Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Next Big Thing : A Beast in Venice blog meme

I’ve been asked by my friend Beth Barnay to take part in a blog meme called “The Next Big Thing.” I chose to do it on my finished novel A Beast in Venice. I've been killing myself working on the query letter with the hope of finding an agent.  Here goes:

What is the working title of your next book?

A Beast in Venice

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I hope to get an agent and publish it through a traditional publisher.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Part of the inspiration came from my own experiences as an expat living in Venice. But I thought that it should also include an element relating to Venice at night, which can be very spooky. Then I read an article about archaeologists finding a skull in an old cemetery near Venice with a brick in its mouth. This was done to stop the corpse from eating through its burial shroud and eating the other corpses, allowing it to rise from the dead as a vampire. My story is not about vampires, but I took the idea of the “shroud eater,” and bastardized it, if you will.

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary, with elements of horror.

How long does it take to write the first draft of your manuscript?

It usually takes several months to a year.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I don’t know any, it’s unique. I would like to be compared to a cross between Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy, and Nick Cave.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Brigham (protag) - Gary Oldman; Charles (antag) - Michael Caine; Rose (Brigham's wife) - Isabella Rossellini; Gloria (the temptress) -Valeria Golino; Lorenzo (a decent bad guy) - Danny Trejo.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

I've always toyed with the idea of being a writer. Now I have the time, and hope to develop a vocation I can do sitting in a chair.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It talks a lot about art, and the state of modern art. Also, there's a lot of symbolism, if one cares about such things.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Brigham Stone’s dream of living in Venice as an artist turns into a bloody ruin when he is converted to a ghoul.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Book Review: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

I had no idea. I knew there was a lot of drug use in the eighties. I was in the Navy, and a good number of my friends and acquaintances were druggies. Certainly a number of them were heavy drinkers. I never took illicit drugs, but I have been known to tip a few, and still do. But I had no idea that the focus of virtually every college student was the acquisition, use, and perhaps distribution of, illegal narcotics. Constantly. All the time. That is the impression one gets from reading Infinite Jest, and the subject of this review, The Secret History.

As I mentioned in my review of that book, I hated Infinite Jest. But I enjoyed The Secret History. Both stories are about college kids in the pre-cellphone age. In both novels the characters and everyone they know are drug users to some extent. They drank (no problem) and they smoked (yuk). Incessantly. I find smoking disgusting and horrifying. The characters smoked so much that I feared getting lung cancer from reading The Secret History. But I liked it. Why? I think the answer is that the characters in The Secret History had the redeeming characteristic of being intellectual. Students of history, literature, and languages. The characters in Infinite Jest were stupid jocks (is that redundant?) I therefore was able to identify with the characters, at least at that level. We had two things in common: an interest in intellectual pursuits, and booze. That was enough to get me over the hump.

The Secret History is about a group of college students at some schmancy Vermont college who are in a special class where only a few students are accepted, where they have only one professor for all their subjects (except French) and where they are engaged in the ethereal task of learning ancient Greek and Latin, amongst other highfaluting subjects.

They are all a little eccentric, as is the teacher, and most of them are rich, with the exception of our narrator. One night, when some members of the group are out on some sort of drug induced vision quest, they encounter something they believe to be a farmer, and scrap with it. They are so out of their minds that they don’t really know what happens. Actually, the author never does come out and tell you, but it can be inferred from a few clues. Read carefully. They form the opinion that they killed this farmer. One of those not involved in this murder becomes aware of it. They fear that he will rat them out, either by actually talking to the police, or by running his drunken mouth. So they decide to do away with him. The story deals with events leading up to that murder, and the aftermath of it, and how they deal with it.

I enjoyed the book. I thought it was too long, but it was not the soul smashing burden to read that Atlas Shrugged and even The Fountainhead were, but it weighed in at over 500 pages of small print. Could have been shorter. But it was well done enough for that not to have been a big problem. The writing was smooth and clear.

There were two things I didn’t like. One, there was a prologue. I have come to hate prologues. And from the get go, we know that these people kill one of their own. The author tells us right up front. And you know how. Might have been better if she left it up in the air until the deed is done. Two, there is a bit of a hole in the story. After the boy they murder is discovered missing,  the FBI showed up, and appeared to be involved with the investigation of a small town disappearance and, and later (when the body is found) murder. The FBI would have no jurisdiction. In this type of matter. It’s a state law issue. Yet, none of these smarty pants even asked the question. Now, I know they were painted as some sort of geniuses who were above the mundane world relating to federal jurisdiction, but once the FBI got on the scene, one of them should have gone and checked what the heck the FBI did. That issue was touched on, and the agents themselves said they had no jurisdiction in the crime at hand (to the surprise of the protagonist and his compatriots), but none of our group of real smart friends questioned it. We are never really told why they were there. It seemed to me to be a thread that was dropped.

