31 July 2010

Drabble Dare #3- RESULTS!!!

When I chose this image, I was thinking of my son who is now 16 years old. I remember the day I brought him home. It was muggy, cloudy and a blistering 90 degrees Fahrenheit/ 32 degress Celsius. He was wrinkly and a little bit yellow with jaundice from the fevers and infections. However, at that very moment, he was my greatest joy and accomplishment. I thought to myself, "How could something so perfect come from me?" This image reminded me of the times I would give him a bath and he would fuss to no end. I miss those times. They seem so much easier than the angsty teenage years.

But enough of my digressions. We, at The Burrow, want to thank all of our entrants for their submissions for this week's Drabble Dare challenge. As a consensus, we voted on quality, content and relevance. However, there can be only one. Yes, that is from Highlander but I like that line!

The Drabble Dare winner of the week is:

Marjorie Napier

And here is the winning drabble:


He certainly had not wanted to go into the bath when he ran through the door this evening caked in mud from head to toe. He thrashed, crying out in protest, as I stripped his clothes and forced him toward the warm water. The mud that had once been dry and flakey had started to reconstitute in the bath. When the murky water had done its job, it was time to get him out causing him to fight and cry again. He stood shivering as I dried his tears along with his dripping form. Tomorrow we would do this again.


Tune in tomorrow for the new Drabble Dare challenge.

30 July 2010

I'm (No Longer) Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf

Have you ever (like me) thought that once you finish your book/get an agent/become a published author/become a worldwide bestseller everything will fall into place? If so, I am here to crush your dreams (but I will do my best to build them up again afterwards).

Theorem number one: I will never be happy unless I live out my dream.

This is a plausible assertion in today’s world, where we are expected to “find ourselves”, to be unique and to kick butt at being just that. In the olden days, when people were expected to stay put in their village/class/profession, this was not so much the case. Lucky them.

Theorem number two: I will never be happy living out my dream unless that dream requires certain sacrifices.

This is also plausible. Have you been told that the best things in life are free? Well, you’re in for a surprise. The best things in life come from hard work, and the only reason they are so great is that you can compare your success to the terrible feeling you had working your way towards the goal. A vacation never feels as great as when you know you’ve deserved it. Receiving a raise is sweet because you’ve been paid absolute crap for years. We constantly compare ourselves to ourselves. Me now is better off than me two years ago = life is good. Conversely, if me now is worse off than me two years ago = life stinks.

Assuming that theorem number one and theorem number two both apply, what happens when we combine the two?

Theorem number three: I will never be happy unless I live out my dream, but achieving that dream will make me feel so crappy I go mad in the process.

The conclusion? Either you remain unhappy not living out your dream, or you become unhappy in the process. And, if all things fall into place after all, and you by some miracle manage to live out your dream without toiling yourself to death in the process, the prospects aren’t any better…

Theorem number four: Once I achieve my dream I will be unhappy because I no longer have a goal in life.

This has a name: Storeulvsyndromet. The Big Bad Wolf Syndrome, for non-Norwegian speakers. The Big Bad Wolf spends his entire life chasing those clever little pigs. But what happens the day he actually manages to catch the pigs? Putting the pigs in the pot and putting the pot to a boil, something should occur to the wolf: what will he now do with his life?

The Norwegian sociologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen has written about this, extensively. I have not actually read his book, but since I live quite close to him I feel I am competent to interpret his scientific findings for the use of this blog post without having done so.

What Hylland Eriksen is claiming is that in a society like Norway – where we have every material need we could possibly want – we have lost sight of the goal, because every goal we can possibly think of has already been reached. He probably has a more articulate way of explaining this, but again, I would have to actually read his book to know, and I am not planning on doing that. Besides, I am not trying to say something clever about modern societies, I am merely warning you that reaching the dream of writing books or being published might not be as sweet as we all imagined.

Now, don’t worry, things aren’t entirely bleak. There are two important life lessons to be learnt here. I won’t even put them in theorems, I swear (but italics are not to be avoided, I’m afraid).

First of all, have more than one goal. If it is your dream to go scuba diving in the Pacific, then fine, do that. But make sure that it also is your dream to have a family, or a big house, or a fantastic collection of rubber chickens. Otherwise, you, like the Big Bad Wolf, might end up realizing that your life has no direction the second you dive in.

Secondly, try to make the means a goal in itself. Sure, the road to fulfilling a dream might be paved with insanity, but only if you let it. If your dream is to write a novel, try to do it in a pace that suits you. Find your way, hopefully one that won’t make it impossible to also achieve other things in life (again, avoid becoming the Big Bad Well-Fed-But-Bored Wolf).

Third, don’t let your final goal be the ultimate goal. If your goal is to compose a symphony, chances are it won’t be the best symphony ever written. Besides, even if you are Beethoven, there is always the possibility of topping your own achievement. Try to make your next symphony even better. Or improve the one you already wrote by making the world’s top performers lift it to perfection. As long as your dream isn’t to be the first one to reach the South Pole (sorry, it’s already been done), there is always room for improvement.

I think I wrote an entire self-help book in one blog post. Now what will I do with my life?!

29 July 2010

Taff Teachings

Yay! It's Delusional Thursday, which means I don't have to pretend I am a sensible writer who blogs about things that will prove helpful to others.*grins* I mean, it's not that I don't like to blog about serious stuff, it's just that it's not really in my comfort zone, me being the slightly (very) crazy loon that I am.

So today boys and girls, I am going to make a start with your Taff lessons. Now Taff, for those of you who are ignorant of the term, is a Welsh thing. In the southern part of Wales, not too far from where I dwell, is an area referred to as the Taff Vale. Essentially, it is a small part of Wales peppered with lots of little villages. People from the Taff Vale have a language all of their own. Well, it's more a difference of dialect than language actually, but you know what I mean (or at least, you will do).

Taff speak, as I like to call it, is fairly simple for the most part. A variant of English, it's not so hard to learn; you just have to remember a few little rules.

Taff rules (or Taff Rules! if you are a graffiti artist who dwells in the valleys).

1 - Swear. A lot. Almost every sentence should have a swear word in there somewhere. To tone it down for blogging purposes, I tend to use words that rhyme with the original cuss word, and I swear a bit less than I should (but still more than is probably acceptable. *shifty*).

2 - Drop your h's from the beginning of words, and drop your g's from the end of words. Other letters are sometimes missed from the beginning or end of words too, while some letters change sounds - 's' becomes 'z' for instance - but it is far easier for you to see a block of text written in Taff to understand this rather than try to explain every single thing. The h's and the 'gs are the most important, so you should remember this, and then you can work from there.

3 - Make several shorter words into one long word (not forgetting to substitute those quirky letters). We Taffies tend to roll several words into one when we speak, and this is probably one of our most noticeable trends.

4 - Remember the core words/phrases of Taff speak and use them abundantly (see Taff dictionary below).

5 - Swear. A lot. Yes, I know this was rule number one, but it needed repeating. Most important!

6 - The most simple rule of all - type the words literally as they sound in Taff. Obviously most of you are not native Taffies, so this might sound like it would be difficult to do, but fear not, it is really very, very easy! All you have to do is misspell most of your words (see Taff text sample below [below the Taff dictionary below]).

Basic Taff Words and Phrases

Clart - Male person
Clit - Female person
Butt - friend/mate
Mucker - alternative for friend/mate.

like, innit - usually placed at the end of almost every sentence, eg: "I iz right ducked off now, like innit?"
youknowzitmakezsense - a very popular phrase here in the Kair of Diff (for the meaning of 'Kair of Diff', please review next phrase). One of those several words in one thingies - 'you know it makes sense'.
The Kair of Diff - what Taffies call 'Cardiff', which is the capital city of Wales, and also where this Taffy lives. *nods*
lush, tidy, bangin - all variations of describing something that is brilliant, lovely etc.
well '_____' - usually in place of 'very', as in, "Bluddy 'ell, that dinner was well lush, like innit!"
anallat - another popular phrase, this is another one of those several words in one thingies - 'and all that'.
I do - usually added to random phrases, normally when we say we like something - "I loves choclut I do, I loves it!"

I think that is most of the basics covered - definitely enough for a first lesson at any rate. Here comes that Taff text example now, so brace yourselves....

