Tag Archives: Writing

Try as you go

I’m working on an expansion of Fractals You Can Draw transforming it from a pamphlet I wrote in the space of a week to something that could be used in a 6-9th grade math class. I want the book to serve not only as an introduction to fractals, but as a gateway to other interesting areas of math, and even world culture.

But at the core, the book still needs to be fun to draw.

I’m heavy in the research phase of this book and for the last few weeks I’ve been studying a traditional form of drawing native to Southern India (in the Tamil Nadu region) called Kolams.

KolamAttempts

Kolams have a lot to teach the casual math enthusiast or the serious math student about fractals, symmetry, context-free grammars, hexadecimal encoding and countless other subjects. They also can be kind of tricky to draw as you can see from my increasing lack of skill from top to bottom. All of these are theoretically able to be drawn free-hand as one long continuous line, but it takes practice.

I keep free-hand notes in part to test the difficulty level of what I’m expecting people to draw. Even in the original series I drew a couple of the images, and the little red-haired girl handled the other two, which gave us both a sense of how long it took to draw each image and some of the difficulties involved. I’d known how to draw all of the fractals in that series of posts for years, but it took actually trying to draw them by hand before I really knew how they worked.

What I’ve learned from drawing Kolams is that it takes a lighter, freer touch than is my natural inclination. And maybe gel-pens that smear easily aren’t the way to go either. You can make some pretty images very quickly, but you need to get a sense of the flow as you draw, or you can easily go off track (as I did multiple times on the bottom image).

More generally it is important for the writer to be able to take a step back and engage with whatever they’re writing as a their final target audience. Especially when you’re down the rabbit hole of research, it can be easy to lose a sense for how easy or difficult a particular subject is, and you need to take the occasional application step back. This is good not only for assessing the level of difficulty, but also in solidifying the theory behind what you’ve been studying. There were properties of how Kolams were drawn that didn’t gel in my head until I’d tried to draw a few.

You are your first beta reader. It’s still important to get outside perspectives, but trying things yourself helps you discern what should actually be included in the first place, and what should be left out. Engage with your work in different ways: read it aloud, read it out of order, try to actually follow your how-to directions without any outside info, color in your coloring book, etc. Whatever your genre, there’s more than one way to look at your book, and there’s value in gaining that new perspective.


You can read the original Fractals You Can Draw series here or check out my other book from Green Frog Publishing, Adult Coloring Book: Fractals (adultcoloringbookfractals.com) with cover art by the little red-haired girl.

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It’s Turtles All The Way Down

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Have you ever had only 20 minutes to write a blog post, and you realize you have nothing really to say that particular day, but it’s been a couple of days since you’ve said anything so you just write whatever comes to you? It’s important to check in every once in a while and let people know you’re still out there and to give a gentle reminder and plug for the various books you may have written, even some of the older ones people might have forgotten about but that are totally still worth buying. You can’t tackle anything too ambitious, with a lot of pictures or thought. We’ve all got a couple of blog posts floating around in our heads that we’d love to do if we ever sat down and had an 1.5 hours to format them and make a really good argument, but today isn’t going to be that day.

Then, just when you’ve started writing your twenty minute post, you realize that what you really want to write about is the thought process behind writing a twenty minute post. Maybe you want to get people to try to relate to who you are as a writer at that particular moment, or to offer some tip for people dealing with this situation. Sure it feels a bit meta to be blogging about blogging, but that’s only a couple of layers removed and you might really have something valuable to offer. We all have to figure out how to create quality content on a deadline, and being in the middle of an actual crisis may give you a special insight into how to help others get out of it.

Thinking about how to deal with writing a twenty minute post gets you to thinking about the best ways to give writing advice. Should you only be talking about the things you’re dealing with at a particular moment or should you write more reflective posts on the tips you’ve discovered after years of learning? Writing about what you’re dealing with at the moment can be a good way to choose topics, but it might not be the best way to offer any real insight. After all, you might just be guessing how to get yourself out of a situation without any real idea if that solution would even work. Perhaps you should write a blog post about the best ways and times to give writing advice. So we’re writing a blog post about writing an advice blog post on how to write a blog post in twenty minutes while trying to write the post in twenty minutes.