Outside of that, the story went quickly, was well written, and entertaining. I give it four stars. I dock it a star only because of the smoking. They all smoked all the time. I know that at the time there were few restrictions on smoking, but give it a rest. One or two guys constantly lighting up, blowing smoke, rubbing the horrible thing out in the ashtray is enough. But all of them? All the time and everywhere. In their rooms, in restaurants, during conversation, while out walking, while eating, while drinking, while studying, while doing anything or going anywhere. It got to be tiresome. I realize that part of it was to provide gestures for the characters during dialogue, but what’s wrong with rubbing an eye, or scratching a chin? There was less smoking in Atlas Shrugged, and that was written in the 40s.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Writing a Novel is Hard

Writing a novel, however, is the hardest thing I have ever done.  I have been a reactor operator on a submarine, earned a master’s degree in business, earned a law degree, passed the bar, and practiced law. Nothing, however, has been as difficult as writing a novel.

The first novel I completed I self-published. I was curious to see what that experience would be like, and I didn’t want to fool with trying to get an agent. Sitting on my desk in front of me now, though, is the most recent draft of my next novel. I’ve struggled with it for over two years. 

The first novel (which was really the second, as the one on my desk was started before it) I just sort of cranked out. I never intended to get a publisher, so it made me much less concerned with what they would be looking for. 

For the second novel, however, I intend to try to find an agent. For that reason, I’m much more concerned with story arc, character arc, structure, and proper form. Not only that, I always have in the back of my mind the question of what would an agent want to see, and serious doubts as to whether the novel is anything other than crap.

I hired an editor/mentor (at no small cost) which was a huge benefit. I learned a lot from her, and intend to still avail myself of her services. But she was a cruel master. I needed, valued, and took her advice (for the most part), and I needed her frank analysis. Every writer, new or experienced, needs that. But it is no way to build confidence and self-esteem.

The novel on my desk is the third draft. A few other drafts were abandoned in progress. The original version was 90,000 words. This version is 73,000 words. I wish it were more like 80,000 words, and it may yet be, but in the whole scheme of things, 73,000 is enough.

What’s the book about? Don’t laugh. Vampires. In Venice. Italy. Not really vampires, but critters known as shroud eaters. Did I really start out to write a novel about vampires? I don’t know. I started out thinking I would write a book about my experiences as an expat in Italy. Then this shroud eater thing came up. There was actually one found in a graveyard in Venice. The skeleton of a woman with a brick in her mouth, buried during the plague of 1576. During that plague they would open mass graves and find that previously buried corpses had tried to eat through their death shrouds. They thought that they were also eating the corpses of the other inhabitants of the grave, so they put a brick in its mouth to stop it. If they ate enough, they would rise from the grave as vampires. That piqued my curiosity. They really had vampires here. And Venice is a spooky place, anyway. Hence . . . .

Then I had second thoughts, based in no small part on comments from my editor. Maybe I should scrap the vampire thing. It’s beginning to be a little played. But then I wondered what the heck the story would be. I got 20,000 words into the new version, and then hit a wall. Now what? Maybe I should keep the vampires. So, back to work on the vamps. Then doubt crept in again. Back to no blood suckers. I was a deer in headlights.

I talked to my wife, who is a hell of a lot smarter than I am. Vamps or no? “If there are no vampires, then what’s your story?” she asked, cutting (as usual) right to the heart of the matter. Exactly! So, back to having vampires. And so it went, until I finally decided to keep them, finish the damn thing before I die of old age, and throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. 

This brings me to what’s so hard about writing.  First you’ve got to have a plot. Well, some idea of what the story is. All right, an idea as to how it starts, a vague notion of what happens in the middle, and some theories on how it might turn out. Then you have to have characters, know what they’re like, where they fit into the plan (to the extent that there is one) come up with some way of building conflict and tension, think of a climax, then have a way to tie it all together.

Then you start to write. They say that writing is a solitary act. It is. But you are not alone. There are demons. While you struggle to put this thing on paper, they torment you. “You can’t do it.” “No one will ever read that.” “You’re stupid.” “Your English is bad.”  “They will laugh at you.” “Quit.” “Give up.” “Have you seen the videos from agents? They are all jaded and cynical, and snotty. You want to subject yourself to that?” “They will hate you.” “Your plot sucks.”

But you can’t listen to these devils. If you are going to write, it is hard enough to come up with a story line, and put it down in a coherent form in something resembling proper English. You can’t worry about what others think. You need to have a good story and good characters. You’ve got to have tension and structure, and all that (i.e., you’ve got to know the craft). But you can’t write for everyone. Just write your story. Don’t worry about what will sell, you can never figure it out. Don’t worry about what agents look for, you have no way of telling. 

So, just put your little caboose in the chair and go to work. Cast out the demons, and write what you like. Find your own voice, and your own style. As the late Gore Vidal said: “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” If you ever want to finish a novel, you can’t give a damn about what other people think.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Book Review: The Crossing, by Cormac McCarthy

If you want to be a writer, read the works of Cormac McCarthy. They are crisp and clean, with no extra words. As one of the review snippets on the back of the book said, “He writes prose as clean as a bullet cutting through the air . . .” 