Oi oi butts! Tara yer, intraducing you to the way we speaks yer in the Kair of Diff. Itz probbly goin a lirrle bit ovah yer headz, like, but dunt fret allabourit coz soon it'll all make sense. Fer sum reason, like, lotzapeeps seem to really like this Taff speak, and I reckon they 'as good taste like, coz I bluddy loves it too, I do, I bluddy loves it. Anywayz, although I like 'xplained about the basic rules ov Taff speak, I fort I'd talk a lirrlebirrabou the clarts and clits ov my nayberood. You see, most of us Taffies likes a good rave like, wiv plenty of beer and stuff to gerrus in the right mood. We likes a good rave, we do, especially the clits coz they get to be true to their roots and be total slags. Now a Kairdiff slag is not a propa slag, itz just a nickname for the clits wot like to wear short skirts, and tops that flash their boobage. Youknowzitmakezsense!

Anywayz, dunt be purroff by the fact that we likes swearin, beer and raves like, coz mostly we iz a funluvvin communitee who just happen to be common as muck. Just becoz we swears alot and are a lirrlebi rowdy, we iz a nice bunch really, like innit? I mean, itz not like we iz bluddy crimnals for duckssake! Anywayz, I fink you probbly got the gist ov what we Taffies are like, like, so I iz goin terleeve it there I fink. Dunt want to confoose you more than you probbly already are, like innit?


Now for the good news! If you can understand the above two paragraphs, then you're well on your way to becoming fluent in Taff speak! How cool is that? (Er, maybe not very cool at all if you're not at least a little bit loopy). Further lessons are probably not going to be very useful now that I think about it, as I have explained almost everything you need to know in order to speak Taff. The way forward, if you choose to become proficient, is to practice. *nods* Further reading of Taff speak in general can be found on my blog under the genre label of 'Taffing' (youknowzitmakezsense!), including the debut post which introduced the unsuspecting public to Taffness in the first place. I hope you've enjoyed today's lesson, and I also hope that Taff speak will one day become a universally known language used by one and all.

Well, I can dream, can't I?

Taffy Tara over and out.

28 July 2010

Musings on date-palms

When the train slowed down outside a station the other day, I couldn’t help but admire the beautiful date palm growing beside the tracks. The plant is a very expensive one, and I wondered why the Railway Authorities had chosen it over cheaper, indigenous species. Definitely a horticulturalist with a taste for the exotic, I concluded, and I marveled at the fact that in a country where manhole covers are stolen to be sold as scrap, the plant remained unpilfered.

The train moved forward a few feet, then stopped again. There were dozens of date-palms of various shapes and sizes beside the tracks. I mentally did the maths - there was a veritable fortune in plants out there - no horticultural department, however rich, could have sanctioned such a high budget for beautifying the area near the train tracks. The appearance and the arrangement of the plants did not make sense either - why would anyone plant them in such a haphazard pattern? And would anyone in possession of their senses even think of planting a plant on what appeared to be a heap of ash? There had to be a simple explanation.

The lady standing beside me finished the banana she had been munching, and threw the peel so it landed close to one of the date-palms. The answer came to me in a flash - the trees were not procured from a nursery and lovingly transplanted beside the tracks. They had germinated from the seeds that a commuter spat out from a train window!

I was reminded of a conversation I had with a friend a couple of days back. She had been mourning about how she desperately wanted a date-palm to complete the décor of her living room, but was just not able to get them to survive in her house. She had bought healthy-looking date-palms from some of the most expensive nurseries in the city, nourished them all with the choicest organic fertilizers, with identical results – an untimely demise. Nothing she did was adequate to keep the plants alive.

And just a few miles from her apartment, the same plants that she lusted after sprung up in the most inhospitable terrain from seeds unceremoniously discarded after the consumption of the fruit.

The irony wasn’t lost on me.

Isn’t the story similar when you are writing? There are days when you have blocked a couple of hours off for writing, and you end up frittering it away on multiple games of Bejeweled Blitz because you just cannot bring yourself to write a single word. And there are those days when the words just flow from your brain and transcribe themselves on paper, even if the only paper available is the back of a train ticket.

In writing as with date-palms, most things happen because, some things happen despite, and some others do not happen even after.
[Anything can distract her from the important business of getting on with life. No wonder, therefore, everyday is a Random Wednesday for Rayna M. Iyer.]

27 July 2010

Forget the sword... it's pen vs. keyboard

It's a fairly safe bet at this point that most people hanging around this blog, both the readers and the contributors, are writers. Or... are we typers? Ah, there's the rub...

Names withheld to protect the guilty, but I'm not the only one in this crowd who goes longhand regularly - in fact, someone 'round here once said that a particular story not only had to be hand-written, it had to be written in red ink. Fair enough. Now, when I sit down to have a crack at my latest WiP, these days it's almost always the scritch of a pencil, not the clickety-clack of keys, that becomes my soundtrack. But does one's mode of writing influence what actually gets written?

I'll start off by saying that I'm a bit of an anomaly (no, really?!) in that I'm almost totally ambidextrous. For most tasks, they'll get done with whichever hand happens to be closest, whether it's eating, brushing my teeth, or writing. However, certain kinds of writing I do tend to favour one hand over the other - my "official" signatures, for instance, I keep to my right hand so at least there's some chance they'll match up. When it comes to how it works for lengthy writing, however, I usually write my first draft right-handed, and then swap the pencil to my left hand to do my editing. Perhaps this activates different regions of my brain, though if it does, they're backwards to how such activities are usually perceived (i.e. the right brain is creative {=left hand} and the left brain is analytical {=right hand}). (Digression: My junior year of college, I was called in to explain why my music history final was in two different handwritings. Well, duh... because I have two hands, of course, and since I'd filled a blue book and a half, the one I'd started with got tired and I switched to the other one. Very convenient skill, really... It also came in handy in Latin class in high school, when I took class notes with one hand while composing music with the other. Did a whole string octet that way when I was 15...)

There are times, however, when the old-fashioned way just won't cut it. I'm speaking, of course, of those mad marathons known as WriMos, when you are in a headlong race against the clock (or calendar, really) and your own creativity to spew out 50,000 words in 30 days. Unless you're a maddeningly slow typist, typing is simply so much faster than hand-writing that it's practically a must, at least if you're doing anything other than writing that entire month. I've had two successful WriMos and one dismal failure - no prizes for guessing which were typed and which was written out longhand. The thing is though, the slower pace of the handwritten manuscript (which is totally redundant, if I'm going to get all etymological about it) means that I have more time to think about each sentence, to plan ahead a bit for better word choice, to repeat it in my head several times as I scrawl across the page, tweak a bit here, there, cross out, overwrite... In fact, many times I have rather a lot of detail worked out before ever setting graphite to paper, making it akin to a second or even third draft even though it's the first time I've written it down.

Of the four novels I've started, two are "finished" (as in, the story's all there, they just need editing), one is abandoned, possibly forever, and one is a WiP. The finished ones, well, they're the products of those WriMos, and it's not surprising to me that they're for younger readers and have similar plots. Are there some good bits in there? Yes. Is there some absolute tripe? Oh hell yes. As for the WiP, which has been stubbornly handwritten from the start (stubborn on its part, not mine - it refuses to be corralled if I type), there are still some stinkers but, I'll venture to say, no actual total rubbish. The extra time taken over the physical act of writing seems to knock the really awful stuff out before it ever makes it to the page.

And then there's the editing process... Oh good grief, I hate it. But I almost can't do it at all if I only have pixels on a screen to work with. Whenever one of my fellow Burrowers fires off a novel draft, I trot straight down to the local Staples, flash drive in hand, to print it out (whether it's 200 or 800 pages {*cough*Tami*cough*}), so I can scribble away on it, cross things out, draw arrows, highlight, make notes, draw faces... Maybe it's because writing papers on a computer didn't become the norm for me until I was already in high school, maybe it's just something about that physical connection to the page, but for anything longer than, errrm... well, this blog post, basically, I need a pen and some paper to make headway (make that a pen in each hand - it's faster). But there's also the finality of the typeface - if it's sitting there all neat and tidy and legible, it's much harder for me to even find the things that need fixing, while when it's scribbled down in a notebook with all sorts of notes-to-self in the margins, the mutability, no wait, pliability, of the text is much simpler to mess about with and tidy up and just generally improve.

Don't get me wrong, there are some things that I love the computer for - cut and paste is one of the best inventions ever, if you ask me - and as noted above, when you're churning out massive quantities of verbiage on a deadline, give me QWERTY every time. In fact, just the act of typing up something that I've first written by hand is a useful extra editing round, where I can make minor changes on the fly as the story flows from page to screen. But I wonder, sometimes, if we're losing something vital with each technological leap forward. When you read Austen or Dickens or Shakespeare, knowing that each word was scratched out, pen in hand - I don't know, it seems to set a greater stamp of personality on the text, somehow, than the generic pounding of keys. Is it because each of us has a unique handwriting (or two *cough*), while, fonts notwithstanding, a typeface is set and unalterable? I can tell, even years later, how the writing was going at a particular point just by looking at my handwriting - if it's messy and big and words are all connected up that shouldn't be, I was flying along, while neater bits with more space and reasonable margins indicate a slower, more methodical pace. If I typed it - well, who knows? What about music? I can arrange directly to the screen and merrily sling notes about, pointing and clicking and printing when I'm done, but if I'm actually composing (which, truth be told, I'm not all that good at), forget it. Pencil and staff paper, every time.

