Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tools and Tips For the Writing Process

This post will be different than all but one of my previous posts. I thought I would share some tips I've learned about the writing process.

Everyone who writes on a regular basis must figure out a process that works for them. I've seen several hundred recommendations about "how" to write on the Internet and in books, but each author can only speak for himself. For instance, Hemingway is said to prefer writing while standing; no thanks. Mark Twain is said to write while in a reclined position in bed; I would fall asleep in ten minutes. Etcetera, etcetera.

Besides, most writers mentioned in quotes wrote with pen and paper; we live in an electronic world now.

With this in mind, here are some things that work for me.

Time of Day For Writing

I write best in the morning when my mind is uncluttered by "day crap." I wrote most of my first novel, CANALS, between the hours of 5:30 and 8:00 a.m. Afternoon is OK if I shut out the world. (I discuss how I do this in this post.) I write poorly in the evening and envy those who can. I'm simply amazed by people who can write while watching TV or chatting on Twitter.

Scrivener for Windows

I now write with Scrivener for Windows. It's a great writing program. The only thing it lacks that other programs like it have is a graphic timeline for each character in your novel. There's probably some way to get at that information easily with features like "Key Words," but I haven't figured it out yet.

I did a lot of research while writing THE MIGHTY T. The setting for the novel is Modesto, where I live, and surrounding areas, including the Hetch Hetchy section of the Yosemite National Park. I wanted streets and locations, etc., to be as realistic as possible to appeal to local readers, whom I expect to buy my book in droves. (Most of my local citizens apparently missed that memo.)

Said research was organized as printouts stuffed into file folders, bookmarks in Firefox, or downloads stored on the hard drive. Toward the end of writing the first draft, and later when editing, finding specific information was time consuming because I had to first remember where it was cataloged. Additionally, I work on two computers!

You can place all of your research in Scrivener regardless of the format. Web pages can be dragged into the Research Tab for later review (provided you have an Internet connection). Photos and documents on your computer can be linked to. Even PDFs can be placed in the Research Tab. Everything is in one place.

My Scrivener files sit in my DropBox folder so they're available for viewing (but not editing) on my iPad and editing on my old Acer (see below).

When creating text, I write best on an uncluttered screen. I don't want to see a menu or notes or anything. Scrivener allows you to do that with their Full Screen mode and you can set it up so the text you're writing stays in the middle of the screen, like a typewriter. Very cool for creating new text.

Scrivener for Windows is currently in beta and is free. The functions I use most work fine, but I'm looking forward to it's official release. It'll only cost about forty bucks—a bargain. The Mac version is at 2.0, so it's fully functional. I would love to switch platforms; anyone want to donate a Mac?

Full reviews of Scrivener abound on the Internet. I've just scratched the surface here.

iPad, iA Writer, and the clean writing environment.

I learned to concentrate in a busy environment when studying for grueling state board exams. I could sit at a cafe inside a busy mall while memorizing the origin and distribution of cranial nerves and the signs and symptoms of, as well as the differential diagnosis for, benign intercranial hypertension.

My old Acer notebook computer served me well for six years, but the battery lasts only ninety minutes now and I've somehow damaged the "V" key; all words with a "V" have to be retyped.

Now I do a lot of writing on an iPad. I bought the iA Writer app for ninety-nine cents and an Apple wireless keyboard (NOT ninety-nine cents). Writer saves files in .txt format so documents can be imported into any word processor or writing program, including Scrivener. You have spell checking because it's native to Apple's iOS, but there's no formatting whatsoever. Which leads me to...

I prefer to write in what I like to call "retro" fashion. Writer uses a monospace font and I write with Courier in Scrivener; reminds me of a typewriter. I set up the iPad to display in reversed mode: black and white are reversed. This lets me type white text onto a black background. Writing like this is easy on my eyes and allows the iPad's already great battery to last even longer. The Apple keyboard has a great feel. My only complaint about it is, it's "Delete" key acts like the "Backspace" key on a PC keyboard; very strange and hard to get used to.

Writer syncs with your DropBox account so your files are available on any device you have connected to DropBox. I don't completely trust cloud computing, though, so I also email my files to myself from inside Writer. When I write or edit on my desktop, I save the files to a portable hard drive every day. EVERY DAY. Lastly, when you back up your iPad to iTunes, you can access all your Writer files and save them to your computer if DropBox is down.


OmmWriter is a cool writing app similar to Writer in that it uses a simple, clean interface. I use it occasionally on my desktop, but not often because Scrivener's full screen works the same and has a built-in spell checker. I haven't broken my addiction to on-the-fly spell checking. The OmmWriter app became available in the App Store yesterday, May 30. It lacks file sync with DropBox but lets you email your file to yourself and, of course, you have access to your files through iTunes.