As is true with all of his books, the story is of an actual journey, and of the things that happen along the way. The story takes place in the years just before and just after the beginning of World War II, and follows the adventures of 16 year old Billy Parham as he travels back and forth between his home in New Mexico, and various places in Mexico to accomplish various deeds. I don’t think it’s spoiling the plot to say that they end in calamity.

The writing is unbelievable. “The thin horned moon lay on its back in the west like a grail and the bright shape of Venus hung above it like a star falling into a boat.” Near the end of the book he describes an old crippled broken dog in such a way that you actually feel its pain. “[The dog] stood there inside the door with the rain falling in the weeds and gravel behind it and it was wet and wretched and so scarred and broken that it might have been patched up out of parts of dogs by demented vivisectionists.”

This is literature for a man. There is no romance, no sex. It is violent and bloody with suffering and pain for man and beast throughout. McCarthy follows rigidly the rule of never giving the protagonist what he wants. Billy finds himself in a world where there is plenty of good. Plenty of people help him along the way. But the myriad evil in the world is more powerful. The good can only huddle and quake in its shadow. In the end he is left with nothing. All is taken from him by evil men with vile and bloody ways. That is, the ending is not all sunshine and happiness. But is filled with philosophy and insight as to the nature of man and the hard and deadly world he has created for himself.

This is the second novel in “The Border Trilogy.” I have yet to read the others, but will. One of the best books I have read. The story is thoughtful and compelling. Read it. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Another Way to Improve your Writing: Kill the Cute

I have always considered myself a good writer. That is, I felt that I had a command of the language, a reasonable idea of how to use commas (although there is still a mysterious element to them), and a way with words, as they say. The way with words part is what I intend to talk about here.

In our studies to become writers, we are often told “kill your darlings.” This is great advice. Usually, the part of a story that you think is the best thing ever written is horrible, and ruins the story. Take it out. I have received other advice, as well. For example, “go on a which hunt.” Go through your work, take out all the “whichs” and replace them with “that.” Then go through and take out all the “thats.” I would like to add one more: Take out the cute.

As a novice writer who thought he had a way with words, I would often write something that I felt to be witty and humorous, demonstrating my clever use of words. I was wrong. This often manifested itself in the form of witty banter amongst the characters. The result was to turn a scene that I intended to be scary, into one that was funny or, more accurately, one that not scary or funny, but rather stupid. Consider the following:


(Rose’s husband has been kidnapped, and put into a tomb somewhere in Venice. Rose and their friend Mauro have determined that the tomb may be located under a church in the crypt. They set off to find him. Is this a time for humor? There are other obvious problems with the writing that I also correct in the revised version)

“Let’s go,” Mauro said, taking out his flashlight, and stepping off the bricks into water, and heading for the hidden places of the crypt.
Rose took out her flashlight, and they headed back into the heart of the crypt.
“Won’t the little man guarding the door wonder where we went?” she asked.
“No, it’s taken care of.”
“What do you mean, ‘it’s taken care of?’”
“I told him we wanted to go on an extended tour.”
“That’s code. We’ve known each other since we were boys. We used to bring girls back here to impress them, and such.”
“And such?”
“Yes, they were usually quite impressed when they left.”
“So he thinks–”
“You bastard.”
He grinned.
“I’m not going to kill you now,” she said, “I need you. But when we get out, you die.”
He laughed out loud.
“Fine, but keep it down,” he said. “We need to be quiet.”
They turned the corner and shined their lights off into the crypt. It was surprisingly vast, and clearly covered a span of territory greater than the footprint of the church. Walking slowly through water that was about six inches below their knees, they moved through the pitch dark of the crypt. The darkness seemed to devour the light from their flashlights. 
Shelves cut into stone and heaped with skulls and other bones lined the corridor, below which ran a row of sepulchers decorated with elaborate carvings and odd figures, such as lions with bat’s wings, screaming skulls, and creatures half man and half snake.


“Let’s go,” Mauro said, stepping into the water, shining his flashlight into the darkness, which seemed to devour the beam. 
Rose followed with her flashlight. They moved into the damp gloom of the crypt, sloshing slowly through ankle-deep water. Skulls  peered at them from shelves cut into the stone. Below these bones ran a row of sepulchers decorated with elaborate carvings of fantastic figures. Lions with bat’s wings, screaming skulls, and creatures half man and half snake.

Even if you simply take out the silly dialogue, the scene changes from one of comedy to one more serious and (hopefully) more frightening. Dress it up further, and you begin to get the feeling I was shooting for. I realized that the cute and witty banter ruined the feeling of dread I hoped to achieve. This passage was actually a darling, as well. Better that it’s gone. What do you think?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Book Review: The Comfort of Strangers

I became interested in this book by watching the movie of the same name, starring Christopher Walken and Natasha Richardson.  The film is beautifully shot in Venice and is worth watching.

The book hardly qualifies as a novel at one hundred pages in paperback, which I recon to be about 35,000 words, but in the world of overly large novels, that’s probably a plus.