So, am I a complete oddball? Step up, everyone, and let's have a good ol' debate in the comments - are you a devotee of the pen or the keyboard, or a combination? And why?

Images: Quill pen
Old typewriter

26 July 2010

Reading Mondays: Book Review

I began this summer with the intent to read at least 10 books. Yes, you read correctly, 10. However, between the worlds of work, motherhood and wifedom (the estate or domain of the female head of household), I have only read three in their entirety. The summer isn't over yet, though. :D

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah

I highly recommend this brilliant, amazing memoir. Ishmael, at age 12, is enthralled by the hip hop culture of the United States and sets out on a journey to a talent show in a near-by town in Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, he experiences loss of family, youth and innocence. Ishmael is immersed in the horrors of warfare. For three years, he will live the life of a child soldier. Ishmael witnesses and commits unspeakable horrors. But in this tale of so much tragedy, there is still light. Ishmael goes through rehabilitation and ultimately immigrates to the United States.

I began reading this memoir in June with my students and was able to finish it in early July. This story has a complexity in its themes (family, war, loss, genocide) that transcends cultural barriers. It has opened my eyes to the horrors that children can face in war-torn countries. My students were very touched by Ishmael's story and began a cry for help from their school and their community. This tale is not only insightful but quite profound.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

I found this book to be a bit jarring at first since I am not familiar with Swedish culture. However, the mystery and action-packed plot helped to move me along immensely. Mikael Blomkvist, a ruined financial reporter, is given a second chance to resurrect his name by a rich, old Swedish tycoon, Harold Vanger. However, Blomkvist must first investigate the forty-year-old disappearance of Vanger's grandniece, Harriet Vanger. Blomkvist is assisted by Lisbeth Salander, a tattooed superhacking genius.

I am currently reading the continuation of the trilogy, The Girl who Played with Fire. Although I am really enjoying this series, it is clear that Larsson did not complete the editing process of his novels before his death in 2004. I believe that this contributed to the problem I had when reading first reading his works (smoother transitions were needed). However, despite this, Larsson weaves a wonderfully suspenseful tale.

Artemis Fowl: The Time Paradox by Eoin Colfer

What else could Artemis Fowl do when his mother is dying and the only cure is in the brain fluid of an endangered species? Go back in time, of course! This fourteen-year-old genius travels back in time to undo a wrong he has committed - selling the last remaining lemur to an Extinctionist group. He manipulates his best friend Captain Holly Short, a pixie in the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance (LEPrecon), into helping him capture the elusive primate. They are assisted by the ever-flatulent, dirt-eating dwarf, Mulch Diggums. Artemis must outmaneuver his 10-year-old self and discover who is the puppetmaster pulling the strings of the Extinctionists before he runs out of time.

This is a hilarious, action-packed fiction novel that will not disappoint. I very much look forward to reading the next installment of the series, Artemis Fowl: The Atlantis Complex, in August.

I found these books to be great reads. Interested in any of the books above? If so, which one(s)? If not, what books do you recommend?

25 July 2010

Drabble Dare #3

Image: Jules Being Dried by His Mother
Artist: Mary Cassett, 1900

Happy Sunday everyone! You know what that means . . . It is time for the drabble image challenge of the week. The image is posted above.

Rules- The writer produces a drabble (story written in exactly 100 words) and emails the finished product to the Burrow at theburrow360 (at) gmail dot com. Here is an example of a drabble written to an image. If your pen-name is different from the name that appears on the e-mail, please also mention the pen-name (and the name of your blog, if you have one).

For those who are like me and simply do not have the time to count each individual word, here is a tool you can use- The Burrow Word Count Tool. Please do not hesitate to ask us for help. Happy writing!!!

*This image is for my son who turns 16 today. I remember just bringing him home from the hospital. Time goes by so quickly and then they grow up!*

24 July 2010

Drabble Dare # 2 - RESULTS!

When I took the picture of the cat sitting on the temple wall, I knew there were stories waiting to be told. What none of us anticipated was that there would be EIGHT of them, each more imaginative than the rest. Picking a winner was not going to be easy, so the first thing we did was check if they were EXACTLY 100 words long. Two were off by a single word, and much as it pained us to do so, we had to let them go.

Purists will tell you that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. That a story should have detailed plotting and believable characterizations. A hundred words is inadequate for all that. It is hopeless to try and argue with purists, so none of us even try. We just concede that while 100 words may be inadequate for an entire story, it is sufficient for either sketching a story or for detailing a fragment that hints at a larger story. All qualified.

My instincts made me pick three favourites, but when I tried to analyse what I liked about each of them, I wasn’t able to. Time to call for reinforcements. The rest of the Burrowers checked in- the same drabbles emerged as the personal favourites of everyone who voted. I decided to trust my instincts.

I cleared my mind of all pervious conceptions, and read the drabble
s through one last time. The winner was clear.

Stacey Shackford!!!

Congratulations, Stacey!

And, without further ado, here is the Winning Drabble-

Why, hello there. You. Yes, you. You're looking fine
today, bibi. Mighty fine. Come here. A little closer. Closer. There. Yes. Nice. Your skin, it glows like the setting sun. Your eyes, emeralds. Your lips, as luscious as those of Sita, and pouting like hers as well. Why so sad, jaan? One who goes blind in spring sees only greenery all around. See that? That? Color, beauty, life. May you live a thousand years and may each year have a fifty thousand days. And may I have some tuna. Be a peach and share some of that sandwich, will you?

Do check back tomorrow for a new image to set your imagination afire.

23 July 2010

Spread the Love

A Lesson in Strained Metaphor (that will hopefully motivate)

I don't know HOW often I've read about what a solitary activity writing is. And I know in my OWN early writing.... years and years of journaling, poetry, my first attempt at a horror novel... I shared very little. Oh sure, I shared SOME stuff with a couple of (read: Melinda) friends. And I wrote a lot of letters. Mostly though, I wrote into a void.

And that was okay.

For a while.

You know what doesn't work very well though? The marathon of a novel production... Alone. Would YOU run 26.2 miles if nobody was watching? Would you even TRAIN adequately without some encouragement and advice?  How fun would it BE if you ran it alone?

I suppose some o' you nuts are all self-motivated enough—disciplined enough... to keep going through the long trudge alone (though honestly, if you are HERE, in the blogosphere, I am doubting it—the true loners are out there... you know... alone...)

We (if you're like me anyway, and since I've been working hard to create mini-mes, I hope you are) eventually reach a point where we venture OUT a little... either we accept that sharing and getting feedback is the only true way to improve our writing, or maybe we just crave a little accountability for keeping our schedule, or encouragement to keep going, or maybe we just begin to crave some company that THINKS like us.

It's sort of a revelation really, that we aren't insane... that other people think sort of like us. And if you find the right place, the ENCOURAGEMENT WORKS! (sometimes the accountability even works). And if we're LUCKY the peer process for improving our work WORKS.

So I thought maybe we'd explore how to best UTILIZE this fabulous system.

A Couple Really Bad Metaphors

So I thought maybe we'd be birds... eating the fruits of the knowledge trees... then spreading that knowledge back around after it's been thoroughly digested... *cough*

Okay, so that one is gross...

Erm... And the Fish metaphor doesn't work because the littlest fishies are trying en masse to learn from progressively larger fish so the direction is all wrong.

And Finally One that Fits... (if you lay down and squeeze into it)

Okay, so... you're a freshman in high school... And there are the WAY COOL LEGENDS who are graduated already, but have made the trophy case, or at least the rumor mill... so everybody still talks about them... admires them... and the Seniors who are NEARLY done... then peers closer and closer to your level... and there are the kids still in Middle School, or even elementary... at each step you learn and grow—you admire those above you... and you almost don't notice yourself RISING because you do it in a cohort of people LIKE YOU. But all the way through, you can look up and down, and either ENGAGE or live in a vacuum.

So Y'all KNOW you need MY advice, right? (Okay, maybe not, but if you're still reading, you asked for it)

HA! Gag's on you! It was in the title! But here are some specifics.

