The Skill List Project: Reading Judiciously

This is another post  in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time around, we talked about Reading Voraciously. This time around, we’ll look at reading judiciously: the skill of reading in order to learn from other writers.

Reading Like a Writer

In an essay in About Writing, Samuel R. Delany offers a list of observations containing the following (p. 127):

5. It is almost impossible to write a novel any better than the best novel you’ve read in the three to six months before you began writing your own. Thus you must read excellent novels regularly.

6. Excellent novels set the standards for our own. But bad novels and bad prose are what teach us to write—by setting strong negative examples. You must read both, then—and read them analytically and discriminatingly.

As writers, we have to develop the skill of reading with doublethink—reading for enjoyment, but also reading in order to dissect, learn, and occasionally steal. We have to do both simultaneously. If we just enjoy, we miss the chance to figure out how the writer provides the enjoyment; if we just dissect, we become one of those irritating people who watches magic tricks solely to solve how the trick is done, thereby missing the magic. Such people may succeed in extracting formulas and techniques, but they blind themselves to the art…and the heart.

Paying Attention

So how do you learn to read like a writer? For me, it’s a matter of paying attention to the actual words on the page, not just the ideas and images that the words convey. For example, get a book that you think is particularly good and look at the opening page. What’s so good about it? What does the author do that grabs you? What are the exact words that create mood, establish setting, introduce characters, and whatever else the author is doing? Why do these particular words work? Are the sentences long or short? Is the vocabulary complex or simple?

Read the passage several times. What stands out? What grabs your attention? What resonates? What flows?

When we’re reading purely for enjoyment, we tend to zoom along without awareness of word choice, sentence construction, and paragraphing. We also zoom past important structural details like chapter breaks, sections within chapters, and authorial insertions. (I use the term “authorial insertion” for any inserted tidbit that’s outside the actual narrative. For example, chapter titles are insertions—real life doesn’t come with headings. Some books also put the date/time at the beginning of each chapter, or the name of the viewpoint character. Insertions may also include quotations or other interpolated material placed at the start of chapters and/or sections.)

To read like a writer, you have to ask, “What is the author doing here, and how does it affect the reading experience?” In a story that works, how does the author make it work? And in a story that doesn’t work, what does the author do wrong?

As Delany noted, reading bad prose can be illuminating. Get a book you didn’t enjoy and read a few pages several times. What’s wrong with the writing? Are there words that stand out as inappropriate? Is the flow confusing? Does the rhythm of the prose trip over itself? Is something wrong with the plot or the action? Do the characters seem unbelievable…and why? (And why does it matter? Lots of effective writing contains unbelievable characters. You’ll never meet someone as smart as Sherlock Holmes, as evil as Hannibal Lecter, as ultra-competent as Batman—but we can still love reading about them. Why do such characters work despite, or because of, their unbelievability?)

By reading bad books, we learn what fails and what we have to avoid. By reading good books, we learn how high we ought to set the bar. Both sides of the coin can inspire us. We yearn to be as good as the best; we look at the worst and say (in Spider Robinson’s immortal words), “By Jesus, I can write better than this turnip.”

But How Do You Actually DO It?

How do you dissect a passage of prose and learn from it? At the risk of falling flat on my face, next time I intend to take a sample of writing—preferably something out of copyright—and I’ll try to show how I would read it to learn something about writing. If anyone can think of a passage I should look at, by all means suggest it in the comments.

In the meantime, if you have helpful stories about learning from good or bad writing, please share them with us in the comment section. (Every writer in the world needs inspiration!)

The Skill List Project: Punctuation and its Discontents

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. This time around, we’re looking at punctuation.

Chunking and Timing

Like grammar, the point of punctuation is to help you and your readers make sense of what you’re saying. In particular, punctuation splits up strings of words into chunks; each chunk should have some kind of unity, whether it’s unity of purpose, meaning, imagery, or something else significant. (For the geeks among us, punctuation marks are akin to HTML tags: they block out the syntactic and semantic elements that go together to make up the whole.)