The story takes place in Venice around 1980, I suppose, as the book was published in 1981. A divorced woman (Mary) and her lover (Colin) visit Venice for vacation. The book opens with them pissed at each other for some unknown reason. Mary has kids and misses them, while Colin has no kids, and shows no real interest in hers.  We get the impression that the relationship has gone stale.

No age is given for Colin or Mary, but with Mary being divorced with two children, one ten, the other about eight, that would put her at at least thirty, but probably older. We have way to gauge Colin’s age. He is always described in feminine terms, such as “beautiful,” “like and angel,” with his body being hairless, and the hair on his head being long and curly. He is physically weak. The name “Colin” means “pup” or “whelp.” It’s fair to conclude that Colin is substantially younger than Mary. In fact, Robert, the antagonist, takes much more of a shine to Colin, essentially ignoring Mary.

For some reason (and in spite of not sharing the same bed) these two cannot get themselves out of their hotel in time to get dinner, and they wander the streets (apparently without a map) trying to find (of all things) a hotdog stand they remember passing. They become lost and ran into Robert, a man who lives in Venice. He befriends them, and they start on their journey, the outcome of which I will not spoil. Suffice it to say that it is a dark story with a surprising twist at the end.

I like the story. One difficulty I had with the book, however, is that it gives no meaningful description of Venice. To the extent it gives any description, they are vague and frankly unpleasant. They show that either the author or the characters have no appreciation for Venice, and don’t know anything about it. No place names are given, and some of the information is simply wrong. For example, the author refers to the bell tower at St. Mark’s square as the clock tower. I had the impression that McKewan had been in Venice long enough to get a taste of it, but not long enough to know it, or to care to give actual names of places. This may have been a literary trick to keep the focus away from Venice, and maybe I’m biased because I live in Venice, but I think if you are going to set a story here, you might as well spend a little time giving meaningful descriptions of some of the places. As it is, the story could have taken place anywhere.

Though only a hundred pages long, some interesting themes are dealt with. A May-September relationship, male domination of women, women resisting and then acquiescing in their role as subservient, perhaps as a way to gain power over their situation.  Sexual violence. The love-hate relationship between men and women. Even the relative helplessness of a traveler who must rely on others for help. Maybe a failure or refusal to take control of your own life, or any situation.

For example, it’s clear that Mary and Colin are having difficulty figuring out where their relationship is, or what it should be. Neither is willing to make a hard decision. In the pivotal scene, Mary and Colin are at Robert’s house. While Mary is out of the room with Caroline (Robert’s wife) Robert strikes Colin in the gut with his fist, sending him to the floor gasping for air. What does Colin do? Nothing. I might have called it a night and decided that this man was possibly not the right sort of friend for me. But he does nothing, in keeping with the theme of women (in this case the effeminate Colin) being subject to the brutality of men and, to a large extent, giving in to it voluntarily. Perhaps this was a test by Robert to see whether Colin really was a man. A man would have fought back. Or he would have left, not accepting the treatment. But Colin just took it.

While at Robert’s house Mary notices photographs, which she later realized are pictures of Colin taken after they arrived in Venice. In spite of being aware of that, and in spite of Colin being struck by Robert, the two return to visit Robert and Caroline. This I found strange. It seems more logical to avoid Robert. Maybe just go on back to England. But they go back. Why? The answer lies perhaps in the man-as-abuser theme. The abused often cannot free themselves mentally or emotionally from their abuser, although they have the power. Caroline is such a person. She is horribly abused, yet thinks she likes it or deserves it. Very typical victim mentality. Needless to say, Caroline would be better off without Robert, and Colin and Mary would have done well to stay away from Robert.

A compelling and interesting story, and quick read. I recommend it.

The Movie:

Thursday, March 15, 2012

If you are writer, it has been beat into your head since you were in elementary school to “show, don’t tell.” But what does that mean? One area I have learned to show, rather than tell, is describing emotions of people in dialogue. I’ve discovered a great tool to help.

For example, you could write:

“Yes,” she said excitedly. 

But this is telling, not showing. So, how would you describe a person saying something excitedly?  What does the face of a person saying something excitedly look like? How does their voice sound? How do you describe it?

It would be helpful to look at a person expressing the emotion. I’ve discovered that through a Google search you can get a large number of images of people showing certain emotions.  Do a search in “Images” for “facial expressions of emotions,” and you will find images showing an array of emotions. Do a search for a specific emotion, and you will get millions of images showing that emotion. I did a search of “facial expressions of excitement,” and got almost six million. You can’t look through six million images, but you’ll find that after about three pages the relevance starts to diminish.

You can see that they have some things in common. Brow raised, eyes wide, smiling or mouth open. Some are gesturing, such as arms in the air, on the face, and so forth. You don’t necessarily need or want to use them all. It depends on the character and the situation.

So, instead of

“Yes,” she said excitedly, 

You could write: 

“Yes,” she said, her eyes wide, smiling.

Her eyes grew large and she smiled. “Yes.”  Or,

She flung her arms out and smiled. “Yes.”

You could use an exclamation point (use sparingly):

Her eyes grew large and she smiled. “Yes!”

