I Bought Plotto

A book arrived in the mail yesterday from Amazon. Hardcopy book; real mail. I hope the texture, heft, and aroma of a book will never stop bringing my day to a halt so that I can imbibe the sumptiousness of a new one.

This one is an odd duck of a book. It is a reprint of a book from the late 20s, and it is a Mechanical Turk for plot construction.

I’ve always been skeptical about learn-to-write books and software. Maybe it’s the too-good-to-be-true sense I get for the effort of writing. Maybe it’s the instinctual knowledge that writing is a gifted art. But since I still struggle with unloosening that gift from the packaging and finding the batteries, I rubber-neck these types of books. I’m sure all these books have at least one morsel of value, but the good books are the ones which have more morsels than gristle. I’ve read a few of those.

I think this new book, Plotto by William Wallace Cook, out-gimmicks all the gimmick riddled how-to-write books. The intriguing part, the characteristic which brings the value, though is that it is the grandaddy of such books. It is the how-to-write book that this generation of books forgot existed. I’m looking forward to finding out how this genre read for our grandparents.

So far, it seems genuine and lacking of self-awareness. And complicated.

229 words on day 935

Overthinking Practical Magic

I chose not to write yesterday morning. My loose plan was to write in the evening after a day at work which would not be satisfying but at least over. Once that day was over, the prospect of writing anything more substantial than a waste of both our times increased from very likely to basically inevitable. For two hours I thought I might find inspiration in watching Practical Magic. I was inspired to choose not to write after all—that was more the late hour than the material.

Going in I recalled that I liked Practical Magic, but hadn’t seen it more than twice. I guess when I’ve got nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon it’s always “While You Were Sleeping” day and not “Practical Magic” day on Lifetime. Having now seen it three times, I’d say the movie is just OK. It tries hard to be better than it is. Those stunted attempts don’t get it marked down, but they don’t get it marked up either. You can see the filmmakers’ solid efforts to remain true to a book that must have been packed with stuff while also trying to fit that all into a two hour package.

My meager schooling in older movies, black and white ones, reminds me there used to be explicit scenes showing a person in NY packing a bag, driving to the airport, waiting at the airport, on a plane, and so forth until they were finally rooted in LA. As movies have matured those travel scenes have been truncated to a telegraphing line in Central Park about moving to LA followed by a shot of the character unpacking a bag with a In and Out Burger visible through the motel window. No packing, no driving, no airport, no plane. Unless its a road movie, we never see travel much these days. Practical Magic did much of the same thing but with emotional travel. Two young girls casting a spell cuts to one of them as a young adult sneaking out and the other staying behind. That fast forwards to the stay-behind lonely and unloved which turns into a magic induced first kiss, marriage, two kids, and then a widow making. Back in the days before pausing, if you’d gotten up to pee prior to this you’d have missed the whole thing and been wondering where the hell those daughters came from.

Sometimes strategic gaps are fine. Sometimes when they aren’t fine they are still necessary. Sometimes they aren’t fine at all. As often as they were fine or needed in Practical Magic they were also jarring. I doubt anyone was satisfied with the exorcism at the end—the stay-behind had no trouble marshaling her sneering neighbors to form a coven and save her returned sister. I have little doubt the book spent time showing how those women overcame their petty disgust of the sisters’ witchery to identify with the returned ones man-trouble or how a few of them had secretly coveted their powers and saw this as an in. Or maybe there were cut scenes which showed the two-faced women of the town sneaking help from the witches in private only to denounce them in public and stay-behind blackmailed them. Whatever the motivation in pulp, it was lacking from the celluloid. And I noticed.

And I don’t know what that means.

Does it mean that I know movies aren’t books and books aren’t movies? Does it mean that I’m developing a more critical eye toward the pieces of a story? The first I knew; the second I need but don’t know how to wield.

601 words on day 837

An Alex Toth Magnet

>>On Thu, Dec 16, 2010 at 9:59 PM, Chris wrote:
>>You may have already seen this – seems like the kind of topic you
>>are interested in (comics that is, not the searing criticism).



I find it somewhat interesting that this isn’t the first time I’ve been asked my opinion on Alex Toth’s opinions:

Professional creative people rely on critical assessment from colleagues, mentors, and others with similar skill sets to keep them in check in some instances and to challenge them in others. The subjective practices of drawing and sculpting and storytelling and dancing all suffer from the Xerox effect–the copying of a copy, and without someone calling bullshit, without someone saying this iteration simply isn’t good enough, each new generation of artist gets by with less than the previous generation.

