Tuesday, March 30, 2010

eReaders

Article in the Houston Chronicle this morning caught my eye. It was all about the impending release of the iPad into the eReader market. What was astounding to me was the number of eReaders already on the market. I knew about the Kindle, as I own one (and enjoy it much more than I thought I would), I knew about the Nook and the iPad. I wrote about the iRex a view weeks back when it was reviewed in the WSJ, but it's the others that surprised me.

• Amazon Kindle - Pro: Huge e-book library. Con: Not a touch screen.

• Sony Reader Touch Edition - Pro: Touch screen; small, lightweight, sturdy. Con: E Ink display is a little light.

• Sony Reader Pocket Edition - Pro: Lightweight, fits in pocket or small purse. Con: Holds only 350 books.

• Barnes & Noble nook - Pro: Touch screen below main screen. Con: Small virtual keyboard.

• enTourage eDGe - Pro: Read e-books, surf Internet, send e-mails, watch movies. Con: Big, heavy as a laptop.

• Interead COOL-ER - Pro: Similar to Kindle and nook; bold colors; long-lasting charge. Con: Very basic.


Coming soon

• Apple iPad - Pro: Backlit, color, multi-touch screen; thin and light; could replace some laptops. Con: Relatively expensive; multiple bookstore applications may overwhelm consumers.

• Kobo eReader - Pro: Comes loaded with 100 classic books; can synch library to computer. Cons: No 3G connectivity.

• Que proReader - Pro: Reads a range of things from ePub to Power Point presentations. Con: Expensive; keeps getting delayed.

• Skiff Reader - Pro: 11.5-inch screen makes it easy to read newspapers and magazines. Con: Size could make it cumbersome.

One other aspect of this article that caught my eye was the con under the Kindle. Personally, and I'm speaking as a person who works at a tech company were our products use touchscreen, I'm glad that the Kindle doesn't have a touchscreen. It's not hard to press page forward, and I always find my fat fingers fumbling over the touchscreen here at work. I don't want that when I read. If I was to put a con up there for Kindle? Lack of a backlight. How can I be expected to read while my 6 week old baby goes to sleep if I have to have all the lights on. Come on Amazon, you can do better than that.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Morbid yet Intriguing First Line

“I was never so amazed in my life as when the Sniffer drew his concealed weapon from its case and struck me to the ground, stone dead.”

Robertson Davies, Murther and Walking Spirits

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Another First Line - A Bit Convuluted, But I Like It

“Like most irritable people I rarely lose my temper (a dog that’s let out for regular exercise isn’t apt to run away when it does escape), but I was losing it this morning.”

The Mackerel Plaza- Peter DeVries

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Judging for the novel contest is still underway. As with last year, I’m amazed by the fact that I keep writing the same thing in response to so many of them. First, I usually write, “give me a reason to care about the main character.” This is what David Liss said at our last writer’s conference and I see how right he was in so many of these entries.

Surprisingly, I find myself telling these would be authors to slow down and describe the setting. I find myself completely lost in so many of these entries. I can understand the desire to begin the action in media res (in the middle of things). Doing this can increase tension, increase drama, and draw the reader in immediately. Sadly, it seems as though that so many of these entries do this but too aggressively. I feel like I’m being thrown into the deep end of a cold pool and never have time to grab a breath.

Another thing I tend to write regards pacing. I’ve yet to read an entry (okay, maybe there has been one) when I’ve been impressed with the pacing of the writing. Many are far too fast, others are agonizingly slow.

I remark about this as one thing that has astounded me about this round of judging is the fact that there have been so few that have truly impressed me. Last year there were probably 30% of the entries that I thought I would want to read as a book. This year, I’ve read 1 out of probably 30 entries that I thought was worthwhile. Not a good ratio. I hope things turn around soon and that some writer surprises me.

So far, the worst stories have been: a fantasy about a female hobgoblin who in paragraph one is standing over the corpse of her boyfriend that she just murdered, a diatribe about a private in Vietnam who experiences the Tet Offensive with no ammo in his weapon (intriguing idea, horrible execution) and, a fantasy story about a teenage girl who is in training as a fairy by her “fairy” mother who sees bloody visions that come true.