But we can go one layer deeper. We haven’t even begun to deal with the existential question of why writers write, and what’s the difference between a writer and an author. Are bloggers writers in the same sense as people who write books? If the majority of the writing you actually do is just nonsense falling out of your head without being applied to your current work, can you call yourself a writer? Sure words are magically appearing in front of you as you play the keyboard like a piano, or a well … keyboard, and that might be writing. But is it good?

Oh, I almost forgot. We could wonder if writing about how to give advice to writers is actually art, and whether such writing is considered professional or amateur. It could all be a meta-meta exercise designed to kill time and give the illusion of creating something interesting, when in fact we’ve been up our own butt for some time now.

Ooops … time’s up!

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What writers want from readers

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Writers shouldn’t work for free.

There’s been a bit of an internet brouhaha over a request made by one particular reader:*

“[To author] I wanted to tell you that your books are above par and you should be proud. I was able to read them all, but sadly I returned them all because they range from $0.99 to $2.99 and that is just too much for me to spend on a ebook. Can you please make all your books in the future free so I do not have to return it?”

This post is not intended to add to the shaming of this person, which as I understand it has been quite substantial.

As a self-published author, you have to wear both the customer and the business hat. So let’s break this down from both sides.

As a reader I like to read a lot of interesting books and I like to get a return on my media investment. I will often seek out the minimum possible price I can pay for a book, or I might even borrow it from the library. I joined NetGalley in part to get access to some stuff that I might not have checked out otherwise, which has led me to some of my favorite authors. I always shop used bookstores, and the idea that $9.99 is somehow cheap for a book is ludicrous to me.

And even $0.99 can be a barrier to entry. A lot of people focus on the money part of the original post. $0.99  – $2.99 is not that much money, so what’s the matter with this person? But $0.99 might be a lot to some individuals, and I certainly can’t buy every $0.99 book I see.

And you know what I do when $0.99 seems like too much to buy a book? I don’t buy it. I don’t return it after buying it and reading the whole thing. I don’t buy it at all. That’s how this works as a reader. The writer charges whatever they want, and then I as the reader figure out if I think it’s worth it. Since Amazon let’s me sample the first 5% of the book for free, I usually have all the information I need to make that decision. That’s what this reader did wrong. They bought the book, enjoyed the book, and felt they should be able to keep it without spending any money. And they expected the writer to continue to provide free entertainment.

As a writer my #1 priority is getting you to read my book. I work just as hard to get my book into libraries as I do to get them in bookstores. Fractals: A Programmer’s Approach can be borrowed from Kindle Unlimited (for which I do get slightly compensated), and it can be borrowed from my local library in digital form. I recently put Surreality in a digital lending system called SelfE designed to get it front of library patrons who use an app called BiblioBoard. I try to make sure all my books are released DRM free so you truly own them when you buy them, and I try to price them so you can buy them, while still making a decent percentage of each sale. I probably could have sold Fractals: A Programmer’s Approach for $9.99 or $7.99, but I wanted to release a $5 fractal book so people could get one for less.

My point is this. I want you to read my books. You can borrow them for free, or buy them and truly own them. But if you like them and want to keep them, then I should get paid for the investment I made to create the book. Fiction doesn’t just pop out of a writer’s head, there’s research, hours, and money that are spent to edit the book, create the cover, market the book, feed the author, etc. eBooks can be distributed for next to nothing**, but eBooks cost money to make, and therefore they should be sold for some compensation.

