Saturday, October 4, 2008

What tools do I use to write with?

Friends and fellow writers have asked me about my favorite writing tools. I’ll try to describe them without unnecessary detail.

I use two different word processor programs. I use MSWord for the heavy lifting and Notepad++ for HTML and other script editing. MS Excel and MS Access are handy for tracking character information as well as keeping track of time lines. One very critical piece of software every writer should use is Subversion for keeping track of revisions. It stores everything in a repository for later retrieval and is essential in detecting and curing silly mistakes in editing, as well as having the ability to retrieve earlier versions of a document. If you do use subversion, always back up the repository to prevent the loss of everything if your hard drive dies.

A good piece of time-keeping software and an event scheduler is important as well. Thunderbird with Lightning is good for this. I stopped using Outlook ages ago because it had a bad habit of trashing my mail when its database became too large. I'm neither averse nor loyal to M$ products, my general attitude being -- if it does the work then use it, but if it burns me then out the window it goes! I use Photoshop and Gimp for illustrations though many of my filters are homebrewed. Scratch pad is a good piece of software for taking notes and beats having twenty MS windows open.

There are numerous programs for tracking characters and plots in novels and my general attitude is -- don't! A simple excel sheet combined with an access database can help you track everything you need. Generally, if the character is too complex to understand without an application to tie it all together, then the reader won’t understand either. Plot making software is just a waste of money, and nothing out there can do the job – that’s the writer’s job after all.

I write my chapters in separate files and then stick them all together before submitting them. It makes the process of producing one, two, or three chapter excerpts easier. I use homemade scripts for doing the actual assembly, but you can do it by hand without too much difficulty.

Invest in a good grammar and spelling checker beyond the one in MS Word. Better yet, polish your grammar and spelling skills by learning the craft. A dictionary and thesaurus are essential. Try to get an unabridged version of each since the college and modern versions each clip out roughly 75% of the words. The Chicago Manual of Style is a good buy, since it provides a clear description of the standards used by most publishing firms throughout the United States.

The best tool of all is discipline. There are far too many toys and distractions on today’s computers – not to mention the internet – for a writer to remain productive unless they create some writing rules. Use Lightning to set up a recurring schedule and stick to it.

Writer's Conference in Hawley, PA

I just came back from a writer’s conference hosted by the Wayne County Arts Alliance in Hawley, Pennsylvania. The speakers were all very good, and gave us writers some very good insights into certain aspects of the process. In the morning, we learned about writing memoirs, as well as the motivations and methods used to write them. I’ve never been a fancier of memoir’s myself, but the presenter, biographer Oana Nechita, gave some very good instruction as well as a delightful exercise in writing about our own lives.

In the midmorning, the writers Rich Wallace and Sandra Neil Wallace discussed character and voice as well as the source of our ideas and inspiration. Their presentation explained how many works might derive inspiration from our own day-to-day experiences. We also discussed story structure and the composition of a novel.

In the afternoon the publisher Stephen Roxburgh described the publishing process as well as what it takes to get into print. As many authors already know, the process is difficult and time consuming, and Stephen explained why so many authors received rejections.

Overall, the entire conference was inspiring and I especially enjoyed the question and answer sessions, which occurred after each presentation. I met other authors and illustrators who attended, who were intelligent and interesting.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How to Make Your Characters Human

It can be very difficult to write a character who acts completely human in the fantasy genre. Maybe I should restate that. When you have a character who is endowed with enormous power or profound resources, it is easy to drift away from the human aspect and into a sort of superhuman alternate reality. It is fantasy after all, but if the reader is going to identify with the character, the character should remain human as long as possible, before the arc of the story takes them into surrealistic territory. The same goes for non-human characters. Remember, it is all about having the reader slide into the skin of the character and become in essence Haley Cork or Harry Potter. If Harry Potter became all-powerful at the very beginning of the series then there would have been very little left to write about, he only become so for the briefest moments and chooses to abandon all of that power due to his humanity. While amazing things should happen to the character, the internal struggle to overcome obstacles should be profoundly human.

When Haley Cork first discovers the Blue Door, she is overwhelmed with a sudden influx of knowledge and power, but her compassion for the plight of the people on the frozen world outweighs her ability to do something about it, at least at first. Self doubt, or fear are perfectly normal elements of a character’s make up, but what if the character cannot experience those two things for one reason or another? In Haley’s case, she cannot, instead she has an abundance of nurturing sentiments, which more than make up for the natural desire to slink away with their tail between their legs. Haley doesn’t slink off, but she doesn’t run in with guns blazing either. She thinks things through, which once again is not an attribute you’ll find in most adolescents. Lack of fear and self-doubt are the things, which appear to violate the principles I described in the preceding paragraph. Here’s the rub: Haley is phenomenally human because, while she has enormous power, she doesn’t stand off at a distance and blast away but gets personally involved.

