Thursday, January 26, 2012

Marketing your Blog: It's more than "Blarfing".

As part of my "get out of my head and into someone else's" campaign for 2012, I'm following more blogs than ever, and I read more one-off posts now, too.

In order to know who's updated what and when, Blogger gives me a nice snapshot of all the blogs I'm following, even if the post is written through WordPress or a private website.  Partially because Michael Lorenson and Lee Lofland are writing their blogs daily, I'm reading daily.  So I check my reader summary daily.  Sometimes two or three times daily.  Sometimes I check it like a maniac, because data is taking forever to run, or because I can't figure out how to fill a plot hole and it's killing me.

That got me thinking about how we market our blogs.  How do we get more readers?  And why bother, if you're an unpublished author?
I know Facebook has a "Networked Blogs by Ninua".  Here, you can search blogs by category, twenty blogs at a time.  I'm registered there, too, under "Writing."

But under the "Writing" category, blogs are ordered by number of existing followers.  And I tried to find out how many blogs under "writing" there were.  Apparently Ninua can't count that high, but it's probably more than 5000.  (And for the love of all good things, don't put "Muse", "Musings" or any variant thereof in your frigging blog post title.  It's.Over.Done.)

And as for the count of how many are "following", that's Ninua's count, not Blogger's count.  I gave up scrolling through blogs in the "writing" category, because after almost 3000 registered blogs, I still hadn't found myself.  I'm at the very bottom of Ninua's list, because according to Ninua, I have only two followers, and I'm one of them.  Only the most already-popular posts are going to float to the top and attract new readers.

So basically, I would have greater success handing out business cards to strangers on the street than I would if I relied on Ninua's listings.  That means I can't leave anything to chance.  I have to work to get more exposure, if I want more readers.

Once a new post has gone live, ordinarily I send out a notification through Facebook and Twitter.  Facebook is still my biggest referral URL (shouldering that spambot out of top spot), so I know that FB is a good way to notify folks of a blog post update.

Some blogs I follow now because I've been perusing author websites or being referred to certain blogs by other readers.  That's why I started following Annie Off Leash by Annie Boreson.  So, yes to old-fashioned word of mouth. But I've found the majority of my new reading material through a post recommendation on Facebook.  That's how I found Graveyard Shift. So, yes to Facebook, too.

But I also found that readership through FB has everything to do with the timing of your post, and with the popularity of your readers.  If you have a family member with few friends (and assuming they like you enough to check up on you daily), the message will get through to them easily enough. But if someone has a gazillion friends and professional contacts, your FB status update and/or link are going to get buried quickly under that reader's slushpile of status updates.

I still haven't found the timing sweet spot for FB links.  Post in the morning, when everyone's checking their FB news?  Lunchtime?  In the evening?  Post repeatedly until people de-friend you?  I dunno.

And most importantly, unless someone else re-tweets your post or shares the link on their own FB profile, your tweets and FB status updates never reach beyond your own established circle of contacts.

Or does Twitter or Facebook even matter, if people tend to use things like RSS Feeds, Google Reader, and Reading Lists, which allow us to check out the posts we want to view, when we want to view them?

It does matter, if you want to attract new readers.  You need to get yourself on to new RSS Feeds, or they won't ever read your work.

I look to how Tobin was "pimping" our interview from late last week.  I posted the interview just once on Facebook, around my lunchtime.  That's my normal activity.

But Tobin posted the interview several times to Twitter, he posted it on five different spots in Facebook (his fan page, his personal profile, and at least three different Writer's Group discussion group pages); it was referred on from there by his friends and family - and some my friends too!  I wouldn't be at all surprised if he got on the phone and called people to tell them to read it. 

The results were fantastic:  within a week, his was the most popular post in the history of the blog - and not just a bit, but by an additional 25% more views than the next most popular post.

Compare that against other recent interviews and blog posts.  On average (including some recent interviews), I've had only 1/5th of the views as Tobin's interview - over the same period of time.

So there's the answer to the how:  increased readership = social media + word of mouth.  You can only reach so far.  Your reach doubles the moment one other person reposts or retweets your link.  Your reach expands geometrically every time someone else passes on the word.  You need to meet people who are willing to believe in you and point people in your direction.  And you need to return in kind.

But that begs the next big question:  why would someone like me (prefamous) want to increase my readership now - months, maybe years before an actual paying publication contract.

Tobin and I had a good discussion about it.  After all - Tobin needs students for his class, and he needs readers to buy his work; this is one more means of advertising.  Increased exposure makes sense for him.  What benefit is there to me, if I should a) blog at all, or b) make a point of increasing readership?

Tobin would argue that I do have something to sell, and that I need to get off my bum and go direct to Kindle.  I'm old-fashioned and I'm still holding out for the classic print (but more on that in later posts).

But there is an argument to be made about posting regularly and actively marketing my blog, even if I'm a "nobody" in established circles.

Let's say a publisher has received my work, and they want to know more about me.  They can Google me and my blog.  Here's what they're going to see.

Potential:  They can see what other writing styles I'm capable of.  They can see the extent to which I research, what my passions are, and how seriously I take my writing craft.  (Typo spotted post-publication?  Kill it kill it kill it!  Then update the post and pretend like it never happened.)  They can see how much writing experience I have, and what I intend on pursuing.  They're going to see what else I'm working on, or have worked on in the past.  And they're going to see that I'm not afraid to post things that are uncomfortable to talk about.

Thought: Let me never publish a post that hasn't taken more than 4 hours to write and refine (usually spread out over two more more sittings).  And may these posts do more than express my own thoughts; I won't ever be satisfied unless they make the reader think, too.

