Monday, October 10, 2011


I have found I am particularly distrustful of stories of economic inequality based on worth. There are several reasons for this, including an inaccurate mixing of statistics, a person's actions that do not accumulate worth, and a lack of indication of remedies.

First, many of these articles seem to mix worth and income, gliding from one to the next with the ease of a smiling car salesman asking you what payment you want. They neglect that although Bill Gates is worth $40 billion dollars, the worth is mostly in Microsoft stock. Bill Gates' worth is not a big bank balance with the first five digits reading something like 40,272 and the next six digits ticking steadily upwards as interest accumulates. His worth is in the form of stock, whose value is determined by the market. The same can be said for Warren Buffett and dozens of other billionaires and thousands of millionaires. Admittedly, their income is extremely high, but if you want to talk about income inequality, use income figures. Don't shift sneakily over to worth in mid paragraph, or even mid sentence.

Next, lets face it, most people don't really think about increasing their net worth. Imagine a person making $40,000 a year, well below national median income. They are frugal and have no ongoing debts, and even possess a small emergency fund against things like needed car repair or emergency room visits. Give this person a $2000 bonus and do they really rush home and invest in Disney stock? No, its spent on a new HDTV, or a gaming laptop, or new furniture, or a trip to Paris. People in middle and below income brackets simply don't think about long term gain of worth.

I agree that many people in these income brackets are struggling financially, burdened with expenses such as school loans or credit card debt. And the credit card debt is not necessarily from unwise consumer spending, but from something like necessary car repair when the savings balance showed zero, or a long spell of unemployment. Any windfall would most wisely go to reducing expenses, not investing in new worth.

Also, the road to increase one's worth is currently very murky. The fickle stock market will eat your windfall like a hungry West Virginian after an evening smoking pot. Real estate will take years to show a profit, if ever, and still requires a large initial investment. The lack of clear direction for improving one's financial worth is actually a severe problem, worthy of another essay. Still, most people have a consumer mentality, and this prevents people from accumulating wealth.

Lastly, constantly pointing out worth inequality doesn't really indicate any long term path to remedies. More taxes? Republicans fight even mild increase in taxes on the income of the wealthy tooth and nail, so no increase on total worth will gain ground politically. And any substantial tax that required the Buffetts or the Gateses of the world to divest would drive stock prices down as they flooded the market with stock or real estate. Sorry, that $10,000 in Microsoft stock you diligently saved for, its worth $7500 now. So even if the Wall Street Protests gain ground, exactly what will they do with that political power to promote spreading of wealth?

So you can see that statistics and essays comparing worth are, well, worthless. They mix statistics to confuse the reader, they refuse to take into account the consumer mentality prevalent in the United States, and never mention any solid remedies. I'm all for moving people up the socio-economic ladder, but lets start with something more concrete than discussions of worth.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Reading List

Well I've just come from The Art of Manliness and their reading list, so I was inspired to put together my own. I haven't tried to rank them. This list is more of books that people actually read, not just say they've read.

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein - pro- military
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman - anti-military
Old Man's War by John Scalzi - third view of war
With Fire and Sword by Henyrk Sienkiewicz - 19th century adventure novel
1984 by George Orwell - brutal dictatorship
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley - dictatorship of comfort and free sex
Catch-22 - by Joseph Heller -anti-military and founded a new phrase
The Curse of Chalion - Lois McMaster Bujold - what it really means to do God's will
Dune by Frank Herbert - Messiah in space
Double Star by Robert Heinlein - doing your duty although it erases you.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy - human nature, and some comments on war
A Princess of Mars - by Edgar Rice Burroughs - honor, courage, rip-roaring adventure.
Tuf Voyaging - George R R Martin - for some reason, Haviland Tuf appeals to me.
Callahan's Cross Time Saloon - by Spider Robinson. Shared pain decreases.
Day of the Triffids by John Wynham - end of the world via biological warfare.
Huckleberry Finn - by Mark Twain
The Hobbit - J RR Tolkien - of course
Lord of the Rings - J R R Tolkien - natch.
Macbeth - Shakespeare - murder, treason, guilt!
Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card - kids are smarter than adults
A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'Enge
Dracula - Bram Stoker
Startide Rising - David Brin
Have Space Suit - Will Travel by Robert Heinlein
Hyperion by Dan Simmons - kind of have to read the sequel Fall of Hyperion also
Watership Down - Robert Adams

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Hero or Protagonist?

