Sharing: November 23, 2018

More things I like:

Used first-year university textbooks
I live within fifteen minutes of two universities: the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University. Both have stores where you can buy used textbooks for under $10 each. The books that go for such low prices aren’t the latest editions—they may be around five years old. But even in 2018, the introductory principles of various disciplines don’t change much in five years. If you buy a slightly old textbook, you still have an amazing resource as a starting place for learning a subject.

So I’ve bought first-year textbooks in dozens of fields, from anatomy and economics to Italian and microbiology. Wikipedia is certainly great for quick-and-dirty fact finding, especially when I already know the basics of a subject…but when I want to learn something from scratch or in depth, I love textbooks. They’re designed to teach topics in some rational order, where one thing builds on another. So I strongly recommend that everyone should make a trip to the nearest university campus and see what gems you can get for a surprisingly low price.

By the way, let me add one way that I use such books: I keep one in my kitchen. Whenever I’m taking a break from writing and go for a snack, I can read a few paragraphs while I’m munching. Also, when I’m cooking and waiting for water to boil or something like that, I can also read a bit. I like having something to read that I can pick up and put down without too much angst.


The Comics trilogy by Scott McCloud
I’ve long been aware of Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud’s 1993 book on how comic books work. (The book also covers comic strips, manga, graphic novels, etc.) If you haven’t read it, rush out to your library and grab a copy now.

I was also aware of the follow-up, Reinventing Comics, published in 2000. It was McCloud’s attempt to nudge the creators of comics to aim higher and be more ambitious.

But I only recently discovered that he’d written a third book in 2006: Making Comics. I have no idea how I missed it…but I’m reading it now, and it’s full of great insights on how to create comic books that work. Highly recommended.

How I Write: Forays

After several past postings on how I write a novel, we’ve reached the point where I can actually start writing. At this point I have:

It’s now time to start some real writing.

I begin with forays into the story. Usually this means writing the first ten pages or so a bunch of times. I want something that has the right chemistry: specifically a tone of voice that will sustain my interest for the months it will take me to write the first draft.

After all, if I get bored, I’ll have trouble finishing…and of course, if I get bored, readers will too. So I need to find a voice that grabs my attention. If I’ll be writing from multiple points of view, I need to find multiple voices that catch my ear.

I’m not one of those writers who believes my characters actually exist. I know the characters are just inside my head. At the same time, when I write from a character’s viewpoint, I’m giving free rein to some specific part of my psyche. I’m putting myself into a particular frame of mind and seeing what comes out. I want the result to be organic, without other parts of my brain trying to horn in on the act.

So I need to find a voice that ignites emotional sparks. It has to be someone who can face what’s going to happen and react in engaging ways. The character will be affected by the needs of the story and the character arcs I’ve envisioned…but the arcs I’ve made at this point are all provisional. If a character goes in other directions, that’s great. That’s part of what “being organic” means. And hey, if it all goes off the rails, I can always rewrite the darn thing.

So I write the first few pages numerous times. Five? Ten? More? And I usually write it all longhand, because writing with a pen makes my brain go slow and feel around for what’s waiting to come out.

Eventually, something clicks. When that happens, I know it. I’ve found the spark: the way into the story.

Then all I have to do is write the first draft.

[Map of forays during the Age of Discovery by Universalis [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons]

How I Write: Going Somewhere with Characters

Recently, I’ve been discussing how I start a writing project: beginning with a seed and brainstorming, then establishing a keel, and generating a list of set-pieces.

The set-pieces give me externals: a varied group of settings and action elements. But I want my stories to have internal value too. In particular, I want the main protagonist and other characters to go through significant changes, inside as well as outside.

There’s an element of risk here. I’m talking about the starting stages of the project. If I’ve done any writing at all at this point, it will just be playing around with possible voices and with viewpoint options (first person, third person, past tense, present tense, that sort of thing). Usually I like to establish such choices as part of the keel—at the very least, the keel has to specify whether the book will be told from a single person’s point of view or from multiple viewpoints. So I may write a few sample pages, but nothing cast in stone.

