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Habits of a Writer Ep 1: Genmaicha

June 2, 2011 1 comment

(If this seems off topic to you RPGer’s out there, consider that genmaicha is a soothing, distinctive, and atmospheric tea to offer at your next session of Legend of the Five Rings, Blood & Honor, or any Japanese role-playing setting.)

I woke up to write this morning and discovered–to my abject horror–a fresh-brewed pot of coffee, but no milk, no creamer, nor half n half in the house. And damned if I was going to forsake my pajamas and drive out to the convenience store to get some. Better to scrounge around the house for some sort of substitute for my morning writer-fuel. Good thing my brother is something of a tea connoisseur.

Better than sencha (green tea) is genmaicha (brown rice tea), green tea combined with roasted brown rice, some grains of which have popped. It tastes somewhat fuller-bodied, and less bitter than its rice-less counterpart. It is also traditionally cheaper, because the rice acted as filler. It certainly wakes you up (green teas are high in caffeine), though you have to be careful drinking any green teas in the morning–the minimal oxidation processing that gives it its robust flavor can also induce nausea on an empty stomach, so be sure to eat something first. I prefer plain white rice in the morning, though I don’t know any local farms where I could get eggs suited for eating raw atop it, as I did in Ohio.

As with all Japanese teas, the trick when brewing is to allow the boiled water to cool for two to three minutes. We have an earthenware kyusu teapot that comes with a built-in filter for loose teas, though you could just as easily brew the tea loose in a cup or place a strainer (though not too tight, or the tea won’t steep properly!) in your traditional Western tea pot. Allow it to become a bright yellow-green, and pour, traditionally into yunomi, those adorable little teacups you’ve probably seen going for heinous prices at Japanese department stores. As with most things Japanese, there are wildly expensive versions of just about anything (including ohashi, chopsticks), though with a bit of google-fu you can find more affordable products for us peasants.

Genmaicha is almost assuredly sold at your local Asian grocer, though much of what you find online is going to be higher-quality items. Depending on the variety, it may become slightly harder to find in the coming months, given the destruction of the latest tea crop in Kanagawa, Ibaraki and Chiba prefectures due to radiation levels. But everything you’ll find on the shelves now is all from before the March 11th tragedy, so please don’t let that scare you.

What I love about brown rice tea is how much lighter, brisker, and more refreshing it is compared to the jet-black coffee with rich creamers I usually sip while writing. It’s certainly a more summery drink (though in Japan I think it’s considered more wintry), one that is like to become a habit for me.

Perhaps the most important part of these little habits is that, in the same way that lighting incense before prayer gets me in the right (altared, one might even say) mindset, performing a pre-writing ritual can help overcome the initial blockages at come with a blank screen. Go through your email, social media, forum posts and blogroll first thing, so it’s no longer a distraction. Brew the tea in the meanwhile. Then, when you finally open up your word processor of choice, breathe in the aroma and enjoy the first sip. Bang those keys. And demolish that daily wordcount.

Et tu, dear writers? What is your beverage of choice when sitting down at the keyboard? Is coffee still the almighty, or does it depend on the season?

Categories: For Writers

A Contest-Worthy Character?

May 29, 2011 Leave a comment

I was sitting at the red light at Five Corners, puzzling over who I wanted to submit to DriveThruRPG’s Tell Us About Your Character Contest. None of my creations immediately leapt out at me, and the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. Why was I looking at Solandre, my blood elf paladin from World of Warcraft, or Ragnavar, my Black-jeweled Eyrien Warlord Prince from a Black Jewels Trilogy forum RPG, or even Ealasaid, my Vistani Seeress of Le Morte de Mordred fame.

I shouldn’t have been looking to other’s games at all–not when I had a novel of my own to plumb.

But that says something about my characters, doesn’t it? That’s there’s something not quite right about them. They’re not fully-fledged yet. Not distinctive enough yet. Or lovable. Yet.

It got me to thinking about what kind of character would win that contest, and I wonder if I couldn’t use those traits to try and develop them more completely, if not in time to try and win a tablet, at least for the novel I have half-way outlined.

Here’s what I think I’ve found:

Driven, and Dogged

Nobody cares about the character who doesn’t want something, and bad. But a good goal isn’t enough, either. He needs to meet enough resistance to make it a real challenge. Enough to make it seem nigh-impossible. Maybe it is impossible, but at least the struggle will keep us turning the page. Some have said that if Lord of the Rings is grim, A Song of Ice and Fire is downright bleak. Isn’t that nigh-overwhelming conflict part of why we love it so?

