A to Z Challenge 2013

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Do You Ever Back Off?

The other day I was talking with a friend and she mentioned she was caring for a 16 year old girl with Fetal Acohol Syndrome (FAS). Evidently this girl was a foster child who had been born with this particular disease, but I never did find out what became of her mother (nor was I going to ask). For those unaware, FAS happens when the pregnant mother drinks alcohol. The child is born with the possibility of all sorts of problems, from low birth weight to facial abnormalities to organ disfunction. If you want to know more, you can read all about it here (which is where I went to find out more).

My first thought upon hearing about this child was how incredibly difficult her life must have been so far, dealing with the repercussions of her mother's actions during pregnancy. Sixteen years of a life dominated by this debilitation. My youngest son was with me at the time, and (after we walked away) I took the opportunity to talk to him about it, let him think about how lucky he is to be completely healthy.

In my mind however, I was thinking about this girl's story and what her life might have been like up to now. I considered briefly trying to write something similar, a tale involving a young person like this who is born with FAS. But I decided it was too close to home for my friend, and I wasn't sure they would receive something like this in a positive light (assuming I was able to tell the tale well enough to get published).

I've had this type of thing happen to me numerous times since I've become a writer. Ideas pop into my head about a story that might mirror real events around me or involve people I know, and (so far) I shy away from putting it down on paper. My concern has always been that the real people would take offense or be hurt by putting their private tale out in the spotlight, so to speak. Even if I am changing the names and details, I'm always concerned that feelings might be hurt.

Have any of you ever written something like this, where your inspiration stems from real events around you? How do you write a story like this - keeping it realistic and true to life - without causing pain? Have you ever backed off from writing a story because you were worried about the implications to those involved?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Blog Chain - Discovering Your Voice

Today on 'Da Muse, we're back on the chain gang to answer a question posed by the ever talented Sarah. She asks:

How did you discover your particular voice as a writer?

This is a great question, but it assumes that we've already discovered our voice. For a writer like me - who is still exploring this weird thing called writing - finding my voice is like hunting for sewing needles in a bed of cactus. Blindfolded.

Okay, so maybe it's not quite that difficult (or painful), but I will admit to moments of frustration when a passage or turn of phrase doesn't seem quite right. I usually don't notice I am writing with my own voice until after I've finished a section and look back in admiration at something that has really come out right. For example, when I wrote the Ten Word Tuesday entry, that felt like a part of my voice. It just came out right. The same thing with the excerpts here and here. When I got done, I was able to look back on the writing and feel confident that it wasn't half bad.

As I reflect on how my mind is working and feeling while I'm writing these little bits, I remember the feeling of being in the zone. The words are just pouring out and I am stopping fewer times to go back and edit this word or that phrase. This is when I feel like my writer's voice is screaming in all it's fury, and it's a glorious sound.

The problem is that if you look over the three examples I highlight, they are all over the board. The first is comical, the second sentimental, and the third is dark. Examining this, I can't say for sure I've really discovered my voice yet. Or at least I haven't discovered the way to always write within my voice. All I do know is that when I hit my stride, the fingers are racing on the keyboard as fast as the mind can translate the ideas. At that point, I'm a demi-god. A demi-god with a chainmail bikini-clad bodyguard. Right Rebecca?

I don't know how well I've answered this question, but you can read my predecessor Sandra's response or wait anxiously for Kat's answer tomorrow.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Eureka, I'm Writing Again

I had been completely jammed up recently, thanks to painting myself into a corner (plot-wise anyway). Then inspiration struck this morning while I was showering. No, I will not torment you with a description of the event. It was awesome though.

Don't you love when things like this happen? When you get those moments of "Aha"? I've learned to go with them, let my mind ramble on until the idea completely solidifies. They are so much fun, even if they don't happen often enough.

I managed to get a whole chapter done based on my new plotline. What a great feeling, to be typing creative words again. I wish you all just as much excitement with your WiPs.

Oh, and I need to figure out why blogger doesn't like how fast I can type. For some reason, I have to type at a snail's pace on my new laptop or I get missing letters. Maybe it's a Windoze 7/Internet Exploder 8 "feature". Whatever it is, it's driving me crazy. Grrrrrr.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Thursday Thoughts - The Last Breath

Harold shivered as the harsh wind shook him this way and that. The fading sunlight tossed beams across his face, warning of the impending end. He knew he was running out of time, but Harold refused to let go. The stark skeleton above him was no longer familiar; everyone else in his family was already gone, and the emptiness left him feeling very alone.