The best was a story about a teenage girl who was gang raped on the night of her prom. Horrific idea and I was not thrilled at the prospect of reading it, but this one story had the most intriguing writing and most engaging pace.

I do look forward to printing out one of the judging worksheets and grading my own first ten pages with these questions in mind. Sadly, I don’t think I’ll score as high as I would like.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Another First Line

"The Sun rose slowly, as if it wasn’t sure it was worth the effort.”

Terry Patchett, The Light Fantastic

Monday, March 22, 2010

Not At All Surprising Story . . .But a Spectacularly Enlightening Title

Once again, my indespinsable brother has sent me a link regarding the release of the iPad (Link). This article specifically concerns the tactics that Amazon is employing to try and set the stage prior to the iPad's release. It appears as though they are issuing threats to some publishers to get them to accept Amazon pricing schemas, most likely as they fear that the Apple iBookstore will immediately begin to undercut their market.

Besides this being a completely expected event with the coming release of the iPad, I find it to be a bit unfair to Kindle. First, I think it's funny that when I read an article in the WSJ last week about Apple doing pretty much the same thing that Amazon is accused of doing here, it's not called strong arming or "issuing threats" it's framed as Apple being stuck in negotiations. Secondly, I thought the title of the article/post was the most enlightening (and most unexpected) part of the article. "Hysterical Amazon exec calls 911, says accelerator is stuck and he can’t keep from running over publishers."

I wonder if these publishers will be as happy to be strong-armed by (what I feel is) a much stronger Apple when they start making the same demands as Amazon in the future. I doubt we will ever see an article that starts with "Hysterical Apple exec . . . "

Friday, March 19, 2010

Missing from the Online Version

This Christmas I gave my little brother a subscription for the Wall Street Journal. I figured that I had gained so much from using my subscription, even if it was only online, that John, who works in the financial industry would get even more out of it. John too does not have a car. He hoofs it to work via bus and foot, an oddity in Houston. What a perfect gift the WSJ in paper format would be for him.

Well, my brother, ten years younger, is also a millennial. He wanted me to nix the paper so that he could use the online version of the paper. Since that time I’ve been the beneficiary of my own generosity and have gotten a paper copy of the Journal at my house every morning.

I’ve read the WSJ for about five years. In all that time I never read the “Bookshelf” item on the Opinion Page. Keep in mind, I LIVE on the Opinion Page of the WSJ. Most of the book reviews I read when I only had the online version were through the links on the home page. Once I got the paper version, the difference between online reading and traditional reading became stark and clear in a way that I have never before or since experienced.

On the back side of the Opinion pages of the paper version is a daily article that is a book review. I’ve been getting the paper version of the past two months and during that time I have not missed an opportunity to read those reviews. This was a part of the Journal I never knew existed in the online version. Something for four or five years I didn’t know was there is now my favorite column. THIS is the most stark difference between the two media.

Paper lays everything out for you and forces the reader to weed out with your eyes that which you don’t want. The opposite is true of online media. Online you must search for what you want. It’s been startling to me every time I read that “Bookshelf” article in the paper that I’ve missed out of so much in the past few years.

It’s not as if I didn’t realize it was there, I’m sure my eyes glazed over the online “Bookshelf” every time I was on the Opinion Page. But when it is there, right in front of me, the entire article with a picture in the print Journal, it is impossible to miss, and for me, impossible not to read. This ability to see the whole without having to know what to look for is what I will miss with the coming e-reading revolution. That being said, it’s incumbent on us (web-designers and writers) to find new ways to direct readers to that content.

iDifficultites

There is an article in the WSJ today about the upcoming release of the iPad. Seems as though there is a bit of mixed emotions. For one, they claim that the iPad pre-orders are far greater than expected and that it is possible that the iPad, in the first three months, will outsell what the iPhone sold in its first three months. Good for Apple.
Conversely, and this is the crux of the article, they say that Apple is having trouble negotiating deals for content. Uh oh. Primarily the article states that content providers are worried about the loss in revenue they might expect.