Stands out from the Crowd

The Hound’s no Florian

There’s no such thing as true creativity, but at least we can make original arrangements of the same tired tropes. Better yet, what about turning that cliche around? Isn’t that just what George R. R. Martin does with his characters–takes most of what we’re used to in fantasy and turns it on our head? What convention(s) do(es) your character confront?

Engages the Audience

And what does that character have to say to the audience? What is the fundamental theme–message, maybe even–that our readers take from our hero/ine’s tale? What does it say about our world that the Hound is more honorable than any knight?* Or that love proves folly for Robb? Why should we, at our core, care to see your character succeed? What do we learn about ourselves in the process?

But Wait, There’s More

Yet, those elements alone won’t be enough to sway the judges, not in that contest. It looks to be that form is just as important. How do you relay all three above elements in 400 words or less? You’ll need to mix enough flash fiction into the backstory to make it more narrative (or other creative presentation) than mere encyclopedia entry. And anyone who’s made a conscious effort to write flash knows just how damn hard it really is to pack enough punch into a page or less.

Give me the novel any day. You short story and short shorts writers are the ones who’ve got it rough.

Do I have what it takes to make a winning entry? No, not yet. But I can damn well start to learn.

Your Turn

What other traits befitting a memorable hero/ine would you count here? Do you agree with the ones I’ve chosen? Disagree?

*Note: I’ve only read about one-fourth through Storm of Swords, so forgive me if I like some of the foresight the rest of you may have.

More Contests for your Characters

May 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Fred Hicks, Eddy Webb, and John Wick are judging DriveThruRPG’s Tell Us About Your Character Contest. Grand prize is a sweet Android tablet. Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines please! The Deadline is June 2nd, so jam-pack as much character as you can in 400 words and gooo~

A Review of Writing a Novel with Scrivener by David Hewson

May 25, 2011 1 comment

Anyone who’s tried Scrivener remembers opening it up for the first time and–at least for a moment–being utterly overwhelmed by all the options available. I’m all about teaching yourself the software, but I knew I’d want to go through the included tutorial for this one. True to its word, I slogged through all thirty to fourty minutes of it. Overall, it felt like it was a little too basic. And I still felt like I knew nothing about the software.

Then I found a little gem in Amazon’s Kindle store. It looked perfect. And for only $6? I’ll bite.

Writing a Novel with Scrivener

by David Hewson

The writing and story development program Scrivener is taking the world by storm. Here the bestselling author David Hewson, creator of the successful Nic Costa series, offers a personal, highly-focussed guide to using this powerful application to create a novel.

Hewson, a Scrivener user for years who’s written five of his popular novels in the app, takes users through the basic processes of structuring a full-length novel, writing and developing the story, then delivering it either as a manuscript for an agent or publisher or as an ebook direct to Kindle or iBook.

Alongside the practical advice, he offers a working novelist’s insight into the process of writing popular fiction. And this book is, of course, created entirely within Scrivener itself, from development through to publication on Kindle, a process followed in detail in the book.

Does it overlap with the free, included tutorial? Yeah, a little bit. But I feel like I would have saved myself some time if I’d just read his book, instead of clicking through page after page of no-brainer tips. And then there’s all the novelist-specific advice that I’d encountered for the first time in Writing a Novel with Scrivener.

Three out of Three Crits

The Verdict

Anyone who wants to jump-start their Scrivener skills to get past the software and start writing their novel–utilizing the program to its full potential to plan, write, revise, and even publish–should consider getting this book.

A Whirlwind Tour

First of all, don’t expect this to be “the missing manual.” The author is clear in his introduction that there is a lot more to Scrivener than what he manages to cover–for instance, tools for researchers and screenwriters–but he’s just covering what the novelist needs to know, after all. Another caveat to mention is that the book is aimed primarily at Mac, Scrivener 2.0 users, so us Windows kiddies will need to translate some of the commands*, improvise, and resign ourselves to the fact that it is still in Beta, and though it’s come a long way, it still has a ways to go before it’s ready for prime time. (*But we’re PC people, so we don’t need to be spoon-fed everything anyway.)