Honoring the Institutions

There are some people out there you can just LEARN FROM. Love them like you do Johnny Depp—from afar, knowing they love you madly back, but probably don't have time to drop by in person.

Doing What the Teachers Say

All those agents and editors telling you what to do? Just do it. There is NO POINT ARGUING, unless you have formed a relationship whereby they GET your vision and are willing to encourage and work with you... Otherwise... just do what they say or you just won't pass.

Sucking Up to the Seniors

And I don't mean the AGED here... I mean the people you admire who you CAN TALK TO. Do! Tell them what they're doing that inspires you. Ask them questions, if they are approachable. Published authors aren't ALL beyond the walls of Mordor, some of them are just seasoned warriors in the very same battles we're in, and might be willing to give some advice, encouragement-- might even be one willing to take you under their arm.

Slightly Older Peers

Rub elbows. Try to get invited to their parties. Follow one around it they don't act too annoyed—especially if you can get one to TEACH you something. In return, offer to help as you can—be willing to listen and give sympathy and advice, knowing you should qualify it if you don't know, but even at different levels, some people have different strengths than others... you help me with English and History, I can help you with Math and Spanish—classes I am ahead in.

Same Grade Peers

HELP EACH OTHER! Trade papers! Peer review! Split the research for projects where you can. Point out the helpful resources! After all, how good will the graduation party be if half your good friends are being left behind?

Give BACK!

How cool did you think the high school kids were that came back to volunteer when you were in middle school—as coaches assistants, events organizers, or teacher helpers? The VERY coolest, yes? Well don't YOU wanna be cool? I mean this at every level... climbing, you are admiring, asking questions, trying to learn... but look back... share what you learn, help in turn.

Caveats: Never ever, should you ask ask ask, without giving back. People all have a lot to do. I read a blog Wednesday by Medeia Sharif who, in a job she had, had a lot of people asking too much, but not giving back... people who were NEEDY but not gracious. If somebody HELPS YOU, help back... Beta reads take TIME, so should typically be done ON TRADE (this is one reason being part of a GROUP is ideal... there are always SEVERAL available, and somebody you can read FOR).  Split up your reads--if you need several rounds of reading, allocate your peers, a couple to each level, so no one has to read it 14 times--sure you want them ALL to see the final copy, but if the same person is stuck on all the drafts, it will get as familiar to them as YOU, so they will MISS the big stuff anyway, and the REAL problem, is if they are reading YOU that much, you CERTAINLY ought to be reading THEM that much (says the person asking 8 people to help with the Cozy she's writing)... I AM willing to work on trade though-- with ALL of them.

So there we have it... a metaphor that works better than a bird pooping...

We'd love to hear how it's worked for you... helpful people ahead, people you've helped behind... any challenges I don't at least allude to?

Image permission from Wikimedia Commons
Gandhi Writing
Johnny Depp
Graduation Onboard

22 July 2010

Staying Cool in a Hot Universe

I've got a hunch that many readers of this blog have been asking themselves: "When is someone going to write about entropy?"

You're in luck, because the answer is 'now'.

Entropy is a quality of a closed system which can never decrease, according to the third thermodynamic law, which is called-- no kidding-- the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The numerical confusion is due to the inclusion of a "zeroth law" in the 1920's and an inability to modify older works owing to the shortage of copy-monks in the twentieth century.

So the name isn't perfect. In fact, calling it a "law" hardly does it justice, as this invites comparison to entities of lesser stature. For example, the so-called 'law of gravity' (technically a theory) need not apply in all times, places, and theoretical universes. It is even possible (if unlikely) that income tax laws might not exist in some other strange, wonderful version of reality.

But the Second Law is omnipresent and immutable. It cannot be undone even by divine intervention, as such intervention would nullify the 'closed system' caveat. Appropriately, the Second Law itself is like the Godhead of the Holy Trinity, expressible as the Clausius statement, the Kelvin statement, or the Carathéodory statement, each of which is distinct from the others but nonetheless equivalent to the Second Law.

Are you impressed yet? I know I am. So now let's get down to some practical advice. It's summertime in the northern hemisphere of our planet, and not everyone can (or wishes to) afford super-powered air conditioning. As we cannot defy the Second Law, we must understand and embrace it to maximize our comfort.

First of all, any respectable physicist will tell you that "entropy" is not the same thing as "temperature", or even "heat energy". But being a humanitarian, that same physicist will give the layperson permission to pretend like it is (provided that you check back with the physicist every now and then to avoid serious errors, and that you at least consider inviting him to the sort of parties that respectable physicists usually miss).

So now you know: The heat energy of a closed system cannot decrease. And now you know why your air conditioner is mounted in the window or else installed outside your house. In the process of cooling the inside air, it has to dump heat energy outside. If you stuck an air conditioner in the middle of your home, it might feel cooler right in front of the business end, but the net effect on your house would be an increase in temperature. So don't do that.

Some more tips and trivia:

Electrical Appliances

Every joule of energy that crawls up an electrical cord is eventually going to decay into heat, most likely inside your home. A sixty-watt light bulb is a sixty-watt heater, minus a few stray photons that sneak out the window. The same is true for computers, televisions, vacuum cleaners, and robots. I certainly don't recommend turning off your computer at the moment, but appliances and lights which are not in use ought to be shut down; and you should have your robot do the vacuuming at night.

Sound is a form of energy. The louder your stereo, the more energy it produces. But if your neighbor complains about the noise, you can take comfort in knowing that some portion of the stereo's energy production has escaped the premises before decaying into heat, and your neighbor is running his air conditioner to compensate for that energy. Tee hee.

One tricky appliance is the water heater. It produces a lot of heat, but the amount that bleeds into the surroundings depends on how the hot water is used. I recommend showers, which allow the water's heat energy to be carried down the drain, whereas a hot bath will release its energy into the surrounding air.


Fans are appliances. They use electricity. They make the house hotter. So do the arguments I've been having with delusional fan fans for the past few decades.

But a fan can make you cooler, which is worth the cost of making the house slightly warmer. Airflow enhances the skin's evaporation of water (a.k.a. "sweat", "perspiration" or "gleam", depending on whether you're a horse, a man, a woman, or a lady). More importantly, it increases convection. Your body temperature is around 98.6 degrees fahrenheit, which means that when you're walking around on a 90-degree day, you are technically cooling off-- you just aren't cooling off fast enough. Airflow speeds this up.

Ergo: Don't leave the fans running when you aren't around, and don't put up eight different fans thinking it will help. Use a low-powered fan and point it right at your face.

Also, if you have a ventilation fan (like the one in the bathroom), unless you know that it's drawing air from some ultra-cool cellar, try to keep it turned off. Even if it feels like it's creating a breeze, it's almost certainly sucking in hot air from outside. And don't think you can stop this by plugging all the cracks-- if air flows out, air must flow in.


I once knew a girl who hung black blankets over her windows in the summertime.

I thought it was both hilarious and tragic. But once I stepped outside of my "respectable physicist" role (hoping to be invited to a party, which I wasn't), I understood why someone would try this. It's cooler at night, it's cooler in the shade, and barring the existence of some magical technology (like transparent glass) we can expect darkness to be colder.

It certainly was dark, but holy crap it wasn't cool. Light-colored objects reflect light, and darker objects absorb it. That's why they're light and dark. Obvious enough, but perhaps not so obvious is the fact that 100% of the absorbed energy will be released back into the surroundings, mostly by heating the surrounding air.

A light-colored barrier will reflect many of the photons back through the window. That's why window blinds are white. So use those. If you require more blockage, hang a white sheet over the window. Better yet, get an exterior window blind, which will not only reflect light, but vent that small amount of energy which it does absorb on the outside of your home.

And if you're a day-sleeper like me, or just want it to be dark, tape some aluminum foil over your windows. It reflects even better than the blinds.

Heat doesn't rise.

Hot air rises over cooler air. That's not a tip, just a misconception that annoys me.

Winter Techniques

The exact opposite of summer. More or less. If you use electrical heat, and if you're running the heat almost all day anyway, then wintertime is party time. Your lights, computer, and television essentially run for free, because every joule they consume will decay into heat, thus requiring one less joule of power consumption from your heater. This isn't necessarily true if you have a cheaper form of heat energy, like natural gas, but the electrical appliances will still run at a discount.

Also, take a hot bath instead of a shower. Then don't drain the tub until it's cooled down to air temperature, thus getting double-duty out of all the energy you bought to heat your bathing water. Which brings us to...