This means that I don’t really know the characters yet (unless I’m writing a sequel to a previous book, and even then, there are bound to be new characters who play substantial roles in the story). As a result, I have to be cautious when it comes to dictating how characters will change throughout the book.

I can only start by tentatively deciding a few traits about each character, but I recognize (a) that these traits may change, and (b) that they may fade in significance as new traits arise during the actual writing.

As an example, take Kim Lam from All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault. At the outset, I decided that Kim was a geology student and third-generation Chinese-Canadian. I also knew that Kim was withdrawn because of a high school relationship gone bad, and that her character arc throughout the book would be gradually tearing down the emotional walls she’s been hiding behind.

But I didn’t start out knowing that Kim was non-binary. When I first wrote the passage where she describes what kind of clothes she usually wears, I simply intended her standard outfit of overalls and a nondescript shirt to be an outgrowth of her emotional walls. She didn’t want to project any sexual image.

During the writing, that all changed. It surprised the heck out of me when Kim eventually came out as queer. I remember thinking, “Crap, am I really going to do this?” There are obvious risks when a cis-het white male writes a gender-queer Chinese person who started life as female. If I did a bad job, it would be awful.

Then again, I could feel the rightness of what I’d discovered. In the book, Kim talks about evolving into her non-binary identity: “I knew what didn’t work, but it took a while to find out what did.” That echoes what happened during the writing. But once I realized Kim had to be non-binary, that identity became such an essential part of the character that some traits devised while planning the book just faded into the background. (By the way, for those who care, Kim ends the book by taking new pronouns and shortening zir name to K.)

So before I begin a book, I decide on a few characters traits and provisional character arcs. But I expect those to change during the actual writing. I love when they change during writing. That means the characters are starting to come alive.

[Diagram showing an arc of a circle by Cburnett [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons]

How I Write: Set-Pieces II

One thing I forgot in my previous write-up on set-pieces: set-pieces are relatively modular. By this, I mean that you can swap them out and replace them without changing much else in the story.

For example, I mentioned the meet cute as a common set-piece in movies. All that’s necessary for a meet cute is that the two leads meet in some entertaining way. Also, at the end of the scene they usually have to have developed a certain attitude toward each other (often initially hostile).

For a good meet cute, your couple might meet at work, or in a gym, or at the dentist’s, or in a fender-bender. It doesn’t matter. All that the plot requires is that they meet and establish that starting attitude.

So let’s say your original plan is that the two will meet when their dogs get into a fight at the dog-park. But once you start actually writing the story, you might get a better idea. As you develop the characters into more rounded people, maybe you decide that one of the romantic leads likes to do science fiction cosplay…so maybe the meet cute will happen when that person is dressed as a Klingon. The Klingon locks their keys in the car, and is trying to break in when the other person (a cop) shows up.

So you try writing that scene. If the result isn’t as good as you want, then you can try something else. Plotwise, it doesn’t matter as long as the two meet.

You can replace a set-piece with something very different, if ever you come up with something that will serve the story better…especially if you think of something that better reflects other parts of the story (e.g. character traits that you discover as you write). Eventually, you’ll have to smooth everything out into a well-connected whole, but that’s what revision is for. When you’re just starting to write a story, your set-pieces are provisional and replaceable. You want them to be good, but you shouldn’t consider them cast in stone.

How I Write: The Keel

Continuing my series on How I Write

Brainstorming gives me a long list of stuff that I could put into a particular book: possible ideas, images, characters, plot elements, etc. but all just written down scattershot, without any effort to turn them into anything coherent. Once I have that, it’s time to come up with a keel. (By the way, this is my own terminology, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else came up with it before I did.)

In a boat, the keel is something heavy attached to the bottom of the hull. It’s the heaviest part of the boat; in rough seas, the keel is heavy enough that it keeps sinking downward, and that’s what keeps the ship upright. (In the picture above, the keel is #5.)

In a story, the keel is what gives the story weight and keeps the narrative from flopping over whenever the going gets rough. The keel is related to theme (i.e. what makes your story matter). It’s also related to plot: it lies at the heart of the story’s actions. It’s the part of the story you consider indispensable. As you write the story, everything else is subject to change, but the keel is going to stay. It’s what makes your story what it is.