However, a faulty premise lingers in this common relationship between fellow artists. We assume that when a person is great at drawing or sculpting or storytelling or dancing that that person is also great at explaining how to do those things to others, but giving criticism is a learned skill as well. Some people critique well, others mirror what worked on them, and still others give bad direction. Without knowing anything at all about how Alex Toth was trained, I’d estimate he fits in the second group more than the other two. I think he had a mentor that sensed in Toth a tendency to respond positively to harsh criticism, and Toth probably excelled under such duress. I doubt he even gave much thought to how he’d help others. I’m sure this “great gives great” assumption forms the crux of the widespread interest in Toth’s critique of Steve Rude.

The cognitive dissonance attracts people to this car wreck. The crowd says to themselves, Toth was such an excellent artist and a legend that he must be correct, but holy hell he seems to have gone to the extreme.

The best evidence for Toth’s poor criticising skills is ironically his only real compliment in the diatribe. When he indicates that one of the panels is “…Okay—I guess—” my interpretation is that he feels compelled to have a response to every single thing Rude drew: each page, each panel, each character, each item, and each line. He’s compelled by his poor criticism skills to deliver a note about ever portion of the work. He’s lumped minor flaws in with major flaws. A better criticiser would have defined a threshold and only noted mistakes above (or below) that threshold. In my writing experience, highlighting positives along with negatives is considered good form.

There are stages to becoming great. I won’t outline them all, but this conversation between artists provides excellent examples of two of those stages. Steve Rude recognizes his internal appraisal of his work needs a bit of external guidance so he seeks that guidance from Alex Toth. Rude’s cool-headed reply indicates that he’s able to distinguish between true flaws and ranty ones. I’d say Rude’s at the uppermost level of that particular phase. Alex Toth resides further along the process. He’s great because he can effectively self-criticise. He can lazily draw a character and then recognize the need to fix it. Now doubt he doesn’t even get lines on the paper before he’s roughed out several panels in his mind first. Unlike Rude, Toth is at the lower end of his phase; Toth assumes what works for him works for all.

584 words on day 622

Scrivener for Windows

For all the years I’ve been writing—or wanting to write—and been on the web I’ve looked for software that might help me write better. I mean that exactly as it reads. I never purchased any of the gimmicky apps which purported to help you write a novel or a screenplay, but I did download and try the demos. I knew intuitively that software wouldn’t elevate my writing, but I hoped it might inspire me to write more. None of what I found did. Nearly every application I found wanted me to plug in the details of my characters: height, weight, eye color, and goals—like the first three mattered and like I knew the last. If I knew my characters’ goals I wouldn’t need your software. When I could fake a goal or when I just loremipsummed one up the results were nothing more than an mishmash of words I could have just as easily written on Post-it notes and then stuck around my monitor. A messy electronic mirror of my messy organic brain.

Along the way I ran into program which made more sense to me as a writer. Programs which help organize the pages and chapters and books. Sometimes these would also manage the submissions as well. YWriter stands prominently in my memory for that. I recognized the value of doing these things, but I didn’t see much value in these apps either because I could do all the organizing I needed with MS Word—for awhile WordPerfect—and a good directory structure. Considering how quickly I write, tracking submissions wasn’t a priority. The interfaces on these apps were an act of love not an act of UX.

Eventually I heard of Scrivener, and that it was for the Mac. I could look at screenshots, I could read reviews and raves, but I couldn’t touch it. Undeterred, I google “like scrivener for windows” every quarter or so. That search invariably coughed up BinderX or whatever that braindump mess is called. So many people seem to like that tool that it worries me I’ve not got the correct brain for it. But given what little I imagine is true about working writers I can’t see how any of them would stand for what comes across to me as a shoe box for postcards, a notepad, and a stubby pencil.

More recently I have found Q10, WriteMonkey, and Celtx. Q10 was great except it isn’t being actively developed. I use WriteMonkey daily and don’t recall why I hesitated dropping Q10 at the time. Celtx does its thing well, but, as much as I want to like it and want to need it, I just kinda like it and don’t really need it at all. As good as Scrivener for Windows is looking I doubt I’ll drop the pure black screen of WriteMonkey for Scrivener’s black text on white or other paper. I’ll copy and paste.

This beta version of Scrivener for Windows is tight so far. I’ve only run into one glitch; anything else I may have found clunky or odd can be attributed to having been born of Mac thinking or just developer style—I think. The interface is sleek and usable. The icons feel good. This is clearly professional software and I’ll consider spending money on it when that time comes.

As a developer I really like the idea that the software I use is aware of the related files I may need quick access to while working. The Binder pane comforts me, but it also confuses me. I understand how it works and what it does; I don’t know how I’ll employ it in the context of writing. When it comes to writing I’m not sure I need to have all writings located in well organized places. Looking back on my writing I can see where I would retro-organize what I already have written, but I don’t think I would have done that much organizing ahead of the writing.

Yesterday I wrote elsewhere.