I've wondered on whether to use the term hero or protagonist when talking about writing. Both have their upsides and downsides.

Hero is the older term. Its short, four letters, I'm done. But it traditionally indicates a male character. The term also tends to connotate a character with few faults. With the modern fixation on "three dimensional" characters, or even worse "gritty and edgy" characters, hero just seems old fashioned and past its prime.

Protagonist? Too long, and my fingers hate typing it. Its just damn pretentious, like my main character has a dark past doing something awful, like "selling drugs disguised as a nun". Or he stands on windswept crags, staring into dark thundering clouds, spending forty two long pages pondering the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

I've decided to use the word "toon", from "cartoon". Toon is used by many MMORPG players to refer to their characters in the game. It seems to have come from World of Warcraft, inspired by the cartoon like artwork perhaps, but may be older.

Oh, but am I writing cartoons? Those aren't realistic at all! Well, when you get right down to it, most fiction is about unrealistic people or situations. The audience, whether readers or viewers, generally want something extraordinary. More action, more drama, more comedy than in real life. All fiction is about the out of the ordinary. A story about an engineer who goes to work, comes home, reads novels, goes to movies with friends, works out twice a week and goes to church once a month will never get published. If the same character stumbles across a plot to assassinate the president, or discovers vampires living next door, or "falls into a wormhole and the next moment is fighting Sleestak halfway across the galaxy", well thats sellable copy.

And in the 21st century its not enough to have extraordinary circumstances. Your character has to have some dark past. Its just not enough to fight fundamentalist christians bent on assasinating the great progressive hope, the protagonist (I swear it takes me a full sixty seconds to type that fricking word) must also be a former drug dealer, or committed atrocities as a mercenary in Iraq, or something "gritty and edgy". All in the name of 'three dimensionality'.

Of course, most people just aren't like that. Most of us are pretty two dimensional. Most of us will not dangle upside down from a high rise trying to disarm a nuclear bomb while struggling with the DTs because we're an addict who picked the wrong day to give up heroin.

The word toon reminds us what we write is not normal. Our audience wants more than normal and its our job to give it to them. If we don't, the reader will move to some one who will.

Reference: Orson Scott Card in his book on characters points out that fictional characters are not normal. I think Dwight Swain does too in his "Techniques for the selling writer", but can't recall. The quote about Sleestak is from an episode of Castle, I don't know which one.


So I'm stuck at a particular part in my novel, not sure how to move the plot forward. I finally decided to apply the principle "when you don't know what to do, make your toon's life more difficult."

That gives me a general direction to go, but specifically how to proceed still stumps me. Do I need to work out how the hero will escape from this first? Or just toss him towards the river of man eating crocodiles and hope I can write the escape when the time comes? Decisions decisions.

Quantum Entanglement

When you hear about quantum entanglement, its discussed as a bizarre principle of physics where a photon or particle here can be affected by poking its entangled partner over there, and then the article generally continues on about new computer chips or even teleportation. In the real world, quantum entanglement is the principal Blizzard uses to ensure Barren's chat is the same across all servers.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Story Bible

Unless it’s a short story with characters that are vivid in the writer’s head, every story needs a story bible. A story bible is simply the sum of all notes and research done for that story. You need the story bible to keep all the details of the story straight. The details include information on all the characters – physical descriptions, what cars they drive (or horses they ride for a fantasy or western story), background, flaws, talents, attitudes towards other characters, politics. Some TV shows use story bibles, and they are generally called show bibles.

