberry, blueberry or raspberry.

What's your favorite ice-cream? Butter Brickle.

If someone surprised you with a meal, what would please you most? Most impressive would be Lobster Thermidor. But anything that showed a little creativity and a little effort would be sweet-- I'm really not that hard to please.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Back It Up

JA Konrath over at A Newbie's Guide to Publishing reminds all authors to back up their stuff, repeatedly and consistently, because the alternative isn't pretty.

Yeah, I really ought to do that.

Yep, sure should.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Maria Snyder on Show and Tell

Lots of authors have written on this particular item, but I really like Maria V Snyder's take on the subject. In particular, she talks about exactly how to show things.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Memory of Elephants

Okay, so I was researching a particular phrase, to make sure I got it right in an homage, and I ran across Denise McCune's List of
Top Ten Favorite SF Short Stories, most of which I agreed with wholeheartedly, and some of which I now have to hunt down.

She has a link to Spider Robinson's Hugo-award-winning "Melancholy Elephants", which I immediately devoured and suffered through. Chills and agony and unnamed emotions. Awesome scary work. Go read it.

Something that needs to be repeated over and over to hard-SF writers: It isn't the technology, it's the people.

And I'll also repeat my personal definition of "hero" - someone who sees what needs to be done and does it, regardless of the personal cost. No cost, no hero.

A Matter of Style

Over at Bookends, Gina Robinson has some important things to say about finding your voice.

Personally, I don't think that writers necessarily have only one voice. Some do, like Isaac Asimov or Jack Kerouac or Raymond Chandler. Some don't. For instance, I would argue that Sylvia Louise Engdahl has three distinct voices in Enchantress from the Stars, each as beautiful and worthy as the others.

Likewise, each of us has many voices we use in our daily lives: parent, employee, supervisor, child, parishioner, confidante. Why would we not have many voices as writers?

It's similar to the difference between a character actor and ... blagh, I can't find the opposite term... an actor with range? A "character actor" plays the same kind of roles, over and over and over, like Adam Sandler or Gary Cooper. Other kinds of actors are much harder to pigeonhole, like William H Macy or Peter Ustinov.

Now, admittedly, I am a beginner in terms of authorship. However, I think of voice more often as finding the voice of a particular character or story, rather than my voice. But what Gina Robinson says is very important, because it is a sign to finding which of your natural voices will work for your target audiences.

Go there. Enjoy.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Buy a Book

Moonrat, over at Editorial Ass, gives you a great excuse to go out and buy a book this weekend. To save the entire industry.

C[r]ash Flow (Or What Went Wrong in October in Book Publishing)

Read it. Then go buy a book.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Show and Tell

Lots of people write about "Show vs Tell". It's a good concept to be aware of, but it should be and in the phrase, not vs.

What do I mean?

Well, let's start with being honest. If you write prose, it's all tell. Except for little visual tricks, illustrations, doodles, perhaps visual page layouts when you are describing a sign, or other modifications of form- except for those, everything you are doing is telling.

Everything is telling.

It isn't so in movies, where almost everything should be visual, but in prose, everything is telling. Even when you go so far towards subtle detail as Raymond Chandler's "A line showed on her jaw", you are still just telling about the line on the jaw. Okay, Chandler didn't tell that she was angry, he told a detail that allows the reader to infer two levels - that her jaw muscle was tightening, and that it was anger that made it happen.

But it's all tell.

The question is, what level of detail are you telling? Is the level of detail appropriate to your story and your audience?

Look at the following sentence, and then decide whether it is showing or telling.

John loved Marsha.


If you've fallen for the "Show vs Tell" fad, you probably said "tell."


The correct answer depends upon context. It is impossible to know without seeing the scene and the surrounding phrasing. Look at it in the following paragraph:

John loved Marsha. John's brother Abel loved Grace. Marsha loved Abel, but had an obvious liking for Grace as well. And then there was Prudence, who thought her brothers would be better off staying away from the brothel completely.

In this case, "John loved Marsha" is a detail regarding the current emotional situation in the family. If you buy the "show vs tell" concept, it is a "show" statement.

Really, any sentence or detail can be a "tell" at one level, while it is a "show" at the next higher hierarchical level. The proper question is, what layer of detail is appropriate to the audience and the purpose of the scene?

More later.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

About Me

Okay, so I finally buckled down and created a blog. My publisher has been after me to do so for, oh, seven months or more, and I kept meaning to, but you know how it is. The cat needs polished and the table needs fed, or something like that.

My name is Dal Jeanis. I write Sci Fi, fantasy, mystery, and some odd combinations of things. For instance, my story published in Strange Worlds of Lunacy was called "Billy Steadman, the Dragon, and the Virgin Bride". It is a comedy dragon western.


I won the 2007 Fencon IV short story contest with my story "Spirit of Springtime". I also won Honorable mention at Writers of the Future this year, and I have a novel under contract for publication in 2009.

More about that later.