WriteOn Right On?

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So I’ve been playing around on Amazon’s “WriteOn” this week (thanks Andrea!) and here’s my first blush opinion: It has the same feel as software projects I’ve worked on in which graphic artists are put in charge of design. Graphic artists are great. I know some graphic artists who are wonderful, sweet people, and they make things shiny and beautiful. But that’s not what software is about, it’s about getting work done, and confusing “functional” for “pretty” is a costly, usually fatal design mistake.

WriteOn is an online critique site, but it doesn’t call itself a critique site. It calls itself a “story lab,” which is not what you call yourself if you are trying to serve people who know what things are called in this business–which is clue #1 that something isn’t quite tuned correctly in the old whatthehellometer. The site itself is pretty, and pretty odd. The main menu looks like a storefront, with lots of “covers” which I initially confused for Amazon advertising, but no, these are (randomly selected?) story posts presented as if they were published works. This is clue #2 than something wicked might this way may just be a coming.

A critique site is where WRITERS go to get and give feedback on WRITING and the business of WRITING. Writers work in standard manuscript format–occasionally with some accommodation to online presentation. IF a work makes it to publication, IF the author is self-publishing, he or she MIGHT become involved in cover design. But at this stage, presentation is (or should be) far from a writer’s mind. Which is clue #3, and a very big clue indeed, that you got trouble, my friend, trouble I say, right here in River City.

WriteOn offers a simple little wizard that allows–nay, REQUIRES–you to create “covers” for your uploaded works. The uploaded works, themselves, are presented in a virtual reader designed to look something like a printed book or e-reader. Why? There are only two possible reasons. Either the creators of WriteOn don’t know that real writers deal in raw words and mostly find all this presentation stuff a distraction and waste of critically valuable time, or they are trying to feed the publication fantasies of the unwashed masses.

If the former is the case, it’s a bit annoying. Since these covers exist, making them attractive becomes a critical, time-consuming, unproductive step in attracting critiques. That’s annoying, but critiques are so valuable, we’ll go along with it if the feedback is worth it. But if the later is true, then that’s unlikely.

We’ll see. WriteOn may turn out to be the greatest thing since sliced Linotype, or it may be a fool’s errand. Time will tell. In the meantime, here is my first cover:

Honey I Shrunk The Waistline

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When my wife’s telecommute schedule coincides with mine, I like to make us lunch. Today’s “honey I shrunk to waistline,” offering? Egg & avocado brunch tacos on whole-wheat tortilla, with spinach and pear salad made with dried cherries, diced almonds, broccoli & cauliflower tossed with lime vinaigrette. Served with blueberry hibiscus tea.

IMAG0362Eggs are nutritious, but terrible for your cholesterol, and the egg board’s propaganda that they have “balanced fats” is wishful thinking at best–unless you serve them like this. This all comes to nearly 600 calories–far more than I usually allocate to lunch–but I’m working at my treadmill desk today and this is about as nutritious as food gets–and as delicious. Honestly, one taco would have been plenty, and then it would come in at around 350 calories.

What’s especially nice about this meal is that it’s not only a feast for me, it’s a feast for the helpful bacteria living in my gut, without whom I would be doomed where I stand. Cell-for-cell, they outnumber me three to one, so it pays to keep them happy. Almost everything we know about them, we’ve learned in the last twenty years, and the findings are transforming our understanding of nutrition and diet, month after month after month.

Eating yogurt or the odd probiotic doesn’t cut it. What you feed these guys is at least as important as what you feed yourself, and it has a huge impact on what your body gets from its meals and how it puts it to use. The science is still in it’s infancy, but one thing is crystal clear, we in the west eat far too much meat and dairy, and it’s making us very sick.

Check it out and let me know what you think. Are you a vegan or a veg? Do you swear by the modified Akins? Did your grandma live to be a hundred eating pork rinds and deep fried twinkies? Leave a comment and tell me what you think, and until next time, bon appetit!