Looking out across the green expanse, Harold watched the yellow bus pull to a stop at the corner. The last two passengers disembarked under his gaze, pulling their coats tight with gloved hands. He remembered watching as they kicked a ball back and forth not so long ago. Harold had been young then, but he'd smiled as the gentle breeze caressing him teased the golden hairs on their heads. Envy warred with laughter as he'd watched them play; he'd wished to be down among them, but Harold knew such things were not meant for him.

Now he was ancient, his body barely able to sustain itself. The same breeze that used to touch him with gentle tendrils was now threatening to rip him asunder. Harold knew this was the way of things. He wasn't a Douglas, after all. He should be proud of his heritage, but now that the end was near, Harold wished for more. More time to bask in the late afternoon sun. More time to listen to the symphonies of jays and robins. Harold shook ever so slightly, the cold air grabbing the last bits of moisture from his skin.

His grip loosened just a bit, and Harold felt terror clutch his heart. The whirlwind around him increased in ferocity, as if sensing his weak hold. And sure enough, his strength failed. He did not plummet down however. The winds changed from demanding to a soft bed of comfort, gliding his almost lifeless body away from the empty skeleton Harold had once called home. The invisible arms spun him this way and that, taking Harold out over the emerald carpet he had looked over all his life. The world spread out beneath him as Harold flew for the first - and last - time. Then he floated down to land on the soft grass without a sound.

He was fading fast now. There was no life left to draw upon, no sustenance to keep him breathing. The grass felt wonderfully cool against his back. Maybe this wasn't so bad after all, to die on such a comfortable bed. The last thing Harold heard before he let out his last breath was a gruff voice nearby.

"Son of a...I know I told that boy to pick up every damn leaf. That's okay, I'll get it."


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Ten Word Tuesday: Silver Linings

No more hair?

Where did it go?

No more haircuts.

Poor Research Makes Me Want To Say Goodbye

I am currently in the middle of reading Dan Brown's book The Lost Symol, and I ran into something that has completely changed my mind about him as an author. I don't think I will ever buy another book by the man.

First off, I know all about the talk, the web sites, the controversy over his books. I once ran into a web link that listed all the things he has supposedly gotten wrong in previous books. But I tried to avoid listening to the Internet hype and enjoy his books. Unfortunately, his latest mistake is one I cannot ignore.

The following excerpt (which I will show you) is a scene where this "computer expert" is trying to find out where the physical location of a document (on the web) is based on it's IP address. An IP address (for the uninitiated) is basically the address of a resource, be it a web page, a computer, a modem, etc. That's a simplification, but hopefully you get the idea. This person has been described as being top notch, a leading expert in her field. Here's what Mr. Brown writes:

Strangely, the file's location was not displaying as a traditional Web address but rather as a numeric Internet Protocol address. "I can't unmask the IP," Trish said. "The domain name's not coming up. Hold on." She pulled up her terminal window. "I'll run a traceroute."

Okay, stop there. Traceroute IS an actual command that can be run on a computer. Mr. Brown did enough research to find that much out. The next section though (a few paragraphs ahead) is where the problem lies.

What the hell? Her trace had stopped before reaching the document's server. Her ping, for some reason, had hit a network device that swallowed it rather than bouncing it back. "It looks like my traceroute got blocked," Trish said. Is that even possible?

This last statement is where the problem lies. You see, while traceroute is a valid computer command, it's a very basic one. Any IT professional worth their salt at least knows about it, and 99% of them would know how to run it. And this character Trish is so computer savvy, she designed (read this as programmed) her own web search tool (which is how she found this secretive document). Wouldn't she have better tools at her disposal for discovery than a simple traceroute command?

What's worse is the fact that if you google "block traceroute", you'll find out just how easy it is to perform this task. You see, there are different ports (think portals or doorways) for every type of computer communication. Certain types of email for example, use port 25. Traceroute also uses a specific port. All you have to do is block or turn off that port (on a firewall or the web server itself), and no data will ever be allowed through. This is actually a common security practice, to turn off ports that you don't want to be used. Trish should know this, if she is as computer savvy as the author describes. She shouldn't be wondering to herself whether it's even possible to block a traceroute command.

Now, I can understand when an author makes a mistake. It happens. But in this case, Mr. Brown took the time to research computer terms enough to use a valid command in his story. But he couldn't take the time to make sure he is using it in the proper context, with believable results? He couldn't take the time to make sure his computer expert character knows what she is talking about? That's inexcusable, considering how easy it is to find this information out. There are also other ways he could have handled this, without it being so wrong. He could have generalized about the tools she was using, indicating that they were her own personally designed tools. Then when things didn't work, it would make more sense that she is completely surprised.