Audience:  I'm attempting to build up a readership now, well in advance of publication.  Networking is one thing, learning from other people another; but building up a readership, getting people interested in the stories I intend to publish - that's all one great big teaser campaign.  And it shows that I'm ready, willing and somewhat capable of marketing, even when I have "nothing to sell" yet.

Dedication:  I'm not just blarfing whatever comes into my head.  I'm researching.  I'm learning, and processing new information, and putting it into practice.  I'm audaciously contacting new and established authors, publicists, agents, publishers and editors, and I'm putting them through the interview wringer - even though I'm neither an online magazine, nor writer's group, nor a publisher, nor even an established author.  I'm not doing it just for myself, either - though I do learn something new every time I interview someone.  I'm doing it so I can share best practices with others in my position, and so I can advertise great new Canadian writing to audiences here and abroad. And they're going to see that I'm actively writing - more so than ever, with or without their publication contracts.

So do I have something to sell?  Yes - best practices, advertising, and one very prolific writer.  There's no price tag, but I'm still "selling" something.

Do I have something to gain?  Absolutely.

Does everyone benefit, if I continue expanding readership?  Beyond doubt.  I benefit, so do my guests, and so do the readers.

So how, fellow writer, how do you market your blog? And for a bonus question:  how important is it to you that you increase your readership, if you're not getting paid to blog?  Leave your comments below!

Also, if you're new to this blog, can you do me a favour?  Follow me.  I promise, I won't let you down.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Arsenal of Mummer's The Word

Lately, I've been doing a series of interviews with new and established authors, and frequently, I've brought up the topic of research.

In previous entries, I'd mentioned that research is integral to believable historical fiction.  But I've never shown some of the research I have done.

Quick snapshot to get you caught up:  the protagonist of Mummer's the Word, John Stillman, had been a private investigator from a very young age.  In 1940, he enlisted as a paratrooper.  In 1942, he was gravely wounded in battle, and was shipped back home with full honours, having achieved the rank of sergeant.  He didn't sign up for another tour of duty, but instead went back to work as a private investigator.  Later that same year, he spotted his senior partner and mentor Eben Magrew being escorted by a plainclothes gunman  into a military truck in the middle of the night.  Thinking his boss was being abducted, he followed the truck for more than two hours, until it stopped at the gates of Camp X.  Discovering that Magrew was now being trained as a secret operative, Stillman insisted on joining up, even proving his worth by taking covert surveillance photographs of the Camp itself.  He was arrested, threatened, and then accepted into the SOE.  He was codenamed "Mummer" and was deployed on several missions in Belgium, working with the Belgian Secret Army.  In early 1943, he was caught by collaborators and Nazi soldiers, taken to a POW camp, and there had his tongue surgically removed for failing to cooperate with interrogators.  When the camp was liberated by Allied Forces a few weeks later, Stillman was returned to Canada, and all knowledge of his missions and capture strictly disavowed.  As we see in Mummer's the Word, though, Stillman returns once more to his old job as a private investigator, with or without a tongue, and he continues to put SOE training to good (or bad) use.

So, bearing in mind his age, military background, budget, location and time period, I had to find a couple of weapons that a) were in use at the time, b) that he would have access to, and c) would look good on the big screen. Below are just some of the weapons I've researched in the writing and editing of the Mummer series.

*Special note:  I do not own firearms.  If I did, they would be used strictly for target practice, and they would be kept very secure with trigger locks and stored in a gun locker.  I don't believe in owning one for my own personal defense, myself, because any weapon you have can be used against you.  Besides, by the time I had the gun safe and the trigger lock open, I suspect the damage would already have been done.

And there's always the fear of something going wrong.  Mishandling is one thing.  If I ever do own a firearm, I'm going to know everything there is to know about it, including maintenance, safe handling and safe storage.  I'm not afraid of handling weapons - in a safe and regulated environment. But I am terrified of missing or having a ricochet cause serious damage to an innocent victim - or worse, killing them.

Consider this:  if you live in an apartment building, and if can hear your neighbours talking, how likely is it that a bullet will be stopped by the walls?  Unless you're inside a bank vault, your interior walls are pretty easy to penetrate.  And if you do shoot inside a bank vault, you've got another problem to contend with:  ricochet from multiple angles.

Consider this too:  when you watch cop shows or movies, you hear about entry and exit wounds, right?  Exit wounds = bullet did its job, exited the premises, then went to find someone else to hit.

Weapons have their place, and in some circumstances, it would make sense that people go around armed.  Cops, for example.  Secret agents for another.  But there are a great deal of things that can go wrong with firearms (I make use of that in my stories), and you can avoid gun battles altogether through a wide range of tactics - observation, covert tactics, hand-to-hand combat, bluffing, diversion...And those are the things that really whet my imagination.

My interest in weapons is strictly intellectual.  I like weapons the way I like big expensive houses:  I love their design and functionality from an aesthetic point of view, but I wouldn't want one of my own.  I'd be even more afraid of criminal activity.

That said, here is some of the research I've done in seeking weapons for the major characters in the Mummer series.


Concealed Weapons

In the very first chapter of the first book, Mummer's the Word, Stillman mentions his thumb knife.  He typically keeps this weapon close at hand, near his watchband, under his cuff.

Other variants of the concealed knife are the boot knife (he had one, but he hated it), the lapel knife, the sleeve dagger, and the crotch knife (ouch!).

Another old favourite is the garotte.  I'd post a picture, but they're just nasty.  Simply put, it's a wire, chain, rope, fishing line - basically any strong filament - used to strangle one's victims from behind.  Because the force required against the wire is enough to seriously weaken your fingers, the two ends are usually fixed to rings, large beads, small knobs of wood, etc.

I won't specify what kind of garotte Mummer uses, but suffice it to say, until today, I thought I'd invented it.  Ha!  Boy, it's amazing what you find when you search the internet.