I got a request after the Kindle Scout campaign asking if I would still give Surreality away for free to the people who voted even though it did not get picked up. This was a rude question that I chose to ignore, though obviously it still bugs me a little. I still have all the costs of making that book to consider, and I didn’t have the benefit of a $1500 advance to cover them. This isn’t me saying that I’ll never do giveaways, or give the book to people who want to read it if they’ll write a review. But this was right after I hadn’t made the contract, after a month of campaigning which was tough for me. I was tired, and a little disappointed, and apparently I should just give all that hard work away because you clicked a button. It might have been different if this person had said something about really liking the book, or being excited for it to come out. But this was just another person wanting something for free.

I’m not a fan of shaming people. I feel there’s a way to have this conversation without calling out an individual for public disdain and scrutiny. But I also understand the frustrations of authors who deal with this problem. We’re not giant faceless corporate entities. We’re passionate people, who love writing stories as much as you love reading them. And hey, if $2.99 is a lot for you to buy a book, then don’t buy it. It’s not that hard. We all have things we want, but cannot afford. That’s okay. Just don’t steal. We’re not going to thank you for being a pirate even if it increases our “exposure.”

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*The text of the original messages was posted on Writers United which I am excerpting here.

**One of the reasons the $119 fee for Goodreads eBook giveaways kinda bugs me but that’s a topic for another time.

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Why I have a box full of old drafts

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Yesterday I argued that you should throw away your darlings and never look at them again. It will probably come as no surprise to you that I don’t really follow that advice.

In my basement storage area I have a large box that contains old printed drafts of my books. There are early copies of my first novel Atlantia, half drafts from Dark Matter, and of course a ton of Surreality material. In the beginning I told myself I was saving this stuff for “security.” Wouldn’t want anyone stealing my ideas, after all. Later on I decided that these artifacts might be interesting to others if I ever became a big name author, stuff that new writers might even be able to learn from. Now I think it’s just a box I’ll have to run through the shredder at some point.

I have binders full of old stories, notebooks with handwritten ideas, original composition notebooks from 7th grade (first time I ever filled one of those things up with my own work), and countless other bits of detritus. And this doesn’t even begin to count my digital files. I have 6-7 drafts of Surreality each separately saved and available in eBook format. They were helpful when I was moving from draft to draft, and I never deleted them.

I occasionally thumb through this stuff, more for amusement than anything else. Sometimes I worry that I had all my best ideas in high school and that the rest of my life is being spent executing them. Looking back at old work provides pretty clear evidence this isn’t true, but it also makes me realize how long some ideas have been floating around in my head.

It’s interesting to see things you intended to put in a story, and never did. I write notes less because I intend to read them back, but more to move a thought to a different part of my memory. I think all of these details, even the ones that don’t make it to final page, inform the writer’s perception of the character. Keenan might have a weird love of Abba (because he’s y’know . . . human), but it’s a detail that might never be officially stated in a book. And yet I can keep writing him in scenes knowing that “Dancing Queen” is playing in his head.

And old work can reassure you that the core of the story is still there, and that you’ve improved upon it in the final draft. I reread the rough draft of Surreality when I finished my final edit. The process of revision can be exhausting, and often leave you wondering if you’ve really made things better, or if you’ve just changed them a bunch. Because it doesn’t always feel as fresh as the creative process, editing can leave you numb and less objective toward the work. Reading the old draft can be reassuring. You can see clear evidence that you kept the bits that mattered, and cut the junk away. Maybe you’ll find something you took out that deserves to be put back in, but more likely than not, looking back can show you that you’re moving forward in a good direction.

And while many old ideas and passages grow stale with time, others can take on new meaning. An idea I would have written one way a decade ago, might be something completely different now. And the converse is also true, something I thought was brilliant at the time can turn out to be a terrible idea now. Sometimes looking at old material shows us things about ourselves we’d rather not remember, blind-spots in our writing that hopefully we’ve matured enough to fix.

I still don’t exactly subscribe to the idea that saving old bits for later is good for writing new stories, but I think there’s a lot that can be learned from having this trove of old info to dig through. Every now and again I think it’s healthy to “take stock” of who you are as a writer, and where you want to go. These boxes of old material might be just the way to do it.

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