Too many times, I have seen work by writers who started off well, blemish the entire piece by releasing the thread of humanity and launch into a series of feats by an ubermensch. While the superman may be essential to the story, the humanity is as well, and thus the internal dialog must reflect this, both in the narrative and in expositive behaviors. The bottom line is this: Characters must feel. Without feeling, the superman becomes a mere automaton being examined from a clinical distance, which might be a comfortable exercise for a doctor of medicine, but not a fantasy reader.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Scene excerpt from "Haley Cork and the Blue Door"

Setting the stage:
Haley has just walked through the Blue Door for the first time, and is now imbued with all of the power and knowledge it has to offer, but she is still a ten year old girl.


She was standing upon a tall rocky promontory beside the open Door amid a ring of standing stones, each capped by enormous lintels. Outside the ring several free standing monoliths stood before a low rock wall set with frozen wooden posts. Occasional flurries of wind driven snow sporadically obscured her view, but visibility was otherwise shockingly clear. The sky was cloudless, blue, and occupied by the same yellow sun, distant and cold at half the size. A small silver moon fled across the sky, jagged and broken, like a half eaten cookie. Several miles away a mountain rose above an icy plain. Halfway up, a huge cave contained numerous stone buildings stacked atop each other, rising nearly to its roof. A stone road performed switch backs from the icy plain, disappearing where it touched the base of the mountain. There wasn't any movement in the distant village that Haley could see, but to make certain, she turned to the archway and placed her hand on the key stone again. A second panel appeared below the first. Symbols scrolled upwards as she made a simple query. Haley could read the strange language, comfortable in its complexity and order. The script told her a tragic story of disaster and neglect, of a cool but inhabited world which had suffered under a diminished sun. The tears that welled up in her eyes froze on her shivering cheeks.

“Lifeless. This world is dead”, she said sadly to herself.

Her bare feet were beginning to ache from the snow on the dais. Haley turned around to look at the archway. The other children were still standing on the other side of the doorway, in the warm fertile world of Haley's birth, wind roaring past them into the cold and bleak one, and could not hear what she had said. Thick frost was already beginning to form on the stone archway as the moisture from her world was swept inward by the difference in air pressure. Bonnie started to walk towards the door, but Haley shouted to her, “Stay where you are! I'm coming back in just a few minutes. I want to try something out.” Haley shut the door to stop the roar of the wind. The world around her became deadly quiet, an eternal tomb, and a place where all life had been extinguished by a cold and pitiless fate.

Haley looked down at her hands. They were beginning to turn blue from the cold. She wanted to be warm again, but before she could reopen the Door and return, her mind activated something old and dormant in her flesh. A crawling sensation covered her skin, stronger and more immediate than ordinary shivering. Every muscle in her body tensed in a startling series of spasms, very nearly toppling her skinny frame. Haley felt something moving up through her legs. A strange sensation within her grew, as bits of material from the dais penetrated her bare feet and entered into her flesh. Moments later, fine threads of glassy fiber erupted from every bit of her skin with the whispered shushing sound of wind across dry leaves. They pierced her clothing without damaging it, curling in long graceful loops. As she watched transfixed, they wove themselves into a pure white garment which covered Haley's body completely, protecting her from the deadly cold. The sapping frost could no longer reach Haley's skin.


The story uses nanotechnology extensively, and this is an example of how it behaves. The material of the dais, upon which the Blue Door rests is imbued with billions of nanomachines which follow every command and need of its Keeper, which in this case is Haley Cork. As long as she is in contact with the Blue Door, this sort of thing is possible, but the technological and mystical nature of the Doors of Vesalago are more profound than this little scene could ever express.

I'm posting this due to popular demand, but nothing within it is in the public domain. All portions are Copyright 2008 M. Andrew Sprong.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Nerve Wracking Process of Manuscript Submission

I am in the tedious process of submitting “Haley Cork and the Blue Door” for acceptance by an editor. The editor I am submitting to currently is very good at what she does, and was recommend both by my friend and by the site I decided to use in lieu of an agent, at least for the initial offering. If this submission falls through, I’m going to go the agent route in an active and relentless manner.