He quickly goes over the basic parts of the program, the Binder, the Editor, and Inspector, covering just as much ground in four or so “pages” (a loose term, given the fluidity of Kindle displays) than what takes the tutorial over a thousand words. I don’t need the Header and Footer described at length. I’ve used word processors before, after all. And there’s the manual for everything I want elaboration on.

Next Hewson talks about the Corkboard and Outliner views in terms of their usefulness to novelists, again touching on them just enough to make the writer familiar without having to list every single capability available. As a Windows user, I noticed that the Unplaced Scenes folder he talks about doesn’t yet appear in the Beta, but I’ve gone ahead and added my own folder by the name. It doesn’t have the cute little thought cloud icon next to it, but it’ll still serve the purpose of a general reservoir of ideas, and a springboard for those times when I’m hitting against a blockage of some sort.

In the next section he shows you how to minimize distractions and maximize ease of access to other parts at the same time. Want to reference another document? Would you like split-screen or a pop-up window? How about a hyperlink inserted right into the text? Hop back to the last document you viewed? Hewson covers it all, and quickly.

Most useful, perhaps, out of the entire book, was the section on Keywords. It would have taken me a while to figure out the applications otherwise, but he suggests using these customizable tags to track POV or Time to ensure continuity–a huge issue for complex novels with multiple narrators and time streams, like the one I’m writing. Meanwhile, the official tutorial makes only a passing reference to the Search/Keywords capability, while elaborating on things obvious to any intermediate computer user.

Essential to any discussion of writing are backups: that is to say, those pesky little things that allow you to not lose your project–and your mind. Did you know that Scrivener can automatically schedule backups of your work? Did you ever think to incorporate Dropbox, so that you’d have an automatic web backup without the hassle of syncs? Yeah, pretty useful, that. If it means saving your work from a hard-drive failure or virus attack, then that $6 just saved you hours and hours of work. Which can be fair valuable, when you’re writing for publication.

Once you’ve written a first draft, it’s time to get down to the real work–revision. Writing a Novel with Scrivener compares the advantages of re-reading on your iPad, eReader, or good ol’ paper, and discusses the options you have for commenting on each. Moreover, it talks about ways your initial readers and critters can comment, whether it be through Word or another program, and warns against some common pitfalls of formatting and syncing them together. After you know what you need to rewrite, this book shows you how to save multiple versions of your draft quickly, and how to compare each revision (using colors, or not), so you can track what’s changed and even go back to a prior “snapshot” if need be.

Finally, Hewson provides a step-by-step guide not only to compiling your manuscript for agents and editors, but to publishing as a Kindle .mobi or .epub file! Though I’m not there yet, I may use it for future projects, like Andy’s Pendulum and my Campaign World Tree, if we go the self-publishing route.

Final Thoughts

I’ll admit, if it were the standard price of a book about writing, I wouldn’t have gotten it. But it’s considerably cheaper than the Writer’s Digest books you’ll find at your Barnes & Noble. A $6 asking price is quite reasonable given the breadth, deapth, and practicality of the tips he provides. If you’re a novelist and you’ve ever thought about jumping on the Scrivener bandwagon, but didn’t know where to start, this book will take you through the same steps as the tutorial, only faster, and give you a lot more to use besides. A full three out of three crits.

Don’t Turn that Dial

May 17, 2011 Leave a comment

As the noticeable drop in entries indicates, I’ve been busy. I’ve been bumped from part to full time, I’m organizing a local group of gamers that already numbers in the fifties, and am still trying to fit what amounts to a second job–being a writer–in there somewhere.

But I haven’t forgotten about you guys, as a matter of fact, I have quite a few projects in the pipeline for Triple Crit:

  1. For Writers, A Review of Writing a Novel with Scrivener by David Hewson
  2. For Role-players and their characters, “A Double-edged Sword: Making Your Greatest Strengths Your Hidden Weakness”
  3. And, most notably, for Gamemasters, a Blood & Honor pre-made scenario:

    Sasarindō: A True Tragedy in Old Japan

    Once upon a time in Old Japan there were two Clans whose clash would end an Era. Their battles bred the samurai, replacing the bureaucracy of courtiers who had dominated Japanese politics for half a millennium. The defeated clan drowned their entire house and Emperor at sea; the victors would found the Shogunate, though their line would not survive to claim the title. The proud, indeed, will not endure. Nothing gold can stay.