The Real Nanny State

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Denmark has enacted a tax on foods high in saturated fats. This is an effective, fair, non-intrusive way to encourage behavior that is in everyone’s interest without curbing anyone’s god given right to act stupidly.

In the US, this would raise a hew and cry from conservatives everywhere, who would decry big brother and the growth of the “nanny state”. Fine. You favor smaller government? So do I. Call your representatives and push to have all sugar and meat subsidies eliminated. Subsidies that exist today for NO OTHER REASON than that currently rich people benefit from them and use the very profits they garantee to lobby for there continuance.

Sugar subsidies cost you and me a quarter of a BILLION dollars a year. Meat subsidies are indirect, in the form a feed, water, and federal land access allowances, but are equally substantial. They also raise that price of every other agricultural product competing for the same resources, including many that better for us.

I have nothing against the wealthy, lord knows. I’d be delighted to join the club, and the persuit of wealth is what made America great. But before you go complaining about the rise of the nanny state, look at the one we already have, and look at who it’s serving. I’m cool with the rich and comfortable. Hypocrites can kiss my cholesterol.

Fedoras For The Future?

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I’ve been on the Linux bandwagon for several years, ever since I bought a netbook with a stripped-down distribution called “Linpus” installed. This was on a single-core Acer Aspire One with 1.5G of memory, and when the solid state drive went bad after a few months, I started looking to see what I could run on this marvelous if modest writer’s dream.

I had another Acer running a preinstalled, striped-down netbook edition of Windows 7, but I’d already had it long enough to see the slow deterioration that every Windows machine has suffered all the way back to Windows 3.0 on MS-DOS. I tried a “normal” install of Windows 7 home edition for which I had the media, and found it’s performance laughable in the tiny memory space available. No surprise there. Microsoft’s whole business strategy has always been based on planned, or at least gleefully anticipated, obsolescence and replacement.

Unlike Windows, Linux is maintained by the user community, and it didn’t take long to find a number of lightweight distributions tailored for lightweight hardware. By this time, Ubuntu was already emerging as a popular favorite, but the full build was too slow and memory hogging for the Acer. Lubuntu and Kubuntu were both good, but for various reasons, I settled on Xubuntu, a well-supported distribution that has continued to give reliable, efficient service through numerous releases and upgrades. I even run Xubuntu on my desktop where I don’t have any resource contraints, just for the sake of consistency.

Then, my wife bought a Chromebook, an Acer C710. She didn’t know the kids had already rejected their school-provided chromebooks as hopelessly impractical–what’s the point of having an ultraportable computer that is 100% useless without a wifi connection? But hey, the C710 is a sweet little machine for $200, with an 11” LED screen, memory expandable to 4G, more and faster storage and a faster, dual-core ARM processor? What’s not to like? Well, there is one thing. She also didn’t know that most older chromebooks have no BIOS, that is, they run Chrome OS at the hardware level and there is no way around it.

Except there is. You just have to roll up your sleeves, put on your anti-static wrist band, and put some faith in YouTube and the Internets. In a couple of hours, with a USB stick, a jeweler’s screwdriver, and a bit of rolled up aluminum foil, I had flashed the chromebook into a real, functioning netbook with an open source BIOS called SeaBIOS, and Xubuntu.

And for the first time, Xubuntu failed me. Ubuntu’s kernel, running on SeaBIOS, has spotty support for the C7’s trackpad and no support for its suspend and hibernate functionality. There are workarounds for the trackpad, but after a few weeks of playing around, I decided to give Debian, and then Fedora a try. Debian didn’t solve the problem, and is obviously build for and by geeks who enjoy playing around with the techno-innards of their operating systems more than getting actual work done. Fedora, however, shows promise.

Fedora is not as polished as Xubuntu (and is totally outclassed by the full Ubuntu), but so far it’s light and stable and, best of all, the trackpad works “out of the box.” In addition, Firefox doesn’t crash every couple of minutes like it did in Ubuntu on this machine. Now if the good people supporting coreboot, the hardware layer on which SeaBIOS runs, can fix the suspend issue, I’ll have the perfect writer’s engine to replace my stash of aging netbooks.