What OmmWriter, desktop or app, has that Writer and Scrivener don't is a sound track designed to help you focus and be creative. I've used it once or twice with the Acer, and with headphones, and I must admit the music really helps me concentrate. Try it out for free on your PC or Mac and see if it helps your writing. It's $4.99 for the iPad. iPad app has spell checking, because it's built in iOS.

MicroSoft Word. I'll still use Word because Smashwords requires files in Word's old .doc format. It's a great program, no doubt, especially when used in Full Screen mode so you don't get distracted by all the menu options. I no longer use it when writing drafts because I'm tempted to fuss over whether a word should be italicized or not, or bring up the thesaurus to see if I can find a different word (there's ALWAYS a different word). Those activities are for edits.

What else? I found a pair of headphones on Amazon that fit snuggly into my ears and block most ambient noise. They're made for the iPhone but of course will work with any device with a standard headphone jack. It was less that $20 and sounds better than my Bose ear buds that cost $70. My Bose QuietComfort II headphones are the best at silencing the world but they're so big that I rarely use them; I feel self conscious wearing them, like I'm trying to be antisocial. Plus the large case doesn't fit in my small briefcase.

I hope you found something useful here.

If you have tips or tricks you've found useful for your writing or studying, please feel free to share, if you have the time.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Native American Rivalry Over Hetch Hechy

John Muir with Yosemite-Mono Paiute, circa 1901

“Miwuk girls are ugly,” Paul had told Jack, after taking a seat on Jack’s porch and popping open a can of Coke he’d found in Jack’s fridge. “I was hoping to get a date but the girls looked like your dog.”
Jack’s dog, an old mongrel, got off the porch and disappeared around the corner of the house. Paul watched the dog go and said, “A couple looked like your dog’s ass.”
“Now look what you did,” Jack said. “You insulted my dog. Go apologize.”
Paul drained half the Coke. “Hey, I heard a new joke. Want to hear it?”
“So, some Miwuks were celebrating in the corner of a bar one day and they were shouting, ‘Forty-one days! Forty-one days!’ So the bartender’s watching them, and more Miwuks come in and join the celebration. The bartender finally gets curious so he goes over and says, ‘Why are you celebrating, shouting “forty-one days, forty-one days?” ’ ”
Paul takes another hit from the Coke and delivers the punch line: “A Miwuk holds up a ten-piece puzzle box and says, ‘The box says four to six years, but it only took us forty-one days!’ ”
Paul roared, and Jack smiled, despite his best effort not to.
“I don’t know why they hold that festival every year,” Paul said. “All they do is eat shitty food and play those stupid hand games, and dance around like it was still the 1800s.”
“Because young assholes like you have to be taught what it was like before the white man stole our land.”
Paul snorted. “That was even before your time, Uncle. You got to let that shit go. You know what was weird, though, there was a crazy white guy there dressed up like a Miwuk, in that stupid outfit that makes them look like chickens. He was dancing with the Miwuks, which means he was acting like an ass.” He laughed again.
Paul helped himself to another Coke, drained half of it and belched. “You should have heard the shit he was laying out. He was saying the white man killed the Tuolumne River and cheated the Miwuks out of their rights, or some shit like that. Like the Miwuks ever owned the Tuolumne River.” Paul laughed. “He’s white, but he thinks he’s an Indian.”
Jack, who had been thinking about Hetch Hetchy and working his way toward a nap when his nephew dropped in to drink his Cokes, was now wide awake. He said, “Yeah?”
“Yeah. You know what’s so stupid? Of all the Indians a white guy could pretend to be, he picks the Miwuks.” Another round of laughter.

Is there really a rivalry between the Miwuks and Paiute (Jack and Paul are Paiute) and do the Paiute look down their noses at the Miwuk as depicted in this scene?

From my research, probably not. At least not today. They might have been hundreds of years ago, when their paths crossed. That wasn’t likely because the Paiute lived primarily in the high country while the Miwuk stuck to the valley and foothills. The Miwuk in the valley lived in mud huts and were called “diggers”, and were considered extremely lazy and indolent by white settlers (invaders?).

The Paiutes were proud warriors; the Miwuk, not so much. The Paiutes’ last successful defense of Hetch Hetchy was against the Big Creek Band of Miwuks, who were repelled and driven back into the foothills.