“But lining up TV programming, digital newspapers and other content ahead of the iPad's April 3 release has proven difficult for Apple as some potential collaborators weigh the advantages of working with the company against the potential threats to their current sources of revenue, people familiar with the matter say.”

The article’s other primary focus appears to be television progamming via the iPad and the difficulties Apple is having securing this. Needless to say, this does not concern me much. Anyone who has seen my television would know that I rarely bother myself with the latest breakthroughs in television technology. But the final paragraph of the article dips back into my area of interest.

“One area where things appear on schedule is Apple's new virtual bookstore iBooks, which lets iPad owners purchase and read digital books. People familiar with the matter said the largest publishers are on track to deliver most of their titles and it should have almost all of the books as existing e-readers like Amazon.com Inc.'s Kindle and Barnes & Noble Inc.'s Nook.”

So, what to make of this? Basically, that the iPad, when it is introduced, will be equivalent to my Kindle, and will most likely surpass it with time. Again, my money is on success.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Such an Odd First Line

“I had just been through hell and must have looked like death warmed over walking into the saloon, because when I asked the bartender whether they served zombies he said, ‘Sure, what’ll you have?’”

I Hear America Swinging

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Judging

I've read about a dozen novel entries and I've been surprised by how bad so many of them are. Out of a score of 150 total points, most aren't making it over 100. One even scored a depressing (thought deserved) 68.

Firstly, this exercise has reminded me just how important those first ten pages of a novel are. It has also revealed to me just how hard it is to get those first ten pages to be perfect. My own effort probably wouldn't score very high. I think a reader might be bored, and not care too much about the characters. It's a weak point of my manuscript I've been working on. However, compared to the ones I'm reading, mine isn't too bad.

I read one the other day about a Hobgoblin. Now, I like fantasy and sci-fi, and I understand that at this point in history there is a specific enthusiasm for vampires, witches, wizards and the like. But, a Hobgoblin in Houston is a bit of a hard sell. Not to mention that while reading it I was completely and thuroughly lost. So many things were thrown at me that I had no idea what was going on.

Conversely, a story about a young girl in high-school who was gang raped the night of her dance was incredibly well written. After reading the synopsis, I started reading the entry with a bit of hesitation. It's not a topic I would genearlly seek out. However, the author had such clear and clean prose, and the description of the young girls thoughts and feelings were so well written, that I read more of that entry than any other.

I've read and graded about a dozen, I have about four dozen more to go and only three weeks to read them all. It's going to be a close one.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Fabulous First Line

"The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning."

Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale (1953)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mossburg and Irex

I read Walt Mossburg’s review of the Irex ereader in the Wall Street Journal today (Link). As usual he does a spectacular job of quickly and poignantly pointing out the pros and cons of the technology and software involved with the new ereader. Specifically he states:

“The new Irex has some advantages over the Kindle. Its larger screen makes for a better reading experience, allowing more words to show on the page at similar font sizes. The screen also seems slightly sharper.”

He has hit on the one aspect of the Kindle I wish they had addressed. Amazon should have done away with the keyboard and made the screen larger so more text could fit. What about taking notes? Include a virtual keypad that popsup when needed. Then again that might affect battery life to have touchscreen. Wishful thinking.

“It also does a better job of organizing your reading material, grouping items into separate folders for books, newspapers, and personal documents.”

Haven’t run into this problem yet. Don’t expect to for a bit, if at all.

One aspect that Mossberg didn’t care for was the buying experience. Irex allows the user to download material for multiple sources not just one like the Kindle (and presumably the iPad). This aspect seems to me to be the crux of the coming revolution.

When I first got an MP3 player it was not an iPod. I think I had two or three MP3 players before I finally settled on an iPod. Now, it’s all iTunes and iPod; a one to one relationship. Would I like to have the freedom to download from multiple sources? You betcha. Do I see that coming anytime soon? Nope. Should it? I think Kindle should quickly find a way to make it happen if they want to stay competitive with iPad.