The key to surviving the process is to continue writing while you wait for your completed works to get noticed. I've been out of the business for quite a while, thus I am probably out of tune with the process, but regardless of how you do it, you can't forget to continue creating while you wait. Thus, while I expect to pay my dues at the bottom of some slush piles, there will be a time when an editor will drag it out and give it the once over, which will change my life, and hopefully theirs as well. Here’s to that lucky moment!

“Haley Cork and the Blue Door” is just the first in a series of books I plan to write, and absolutely will get published. Please note my determination. While I wait for the latest editor in my carefully selected list to respond, I have to resist the temptation to allow despair to cloud my mind. Despair is for wimps! Luckily, I don't have the time for despair, as I write the next book in the Series “The Doors of Vesalago” titled “The Last and Furious Hownan”. Unlike “Haley Cork and the Blue Door”, this sequel follows the life of a Keeper's descendent who must abandon revenge and combat her innermost demons to embrace compassion and self sacrifice toward those who hate and fear her.

I have complete confidence in “Haley Cork and the Blue Door” and my ability to produce the entire series. I have sketched out the plot lines for four of the seven books I intend to write, as well as character biographies and background material. The series is allegorical but covered in a thick web of fantasy and science fiction. It contains nanotechnology right along side parapsychology seamlessly woven together in a multi-layered tapestry of adventure and terror.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Happy Birthday Alexander!

My eldest Alexander turns nine today.
Many years!

The Unhappy Sock Puppet

What should an Author tell his or her mother when they read something as disturbing as “Donny in the Maize”? Any decent mother will know the obvious, but so many people jump to an erroneous conclusion, and automatically assume the Author is somehow just as awful and vicious as the monsters they describe. Certainly, for a few minutes they have to retain the hideous identity of the monster, but the Author has the luxury of spending the rest of the time taking a nap, or trying to keep the dog from chewing up their slippers.

I once saw this bloke driving around Santa Cruz California with a van covered in anti-Stephan King propaganda and had the misfortune of being hooked into a conversation with the eminently odd person. I probably should have stayed away from the boorishly painted van in the first place, but like the cat, I couldn't resist a casual inspection.


Did you know Stephen King was the man on the grassy knoll?


No, I didn't. Wouldn't he have to be pretty young for that sort of thing?


He is older than he says he is. He also killed John Lennon.

By now I've got the gist of this guy's lunacy and decide to throw a wrench into the guy's engine of insanity.


That wasn't Stephen King, that was Barney the Purple Dinosaur.


No, it had to be Stephen King! I saw it all in a dream. He was working for the CIA and they wanted him dead because he was a communist.


So, you are telling me, that nice guy who hates to travel, killed John Lennon? How did he get there? Are you off your meds?

This was the wrong set of questions to ask, especially the one about the meds. I was expecting a candid camera to pop up from behind a parked car at any moment, but after a tedious and increasingly insane series of disjoint lectures, I finally got angry and said:


Stephen Kin writes about monsters and awful people, but he isn't any of those things he writes about. If anything, I would think he is probably more afraid of those things in his books than you are. Why don't you paint your van, shut your mouth, and take a bath!

I happen to like the human being Stephen King, and was feeling somewhat miffed at this foul smelling miscreant's claims. Stephen once signed my copy of “The Tommy Knockers” and the gentle man behind the table didn't look like the sort who would ever stand on the grassy knoll and shoot a president at the age of fifteen.

My point is, the author is not the monster, the monster is a fabrication, and thank goodness for that.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Perils of Writing for Young Adults

The Harry Potter series demonstrates how writing for young adults can be difficult and yet rewarding. The author has to tread the fine line between scaring the pants off of the reader while keeping them engaged long enough for the story to play itself out. Unfortunately, modern science does not have a specific breed of rat or monkey an author could rent for the “Fingers in the Ears” test. Children between the ages of seven and thirteen are probably the best thing for that. Sadly, since I only have two in that range, I find myself having little guys with fingers firmly planted in ears during the more action packed portions of my readings, but who still hang around for the non-scary parts of the story.

That in itself is evidence I’ve reached the happy mix of vicarious terror and plot engagement I was shooting for in the thirteen to adult crowd. In chase scenes, you want the listener’s legs to pinwheel and churn in sympathy to the protagonist’s plight. You want the reader to cover their ears when you get to the scary parts, but alas, you don’t want them vomiting or wetting the bed after a reading, because frankly, that just isn’t very nice. I am happy to say, neither has happened, yet. My wife would probably have her fingers firmly planted in her ears and be uttering the phonemes “nah, nah, nah” but I’m too cautious to experiment on her, given her delicate sensibilities.

