Thursday, December 30, 2010

Shadow Scholars

Enjoy writing? Enjoy making a living from it? Here is a story about the seamier side of writing. It details the life of a “shadow scholar” – someone who, for the right money, writes essays for college students. He has also written dissertations for graduate students. I always suspected something like this must happen in college occasionally. I just didn’t know it had evolved into such a big-time business. As someone who wrote my own Ph.D. thesis, I found the story disturbing on many levels. Tell me what you think.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Merry Christmas

I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas. Ours was good, although my wife and I didn’t get as much sleep as we would have liked. First of all, I was in a writing groove on Christmas Eve and didn’t stop writing until 1:45 in the morning. And the only reason I quit was because I knew my eight year old son had set his alarm for 2:15 so that he could sneak downstairs with his flashlight and check whether there were any presents under the tree. We had given him permission to do this (fools that we were); with the proviso that he not wake us if he found anything.

Of course, he was so excited by the presents he couldn’t go back to sleep and, of course, he had to wake us up in order to inform us of this fact. Eventually he ended up in bed with us, but he was still too excited to fall asleep for another two hours, which meant neither my wife nor I got much sleep either. Never again.

Again, Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Winter Writing

For me, winter is a wonderful time to write. There are fewer distractions, you’re stuck inside a lot, and the kids go to bed earlier, which leaves you with more free time in the evening. (Unfortunately, dark nights and a colder house make me want to go to bed earlier too, so that last benefit is usually a wash.) But in my case, when you are writing a book about magic and mysteries and castles full of dark secrets, doing it when the evenings are dark adds to the overall ambience, especially when I turn the lights down in my office.

Despite the usual holiday distractions, I am finding this holiday season to be particularly inspirational for working on my book. Following the format developed by JKK Rowling, my story takes place over the course of a school year and right now I’m up to December. And to me, it feels much better to be writing about events in December when it really is December. (Sign of a novice?) I had promised myself that I would finish the December chapters before the end of the year, but I’m no longer very hopeful of fulfilling that promise. Too many distractions! That doesn’t mean I’m giving up all hope, however. I only have three more days left at my day job this year, which means I’ll have a lot of late night writing time available to me in the next week and a half. Will I take advantage of this time or will I go to bed early and grouse about the lack of writing time the next morning?

I’ll let you know what happens.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Nook Color Review

I ran across a review of the Nook Color e-reader over at Ars Technica and thought I’d pass along the link. The reviewer compares it with the Kindle and lists the pros and cons of each. Long story short, the Nook is great if you want to use its web apps in addition to its ability to display books, but if all you want to do is just read books, you may be happier with the Kindle.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Finals Week is Over!

Today marks the last day of Finals Week at the college where I teach an evening course in chemistry. I’m sure the students are relieved it is all over, but I suspect many of the instructors are having exactly the same thoughts. Count me as one of them. I enjoyed teaching the class, but it could be a lot of work at times and I’m glad for the break. I met many interesting students during the course and I would like to thank them for making my job that much easier. Last night was the final exam for my class and it saddened me to think that I probably won’t see any of my students again.

But I’m sure I’ll get over it.


Anyway, here are two miscellaneous links that I thought I’d share with you.

First, MarketingHackz has a list of ten amusing advertising/marketing goofs where translation problems foiled the attempts of companies trying to expand into foreign markets. Classic!

Second, a link to more pictures of Liu Bolin, the artist who hides in plain sight.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Creative Writing During a Blizzard

Some of my best creative thinking comes during my 55 minute commute to and from work every day. It’s almost all highway driving, with only light traffic, so I’m free to let my mind wander about in whichever chapter interests me at the moment. Many of my best ideas have come during this commute. The trick is to remember them long enough so I can commit them to paper at the end of the drive. I keep a small voice recorder in the car for just such purposes along with a pad of paper for those times I’m stuck at traffic lights.

