Saturday, January 14, 2017

Pinyin - the ultimate translation tool ?

As always, it is amazing where a bit of online wandering takes you. This morning my efforts were wandering around in the world of language learning. First Urdu, which led to Pashto, which in turn led to Mandarin Chinese. Pinyin is pretty much the tool of choice when it comes to westerners trying to do anything with Chinese.

It turns out that not only do westerners have great difficulty with learning Chinese, but native Chinese do as well. Prior to the development and adoption of Pinyin within China, there was an estimated 85% illiteracy rate. Today that rate hovers nearer 5%, with most people crediting pinyin.

The 111 year old man who developed it died today. His story is a good one and well worth the read.

The NY Times (link below) tells a great story both about the tool and its author -

http://nyti.ms/2jIXxZ8

Thursday, December 29, 2016

World Building - everyone wants 'to know where they are'

I've always viewed worldbuilding as a sci-fi kind of thing. Since I've not been writing science fiction or fantasy, I never put much credence in that ' world building ' word. In my view, it didn't fit the fiction I was writing.

Finally, one day it occurred to me that 'research', the word I use most often to describe writing, is much the same thing as world building. Different genre and outlook, but pretty much the same end result.

In pursuit of some validity with new thoughts, I often look at what has passed. In this case, I review my favorite books from my favorite authors for clues as to how much of my like for their work is derived from world building? In other words:

Why do I like the books I like?

Robert Crais and his books (e.g Monkey's Raincoat) come to mind right away. Why do I like this author, his writing style and his books? In part I like them because I like the world that Elvis Cole and Joe Pike inhabit. I like the description he writes of the A-frame house that Elvis lives in up the narrow canyon filled with laurel and eucalyptus. I like the description of the freeways, the restaurants, the grit and grime of LA and its myriad suburbs. Clearly (to me anyway) Robert Crais is a master when it comes to world building. He makes his settings so realistic I am left wondering if they are realistic because they're REAL. That may not even be world building, maybe he's just adept at putting his characters and plot in a setting whose reality is good enough to pass for fiction?

Clive Cussler is one of my earliest finds. For my taste and reading preference, I've come to realize he doesn't quite work as well as Robert Crais. Cussler goes big. Big as in over the edge - into places and settings that are a bit too far from the reality I now know that I've come to prefer. I've (re)read all of CC's books and loved them, but his world building is a monster swing for the fences, that simply goes beyond my subjective preferences. Not really right or wrong, but a question of individual preference.

CJ Box (e.g. Open Season) is another author whose work I vastly admire and consume. Again, In looking at why I like what I like, Mr. Box writes about a setting I like. The game warden, his wife and three daughters live in Saddlestring, Wyoming, a small town on the edge of wild space type of setting. I can picture the setting and have been in that exact part of the state, but never in Saddlestring, which I'm still not sure exists. But it could and that's part of what makes his setting and world building so cool.

There's some corollaries to this world building notion that also work. Myron Bolitar, another of my all time favorite characters, is plopped down in New Jersey. Author Harlan Coben (e.g. Deal Breaker)does a great job with making NJ seem like a reasonable place, but what he does that I like so much is make Myron a former NBA player. Basketball is one of my favorites when it comes to watching and playing, so having a character with basketball as a big part of his backstory is a great piece of corollary world building.

Maybe fiction is at its best, when the world building is so good and so in sync with your personal preferences that it gets hard to separate real life from fictional life?

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Wonders of Research and...Serendipity

Time marches on stopping for no one and...I like research more than ever.

Love of terrain suggested that I dally about in my writing with using real places. So my books are all placed in real locations. The first two books River and Ranch and New Grass Growing, are Idaho books along with some Montana, some road trip and a little bit of Midwest. Mostly it is Idaho because that is where I spent the most time as a river guide back in the day.


View of Kooskia internment camp, 1944, Idaho. Courtesy of PG 103-02-2, Kooskia Internment Camp Scrapbook, Historical Photograph Collection, University of Idaho Library, Moscow, ID

Somehow (this is the first serendipity part) I came across the fact that one of the side creeks to the Lochsa river was the site of an internment camp during WWII, for Japanese residents of the US. There were about 20 of these camps spread around the country to house the 120,000 AMERICAN citizens of Japanese descent during WWII. A dark blemish on WWII history. fwiw, the men who lived in this camp on the side creek of the Lochsa, were the primary road builders of the stretch of Highway 12 running up to Lolo Pass, through the many long uphill miles of the narrow Lochsa canyon.