You need these details for all but the shortest stories. Suppose you are writing a private detective story and your hero shows up on the scene of a crime in chapter 1. The police detective he works with is a minor character at this point, and you toss off a physical description. But then in chapter 3, the police detective pops up again. And then again in chapter 5 your hero (or heroine-I’m too lazy to type out protagonist) stubbornly starts flirting with the detective and they start dating. You didn’t really plan this, but then realize it’s a great subplot that resolves some plot holes. You can have the police detective offer some help in chapter 12, maybe kill them off in chapter 17 as a pre-climax major disaster. So you quite fighting it and let your protagonist date the police detective. Quick, what color are the detective’s eyes? Hair - long, short, color? What kind of body? You mentioned all these details in chapter one. If the police detective is now a major character maybe they need some major character flaws, a background, hobbies, skills. With a story bible, you have at least some information in a central place, and can go back and add more when needed.

The story bible contains other information such as ideas for story scenes, plot arcs, research, notes on locations. Continuing on the mystery theme, you can keep track that Lincoln county as politically appointed coroners that may stink on forensics, but nearby Brown County uses paid medical examiners. Whether Lincoln and Brown counties are fictional or not, you want to make sure the system stays the same throughout the novel – unless that’s a plot point, but then you still don’t want the system to magically change from one chapter to the next. Maybe the hero is stalking the killer in a large warehouse or industrial complex. A quick sketch of the location can flesh out the details in your mind, and keep everybody involved honest when it comes to any actions scenes. You don’t suddenly want to add explosives or industrial equipment to a garment warehouse unless you have a good reason too. So I hope you get the idea of the need for a story bible.

What does a story bible look like? They have many forms and every writer has to work out a system for themselves. The low tech approach is paper and pen style. This could be as simple as a big spiral notebook you can get for a quarter at the back to school sales. Number all the pages for reference, then add some tabs –store bought or home made. The tabs divide the notebook into sections- Plot, Character, Locations, Research, etc. You can spend a little more and use three ring binders , or those expandible file folders that can hold your spiral notebook, index cards, magazine articles etc.

The major advantage of low tech methods are cost and ease of use. A spiral notebook for a quarter is almost the cheapest tool you’ll buy as a writer. You don’t need a computer or internet connection. Many people are better at brainstorming and general creativity when using paper and pen. The major disadvantage is they aren’t computer searchable, and of course if you lose it, you are in deep trouble. It’s difficult to make backups of hand written copies. You may have trouble adding to it as well. That police detective from chapter one may have gotten ½ page allotted to them at first, and now they need three or four pages by chapter 5. Page numbers can help keep things referenced, and an index you build as you go also helps, but will quickly get out of alphabetical order.

The high tech approach brings the computer into the equation. Most of us –unless your name is Berry or Stephenson- write on a computer. So although they are expensive, we obviously already have one.

How do we use the computer to make the story bible? You can simply have a big document with multiple sections, like the spiral notebook. Another option is a spreadsheet program like Excel. Each novel would have its own spreadsheet, then you could setup separate worksheets with titles like Character, Location, Plot, and so on. Each character could be an entry in a table with columns for physical description, flaws, background, etc.

Users of MS Office may have a program called OneNote on their machines. This is a somewhat unique application for gathering all your information- notes, documents, presentations, hyperlinks, pictures, pdf files into one locations. If you have a tablet PC, OneNote allows you to write hand written notes and then converts the notes to searchable text. (I had classmates with the entire vet school curriculum, including all their class notes contained in One Note, cross referenced, and computer searchable. Me, jealous? Never.)