And all for less than the cost of a good Fedora.

Just What IS Character Arc, Anyway?

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UntitledWriters and reviewers and today’s literati focus a lot on character arc and depth. It’s easy for any aspiring writer to get the message: avoid shallow characters by writing characters with depth–characters who have an “arc.”

Okay. How?

This is one of those topics that is actually much simpler than it seems. Any fictional character can be thought of as having three layers of depth:

  1. The first, superficial layer, is what others in the story see: dress, manner, accent, behavior.
  2. The second, backstory layer, is what drives the first: income, upbringing, ethnicity, that time behind the church with the deacon’s son, etc.
  3. The third, “moral” layer, is what that character does with the first two. Does he become a skin-head rapist or an astronaut? When she fails, does she give up or try again? Character is revealed by a person’s choices and deeds, in literature as in life.

When the gurus talk about the “save the cat” moment, they are stuck in layer one. When reviewers complain about cliché or “one dimensional” characters, they are also talking about layer one. And when an editor says that character lacks depth or isn’t sympathetic, she she didn’t see much beyond layer two.

The fast-talking car salesman in a loud jacket is a cliché. He exists in layer one. If, as in the movie, “True Lies,” he lives in a run down trailer but uses his access to sporty cars to put the make on the town’s housewives, then cowers and denigrates himself when confronted, he starts revealing depth. We see a glimpse of why he is the way he is, and we know what kind of man he is. He’s a jerk, but we can at least pity him. If the same character, perhaps in a sequel, were to get his act together and take positive steps to make amends, that would be character arc. He would now be making different decisions based on the same inputs. He’s growing. If he grows a spine and risks his neck for the greater good, we might even start to root for this reformed loser.

That’s all there is to it. Three layers, and growth. How she appears, why she appears that way, and what she does with that reality. And how what she does with it changes over time.

By the way, it’s sometimes okay to write one dimensional characters. Giving a character depth implies something about his or her role in the story. Don’t flesh out a character who walks on to pump a tank of gas—unless doing so advances the arc of the main character.

I think it’s pretty simple, but of course, there are many places one can go wrong in execution. For now, this is my guide. What about you? As you read a novel, to these layers reveal themselves? If you are an author, do you have a different rubric you use to keep your characters on track? Like, comment, and let me know.

A Signature of Authors

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If that isn’t the proper plural for a gathering of authors it should be. I recently met up with some of my fellow Tides of Possibility authors to chat about writing and life. We gathered in the forest of our shared imagination, around the roaring fire of Internet togetherness, each equally grateful that Luther, the four-meter-high combat droid who graces the anthology’s cover, had not been able to join us. With me are Mandy Broughton, Brandon Crilly, Lilia Fabry,, and Erin Kennemer, Kyle Russell, and DL Young,

Stuart: So to start things off, what’s something about you that might surprise your friends?

Mandy: I fence competitively. I’ve won a couple of women’s tournaments down in Galveston. The prize was a real cutlass—the broadsword, not the car.

DL: “The Way We Were” is one of my favorite movies. My advice to other writers of dark, dystopian scifi is, never admit this to anyone.

Stuart (grins): I once played Dracula on stage. Capes are totally cool. I admit this to everyone. Kyle, in addition to your stories, you edited Tides, what got you into the business?

Kyle: I’ve always been into writing. When I was a kid I’d ask permission to get on my parent’s computer and write. I would get assignments in school to write a two-page story, and while other kids were writing stories about talking hamsters or something, I’d turn in a twenty-page story about a lost prince living in obscurity. I think the very first thing I ever wrote was fan-fiction for some video game I’d been playing. This was before video games usually came with plots of their own, so I’d give characters names and try to give a plot to what they were doing.

Stuart (nodding): How ’bout the rest of you?

Lilia: My eerie innate need to write. I’ll confuse the names of real people with the names of my characters if I don’t do it often enough.