Sometime later I was again on my way to something and enjoying the pleasant process of discovering other things along the way (is this not the definition of serendipity?) when I found that George Takei, as a child, had been a resident of one of these US internment camps during WWII. While I'm not a particularly big Star Trek fan, I have watched them and recognized Takei, mainly because he possesses one of the most fabulous deep voices in the history of acting.

In the world of writing styles, there's an authorly discussion regarding how one writes. Inquiring minds bring up the question of an author being a 'plotter' or a 'pantser', as in seat of the pants. I identify most with being a 'pantser', because this luck of serendipity showing me all these random and fascinating gems hidden away in our culture, keeps my plots veering off in unexpected directions as I stumble across topics that are simply too good to pass up.

George Takei (amongst many other links)

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Ken Follett - author of female characters with some Agency

I found myself with time to spare the other day. Even better I was 'downtown' - if you can call the staid Main street of Stoughton that word. Some say it is a cute place...but I digress. I went to the library. Considered Fosdal's, but I 'want' sugary sweet Norwegian stuff. I don't 'need' those things. Want is so much more fun than need. Again I digress. The librarian, not named Marian btw, showed me NoveList, an online book database that offers more metadata and labels and tags and search options than you can shake a stick at. Or a donut. Fosdal's has really good donuts. Novelist helped me discover Ken Follett. I was looking for other books on my main writing topic and he popped up. More importantly, the STO library had his work on their shelf. We do live in a time of instant gratification after all - right? I found him in the stacks. And have now read two of his books - Lie Down with Lions and JackDaws. My point - BOTH of these books offer strong women as main characters. Some of the strongest I have comes across so far in my reading life or at least my reading memory. Strong plot lines centering on the woman. To my eyes, each of these women are stand alone interesting characters, not strong ass kickers with breasts as is so often the case. Much more substance, by far, than the Bechdel test's 'can she be replaced with a lamp' test. Independent, stand alone, feminine. I am impressed with Ken Follett as an author who writes interesting characters that are women. Do these characters completely pass the Bechdel set of criteria? Not quite. Each character does have a love interest, BUT the emphasis is reversed. The men are the minor characters and BOTH WOMEN are the STRONG characters. Really quite refreshing and great to read. Lie Down with Lions offers a compelling setting and an interesting description of surroundings. Good stuff. A lead main character that is a woman is even better. imo, Ken Follett is well worth reading, especially Lie Down with Lions.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

First person view works best in Present Tense

Present tense. Real time. In the moment. Immersed in events. What do these topics all have in common?

They lend themselves to writing in a "first person" point of view. The big upside is the book is like a written movie. See hear taste feel - all those things work well in first person because they are all "in the moment" experiential events that you (the writer) can describe.

I guess I'm a little slow on the uptake. It's taken me a long time to concisely realize this. I stayed up late last night and read 'The Promise', one of Robert Crais' more recent (most recent?) books. A fine book I might add. I read the whole thing in one night. I couldn't put it down. Most importantly, in reading his book I had my 'ah ha' moment where the old synapses finally fired and I perceived the thought that is the title of this blog entry:

Let's say it together:

A story written in FIRST PERSON point of view, generally works best and/or easiest in the PRESENT TENSE.

Surprise surprise dialogue is a big part of conveying info. First person present tense is pretty much tailor made for your characters to talk and talk some more.makes sense, after all you don't talk to somebody from yesterday or over in Afghanistan right? Dialogue is a face to face present tense kind of thing.

Verb tense problems are largely solved in the present tense. 'was' and 'had' are two legit verbs/words, but I dislike them both a good bit. Lo and behold, both those nasty words show up when I read passages that are not firmly in the present tense. They pop up in back story or something outside of the 'here and now' where active vibrant verbs ending in 'ing' tend to roam free, along with herds of nouns sprinkled with the occasional adjective and rare adverb.