If you have any thirteen to adult listeners who want to be frightened and entertained, I could arrange a reading. Of course, it’s for purely experimental purposes.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

How to Avoid Writing the Climactic End in the Middle of the Book.

The novel I'm writing at the moment is a third-person endeavor which is considerably more down to earth than “Haley Cork and the Blue Door.” The fact that it takes place entirely on Earth and that the protagonist never actually sees the monster makes writing a young adult suspense story a little easier. There is only one problem about writing suspense, and I am only just discovering. You have to spend a whole lot more time fore shadowing before the big reveal. Hence the term Suspense. Three times already, I got impatient and dragged the monster into the scene and had to write the beast right out again, which is kind of like the poodle, who found the skunk, wanting to get back into the house. You feel sorry for the pooch, and let him come in, but the overwhelming odor makes you toss him right out again.

My monster, I took from American Indian legends. So, it wasn't really a good idea to give too many hints without revealing the whole show. I'm about halfway through fleshing out the book, and have only recently added the elements which will eventually be important for the final showdown. I still have to fight the urge to let the poor little monster in, but I think I can resist for a couple more weeks until I write the final set of scenes. The protagonist isn't a super-hero like Haley Cork, but he is tough in his own way, and has a singular charm which allows him to get away with more than anyone should ever really get away with.

While suspense isn't difficult to write, the restraint is probably the most important thing about the whole process. It's really very much what you don't write as much as it is what you do.

The Evolution of the Character and Other Happy Accidents

When I was writing my latest novel titled “Haley Cork and the Blue Door”, I did all of the usual things an author might do. I wrote out a plot, and a short list of characters, as well as the setting and special elements which would tie everything together. The mechanics were essentially the same as writing a script or an epic poem, but those don't have the level of detail which takes the process to the next step.

When I sketched out Haley Cork, I wanted an innocent 10 to 12 year old girl who evolved over the course of the story into a powerful heroine. There's only one problem with taking a 10 year old girl and doing that though. Most 10 year old girls are just finding out about boys and makeup, and could care less about saving the universe. They are still children and devoted to mommy and dolls, while at the same time, are heavily influenced by popular culture. It's rather difficult to take any 10 year old and make them even do their school work, let alone step through a Blue Door and battle monsters. Thus I had to make Haley something special to start off with. Instead of the maladjusted youths seen so often in novels these days, I chose instead to take a well behaved little girl, who loves her mother, and grandfather, who goes to church and loves God, and who is all around sweet, and toss her, giblets and all into the meat grinder life of a Keeper. Not very nice, I know, but somebody has to do it. The question I had, while I was writing the events around her plot-line was how far away from humanity must I take her before the reader's sympathies are strained to the breaking point.

At first, I had Haley becoming immediately invested with all of the fancy powers so often seen in super heroes, but what do you do with the character once she can already shoot laser beams out of her eyes and open nuclear missiles with her teeth? That's not to say Haley ever has the slighter inclination to do either. No, it became very clear, Haley as well as the other characters had to develop in a gradual manner and discover things for themselves in a continuous expanding arc. This is the sort of thing you read in creative writing textbooks, which I recently reviewed after initially messing the whole thing up.

The other problem I had was the villain, a nameless monster known merely as the Enemy. I wanted to write more than your simple Good versus Evil book, and explore concepts somewhat foreign to western society. My villain starts out as a murderous yet anonymous being who can control people from a long distance, and ends up more or less a petulant child having a tantrum. It's not nice to do that to any self-respecting super-villain, but I did, and that was that. The problem with that particular approach, is when your villain must start out as nasty as possible, how can you make him any worse without bumping up the, “Oh my goodness, he shouldn't of written that!” meter. Over all, I think I managed to balance nastiness with petulance rather nicely, though the Enemy probably would have wanted a significantly different outcome.

One thing I did learn, over this roller coaster ride of writing, was the following: Never, no matter what the urge, rationalization, or other spurious motivation, ever write the last and final chapter first. I did, and it was a rather stupid thing to do. Fortunately, like folding a hand at the right moment in poker, I tossed that lemon and started at the front, like I should have, after only wasting the first week in my mad writing adventure. When I read the last chapter I wrote first, I have have discovered it bears no resemblance to the last chapter I correctly wrote last.

The other, more significant thing I discovered, I completely enjoyed the process of writing at nearly every stage, and given the circumstances of my life these day, that's definitely saying something. If and when “Haley Cork and the Blue Door” hits the bookshelves in your neighborhood, don't skip ahead to the last chapter like I did.