Archive | February, 2008

Nonfiction You’re Reading

We’ve been on a fun break from the heavy stuff for a couple of days, and yesterday I asked what nonfiction you all are reading. I can’t comment on all your comments, so I’ll take a few at random:

Christophe wrote:

“The C++ Programming Language” by Bjarne Stroustrup. I’ve actually gone through it a couple of times already, and I don’t think it qualifies as “reading”

Somehow, I get the feeling that’s not the kind of non-fiction book that you meant, Randy

Randy sez: No, that’s exactly what I meant. I was interested to hear what other interests you all have besides fiction, because that will inevitably find its way into your fiction. I’ve never read Stroustrup (it’s a classic) but I have several other books on C++, some of which I’ve read cover-to-cover a couple of times. I’m more of a fan of Java than C++, so I sympathize with you on having to read Stroustrup. (For you non-programmers, Bjarne Stroustrup invented the C++ language, which is now a standard language, very widely used.)

Sonja wrote:

I’m reading James N Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Mystery. Does it count as non-fiction if it’s about writing fiction?

Randy sez: Yes, unless he’s lying. Frey’s book is excellent. I got a lot out of that one. Several of you are also reading Dwight Swain’s book, TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. It’s interesting to me that people either love Swain or hate him. I don’t know why that is.

Melissa wrote:

Currently I’m reading “Cattle-Lords and Clansmen” by Nerys Patterson. It’s a bit on the dry side but contains much of the historical information on Ireland that I have been unable to find elsewhere in my research, so I have to give credit where credit is due.

Randy sez: I’m always amazed at the incredible lengths novelists will go to in order to do their research. This sounds like one of those books that only a novelist would read. I have a ton of books just like it.

Katie wrote:

I’m reading Stein on Writing – bits and pieces at a time so I can understand the advice and apply it instead of breezing through the book.

Randy sez: This is another classic. I took a mentoring workshop with Sol Stein back in 1994, and now whenever I read his book, I hear his voice as I read. Sol is one of the great writing teachers of the last 50 years or so. He was an award-winning playwright, edited something like 1600 books, and wrote some best-selling fiction. A truly amazing guy.

By the way, if any of you have WAY too much money on your hands and want to go to a truly luxurious writer’s retreat, take a look at Misque, which is extraordinarily expensive but looks amazingly spiffy. It’s in Hawaii and takes only 20 participants. I’ve never been there and will probably never go, but one of my loyal readers runs the blog for it and she pointed me to the Misque web site. If you sign up, tell ‘em I sent you. And send me pictures after it’s over — it sounds dazzling, based on what I saw at the web site.

What You’re Reading

I’m reading tonight through all the many comments my loyal blog readers left today on what they’re reading right now. I was up till 1:30 AM last night trying to finish DIES THE FIRE, but finally went to bed because I had to get some tax work done today with my accountant, and I thought it would be a little uncouth to fall asleep while looking at Form 1040. That would be very uncool. I did finish the book today, and I gather there’s a sequel or two, so I need to look for those.

I’m also rereading through the Harry Potter series, this time reading them aloud to my kids. That’s an old family tradition with us, reading out loud. They’re way past the age when they need to be read aloud to, but we all still like it.

Mark said:

I am reading The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Set in the 1100’s, it’s an enthralling, one thousand page book about a boring subject: the building of a cathedral. In that sense alone, it’s a marvel. It took the author over three years to write it. It was a major departure from his spy novels. Many thought it was a risk to his career. But it is now considered his greatest work.

Randy sez: That’s one of my favorite books–it’s on my top five list (which actually has about 15 books on it, because some of them are series). The sequel, WORLD WITHOUT END, came out last year and I really enjoyed that one, although I thought it didn’t have quite the magic for me that the first one did. I can’t say exactly why. Certainly, it was a fascinating look at life in a medieval English town.

Karla wrote:

The most memorable one I’ve read lately is A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS by Khaled Hosseini. Wow. Can that man ever write. If you have never read KITE RUNNER (his first one) I highly recommend it. He is a beautiful writer.

Randy sez: Yes, I thought THE KITE RUNNER was terrific. I’ve been meaning to read A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS, but there’s only so many hours in the day.

Joanna wrote:

Randy, the technology-gone book you’re reading sounds like the same sort of premise as Terri Blackstock’s Restoration series: Last Light, Night Light etc?

Randy sez: Terri’s book is named LAST LIGHT and is the beginning of a series. I think Terri got the idea at roughly the same idea as the author of DIES THE FIRE. She emailed me at the time and asked what could cause all the lights to go out all over the planet, and I suggested EMP (electromagnetic pulse) although I wasn’t sure if it could work planet-wide. So the way Terri wrote it was to leave it unexplained, and have some of her characters wonder whether it was EMP that caused it, but never really say for sure. And that’s pretty much how S.M. Stirling played it too. I’m pretty sure neither Terri nor Stirling have ever heard of each other — they got the idea independently, and their plots are very different. This actually happens quite often, and it’s one reason why “someone stealing your idea” is not a particularly big thing to worry about, although most beginning writers fret about it a lot. Ideas are all over the place, and different writers will develop them very differently. Now if somebody steals your words, you should take action, because that’s plagiarism. But ideas are free as the wind.

Sylvia wrote:

My daughter gave me The Splitting Storm by Rene Gutteridge. I assume that Rene is female, so it interests me that her protagonist is a male.

Randy sez: Yes, Rene is a friend of mine, so I can say with some confidence that she is very likely female. She’s done quite well with male protagonists. A little-known fact: Rene is about five feet tall, but she was an All-State basketball player in high school. She once went on a writing-conference cruise while five months pregnant and met an editor who was six feet tall. Naturally, Rene challenged him to a game of “Horse” (it’s a game where you attempt difficult shots with the basketball and if you make it, your opponent has to make the same shot or lose a point.) Of course, Rene won in a landslide and she has never let this editor forget it.