(At this point, contrarians may ask, “But what if you decide that the keel really needs to change?” Since you’re the writer, you can do anything you want…but if you change the keel, you simply aren’t writing the same story anymore. The keel of Romeo & Juliet is “star-crossed lovers who die”. You can write a version where one or both lovers survive, but at that point, it’s stopped being Shakespeare’s story.)

The purpose of a keel is to provide stability and a sense of purpose. If and when I lose sight of what the heck I’m doing in a book, I come back to the keel. “This is what the book is about. This is what holds the book together. This is what I don’t want to lose.” The keel should be weighty enough and engaging enough to make writing the book worth my time.

So let’s talk about my forthcoming book, They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded. It’s a sequel to All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, and I wanted GUN to take place shortly after EXPLOSIONS. I brainstormed a lot of cool things I could do in the world I’d created, including superhero hi-jinks, new things to do with the Darkling monsters who run everything, buildings I could smash in the Waterloo Region, and so on. I also brainstormed ways in which the characters could develop, themes I might explore, tropes to use or avoid, etc., etc.

After two days of idea generation, I had a huge list of possibilities. Then it was time to come up with a keel. Here’s what it was.

  • The new book would center on Jools, who was a central character in the previous book, but not the main protagonist.
  • It would deal with her drinking problem, which would be matched by a growing tendency to go into uncontrollable bouts of inventing weird devices.
    In other words, her alcohol addiction would start running in parallel with the possibility of becoming an out-of-control supervillain inventor.
  • Finally, the action would center around a weapon created by a serious supervillain, as Darklings and various super-types all tried to claim the weapon for their own.

I’m hiding some things here since I don’t want to give major spoilers for the book—for example, my real keel contained stuff about the book’s ending. But the points above give you the idea. They were my “rules” for the book: the keel that wouldn’t change, no matter what. Dealing with addiction made the book more than lightweight fluff…but dealing with everyone chasing a superweapon guaranteed plenty of opportunities for action.

Whether or not you write with an outline or by the seat of your pants, having some kind of keel is crucial. Next time, I’ll talk about what you do once you have a keel in place.

[Ship diagram by Jimmy P. Renzi (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons]

How Do You Spend Your Time?

Recently, I started keeping track of how I spend my time. I don’t use a fancy app—I had a look at a few and quickly knew that I’d never use them. They required way too much work to set up. Besides, I don’t always carry around electronics. Life is better without being tethered to a phone or a tablet.

Instead, I keep my time records on index cards. I write a line every time I start something new, as in:

4:12—writing blog on time tracking

That’s all I need…because the point of this isn’t to come up with any sophisticated analysis of exactly how long it takes me to write 1000 words or edit 10 pages of someone else’s manuscript. The point is to understand what I’m doing.

First, how do I really spend my day? Am I putting in a reasonable number of hours? Or are there huge gaps when I’m not doing much of anything? I don’t begrudge myself relaxation time, but if hours at a time are disappearing and I can’t say where they went, that’s not good.

So now I’m keeping track. As I’ve said, I use index cards to record when I start new activities. One index card is usually enough for a whole day, and that gives me a picture of what I do. How long do I spend getting ready to work in the morning? How long do I take on breaks? How much time do I actually spend when I walk to the library and back?

Then, every morning, while I’m planning my day, I transcribe my times into a notebook. Really, this is just copying the times from the index card; it takes three minutes at most. But if I see that I frittered away a lot of time on the previous day, it orients me to use my time better today: less time spent disappearing down the many rabbit holes available on the internet.

It’s simple, but so far it’s working. I’m spending less and less time in black holes, and more time on things I actually choose to do. Let me emphasize that I’m not using this to beat myself up or to eliminate stuff like playing video games. Taking time for fun is important. The point is to notice if I’m spinning my wheels on stuff I wouldn’t actually choose to do if I thought things through.

So I’m reading more, and playing less computer solitaire. Go me! Less black hole time is good.


