Tag Archives: Opinion

We miss you already, Jon!

I’ve watched The Daily Show with Jon Stewart since 2003. In 2o10, my wife and I were two of 200,000 standing in the Washington Mall for the Rally To Restore Sanity (And/Or Fear). It was The Daily Show’s Indecision 2008 coverage where we heard about President Obama’s election, and indeed has been the way we’ve gotten through much of the malarchy of every election cycle. We’re going to miss him for 2016, which promises to be an even crazier year than 2012 on both sides.

I don’t always agree with Jon Stewart. Some of his pieces on religion made me cringe. I’ve never been a huge fan of him referring to Fox News as B——- Mountain, even when they might have deserved it. And even as the most trusted name in fake news I learned to take some commentaries with a grain of salt. For starters, I have on occasion actually enjoyed something I ordered from Arbys.

But I know I’m going to miss him. And I’m kind of wishing that John Oliver would break his contract with HBO and come back over (even though he’s doing some fabulous work over there). I’m not really keen on any of the current correspondants taking over the center chair. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jessica Williams and Jordan Kleper is hilarious, but I don’t think anyone has quite the same ability to be funny and thoughtful as quickly and interchangeably as Stewart.

You know what I do think would be a crazy, left field, awesome move for The Daily Show to take? Bassim Yousef.

Yousef hosted an Egyptian version of The Daily Show, poking fun of dictators, generals and the state in an arena that was frankly more fraught with peril than it ever has been in America. And he was funny. Just watch last Monday’s episode of The Daily Show to see how funny. His show was torn off the air in Egypt and he spent some time under varying degrees of custody. Frankly I was happy to see him alive and well and on TV. But seriously, here’s what we’d get:

  • A lot of the same charm, charisma and timing of Stewart.
  • An international view, something that Oliver and other correspondants have already proven can be beneficial.
  • Something different, but proven and in line with what we expect and want The Daily Show to be.

This is not me saying that there wouldn’t be other great choices. But this is a choice that I feel gives the best of both worlds, the need for the show to be different and not a copy of its tenure under Stewart, but a way to be the same and still satisfy the audience.

As you can tell I’ve been thinking a little about this.

Ultimately I’m glad that someone will be sitting in the chair, though if Jon suddenly changed his mind and wanted 10 more years that’d be okay too. The show has been a way to become engaged with the news and political life that isn’t oppresive and depressing. It’s been a way to find out about interesting books and movies (some for gifts). And it’s just been a great landing spot to process the events of the day.

Hopefully, next year, it still will be.

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Be a professional self-publisher

I am mortified that I have ever let people read my first drafts. I have subjected this horror on my friends, my parents and even my wife.

Nobody wants to read the raw thoughts that come out of my brain. Nobody should have to sift through over 200,000 words that really should have been 120,000 (or maybe even 80,000). Nobody should be thrown down all the blind alleys, long dragging passages, spelling errors, grammar errors and just crappy phraseology of initial prose.

This is why you need an editor.

In a recent intelligence squared debate on Amazon and self-publishing, two statements by the debaters struck me:

  • Self-published authors write more than one book a year, often churning them out.
  • Writers don’t think they need editors.

My wife will tell you the second one at least seems true a lot of the time. Working on the same novel for more than seven years tends to beat a little of that stubbornness out of you, however. As a treat (or a joke, or a punishment) I’m planning to read the first draft of Surreality after I publish the final just to see what’s changed. Already I can tell you whatever thin notion I had that editing wasn’t necessary should fly away after that.

I understand the desire to churn out books. It can seem like the best way to get your name out there. And truthfully some of the most successful books haven’t been that well written or edited, but so are the vast majority of obscure, never-read books. And everyone seems to want to write series, or trilogies, to the point that some self-published authors break what probably was a mid to longer length book into smaller chunks.

But I don’t think anyone wants to write a bad book. Believe me, I understand what it is like to have a dozen book ideas in your head and the worry that you’ll never have time to get them all out. It’s a self feeding beast. The more you write, the more you want to write. And that is great and you totally should write as much as you possibly can, whenever you can.

But if you want people to read it, you need an editor and you need to cut stuff. Maybe 20% of your original draft will survive to the final, and it’s likely that won’t be the best 20%. The best ideas you’re going to have are going to be 5-10 revisions in.

You should not choose the self-publishing route because you want to skip the wait of traditional publishing. You should do it because it fits better with the kind of story you want to tell, or the price you want to sell your book, or because you’re an enterprising type. Maybe you can work with several books in the pipeline and produce finished books every three months, but for those books to be any good they need time to mature and to be refined.