Borderline Obsessive Techniques

If you live in an arid environment where the summer nights are cold, stow a dozen garbage cans filled with water inside your house. These will cool down at night, then absorb heat energy during the day. Actually, the addition of any bulk material to the interior will help reduce costly airflow (just like it helps to keep the refrigerator mostly full, so less hot air slips in when you open the door).

Use all the slots on your toaster. If you only want one slice for now, pop an english muffin into the other slot and save it for later. Reheat the muffin by placing it on a sheet of foil and setting it on the porch.

Clean the litter box immediately after use, then haul the waste to the outside trash. It contains heat energy from the cat's body! Conversely, let it sit in the winter until it reaches air temperature.

If you live in an apartment with a downstairs neighbor: During the winter, when you rent a movie, loan it to your neighbor afterwards. This will encourage them to stay inside and burn electricity. In the summer, buy their kids a cheap soap bubble wand that will encourage them to play outside, venting their body heat into the yard instead of (ultimately) your floorboards.

Never kiss a toad

...unless you are a cartoon character. Even if it does turn into a prince, what good does that do you? And did it occur to you that someone might have turned him into a toad for a reason?


21 July 2010

I Write Like...

It’s been all over the blogosphere. It’s been on Facebook. It’s been on the news. I think it probably was delivered on a silver tray to Queen Elizabeth herself.

I Write Like is the newest "it", and writers everywhere are flocking around "it" to check "it" out. In case you have been living in a cave the last few weeks, let me explain it ("it") to you.

I Write Like uses an algorithm (which is geek speak for something to do with numbers, I think) to analyze text pasted into a box on the website. Within seconds it comes up with a nifty little badge that tells the world what famous (or in some cases, not so famous) author whose writing yours compares to.

According to the I Write Like Blog, the algorithm is similar to that used in spam filters. It recognizes certain words (though, unlike spam filters, these don’t necessarily start with a "V" and end with "iagra"). In addition, it looks at such things as the number of words per sentence, usage of punctuation and so on.

While it is amusing, I Write Like is hardly accurate, as many authors have discovered over the last few days. I’ve seen Facebook updates where the author is thrilled/terrified to have discovered that they are writing like Dan Brown. I have read articles where famous authors are being told they write more like other famous authors, then like themselves. And apparently no matter what you write as long as it’s got a few of the Harry Potter character names in it, you "write like JK Rowling".

Personally I have pasted in snippets from several WiPs (they all got different "likes" – ranging from H.G. Wells to David Foster Wallace to Kurt Vonnegut. Interestingly, I always get James Joyce when I paste something in Norwegian… I had no idea Joyce wrote in Norwegian…). I also tried pasting in a blog post or two, and it threw me off my chair when my Monday rant about my many WiPs earned me an "I Write Like William Shakespeare" badge. How that happened, I have NO clue…

Anyway, as has been noted by wiser folks than me, I Write Like is not particularly accurate or useful, but it sure is entertaining. To prove this, I have the following to share:

There once was a little spider. He carefully spun his web, tightening every hole, making the web both beautiful and strong.

His web was his greatest pride. His ambition was to make a web that would never break.

He spun and he spun, he weaved and he weaved.

But every time he thought he had accomplished his task, he would see dark clouds form in the horizon, and he knew what would come.

The rain never failed to break his beautiful web.

Drip, drip. Those first few drops would only get caught in the web like a fly, and they hung there making the web even more beautiful than before. Sometimes the little spider would admire the drops, and hope that the rain would not become heavier, so that his web would hold.

Unfortunately, this was never the case.

Drip, drip, drip. With each drop the rain got heavier and heavier.

Finally, the web did break, and the spider was forced to start over again.

One day the spider was tired of making new webs all the time.

He decided to move to a more secure location.

He climbed into a pipe, up, up, up the pipe he went, and finally he saw light in the other end of the tunnel.

It was a large space, more than enough for a beautiful web, and it even had handy little nooks and crannies where the spider could fasten his web.

He spun and he spun, he weaved and he weaved.

The web grew larger each day, and more beautiful than anything the spider had ever made. He was more proud of this web than of any of his previous attempts.

For three whole days the spider worked on his new web, and he started to believe that finally he had managed to make an unbreakable web. He was walking along one of the threads of his web – directly where the pipe he had come up from met the white surface that now was nearly covered with his beautiful web. All of a sudden the spider was startled – he heard a sound. A shadow fell over him, and he run to cover. It was no cloud, but all the same he could hear a strangely familiar sound. Drip, drip.

This silly doodle I wrote after an encounter with a spider in the shower. However, according to I Write Like, this story has greater potential than I ever imagined:

I write like
J. R. R. Tolkien
I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

As for the spider? He was flushed away. After he destroyed the Ring of Power, of course.

20 July 2010

Buzzing, Tingles, and Tricksy Muses

Tara here, bringing you Writing Tuesdays. Well, hopefully at any rate. You see, I think that out of all of the Burrowers, I am probably the least serious person in the group. Don't get me wrong, I am very serious about writing, but in person I am more than a little loopy, and when it comes to blogging, I definitely lean more toward the crazy side of things.

I'm a Spur Of The Moment type of gal, and that usually spills over into my writing. I'm not a planner, I don't 'do' research, and I rarely know what the end of the story is going to be until I am about three quarters of the way through writing it. *shifty* So I've had to ask myself what on earth I was going to ramble about today that could possibly be helpful or informative for anyone.

Then I had a brainwave (yup, I do get them on occasion, which is nice because it means my brain still functions *snorts*). I'm wondering whether it is important or not to have that 'buzz' when you are working on your current WIP. That wonderful feeling of your fingers working almost by themselves, of typing away for a couple of hours and suddenly realising that you have a few thousand words of a decent story written. You see, when I write it can go two ways. Mostly I plod along at a slow-ish pace and have to go back every few minutes or so to check that I haven't written gobbledygook. Normally I can keep about 50-60% of what I have written and call it 'not bad', but the rest is delegated to Deleted Nonsense Land. It's slow going, not to mention discouraging, but I can get a story written this way.

However, the very best way for me to write is when I get taken over by the Muse. When this happens I can write for hours without even thinking about what I am doing. Characters appear from nowhere and take over my fingers, plot twists suddenly pop into my head and take over my brain, and I get this lovely tingly feeling that makes me want to jump up and down like a crazy woman.

Now I'm not trying to say that my writing is fantastic when I get taken over by the Muse - in fact, I probably cut about the same amount during editing as I do with the 'plodding along' stuff - but it's definitely a much nicer writing experience when you're not second-guessing yourself every five minutes and you just let yourself go with the flow.

So the big question is, how important is it really to get that buzz? Personally, I think that Mrs Buzz is a little bit tricksy. She sort of hoodwinks you into believing that you can only write decent stuff when she is around. She makes you believe that if she's not there to give you the Writing Tingles, your story is doomed forever. Yup, she's definitely a little bit sneaksy, that one. While she is a helpful friend to have along for the ride, you don't actually need her to write your story. The story will get written whether Mrs Buzz is there or not, it's just the pace of writing that is different.

So, having come to this conclusion, my little bit of writing advice for you today is simple: free yourself (if you can) from those inhibiting self-doubts and just write. If you feel you are just plodding along and aren't happy with your work, step back from it. Take a break for a couple of days and work on something else. Write about anything. Write about your worst memory, write about your best memory. Write about that time when you tripped over, then skidded down a hill and flashed your boobs to all and sundry (er, maybe that was just me).Write your shopping list in a quirky way if need be, just write. Then go back to your WIP and start typing (or writing, if you prefer the pen and paper method). Train yourself to keep going and going. And going. Teach yourself to ignore the typos and grammar mistakes, and to not worry about plot holes. A first draft is exactly what it says - a draft. Fixing all the technical stuff is what you do when you go into editing mode. If you keep fretting about getting everything perfect the first time around, chances are you will never finish your story.

And as for Mrs Buzz, welcome her with open arms if she pays you a visit, but don't depend on her. You don't need her! While she is nice in her own way, it is not she who is writing the story. That would be YOU.

19 July 2010

"I don’t need books”

“I don’t need books”, someone told me the other day. “Whatever I want I get either from the internet or TV.”
We had been talking about black holes, and he was rather kicked about the fact that a 30 minute programme on TV had given him as much information on the subject as many years of slightly scattered reading had given me. Had I been sensible, I would have backed off right then- it was pointless even attempting to debate the point with someone who genuinely believed books were redundant. But when was the last time anyone accused me of being sensible?