Recently, the web site published a lovely article by Leah Schnelbach offering words of writing wisdom from David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas and several other novels).

If you’re a writer (or want to be one), I strongly recommend reading the article itself. But let me highlight the concept of IWATH, short for “I was there.” An IWATH moment in a piece of writing is something that makes the reader believe that the writer/narrator had to have been there when the action took place. It makes a scene seem absolutely real.

In my mind, IWATH means a detail so distinctive that it doesn’t seem like something generic that a writer might just toss in without thinking. For example, imagine a suburban backyard. There are lots of “standard” things you immediately think of: a patio, a barbecue, a swing-set, a vegetable garden, and so on. Some backyards may not have all of these things, but the features are common enough in backyards (at least in North America) that in a piece of fiction, they won’t attract much attention.

In other words, such details aren’t memorable. They’re what you’d expect. They don’t make you feel as if the writer is describing a specific backyard at a specific time. They give you a backyard that’s vague and generalized: one that doesn’t feel truly real.

An IWATH detail stands out as something that isn’t the same-old same-old. It needn’t be aggressively weird, just non-generalized. For example, the teenagers of the house may have placards laid on the lawn and they’re painting protest signs because they’re going to picket their school the next day. At the moment, they’re debating the pros and cons of putting an asterisk in place of the U in FUCK.

Suddenly, the scene is specific: not just any backyard, but a backyard belonging to a specific family whose members do specific things, and this is a specific time on a specific day. Whatever happens in the yard may have nothing to do with the protest at all—the business with the signs may just be a background detail. But it’s a non-generic detail. It seems like a real thing, so it makes the rest of the scene seem real too.

My first writing teacher, W. O. Mitchell, called these impertinences: details that make a scene feel real because they aren’t what a writer would just trot out when writing on autopilot. The article says that Mitchell tries to put three IWATH moments into every scene. If you’re a developing writer, that’s a great goal to aim for.

[Picture of clouds from [GFDL 1.2], from Wikimedia Commons]

Sharing: August 16, 2018

More things I like:

Anime: Puella Magi Madoka Magica
I mentioned this in a previous post but I want to recommend it again…partly because I’ve now seen the whole series, and have started to watch it again from the beginning. So many little things in the series take on a completely different meaning once you understand what’s really going on. One particular character’s lines never mean what you originally thought they meant. Well worth watching and re-watching.
Casual Reading: The Princeton Companion to Mathematics
It’s big and expensive and frequently goes over my head even though I have a master’s degree in math…but I still had to own the book and don’t regret buying it. I’ve been working my way through it for several years now; I try to read a bit every day. It really is the best advanced-level introduction to the entire field of math that I know of. And here’s a cheat: if you think you might be interested, download the free sample of the book from Kindle. You’ll get lot of free reading so you can see if it’s your cup of tea.
Writing technique: Writing longhand
I do most of my writing at the computer, either in Scrivener or Microsoft Word. But if I really get stuck, I sit down at the dining room table and write longhand on loose-leaf paper. Writing longhand is a different experience than keyboarding. It happens at a different speed, and with a different mind-body orientation. If my brain is in a rut, or if I find myself inhibited when writing a particular scene, writing by hand almost always gets me out of the rut. Sometimes I write whole stories by hand. I think it gives them a different feel from the work I write by computer. Give it a try.


A Simple Exercise in Plotting

For those who want to work on creating plots, here’s a simple exercise I got from Impro by Keith Johnstone. It gives you practice at bringing things together into a (relatively) integrated whole.

Start with three sentences describing unconnected actions. For example:

The tree swayed as the wind increased. Two ships passed each other in the night. My brother got out the deck of cards.

(You can create these sentences yourself or have someone else do it for you.)

Once you have your three sentences, write three more sentences to tie all the actions together, as in

I got out my own deck, and as the ship where I was held captive sailed past my brother’s, we felt each other’s presences and simultaneously turned the top card. I could tell we had both turned over The Storm. The wind that had previously been scouring the land immediately veered seaward, heading directly toward us.