Here are some more thoughts in no particular order:

  • Get an editor, not just a proof-reader. You can pay someone to fix your grammar, and spell check your book, but that isn’t really a lot better than Word’s built-in functions unless the person understands your work and what works and what doesn’t. Try to find someone you can have a conversation with to fix the text. You may still need a proofer at the end, but the prose needs more than just a quick correct.
  • Learn to draw big red ‘X’s through what’s not working. Make it something you want to do, something that gives you a little shot of dopamine every time you cross out a word, or a sentence or a paragraph that isn’t working. The spine of your story and your characters will still be there, just without the clutter. It’s really okay.
  • You can design your own cover if you want, but avoid the “self-published” cover look. This can have a lot to do with chosen fonts, size of title, and where the text is on the images (it’s subtle but detectable). Try looking at the covers of books published in your genre in the past couple of years and look for design elements you like.
  • Don’t let writing a bad book get you down too much. Rejection, whether it’s from a literary agent or from a reader, is pretty much part of the game no matter how good or bad you are. Take the advice that makes sense to you and apply it. Throw the rest out.
  • Keep writing. Publish when ready, not when done.
  • Do what feels right to you, but be willing to change it when new data arises. You should not be the same kind of writer you were five years ago, or will be five years from now.
  • Try getting something traditionally published, even if it’s just a short story. Understand the thing you are rejecting before writing it off forever. It’s cliche, but you never know until you try, no matter what anyone in the blogosphere might say.
  • Define what success looks like to you. (Hint: It will almost never be something like 1 million copies sold or fame and fortune). Up that goal a little with each book, but be happy when you meet goals.

What have you learned from self-publishing or reading self-published authors?

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Know Your Killer

So I’m nearing the end of the final draft of Surreality, critical clues are discovered, connections are made, and my killer is revealed. As I mentioned last week, this is a book I’ve been working on for seven years. There have been many significant revisions and complete rewrites. But from first draft to the draft I hope to finish in a few weeks, my killer has been the same.

It makes sense when crafting a mystery, or any good story for that matter, that you know how it ends. The trick is to send the reader down enough blind alleys that it keeps them guessing, but not so many that it feels random or that the solution is arbitrary. You have to earn your solution. In an ideal world your detective and your reader solve the case at the same moment.

I’ve thought about changing the killer many times. A function of creating many possible suspects is that they all are possible. Tweak a critical fact and you can take the story in a different direction. Surreality has gained and lost characters, scenes, clues all of which could have had a significant impact on the outcome.

But even though I could change it, I haven’t wanted to. No matter how many revisions this book goes through, the essentials of the ending, of what I want this book to be about, have remained the same.

What changes are the characters, not just who appears in and out of the book, but how they deal with the events of the book (and those prior to the book as well). I’ve changed the setting, which gives me an opportunity to share things about the city I love (and to learn them as well).

As a writer you have to be open to change, always working with the goal of making the draft better. But believe it or not, sometimes an idea you had at the beginning of writing the book is actually still working for you, even if the journey to it has changed. There are lots of different roads that take you to the same place.

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Flash Fiction Challenge “Excuse me. Sorry to bother you…”

What do you think? Do we have enough writers following this blog that we can have a little fun?

Prompt: Write a story in which two characters are having a conversation in a public place, and a stranger cuts in. Or conversely, write a story in which your character cuts in on a conversation between two strangers.

I’m from Ohio. We’re a friendly but uptight bunch. If I’m having a conversation with a friend in a public place, it seems a little weird, awkward and even rude when a stranger cuts in. Some might see this as an opportunity to make new friends, but generally I want this person to mind their own business.

But I do find myself tempted to listen in, and sometimes respond myself, particularly when it’s a subject matter with which I am familiar (i.e. “Babylon 5 is a really good show”). 99% of the time I refrain, and the other 1% I feel just as awkward as when someone cuts in on me.

Other cultures, or even other areas of the country, might have a different view on this. It might be perfectly okay to walk up to you browsing in a store and strike up a conversation. If you and a friend are talking about something interesting, others may want to drop in their two cents. And what about Facebook, or the blogosphere? Anybody can comment on anything and this behavior is encouraged, even celebrated. Is Facebook the new public place where if a few of your friends are talking about something, it’s okay for anyone to interject?

Just a few thoughts to get you going. If you send links to your stories to bentrubewriter@gmail.com or post them in the comments, I’ll reblog my favorite next week.

In the meantime, what’s the social convention where you live? Is it okay? Massively rude? Spoiling for a fight?

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&$*#! Swearing in Stories

Out in the real world, a lot of us swear.

Maybe it’s only in the context of our cars, or whenever our computer acts up. Maybe it’s a way we put emphasis on particularly stirring thoughts. We bleep those words when we say them on TV or on the radio, but I’d be surprised if we didn’t encounter those words daily, either coming from our own mouths or somebody else’s.

But should our character’s swear?

I could give you the whole writer’s spiel on how no words are inherently bad, only the connotation we assign to them. I could say that some people consider swearing in writing to be lazy, whereas others think it is a more natural portrayal of the world we actually live in.

Here’s my take for whatever it’s worth.

I think some words are charged with meaning, maybe not for everybody, but definitely for some. I think if you swear on the first page of your story, you’re likely to swear on most of the other pages, and readers pick up on this. I think some words that are not technically swears but feel that way can also make other people uncomfortable (like feminine hygiene products or the bag they came in).