Most likely Apple will follow the same format for their iPad as they have for their iPod, a dedicated download sight….similar to the way Kindle downloads from Amazon. Kindle can quickly differentiate itself by allowing users the ability to download easily from multiple sources. Irex tried it and according to Mossberg has failed to do it seamlessly. Time is running out for Kindle to find a way to separate themselves. I for one, as a Kindle owner, hope they find a way to do it. Based on my past experience with iPods, I don’t hold out much hope.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Spring Contest

It might be a while before I post another book review. I’ve just started Shogun, by James Clavell, a long epic that should take quite a long time to finish, and I’ve just agreed to help the Houston Writer’s Guild.

I was a judge for their Fall Novel Writing Contest, and I have been asked to be a judge again this year. I remember I was astounded by how poor many of the entries were last fall. It was quite easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. There was a lot of chaff. Conversely, those that stood out were truly spectacular. BUT, and this is key, I also remember that this exercise of judging, more than anything else, proved to me the importance of those first ten pages.

Last night I saw this illustrated again. I started reading Shogun, and the first ten pages, the prologue, were engrossing enough to want to make me read on. I also read three entries to the novel contest. Not one of them was intriguing enough in those first ten pages to make me want to read on. For the most part I found that many of the entries threw the reader too much information too fast. Two of the entries were sci-fi/fantasy and I was completely lost. Clavell on the other hand provided action without chaos, fluidity and form. So many of these aspiring novelists think that action equals intrigue and excitement, when if fact it really just adds confusion.

This year there is a judging criterion that awards points based on when the judge stopped reading. Stop reading on page 4, they get 4 points toward the maximum 150 point. Read all 10 pages and you get 10 points plus a bonus of 5 more. Last night I wasn’t able to read more than 5 pages of any of the entries. Based on last night’s experience, I fear it is going to be a long and depressing next few weeks.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Another First Line

Yet another first line that makes the reader want to know more.

“Ryan was nearly killed twice in half an hour.”
Tom Clancy, Patriot Games

Monday, March 8, 2010

Six-Word Stories

Last year I wrote a blog post on "hint-fiction", stories of 25 words or less (Link). My favorite:

PEANUT BUTTER by Camille Esses
He was allergic. She pretended not to know.

My friend Nathan Cernosek, creator and talent behind the "Super Hero Grant Writer" series (Link) has clued me into Six-Word Stories (Link).

"William Faulkner famously said that a novelist is a failed short story writer, and a short story writer is a failed poet. Hemingway, with his creation of the six-word story, combined poetry and drama into a short form that has grown in popularity while remaining difficult to achieve. Narrative is looking for six-word stories that can stand alongside the best that have been written."

My favorite among this group:

Revenge is living well, without you.
—Joyce Carol Oates

Book Review: Marooned In Real Time

Just fininshed Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge; a spectacular cross genre novel, sci-fi and mystery. As I was reading it, and there are hints of this in Vinge’s other books, I was astounded to see that he is remarkably similar in style and scope to Isaac Asimov. Where Fire Upon the Deep and Deepness in the Sky were both epic and wide ranging (similar to the Foundation Series of Asimov) Marooned in Realtime is far more like The Robots of Dawn; smaller in scope and focused on a far more precise set of issues.

As with the other Vinge novels (and I’m aware this is a bit of a one dimensional comment) I’m continually amazed that his titles, which on first reading seem somewhat nonsensical or absurd, fit the novel so well once the book gets going. In Marooned in Realtime we find the last of humanity stranded in the future. All of these survivors gave up or were shanghaied from their past lives to live life in the future via the use of bobbles, sort of a human safe deposit box or time capsule. These folks all thought that the future would hold more for them, but awakened to find a desolate, empty planet. The title comes from the murder mystery that takes place in this desolate future setting. The protagonist, Wil, is asked to figure out who left one of the more prominent members outside the time capsule to die of old age and exposure. Thus, she was marooned in real time while the rest of the characters slept the millennia away in their safe deposit boxes.