Another way to add emphasis to it is by using italics:

 “Yes,” she said, her eyes wide.

There are certainly better or different ways to write it. The point is that through a Google search you can get hundreds of useful images from which you can write a description showing the emotion, rather than telling.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Review of Grammar Check Anywhere and Whitesmoke

As an indie author, I struggle to put out error-free work. I hate typos, misspellings, and format errors. While most misspellings are corrected by the word processor, many typos and grammatical errors are not, and neither are words used out of context.  As I noted in a recent blog (as recent as today, as a matter of fact. I’m catching up) indie authors should use an editor, at least until the get a feeling for grammar and punctuation, and are able to construct a story without a lot of help. But that still leaves proofreading. I mentioned in that blog the typos that I missed, even after having read the thing a couple of times. Even my wife missed them.

It occurred to me that there may be some decent software that will help me. So, I searched for software that would check grammar. Many word processors have something that purports to do it, but mine (Atlantis) does not. There is not even a plug-in. 

I discovered a number of programs that might work, so I downloaded a few to see what they would do. My verdict is that although they may be useful for students, people learning the language, or people who fancy themselves writers, but who are not properly schooled in English, they are of little use to a professional writer. Although they certainly make some suggestions that improved any writing, they are so imperfect that one still needs a human proofreader to go through it word by word.

Some of the most popular programs, such as Ginger, worked only with Microsoft products that I don’t have. I downloaded StyleWriter4, but found the interface to be so horrible that it was unusable. I ended up trying Whitesmoke and Grammar Check Anywhere. Neither is perfect, but of the two, Whitesmoke (WS) is better. Both run in the background, and are activated by a hot key, which you can assign. They both have reasonably decent interfaces, and are easy to use. But there are major differences between them, and major problems with both.

For example, neither one (nor any others I tested online) found any problems with the sentence: “We are going to place in the country.” It should be “We are going to a place in the country.” A clear limitation of all grammar checking programs, illustrating that no matter what you do, you still need a set of human eyes to read the thing. And better that the eyes are not yours.

But why should they miss this? The word “place” is one of those words that can be a noun or a verb. “I have a place in the country,” or “Please place the jar on the table.” As noun, it needs an article – “the” or “a.” As a verb it does not. So, why not flag it? They flag other stuff. They flag common words that are confused, as I discuss below. I know that in the context I used it that there should be an “a” in front of it. But I type fast and miss letters, sometimes. When I read it, my brain skips right over it. Just mark it and say “you might be missing an article.” 

Both of these programs have a trial version to download for free. (Note to those selling software: I will never download a program for which I have to pay first, with the right to cancel. I don’t trust you that far. I insist on a free trial download, no strings attached.)

Warning: Both programs affected formatting. Never use them on a final version of a document on which you have struggled on the formatting. 

Grammar Check Anywhere.

I found this program to be nearly useless for my purposes. Most of the suggestions for corrections it made were meaningless or wrong, and it does not look at punctuation.

Unlike many programs, including WS, this program does not require an internet connection to work.

In contrast to WS, which allows only 10,000 characters at a time, Grammar Check will check your entire document at one time, one issue at a time. I used it on a 56,000 word novel. The document comes up in an editing window with the first issue (potential problem) highlighted. 

The first issue it had was with the sentence “If this stick breaks, you are gonna die.” It highlighted “this stick breaks,” and suggested “this stick break,” “these stick breaks,” and “the stick breaks.” The only one of the suggestions that is grammatically correct in this context is the last one. The sentence as it is is correct, so why bother? If you are going to bother, then make a suggestion that has the result of producing proper grammar in the context of the sentence. I suppose you could say “Did this stick break?” I cannot, however, think of a context where “these stick breaks” would be correct. In my limited understanding of English, the noun “stick” would have to agree in number with the article in front of it. “These” is plural, so “stick” would have to be plural, and the verb would have to not have the “s.” That may be a rough way to put it, but if you can think of any context where the suggestion “these stick breaks” would be correct, feel free to comment.

Then it wanted to make sure that I did not mean “foreword” when I used the word “forward.” Fine, but from the context of the sentence, I used the right word. The program, then, mechanically looks for certain words and gives a warning, without regard to context. You can adjust the sensitivity to these things, and you can tell it not to look for them, but that feature does not seem to work. It did the same thing with “weather,” to be sure I didn’t mean “whether.” I am beyond this issue in my understanding of English, and found it quite annoying. (It also has an “Ignore All” button, which does not work).

For  the phrase “he no longer,” it suggested “he know longer.” Uh, no. This is clearly geared toward a person who does not know the difference between know and no. But under what context would the word “know” be correct here? None that I can think of, so it clearly simply looks for “no” and substitutes “know.” Not much use, and certainly a time waster.

It did make some good suggestions. For example, “without,” instead of “in the absence of,” and “despite,” in place of “in spite of.” Good ideas, and the type of advice that everyone could use.

Then it started selecting letters in the middle of words at random and suggesting that they be capitalized, because it had determined that they were the first word of a sentence. I don’t know where this came from, but it got to be quite annoying.