For a more detailed picture of a lot of concealed weapons I may or may not use in future (in the narrative, I mean), check out this ridiculously awesome website.  This site features some of the concealed weapons used by agents in the British SOE (Special Operations Executive, disbanded and later partially reabsorbed into MI6) and the American OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA).



Since 1997, I've been shooting a wide range (pardon the pun) of handguns and other firearms.  My instructor is Stuart Seki, who is now a warrant officer with the Canadian Armed Forces.  So, a very special thank you goes out to him.  A second thank you goes to Kim Hynes, who taught me things only a lady shooter can teach you, like "Before you fire a shotgun, make sure you move your bra strap, or it's going to leave a bruise."

This Enfield No.2 MK 1* variant sold in an online auction for about $200 in 2006

Mummer's original firearm was an Enfield No. 2 MK 1* (pictured above), which used .38 ammunition.  I had originally thought to use this in the narrative because a) it was in period, b) it satisfied locus in quo (i.e., it's of British and/or Canadian manufacture, and not, say, German or Russian), and C) it had no hammer spur.  Having no hammer sticking up meant it wouldn't get caught on clothing as it was drawn from a concealed holster.  It also meant that it was double-action only.  You know when good guys and bad guys make their threats clear by cocking back the hammer?  That's single-action.  Double-action means you go straight from draw to shooting.  I'd also chosen a double-action only type handgun, because that's kind of Mummer's style.  He can't come out and say, "Hey, if you don't behave, I'm gonna punch you".  He'll punch you first, and if you repeat your behaviour, he'll just punch you again.

But, I didn't like that pistol, for practical reasons.  Double-action requires a lot more force to pull the trigger, so, unless you're an expert, the action of squeezing your hand tends to throw off your aim.  So I gave him a Webley instead.
Webley Mark VI Service Revolver

Now here, we have another .38, with single- and double-action.  The Webley Mark VI Revolver is actually a bit of an older model (production stopped in 1923) - which also works well.  When he's first starting out, Stillman is more likely to own a hand-me-down; at the very least, he's not likely going to go out and get the most advanced firearm on the market, 'cause he can't fricking afford to upgrade every time a new pistol hits the market.  So to speak.  Besides that, this firearm has a certain Indiana Jones charm to it, doesn't it?

But of course, he is going to upgrade eventually, so...

Browning Hi-Power
Now, we can have some fun.  The Browning Hi-Power is a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol, with a magazine capable of holding 13 rounds (bullets).  It's in period, in setting and in character (manufactured by Inglis in Canada in '44 and '45 for military use), it's concealed as readily as the revolvers above, and it's a common enough handgun for the time.  It has some features that I intend on exploiting in The Man with the Silver Tongue, the second in the Mummer series.

If I remember correctly, this is one of the handguns with which I've had the pleasure of missing the broad side of a barn.  It doesn't have a balance I like, which is a fancy way of saying "I have all the grip strength of a sickly infant."  If I take more than a couple of seconds to aim and fire, the barrel tips toward the imaginary crotch of the target stand, and then I over-correct and shoot over his right shoulder.  The guns I am better at using are out of period and out of place.


Larger Firearms

I have to mention here that it's probably because of W/O Seki that I get a case of the giggles when handling larger firearms, be it a rifle or pump action shot gun.  Maybe it's because I suck at small arms.  I can't get a solid grip on a pistol because I have the hands of an Aye Aye:  all finger and no palm.

Aye Aye straining to see the target downrange.
Why I'm a better at typing than at marksmanship.

But, put me behind a scope and a nice bipod, and I laugh maniacally.

During my brief time with the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves (Infantry), I became well acquainted with the ins and outs of the C7 rifle and C9A1 light machine gun, with their cleaning and handling, their loading and unloading, their scope and sights, firing, all that neat stuff.  But if there was any small arms training, I seem to have missed out.

Not me.  And that's a C7A2.  But you get the idea.  Ah, the good old days.

So naturally, I had to put some kind of rifle and/or shotgun into the story.  But again, I had to satisfy time, place and character.

Bren Light Machine Gun, carried by a Canadian soldier in WWII.  I love you, Wikipedia.

I've handled a Bren Mark II (deactivated), thanks once again to Stuart Seki.  It comes with a harness as well, for easier carrying (I probably wouldn't carry it like the guy in this photo), but dang that thing is heavy.  I could probably fire it from the prone position (lying down), but this is not a weapon to be fired from the hip by anyone but a large, angry person.

Bren Mk 2 magazine-fed

Bren Mk 2 belt-fed, with aftermarket modification

Nico San Nicola, one of the supporting characters, is over six feet tall, weighing well over 250 pounds.  He could handle this weapon easily enough.  But the problem was, unlike the soldier in the above picture, Nico is missing his right hand and forearm.  So, between Stuart, his collector friend and I, we designed an imaginary modified three point harness.  Then Stuart and his friend each stood with the rifle in this modified position to see if it was feasible to manipulate the weapon single handedly or not.  And yes, it was feasible.  Awkward as all get out, but feasible.  Hooray for weapons technicians, re-enactors and first person research!

So heavy you need to breathe fire before you're able to lift it.

Also, checking out YouTube for "firing Bren gun" led me to a couple of clips where you can watch a demonstration of its action.

If you're going to do any research on weapons, I strongly recommend watching these types of videos, especially if you're not as lucky (or as comfortable) with learning their handling and action first hand.

Pay special attention to when they're being fired.  Watch body posture.  Watch arm flexion.  Watch how grown men have trouble firing and walking - and aiming - all at the same time.  Try not to watch anything that has professional actors in it.  Trust me on this:  you'll know you've done your research when you can't watch TV or films without flinging your popcorn at the screen.