The preceding paragraph demonstrates how this works. Each sentence (ending in a period) is intended to be a single unified thought. The semicolon in Sentence 2 breaks the sentence into two sub-thoughts that are related but semi-independent; the colon in Sentence 3 separates the statement of a thought from an explanation of that statement. The parentheses around Sentence 3 indicate that it’s a side-remark on the same subject as the rest of the paragraph, but looking at the topic from a different angle. The commas throughout the paragraph serve to separate phrases from other phrases, making it easier for readers to grasp which words go together as a unit. Commas also serve to separate elements in the list “purpose, meaning, …”.

Like all writing skills, punctuation usage has both a formal and an artistic aspect. There are ways you shouldn’t use commas, semicolons, etc. or else you’ll confuse your readers and make them think you’re a lousy writer. On the other hand, you also have plenty of freedom for artistic choice; this very sentence uses a semicolon to separate its two parts, but you could also make a case for using a colon or a dash. Each option might give a (slightly) different flavor to how a reader receives the sentence.

For formal details on how to use each punctuation mark, I’ll pump once again for The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. However, you might also check out style guides like the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage or (for us Canadians) the Canadian Press Style Book. These guides lay down consistent rules of usage. Some of their choices are arbitrary—let’s not open a flame war about the pros and cons of the serial comma—but for most writers, choosing a particular set of rules and sticking with it will do just fine. (Of course, some SF stories deliberately play games with punctuation to evoke alien ways of thought…but that’s post-grad pyrotechnics, and right now, I’m just talking about bread-and-butter punctuation skills.)

One thing that deserves mention: some novice writers mess up badly when they punctuate dialogue. They don’t pay attention to what goes inside and outside the quotation marks, how you separate dialogue from framing phrases, and so on. This is basic stuff where there’s very little wiggle room: the rules are well-established and pretty much cast in stone, so you look like an amateur if you get it wrong. Get a good reference book, read every word of the section on quotations, and follow the frickin’ formulas. This is not an area where you can just wing it, unless you’re going seriously po-mo. (P.S. If you don’t know what “po-mo” means, you’re not ready for punctuation improv.)

The Beginning of Rhythm

The artistic side of punctuation brings us to a subject we’ll deal with at length in a future post: rhythm. As far as I’m concerned, rhythm is as important in prose as it is in poetry; it’s just more subtle.

If prose doesn’t flow, readers stumble over the words. Either they have to go back and read the sentence again, or else they skip past the awkward bit until their eyes reach a more congenial phrase. You don’t want to train your readers to skip hunks of your writing. You want them engaged with every word, and that means writing with a rhythm that fits what you’re saying.

In some cases, you might choose long and languid passages; in others, you may want short and choppy. Whatever is appropriate or artistically appealing, punctuation is a crucial tool for shaping the timing of your words. Most obviously, periods break up your prose into sentences—lots of periods mean lots of sentences, which makes for a punchy effect. As for other types of punctuation, the old cliché says they tell the reader when to pause…and that’s true. Punctuation puts little pauses between words (like the ellipsis in the previous sentence), thereby giving you a tiny bit of control over the reader’s tempo. Just like a comedian, you can deliver lines faster or slower to produce a desired effect, using punctuation marks to influence someone’s reading speed.

This can, of course, be overdone. Woe betide you if you use so much punctuation that the reader feels manipulated. Apart from commas and periods, I try to avoid using the same punctuation mark twice in the same paragraph. This isn’t an ironclad principle, but it’s a useful rule of thumb. For example, if I’m tempted to use another colon in a paragraph that already has a colon, I consider it a warning flag: maybe I’m getting repetitive or overly convoluted. Most of the time I take the hint and find some other way to put my thoughts into words.

Other Suggestions?