The Paiutes didn’t live in Hetch Hetchy year-round, they migrated through it seasonally to gather food such as pine nuts, which could be stored for the winter. It was also a place of refuge for them, a sacred valley. When the 1872 the Lone Pine earthquake rocked Yosemite Valley (Hetch Hetchy is Yosemite’s little sister) causing massive rock slides, five hundred Paiutes were spotted in Hetch Hetchy.

I’ve taken literary license in this scene to show how the old Paiutes first heard of John Lightfoot. Paul’s joke about the Miwuks and the puzzle is an old one I Googled into; one Native American group really used it to make fun of another. I guess rivalries still exist. 

Hetch Hetchy Valley before being flooded.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Why Psychopath Mindy Is So Fascinating

Mindy pretended to look for someone for a few seconds, then spotted Hammond at the bar on his usual stool. She’d seen him there before, when she was a redhead and wore four times the clothing she did tonight. The others had seen him there, too. The man was incredibly predictable.

Now that she was here and it was time, her fingers started to itch, but it was a mild itch. Had Griffith not relieved some of her tension earlier in the van, it would’ve been all she could do not to cut his head off right here in the bar in front of everyone.

Instead, Mindy followed the plan, stuck to the script, and let the pig think he was picking her up. He disgusted her, with his big chin and shiny Rolex, but she warmed to the part, knowing how it would end for him.

The fool kept the drinks coming, thinking he was getting her drunk. What an idiot. The last man who thought he could out drink her wound up in the hospital getting his stomach pumped. She drank Hammond’s wine, had a little buzz but acted drunk, slurring her words and stumbling when she went to the restroom as she’d been coached.

The food, though, was wonderful. When Hammond suggested the fish and chips, she’d fought the urge to jab him in the eye with her fork. She ordered her cheeseburger medium rare, ate every crumb and soaked up every drop of juice on the plate. For those few minutes, she hadn’t even minded Hammond, who droned on about himself, how important he was. What a great man he was.

The waiter took her plate and Hammond poured more wine. She feigned interest in his blathering, and noticed his glossy eyes and slurred speech: he was smashed. It was time.

She rubbed his leg with her foot, moved it to his groin—this she enjoyed. She entertained the idea that it might be fun to play with him a little before she stuck him.

When they left the bar, she quickly scanned the street and surrounding businesses for cops, or anyone else looking her way. Seeing no one, she let Hammond walk her across the street to the park.

He was talking but she wasn’t listening: the itch had grown. No need to resist it now. He beeped his car unlocked. She stumbled against the car and let him kiss her on the mouth. He stuck his tongue down her throat and she pulled his hips against her.

Inside, she had him start the engine and turn on the air; she wanted the windows up and the moonroof closed in case he screamed. She cranked the radio and unzipped his pants. He moaned and reclined his seat. 
“Just a little something first, to take the edge off.” She reached down and slipped the knife out of her boot, extended the blade. 

Mindy is a psychopathic killer and member of John Lightfoot’s gang of terrorists. You’ll discover in her brief back story, about chapter six, how she came to be a killer. If you’re guessing Lightfoot had something to do with, you’re on the right track. She already had the raw material, she just needed a little guidance.

It’s difficult for an author to get carried away writing a psychopathic serial killer (Is that redundant?). As bad as you can write a character, there’s always a real person who was worse. How could you outdo a Ted Bundy?

Why are people fascinated by serial killers? Their stories sell more newspapers and fill more air time than all others, except perhaps royal weddings. They’re so profitable media outlets run follow-ups until the public finally gets bored and moves on to the next sensational story.

Mindy had a particularly nasty fondness for...
Mindy and Griffith were going at it in the VW van, the only semi-private place other than the steel shed, which smelled like gas. Mindy liked it rough, rougher than Griffith cared for, and always had to be on top, in control. When she climaxed, he saw something in her eyes that spooked him. He always saw it, which is why he never let her bring her knife.
Later, a man named Stu wasn’t as observant as Griffith, and paid for his lust with his life. 

My guess is, we’re attracted to their stories because we can’t believe there are people who’d actually do horrible things to as many of their fellow beings as possible. After all, we’re not like that; how could they?

Mindy was such a juicy character, I just couldn’t let her go.

O Touro! Portuguese “Bloodless” Bullfight

This past Monday I attended a Portuguese “bloodless” bullfight with two of my sons, in tiny Stevinson, California, a dairy town twenty-five miles south of where I live. My next Grant Starr novel will open with one of these bullfights, so naturally I wanted to see one. It was one of the most exciting events I’ve ever attended.

Tradition bullfights, where the bull is stabbed or killed, have been outlawed in the United States for many years. “Bloodless” bullfights are legal in several states, including California. Here, they are legal only when part of a religious event. Good thing for us the Portuguese Catholic community has religious events from April to October; there are twenty-to-thirty bullfights every year. I’ve lived in the San Joaquin Valley since 1963 yet never knew of these bullfights.