As you go through the program’s suggestions, you can edit your actual document (a feature missing in WS), or you can edit the document in the program’s window. You should know, though, that if you click “Finish,” you will have no option but to have the program make the changes to your document that you made in the editing window. There should be a way to exit without doing anything. If you don’t want to make the changes in your document that you have made on the editing window, you must hit the “Cancel” button. This is a major drawback or, more accurately, a flaw, in the program.

It destroyed my formatting. The first time I tried it, I had it look at the entire document, including all the front matter. I had agonized for hours over the headers and footers, because I’m using different headers for odd and even pages, and the page numbering starts at chapter 1, not at the beginning of the document, which is the title page. When I told it to finish, it applied my changes, and killed my header and footer formatting. Fortunately, I had saved it when the format was right, and not saved it since. I experimented with this issue by taking only a portion of the text starting in the middle of the document (which is done by selecting it, then pressing F7), made some changes, then applied it. This time, it did not affect the headers and footers. 

I liked that you could choose between editing the actual document, or editing in the program and having it applied to the document. The editor works at normal speed, which can be useful. 

I found the program as a whole to be too basic. That is, it seems to believe that you don’t know the difference between “weather” and “whether,” which is a level or two below where any writer would be. So, it’s good for middle school students, but not professional writers.

On the upside, It costs only about $60, so you won’t go without food and shelter if you spring for it, but for me it was too much of a time waster, with only minimal usefulness. 

Whitesmoke (WS)

Great interface, clean-looking editing window and meaningful suggestions.

The editor, though, is painfully, agonizingly, horribly slow. I’m talking two or three seconds per keystroke slow. You want to shoot yourself. And you can’t edit your document while this is running. 

It’s limited to looking at only 10,000 characters at a time. Maybe a chapter. 

Requires internet connection. I read another review that determined the connection was not secure. So watch what you edit, it’s being sent over a non-secure connection.

Affected the format slightly, but did not touch my beloved headers and footers. For example, it eliminated italics. 

If you do a search for grammar checking programs, you will find that WS has marketed the garbage our of their product. Some of it is a little deceptive. You go to a site that looks like a different product, and it turns out to be a landing page for WS. I hate that. I also found “reviews” online that were clearly written by WS. I hate that, too. I have enough trouble figuring out what’s real in this world. 

WS is superior to Grammar Check Anywhere in several ways. It’s interface is much more professional looking.  It comes up with a nice clean editor, and a side bar graphic that rates your writing overall, and with respect to certain categories, such as sentence structure.

It highlights problems it finds by underlining the offending word or phrase, and then putting suggested changes above them. You make the change by clicking on the one you like, or you ignore them by doing nothing. The suggested changes are marked in different colors, depending whether it is a spelling error, an incomplete sentence, a word suggestion, and so forth.

But it ain’t perfect. Here are some of its suggestions:

“I’m not” in place of “I ain’t.” No prob.
It said that “That’s too bad” is not a complete sentence. I don’t know whether it is or it isn’t, but it’s typical conversational speech. But I’m not horrified by the fact that it made the recommendation.

“I ain’t no coward” should be “I’m not any coward.” Don’t sound right to me.

“Could” instead of “were able to.” Good suggestion.

A comma after “us” in the sentence “If they find us they are going to hurt us.” Probably right.

But there are some serious bugs in it. It suggested “Iprovided,” or “Itprovided,” instead of “provided” (as in “Provided we survive . . .”) The suggested corrections are missing spaces. i.e., the suggestions for correcting grammar and punctuation themselves have typos. Imagine if you were a foreigner trying to correct a document in English. You want to put your brains on the ceiling? Try to look up the meaning of “Iprovided.” Not good for a program that has been around for a while, and that is intended to do what this thing does, and for which you will lay out actual dough. And remember, you are supposed to click on the one you want, and it automatically makes that correction. I don’t need a grammar program that introduces more errors.

There came a point in the document where it got one word off from the word with which it had a problem. For example, “. . . he did not hear come in.” It underlined “come” and suggested it be “here.” If you made the change, you end up with “hear here.” It meant to suggest that “hear” should be “here.” (Like in Grammar Checker, I’m at the point in my understanding of English that I know the difference. Would I type the wrong one? Not likely. More likely that I would leave off a letter, such as typing “hea” or “her.” You want to help me, flag a sentence where I used “her” instead of “here.” I’d pay for that.

So, many of the suggestions it had were just plain wrong, whether considering the context or not. There are typos in some suggested corrections.

On the other hand, there are some good things about it. The editing window is very easy to read, and they do not clutter it up with oodles of useless suggestions (only a few). So, I find myself reading every word very carefully, not only the words indicated for changes. This is important. When I proof read my own stuff, I tend to gloss over things because I know what it says (or what it should say). 

They purport to have, and others have written that they do have, excellent customer service. I haven’t tested it, and I don’t know what happens after you buy the thing.