Once again, it’s time to turn the podium over to you. Any thoughts or pet peeves about punctuation? How many exclamation marks can an author use before you start screaming? Talk that over, while I figure out the next skill that should be addressed. I’ve now covered the absolute basics—vocabulary, grammar, punctuation—so it’s time to move on to higher-level skills. Plotting? Characterization? Viewpoint? Hmm…

The Skill List Project: Learning to Love Grammar

This is another blog post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. This time around, we’re looking at another fundamental building-block of writing: grammar.

Making Sense

Grammar prevents you from tripping over your own feet. The point of grammar is to make your words make sense. This operates on (at least) two levels:

  • For readers: Grammar mistakes are like potholes—they make sentences bumpy and hard for readers to follow. If a grammar mistake is serious, readers may even misinterpret what you’re saying; they have to guess who’s doing what to whom, and they may guess wrong. Even if readers can figure out what you mean, they’ll likely decide it’s not worth the trouble. Poor grammar is apt to make people think, “This writer isn’t very smart.” That’s seldom the message you want to send.
  • For yourself: Sloppy grammar often goes hand-in-hand with sloppy thought. If, for example, your nouns and verbs don’t agree, you may not be envisioning the scene very well; otherwise, you wouldn’t confuse your words. When you can’t state something grammatically, you probably don’t understand it well enough to convey it to other people.

Of course, fiction-writing is an art and you may occasionally make an artistic decision to use sloppy grammar. For example, dialogue between characters is often “ungrammatical”; few of us speak in well-formed sentences 100% of the time. You may also choose to use “ungrammatical” constructs for effect—sentence fragments, for example, can deliver a snappy punch when used at the right place and time. However, it’s easy to overdo such tricks unless you know what you’re doing. Even when you’re writing in an informal tone of voice, you almost always want your prose to run smoothly and hang together. For the most part, that means good clear grammar.

Infinitives and Gerunds and Participles, Oh My!

Is it necessary to know the technical details: the pluperfect tense, the objective case, the subjunctive voice (or is it a mood)? It’s not absolutely essential—some people may be able to write grammatically without knowing the terminology for the constructions they’re using—but what would we think of carpenters who didn’t know the right names for their tools? How much confidence would we have in a computer programmer who said, “I don’t really know the rules of JavaScript, I just kind of wing it”? And if a gardener never bothered to learn the names of various flowers, wouldn’t we think something was wrong? Wouldn’t we consider these people to be lackadaisical about their jobs?

Grammar can certainly be complicated—I studied Latin for five years, and nothing beats Latin for making you aware of what a mare’s nest grammar can be—but finicky details matter. If you don’t know what the subjunctive is, how can you use it correctly? If you don’t know what the pluperfect is, how can you write a flashback? Besides, writers should want to learn how words go together, even when the concepts are difficult.

There are plenty of good books to help you. As a starting point, there’s the Old Reliable: The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. My favorite version is the one with illustrations by Maira Kalman, but any edition will do. Every library has a copy, and it’s a quick read. Strunk & White isn’t perfectly suited to writing fiction—it’s aimed more toward essays and nonfiction pieces—but it’s still worth reading (and rereading) for its sheer common sense and levelheadedness.

The Elements of Style is a good start, but it doesn’t cover grammar in depth. For that, my favorite textbook is The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, a compendium of her books The Transitive Vampire (on grammar) and The Well-Tempered Sentence (on punctuation). Not only does Ms. Gordon cover all the bases, her examples always make me laugh, in a Bulwer-Lytton Contest sort of way. (Sample sentence demonstrating the pluperfect: “She had never pondered anything besides her fingernails before she met the troll.”)

As usual, however, the only good reference book is one that you’ll actually use. Go to the grammar section of the library, see what books are available, and find one that appeals to you. Read it carefully, so you’ll never have to worry about dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, and all those other slip-ups that open up potholes in your sentences.

Other Suggestions?

Now once more, I turn the podium over to you. How important do you think grammar is, and how can you go about improving it? (Does anyone diagram sentences anymore?) In the meantime, I’ll start working on the next installment of this project: punctuation and other persnickety perils.