The last two days have not been very creative. Instead, I’ve been concentrating on just keeping the car on the road. I live in the Detroit area and many of you are probably aware we had some snow up here on Sunday night. Only 4 inches or so, not nearly as much as some other states received, but still enough to snarl up traffic for a day or two. Unfortunately, despite the two hour commute to work on Monday, not a single creative thought popped into my head. At least none having to do with the story. Here’s a partial list of the things I was thinking about instead.

#1. Some of the drivers up here must have come from the southern part of the country or at least somewhere where they are not used to driving in snow.

#2. Just because you have a truck or SUV does not mean you can drive faster than everyone else on icy roads. If the roads are covered with snow, fine; but when the snow had turned into sheets of ice, you will have just as much trouble stopping as we do in a car. In many cases we will be able to stop more quickly than you. Don’t drive like an idiot.

#3. I now know where the county lines are placed. The difference in drivability between different counties was noticeable.

Back to writing!

Friday, December 10, 2010

My Writing Style

I’ve spent the last two days reworking the second chapter of the Hogwarts book. And I think I’ve finally got it.


This isn’t the first time I’ve thought I had it fixed – this is probably the fifth rewrite -- but this time I really think I’m on the right track.



The problem with this chapter is that it was written before I had any clue about writing fiction. First of all, there was waaaaay too much exposition and essentially no dialogue, so I had to go back several times and convert much of the exposition into dialogue (show, don't tell!). This resulted in the removal of large chunks of the chapter; some of which I liked very much and it was painful. Truman Capote once said something to the effect that one of the tricks to being a good writer is being able to “murder your darlings.” In other words, being able to toss the parts of your writing that just don’t fit, no matter how much you are in love with them.

The other problem with the chapter, the one I’ve been dealing with the last two days, has to do with the writing style. When I began this project a year and a half ago, all I had was a collection of short, anemic chapters based loosely on ideas that had been bouncing around inside my head ever since I finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The idea of combining them into a single story didn’t come until much later and my decision to write the book as if it was to be the next book in the series only occurred this last spring. But the second chapter didn't sound like anything JKK Rowling would have written.

If I had to describe my writing style, it would probably be a cross between Rowling and Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). Not that my skill level is anywhere close to theirs, but the tone is similar. And my second chapter sounded too much like Hitchhiker's Guide, so I needed to fix it up to match rest of the chapters in the book.

I should have it finished by the end of the weekend. I guess I can't complain. I’ve heard of writers rewriting entire books -- many times over.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Battle of the E-Books!

Back at the beginning of December, Google announced Google Editions, their foray into the e-book arena. Unlike devices like the Kindle, promoted by, Google’s approach will be cloud based. This means that when you purchase a book from Google, it won’t be stored in any one device, but somewhere on the Internet, where it can be downloaded and read from any device that has a web browser. Users of the Kindle purchase their books from the Amazon store and can only read them on the Kindle or devices that run the Kindle software.

Well, Amazon is now fighting back with Kindle for the Web,” a concept which sounds very similar to Google Editions. It remains to be seen how this will all shake out in the future, but it seems to me that anything that promotes e-books is a good thing, especially since that will most likely be the route I use to publish my stories – once I have something to publish, of course.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

How Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Affected Me

I walked into the family room the other night and discovered my family watching Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth movie in the Harry Potter series. There were only 15 minutes left in the movie by then, but I was still reminded of just how much that movie affected me when I saw it the first time. Without that movie, I’m probably not attempting to write a story based on Hogwarts.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the books immensely, but until that movie came along, the world of Harry Potter seemed like an imaginary place – a place which would no doubt be fun to visit, but one in which I didn’t really picture myself visiting. That all changed with the fourth movie.

In the Goblet of Fire, the director (or perhaps the producer) decided to steer the movie away from some of the earlier fantasy elements, probably in an attempt to prepare us for the darker scenes to come. (At least that’s my guess.) Many of the scenes were now shot inside or around old stone buildings and it suddenly seemed much more real to me. (I absolutely love old stone buildings – the older the better – especially castles, and especially in Britain.)