“I agree it is much more convenient to get information from the internet, and some concepts are better explained through a visual medium”, I conceded. “But there are things which only books can give you.”
“Like what?”, he challenged.
“Books let you linger over some pages, and skip through others. With books you can go back and check something you read earlier. You can read books at the pace you choose, and stop whenever you want to stop.” I knew I was starting to sound almost evangelist, but I couldn’t help it.
“I can do all of that on the Internet”, he informed me. “Besides, a TV programme gets over in an hour, you don’t have to spend days slogging over a book.”
“Forget non-fiction”, I said, realising no response of mine could even start making an impression on a person who thought reading was slogging over. “What about the pleasure of reading a story? I like movies as much as the next person, but there is quite a different charm in reading books.”
“What charm?”, he countered. “Movies are so much better than books. You can see everything in front of you, instead of trying to guess like you have do with books.”
“But isn’t that the whole point of books?”, I asked. “You take what the writer has written, and use that to create something of your own. You fill in the details yourself, so the details become your own, not that of the writer’s.” His glazed eyes told their own story, so I tapered off. “But maybe you are right. Good books make you work, and most people would rather not.”
“Exactly”, he said triumphantly. “After a long day at work, I want to relax in front of the TV. I don’t want to do more work by reading book.”

Though he went around with an infuriating ‘I won the argument’ look for a few days, I actually felt sorry for him. Lost to him was the wonderful universe of books and reading. For him ‘Gone with the Wind’ is a simple love story set in the years of the Civil War. Would he ever appreciate the fine irony of Scarlett finally getting Ashley when she no longer wanted him? For him, the highpoint of ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’ is the redundant dragon chasing scene. He would not even be aware of the dynamics between Harry and his best pal.

Books, by their very nature force you to think. I must have been fourteen when I read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, but that one line by Scout Finch- “I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks.”- has guided my interactions with people ever since. I haven’t seen the movie, but I would assume that by the time the line registered with you, the scene would have shifted to something quite different.
One line from a thousand page tome of James Michener – “An age is called Dark not because the light fails to shine, but because people refuse to see it.” - has stayed with me for so long, that when I accidentally stumbled upon the quote a few days back, I greeted it as I would an old friend. There are many equally memorable lines in movies, but few of as peripheral to the main storyline as this one was.

Forget the musty smell of an old book, and the mint fresh smell of a new book. Forget the slight crackle the pages make when you turn them. Forget the feel of paper, the weight of the book pressing down on your wrists. Forget all those, because there may well be a future where there are no books as we know them.
But even if you take away the multi-sensory pleasure that books give me and leave only the words, I cannot comprehend a future without books and reading. How then can people willingly subject themselves to a life without what to me is the life-force?

I do not ask you what reading means to you, because if you have got this far, I know your answer. But I do want to know if you know how to deal with morons such as that one?

And what memorable lines do you remember from books read five days, or five decades back?

Images - author's own, taken on the streets of Bombay, India

18 July 2010

Drabble Dare # 2

If, like they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, we believe that a story sparked off by a picture can be told in just a hundred. For well over two years, we have been amusing ourselves by writing drabbles- stories told in exactly 100 words. And a year and a half back, we went public with our drabbles inspired by artworks.

Not content with creating The Burrow- the largest collection of art-inspired drabbles in the Universe- we are now looking at nothing short of World Domination. We want every man, woman and on the planet to start drabbling, and we are starting with you. Yes, YOU.

Every Sunday, we will publish a visual image- it may be a painting, digital art, photograph, or a stained glass window (who knows, it may even be a set of fingerprints or a blank canvas?) – and we want You to write a drabble inspired by the image. It could be a complete story, or a conversation. It could be something inspired by an element in the image, or a description of the image itself. It could be funny, or sad. It could be a memoir, or slapstick. It could even be a song or a poem. In short, it could be anything, as long as it is exactly 100 words long (a handy word count tool custom designed by Jason).

Once you are done, send in your entries to us at theburrow360 (at) gmail dot com by Thursday (July 22, 2010) midnight GMT. By the end of next week we will decide on the winner, who will be announced on Saturday. There are no tangible prizes, but the winning drabble will be posted on the blog. And who knows, in addition to the honour and glory of being featured as a winner, you may even get to take home a sparkly Winner badge to display on your website.

The image for this week is a photograph I took on the streets of Bombay, India, five months back. The photograph whispered to me the stories it could tell, but I never got down to penning any of them down. Maybe I was waiting for the fantastic stories that I know you are going to come up with-

To recapitulate -
Write a drabble (100 word long story) based on the image
Send it to theburrow360 (at) gmail dot com by Thursday, midnight, GMT. Make sure to write "Drabble Dare # 2" in the subject field of the email.
Bite fingernails until Saturday – and check back in!

For this week's Drabble Dare only (since I still can't get over the fact that a photograph taken by me is sandwiched between those of two Masters), I've up-ed the stakes? This week's winner gets a 8*10 print of the photograph, and all contributors get the photograph in the largest resolution possible (and the highest resolution is pretty high for this particular one) by e-mail- if they ask for it.

Happy Writing!

17 July 2010

The First Weekly Drabble Dare - Results!

I must admit sending our Drabble Dare out in the blogosphere was nerve-wracking. We did not know whether it would make it among the big boys and girls (such as blog hops and follower contests). We pictured two extreme scenarios – either our challenge would not get any responses at all, or we would get so many that we wouldn’t be able to handle them. The second was perhaps not very realistic, and I don’t think we should worry about that in the immediate future. The first was more likely, but fortunately we shouldn’t have worried about that either. Instead we ended up with a perfectly manageable (though still flattering) number of entries (I am not telling you how many, though…).

Once the deadline was up, all we needed to do was to pick a favourite.

To say this was difficult is the understatement of the year.

We had entries from lovely authors around the world. The drabbles they wrote were quite different, and yet all of them fit so well with the image. I considered picking one at random, but then that didn’t seem fair...

In the end I sat down and thought through what qualities I am thinking about when writing a drabble to accompany an image.

First of all the drabble needs to be exactly 100 words in order to be a drabble. Check on all entries.

Secondly, the drabble is supposed to be a mini-story. Naturally it is difficult (if not impossible) to include all the elements that normally go into a story, but at the very least I’d like the drabbles I write to hint at a story, even if they might only portray one tiny fraction of it.

Third, I really like the drabbles to be tied to the image, and I love it if they are connected in a surprising way.

Several of our entries still qualified according to these elements, but I was finally able to decide on one favourite (with two very close runners-up).

The drabble I picked is well-tied to the image. It had a (to me, at least) surprising point of view, and it invites several interpretations.


The winner of the Burrow’s First Drabble Dare is… (I bet you all have scrolled down to this part anyway…)


Erin Baughn

Congratulations! :) Pool party at Tami's to celebrate!

Conversation - Camille Pissarro

Camille Pissarro - ConversationIt was the dividing line between my world and something I couldn’t possibly imagine. If they were one and the same… no, that wasn’t possible.

The only person who had the ability to cross it was my father. My sister called him the ‘dimension traveler’, whatever that meant.

I had never seen anyone besides my family before I saw the girl. She was standing on the gravel road, sniffing the flowers that grew at the edge. She asked for me to come out and play. I shook my head. She stuck her hand and a flower over it.

Time stopped.

Don’t forget to check back in tomorrow – we will have a new picture up to inspire new drabbles from your pens (or keyboards, as the case may be).

16 July 2010


No, not those books that sell umpty-zillion copies... or films that rake in hundreds of millions of dollars... I'm talking about the strange things writers do to get past the dreaded writer's block. *cue ominous music* I won't pretend to speak for the whole tribe, but here are my tried and true ways of smashing through whatever walls my demented brain feels like building when I'm just trying to follow my own plot, damnit!

1. Take a shower. That's right, a plain ol' simple shower usually gets something to shake loose. It's better for inducing ideas to appear in the first place, but something about flowing water gets ideas flowing too. Some of my best (read: most ridiculous) poems have appeared spontaneously and more or less complete while fighting with my sham
poo (my hair's about three feet long, by the way) or my razor.

2. Go running (and leave the iPod at home). There are generally two places I pop out for a run - one is full of trees and paths and people walking dogs and kids and whatever, the other is full of gravestones. Whether I'm spotting just the right name
for an elusive character (or wondering who would name a poor defenseless baby "Lemuel"), watching a tiny segment of an interaction between people I don't know, or just soaking up the air and green space and clearing my mind of all the technological clutter, the mindless repetitiveness of one-foot-after-the-other works wonders for those pesky mental roadblocks (and it's much easier to imagine hurtling them when you're already moving).