The next stage up is the creative writing software. These packages include specific windows or panels for entering characters details, research, location notes, general plot notes. and so on. They have outliners to keep track of your scenes, and make notes on them. You can re-order you scenes by 'drag and drop' in the outline view. (Try that with a big Word document.) Many of them allow you to color code scenes by character, theme or subplot. Some have word processors, so you don’t have to keep a separate application handy. Many automatically will format your document for printing in a different format than written. You write in 10 pt Cambria, but East Coast Publishing house wants manuscripts in 12 pt Times New Roman, but West Coast Mysteries wants them in 11 pt Arial? No problem, just a few clicks and out pops the manuscript. Other packages automatically generate title pages and other ancillary pages. Most offer word counts and approximate page counts.

So who makes these packages? Most creative writing software is written in small shops, sometimes only one programmer. They can cost between nothing and several hundred dollars. From my experience, you can get a great package for only $40 - $80. For Apple users, the name Scrivener pops up over and over. I’m not even sure the Macintosh police will let you write a novel without using Scrivener! For Window’s users, there is a beta version of Scrivener available. Other packages include WriteItNow, WriteWayPro, Liquid Storybinder, yWriter, Snowflake Pro, Storybook, Writer’s Cafe and RoughDraft. Most offer some sort of free demo version. Note that yWriter and Storybook are free. I don't believe Snowflake Pro has a free demo, but check for yourself. You must try them to seach which ones you like. I tried Scrivener for windows (beta), WriteWayPro and Writer’s Café, and finally picked WriteWayPro, with Scrivener a close second. (see this blog's first post). For linux users, the Scrivener for windows has a linux version available. You can also try the Windows packages in emulator mode.

Edit 1/8/2017: Scrivener is available for Windows and has been for sometime. After years of waiting for an upgraded version, I abandoned WritewayPro and am now using Scrivener.

I haven’t touched on screenwriting or stageplay software. Similar capibilities and a bit more specialized. Its out there, and I’m sure Google can find it for you.

The advantages of using a computer are the better organization, the ability to quickly change or add new information and the ease of backing up. Backup techniques include portable hard drives, flash drives (even only 2 GB should be enough for your text files, but please don’t quote me like Bill Gates gets quoted), emailing your files to your gmail/yahoo/hotmail etc account, other applications like DropBox or Mosy and so on. Disadvantages obviously are the need for a computer. You still can’t use most laptops outside, even in the shade. And laptops seem to have have a frustrating 2-3 hr battery limit. (Some netbooks and the MacBook are pushing five to six hours, so some hope exists for the battery limit problem.)

You have decisions to make. Whether, low-tech or high tech, you have to figure out what works for you. You might get the idea I’m sold on creative writing software. Definitely. My experience is that the proper tool can make a job so much easier. Sure you can use a three foot carpenter’s level to hang your new kitchen cabinets, but a laser level makes the whole job a hundred times easier. For me, creative writing software is that proper tool. I still have a paper notebook for hand sketches though. Sometimes curling up on the couch with notebook and pen is more creative. Still can’t afford a tablet PC- sigh.

Some can’t afford anything more than a spiral notebook. Another tried their friend's MacBook with Scrivener and can’t have anything less. You may try all the Windows packages and work out a system of index cards with an OneNote file for character notes. The other thing to remember is you can’t be a writer without writing. I am not published because I get absorbed playing computer games, watching all ten seasons of Stargate: SG1, or writing blog posts that keep going round in my head. Evaluate the software packages by actually trying to use them, but don't get absorbed with fancy features. Always keep writing.

*** This topic on Jim Butcher's forum provided much information for this post.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Beware MS Word!