The director also spent more time having the characters talk about non-magical things, more in line with what Muggle students might talk about, and these conversations reminded me of my college days, so much so that I felt a bit depressed for weeks after the movie, wishing I had been able to attend Hogwarts instead of the University of Missouri. Not that there’s anything wrong with the University of Missouri – it’s a great school – but a chance to study magic… in a castle… in Scotland? Come on…

Anyway, when I write my next book – assuming I’m not working on the second book of this Hogwarts series – it’s going to be based around another castle.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cats and Christmas Trees Do Not Mix

Work continues on the Hogwarts book, but in the meantime, we put up the Christmas tree this weekend. My wife has already strung the lights, but that may be as far as we get for a while. Our two cats have decided that perching in the upper branches is the most important thing in their lives, despite how much water we spray them with. They climbed the tree last year too, but this year, they are big enough to knock branches loose (it's an artificial tree), so we may have to stick with unbreakable ornaments.

We need a cat repelling spell.

I guess this just means more time to spend on the book.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Harry Potter Thanksgiving

It was definitely a Harry Potter Thanksgiving at our house these past four days. Not only was I able to spend plenty of time working on my book, but the family and I saw the Harry Potter movie on Sunday.

General impressions of the movie. First of all, I enjoyed the movie, as I knew I would, but it was noticeably different from the first six movies. As has been mentioned before, moving the story away from Hogwarts really affected the feel of the movie. And the constant jumping around to different locations gave it a more surreal feel – at least to me. There were plenty of action sequences, although they were interspersed between rather slow moving scenes designed, I suppose, to let us witness plenty of soul-searching by Harry, Hermione, and Ron. In addition, although the time spent having the three main characters work their way through mysteries was a big part of all seven books as well as the earlier movies, there was very little of it here, with either Hermione or Harry spotting some small clue and then suddenly announcing what needed to be done next. I realize they are trying to fit a lot of story into this movie, and need to keep things moving, but I would rather have seen more of the story and less soul-searching. But to each his own.

Another thing I noticed was the difference in the intended target audience. This was a movie designed to be seen by those who know the Harry Potter world fairly well. The earlier movies were pretty good about explaining why some things occurred – perhaps not always very extensively, but at least enough to give people who hadn’t read the book a chance to know what was going on. There were numerous occasions in this movie where an important event occurred or a concept was demonstrated – something that was important for the audience to understand – without the slightest bit of explanation. Since many of these events had not been shown in any of the previous movies, it you hadn’t read the books, you would have absolutely no idea what was going on. If you are reading this blog, you probably understood everything that happened in the movie, but I know plenty of people who completely missed why things happened the way they did.

Anyway, I enjoyed the movie and now I’m psyched to work even harder on my book!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hogwarts -- The Place it All Began -- For Me At Least

I’ve read a few reviews of the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows movie so far, and while they have mostly been positive, I did run across one that caught my attention. The reviewer didn’t care much for the movie, feeling that the series (and actors) was getting a bit long in the tooth. I can’t argue with him, either for or against, since I haven’t seen the movie yet, but the overall tone of the article suggests that the reviewer was predisposed to a negative review based on his opinion of the previous movies.

What I found interesting was his opinion that shooting the movie away from Hogwarts had drained some of the life out of it. And I’m wondering if I am going to feel the same way when I see the movie myself. Of course, I’m not complaining that the film’s producers did it this way. After all, that was how the book was written. But it still doesn’t mean I’m going to be happy about it.

To me, Hogwarts was what made the stories so magical. I recall being more than a little depressed when Harry announced that he wasn’t going back to Hogwarts at the end of the sixth book and I was disappointed there was so little of Hogwarts in the seventh book. Of course, I liked the characters and the magic and the general quirkiness of the wizardring world, but it was Hogwarts that first caught my attention, and it was Hogwarts that I enjoyed revisiting in subsequent books. (For various reasons, Hogwarts reminds me of my college days, but I’ll talk about that in another post) And it was my desire to keep the magic of Hogwarts alive (among other things) that led me to begin writing my book in the first place.