Overall I liked it. Not quite as well fleshed out or grand as his other works, but a very engrossing story. He wraps several mysteries into this book to keep the reader’s interest. First, who killed Marta and why. Second, what happened to Humanity. Third, who was it who shanghaied the protagonist and sent him to the future against his will, and why. Fourth, will the new settlement of humanity be enough to repopulate the Earth. It is a good lesson on providing a multitude of mysteries for the reader to chew on rather than just the one central mystery.

One passage caught my eye for the way the protagonist sums up his nature:
"Wil lumbered into the bathroom, washed away the strange wetness he found around his eyes. All through his career, he'd done his best to project an appearance of calm strength. It hadn't been hard: He was built like a tank, and he was naturally a low-blood-pressure type. There were a few cases that had made him nervous, but that had been reasonable, since bullets were flying. In police work, he'd seen a fair number of people crack up."

And this one, about understanding innovation:
It read as he imagined Benjamin Franklin's analysis of a jet aircraft might read. Yelen could study the equipment, but without Tunc's explanations its purpose would have been a mystery. And even knowing the purpose and the underlying principles of operation, she couldn't see how such devices could be built or why they worked."

Like most Sci-Fi stories I was lost for the first chapter or two. I’ve always hated when authors thrust the reader into the middle of the action (in media res). I’ve always thought a bit more exposition and description is necessary. The end too was a bit choppy, but the easy to foresee revenge was quite fun to read. All in all as good as his others but in different ways.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sci-Fi First Line

Since I'm reading a Vernor Vinge novel, a sci-fi first line seems apropos:

“I always get the shakes before a drop.”
Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers

Friday, March 5, 2010

iPad and Kindle

My indispensable brother has sent a link today: (Link)
It’s another look at the e-revolution in publishing thanks to the Kindle and iPad. This one is nice though in that it discusses form and format much more than most other articles on the subject. It includes some wonderful pictures and links to books on form. Worth reading, and worth thinking about if you are a publisher. From a writer’s perspective he brings up some points worth considering. Among them:

“IT’S NO WONDER WE LOVE OUR PRINTED BOOKS — we physically cradle them close to our heart. Unlike computer screens, the experience of reading on a Kindle or iPhone (or iPad, one can assume) mimics this familiar maternal embrace. The text is closer to us, the orientation more comfortable. And the seemingly insignificant fact that we touch the text actually plays a very key role in furthering the intimacy of the experience.”

I thought that was a nicely worded passage. Hadn’t thought of it that way, quite descriptive. In terms of writers being able to take advantage of the new formats he says this:

“We're going to see new forms of storytelling emerge from this canvas. This is an opportunity to redefine modes of conversation between reader and content. And that's one hell of an opportunity if making content is your thing.”

As I said before it is interesting times we are living through, like being around for Gutenburg churning out tomes on his printing press.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Book Review: Writing the Breakout Novel

Finished reading Donald Maass’, Writing the Breakout Novel. This is without hyperbole the best book on the craft of writing I’ve read yet. I have found that most of these craft books all say the same thing….character is key, increase conflict, yada, yada, yada. Although Writing the Breakout Novel includes many of these same tips, Maass provides quite a bit more, and most importantly delivers it an extremely easy manner.

There were times in college when I would be blessed with spectacular professors (a rare event in the Texas A&M English Dept). These professors seemed to be speaking directly to me, when in fact I was just one of hundreds in the auditorium. They were the professors of the classes that I looked forward to attending (and were usually spot-lighted by the atrocious professors in the History Dept). Reading Writing the Breakout Novel made me feel as if I was in one of those spectacular classes again.

A short snippet and some of his advice? “A breakout novelist is somewhat maniacal, possibly even sadistic. They discover what is the worst that can happen then make matters worse still.”
The book is filled with great passages that are both insightful and are fun to read.