Brandon: My love of speculative fiction started with Star Wars. I actually watched Return of the Jedi first, then Empire, and finally A New Hope. From that point I was hooked by Lucas’s universe, and started reading the Expanded Universe – which I still do. Somewhere along the way I started imagining myself in that universe, and then new characters, until eventually I moved on from fan fiction and started coming up with new stuff. To be honest, I really only dabbled with writing until I was accepted into the Creative Writing program at Queen’s University, where I first started working with my mentor, Carolyn Smart. Her influence was my first push into “professional writing.”

Mandy: Nancy Drew’s The Secret of the Old Clock. I read that book to my brother when I was in 4th grade. It was game over. I wanted to be a writer and entertain readers as much as I was entertained by the first real book I thoroughly enjoyed.

Stuart: That’s so sweet! I should probably blame my big sister. We spent our summers recording “radio dramas” on reel-to-reel tape, and I always wrote the scripts. It’s amazing how well you can replicate the sound of charging horses by laying a microphone under the covers and pounding the sheets with your fists. Later my friends and I made stop-animation films and I wrote those too.

Which writers or books have inspired you guys the most?

Lilia: In two words: Atwood, Atlas

Kyle: I read so much when I was a kid. I didn’t have a favorite author until I started reading Terry Brooks in high school, and I liked his descriptions so much that I actually studied how he wrote and tried to emulate it. Later I’d do the same thing with Frank Herbert and Edgar Allen Poe. I was obsessed with Poe’s Conqueror Worm and W.B. Yeats’ The Second Coming for a while. Lately, I’ve been studying H. P. Lovecraft.

Mandy: I LOVE Isaac Asimov. Agatha Christie. Isaac Asimov. Sir Authur Conan Doyle. And did I mention Isaac Asimov? Love Ellis Peters too. Brilliant books.

Stuart: Ha ha. Yeah, Asimov was one of the best, and Heinlein, and H.G. Wells. Then I found Spock Must Die! in a thrift store. James Blish, Joe Haldeman, Diane Carey, they become my idols.

DL: My first scifi addiction was Asimov, then I discovered Bradbury. Later my influences moved more to the literary side: Twain, Flannery O’Connor, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Vonnegut, etc. I love it when writers combine scifi concepts with solid literary technique like Paolo Bacigalupi and Ian McDonald.

Stuart: Okay, on the lighter side, Han Solo and Lieutenant Worf get into a fight. Who wins?

Brandon: Han, because he always shoots first. If he misses, Chewie can just rip Worf’s arms off.

Lilia: There’s some statistic that Worf has lost 75% of the fights he’s been in. But my win/loss ratio isn’t much better.

Kyle: Worf would win. Blasters don’t have a stun setting. They just blast and burn, so you’d have to shoot Worf a couple times before he went down. And Worf’s not going to let Han shoot him more than once, no matter how lucky Han is. And if Worf is ready for the fight before it starts? Forget about it.

Mandy: (eyes roll) You remember the episode where Worf was paralyzed? He’d still beat Han Solo, paralyzed and without his bat’leth. No contest. No offense to Han–love him–but we know who the real warrior is.

Stuart: Did anyone else find it odd that Worf carries a bat’leth when he’s wearing a pressure suit?

DL: Star Trek beats Star Wars EVERY TIME IN ALL THINGS!

Stuart: Well if I had to choose, I’d probably agree, but I also loved Star Wars. And Jaws. And 2001–though when I watch it now, all I can think of is “who PAID for all this lunar base hardware?” That raises the question, though: should science fiction inspire scientific progress or is it just entertainment, a vicarious escape. What’s your take?

Lilia: The iPad sure does look like the thing on Star Trek – but cooler.

Kyle: In order to say that science fiction is “just” entertainment, you have to really not be paying attention. Of course it inspires. It’s literature. In a hundred years, when literature professors look back on what our generation wrote about, do you think they’re just going to overlook the fact that we valued super-heroes and technology because it was genre fiction?

Mandy: Escapism. Sci-fi is just plain fun. Although, with next year being 2015, I’m really looking forward to purchasing the hover-conversion for my car, as predicted in Back to the Future.

