Monday, August 26, 2013

Five Weekends in August IV

Let's talk about reading.

We're all writers, so it stands to reason that we're all readers, too.

Is it possible to be a good writer without being a voracious reader?

For 2012, I set a goal of reading 35 books. I stopped counting at 40 with two months to go. This year, I'm ahead of that pace, and that doesn't even count the dry IT books I've read for my job.

Maybe you don't need to devour books, but I think you need to be a reader to have a real future as a writer.

It's like getting better at baseball by watching other people play it. It sounds weird, doesn't it? But think about it. We have baseball games in HD now, with a zillion different slow-motion replays from every angle. Never before have we been able to see grown men spit and scratch themselves with such clarity! But in terms of useful skills, you can still pick up quite a bit by watching.

Say you're a baseball player who wants to work on your swing. You can go to the batting cage or hit off a tee. It'll probably help. You can also watch some professionals play. Watch how different hitters hold their hands at the plate -- high, low, loaded back, etc. Watch their strides as the ball leaves the pitcher's hand. Watch the hitter's hips turn, forcing his arms to zoom through the hitting zone.

At some point, you have to get out there and swing the bat yourself if you ever want to improve. But there's value in watching the pros do it. The same is true for writing. If you take your craft seriously and want to get better, you have to sit down and bang out the words. However, there's value in reading what others have written. What POV do they write in? How does the setting factor into the stories? What action verbs propel the story forward? These are things you can learn while curled up with a good book. Just make sure you get out there and practice them.

Happy writing.

Five Frida... uh, Weekends in August III

I'm close to finishing another first draft. There are probably two more chapters to go. This will make six books in my mystery series, and eight overall.

Yes, at some point, I'm going to have to get around to doing something with them.

I just wonder whether I should go with the mysteries (which I've written more recently) or the spy adventures (which are older). Part of me wants to lead off with the spy adventures. They were the first books I stuck it out and finished, after all, and dammit, I want to see them in print (or e-print) someday.

But then I think that the mysteries are probably better because I wrote them more recently. At least, I hope they're better. I'd like to think I've improved at this thing we call writing over the years.

The key is to do something with something. If that makes sense. I just hope the publishing landscape makes sense to me.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Five Fridays in August II

"Ripped from the Headlines~!"

While I everything with "2" or "II" in the title really should have the subtitle "Electric Boogaloo," I wanted to be (semi-)serious about this.

This post was going to be about writing while on vacation, then we ended up not going away for a long weekend. Instead, I'm going to make it a follow-up to last week's post about our visit to the superhero exhibit currently at the Baltimore Jewish Museum.

The exhibit was great. (One of these days, I'll get an Instagram account to share them. Until then, all you kids get off my lawn.) We saw a lot of old and cool comic covers, sketches of internal pages, bios of the creators, and even some interactive exhibits. 

One really caught my eye and inspired this post. It showed a newspaper from around the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. Comics had shown a desire for the US to enter World War II even before Pearl Harbor. The caption under the paper read, in part, "During the Golden Age, many comic book stories were ripped from the headlines."

"Ripped from the headlines." I think I heard that about several Law & Order episodes over the years. "Based on a true story" is similar. But what do they really mean? How closely based?

For ages, fiction writers have been inspired by true stories. We change the names, fudge the details a bit, tweak the setting to fit our particular genre and locale, and voila! We have a story. I've done it too. A currently unpublished novel of mine was based on a news report of gang killings in my hometown of Baltimore. Another was based on a news report of a man who confessed to a murder (spoiler alert!) he didn't commit.

Here's what I'm wondering. We don't read the paper anymore, in general. Newspaper circulation is declining faster than the number of people who don't know J.K. Rowling wrote The Cuckoo's Calling. (Brief aside: I really wish "Rowling" rhymed with "calling." That sentence would sound awesome if it did.) Today, we get our news from the Internet and cable TV. Local newspapers are online and many charge a subscription fee. How many of you read your local paper online? The thing is, websites and channels like CNN tend to have a national focus. If you're writing thrillers where the fate of the country is at stake, that can be a fertile ground for you. If your stories are more homespun, you have to search deeper.

With the decline of newspapers, is it harder to "rip things from the headlines" these days? Do the Big Three cable news channels and websites still stoke your creative fires?

Things to think about. Happy writing.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Five Fridays in August, Part I

Five Fridays in August I:
The Superhero Exhibit

This weekend, we're going to the superhero exhibit at the Baltimore Jewish Museum. It's a traveling exhibit that's in town thru August 18.

The exhibit celebrates the early comic creators, many of whom were Jewish. This concludes the unpaid advertising part of this blog post.

My daughter loves superheroes. Most girls love dolls and princesses. (She does, too. If Superman got the princess instead of Lois Lane, it would be much cooler for Isabel.) She loves the big splashy colors, the flying, the strength, the quips, and the action scenes that unfold in the movies.

How does all of this relate to a writing blog? Well, comic books are a creative medium. In addition to the artwork, they obviously require a lot of writing and editing. Not every author writes on pages devoid of illustration.

But more than that, old comics had a simplicity about them. The bad guys were bastards whose motives, while nefarious, were easy to understand. The heroes were colorful and virtuous. Sometimes, the entire story was an exercise just to get Captain America to sock Hitler in the jaw. And that's OK. Not every plot needs to be made for a two-and-a-half-hour Bond movie. In this post-Matrix world, we've come to expect our heroes to wear black and not have qualms about killing the bad guys. There's nothing wrong with a simpler hero of more old-fashioned principles. This is doubly true if you're writing a period piece.

I don't know if the superhero exhibit will inspire my creativity or not. I'll probably just think it's really cool. But you never know. Sometimes, a glimpse at the past can give you a spark for the future.

Happy writing.