Some things fit and some do not, at least in my experience and again looking at this fresh example of Crais' new (and awesome) book 'The Promise'. Character backstory is almost not there. For Crais and this long running series that's not such a problem. But for me, as I go about getting my first book out the door, backstory is something I want/need to include as my characters splash down into chapters. Somehow. Dialogue works for bits. One character talking about another works for a bit more. Flashbacks add some backstory. The bad guy talking about the good guy's exploits adds a bit. But all of that together is a far cry from the pages of backstory that lurk in the margins tempting me for an info dump.

While I am anxious to explain my rich and thick, complex characters, I have come to recognize that is something I want to do. This is not the same as something my readers will necessarily value. So with ego bruised, I have cut out swaths of character backstory. The editor in me recognizing that, even though this is not true genre fiction, nonetheless I do need to keep things moving along.

If you can see your characters in real time and talking a fair amount, then go with present tense. If long monloguish introspection is your gig, avoid first person present tense, and make sure your introspective soliloquies are something your readers will enjoy.

PS

Crais comes through again with more of his style that makes him one of my favorite writers. He continues to set his characters in eating and food prep. Yes kitchen scenes describing what the character is making and eating. Food description. In Crais' hands it's a great thing. At least to me.

Further, he continues describing local geography, whether it be the nasty spaghetti jungle of L.A.'s freeways or the eucalyptus covered canyon walls of L.A.'s upscale neighborhoods.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

My Favorite Authors and Why I Like Them

Every writer starts somewhere right? For many, including me, that somewhere was in finding authors that I really liked and wanted to read more. In reading multiple books from those authors I started realizing what it was I liked about the books and by extension, the authors. In no particular order, I've found Clive Cussler, Robert Crais, Harlan Coben, Jack du Brul, CJ Box, John D MacDonald, Randy Wayne White, James Rollins, and Steve Berry, to be authors that I seek out and look forward to reading.

Back in the day, someone told me about Clive Cussler. Origins remain fuzzy, but I read him and years after reading the first Cussler book, I think I can say that I have now read them all. At least the ones contained in the library system and its many branches that were kind enough to send books to my branch so I could check them out.
For lack of a better phrase, I think Cussler writes techno thrillers. Simple, clean, fast reading books, that I cannot put down. Maybe it's a guy thing. I first came to like that his characters always have partners. Dirk Pitt has Al Giordino, Kurt Austin has Joe Zavala. The Oregon Files falls away from the "pair" idea, but a close knit character cast preserves the theme of the main characters interacting with someone close to them. The second thing I like is the geography of his books. One of his earlier Pitt novels takes place in the PacNW. Big events happen in Lake Quinault, a place I have actually been, and even paddled.
The third thing I like about Cussler's style is that the plots involve big amazing world changing things, that are all private, non-governmental affairs. For the most part, the bad guys are captains of industry not civil servants, nor are they holy warriors burning for a religious cause. Also a welcome break from today's reality. Good stuff from one of my favorites.

One of Cussler's co-authors, Jack du Brul, became another favorite author of mine. Cussler and du Brul co-wrote several of the Oregon Files series, which are my favorite of all the Cussler books.
The main du Brul character, is Phillip Mercer. This guy is a consulting geologist, which is near and dear to the Geology major that I tote around (Univ. Montana, class of '90). Similar techno thriller style, all very readable. Wish he would hurry up and write another one!

Robert Crais is another big favorite. Again the notion of main character and close partner is present. Elvis Cole is the main and Joe Pike is the partner. Elvis also has an old cat that pops up in the books. I like that cat. I like reading about the character interacting with an animal they like. There's a bunch of books in their series. Read'em all. Great stuff.
Aside from the partner piece and the inclusion of an animal in Crais' style, what I like most in his books is the strong sense of locality. Crais writes about things that happen in the LA area for the most part. Cole lives in an A frame up in one of the canyons. How Cole and Pike get around the LA area is always part of the narrative. Where the crime is committed is described with street and avenues and neighborhoods. Love this kind of writing. The sense of place is well done. Again hurry up and write another one!

