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I’m Back From My Writing Conference

I just returned yesterday from six days at a writing conference. It was great, wonderful, and exhausting. I taught a mentoring track with 10 writers in which we spent 8 hours together doing very extended critiques. I also had about 20 appointments with writers to critique their work.

All of that was fun, but I still think the best times were the offline hours when I sat down with old friends (and new friends) to talk. I think there are no friends like writer friends.

On the airplane coming home, I sat with one of my loyal blog readers who often posts here, Camille Eide, who lives not too far from me. She’s only been writing for about a year, so she had set her expectations relatively low–at the level of an early “Sophomore.” However, after getting strongly encouraging feedback from a couple of novelists at the conference, Camille worked up her courage to show her sample chapter to a couple of editors. They liked it too.

Camille told me all this in the airport while we waited for our flight. I asked to see her work and she let me read it on the plane. I liked it! I liked it a lot. I don’t know how the large-scale structure of the story will work out, but the 20 pages I read were Xtremely good on every point that I know how to measure. So I told her it’s time for her to get an agent. For the rest of the flight, I took a nap.

I took today off from doing any kind of serious work, since my brain is still basically oatmeal. I’ve been reading a legal thriller today by Rick Acker, who I met at the conference. I already knew about him because I’d read his second novel for endorsement a couple of months ago at the request of his publicist. I liked that one so much that I wanted to read his debut novel, DEAD MAN’S RULE which came out last May. Since Rick was at the conference, I bought a copy and got it autographed.

I’ll tell you, I REALLY like this book. Rick is a lawyer and has done great research on Russian biological weapons, and he’s got a great, compelling story. DEAD MAN’S RULE feels like a nice blend of the best early work by John Grisham and Tom Clancy. Suspense has always been my favorite genre, and Rick’s book is a terrific suspense novel. I hope to finish it tomorrow, because I really do need to get back to work.

Tomorrow, we’ll pick up on Cindy Martinusen Coloma’s “Puzzle Method” and I’ll report on how I liked the ending of DEAD MAN’S RULE. See ya then!

Odds and Ends

Today I’m going to respond to a few comments that came in over the weekend. Tomorrow, I’ll be working on the next issue of the e-zine, so won’t blog. Wednesday, I’ll be starting a new series with a guest author. She’ll be talking about her scheme for designing a novel which appears to be the very opposite of my Snowflake method. More on that on Wednesday. In the meantime . . .

Tiffany wrote, regarding Dwight Swain’s book:

Also, when you’re looking at fiction from an intellectual or literary fiction standpoint, it can rankle to have someone say “Story about ideas is boring,” and “People read for excitement, not intellectual stimulation.” I agree with Swain, to a certain extent, though I’m positive I wouldn’t have agreed when I was studying English Lit and creative writing in college, and was wholeheartedly embarrassed by my addiction to pulp fantasy. Still, every time he makes a blanket statement like that, I find myself thinking of all the exceptions (one of my friends, for instance, who likes to unwind by reading some Kant or Plato or Hegel).

Randy sez: Right, Dwight Swain explicitly says at the beginning of his book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER that it’s not for literary novels. He teaches what works for genre fiction, not for literary fiction.

The complaint I’ve heard from some people is that Swain is boring. I never found him boring, so all I can say is that boring is relative. After all, there are even folks who have no interest in statistical inference! This appalls me, since I find it fascinating. After all, without some form of inference, you would know NOTHING. Yet there are a few people (you know who you are) who find the question of Bayesian priors just a wee bit dull. Conversely, I’m told there are people who LIKE accounting. (Snore…)

The truth is that no matter what you find extraordinarily fascinating, there is some philistine somewhere that finds it unutterably boring. Speaking of which . . .

Melissa wrote:

Yeah Randy, you’re definately right about writer’s and their research. My husband thinks that I must be one of the foremost minds in 10th Century Irish History because of all the research I put into it. But I can’t help what I love. Plus I’m one of those worry worts whose always got to cross reference everything to make sure I get my facts straight. As a historical fiction writer, how much research should be put into your book? I was told by one author in that genre that you should have at least three different sources that agree on a given topic before you put it down as fact. That seems to be an aweful lot of sources to me! Especially considering all of the facts you have to verify!

Randy sez: Probably the biggest criminals (in terms of boring other people) are historical writers. They do all that research and so they figure they have to inflict it on their readers. No. No, no, NO! Do 100 times as much research as you need in order to write the book. Then put in 1 percent of what you know. This ensures that you won’t bore your reader and that you’ll have enough material for your next 99 books without doing any more research.

As for that rule that says you have to have at least 3 sources, I don’t believe it. Most of what we know about ancient history comes from a single source. And in fact, a lot of what we know about any time period is contradicted by at least one source. Want proof? Read tomorrow’s newspaper. I assure you I haven’t seen it yet. If you read it carefully, you’ll find at least one “fact” which you know perfectly well is false.

Historical sources were human and they had biases. So they disagree. The art of history is figuring out what probably happened in spite of those pesky sources, who exaggerate, prevaricate, fib, lie, cheat, and generally bend the truth. When you don’t know something, make it up. If you’ve done your homework, your guess will be as good as anyone else’s and better than most.

Just as an example, I write about Jewish history in the first century of this era. Our main source is the Jewish historian Josephus, who fought against Rome in the Jewish revolt, then got captured and switched sides to work for the Roman. After the war, he retired to Rome to write history. He produced two major works which contradict each other on a number of points, and which are clearly biased or implausible at many others. An unsolved problem is to deconstruct Josephus and figure out what REALLY happened. Yet he’s the best thing we’ve got: he covers the period up to A.D. 70 very well; after that, we know very little for quite a long period of time. No historian would want to lose this very valuable source, even though interpreting him is very difficult.

OK, on Wednesday we’ll begin a new series on the “Puzzle Method” of writing a novel. See ya then!

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.