DL: No-brainer here. Ask anyone who works at NASA if reading science fiction inspired them. 9 out of 10 times the answer is yes.

Stuart: You know, Neil Gaiman said when China finally decided to accept scifi and invited him to their first convention, he asked what had changed. They said they went to all the leading western businesses, Apple, Google, etc., and found that without fail, the innovators driving our economy all grew up on scifi. I think it’s both. We read for an escape and for drama, but the best fiction inspires us to think about the world and how we want it to be–both technically and socially. That’s as true of Anna Karenina and Robinson Crusoe as for Star Trek and Hitchhiker’s Guide.

Which fictional character is most like you?

Lilia: Ramona, in both child and adulthood.

Mandy: Dr. Beverly Crusher

DL: Hard to pick just one. I’m cursed with Hamlet’s indecisiveness at times. But on the positive side, I have Captain Picard’s haircut.

Stuart: Leonard from Big Bang Theory. No, Raj. No, Sheldon. No, Penny. No, WHEATON!!!!

What’s your writer’s cave like?

Mandy: My office is in my utility room. I have photos of my books’ cover art and of characters from my WIP, and lots of sticky notes. I have two beautiful Klingon Birds of Prey matted and framed, and a computer with no backspace key (smiles).

Erin: Have laptop, will travel. I write anywhere I get the chance. It wasn’t like that before I had a child, but I guess necessity forced me to be disciplined in my spare time. If I’m at home, I usually write at the kitchen table because there is less to distract me in there. I’m definitely a fan of coffee shops, as well.

Stuart: Yeah, I love a nice quiet corner in a Starbucks or hotel lobby, but I do most of my writing at my treadmill desk or sitting on the Park & Ride bus.

Brandon: I write out of my office, with my desk facing the wall and my computer blaring classic rock. I try to keep minimal distractions around me. But I’m also a huge proponent of writing wherever and whenever the opportunity arises. So I’ll sometimes write in coffee shops or jot down paragraphs on the bus, or while my students are working on an assignment and they don’t need my support.

Kyle: I like open spaces, big windows, lots of light. The best place to find this is outside of the house. I usually hunker down in the corner of a coffee shop or cafe with a cup of coffee and headphones on.

Stuart: Okay, several mentions of distractions and focus, there. What is, or has been, your greatest challenge as an artist?

Lilia: Believing I’m an artist.

Brandon: For me, it’s nailing down a specific project and rolling with it. Right now, I think I have about a dozen short story ideas brainstormed in my notebooks, plus a trilogy I’m working on, and ideas for three other separate series waiting in the wings. The thing that seems to curtail my progress is wondering which project is most deserving of my attention – and, more importantly, which one will be the most fun to write. I can feel characters yearning to be given life, or whole worlds that I’ve only scratched the surface of in my mind. And so I jump around a bit week-to-week so that I can get a little bit done on every project, until I decide which one I want to focus on.

Mandy: Knowing what criticisms to accept and what criticisms to ignore

Stuart: Okay, here’s a hard one: What distinguishes your work from that of other writers?

DL: My red hot, all-consuming hate of semicolons.

Stuart: (laughing) Smart A…hem.

Mandy: A happy ending. These days, there is a lot of dark fiction out there. I enjoy dark fiction but that’s not how I write. Things happen in my stories but I always aim for the Scooby Doo ending. Stuart:I can see that. I favor hopeful stories in the spirit of the golden age, but hope can lie beyond a lot of pain or behind horrific warnings. I suppose it’s for others to say, but I’ve gotten some nice complements for my choice of detail in world building and for my clean style of prose. The best, though, is when someone contacts me to say my story is still resonating days later. That’s what it’s all about.

What fear, as an artist or a person, have you faced down?

Erin: I think everyone who has ever put themselves out there artistically knows the fear of rejection. I think my specific fear was living up to the expectations of my sci-fi loving family. It would almost be easier if they didn’t “get me.” The problem is, my mom introduced me to Asimov, Clarke and Niven; and my uncle taught me to be discerning. There were expectations, let me tell you. My family definitely shoots straight, God love them. I think one of the biggest battles I had was about telling them I was going to be published, because it meant I also had to hear the feedback, both good and bad. But, in the immortal words of the Dude, “That’s just, like, your opinion, man.” In my case, everyone ended up being supportive, but I think the fear is there for all new authors.