3. Clean the bathroom. This one might be just me... I'm not the neatest person in the world (I can hear all my friends dying with laughter right now) - okay, okay, I'm a total slob. Not dirty (you won't find moldering food or anything), but quite messy and terrifically disorganized. Every once in a while I get on a mad cleaning frenzy and then things improve for a bit, but I just can't keep it up and things devolve into clutter fairly rapidly. My bathroom, however, is tiny. We're talking sit-on-the-toilet-head-on-the-sink-feet-almost-in-the-shower-simultaneously tiny. So cleaning it not only doesn't take long, but has immediate and visible results. What the hell this has to do with writing, I still haven't figured out, but I usually come up with something good.

4. Got a favourite oh-man-you'll-never-believe-this-one tale that you trot out at parties, when meeting new people, or when there's one of those awkward conversational lulls? Get good reactions to it? Okay, so WHY? In other words, mine your life for those events that stories are made of - mine tend to start with "You know how you always read about someone (insert weird activity here) but you think, people don't really do that? Yes, they do..." One of my better ones (make that "most embarrassing ones") involves the phrase "hopping mad". Oh, I was a veritable grasshopper of fury that day - hmm? No, of course I'm not going to tell it NOW, I have to save some things for later...

5. Read books with similar storylines. How did so-and-so get their character(s) out of this mess? Like it? Think it's dumb? Could do it SO much better yourself? How? Oh, that's easy, I'd - well lookie here, you broke your block. :-)

6. Skip it and move on. I'm currently guilty of this one in my BuNoWriMo WiP - Chapter 6 ends with the highlighted text "somehow they figure all this out", page break, Chapter 7. Hey, I finished the story, didn't I? If something's not working, skip it and come back to it. If it worked in those stupid standardized tests we were subjected to in high school, it'll work here too.

7. Come up with a list like this so you can go back and DO the fixing, following your own damned advice. Now if you'll excuse me... ;-)

15 July 2010

Delusional Thursdays: Dreaming A Little Dream

So I have these big dreams.  No, I mean BIG dreams, but don't we all.  As delusion is a specialty of mine, here are my aspirations: I plan to become a professor at a prestigious university, become the "Go-to" expert on anything to do with students with disabilities (via majoring in Neuroscience, earning my second Master's Degree plus a Doctorate), become a renowned published author and own a million dollar mansion so that I will never have to wait to use the bathroom again.  Ever!  If you have children, you can understand my desperation (especially with two teens and a seven year old).

I find that the older I get, the more I have allowed the world to influence my dreams.  When I was a kid, there was no limit to who or what I would become.  I was told by family members that there was nothing stopping me from achieving my goals and dreams.  I remember wanting to become a doctor, a fireman, and a secretary.  Not separately, but all at once! 

However, I reached puberty and got a little distracted.  Yes, boys and teen peer pressure got in the way of my keeping a level head in junior high school and my early high school years.  I decided then that I would become a secretary at some large corporate firm in Downtown Manhattan and learn the ins and outs of a typewriter or word processor.  Hey, it was the mid to late 80's and these archaic machines were the only means available. My home life was hell.  It didn't help that I grew up in poverty and everyone around me was either on drugs or abused alcohol.  I felt that my life would reflect that of my parents.

Furthermore, during my high school years, my very encouraging English teachers told me I could not write an essay to save my life.  Not in those words exactly but it was heavily implied through the tossing of my papers to the desk or the typical "eyes raised heavenward" look that indicated I was a complete failure at writing.  Never once did I think to be a teacher nor a writer.  Three majors later, I really had no direction, something happened during my umpteenth year of college.  Professor H. read my papers and told me that with a few corrections, edits and revisions, my paper would be an A+.  I almost died!  Who knew that all you need is the world to stop beating you up and have someone believe in you.

Consequently by my senior year in high school, the world beat me down just a little more and by this time I just wanted to go to college.  Although I majored in Business Administration (I didn't even know what that meant at the time), I realized that I had no idea what I wanted to be.  I had no goals, no plan and no real ambition.  To earn a doctorate in medicine meant endless years in college plus two years as an intern.  I no longer had any interest in becoming a fireman (thanks to Backdraft) and the exciting life of an executive assistant no longer enticed me (thanks to Working Girl). 

However, this little girl from the Bronx, trudged on.  I finished college, obtained a Master's degree, became a special education teacher and have a wonderfully supportive, immediate family.  I still have obstacles ahead- finishing one of the three WIP's, applying for my second Master's and finding an agent once I finish my first WIP.  However, I know that I'll get there as long as I keep dreaming a little dream . . .

Image courtesy of: 

14 July 2010

Show Me The Money

I remember finishing my first book and wondering what I would do for insurance... how would I let my boss down easily... because surely it would be sold within the year and I would be able to quit my day job. I had long debates with myself about how large an advance I would get and how many books a year could make up for my salary (I was thinking maybe 2).

Man was I clueless!

I've seen some pretty good agent blogs on the matter and I think I am finally getting a feel for how it works. A few REALLY LUCKY people, and an even FEWER really TALENTED people make a FORTUNE. They do this by writing something timed so perfectly with what SEVERAL publishing houses think is the next big thing (the timing piece is where luck comes in) that the books go to AUCTION and they get six figure advances for their first books, or they sell MOVIE RIGHTS (this is when JK Rowling really started to get rich, though her American contract did pretty well, as authors go—she made very little for her first 3 in the UK).

The rest of us schmucks just better hope we have a back-up income until we've spent years proving ourselves to have a nice, reliable sales record. After twenty or so books, I figure maybe the trickle of royalties (provided not very many go out of print) will about make me comfortable selling 3 books a year (which is all I think I could write well, and THEN only with no day job). Of course I need that proven sales record so my advances keep going up, too...

But what does THAT mean in dollars and cents (or Euros or Pounds)?

Approximately THIS:

The harder for US to sell to THEM, the better the money. Best bet? THRILLERS or MAIN STREAM. Thrillers take 6 of 10 best seller spots at any given time (with James Patterson hogging three of those). That makes them the surest money for publishers, which makes them the best money for AUTHORS—if you can nail it. WRITING a thriller is a lot harder than it sounds. For the publisher to put the thriller label on it, it has to be a total page-turner, and lets face it. We'd ALL write a page turner if we could! Don't we ALL aspire to a book nobody can put down? I think if you can actually SELL a book AS A THRILLER (and they believe you instead of changing the label to suspense) you can probably get $50K minimum. But I think it is far more common to have them say, 'naw, this is suspense' and put you at closer to to 10K-30K range.

Now a book that takes you a year or two to write only earning $10K is a REALLY depressing idea... but that money is the ADVANCE. It is what they feel pretty sure they will earn. You sell more than the books needed to pay out that advance (known as selling through), you can earn more... the money can trickle in for as long as it's in print. It just only trickles in at maybe $2 a book for a fat hard back, or 70 cents a book for a paperback... (so you need to keep selling yourself)

Other Genres

Seems like this $10K-30K is sort of standard fare for books that go to hard cover print (unless you can get a lot of buzz going—win a contest, get a couple houses excited at once). In every genre, there are much bigger money makers—YA seems promising right now. People are buying it from the stores, so publishers are paying for them at better rates than a lot of adult stuff.

TRADE—these are the genre books that go straight to paperback—this is the gig I've got going... they can be closer to $5K a book or less (they CAN be more, but not typically for debut unless you've written a really bang-up book before getting the deal*), and it depends on the size of the publisher. The UP side of this is they are part of systems that nearly always sell through. Romance and mystery readers are the type of people who read a book every day, so you can imagine why they turn to these less expensive books, rather than buy $30 hard covers all the time.

* And I am noting—this is one of the only ways FICTION seems to give deals to an author before the book is written. An expert with some skill can sell non-fiction before it's done if they have a fabulous platform, but in fiction, these serials that are part of trade paperbacks seem to be the only way it happens that you don't have to finish the book first--at least for debut.

So I apologize if I've burst any bubbles... but chances are you should have a back up plan until you have one of these wacky, unpredictable events happen...

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

13 July 2010

Narrative: Lessons from Improv

Shortly after the Earth cooled, leaving the dinosaurs to die of frostbite, I was introduced to improvisational theatre.

Perhaps you've heard of it; maybe you've seen a troupe perform locally; perhaps you've caught the television show Whose Line is it Anyway? (also extinct, for unrelated reasons). Failing that, and if you are still reading, you probably have sufficient knowledge of the English lexicon to combine "improvisation" and "theatre" to form an accurate concept of the art form.

But unless you're reading this blog post for the second time (it could happen), you'll probably be surprised to learn that improvisational skills are key to good writing.