    Here is a dramatic reimagining of the Tale of the Heike, a true Tragedy in Old Japan, that centers on the resurgent Minamoto clan, whose crest is the bamboo leaf and gentian flower, the Sasarindō.

    I’ll be needing playtesters for the scenario, so stay tuned for that if you’d like to have your and your buddies’ names in the credits!

Critique & Grace

March 23, 2011 Leave a comment

This is another post “pulled from the archives,” so to speak. It’s about two years old, but the observations I made then ring just as true now. I should perhaps preface this by explaining that my writing background is heavily dominated by my experience working at my college’s writing center. I didn’t just advise other people on their writing for fun (thought it was)–I was paid for it, too. So if it seems like revision is a love of mine, you’re right. It’s also just as important as the other parts of the writing process, like planning and drafting.

If not more so.

The “Golden Rule” of Writing Workshops

We had just finished our first workshop in creative writing, and my teacher mentioned something that I’d encountered a lot in past writing conferences, but also online at the various writing communities. It began as the “Golden Rule” at the very first (and highly acclaimed) writer’s workshop at the University of Iowa.

“The [workshop’s] moderator’s essential job is to make sure the workshop’s ground rules are followed, that the author does not defend the work or inappropriately introduce it, that the author does not speak during the main part of the workshop, that the members of the group do not address the author, that the author is not embarrassed, and that the members remain courteous and focused only on the work and not the author nor the author’s intentions. The moderator makes sure the comments and discussion are moving forward—and not in circles—and that points are made in a way the author can use for improvements to the work. When it seems that by clarifying something about the work the group can more effectively move forward, the moderator might ask the author to clarify the point but never to defend.”
–Richard P. Gabriel, “Writers’ Workshops As Scientific Methodology

Basically, it’s saying that it doesn’t matter what your intentions were–the only thing readers have when they read your piece are the words, not your disclaimers and explanations. If the reader makes a comment or suggestion about your paper and you know that’s not what you intended, nine times out of ten it’s the author’s problem, not the readers’. What you intended simply isn’t coming across on the page.

“Finally, the author is allowed to ask questions of the group—perhaps clearing up points that were made or asking about specific parts of the piece. The author is not allowed to defend the work.”

It’s easy to fall into the trap of defending something that’s so deep-seated in your being–an extension of your ego, even–so asking questions is perhaps the best way of “responding” to the critique. “What could I have done differently?” or “How do I need to fix the dialogue/plot/pacing/etc?” is much more constructive than countering with, “Well, she was supposed to be xyz…”

My creative writing teacher herself admitted that the most painful criticisms to bear were the ones she ultimately had to address to better the piece. Perhaps if we were all more gracious and listened to what our critters have to say instead of rebutting them, we could all gain more from such peer reviews.

Cheat Sheet

  • Next time you ask for a beta reader or crits, don’t fight them on their suggestions. Why not? Because they’ll likely not want to work with you next time, since it’s clear you’re not looking for ways to improve, but merely validation of your inherent genius. If you need clarification, that’s different, but don’t look at them as being “wrong” in their reading of the piece.
  • If your reviewer has nothing but praise to offer you, look elsewhere. They either don’t know enough about prose/poetry/whathaveyou, or they’re not willing to be “mean” and tell you that you have room to improve. Because believe me, you do. We all do. The Perfect Piece is nigh on impossible to achieve. We’re human, and continuously learn, after all.

Your Turn

  1. Think back to the last time you got what seemed like an “unwelcome” bit of advice. You know the one, that bit that made you bristle the most, that bit that seemed meanest, that bit that was clearly just plain wrong. (If you don’t have something come to mind, just ask someone to read your work. If they’re serious about reviewing, they’ll offer you something that falls into the above category.)

    So you’ve acquired/identified one such bit. Now, address it. It doesn’t matter how bogus you think it is–just work on it. Cater to their whims. You’re right, after all, so you can do this, prove your point, and move on to continue being awesome.

    Next, show the revised piece to someone else. What did they think? Were you vindicated? Or was your reader maybe, just maybe, right about their observation?

In the Beginning

March 16, 2011 2 comments

I think we’ve all seen this countless times. You find a piece of fiction online, read the summary and think, “huh, that sounds cool.” But once you’ve clicked chapter one and read through the first few paragraphs, you’re turned off. They’ve started that way, again: the typical description of the protagonist’s appearance heads off a page-long summary of her life story. I’ve even seen published novels written that way. Shudder. I took them back to the library promptly, without reading another word.