If you do install the trial version, to remove it you have to go to Windows Task Manager, and delete it from the Processes window. It does not show up in the Applications window. (if the thing in running. You can prevent this by not having it start automatically when you start your computer)

So, will I buy it? No. It’s about $150 (105 Euros), although I know they will offer you a 30% discount if you uninstall their software. Is it worth a hundred bucks for what it does? Probably. But here’s my issue with it, and with Grammar Checker:


Certainly, both programs will help you with your writing, particularly if English is not your native tongue, or you’re a student, even in college, or you are an indie writer who can’t afford a real live editor. If you are writing something that does not have to be immaculate, but you want help with some punctuation (WS only) and word usage, then these will help you.

If you are a professional writer, however, they are virtually useless. Although they will make a few good suggestions, so would any editor. Since they are not a substitute for an editor, then you are wasting your time and money. You will spend the time going through with one of these programs, and still have to go through word-by-word to get the glitches that these won’t catch. Would you rely on your spell checker to make sure everything was okay? No. 

I looked at these to address the problem that I miss typos when reading through a document. They are of little use for that. What helped me the most was listening to it being read out loud on my computer. Adobe pdf will do it, but I had a tremendous problem. In older versions, it worked very well. They have now rendered it nearly useless. The best program I’ve found so far is Natural Reader. You can get a free version with just Microsoft Annie’s voice, or you can pay (quite a bit, actually) for other voices. The other voices are cool, but I doubt they are worth the money. With Natural Reader, you can listen and edit your document at the same time. It has numerous bugs and flaws, but it works good enough for the free version.  

Monday, February 6, 2012

What I Have Learned as an Indie Author – Part 2: The Cover

All books need a cover, as that is how they are judged. Even e-books. But this is a very difficult business, and as contentious with critics of indie authors as is the often piss-poor nature of the writing and editing.

I fancy myself the artistic type. I even sell paintings online. But I am not a graphic designer, and I am certainly not a book cover designer. I struggled for hours and days working on a cover. Looking for fonts, images, looking at professional covers, trying to figure the whole thing out. What color? What font? What color font? What image? How do I put it together? After two days of doing that, instead of writing, I realized how hard it is. I concluded that just as in the editing, you need a professional. I threw my hands up. But I could not bring myself to hire anyone, at least yet.

In looking at professionally done covers, I looked for patterns. What kind of font did they use? Was there a secret color for the font. How about the cover? I found no consistency or pattern, with two exceptions. I noticed that about a third of all books use a white type face on a dark background. About 20% of the rest had white or very light backgrounds with dark letters. So, the answer is contrast. 

A large fraction of the fonts were sans serif, but there were also a huge percentage of serif fonts. Depends on what you’re doing. What I did notice, though, is that very few used any gimmicky fonts. No bleeding letters, or fancy script. 

There are certain other consistencies, such as the nature of the cover of romance novels (big strapping guy, usually without a shirt and rippled with muscles, with a beautiful woman, hair blowing in the wind). Books selling to women tend to have softer colors, more pastel. But otherwise, there was little in common, except that they were simple, and had only one image relating to the content of the book. They seemed to try to convey the nature of the book, but not give a representation of the story. At most, they would provide a scene.

One problem I found was trying to study books in this genre, which is horror, or maybe YA horror. Most of the famous writers of horror, such as Stephen King or Dean Koonz, have their names in huge letters at the top, with the title at the bottom. That doesn’t work for indie authors, as the important information on those books is the name of the author. Not all that important for me, yet.

First Version
So, I tried my hand at it. I think I did pretty well (but don’t we indies always think we did pretty well?) I came up with a strong image with red letters that conveyed, to some extent, the fact that this was a horror novel. You could probably describe it as being very masculine. 

Then I thought about it. I realized that many of my readers, if not most of them, would be female. So, I thought a more feminine cover would be in order. So, I chose a picture of a house on a river (actually, a castle on the Danube I took this past November), soft and misty, with a nice reflection. Part of the story takes place at a river. Then I added, faintly, an image of a skull, superimposed over the river scene. This also conveys an idea of the nature of the book. Evil in contrast to good, and not always able to tell which is which.

Another Variation.
See the difference the font makes?
I like this one better than the other two.

The Current Version
Note that it's more square than the others. This cover
works well on Kindle, but it won't fly on
CreateSpace. But it give you a little more room
on Kindle than the size they recommend.

That is where I am now. The more feminine cover is the one in use as of the writing of this blog. 

Lessons Learned 

Keep it simple. You don’t need a bunch of images. I also noticed that few books have a photograph of a person on the cover. If there is a person, it is a painting. They have either purely graphic designs, or scenery of some kind.

Use a strong font, but not a gimmicky one. A good sans serif, such as League Gothic, or a good serif, such as Trajan. It has to do with the type of book. You would not use the same font on a book about football as you would on one about a girl coming of age.

The font has to look good (i.e., be readable) in a small image online. When you have the font in place, shrink the image to see what it looks like.

Make sure there is a lot of contrast, such as white letters on a dark background. But make sure the colors don’t vibrate when next to each other.