The Skill List Project: Vocabulary

The last time I blogged here, I started The Skill List Project: an attempt to list the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Why? Partly as a way for me to think about the many aspects of writing sf; partly to tell would-be writers about skills they should try to develop; but mainly as a forum for anyone interested in fiction to analyze what specific skills are involved and how those skills can be improved.

This time around, we’re looking at the most basic building-blocks of writing: words.


Practically speaking, no one can know and understand all the words in English, especially if we include regional idioms and specialized technical vocabularies…but damn it, a writer should try. Writers who don’t know words are like doctors who don’t know anatomy.

At a minimum, knowing a word means knowing how to spell it. (Spell-checking software is nice for catching typos, but it’s far too stupid to rely on as a substitute for using your brain.) Knowing a word also means understanding the word’s usage…the “proper” usage, as well as all the unspoken accretions that the word has picked up over time.

A few decades ago, the term “usage” implicitly meant “proper” usage: the gospel according to “leading experts.” My favorite dictionary (The Houghton Mifflin Canadian Dictionary of the English Language, now sadly out of print) sometimes had a “Usage” discussion at the end of a word’s definitions. For example, here’s the one from “hopefully”:

Hopefully, as used to mean it is to be hoped or let us hope, is still not accepted by a substantial number of authorities on grammar and usage. The following example of hopefully in this sense is acceptable to only 44 per cent of the Usage Panel: Hopefully, we shall complete our work in June.

I love picturing a panel of experts voting on when a word is acceptable; there’s nobility in trying to hold back the tide of verbal sloppiness. Furthermore, writers should be cognizant of what usages are and aren’t “correct”—that’s part of our jobs. We can still abuse the heck out of words for artistic effect, but if we do, we should do it deliberately, not out of ignorance.

Suitability and Flavors

Beyond considerations of “proper” usage, there’s a broader question: When does a word fit in a particular context? Words may have identical dictionary definitions but different flavors. For example, consider “smart”, “intelligent”, “clever”, and “shrewd”. Each means roughly the same thing, but they leave the reader with different impressions. “Shrewd” comes with a hint of amorality or outright dishonesty; “clever” often suggests “too smart for their own good”; “smart” is usually said approvingly, while “intelligent” feels more neutral, but may also mean “book-smart, not people-smart”.

Good writers recognize such differences in flavors, and capitalize on those differences in order to nudge readers in certain directions. If I describe a character as shrewd, it predisposes the reader to wonder if the character is up to no good. I don’t have to spell things out…and indeed, I may be deliberately playing with the reader’s expectations. Whatever I intend, it’s important for me to know how readers are going to react to “shrewd” as opposed to any comparable word I might use. I don’t want the flavors of my words to clash with what I’m trying to accomplish.

This is why you shouldn’t blindly pull words out of dictionaries or thesauruses: the literal definition of a word seldom tells you the extra flavors that the word conveys to knowledgeable readers. When people use words they don’t thoroughly understand, it can be painful—just think of the way we wince when someone attempts to use slang that they don’t really “get.” You have to know a word inside and out before you use it…and you should know as many words as possible, so that they’re available for you to use if and when you need them.

(Of course, just because you know a word doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for a particular story. But that’s a topic for another day.)

How do you learn as many words as possible? By reading anything you can get your hands on…especially stuff that goes beyond your same-old-same-old, whatever that is. When you come across a new word, write it down. Write down the context too, so you’ll remember how it was used. Look up the meaning in a dictionary, but also check with your favorite search engine for other appearances of the word so you can see it in action in a number of contexts. Keep finding occurrences of the word until it’s no longer a stranger to you. That’s when you’re ready to use it yourself.

Other Suggestions?

I’ll talk a lot more about words and word choice in some future posting, when I get around to skills associated with diction. For now though, I’ll turn the floor over to you: what are some tips for improving vocabulary, and really getting to know new words (as opposed to just making a passing acquaintance)? In the meantime, I’ll start working on the next installment of this project: learning to love grammar.