Maybe it bugs me so much because I am an IT professional by trade. But I think it's more than that. He is supposed to be a celebrated and experienced author, and this is a pitiful mistake that should have been corrected.

How do you feel about mistakes you find in books you read? What would it take for you to decide not to read any more of a particular author's books? And am I being way too nitpicky here?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Is This Character Secondary?

I recently finished reading Stephen King's book Under The Dome. One thing that struck me about the book was the sheer number of secondary characters. The book centers on a small town that has become surrounded by an (mostly) impenetrable dome. King takes great pains however, to talk about a huge number of the town's inhabitants. It's dizzying how many people become part of the story and have a name.

I use name as a separator because this is how I classify characters (one of the ways anyway). Let's face it; if the character doesn't even rate a name in your story, are they really that important?

For example, if I'm writing a story set in a city in current times, is there a possibility that I'll have to include a convenience store clerk? Possibly. Is this person a secondary character or someone lesser? And at what point do secondary characters become merely background description?

I bring this up because in the aforementioned tome, there are literally dozens of characters with names. There are so many in fact, that there were times when I wasn't quite sure who was who. It got me to thinking about my own writing and when an appropriate time is to name someone as opposed to merely describing them. Look at the sentences below:

Harry pushed through the door with a heavy laundry bag over one shoulder. He nodded at the owner in the corner, a disheveled man with a half finished cigarette planted between cracked lips. Looking for an available washer, Harry sighed in resignation; someday he really needed to buy one of his own. It would make Sundays much easier to deal with.

In the passage above, I merely reference the owner with only the slightest of description. He's part of the background, so to speak. Now read this alternate version:

Harry pushed through the door with a heavy laundry bag over one shoulder. He nodded at Sam in the corner. Sam must be upwards of ninety, Harry figured. Sam was the owner of this dingy place and had been for at least the last sixty years. The half finished cigarette between his cracked lips was just as dirty as the man's clothes. Looking around for an available washer, Harry sighed in resignation; someday he really needed to buy one of his own. It would make Sundays much easier to deal with.

I tried to keep excessive description out of it so that the passages are fairly similar. In the second one, I have named the character and provided a bit more detail on him. Is he still merely background or did he just get catapulted into secondary character status?

King does this with many of the characters in Under The Dome. He gives enough information to get a good idea about the character, but their usefulness if you will for furthering the story is meager at best. Is this a bad way to do things? Well, I can tell you that there were times when it made for difficult reading because I couldn't remember why a particular person was in the story (or who they were with regards to the story).

This is the point when one should question whether the character is really necessary or if they should stay minimized in the background. I heard somewhere (probably from one of you fellow writers) that if a character doesn't help move the story along, they don't belong there. I agree with that with respect to named characters. If they are prominent enough to warrant a name, they must be prominent enough for the story, right? But I do think there are times when background characters are okay too, particularly for descriptive purposes.

How do you deal with secondary characters in your writing? Do you name everyone or do you have those subtle shadows that are only mentioned in passing?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Random Facts

Since Sandra and Christine have already done this, I thought I'd join in on the fun. Here are some random facts about me:

1) Most unusual or interesting job I’ve had…

I haven't worked at very many jobs, to start with. The most unusual one however, would be a job I had working for a bowling alley as a pin chaser. When bowling balls or pins would get stuck in the gutters, I'd have to go running down the thin strip between the lanes and free things up. Oh, and clean up all the trash, ashtrays, and beer cups from the bowlers of course. Yuck.

2) Childhood Memory related to writing…

I've posted the only writing sample I have from childhood previously, which is kind of depressing actually. I may have written more than that, but I haven't kept any of it. I have a picture of myself (no I'm not sharing it) that was taken while I was writing that poem though, and it's funny what makes me cringe. Not how I looked, what I'm wearing, or even what I've written. The fact that I have my hat on indoors. It's a military thing. Bugs me to no end.

3) Things I collect

I'm not a big collector of things really. I used to collect Coca Cola stuff, but then I realized tons of people do it, so it became less interesting. I have a neat old truck crafted out of actual Coca Cola cans that my dad found though, which I really like. I also like anything to do with dragons, though I can't say I have a collection of it. Do tons of old software disks and computer hardware parts count? Maybe that's what I can tell my wife when she gripes about them. It's my collection.

4) Obsessions

Since I'm married and not allowed to obsess over other women (except for Queen Latifah - wow, what a beauty), I have to obsess over other things. I obsess over using the right word when I'm writing; my internal editor never shuts up. I am currently obsessing over getting to level 80 in World Of Warcraft, though who knows what I'll do when I get there.