Photos courtesy of

The Sten submachine gun.  I chose it because it was the weapon of choice for many resistance movements (i.e. the Belgian Secret Army), because it was used by Canadian troops, because of the robust nature of its configuration (compare the two pictures above - both are Sten guns, different variants), because of its cost efficiency for manufacture, and because the thing was...well...unpreditable.

Manufactured in Canada by women who didn't know if they should be proud of them or not.
Not only is this gun in period, but it was first used during the Dieppe Raid, arguably one of Canada's most famous (notorious) battles during WWII.

And it goes bang.  I recommend the video below not only because you get to see the weapon itself, but also because you get a glimpse into firing range protocol.  But I certainly didn't recommend it for that horrid music.

For loads of stories about the history, manufacture and use of this gun, check out this website.  For pictures of its variants (and usage in modern culture), check this one.


This is just a sampling of the weapons used in the series.  And this is only a glimpse of the research I've done on these weapons - the weapons listed here are only the ones that made the cut, not all the weapons I've researched.  And I've only scratched the surface, in terms of research I should be doing.

That doesn't mean I have to be an expert.  The only firearms I can identify on sight are Lugers, Sten guns, and maybe the CZ 75.  I don't have to be an expert for a lot of reasons:  1) photo archives, 2) enthusiast websites, 3) YouTube, 4) I know experts and/or where to find them.  Once the book is written, edited and put to bed, I can promptly forget all the details (and usually do), because I have notes to reference back to, if put on the spot.

However, I do need to be familiar with these weapons as I write and edit.  I need to know their calibre and ammunition, their range, their firing action and rate of fire, manufacture and availability, and best of all, their foibles and breakpoints.  (I take advantage of the foibles in both the first and second books, and probably will in future stories as well.)  I need to know how they're loaded, how they're handled, how they're stored, who else might have used them - everything.

I don't have to put all that information into the narrative, mind you.  Gracious - I've read some stories where people have actually laid out all the specifications of a weapon, instead of taking advantage of those specs.  Boring!  In fact, the fewer specifics I put into the story, the less likely I'll be called out by someone who knows better.  But I still need to know what I'm talking about. 

And I don't have to know the make and model of every gun in the show.  If there's somebody pointing a gun at me, I'm probably not going to gasp and say, "Why look!  It's a Browning M1911 semi-automatic pistol, .45 calibre, with post-manufacture modification to the front and rear sights, and with a standard 7-round box magazine!"  I'm more likely to say "Yikes!  He's pointing a gun at me!" and then run for cover.

In fact, if I can avoid it, I'll more likely avoid gun battles altogether, especially if one of the participants is a cop.  Every bullet needs to be accounted for, and that requires a lot of paper work (for the characters and for me).  Add to that the cost of the gun and ammunition, especially if you're as strapped for cash as Mummer is.

Besides that, I'm far more interested in a character who knows how to get out of a gun battle without looking like a coward.  After all, anybody can write a shoot out.  But how much more intriguing would it be to read or write about a guy who thinks his way out of trouble - when he has no tongue!

Final bit of advice:  always find a good, honest and strict gun range controller.  Always listen to your instructor - not only to their stories and instructions, but to the rules they lay out as well.  You'll have more fun shooting in safety than you would if there were a bunch of snorting goof-offs waving pistols up range and around the gallery.

But, for the love of good literature:  don't write about guns until you've done and confirmed your research.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Stuff I actually read

For a while last year, I'd stopped writing in my blog - not only because I had little to say, but because I thought it was unfair of me writing more and more material without taking the time to read other blogs.

That said, I'm going to take a moment to post a couple of blogs that I actually read on a regular basis.  That's not to exclude any blogs of any of my friends!  This is a list of blogs I've been reading for six months or better, and doesn't necessarily include those blogs I've started following.

Naturally, I have to mention two of my buds - Tobin Elliott over at Left to Write, and Michael Lorenson at...well...Michael Lorenson, both publishing through WordPress.  Tobin's usually got a laugh or two for us, though you never know when he's going to hit you with some naked and uncomfortable honesty.  And Michael - bless his heart - is trying to write a blog post a day as part of his New Years' Resolution.  So far so good!  And I know, because I've been salivating for the moment when I can pop him in Facebook and tease him for not writing that day.

There are a couple of other blurb-worthy blogs I follow, written by folks I've never met.

Now you have to understand, I'm a slow reader - I find it painful and frustrating.  So if I read something on a regular basis, it must be super interesting!

Graveyard Shift, by Lee Lofland (whose name I always read as "Lee Of Land").  According to his "About" page:

Lee Lofland is a veteran police investigator who began his law-enforcement career working as an officer in Virginia's prison system. He later became a sheriff's deputy, a patrol officer, and finally, he achieved the highly-prized gold shield of detective. Along the way, he gained a breadth of experience that's unusual to find in the career of a single officer. 

I love, love, love reading his stuff, because it helps me to separate out "real" from "TV".  This blog forces me to examine the assumptions I make in my own writing.  Plus, Lofland writes in quick, short bursts on a daily basis.  Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's bittersweet.  But I've never been disappointed.  On Friday, he pays hommage to those who have fallen in the line of duty that week, and sometimes, that's the grounding I need.  It brings a perspective I need:  it prevents me from glorifying gun battles and it prevents me from underestimating the courage of a police officer, or what they put on the line every day and night.

Annie Off Leash is another one I read on a regular basis, though she doesn't write as frequently as either Tobin or Mike.  She actually started following me before I started following her.  I don't know what it is about her style - except to say that when Annie Boreson writes a retrospective on her life, there's something indy-cinematic about her style, as if she writes using Super 8 film.  If there's one thing I really enjoy about her blog, it's that she doesn't write a lot about writing!  And that's something I need to learn to do.