Mandy: I have to risk making a fool of myself. I want to be funny but playing it safe doesn’t work. I have to put myself out on the line. The greater the risk, the greater the laugh (Looks at Stuart).

Stuart: Me? Did I mention the cape? I think I’m over making a fool of myself. Almost. I have to say, I was more than a little intimidated to go the LA in April. I had to wear a tux–on stage–in front of a few thousand people–including most of the giants of the genre that I grew up adoring. But it all worked out fine. I think, after that, I can do anything.

So, what’s next, guys?

DL: Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.

Kyle: I’m working on the sister-book of Tides, a fantasy anthology, right now. I might be putting another anthology on Kickstarter before the year is out. I have a fantasy novel in the hands of beta readers, and a sci-fi novella I want to publish this year, too. So I guess my plans are really big and kind of everywhere. I’m having a lot of fun with it, though.

Mandy: My specific goal is to release two books a year—one sci-fi/horror/thriller and one mystery (cozy). I have a large backlist. Time is my only limiting factor.

Lilia: I’m currently writing a screenplay (film) about four flawed women – representing a certain virtue they haven’t lived up to – who are trapped in what turns out to be a demented form of rehab.

Brandon: In the short term, I’d like to finish the novel I’m currently working on and find an agent. Then, I’ll move on to finishing the rest of the trilogy. In between, I want to keep publishing short stories and getting my name out there. The most important thing to me is to write as much as I can, whenever I can, and to keep having fun doing it.

Stuart: Ahen. As for me, I was stunned and humbled last year to be selected as a Writers of the Future winner. Humbled because I suddenly had people like Tim Powers, Orson Scott Card and Robert J Sawyer taking me seriously as a writer. That’s a lot to live up to. It’s also a bit of a ticking clock, because now I need to capitalize on it. So that’s what I plan to do. I have four novels, three scifi and one thriller, that I plan to complete in the next couple of years. Meanwhile I’ll continue developing my skills and placing short fiction wherever it will get the most readership. I’m in this for the long haul, and I’m just getting started.

Well thanks guys, any last thoughts?

Kyle: The Tides project was a lot of work, a lot of fun, an a huge step forward for me. I love the finished product and I’m grateful for every excellent story that I was trusted with. The authors continue to be excellent colleagues, and I made a lot of friends along the way. I hope to continue working with everyone.

Stuart: Me too, Kyle, and since you tapped me to help edit the sister tides, I know that one is definitely in the cards!

Mandy: Qapla’!

Learn more about our guests and their work here:

Brandon Crilly – brandoncrilly.wordpress.com and on Twitter @B_Crilly

Lilia Fabry – lfabry.com and on Twitter @lfabry93

Kyle Russell – holeinhell.blogspot.com. Also, check out Kyle’s novella, Absolute Tenacity.

Mandy Broughton – http://www.MandyBroughton.com and on twitter @MandyBroughton

DL Young – www.dlyoungfiction.com

Erin Kennemer – @emkennemer

Stuart – www.cStuartHardwick.com, cstuarthardwick.wordpress.com, @CstuartHardwick Writers of the Future, v 30

Free SciFi (and Almost Free)!

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From now till September 18th, the 30th Anniversary edition of Writers Of The Future is on sale! Galaxy has arranged to give away, er sell, all ebook formats for 99 cents each.

My story, Rainbows for Other Days, appears in this anthology along with stories by Orson Scott Card, Mike Resnick, L Ron Hubbard, and all the terrific new talents from the WotF class of 2013 winners. Buy it! Read it! Review it! Tell all your friends!

For Amazon Kindle.

For Barnes & Noble Nook.

For Kobo ereader.

And while you’re in the mood for discounts, sign up for my occasional writerly news and get a free signed e-edition of my story Callista’s Delight, as published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.