Instead of being stabbed in the back, as happens in Spain and Mexico, the bulls have a Velcro pad that performers attach short and long flags to. You can see them in the pictures above and below this text. The only blood I saw came from the busted lip of a forcado. More on forcados in a minute.

In the event I attended, the cavaleiros, horse-mounted bullfighters, placed three short banderillas, the flags, on each bull while riding their first horse. They changed horses and placed three longer banderillas, then left the arena. There were no matadors, bullfighters on foot, at this event.

When the cavaleiros were finished, the trumpets blared and the forcados leapt over the wall and entered the arena. Our hostess’s daughter, who is Portuguese-American, says she attends twenty bullfights a year. She, like everyone in the stands under fifty, chatted with friends or played on her cell phone during most of the bullfight. But when the forcados took center stage; everyone paid attention. Forcados are badass bull wrestlers.

This is what they look like:

A forcado taunting a bull.

They are all crazy, but the one in the picture, with the elf hat, is by far the craziest. Eight forcados enter the arena to wrestle the bull into submission. They form a line, with the elf-hat-wearer in front. Elf Hat approaches the bull alone, as depicted in the photo. He calls out “Touro! Touro!”, “bull” in Portuguese. Well, bah! Instead of my blathering, watch this short video I made with my iPhone. It’s best viewed in full-screen mode.

Is he crazy or what? Elf Hat was the guy with the busted lip. He’s lucky that’s all that got busted. The forcado hoisted over the wall was shaken but OK. Here’s another video where the bull kicks some ass:

That group’s bad luck to have drawn the meanest bull in the show. It took them three attempts to subdue it.

The Amadores De Merced, Merced Amateurs, the youngest group of forcados in the state, with one member a mere fourteen years old, showed us how it’s done:

After being subdued by the forcados, the bull follows a group of cows out of the arena:

Animal fans are wondering what happens to the bull after the bullfight. It either goes out to pasture, as a stud, or it goes to the slaughterhouse, where all cattle end up. These bulls are bred to fight in bullfights and they get only one appearance. Bulls are smart. If they were to come back a second time they’d know not to go for the muleta, or cape: they’d go for the matador. And they wouldn’t chase the horses because they’d know they couldn’t catch them. That would be a boring show.

There’s more, but I’ve used up my time. I think there’s another post or two here. Or three. The experience has made me rethink my work-in-progress.

*Photographer Mike Wooldridge generously allowed me to use his wonderful photos. I found them here. Take a look at his photostream please; you’ll see everything I saw Monday night. (Except I didn’t see a matador.) 

*Apologies to the Portuguese language, which I don’t speak. I’ve probably mixed Spanish with Portuguese.

*On a personal note, my oldest son speaks Portuguese and had a ball chatting with his neighbors. Because he doesn’t look Portuguese and speaks the language funny, everyone wanted to know if he was Brazilian. The other son only came because he’d pulled the front bumper off his truck backing out of his parking stall and couldn’t work that evening. He didn’t regret it; we had a blast.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Curious Readers Can’t Help But Peek At This

They talked baseball while Bensen popped pills between spoonfuls of oatmeal, talked about wives and kids—Bensen’s, Grant had neither—and co-workers, and a little about women because married men like to probe into the lives of the single to see what they were missing, to remember what they gave up. 
Then, later:
“We gotta find this guy,” Grant said. “Contact his family, see if they know where he is or what he’s up to. Find out who his dentist is, or was. Talk to his high school and college friends. Talk to his teachers.”
Grant’s phone rang as Jackson left: a secretary from the Environmental Defense Fund. The EDF had no record of anyone getting kicked out of their group for being a nut.
Grant wasn’t surprised, but who he really wanted to hear from was Tom Richardson.
“What else you doing now?” he asked Bensen.
“I’m gonna talk to you about Amber,” Bensen said, throwing his feet on the corner of Grant’s desk. “I saw you two making eyes yesterday, and she stayed in the room after everyone else left. D’you hook up?”
“We had a couple of drinks.”
Bensen grinned and nodded. “Good for you. You don’t go out enough. What’s she look like naked?”
“I have no idea. Besides, you’re married. You don’t really wanna know.”
“Come on man. I can’t have single sex anymore, I gotta live it through guys like you.”
“You’re not gonna live it through me. Now get outta here before I call Linda.”
And finally:
Amber called and invited Grant to dinner, so he left Bensen’s house in the bottom of the eighth; the Giants were hopelessly behind. Bensen bitched at him for taking off early, but gave him an elbow at the door and said, “Details man. I want details tomorrow.”