The Skill List Project

I recently re-read Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.  It’s one of a set of books I read every now and then to raise my sights and make me more ambitious in my work. Although Tharp is a choreographer, the book is a great source of inspiration for writers and for anyone else who wants to keep the creative juices flowing.

One of Tharp’s many pieces of advice is to analyze your own skill set.  What are your strengths and weaknesses?  What do you rely on too heavily?  Where are you lagging and how do you elevate your game?

This got me thinking: what are the skills involved in writing and selling fiction (particularly science fiction and fantasy)?  Is it possible to make a list?  And whether or not it’s possible, am I impulsive enough to try?

Well, heck, why not?

A Definitive List of Writing Skills?

So here’s the project I’m going to embark on.  Starting with my own ideas, and drawing on the expertise of others, I’ll take a crack at listing the skills that an sf writer should develop.

Let me lay down some ground rules:

  • I want to be fairly specific.  For example, I don’t just want to say, Must be able to write good dialogue.  What specific skills are involved in writing dialogue?  I’m thinking of everything from punctuating correctly (which seems to go over a lot of newbies’ heads) to actually listening to how people speak…from tailoring speech for individual characters to writing good “frames” around the dialogue (e.g. avoiding said-bookisms).  Let’s spell things out as best we can.
  • I want to suggest (or solicit) practical ways to improve these skills.  Sometimes this will be easy.  (There are lots of good books on punctuation; buy one and do what it says.)  Sometimes this will be hard: tailoring speech to individual characters isn’t just a matter of developing a good ear; it’s bound up with all the artistic mysteries of characterization.  Still, let’s see if we can come up with useful help for those of us who want to keep getting better.
  • I’ll always use the word “skill” rather than “talent” or “trait.”  This reflects my belief that writing abilities are learnable, not innate gifts that you’re born with or you aren’t.  Cognitive psychology has been studying expert performance for decades, and has found little evidence for inborn talent.  Instead, the people who do best in any field—from chess to sports, science, or music—are those who work hardest and smartest at getting good.  We don’t need “gifts” to succeed; we can always improve with the right kind of practice.
  • I recognize that certain skills are valued by some writers and not by others.  For example, I love first-person viewpoint, especially when the narrator has a quirky tone of voice; I will definitely put that on my list of desirable skills.  However, I’ve heard some writers call first-person “outdated” and “immature,” and I’ve heard readers say they want prose to be “as clear as glass,” with no “personality” intruding into “plain” descriptions.  Fair enough… but since I’m aiming for the most complete list possible, I’d like to include skills that are valued by a significant percentage of writers/readers, even if those skills aren’t universally admired.  (Hey, sf is a big genre—some people love when a book goes on for pages about a particular subject, while other people hate it.  Whichever way our preferences lie, we may still be able to learn something valuable by looking at the skills involved.)
  • I’d like us to chew on one area at a time.  For example, in response to this particular blog entry, I don’t think it will be useful if commenters immediately try to make their own comprehensive lists of skills.  Let’s keep our focus narrow, at least for the time being; let’s try for a little depth rather than broad shallow splats.

The Most Important Skill

So to kick off the discussion, here’s a question for commenters: What skill would you put at the top of the list? What’s the most important skill for a writer to have or develop?

Several answers leap to mind: discipline… curiosity… ambition… honesty… and of course, the ability to read voraciously.  These are all crucial, but for the sake of discussion, let me offer something a little more unexpected.  An sf writer must develop the capacity to respect and believe in imaginary things.

Look… I’m talking about writing fiction.  The people we’re writing about don’t exist.  Our settings may also be fictitious.  The events we describe may even be physically impossible.  Yet we have to buy into them completely, or our stories will be dead on the page.  If we don’t have belief and respect for what we’re doing, no other skill can compensate.

It’s a trick of doublethink: we know our characters aren’t real, and yet we have to feel they are.  We must do our best to be true to them and portray them honestly.  The same principle applies to the settings and events we deal with.

So how do we develop the ability to believe deeply in what’s not real?  I suspect most of us have that skill already—if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably drawn to sf and therefore to “unreal” things.  Like Mulder, you want to believe.

But there are still ways to improve your connection with fictitious people, places, and things.  How?  This trick of doublethink is something actors do all the time: they have to invest themselves emotionally in the realness of their characters, while simultaneously reciting prepackaged speeches as they stand on an obviously artificial theater or movie set.

How do actors do this?  To learn their techniques, why not read some books on acting, or even better, try some acting yourself.  For reading, a good starting point might be A Practical Handbook for the Actor.  However, there are plenty of acting-advice books out there; go to your library and see what you find.

To Infinity and Beyond

I now turn the floor over to you in the comments section: what do you think is the single most important skill for an sf writer?  Let’s talk about that for a while, and next time we’ll move on to the lowest-level basics—vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation.  (Ooo, I’m excited already!)

Electric Blankets

A short note this time, but I want to say a word in favor of electric blankets. I own three: one on my bed, one at my writing desk, and one on the couch where I do most of my reading.

To save money, I keep my house’s central heating relatively low, and just get under a blanket whenever I need to. Unlike a space heater, an electric blanket heats me, not the room; it’s direct, and I’m pretty sure it uses less electricity. I do all my writing under an electric blanket from about October to April.

While some electric blankets are pricey, you can a decent one for under $50, especially if you’re just looking for something to cover yourself with when you’re writing or reading. And if you’re worried about the blanket getting too hot, every blanket I own turns itself off after two or three hours of operation.

There’s nothing so wonderful as turning on the blanket half an hour before bedtime so you can slip into a preheated bed. It’s virtually orgasmic on a cold night. I recommend it.

My To-Do List(s)

As I said last time, I’ve decided to share how I keep my writing schedule on track. Daily logs are my way of looking back and making sure I’m keeping up, as well as just maintaining records of when I do various things (laundry, dentist appointments, etc.).

For looking forward, I use to-do lists. No big surprise. Over the years, I’ve used several to-do list apps, and I still use one called Errands for chores that recur on a regular basis, e.g. clipping my rabbit’s toenails. This is useful for monthly tasks and for things that take place even less often. I can just set up a schedule and have the software tell me when the time comes.

But for me, this kind of to-do list isn’t great for daily or weekly chores. I end up with so many entries popping up every day that important things get lost in the shuffle. Instead, I use a straightforward Google doc for my daily to-do lists. It contains daily lists covering the upcoming two weeks. I review the day’s chores every morning and every night, as well as multiple times during the day to make sure nothing is falling through the cracks.

I have three types of entries in each day’s list. At the top of the list are actual appointments: things I have to do at a specific time. For example, today’s list contains one such entry:

5:15PM—Help Teach Kung Fu

I’m expected to be at Waterloo Kung Fu Academy ready to teach by 5:15, so it’s right at the top of my to-do list. Timing doesn’t really matter for anything else on the list, but that one is a fixed commitment.

The next type of entry I enter in bold face, one chore per line. These are things which are special enough that I’m worried I might forget them. For example, today I have Grocery Shopping on the list. I need milk (among other things) and I don’t want to forget that I should shop; otherwise, tomorrow morning I’ll have to drink coffee without milk. If that happens, it’s not the end of the world, but it’s undesirable.

The final type of entry I enter in normal font. These are things I do pretty much every day, and I just want to keep track of whether I’ve done them. For example, I’m on a 1113-day streak with Duolingo and I want to keep the streak going. I’m probably not going to forget to do it, but I like deleting the line on the list so that I know it’s done. When I review my list at the end of the day, I can see whether Duolingo is still on it or not, and take appropriate action.

Writing is definitely on the list: there’s an entry for what I intend to work on in the morning, and what I’m going to do in the afternoon. These are just “normal” entries; I’m not going to forget that I always write in the morning, but it’s good to be clear about what I’ll be doing.

I also use this kind of entry for things like meal-planning—I have entries for breakfast and supper, and what I intend to eat for each. If I haven’t filled in the blank (as in “Breakfast: ?”), then I know I should make a decision before it’s too late.

Doing all this with a Google doc makes things simple—no special software involved, and I can edit the list on any device I own. As I said last time, the best system is the one you’ll actually use…and this one works for me.

Daily Logs

In a few weeks, I’ll be a guest of honour at When Words Collide in Calgary, and while I’m there, I’ll be giving a 15-minute keynote address and an hour-long presentation on…something. I’m in the process of planning those presentations now; I haven’t finalized what I’m doing yet, but it’s got me thinking about planning. As a result, I thought I’d share some of what I do in order to figure out how to spend my days.

Today, I’ll write about my daily log. This records what I consider the most important information about what I’ve done during a day. Each day’s log has eight lines:

Writing AM
What I wrote in the morning and how long I spent on it; for example,
Haunted House novel, 2:45.
Mornings are my most creative time, so I schedule my most important writing then. On a first draft, I usually record word count rather than time spent, but during later drafts, I record time.
Writing PM
What I wrote and/or edited in the afternoon/evening. This is usually when I write short stories and commissioned work. Again, I usually record time, but sometimes word count.
Anything I do as self-promotion…like this blog entry. PR is one of my weak spots, so I really want to keep track of what I’m doing; I need to make sure I’m not letting it slide. It’s a danger sign if I see too many days in a row with this slot blank.
Professional Development: Anything I do to help myself improve as a writer and/or businessperson. Yes, I still read a lot of books on writing and creativity…but I also read stuff on promotion. Typically, this entry will list what I’ve been reading. (As I read PD stuff, I take notes in a separate notebook. The log just records book titles and article headings.)
What books I’m reading for “fun” (including audiobooks I listen to)
Since I’m trying to get better at push-ups, I record the number I do each day.
Other exercise I did during the day including walking, jogging, going to Kung fu class, etc.
Anything else worth recording, like getting a haircut, going to a movie, buying gas, etc. Basically anything I think might be worth keeping track of.

I write all this down by hand in a notebook. At some point, I might switch to keeping records on my computer and/or iPad, but for now, I find it simplest to keep a notebook on my dining room table and scribble log entries throughout the day.

As always with any kind of note-taking, I recommend choosing a medium you’ll actually use. Fancy record-keeping software is pointless if you never fire it up…and for myself, if there’s any friction at all to making a note, I just don’t do it. (Someday I’ll tell you the story of how I stopped watching TV.)

So there, that’s my method: at the start of each day, I write those eight headings in my log book, and then throughout the day, I jot down log entries. This helps me keep on track. If, for example, the Push-ups line is still blank near the end of the day, it shames me into doing some. I admit I don’t like doing them, but how else will I improve?

Our Genre

This is yet another post about the short stories in Organisms, the collection of stories I contributed to the Bundoran Buddies Science Fiction StoryBundle. This time I’ll talk about “Three Damnations: A Fugue”.

In most bookstores and libraries, books are separated by genre. The three biggest genres of fiction are Mystery, Romance, and Li-Fi (often just called “Fiction”, although literary fiction is clearly just as much a bounded genre as any other—it has its own quirks, conventions, and unspoken assumptions just like any other genre).

So after Mystery, Romance and Li-Fi, what’s left? Sometimes Science Fiction and Fantasy are split into separate sections, but often they’re shelved together. These days, Horror is blended into the SF/F section; there was a time a few decades ago when Horror had a section to itself, but I haven’t seen a separate Horror section in ages.

So Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror are often combined into a single entity. This is more than just an oddity of retail; SF/F/H are often seen as comprising a single unified field of literature. Most web sites and blogs that deal with one of the three will deal with the other two as well. The same thing holds for publishers, especially the larger companies: any publisher who publishes one of the three probably publishes the others too.

Some people fiercely object to the notion that SF/F/H is a single thing. Such people draw a hard line between Science Fiction and Fantasy. Then they put individual works of Horror on one side of the line or the other. (“Alien” is Science Fiction. “Dracula” is Fantasy. Et cetera.) Many readers only read Science Fiction or only read Fantasy. The same goes for writers writing.

But many writers write all three of SF, F, and H, switching freely between them. Many readers do the same. And many stories are resistant to pigeonholing. Despite physicists playing around with blue-sky ideas, faster-than-light travel still seems to be scientifically impossible…whereas unicorns (i.e. horses with single horns on their noses) are just a gene-splice away. I sincerely expect that real unicorns will be created in the next fifty years. Yet any story with a unicorn would be shelved in Fantasy, whereas any space opera with FTL would be shelved in Science Fiction.

For myself, I consider Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror to be parts of a single thing. I call it Our Genre: the Genre of Geek/Nerd culture…the Genre of comic books…the Genre of RPGs and many many computer games.

This gets me back to “Three Damnations: A Fugue”. I decided to write a single story that explicitly combined all three aspects of Our Genre. For Horror, it has a haunted house and obsession; for Science Fiction, it has time travel and obsession; for Fantasy, it has a magic grove and obsession. The story presents all three sides of Our Genre, by means of three characters who just can’t help themselves making the same bad decisions, over and over again. They aren’t nice people, but I like the story quite a bit.

Damon Runyon and Me

This is another post about the short stories in Organisms, the collection of stories I contributed to the Bundoran Buddies Science Fiction StoryBundle. This time I’ll talk about “A Clean Sweep With All The Trimmings”.

There’s a backstory underlying “Clean Sweep” that I may turn into more stories someday, or even a novel. It starts from the idea that an alien race might make sophisticated servant androids that outlive the race itself. After all, it’s quite possible that humans could make intelligent machines that last a long time. If humanity itself then dies off (e.g. through a pandemic), the machines will still be programmed to act servants, even if they have no one to serve.

So I imagined a set of ageless “ideal servants” created by a long dead alien race and still roaming around the galaxy looking for masters. They can change their shape into anything that would make a master happy. Similarly, they change their personalities too. The changes happen automatically—the androids aren’t consciously aware of what they’re doing, they just change physically and mentally to be whatever their current master would find most suitable.

You might think that these androids would be general-purpose servants, able to do anything…but I thought it would be more fun if they specialized. Perhaps there’d be an Ideal Accountant, an Ideal Valet, an Ideal Secretary, etc. There’d also be an Ideal Sexual Partner, because of course there would.

This led to a question: “What would happen if this ideal found its way to Earth?” I could see people fighting to possess it, and the poor android forcibly kidnapped by a succession of ruthless owners. To make the conflicts more extreme, I envisioned it falling into the hands of a mobster. This would lead to a blood gang war as various gang leaders tried to grab the android for their own.

So my first attempt at the story was very Quentin Tarantino. It was pretty damned sordid, and it didn’t work. But it had one interesting trick—it was told from the viewpoint of the guy called in to clean up after all the bad stuff happened. This was basically the Harvey Keitel character from Pulp Fiction. He had a “big picture” view of the story which let him figure out what was going on.

As I said, the Tarantino version of the story didn’t work. But I thought the underlying set-up was good, and I liked telling the story from the viewpoint of a “cleaner”.

How could I tell a similar story without it being ick? Simple answer: Damon Runyon.

Runyon was a reporter who hung out with gangsters in the 1930s and 40s. His most famous work is Guys and Dolls, a collection of short stories that became the basis of the famous musical. Many of the folks Runyon wrote about were killers and very bad people…but his quirky writing style somehow made them seem charming rather than psychotic.

I love the way Runyon wrote, so I decided to steal it whole hog. I rewrote the story in Runyon’s tone of voice, and this time it worked really well: funny and sweet rather than mean and dark. As a result, “A Clean Sweep With All The Trimmings” is one of my favorite stories.