I would be remiss if I didn't add the Crime Writers of Canada National Crime Writing Blog.  If you go there RIGHT NOW you'll find a funny blog post by Melodie Campbell, about firearms and their (mis)use in crime fiction.  If you don't get there in time, follow this link and you can read the same article at your leisure.  This is one of those blogs I should have been reading more often, but haven't been.  Must get back into the habit!

So, like I said, this is just a short sample of some of the blogs I've made a point of reading over the last six months.  This list should grow over the next couple of months, as I add more blogs to the list.

I like reading blogs that are about more than just writing, or being a writer.  Take Graveyard Shift, for an example:  Lee writes about what it's like to be a cop, and about, as a cop, how he reacts to things he sees in the movies or that he reads in crime stories.  I find blogs like this endlessly fascinating - not only because it helps me challenge and improve my own writing, but because it gets me out of my own head and into someone else's for a change.

Feel free to leave your recommendations below!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Paper Days

It's funny - I think about this a lot, but it never occurred to me until recently to write about it.

I don't remember a lot about my youth.  I can't even blame Alzheimers.  I just don't remember a lot of what happened.  Maybe my childhood was so boring I've blanked it from my mind, I don't know.

But there are a few moments I remember.  Some of them good.  Not all of them.  But most of them have something to do with writing.

I still remember what these smell like.
When we lived in Peterborough (age 5-7?), I remember writing and drawing on papers my mother used to get for free from the grocery store.  I must have been in kindergarten at the time.  She was trying to get me to stop writing on the walls.  Whenever she bought a roast, they would wrap the meat in paper, but she would always ask for four or five extra sheets, so that the outer layers would stay clean, and I could use them for drawing.  Come to think of it, I remember the smell of the paper too, and I think I began to associate creativity with hot, yummy beef.  And of home - specifically, my bedroom, where I could sit in peace and play by myself.  I had rainbow crayons then, too - and I thought those were the most awesome things, because I could draw rainbow-unicorns with a single stroke of the crayon!

I remember Christmas and birthday presents of lined notepaper - sometimes as much as four hundred pages in a pack!  My family wasn't giving me cheap presents; they were giving me room to dream.

Back in Oshawa (ages 7-9 or 10), I wrote my first "full length" story.  It was thirty-seven pages long.  I even illustrated it myself!

And because they knew I was a writer, the teachers of my school let me go to the assembly for Grade Fives and Sixes (even though I was only Grade Three at the time).  They thought I would be interested in it, even though it was a bit old for me.

"Interested"?!  It was Gordon Fricking Korman! 

Twenty-eight years later, I still remember listening cross-legged on the cold gymnasium floor listening to him tell us how his editor used to call him up and say "You have to cut this part out," and how Korman would always reply "But that's the best part!", and how, at the end of the conversation, all the parts were the best parts.
I don't think I closed my mouth once the whole time. 

(For the record, his books were the rare few I actually read.)  By my rough math, he couldn't have been anymore than 20 years old at the time, but to me, he was something ancient and untouchable that had fallen out of heaven.  

And it wasn't until today that I found out he'd grown up in Montreal!

Then we moved away (again).  That's one thing I remember about my childhood.  All the times we moved.  After awhile, I stopped crying about losing my friends and just focused on making new ones when I got to wherever we landed next.  More often than not, I would leave with a story half-written, and finish writing it once we were moved in.  It helped to give me a measure of continuity.  Finishing a story and moving in the same month gave me too clean and too jarring of a break between "past" and "future."

I hate to mention this out loud (sorry, Mother), but I hated growing up in Kincardine, Ontario (aged 10-12, I think).  I had only one or two friends, and they didn't like to play a lot.  Most of my school friends lived out in the countryside, and we didn't have a car.  And since we lived in a housing project on the edge of farmland, there wasn't a whole lot to do, especially without friends.  I used to roll balls of wool, and play Monopoly by myself, to ease the boredom.  If I had liked to read, it would have been a fantastic childhood, I think.

But when I had blank paper...

I clearly recall sitting on the floor at the base of the steps between the front hall and the sunken living room, with an open three-ring binder resting three steps up.  I loved, loved, loved odd-numbered pages, because I could write on them without having to contend with the rings under my wrist.  I wrote about superheroes and unicorns and aliens, and once I even wrote about how a scary Communist could co-operate with a French-speaking spy to save lives.  (This was before the Wall fell, boy am I old, and I always find it weird that twenty-five years later I'm building on ideas I had so long ago.)  Spring, summer, fall, winter, it did not matter.  I could sit there all afternoon, listening to the radio while my mother crocheted, and I could write until my hands fell off.

Metal finger traps.
Around those same years, my mother bought a manual typewriter - I think she bought it at an auction over at the Complex...Anyhow, she brought it home, along with some Teach Yourself to Type book.  Then she presented it to me - after having blanked out all the keys with electric tape.  She wanted me to learn how to touch-type.

And that, ladies and gentleman, was the start of my most exciting summer vacation ever.  No.  Honest.  It was the '80s equivalent of an eleven-year-old sitting down to program utility software in C++, because there is literally nothing better to do...

I didn't do a lot of keying exercises on the old typewriter (aaa...asa...asdsa...asdfdsa...sss...sds...GAH - MAKE IT STOP!), but it did seem to give me an unfair advantage when I took typing in high school. (And electric typewriters were sooooo much easier on my pinkie fingers than that manual ever was.)