(I promise I had no idea that I’d go in that direction when I wrote the original three sentences.)

This is the sort of exercise can be used as a warm-up whenever you start writing. It takes less than two minutes, and can kick your imagination into gear. Note that you aren’t going for a finished story; you’re just bringing separate actions together into something more unified.

Don’t overthink the exercise, or try to do anything brilliant. As with most improvisation, it’s better to do what strikes you as obvious rather than straining for something clever. You’ll soon find out that your “obvious” often takes other people by surprise. They may even think it’s brilliant.

[Picture of ship Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons,]

Writing Description and Exposition: Combo

Last week,I showed an example based on the principle that A descriptive passage is the story of a particular character’s encounter with a person, place or thing. I noted that things would be completely different if I wrote a description of the same thing but from a different person’s viewpoint. So today, let me do that.

It was the second time I’d ever been in a lawyer’s office.

The first time was in a flea-bitten fire-trap in a neighborhood where even the rats carried switchblades. The lawyer was a guy who smelled like he washed his clothes in cheap whisky…but to be fair, I smelled the same way at the time. (It was not a good period in my life.) But surprise, surprise, my “legal eagle” knew his way around a courtroom. Or maybe he just got lucky. Either way, he kept me for going down on a bogus count of B&E, manufactured by a cop who lost his temper because he couldn’t get me on thirty-some real B&E’s I’d committed around the city.

But my first lawyer died the very night he got me set free. I took him out for a celebration drink and he keeled over right beside me in a dirty little bar. It scared the piss out of me. Also the alcohol. I got into a program and came out embarrassingly sober.

Mind you, I didn’t give up being a thief—I just stopped stealing while drunk. Which is why I went for years without being caught, and why (when my luck finally had a hiccup) I could afford to hire the incomparable Bethany Pruitt.

Her office resembled the kind of place I now used my talents to burgle: up-scale, chic, but not matchy-matchy. I particularly liked the two paintings on the wall in the reception room. Both were dreamscapes full of stylized figures of naked people. I walked up to the receptionist and before she could even put on a professional smile, I said, “Those paintings are lovely. May I ask who’s the artist?”

“Nellie Chang,” the woman answered immediately. “She shows with a gallery just down the block. Ms. Pruitt greatly admires Nellie’s work.”

Useful information. I made a mental note to visit the gallery after hours and pilfer a few canvases. Art can be hard to fence, but I knew several buyers who’d be happy to acquire the work of an up-and-comer in the early stages of her career. Good investments, and all that.

The receptionist and I had a nice little chat about who I was and whether I had booked an appointment. I’d taken the liberty of hacking into the company’s computers to place myself on their appointment calendar, but apparently that didn’t count. To my astonishment, the office still operated on paper, and I wasn’t written down in the official appointment book. The situation took several minutes to sort out, after which I was escorted down to a room with an even greater quantity of paper shelved on the walls in the form of law books. It all seemed so twentieth century! Still, it’s harder to change words on paper than in The Cloud, so for all I knew, Bethany Pruitt ran the most secure legal firm in Manhattan.

Now notice all the things going on here. The first few paragraphs provide exposition in the form of a story: how the narrator nearly went to jail. We get a sense of the character’s voice, attitude, and profession. Then we return to the present to get on with the business at hand. We don’t know exactly what the narrator has done, but we can guess that (s)he stole something and got caught. The specifics will no doubt emerge in conversation with Pruitt.

By the way, the artist Nellie Chang should play some role in the ensuing story. I have nothing in mind—I’m just making this stuff up as I go along—but if Chang gets this much attention on Page 1 of a story, readers will expect to see more of her. The first few pages of a story always create expectations in the reader’s mind; you have to recognize that and deal with it. (You don’t have to fulfill reader expectations, but you have to address them. You can have Chang appear in all kinds of ways, some more predictable than others…but you have to use her somehow or readers will wonder why you mentioned her at all.)

I hope this helps illustrate some principles about description and exposition. If you have any questions about description or exposition, feel free to submit a comment!

[Photo of paint brushes by terri_bateman [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons]