All it takes . . .

When you start writing (and even if you keep on doing it), you hear “All you absolutely have to do to be a writer is write. Everything else is extra.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Then they start in with, “If you really want to write, you need to read. Extensively. In and out of your genre,” and “You need to focus on improving your craft, whether through critique groups, workshops, classes, conferences, writing books . . . ”

Wait. I thought all I had to do was write?

Except it makes sense, really. First, if you don’t like reading, why would you want to write? Because you think it makes you look smart? There are easier ways. Second, it’s true in any creative endeavor.

My son took up trumpet this year. He (mostly) practices every day. But he listens to music, he hums theme songs he remembers from movies, he tries to work out how he might play them himself (“I need to know a couple more notes before I can try the Harry Potter theme.”), and he pays attention to what other people have done. He also listens to the songs he’s playing on a CD and tries to play along to get the pacing correct.

I’ve done a couple of quilts. This year, I decided to do a mystery quilt presented in American Quilter magazine. I knew it would be stretching my ability (it recommended having completed six to eight quilts before tackling this one), but I figured it would expose me to techniques I might not willingly try on my own. (I’ve decided I don’t want to do a postage-stamp quilt. I don’t like working with one-inch strips.) I also check out winners in the American Quilter’s Society’s shows, as well as those in state fairs.

All it takes . . . is three steps. See what others have done. Figure out how to apply it to what you want to do. Then do it, over and over again.

Monday drabble: Desperate times

In 2015, prototype neural enhancers, built to interface “better than Bluetooth” opened to beta testing. By 2020, they were commonplace. In 2015, hackers figured out how to use them to mimic telepathy.
Some of us adjusted better than others. My older brother, Tim, wound up as an inpatient in a psych ward twice before he decided to learn the enhancers’ programming code. “Desperate times call for desperate measures. No one will have time to respond before I release the worm.”

I stabbed him. He didn’t see it coming; the worm was in his system already. Desperate times, as he said.

housecleaning Q & A

Housecleaning, I hear you asking yourself, really? Well, yes, but mostly because I’m going to run off to do some (guests coming over) and realized I hadn’t posted a Q&A today.

Again, doing the mock-interview format.

Q: Do you dust or vacuum first?

A: What makes you think I do either? I might swipe a dust cloth when people are coming by, but there’s a good reason to prefer hardwood floors to carpet: I don’t have to vacuum!

Q: Hardwood floors? How do you keep those polished?

A: The kids run around in socks, which does wonders for the floors.

Q: Do you wash dishes by hand or with a dishwasher?

A: By hand only if it can’t go in the dishwasher — crystal, cast iron, the pizza pan that’s too big to fit, that sort of thing. I’ve got better things to do with my time than stand at the sink. Besides, dishpan hands are hard to type with.

Q: Do the kids help out?

A: Define “help out.”

Q: Do they do chores, pick up, that sort of thing?

A: The younger one is better about cleaning up, except she seems to think toys belong on the floor, not in the box. The older one is very good about specific chores (except the bathroom and his bedroom), but sort of ignores the rest — kind of like his mom, who figures that if there’s food on the table, dishes to eat it on, and clothes to wear, she’s done her job.

Q: What about yard work?

A: What about it? We’re talking about housecleaning.

Q: Do you do windows?

A: No, I’m a Mac person.

Q: What about –?

A: Sorry, gotta go. The house won’t clean itself, you know.

A real author

Today’s post started sounding like another Poor Pitiful Pearl post (Mom always said that — I think after the doll, though William Steig created the character), so I deleted it and started over, very tongue in cheek.

  • A real author doesn’t need a day job.
  • A real author has sold a book.
  • No, a real author has sold more than one book.
  • A real author has someone else to clean her house so she has time to write. (And a real author’s desk is never messy.)
  • A real author wears tweed with pearls or a pipe, depending on inclination.
  • A real author doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.
  • A real author doesn’t need editing.
  • A real author’s genius is recognized by everybody.
  • A real author sells everything she writes.
  • A real author has editors knocking on her door to see if she’s written anything they can publish.
  • A real author has a gold-plated keyboard, works one hour a day, and jets around the world every weekend.
  • A real author has a matched pair of dodos trained to walk on leashes and pick up after themselves — and they dye their feathers to match her outfit every morning.
  • A real author keeps emeralds in the crisper drawer with all the other greens.
  • A real author has a chauffeur to take her to book signings, and a masseuse to make certain her hands don’t cramp up from writing by hand too much.
  • A real author doesn’t have to tell anyone that they’ve just got another book or story out because everyone knows.
  • A real author is the ideal weight, gets plenty of exercise, and always sleeps eight hours each night, unless she’s out dancing until dawn at an embassy ball.
  • A real author never gets papercuts.
  • A real author is instantly recognized at every library and bookstore, even the library at her children’s school.
  • A real author creates in perfect isolation, never accused of taking an idea someone else has used, and all of her peers acknowledge her craft to be of the finest.
  • A real author has to decide which Silver Ghost to take to opening night when they make movies from her books.
  • A real author never dies because the universe can’t bear to lose her creative genius.
  • A real author is enjoyed on planets we haven’t even heard of yet.

Above all, a real author makes up lies about herself as much as she does about the world around her.

Monday drabble: Firelight

The fire didn’t burn. It never had. It sat on her hand, an extension of her, mesmerizing with its color. Her father tried to keep her away. She was not allowed in the kitchen or near the tribe fire or even near a torch. She had to sneak her moments.

No longer. Lightning had started this fire, and no one stood nearby to naysay. Lakeisha stepped into the flames, letting them wash over and through her. She heard her daughter’s cry, but she didn’t look back. Her mother, grandmother, and all the ages past welcomed her to the fire’s dance.

indexing Q & A

I’m in the middle of hitting an indexing deadline. (Yes, right now I have the PDF page proof open in one window and my preferred indexing program, SKY Index, open in another.) Having been asked a couple of questions about indexing this week, I thought it would make a good topic to discuss here. I’m going to do it in question and answer format, using questions I’ve been asked over the years. If you have any others, feel free to ask in the comments. As always, thank you for reading.

Q: What does an indexer do?

A: Indexers create the indexes in the back of nonfiction books, including cookbooks, textbooks, gardening books, how-to books, biographies, and more.

Q: You mean people do that for a living?

A: You might be surprised at some of the things people do for a living. (Check out Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel — owl vomit collector?) But, yes, there are people who specialize in creating indexers for others. For many technical books or in some micropress houses, the indexing is done in-house. At other presses, some authors do their own indexing, but if they don’t, either the publisher or the author can hire an indexer to do the work for them.

Indexers even band together in national societies and have e-mail mailing lists!

Q: Do you have to read each page?

A: Yes.

Q: When you read each page, do you say, “That looks like a word that should be in the index?”

A: Sometimes. Indexing is more nuanced than that — the indexer has to pick up on the “aboutness” of the material, often using words and phrases that aren’t actually on the page. Synonyms have to be considered, as well as whether to double-post (post the same references under two different entry points) or cross-reference material. In addition to all that, the indexer should note the use of jargon or terms of art and include those.

Q: Can’t a computer create the index?

A: A computer program, such as Microsoft Word, can create a concordance, which only uses words that are on the page and does not consider alternate methods a reader might look up material. To use Word to generate an index, the document has to be tagged with what the entry word should be, and ranges need to be marked (by the use of bookmarks) for terms or ideas that are discussed over a range of pages. One of the simpler ways to create a decent index in a Word document is to index it in an indexing program, edit the index to produce a final result, then go back to the Word document and insert all the index field codes.

Q: Is it hard?

A: Some projects are easier than others, but I’ve learned a lot over the years from books I’ve worked on.

Q: Shouldn’t you be working on that deadline instead of making this blog post longer?

A: Yes.

Is it neurotic if I’m partly right?

I’ve been worrying about my writing not being good enough.

On the one hand, there’s physical proof backing me up on this: I don’t have books on the shelves in a bookstore yet. Not there = not good enough yet. On the other hand, I just started submitting novels this year, so even if I had written a book good enough to win the Pulitzer, Hugo, and Nebula (I haven’t), it still wouldn’t be on the shelves yet. So we’ll discount that and just get back to my worrying.

Specific worry #1: People in my novels are always meeting for coffee, sipping tea, grabbing a bite to eat. Yes, normal people eat and drink, but the generally accepted view is that these scenes do not move a novel. In the Harry Potter books, for example, whenever there was eating, something else was going on — Harry was getting blamed for a floating pudding, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher was being announced, howlers were being sent to students — tension mounted, the plot moved, characters reacted. If, on the other hand, I have my main character and her best friend sitting down to Saturday brunch and talking about their upcoming college reunion, it doesn’t matter how much subtext I’ve layered in that will come to fruition at the climax of the book because no one’s going to read that far.

Response: I have a friend reading the first few chapters to tell me if my urban fantasy is as bad in this regard as I fear. The current plan is to continue the edit pass I’m working through to make sure I’ve added in all the world-building and scene-setting that I left out in my first pass. Then, I need to go back through it again and add more action and tension, deleting (or revising) the ho-hum scenes so that readers will want to keep reading. I even have one idea for something to add. Yes, this means it will take longer to reach a final draft — probably until next year sometime. It’s worth it, if it’s jaw-droppingly good when it lands on an editor’s desk.

Specific worry #2: I’m concerned that my characters, though believable, are not compelling. This worry started when I asked a question on the NaNoWriMo forums (which of your characters would you like to spend a day with?) and realized that most of my characters have rather prosaic lives, interrupted by action or murders to solve. Most of the time, hanging out with them wouldn’t be any different from hanging out with my other friends.

Response: Actually, I’ve been told before that characterization is one of my strong suits. One of my beta readers once applauded a couple of my larger-than-life characters. It’s possible that the only reason I think my characters aren’t compelling is because I live with them in my head. It’s like thinking about somebody dating your brother — what could anyone see in him? (Yes, I’ve asked that of women my brothers have dated. What else are sisters for?) This one may actually be a neurotic worry — I have to worry about something, and this looks like a good choice!

Monday drabble: Priorities

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Action expresses priority.” That was always one of my favorite quotes. If you wanted something enough, you did something about it. I hustled through school, working two jobs in high school to save up money for college — first kid in the family to go, scraped up an internship at Canaveral to get my name known, got a biophysics doctorate, and flew into space.

Now, as bits of shrapnel from the broken space station fall into Earth’s atmosphere, burning on entry, I close my eyes. The only priority left is to not agonize over my approaching death.