513 words on day 571

Indexing and Reading More Like a Writer

Yesterday I reignited an old effort to index and catalogue the work I’ve done here on 1000 Days. You may recall I’d attempted or claimed to have attempted to create a glossary. Yesterday I created a better infrastructure for following through on that endeavor. I may use it as a safety net for one day of weekend writing.

Aside from creating a default activity to go to during those tough-to-write-on Sundays during football season, I look forward to defining the volume of what I’ve done over the past years as well as uncovering some misplaced toys from the youth of my daily writing. Toys I knew I had, but forgot I enjoyed.

Finding Mr. Johnathan Goffe, The Shanty, and You all before entry thirty-two surprised me a bit. I’m certain I’ve not created two such deep wells in a thirty-day span since. Or if I have, I haven’t done so in a while. Indexing 1000 Days should help.

I bought a Kindle 3 less than a month ago. I’ve read several sample bits on it, I’ve loaded it with books I’ve already read on the iPhone, and I’ve read more than halfway through my first full novel on it. This inaugural book, Clockwork Angel, kicks off the The Infernal Devices Series by Cassandra Clare. The balance of the series remains pre-published. Clare published three previous novels in the same world but set in present day. Clockwork Angel finds it’s setting in 18th century England.

These Young Adult novels appeal to me because I find myself looking more and more at books from the perspective of my children. I wonder what I might read to them; I wonder what they might choose to read to themselves. Of course, ‘clockwork’ in the title captures my eye—so far, I’m left cold on the point of the title.

The book is well written and good, but I doubt I’ll purchase the first series or even the second book in this series soon. I may purchase them after some other reading. This one just didn’t grab me which is likely not a surprise to the author since I’m a middle-aged man rather than a much younger girl. The suspense, both dramatic and romantic, feels a little drawn out for my taste. And, my God!, the descriptions of eyeballs overwhelms me. Sure, window to the soul and all, but apparently front door, back door, and chimney as well.

None of that was meant to be my point. I meant my point to be that I’ve been reading with more of an authorial eye. Appraising what I’ve read from a creator’s perspective rather than a consumer’s. I’m not great at it, but I think I’m getting better.

459 words on day 549

Practice Being

Day 478

Several months ago I purchased the Mouse Guard Roleplaying book. I’ve been reading the Mouse Guard comics for some time now and have generally collected anything David Petersen has written regarding mice. I’m becoming less enthusiastic as he’s not been as prolific as I’d like, but when he’s doing, he’s doing it well.

This past weekend I finally started reading the book. It’s different than I’d expected. Meatier. Not typical. It’s not a roleplaying experience I’m familiar with. I’m not familiar with many.

I’ve not finished reading the manual—I’m only a couple chapters beyond the intro—but I’m impressed with the heavy emphasis on plot driven play. I don’t know how well that works in actual play, but it sure stirs the writing guy in me. Give’s me more ways to think of the things I’ve been thinking but not writing recently. I’m starting to believe that placing a target in front of a character and a time limit for her to obtain that goal may just be a plot. That the random conflicts the author throws up develop meaning through mere presence in the story.

I don’t believe and I’m not saying here that just doing these things makes a story great or even just good, but the do make a story. I still need to practice being, before I can practice being good.

224 words

Much Like an MMO

I completed my second reading of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea” Saturday night.  A young wizard named Ged struggles with the consequences of his early, untutored, foray into magic.  I am aware, though uncertain how, this tale is considered groundbreaking for it’s non-white main character.  Or maybe it’s just considered a good story and happens to have a non-white character.

The first time I read the story I found it passable but not compelling.  Despite being set in an extensive and (we’re told) diverse archipelago the plot clings tightly to the young wizard.  Essentially Ged’s story is a quest unencumbered with a motley troupe of characters and nothing unexpected occurs.  Sure, Ged overcomes a trial or two, but in the end he whacks the big evil on the head and lives to make book two.

I describe Ged as non-white, because I know Le Guin told me her character possessed dark skin, but I never got a definitive picture of what exactly that meant.  I know people who develop a mental image of folks they’ve only met over the phone: blonde, slightly overweight, and jovial.  I don’t do that, to me the voice is the person.  My style of reading mirrors my phone style.  It accounts mostly for plot, dialogue, tempo, and emotion but it doesn’t linger on what color a dragon is, how long a sword might be, or the subtle difference between glowing magefire or gleaming magefire.

In any case, Ged’s color played no part in the story.  Maybe that’s the groundbreaking part.  I don’t know.

I read the book a second time for three reasons: it wasn’t bad the first time, it was short, and I was convinced that I might come to understand the importance of the book.  It still wasn’t bad, it still was the same length, I still don’t comprehend.  I feel bad about the last one, but I’m not sure what more I can do.

All this is really preamble for me to tell you that I’m now finally reading that book I bought a couple weeks back: the complete short stories of John Steinbeck.

Day 337