You might say Bensen was being a bit of a voyeur, might you not? Trying to peek into Grant’s love life like that. Good thing Grant isn’t the kiss-and-tell type. He gives Bensen nothing throughout the entire text of THE MIGHTY T. You know Bensen’s dying to know, too. If you read my last post, you know Amber’s hot.

People read fiction for many reasons, mostly for entertainment. Who doesn’t like to slip out of their skin for a few hours to live another’s life? We may be bored or curious, or just looking for an adventure, for a fun ride.

What I’m talking about is, we readers are a little snoopy. Like Ralph Bensen, we like to know a little about our friends’ personal lives. Unlike Bensen, we do our snooping by reading books instead of making pests of ourselves.

A novel can take you somewhere you’d get arrested for being caught at in real life. And I like that.

* Disclaimer: This post was typed on an old Acer notebook computer with a busted “V” key. Any typos inoling a “V” are the fault of the keyboard and are not mine.

Monday, May 2, 2011

When Can Fictional Characters Have Sex?

Grant scribbled some more notes, then his stomach growled and he realized he hadn’t eaten dinner, grabbed his stuff, drove home and fixed a chicken sandwich with a generous scoop of potato salad, ate it while flipping through a stack of mail.

He booted up his computer and logged onto his stock program, checked things out, nothing had happened, and noted Sean fixed the glitch. Guy was earning his twenty percent.

Went to his recliner, flipped on ESPN, was watching highlights from a women’s tennis tournament, and getting sleepy, when his cell rang: Amber.

“I’m all worked up now and can’t sleep,” she told him when he clicked on. “What’re you doing?”

“Watching women’s tennis. Send someone to shoot me.”

“You got any food at your place? I’m starving.”

“Yeah. You’re not all sweaty though, are you?”

“I am. You have a shower, don’t you?”

Shortly thereafter:

“It’s not locked,” Grant called, when Amber knocked on the door at a little past 10:00.

“This okay?” Amber said, closing the door behind her. “You weren’t about to go to bed were you?”

“If I’d watched any more women’s tennis I’d be fast asleep by now.” Grant got up and went to the kitchen, saying, “I just had a chicken sandwich and potato salad. I’ll make some up if you want.”

“Sounds great. Where’s your shower?”

“It’s out back, in the corner of the yard.”

“I never knew you were such a smartass.” Amber’s voice trailed down the hall.

A minute later, while fixing her sandwich, Grant heard the shower in his bedroom. A few things passed through his mind: why didn’t she use the guest shower? Did she lock the bathroom door? And, what might happen if he waited until the shower warmed up, then slipped in and joined her?

He considered things for a few moments, then was struck with the thought that gyms have showers. That was as good an invitation as he’d ever heard.

He put the food in the fridge, padded down the hall to his room and removed his clothes. When he pushed the bathroom door open, the hinge squeaked.

“ ’Bout time. Get your ass in here.”

Q:  When do characters in books have sex?

A:  At least as often as “real” people do, probably more. They never tire, don’t cramp up, and don’t get sore.

Grant and Amber have worked together for some time, at least a couple of years, but never dated until the day before these scenes took place. Yesterday, in the book, Amber asked Grant if he wanted to get a drink after work, so they spent a couple of hours getting to know each other. (The scene is too long for a post.)

They kissed after Grant walked Amber to her car. Yes, she drove home despite having two shots of tequila and a couple of beers. “I can handle four drinks in two hours,” she’d said. Cops.

Everyone in the department, the men at least, thought Amber should’ve been a model. Use your imagination to picture her any way you’d like. She was very stern at work, even austere. Grant guessed she was like that so the public would take her seriously.

Beauty stirs emotions: In the opposite sex: desire, lust, fantasy… In the same sex: jealousy, coveting, admiration… People like Amber are so good looking they have to play it down.

Then there’s Grant. He’s handsome and drives a Ferrari, and he’s single. Not a bad resume, although Amber does raise a good point: thirty-five and still-single can raise a red flag.

Prior to Amber asking Grant out, she had been zinging him, like this:
“You think of anything else?” Grant asked Amber. Their eyes met for a millisecond; a zing shot down Grant’s back.
Amber nodded, jotted a note, chewed on the end of her pencil. She looked up and made eye contact with Grant: zing.
And then they brushed up against each other in Grant’s truck. More zinging. I’m sure that’s happened to you once or twice. 

Back to my question. I didn’t want to depict Amber, them, as being… easy. I hope I didn’t.