So go and write the first draft of your chapter/story/whathaveyou, or have something written first to work with. Don’t worry, we’ll wait.

Yes, you really do have to get the word diarrhea out first. Now go.

Back? Good deal. Not exactly pleased with it, are you? (If you are, just give it a day or so.)

You’re not alone, though. Most of us don’t start out writing brilliantly, knowing exactly what we want to write, but instead have to cast about for a thread they can follow.

One of my favorite quotes:

“The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.”
–Mark Twain’s Notebook, 1902-1903

Now that you know the end goal, go back to the very beginning. Look at each sentence, and evaluate it based on the following questions:

What need I disclose?

It’s so easy to start out by providing the reader with all the things only the author needs to know about a character. How they act, where they come from, what they like and don’t like. But the audience only needs to know as much as is pertinent to the plot, or more specifically, the main conflict of the piece. To allude to Chekhov’s gun once more:

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

Substitute the rifle for Character Detail #472. Does it play an active role in the development of the ending? If not, cut it.

Next.

How should I disclose this?

Any beginning writer has heard the mantra “show, don’t tell.” But sometimes it’s hard to understand exactly what is meant by that. Think: “Have I really illustrated the point, with my big girl words, or merely summarized it?” Writing is all about dramatization. If the narrator just tells us about what the characters are like or what’s happening, it’s less of a scene and more of a synopsis.

Give it dialogue, action beats. Slow it down, zoom in.

Compare:

She hears a car approaching and ducks into an abandoned building, terrified. For a painstaking minute, she waits to see if they’ll find her, but they pass at last and she breathes a sigh of relief.

And

Darting across the street she hears an engine downshift around the corner; blue eyes search this way and that until she slips into the shadows of that hallowed-out husk of a building. Coming closer, closer–Have they seen her? Will they take her away?–her heart pounds in her throat until the pitch changes and slowly the growl fades back into the broken streets. She waits a minute longer until she lets go the breath she hadn’t known she’d held, her shirt chalky with the dust of the concrete walls she’d pressed herself against.

The latter is vivid, a second-by-second account of the girl’s terror. The former merely tells us she was scared. Was’s, adjectives and adverbs can generally tip us off that we’re telling instead of showing; the “terrified” and “painstaking” are telling (haha). Use descriptive verbs instead.

When should I disclose this?

A lot of times the openings to pieces are gushing with back-story because the author doesn’t know where to start. Instead of beginning in media res, or the “beginning of things,” we start in the author’s train of thought, which can often be omitted.

Imagine if you started without any information. We see a girl admiring a man from afar. We’re left with questions that keep us reading on. What kind of girl is she? Who is this man? What is their relationship like? How will it develop? The rest of the details can be revealed over time, gently, without seeming like a character sheet inserted at the top of the page.

Yet, there’s also another theory to this. Give us a moment of the status quo against which we can compare the new conflict. I think it’s dependent on the story. See which works for you, but be mindful that you still need to grab the reader’s attention if you’re going to show us some of la vie quotidienne.

Some details can and should be included, but only as they come up/are relevant. When a character pisses yours off again for the umpteenth time, that’s when you can remember the reasons you’ve been holding a grudge against her these past few months. But not before they stir the hornet’s nest again. We don’t need to know that at the outset.

Hopefully, these three questions will help you craft a tighter, more dynamic and enticing story. Be spare with your details; hold back instead of bogging us down, like playing hard to get in relationships. It piques our curiosity.

Your readers aren’t dumb, so feel free to make a few jumps with them, leave a few pieces missing. They’ll figure it out, if you’ve written it right.

Your Turn

  1. Isolate the first 500 words of your piece, but be sure you have the ending/Point figured out. Take it slow, moving sentence by sentence, and and scrupulously apply all three questions to it. Are there clauses that are extra commentary, irrelevant to the story as a whole? What about the goal of the chapter? Be on the lookout for sentences that need a dose of adrenaline, making them convey action rather than mere summary. Have you played your hand too soon, and could you perhaps disclose the same information in small nuggets placed hither and yon?

Further Reading

Ray Rhamey has an entire blog dedicated just to beginnings, called Flogging the Quill. Much of what I’ve learned I’ve gotten from his critique of openings over the years. He narrows it down to just one question: “Would you turn the page?” And analyzes why or why not, inviting his readers to join him by posting their reactions.