But then I got to meet another awesomely famous supercool author, whose name now eludes me.  She did a workshop on pop-up books.  She taught us everything we needed to know about how to make the mouths of monsters chomp when you folded and opened the book.  She taught us how to animate exciting chase scenes by having cardboard cutouts slide back and forth on strips of poster board.  I created Denny the Dragon (with real shooting flames!  made out of real orange and red construction paper and everything!) and I created Mr. Doobie, the annoying ghost that lived in my mother's upstairs closet, totally not realizing I had named the phantom after some funny-smelling cigarettes.
And then I wrote my next "full length" story (mostly on the stairs going down into the living room).  It was almost a hundred pages long - and someone actually typed it up for me.  My teacher submitted it to a contest for me.  I didn't win anything except honourable mention - for being so prolific!  Some things never change.

Oregon Trail.  Boy, this brings back dull memories.
And as for computers, at that time they were only good for two things:  Logo Turtle - a programming language for kids - and Oregon Trail - some game about pilgrims crossing the prairies.  I was the only one of three kids in the school who passed the programming test for Turtle.  (*siiiiiigh*)

Then we moved back to Oshawa (age 12-19).  Unfortunately, I remember a great deal about being in Grade Eight, most of which I'll probably never write about.  But there are still some few pleasant memories that I recall.

Outside our excruciatingly tiny basement apartment on Myers Street, there was a pear tree.  After a massive spring storm, the tree broke at the base, but it continued living on the one side.  When life was at its worst, I used to hide under the boughs of the fallen pear tree and be utterly surrounded by leaves.  I couldn't see anything else; I couldn't see the house where I lived, I couldn't see the neighbourhood, I couldn't see the rusty cars parked on the side of the street.  I used the limbs of the trees to hold my construction paper and poster board and markers while I designed more pop-up books.

But during this time, I stopped writing about happy, bounding ghosts and their friends, and started writing about gunmen, muggers, and real dragons that swooped out of the sky and consumed my enemies with liquid fire.

Despite all that, though, I still recall reclining in the arms of the fallen but flowering pear tree, writing.  My shelter.  My secret hiding place.  My all-natural office.

In high school, we moved into the basement of my aunt and uncle's house.  Writing was still my escape, though year after year, I was also determined to get something published.  And our household technology did, in some ways, help out with that.  First, we upgraded to a daisy-wheel electric typewriter (and BOY, was that thing loud).  Then we got a one-line word processor.  I could write away, then hit a print key and a bazillion letters would appear on the line before coming to a screeching halt.  I still preferred hand-writing most of my stories while lying on my stomach on my bed, feet up and crossed at the ankles over my backside, while listening to the Best of Louis Armstrong.  Oh, the stories I wrote then - stories about shape-changers, aliens, mutants...the Fog of Dockside City, Hawkeshaw...Packs of lined paper were reserved for school now; no, my new best friends were folders with stylized dragons and wolves on them, and later, anonymous (non-geeky) spiral bound notebooks.  Every blank notebook was an unexplored universe.

Anybody else remember the high-pitched whistle?
Then came the computers.

I fondly recall a trek through the galaxy on a multi-species cargo ship called Pilgrim's Ark.  I wrote on our first computer, an XT.  I had to launch Microsoft WordPerfect by a DOS command!  I even remember having to use the F-keys to highlight text and change it to italics.  I used to change the screen colours so that the background was black, the letters were white, italics were highlighted in a disgusting purple shade, bold in green...Filenames that could only be 8 characters long and contain no spaces...Man, those were the days...

I used to write fan fiction, too, all the time.  And when I say "millions of words" of fan fiction, you can believe me.  Boy, this is embarrassing but...*kaf*...I had a thing for The Flash, The Rocketeer, and the Shadow.  (GEEEEEEEEK...)

In our day, we used to call Wikipedia "Books!"
I used to have to save each chapter in a different file; and after awhile the stories got to be so long I'd have to put one book on two 5 1/2 floppy disks!  Then along came the amazing 3 1/4 disks, and I could put more stories on a single disk!  I lost count of all the disks I had.  New, bigger computers meant longer, more vivid stories.  I was connected to technology for hours on end while my mother sat on the couch beside me, watching the TV; I had enormous headphones plugged into the cassette player / turntable on my left, disk in the drive, keyboard smoking, and an orange-curtained basement window above me on the right.  That was before we moved the computer into my room, in time for me to co-found the high school newspaper.

I wasn't writing exclusively at home - at least, not in the mornings.  I came into the high school computer room about an hour before first class, and with such regularity that once, our high school science teacher posted a sign on the computer room door saying, "Patti, you're late!"  It was 8:15.  School started at nine.

And because I was in there so often, I was the school's IT group.  Gosh, I don't know how many times I had to clear a printer conflict on the network...and no matter how often I wrote out a manual, people still found ways of breaking the laser printer.

I didn't mind.  I got paid in free access to ink and paper.  I think I still have some of the dot-matrix manuscripts kicking about.  Lord knows - as do some of my unwitting moving partners - I've carried them around long enough from one place to the next.

I even took on my first "writing contract" for a friend of mine.  Young Mr. Jim Zubkavich asked me to type out a story he and his friends had put together - a kind of D&D tale.  I had a BLAST...even though I didn't understand a quarter of the inside jokes.  Now that guy is like some kind of world-famous comic book creator guy or something, and I design databases for a living.  (Recently, he gave me the first season of Skullkickers for free, and they're really, really good, so when I say there's no jealousy here, I mean it.)  (Okay, maybe just a little bit of jealousy, but the pride I have for my old classmate is, like, a bajillion times stronger.)

In university, not much changed.  I didn't write much that wasn't "for the sake of publication", though I did another crack at Hawkeshaw and nearly landed an agent.  But writing was my escape, especially during first and second year university.  It was my sanity.  Nothing gets rid of anxiety, stress and near-homicidal frustration like shooting up vampires, werewolves and zombies, or like making their heads explode using psychic powers.  And nothing gets the brain firing like a 9:00 a.m. deadline on an essay I don't want to write. 