What I Have Learned as an Indie Author – Part 1: Editing

A writer trying to do his own editing, or make his own book cover, is like a person trying represent themselves (pro se) in court. I practiced law for ten years, and there are very few things lawyers and judges hate more than a pro se litigant. They don’t know the rules of court, they don’t know procedure, and they sure as hell don’t know the law. Their filings are garbage, and they often don’t understand the real issues in their own cases. They think they do, but they don’t. 

The same is true of an indie writer trying to do it all himself. Indie authors are on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, if you are not schooled in writing, then your work is (believe me) of poor quality, unless you hire an editor. 

You also need a good book cover. It’s cliché, but people judge a book by its cover. You need one that will grab the attention of your target audience, and get those people to look at your book. It’s got to be easy to see online in a small image. These things all cost money. A lot of money.

If you want to be successful as an indie author, the content of your book needs to be perfect. Not the best darn work you can do (that might have been good enough for your mother) but no typos, proper grammar, spelling and punctuation, and proper usage. This can only be accomplished with professional help. 

There are two levels of this: one is a very detailed analysis of your story. Whether it makes sense, where the holes are, and whether it has the elements of a story. The other is a line edit/proofread where, if you have command of the story, typos, grammar, and improper usage will be corrected.

Being able to put together a story, particularly of novel length, is very difficult. That even comes in two parts. You need to be able to construct the story with a beginning, middle and end, and you need to be able to write it so it is interesting and makes sense. For the structure, I recommend a book called The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition, by Christopher Volger. There is also a nice set of videos on YouTube that give it to you in a nutshell. But nothing beats reading the book.

As to the writing part, I suggest Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain. 

Even if you consider yourself to be well-versed in the use of the language, you need to have an editor in order to achieve the quality you need. I have a master’s degree in business and a law degree, and think that I have a decent command of grammar, punctuation, style, and usage (I can’t spell, and I know it). But what I produce is riddled with errors. Even what I published had errors. That’s how I know what I’m talking about.

Even if you have a perfect understanding of the elements of writing, you will never, ever, in a million years, catch all the typos and other errors in your own work. You at least need a proofreader.

For example, I had a sentence that was supposed to be “Then Roland got out of the car.” I typed “the” instead of “then.” I can’t tell you how many times I read that and missed it. My wife caught it. (I later realized that I didn’t need the “then,” so I deleted it, anyway). As an experiment, I tried some of the big fancy grammar checkers on the market, to see whether they would catch that. None of them did. None.

When I uploaded the file for CreateSpace, I had read through it, and my wife had read through it. I thought it was in pretty darn good shape. Then I got the proof of the book. We read it again. There were a myriad of errors. Little errors, generally, but still errors. Then I did something different. I listened to the whole book as the computer read it through, following along, making edits as it went. Again, numerous little errors. A missing letter, here–a period where there should have been a comma there. 

The astute reader will say “but you didn’t use an editor.” No, I didn’t. And I probably won’t, and here’s why: I used an editor for another novel, and learned a lot from that. My problem is not grammar and punctuation, so much, as it is being able to spot small typos. So, it must be proofread by more than one person, and it is very helpful to listen to it and follow along.

I paid three grand to have an editor review my first novel (and continue to work with me, and it ain’t done, yet) for not only grammar and punctuation, but for story arc, believability, and such. Tons and tons of work. And that editor took me to school. No kid gloves, no gratuitous praise, just plain hard “I don’t buy it,” or “this isn’t funny,” or big red Xs through page after page, or saying that my main character was a sociopath and an alcoholic, and she didn’t like him (which gave me pause, because I patterned him after myself. All right, good to know.) 

I learned a lot from her, to the extent that I feel I can put together the story, and write it cleanly. But proofreading is still a problem. An it is very difficult to get anyone to do it for the mere joy of reading my masterpiece.

So, I think it’s important to lay out the cash at least once for a good, thorough crash course on English and writing. There are millions of people online who do that. My editor is here. And if you intend to write more than one book, the payback (i.e., the length of time it takes you to get the money back on your investment) is then spread over several books.

So, do yourself and your readers a favor. Learn the craft, and get a professional to help you edit and proofread your book. Then all you'll need to do is put your ass in a chair and type words on paper. All there is to it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book Review: The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace

 I have been cultivating this finish-the-book vibe after years of starting books and never finishing them. I have been very successful. But I had to pull the plug on this 547 page book at about page 275. Reading this book was like reading the “begats”

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Why do we do Anything?

Have you ever thought about why you do anything? By that, I mean why you do something instead of nothing. For myself, if ever given the option, I will always do nothing instead of something. The answer is, you do things solely to shut people up.

Sounds harsh. But think about it. With very few exceptions, your actions day-to-day, minute-by-minute, are dedicated to getting other people off your back. 

You go to work. But who gets the money? The mortgage company or landlord, the insurance companies, the oil companies, the utility

Friday, January 13, 2012

A few of my paintings

Black and White Dog

Women with Too Much Time on Their Hands

Woman Reading a Book