Not "the" key, mind you. There are many such metaphorical keys: Write what you know, create sympathetic characters, find a topic that's relevant or interesting, and make use of either talking animals (for kids) or wild sex (for adults) or both (for "Furries"-- if you don't know, don't ask). Rather, improvisation teaches the most fundamental narrative skills.

I want to give credit where it's due. I've had the good fortune to be involved with some excellent groups and fantastic instructors, who have sustained me like lembas to a hobbit. But with apologies to the aforementioned, the most astounding revelations came to me from a book called Impro by Keith Johnstone. I suppose the scholarly thing to do would be to provide some quotes from the book (I can see it on my shelf from here), but I'm too lazy-- I mean, it's a better endorsement to show that the lessons have stuck with me to the point where direct reference is unnecessary.

WARNING: If you're not a writer/storyteller/improvisor, continued reading might be a bit of a spoiler-- sort of like learning how magic tricks are done. They still look cool, but they're less, um... magical.

Still with me? Cool. In improvisational theatre, you have to make stuff up as you go. There is no editing and no time for checking references. So if I were teaching a group of students how to improvise, I would tell them that the first rule is this: Plan ahead. Things happen fast; you better have a good idea of where you're going if you want any hope of getting there.

Second rule: That 'first rule' is balderdash. Utter, complete tripe. I just wanted to see if anybody would challenge it.

Seriously, you do not look forward when improvising. That will only constrain and limit you. Conceptually, you should think of yourself as walking backwards, stumbling blindly into whatever comes along (that's called "spontaneity") and, most importantly, being constantly aware of where you've been.

It's easy to be intimidated by the vast listings on Amazon, the gargantuan indices of the Library of Congress, or the row upon row of books you see via the hidden camera that you installed at your local bookstore (shame on you). That's why some people sit down to write (I know I have) and worry that all the good books have been written. They feel constrained to avoid repetition, they seek out that one, last story that still be of vague interest to the human imagination.

That's bunk. The overwhelming majority of stories have not yet been written. It's said that an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters will eventually produce all the works of Shakespeare, but that's a terrible, terrible way to imagine the result if you're in the creative field. I say that an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters will eventually produce a twelve-volume epic of jungle-based adventures starring a guy named 'Ted' who has a missing toe and the supernatural ability to turn steak knives into kumquats. And it will be good.

This is why you walk backwards. In writing, as in improv, you can go literally anywhere. To make it work, you just need a few simple narrative skills. You have to learn to look at the past, and reincorporate the elements you previously introduced.

I'll attempt to demonstrate with a little writing exercise I call "six random words". As the (unimaginative) name implies, the exercise starts with the random selection of six words. You can use a dictionary, a friend, a web trend, a television listing, whatever. I also recommend 'constraining' yourself to apply the first two words to characters (that way you don't cherry-pick the obvious, a.k.a. the boring). Also, feel free to randomly choose word pairs if what you get looks too simple (e.g., if you land a lot of dull adjectives, pair one up with a randomly-chosen noun).

I'll take three from the dictionary, and three more from search engines as acquired by typing in random letters (deleting successive consonants, whatever it takes, so long as it's truly random). Here we go:

torment + weather (noun added)

Search Engines
Pike Place Market
zebra mussels
fabrics store (came up as "joann fabrics", but I'm taking the liberty of generalizing and excluding something which requires research)

Next step: Begin a narrative. If you were a "bad" improvisor, you would try to save some of the elements to fill out the later parts of the story ("bad" unless you were doing a non-narrative "hoop" game, where that's the explicit purpose). Don't. Use them all. At the beginning. Do not try to make them connected.

... The latest party of riders came trotting in, and Jack stepped forward to do his job. "Help you dismount, ma'am? Ready to dismount, sir?" It might have seemed dull, but it paid the bills. And Jack loved horses.

... Hank was getting sick of all the strangers who stared at him. So what if he walked down the street with a chicken under his arm? Correction, thought Hank. It's Tuesday. I'm carrying a duck.

... Jack woke up on Wednesday to see a cloudy sky. Cloudy, but without precipitation. He wanted rain, simple rain, or else a clear sky. But the weather tormented him.

... Hank came home on Wednesday to find a letter in the mail. It was from Pike Place Market.

... Slowly but surely, zebra mussels had finally made there way up the river to lake Gastagan. A new biome was about to be conquered.

... Joann pulled into the fabrics store, got out of the car, and checked her purse. The gun was ready. It was loaded. Time to move.

Before we move on with the reincorporation, I'll do a quick evaluation/analysis. Notice that the characters repeated in #3 and #4; that's fine, as long as you're not making obvious connections to a previous random element. My first thought for 'Pike Place' was to have Hank walk by it with his duck. Now, spontaneity is good, and being obvious is just fine, but in my own mind there wasn't anything new happening with the element (it was still Hank walking), so I went with the letter.

In a similar vein, it would have been easy to connect "foul" (poultry, in my mind) with "dismount" (horses, in this case) by using a rural/farm setting. That's fine later on, but in the spontaneous portion we want the elements to be separate, so I deliberately put the poultry in a more urban environment.

And now, the "hard" part. Continue the narrative, and reincorporate all of the elements.

... A police car pulled into the stables. Then another, and then a third. Jack was befuddled. What was happening?

"King County law enforcement," said an officer, coming out of his car. "We're looking for a woman with dark hair, about age thirty, who is suspected of robbing a fabric store."

"Oh, her," said Jack. "I think I know who you mean. She came alone, with a large bag. And she's about half an hour late returning with her horse."

"Curses!" cried the officer. "She's making a getaway."

"Not to worry," said Jack. "She's ridin' old Toby, and I know exactly where he'll wander off to."

With Jack's help, the fugitive was quickly arrested. Her intention being to harvest zebra mussels from lake Gastagan, she was destined for confinement as a mental patient. But for Jack, this was a golden opportunity.

"Have you considered a career in law enforcement?" asked one of the policemen. "There's an opening in Seattle for mounted officers."

"Great!" said Jack. "My cousin lives in Seattle. Where do I sign up?"

... Hank moved stealthily along the waterfront, a duck concealed beneath his trenchcoat, the warnings from Pike Place ignored. Deny him, would they? His duck would be fed! As he inched closer to the fish market, he could overhear the workers talking:

"Seems a bit quiet today."

"No clopping."

"What that?"

"No clopping. The mountie dude hasn't been by."

Hank smiled evilly. It was a dry, but cloudy day, a rarity in Seattle. Hank knew that his cousin, tormented by the discordant weather, would have called in sick. Hank intended to exploit this knowledge.

"Incoming!" cried a worker.

Something flew into the air, and Hank released his duck to intercept. But then came the unexpected.


The duck did not return.

"Luann!?" cried Hank. Unable to stop himself, he rushed forward into the market. Luann, his precious duckling, was struggling with a tiny zebra mussel caught in her throat. He managed to save her, but was denied a quick getaway.

"You're supposed to throw fish!" wailed Hank.

The Pike Place workers surrounded him, waiting for the police to arrive. "Well, yeah," said one. "But I'm a trainee. We start with mussels, now that they're coming in by the truckload."

Hank was soon arrested, and charged with duck-assisted aerial theft. He was soon committed to a mental institution, where he met and fell in love with Joann. And although he and Joann made only slow progress, Jack encountered a helpful psychologist during a visit to his cousin and was able to overcome his sensitivity to dissonant weather.

The End.

Quad erat demonstrandum. It's not a prize-winning story, but I hope it illustrates the principles. Just keep re-folding the fabric of your reality until everything touches.

A few more notes: It can be something of a cop-out to use "mental patient" characters, especially if it allows them to do things with no motivation whatsoever. However, they did have valid (if somewhat unusual) motivation relating to the random elements. In an improvisational scene, it would not have even been necessary to label them as crazy (all characters in improvisational comedy are crazy).

And if this were a less comical written work, you could go back and alter the elements (now that their place in the narrative is set) to be more conventional. For example, Joann could rob a sporting goods store for conventional netting; or she might not even commit robbery, but arouse suspicion with a large purchase. Hank could use larger birds (they throw some pretty big fish at Pike Place); he could be motivated by revenge after being fired, or he could be replaced by a group of young bird trainers who think of it as a practical joke (thus eliminating the "crazy" element). You could also do some research for the name of an actual lake in King County.

And so on.

Eventually, as a writer, you will have to look forward to where your story is going. But if you don't want your writing to go the way of the dinosaurs, or be out-competed by an infinite supply of monkeys, you have to learn to be a two-faced Janusian beast who looks backwards just as well. For therein lies the key to narrative.