I’m not say swearing is lazy writing, but I think you should be using it for more of a reason than just “this is how people really talk”. I tend to think sparingly is better than as punctuation, the latter removing a lot of the meaning and power from the word, whereas the former really grabs the reader’s attention at a critical moment. If it makes sense for your particular character, and you are making that choice deliberately, fine. But maybe only have that be one character in your story and not all of them.

As a writer you want to appeal to the widest possible audience, or at least be aware of what affect the choices you make will have on the size of your potential audience. I’m not advocating for anemic writing, something bloodless that offends no one. But you need to be making the choices of who you offend and who you build up deliberately, and not just out of hand.

But what the f— do I know? What do you guys think?

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Writing with distractions

I can only write one book at a time.

I’ve tried working simultaneously but inevitably I have to put one project down to pick another one up.

This can be a bit of a problem for a guy who has at least five books stuck in his head.

I’ve tried working on two different subjects at the same time. When I started Fractals: A Programmer’s Approach I was also working on revising DM. One involved a lot of research and writing programs, and the other involved revising storylines, clarifying characters and trimming a lot of fat.

But I only have so much RAM and inevitably work on one (or both) suffers.

For me writing a novel requires a knowledge of the material that is almost sub-conscious. Not to be cliché, but you have to be living and breathing it. Apparently I can only live one life at a time.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t dream.

Even as I’m nearing the halfway point on Surreality I’m already thinking about its sequel. At the moment I’m thinking about good locations around Columbus. I’m not going into much detail yet, but I’ll give you a hint: I need at least three of them.

Why does our mind cast about instead of staying focused?

Part of it I think is to keep ourselves fresh. Working on a novel, especially to the obsessive level necessary to keep everything straight, is tiring work. And it’s slow. At 800 words a day I should have Surreality finished in another two months, only to give it promptly to my Dad who could probably read it in the course of a few afternoons. Sometimes it’s nice to play everything out, to live in another world for a while.

And books nag at you.

DM in particular pops into my head from time to time. I spent a year writing it, and it’s been two since I’ve really worked on it. Atlantia wants me to pick up where I left off so I can get to its sequel (and the book after that). And new ideas pop up unannounced: What about a detective story in Youngstown, OH? What about a prequel to DM?

It’s tempting to let these books goad me into working on them, but that only keeps me from doing the real work necessary to get them read by anyone aside from a few alpha and beta readers. (BTW I should probably not have any more alpha [rough draft] readers. Rough drafts are more embarrassing than you’d think).

I can’t decide if I want to be the sort of author who always has this problem, or the kind who actually gets to finish everything he started. I have a feeling it won’t really be a choice I make either way, either ideas will stop working or I will (so to speak).

Outlines might be a solution for some of you to this problem, though I’m the sort who hates intermediate steps. I try to work everything out in my head, so that when I write I can just write. But it leaves very little in the way of notes or other materials for other authors to pick up on, or even myself to remember where my head was. Books really are living things that live in the particular moment I choose to write them.

How do you deal with distractions?

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Generation Gap

I’ve started reading a book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…And Rethinking Faith. My Dad and I are going to do a little blog back and forth on the topic in a few weeks, specifically we’ll be talkin’ ’bout my g-g-generation.

Or not.

This book is concerned with what is commonly known as “the millennials”, mostly people 18-29 (I’m 28). The book refers to this generation as the “mosaics” (1984-2004), a name which is meant to capture the wide variance in viewpoints and experience.

But I’ve never really felt like a millennial, and not just because I’m on the edge of the boundary. I’m not a gen X’er, but I feel I have more in common with people 10 years older than me than 10 years younger. Maybe a little bit of that is my current age and demographic, married guy/engineer/homeowner, but if I think about it I felt the same way even before I was any of those things.

I think there’s a split somewhere around 1997-98 or what I’ve called the “floppy” line*. The split has little to do with the floppy disk itself and more to do with the ubiquity of the internet and the always connected society. Take this quote from a recent popular post by a millennial:

“We live in a country in which you don’t exist until you’re online.” ~Source: Be Like Aslan

I work in the tech industry, in a business that supports the cloud, and that sentiment makes me shudder. I fully appreciate the fact that 99% of you would never have heard of me until I started this blog, and certainly my current vocation and avocation rely on the on-line world. But I was doing plenty of existing before sitting in front of a keyboard, or a phone or a tablet. So much of my life and my destiny were shaped by interpersonal connections in the real world (I met my wife in Bible study).

I am not a “netizen” by birthright, but children born in 1997-1998 were.

I’m not making an entitlement comment. It is the goal of parents to give their children a better world than the one in which they lived, and technological advances have always been a part of that. I just feel like I’m part of a generation that has grown up with technology, but has not been shaped by it in the same way as those 10-15 years our juniors. For me, technology is external, a tool for doing the things I want to do. It’s not a part of my life, or at least not a part of my perception of reality.

I’m living with technology, not through it.

What do you guys think? Is millennials or mosaics too broad of a catch-all term? Where would you draw the split?

*Technically I used floppy disks for classwork up until 2003 but they had been on the way out for years.

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