OK, my next question is: What nonfiction book are you reading right now? I’ll go first. I’m reading an e-book named “Google Analytics” which I bought off the web the other day. It’s a short book that gets into the “how-to” of making Google Analytics work. This is rather an odd choice for me. The last non-fiction book I read was “Collective Intelligence” which is all about how to do data-mining on the information that comes from people interacting with a web site, but it has many other uses too. This is a book only a math guy could love. I’m a math guy, so I read it twice. I thought it was really good.

What Book Are You Reading?

The comments that many of my loyal blog readers have left on my blog today remind me that once in awhile, it’s good to take a little break. We’ve now wrapped up a long and quite intense discussion about web sites and blogging and all that techie stuff.

Let’s not forget why we write: Because we LOVE reading, and somehow or other, we all convinced ourselves that we could write something that we’d want to read. We and five billion other readers.

Right now, I’m reading a pretty cool book that I never heard of until a friend gave it to me a few weeks ago. He and his wife and son were staying with us for about a week while they looked around town, because they’re planning to move up here in a year or so. We had a lot of fun talking about lots of stuff, and he gave me a copy of one of his favorite books: DIES THE FIRE, by S.M. Stirling.

The premise of this book is that suddenly (for no clearly explained reason) all electrical systems fail, all explosives no longer explode, and the entire world is knocked back technologically to the early medieval period. Millions of people starve to death. Some turn to cannibalism. Others wander aimlessly, waiting to die or get eaten (hopefully in that order). But some of them organize into tribes for protection (or aggression) and begin primitive farming or hunting/gathering or marauding or whatever it takes to survive.

There are two main Good-Guy groups that the author alternates between–a hunter/gatherer group in Idaho led by a tough but fair ex-marine; and a farmer group mostly made up of Wiccans in Oregon, led by a Gaelic folk musician/witch. The city of Portland (right across the river from me) is taken over by an evil Bad Guy with fantasies of holding an empire built on tribute. Things are heading for a showdown between Good Guys and Bad Guys as I head into the final third of the book.

I’m finding it all extremely interesting. We do live in a pretty darn techie world. What if all that suddenly went away? What if we had no web? No (gasp) blogs? No streaming audio from www.Pandora.com to play us a mix of our favorite music over high-speed DSL? It would be a different world. Makes me want to go learn archery and shoot something. It’s making me think about the world in a different way, which is always good.

So let’s have a little fun for a few days. What are YOU reading right now? (Has to be fiction.) Do you like it? Why? Leave a comment and let’s compare notes.

Wrapping Up

A few final odds and ends tonight before we switch to a new topic tomorrow:

Pam wrote:

I have a quick question before we totally leave the website topic. How do you know which ending to use? For example: .com .net .info

My husband thought .info was best for my site because it’s not a commercial site.

Randy sez: I prefer the .com ending. I think .net is second best. The fact is that when people are trying to guess your web site, they’ll guess .com first and .net second. This is not such a problem as it used to be, because most people will just hit the search engines if they can’t find you on the first guess, and many of them will try Google before even guessing. But .com has a more professional feel to it than .net or .info or .name or .biz. I don’t know if it’ll always be that way, but for now, my advice is to grab a .com ending if you possibly can.

Christophe wrote:

Currently I’m immensely busy at the office. I come home and there’s tons of stuff to do before I can even sit down and take a moment. Then, tired from a hard days work, I like to just relax for a while and “space out” (I think the expression is). Then all of a sudden, it’s time to go to bed. Lately I find no time to write. How do I make this work? My fingers are aching, itching to go back to work, but I’m just too tired when I get home to focus.

Help me, Obi-Wan Randy. You’re my only hope.

Obi-Wan Randy sez: Welcome back, Christophe! We’ve missed you. I don’t have an easy answer. Sometimes, you’re just going to hit a stretch where “Life Happens” and you have less time to write. There is nothing you can do about this. Eventually, things will calm down a bit and you can write more.

The goal, of course, is to run your life as efficiently as possible, so you’ll have time to write. This is why I’ve made such an effort to manage my time better, and also my money. Time really is money. The more money you can earn with the same level of effort, the better, because then you can trade money for time.

At a certain point, I went to my boss at my former day job and asked for a 20% reduction in hours. Of course, that also meant a 20% reduction in money, but I was willing to pay that price. When I moved on to a different employer, I made it a condition going in that I’d only work at 80% of full time. Because I had worked hard to make myself a valuable employee, they were willing to do that. Eventually, I asked for another 20% reduction, and got that too.

There is a price to this writing life. The price is that you will almost certainly always be stretched thin, you will always have less free time, you will always have less money. That is grossly unfair, because we Great Artistes deserve better, but that is the fate the uncaring universe has dealt us.

On that happy note, let me point you all to my friend Chip MacGregor’s blog. Chip used to be my agent before he went over to the Dark Side (temporarily) and became a publisher. He’s now back agenting again, and he has a great blog at www.ChipMacgregor.com.

In the last couple of days, he posted some interesting data on the top-selling books from last year. There were only 4 books last year that sold more than a million copies. Another 15 books sold more than half a million copies. Chips sums it up by saying that there were 250,000 new books published last year, and only 19 of them hit the big time.

That may or may not depress the living heck out of you. But it’s reality. We need to be realists. This is a tough, tough career choice we’ve made. Hence the need to use our time well, be frugal with our money, and market the daylights out of our books.