Loved it so much I destroyed two of them!

But in the second and third year of university, I was working full-time (and part-time with the Canadian Army Reserves), working mostly evening and midnight shifts.  Uneventful swing shifts, plus my first Journada (the precursor to a netbook), was like splashing gasoline on an open flame.  I filled floppy disks at an extraordinary rate - while still maintaining a geekly-high GPA (because I had literally nothing better to do...).  During those years, I discovered I could write radio plays.  Since I wasn't sleeping for weeks on end, this seemed like a perfectly sensible thing to do.

Not mine.  But almost as bad as mine.
Then, university done, and literally nothing better to do, I took a course at Durham College:  a certain creative writing course as taught by Tobin Elliott.  I'd been working away on a brand new laptop - a real, live, battery-sucking laptop.  I wanted Tobin to check something on my computer, and the first thing he saw was that there was no paint left on most of the keys.  Sweaty fingers had done to my laptop what my mother had done to the keys of that first manual typewriter.  On my laptop, the space bar wasn't just polished from use - it was dented.

So there you have it.  In all the craziness that was my youth, all the moves, the new schools, the friends gained and lost, there has been one constant

I leave you with one final memory.  I've probably written it before, but it's important to say it again.

During high school, I came out here to Montreal, staying only a few blocks away from where I live now.  I was hired by a family to work as a live-in babysitter for one full-month. It was the most formative adventure of my life and of my career.  Much of who I am today is because of that month.

I wrote constantly in my free hours.  I wrote in my journal.  I wrote Scarlet Unseen - a story about a girl who could turn herself invisible and walk through walls.  I wrote stories for the kids I was looking after.  And one afternoon, I took the kids (all five of them) to the park, and while I watched them from a park bench, I gabbed in my journal about the unfairness of life.

An older gentleman came and sat beside me.  He had sad, rheumy, turtle-eyes, a stooped walk and a bittersweet but wincing smile.  His clothes were too big for him.  He told me a story about a friend of his, who was slowly dying and in constant pain.  "I asked him," he said, "'how do you survive all this pain?'  The answer was, 'I write.'"  Then he smiled at me, bid me good day, and limped away.

Publication is not the point.  Making sense of the world while escaping from it - that's why I write.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Once more from the top! With feeling!

By day, I design databases.  I design a lot of databases.  And boy is it so much more fun than writing thrillers and mysteries!  (I can't complain.  Because of database designing, I can write in warmth and comfort, with a full stomach and a pot of coffee.) 

Each brainchild is larger and more complex than the last; with use, updates, add-ons and fixes, they become even larger and more complicated.  Sometimes, they outgrow their own stability and go kaput.

When that happens, there are two things I can do:  find the problem(s) and fix the database, or I can rebuild the whole danged thing.

The first time I rebuilt a database, I did it out of sheer frustration.  I was tired of making countless little changes, running tests and still finding it was wrong.  So I said, "Screw it!" and I gutted the database.  When I rebuilt it, it was four times faster and only took up a quarter of the space.  It was so efficient, I thought I'd done something wrong!  But no, all the data was there, it ran correctly, and better still, it was a little more robust in its operation - at four times the speed and one quarter the size.

So these days, I make a habit of rebuilding all my databases from the ground up.  If I do this every half year or so, it streamlines its performance, it allows me to check my methodology and verify my calculations, and hot diggity does it go faster afterward.  Sometimes I need to make minor changes between overhauls, but that's okay.  If they're important changes, they'll survive the next rebuild.  If they're temporary or unnecessary, they'll slough off during the next rebuild.

It's a big investment of time, and it hurts every time I do it - but each time I do, I learn something new.  I learn a new way of compressing four or five queries into one, or some sneaky way of eliminating unnecessary data that's been choking performance.

But the important thing is, I rebuild from memory.  Why?  Because memory is flawed.

Memory is finite. Your memory purges itself of stuff you don't need, and you retain only what is most salient (most important, most unusual, most often used).

I can remember what the output is supposed to look like; so in rebuilding the query to get the output I need, I have to refine the query knowing what I know now.  The rebuild automatically incorporates new knowledge and new skills.

I can't remember all the ad hoc queries I've designed in response to one-off requests here and there, so they don't get built in.  And since I don't need them, I don't need to port-over the old data associated with those requests either.

Unfortunately, I can't always remember all the output fields required, nor the best way to format date fields based on weeks and months, nor the best report layouts.  So, what I do need, I can go back and copy/paste over to the new database.  Everything else gets archived and buried.

In the end:  the utility is neat, tidy, faster, up-to-date - and, my database design skills are kept sharp.  Something I discover in the rebuild of this database could be the key to repairing that database over there.

So what, you may ask, has this got to do with writing?


Take your manuscript, for example - that lump of musty papers in the corner that has been driving you crazy for months and years.  It took you X-amount of time to write it, and it's been taking you 6 times that to edit it.  You go back to it now and then, fixing this scene, updating that grammar, toying with a character here or there, adding a paragraph or two of back story.  Maybe you've edited it from "One day" to "The End" five or six times over, saving each draft individually.  Still, it doesn't feel right, and you're tired of trying to figure out why.  You know the story is there, but you just can't get it out.

Now, you also have a couple of choices here.  You can continue on picking at scabs until you're covered in blood and styptic pencil marks, or you can rebuild it from memory.

This is exactly what I'm doing with Man with the Silver Tongue, the second in the John "Mummer" Stillman series. I'm scrapping all the work I've done up to now (all three drafts), and I'm rewriting it from word one.