5) Unusual “talents”

I'm probably the most unextraordinary person with regards to talents. That's not to say I am not talented in various ways, but I don't know that any of them are unusual. I can play piano, but meh. I used to be fluent in Russian, but meh. About the only unusual talent I have is the ability to recall specific lines from songs, movies, or books at odd moments. I'll hear something said that will spark my memory of some obscure line from a B movie that nobody else remembers. Drives my wife crazy, I'm sure.

Yes, It's Hard...Really

Last night I was able to prove to my wife that yes, writing is hard. What made it more hilarious (to me anyway) was how the topic came up. You see, my wife is working on her Bachelors degree in Accounting. Like most other undergraduate programs, she has to go through an English/writing class. Her school (WGU, which happens to be where I graduated from as well) has her take a pre-test first to assess current knowledge. If she did well enough on it, it would be the equivalent of passing a final exam and she could skip taking the class. So as she was working her way through the questions, she asked me for help with one.

Now before you all stab me with spears, no I did not help her cheat on the test. Even though there is nobody monitoring her taking an online test, I refuse to help her cheat. And yes, I love her more than life itself, but too bad.

The question was similar to the following (not exactly, but you'll get the idea):

"Annie wanted to go to the movies, but she had chores to do. Annie's mother explained that once she was completely finished, she could go. So Annie worked harder, and soon enough she was heading out the door, whistling a happy tune"

In the paragraph above, identify the word that is an example of a redundancy.

I'm going to leave the answer to the question for commentors. First one to answer it correctly gets super cool bonus points, along with a virtual awesome writer trophy. Plus you can brag to all your writer friends. Really.

I did not tell her the answer, nor did I even tell her how to find it. But I did help nudge her in the right direction so that she could understand what they were asking for.

This then opened up the conversation on why writing is hard, even for us writers. I explained that this is the type of thing I have to go through on a daily basis, every time I sit down to write. I have to choose the right words. I have to make sure I'm not wasting words or using three words when two will suffice. The lightbulb over her head turned on as she realized just what I was talking about. She shook her head and (not for the first time) agreed that writing was not her favorite thing to do, especially considering the difficulty even us writers have to go through.

Chalk up one more person who understands our plight. Writing is exceedingly difficult. Besides the mechanics of the language, we also have to create a story someone will enjoy. Then we have to clean it all up so that we're not wasting words. Then we have to find and cut out sections that really don't work (a difficult task at best, since we have to get past our own viewpoint). And after all this work, we still have just a story, not a published book. I haven't even broached the subject with my wife yet on how difficult it will be to actually get it published once I have a finished, gleaming, awe-inspiring final draft.

Do people around you truly understand how hard it is? How do you go about explaining the effort involved?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Thursday Thoughts - Objectives

I was going to title this post "Goals", but I'm sure everyone is tired of hearing about goals by now, so objectives works. This may end up being a longer post, so bear with me. What I want to discuss here is not MY personal objectives, but rather the objectives of my MC Trevor. I'm just about to the end of my NaNo WiP, and I want to check a few things:

1. Does my MC have a defined objective in mind at all points in the story? The objective does change many times throughout, but I want to make sure that he is working towards something.
2. Does he complete the objective (or realize that there is a need to change his direction, due to changing circumstances)?
3. Do the string of objectives make sense (i.e. do they follow a logical sequence of events)?

Starting out in the story, Trevor's main objective is to remain anonymous. He has to keep his true nature hidden from everyone around him, because if anyone found out who (or what) he really is, it could mean imprisonment or possibly death.

Then Trevor learns that everything is not as it seems. His father may not have been who Trevor thought he was. The world he lives in may be a terrible facade. And Trevor himself may very well be something beyond his wildest imagination. His objective has just changed to a search for the truth.

Here an abrupt switch occurs. Due to the accidental death of his mother (which Trevor is responsible for), he faces a harsh decision. He wants to find out the truth, but the time he has to seek it has just become compressed. Once the authorities find his mother's body, he will become hunted. It truly was an accident, but Trevor knows that won't matter. He now has two objectives - find out as much truth as he can about himself (quickly) and escape the city. Sure, the outside world is supposed to be a viral, poisonous wasteland, but Trevor has no other choice.

Racing against time, Trevor works with his friend Brent to find out what he can. Some answers are found, and a multitude of more questions arise. Enter the antagonist, and Trevor's objective of getting out of town has just become more important - and his escape less likely to succeed. As he rushes to the nearest exit, Trevor and Brent are captured by an underground society of religious fanatics who believe he is a figure of prophesy. His objectives have now become multi-faceted; find out what really happened to his father, find out the complete truth about what he is (and why his father designed him to be this way), figure out how to get back to the surface in one piece (not to mention his friend Brent). Oh, and find out more about this intoxicating beauty Mara, who is the spiritual leader of this undergound sect.