In my last post - also my first post - I mentioned you could write a novel using MS Word, or the old fashioned way, I seemed to imply. I've recently come across a posting why you shouldn't write a novel with MS Word : Beware MS Word! I found this link on the forums at Jim Butcher's website. Hat tip to the poster Mickey Finn. I haven't written 200k words yet, so am personally unaware of MS Word's behavior with large text files. The same forums have a long thread describing various writing tools, including some I didn't cover in my first post. Jim Butcher has a blog where he describes offers several posts on writing tips for beginning authors of genre fiction. Butcher is the author of the Dresden files and Codex Alera and regularly hits the NY Times best seller lists. He isn't really describing anything new, I think - his story skeleton idea looks remarkable similar to something Dwight Swain discusses in Techniques for the Selling Writer. Of course, I'm only posting here because its easier than actually writing.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Software for Writing

These are some notes on three different writing packages I looked over a few months ago. What is writing software? Generally it’s a software tool that allows you to collect character notes, plot ideas, and other material pertinent to your book all in one place. Each package usually has a tool to arrange scenes how you like them, create outlines of your stories and novels and other tools useful to a writer. These are not full reviews, because I haven’t used every feature of every package.

The first package I looked at was WriteWay ( . This package has three versions, demo, standard and professional. The demo version is active for 30 days. Purchasing a standard or professional version allows you to register the software on two different computers. The standard and professional versions each add additional features.

This package has a fairly nice composition area for you to write on. The writing area is easy to maximize and has decent format options. WriteWay creates your manuscript separately from your composition. So you can write your story how you like but through in options menu create a manuscript with different formats. On the left side is an outline tree showing the acts and scenes of your book. There is also a scratch pad section for scenes that you’ve written, but aren’t sure where yet where they belong in the outline.

There are special character windows where you can create character notes and specify background, physical appearance, motivations, weaknesses, strengths and so on. WriteWay provides a default template to guide you on this process. You can also use a blank template if you like a more free form character creation or even create your own template.

WriteWay also has a research window where you can gather notes, links, access the internet through your favorite browser. It’s a useful place to keep research handy, though I confess I haven’t used it much. There is a storyboard section that I haven’t used much either.

I very much like WriteWay’s Future book ideas window. This has a collapsible tree and edit window where you can sketch out ideas for future books and organize them how you like. This window is available from all books you create, so you always have instant access to a universal notebook to keep track of your ideas. You can also use the window to track submissions or other tasks.

The second software package I’ve looked at is Anthemions Writer’s Café ( The demo version lacks some features of the commercial version, but has no time limit. Writer’s Café has many, many features. There’s a workspace for creating character notes and organizing scenes and plots. The composition space is less useful and rather small, with limited formatting options. I found it cramped. I think the feeling is you would write in a dedicated word processor software – indeed there is a link to OpenOffice Writer on the opening screen. Writer’s café also has a name generator, journal feature, and writer’s prompt to help you get some practice when you just don’t feel inspired.

The third package was Scrivener for Windows (Beta) version. My testing was done in November, and they were supposed to have a release version ready by now. Nope, checking the website, the Windows version is still in beta . There is an outline format to organize scenes, a character note utility, , Research section and storyboard utility. I found Scrivener has a certain elegant simplicity to it. You focus on writing with Scrivener, on generating content. Update: as of November 2011, Scrivener for Windows is available for sale.

In the end I picked WriteWay. I really like the Future Book Idea feature that allows me to gather ideas in a central location across all projects. Scrivener was a close second, but it lacked the Future Book Idea feature. The character notes didn’t feel quite as natural, also. Writer’s Café had a limited composition area, limited formatting, and the workspaces felt clumsy to me. The huge number of supposed ‘writing tools’ seemed to limit my actual writing as I tended to fiddle with them, rather than write. Your taste may differ from mine. All three of these packages have free downloads, so try them out for yourself.

Does a writer need a writing package? Of course not. You could do a lot of what these packages do with clever use of MS OneNote, or just Word and maybe an Excel spreadsheet to track the plot and keep character notes and such. Heck, Wendell Berry still writes in pencil, with his wife typing the manuscripts. And back in the 90’s there was a British woman who wrote her first novel longhand, then typed it on a manual typewriter. (The PC existed in the 90’s but they were expensive and she was a single mother.) She eventually got published and her first novel was very well received. So what really matters is getting words on the page. Stephen King recommends one thousand words a day or you’ll never get anywhere as a writer. So, pardon me while I go back to writing.