You see, I've already written the first draft for eight manuscripts in this series.  I could theoretically just edit them and send them off.  But since writing those drafts, I've also written Her Poison Voice, the novelization of twelve radio plays, the entire Helix series, Lady Butcher and the Accidental Saint and a spattering of short stories.  After well over a million words written in the last four years, I should say I've learned a few new skills; between writing, editing, reading and receiving feedback, my writing is a quantum leap ahead of where it was in 2007.  I have infinite room for improvement, but I'm not the writer I used to be. 

I've also gone back and overhauled Mummer's the Word, which has affected every character in the series.  That means, if I edit, I'll have to change every line of dialogue, every motivation, every action and reaction.  In short, if it has letters or numbers, it needs to be reworked.  But if I don't do something drastic, The Man with the Silver Tongue will fall far behind its predecessor, and I run the risk of being a bit of a one-hit-wonder.

Now, I can go back to the original draft of the Man with the Silver Tongue, print it off, make a gazillion red doodles, then go transfer the changes to the soft copy - or, I can save the environment (and my sanity), and I can rewrite the danged thing, knowing what I know now.

There is a disadvantage, of course - time being the primary problem.  Once this net-new draft is done, I'll have to go back and do two or three more rounds of revisions for continuity, grammar and clarity.  Then there's the heartsick groaning at having "wasted" all the time I spent on the book up to now.

But there's an advantage too.

In the process of rewriting Man with the Silver Tongue, I've been forced to remember all the salient points (the essential story, what makes this story unique from the rest of the series, what holds it together as a unit).  Because I've already done this story before, I know where I'm going with it.  I already know how the story is going to end, which means I already know how it's going to build toward its climax.  Tobin Elliott would probably call these Key Scenes.

As I review what I remember of the essential story, I can test the very core of the plot for flaws.  And what's funny about this step is that I'll often "remember" exactly how the plot resolves - even though that's not how I wrote it originally.  In fact, the original story may not have made sense to begin with!  Memory is flawed, not only because it's finite, but because it's subject to change - and the writer can use this to his or her advantage.

Also, knowing what I know now about the personality of my main characters, I've had to make subtle changes to the plot between Key Scenes. This gives me the opportunity I need to drop in sparks, tension and chemistry, which I use to build those transitions and add depth and realism to the plot.

On top of that, having written eight books with these characters, I have a much better idea of where I want to go with the whole series.  And yes, I do know how the series ends.  What I don't know is how many books it'll take me to get there (or rather, how many books publishers and readers will let me get away with in this series).  With that in mind, I can set Silver Tongue in line with the series arc.  I'd been writing in the dark the first time around.

Once I have in my mind for this book the Key Scenes and the transitions between them, I can see a general shape of the whole story; i.e. 1/4 of the manuscript takes me from this scene to that plot twist, the next 1/4 needs to be about how he begins to investigate "this", then right at the midway point "that" needs to happen, and "this" needs to happen immediately before the midway point, which means I have to explain how he knows "that" at around the 1/6th mark, etc. etc.  Believe it or not, I do all that in my head, and rarely on paper.  If I forget something, I probably didn't need it; if it was important, I'll remember it as I write, and I can always go back to drop in those few lines I'd missed.  (Ah, modern technology - ain't she grand?)

All of this allows me to keep the manuscript nice and lean.  I don't fall into the trap of adding gratuitous back story or action for the sake of shaking up the boring scenes.  If you keep only the good stuff, there are no boring scenes.  I also know what to leave out of the story, before I write it (or what to take out as soon as I realize it's derailing me from the character's true personality or the real plot).

 Once the Silver Tongue plot was refined in my head, I realized I had to dump a dozen superfluous characters.  I would have spent hours surgically removing them from every scene and snippet of dialogue, had I edited the story.  Now, I don't have to reassign actions or re-attribute speech.  Those characters, actions and speech bubbles are simply gone.  But had I gone back to the original draft, I would have fallen in love with those characters all over again, and I would have bled every time I put red pen to paper.  It's easier to cut out what you can't remember.

And because I'm rewriting it from the top, I'm putting into practice what I've learned since writing the original draft: how to animate of action and dialogue in the mind of the reader, how to add conflicting character motivations, how to modify sentence structure to improve pacing, how to add keynotes instead of catchphrases to help distinguish one character from another in dialogue, and how to slice out unnecessary characters before they bog down the plot.

Finally, because I'm re-writing, I'm actually flexing my creative muscles, and not just the self-critical ones.  Every time I write a new story, I improve the way I edit; likewise, the more I rewrite stories I already know, the better I get at writing fresh material in the first draft.

So is this the solution to your cranky manuscript in the corner?  It might not be.  After all, I've written five distinct and complete versions of Hawkeshaw/Her Poison Voice, each with different characters, settings and plots.  I still haven't captured the story I want to tell.  I may end up doing a sixth incarnation.  But, bad as they might be, not one of those drafts has ever been a waste of time.  Even when I'm writing badly, I can learn something new.
But think about it:  if it took you 1000 hours to write, and it's taking you 10,000 hours to edit, you could have rewritten it by now. 

If it's "sooooo close" to what you want, do not rewrite it.  Add the subtle brushstrokes required to bring out the light, and muscle out any errors.

And beware of gritty reboots.  Yes, it worked for Batman Begins.  But look what Van Helsing did to all the classic Universal monsters!  In going for the funny/gritty/action-adventure blockbuster, Universal went over the top, and destroyed the essential characters (click here and watch between 4:02 and 5:08, and you'll see what I mean). And, it made me cry for three months straight. Your rewrite should hang off the essential story and characters, and not on a desire for "more action!" and "more drama!" and "more special effects!"

If I don't know what I wrote or what the story was about, I don't rebuild it.  I only rebuild what has kept my imagination, despite those 10,000 hours of editing.  If I can't remember how the story goes, it gets archived, buried and left behind.  Sometimes the best thing you can do is sigh, turn your back, and try something new.