The search for truth has become primary now, because Trevor is hoping the answers he finds will answer all the questions he has. Deeper underground he finds the origins of humanity and more answers than he had hoped for. The truth is decidely ugly, and Trevor's objective now changes dramatically. He can either escape to the world outside the city and brave what may be a toxic environment. Or he can stay and rectify the wrongs being done to humanity by those in power. And of course there is Mara, the woman who leads the people living beneath the surface. During their short time together, he has come to realize how much she means to him as well. Leaving the city means leaving her behind or taking her with...and he knows she will never leave. His objective then is to help ALL the people, both above and below ground. In doing so, he will justify his existence, justify his father's reasons for defying society, and possibly win Mara's heart. Most of all, he will rectify a great wrong that has been forced upon humanity.

Making his way towards the surface once more with Mara, Trevor finds himself with another objective as well. Brent has been taken captive by the antagonist, to be tortured and dangled as a lure for Trevor. He and Mara have stumbled into a secretive gathering of people hiding in the sewers, a modern day thieves guild of sorts. They seem to have their own aims, but they're more than willing to help Trevor free Brent in exchange for helping them gain control of the city. Not really sure if he can trust these people, Trevor decides he has no other choice. A frontal assault results in Mara being injured (or possibly dead) and Trevor is forced to continue onward without her. There is an encounter with the antagonist, Trevor frees Brent, and they make their way back outside. He has no idea what has become of Mara, and chaos reigns.

This is where I am at this point, so now I need to outline Trevor's objectives going forward. He needs to get Brent somewhere safe, because his friend is barely walking thanks to the torture. He needs to find Mara (hopefully alive). The antagonist has gotten away, which Trevor cannot allow. He must find a way to bring the truth to light amidst the anarchy that now threatens the city. He has to stabilize a society that has become an explosion of chaos. And finally, he needs to give everyone (the above and below ground societies) a promising future rather than the evils they have been living with.

This has been a fun exercise, and if you made it this far, thanks for sticking with me. It was long-winded, but necessary. Are there problems with this storyline? Big gaping holes that I need to tighten up? I don't think so, but feel free to point them out.

This story has taken twists and turns I did not expect at the outset, but I am proud of it so far. When was the last time you sat back and mapped out your storyline (particularly AFTER you've written it)? Do you know what your MC's objectives are?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Blog Chain - Writing Resolutions

Now that we're in the new year, B.J. Anderson is starting out the chain with a very timely question:

What are your writing resolutions for the year 2010?

This is a great question, and something we should all ask ourselves as writers. We could extend this question to cover ALL the aspects of our lives, but that's probably asking a bit too much. To keep it simple (and manageable), I'll go through the writing resolutions I'd like to keep to for this year.

First off, I'd like to complete at least one book this year. Not just a rough draft, not just a second draft. I want to finish a book and do what I can to have it ready for querying. I already have a good start on a first draft, thanks to NaNo. I just have to finish up the story, let it cook for a while, and then plunge back in for revisions.

I am going to take a writing course this year (and actually, I'm planning on doing this as soon as possible). I realize how much I have to learn, and I can't do that sitting at home writing by myself. Rather than taking an online course (which might be good, might not), I've found an institution here in Denver called the Lighthouse Writers Workshop that looks quite good. It's not too pricey, and the instructors come with awesome credentials. Unfortunately all the classes right now are filled up, so I will have to wait until the next ones open up.

Last year (for part of the year anyway) I was writing articles for a website called Brighthub.com. I became heavily involved with editing articles for other writers as well, and my own writing activity fell to the wayside. This year I am going to work harder at writing my own articles once more. Since I would love to change occupations and become a writer full-time (even if most of it is freelancing while I work on my bestseller), I have to get started somewhere.

Lastly (and most importantly), I am going to write every day. Even if I only manage 500 words (as low a value as that sounds to me), I will pat myself on the back every day I do manage to write. As with anything we do, practice makes perfect and I need LOTS of practice.

I am writing this post early and hoping everything works on Blogger so that it posts on the 10th like it's supposed to. Yes, I actually am doing something ahead of time. Don't worry, it's probably just a early-year-phase that will soon disappear like all good habits do. Assuming everything works right, my predecessor Sandra should have her post up by now and Kat will be following this one up tomorrow.

Update - of course it did not remain hidden until the 10th, so I have changed the date to accurately reflect when it did go up (since I have a new post as of the 7th). I've caused all sorts of confusion within the blogchain ranks of course, but hey - what good are if you can't royally screw things up once in a while? :)