Maass also stocks the book with passages from books that are representative of breakout novels. A great one, and one I intend to mimic in my book, On the Edge:

“I used to think that a fall was more than likely not the result of one stupendous error, or an unfortunate accident. I hadn’t learned that it can happen so gradually you don’t lose your stomach or yourself landing. You don’t necessarily sense the motion. I’ve found it takes at least two and generally three things to alter the course of a life: you slip around the truth once and then again, and one more time, and there you are, feeling, for a moment, that it was sudden, your arrival at the bottom of the heap.”
Jane Hamilton’s A Map of the World

One of these passages was particularly memorable if only because I remember reading it years ago when I read Snowcrash, and I liked it even then. It’s about a pizza deliver man’s car in the near (dystopian) future.

The Deliverator’s car has enough potential energy packed into its batteries to fire a pound of bacon into the asteroid belt. Unlike a bimbo box or a Burb beater, the Deliverator’s car unloads that power through gaping, gleaming, polished sphincters. When the Deliverator puts the hammer down, shit happens. You want to talk contact patches? Your car’s tires have tiny contact patches; talk to the asphalt in four places the size of your tongue. The Deliverator’s car has big sticky tires with contact patches the size of a fat lady’s thighs. The Deliverator is in touch with the road, starts like a bad day, stops on a peseta.
Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash

Finally, I was astounded by how many of the breakout novels he cited that I have read. One that I apparently need to get, and very soon, is Shogun. He cited that more than any other novel.

Basically, I went into Writing the Breakout not looking forward to it, and thinking that perhaps it wouldn’t be geared to my particular capabilities as a writer. I was wrong. Not only did it have a strong message and easy to read content, but I would recommend it to new writers and experienced authors alike.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Reading Books on Craft

Just finished reading Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel and plan to review it shortly. There is one thing I’ve noticed, and this gets me pretty inspired interms of the next few months, and this is, I don’t write well when I’m reading books on the writing craft.

These last few days my writing has been agonizingly slow and labor intensive. I have to struggle to get anything down. I don’t find the same problems when I am reading for fun. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed Writing the Breakout Novel, as my review will state, but, I sure second guess myself a lot when I’m reading about craft.

My stories tend to bog down, get labor intensive, and never go anywhere. I find myself constantly fine tuning instead of writing. I recognize it, but still can not get beyond it.

Now, why am I looking forward to the next couple of weeks or months. I’ve dedicated myself to reading craft books at a 1:2 ratio to novels. Since making this pledge I’ve read just one novel and two craft books. This means I can read between three and six novels before I have to read another craft book. WOO HOO. I even have the next one picked out. An early Vernon Vinge. Secondly, and apropos of just about nothing, I’m looking forward to reading on the Kindle again.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Failed to Set the Hook

I despise fishing. Have never liked it. As a child I saw a short film about fishing that completely shaped and encapsulated perfectly my views of fishing.

A man is walking along the edge of a lake, just meandering along. He looks down and see a candy bar on the ground. He picks it up, examines it, and deciding that nothing is wrong with it, he tears it open and takes a bite.

He chews for a bit, then he starts to gag. As he begins to gag the end of a hook appears in the side of his cheek and fishing wire dangles from his mouth. He drops the candy bar and begins to try and free himself from the hook, but the fishing line goes taut and begins to pull him towards the lake.

He struggles and struggles but is eventually pulled down into the lake, under the water, by the fishing line. A few seconds pass, we see the man's last few bubbles of life flit away, the water's surface calms, then up from out of the lake, another candy bar is thrown onto the ground. That little scene has stayed with me for years.

Despite my hatred for fishing, I do see the need to use fishing terms and analogies from time to time. My last; A nibble, from a few posts ago. Now, Failed to set the hook.

The agent who asked for my first ten pages has decided not to ask for the rest of the manuscript. Crushing defeat. BUT, I look on the bright side and realize, I just re-read my book and found errors that I otherwise would not have found . . . so (like Bill Murray says in Caddy Shack when he is talks about how he got eternal life as a tip for his caddying for the Dali Lama) I got that going for me.