Harlan Coben is another in my list of favorites. He's a mystery thriller kind of author. One more writer who has kept me up all night, more than once.
Again, HC has his MC paired up with another strong character. Myron is the central character and Win is the sidekick. The nasty vicious sociopath sidekick, rich beyond belief who's there for Myron as needed. It may read cynical or sarcastic, but Win is all of that and then some and the duo work very well in all of the books I've read. And loved.
Two things stand out for me with Mr Coben's writing. First Myron is an injury ravaged former pro basketball player. Very interesting background for a character. Second, Myron comes from a very middle class upbringing and he is one of the very few characters in fiction that ever mention his parents, much less live with them like Myron does. Even better, Myron talks with his parents and even sleeps in his old childhood bed. All that makes him seems more real and, to me, more interesting.
Coban has Myron drinking 'YooHoo', whatever that is. It's one of Myron's favorite food things and is an interesting twist in character description that I like. The cat hanging around Elvis Cole and Myron drinking YooHoo are both 'personal' for lack of a better work and add unique touches to each of the characters. Cussler does not do that with his characters, at least to my recollection. Cussler offers little background to his characters, which is another contrast with Crais and Coben. Dirk Pitt does come to discover he has kids that he never knew about, but that's a different kind of plot twist in my mind. du Brul's character, Mercer, is friends with an old smoking, drinking, grandfatherly kind of minor character. Another twist that makes the MC seems more human somehow.

One more before this post gets too long. Randy Wayne White has a great series of books that he's written about Doc Savage. Doc is a quiet living flyfisherman (I think) spending his day in a stilt house just offshore Florida. The exact location I forget. He collects aquatic life for supplying laboratories. A little weird, definitely unique. You know he's got a whole hidden side and you're right. RWW tales about Doc Savage do not disappoint. Doc is quiet living most of the time and a whirling dervish when called into action. Fabulous reading.
Doc (and RWW) fit the sidekick them quite well. Doc's best friend is a pot smoking old hippie with his own side story and personality. Doc as character and story is only made more interesting with the inclusion of this partner - not in crime but in everyday living. A great series of books.

Like the thought bubble in a comic book - 'nuff said! Go read a book!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Write What You Know and Content that Interests Readers - a Venn Choice


I know I have my own few pet interests. No I'm not talking about my dog. I'm talking about the small handful of topics that I know in depth. Restated - there's only a few things that I feel I know enough about and am therefore comfortable writing about. And so we arrive at the image above. The question I feel this brings up is "Do you / Can you write about topics that catch reader interest?" Are you aware of your own topic strengths? Are you cognizant of reader's interests? Does your authorial expertise and reader interest intersect?

I find this an interesting place to be. Self awareness*, in this case is a good thing. Writing a book, all the while under the presumption that what you write is going to sell, is a risk, maybe even the height of folly. It's like a new business. The owner of the business, presumably the person with the idea that has been brought to fruition in the form of that business, hopefully sat down and had a cold blooded, self-aware, rational discussion. "How come no one has done this before?", "Is there a market?", "Is the market large enough?" "Who is my target buyer?" "Who is my target customer?"

I think writing a book could use this same discussion and pseudo risk analysis. It's different from being a good writer, in the many ways that can be defined. This is about whether or not there is a market, AS DEFINED by the drawing above. It's not only your expertise OR the reader's interests. It's about the intersection of the two.

Has your topic been written about before? Can you find a target group of readers? Besides your relatives? Many times there is no answer. Do you have a notion of how you can create awareness and desire for your new book? There's no perfect answer here, that's why I threw in "risk analysis". Better to be aware of this line of thought and the resulting possibilities, than to jump in, write the book and watch it lay on the shelf unwanted, without EVER REALIZING this was a possible outcome. I think of, and greatly admire, JK Rowling sitting in some Brit café, sipping her hot tea, broke and almost penniless, as she wrote her set of world altering stories. She probably had no answers to any of those questions. She just wanted to write a good story about a topic she apparently knew well enough to write about. So she did and the world is better for it. On the other hand, I just read a LinkedIn group question from an author lamenting the lack of sales for their new book. Opposite ends of the same subject.

At the end of the day, your book will never happen if you only dream about it. Writing remains the first critical step. Maybe though, there's a sliver of space for rational analysis of the Venn part of your expertise and reader interest?

*Self awareness in the form of "selfies" takes this term a bit too far imo. Of course this could just be me, watching my kids take pictures of themselves WAY too often...