May Hogwarts live forever!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Movie

Surprise! I’m back. My apologies for allowing several months to pass between posts. My intention was, and still is, to post several times a week, but my schedule has been really tight for the last three months. In September, I began teaching chemistry (night classes) at a local community college, and it has required significantly more time than I had expected. The time I could spend on writing was cut drastically and whenever I found a few minutes to write, I always chose to work on my Hogwarts book instead of posting here.

This is now starting to change. As I've gotten used to teaching again, my work load has decreased, so the time I have to write has been slowly increasing. (Still not enough, though!)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part 1) opened today and I suspect the Harry Potter community is reaching a fever pitch. I won't be seeing it immediately myself – it will take some maneuvering to find a time when the entire family can go – and I no longer feel as though I have to be one of the first people to see a movie when it comes out. I can wait a few weeks for the crowds to thin down a bit. In the meantime, all this Harry Potter frenzy is inspiring me to work even harder on the book. It's still slow going, but it is progressing and I'm happy with that. I'm still estimating another year before it's done – well after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part 2) has come and gone.

Hopefully some people will still be interested in what happens to Hogwarts next.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Working Vacation?

I’ve just returned from a five day family trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. This was one of the best vacations I’ve taken in a while. Very relaxing – except for the sightseeing boat tour on a choppy Lake Superior. The crew spent much of their time handing out bright pink barf bags to passengers who asked for them and carrying around rolls of paper towels to clean up after the passengers who should have asked for them. I’m happy to say that my whole family survived the tour unscathed, but it was pretty grim there for awhile.

I hadn’t known the Upper Peninsula was that beautiful. The waterfalls, forests, and beaches were wonderful, with plenty of colored rocks to carry back home. (We must have brought back fifty pounds of beach rocks). It’s a great place to visit, although I couldn’t imagine staying up there during the winter. Sorry to all those who disagree, but I already find the winters down south in the Detroit suburbs too cold and too long for my tastes.

Amazingly, I didn’t work on my Hogwart’s book at all. Not a single word was written during the entire trip. (My wife's idea)

That doesn’t mean I didn’t think about writing. I spent plenty of time observing the scenery and thinking about the words I might use to describe it. One of the hardest things for me to do is to describe a setting in clear, concise sentences so this turned out to be good practice. And not just practice either. The Forbidden Forest is not only a setting in several of JK Rowling’s books, but it's also in a few of my chapters. So it was fruitful to think about how best to describe it while I was surrounded by deep woods.

Now that I’m back home, I’ll have to jump right to those chapters which occur in the Forbidden Forest and start putting in some of these descriptive ideas before I forget them.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Writing a Book is Hard!

Writing a book is hard work. Really hard. Much harder than I thought it would be. Big deal, you say? Anyone should know writing a book is hard work. So did I… once. But then I was lulled into a false sense of security. I told myself writing was easy.

Let me explain. Back when I thought I hated writing of any kind, I thought that writing a book was probably the hardest thing in the world to do. Who could possibly combine that many words and put them to paper without driving themselves to tears? I had a lot of respect for authors of books. (Actually, I still do.)

But I kind of forgot about that when I first started out to write my Hogwarts book. Actually, it didn’t start out as a book. I was just trying to take all the ideas that were bouncing around inside my head and put them together into some sort of coherent framework. One of the reasons I decided to actually turn this into a book was because I was developing so many ideas so quickly I was not having any trouble filling up pages. Writing was easy!

Of course, back then my book read more like an outline than a real book. What I considered my story was nothing more than simple descriptions of what happened in each chapter. No details, no descriptions, and very little dialogue. I was condensing what should have been a 25 page chapter into 5 pages of text. I had no idea what I was doing.

So now I’m beefing the story up with details, adding dialogue and beats, and trying in general to make it enjoyable for others to read.

Now I realize just how much work it is to write a book.

What makes this even harder is the size of the book. I’m already well over 400 pages now and by the time I finish I’m sure I will be closer to 600 pages, if not more. Considering that the first two Harry Potter books were each about 300 pages long, this is a scarily large project to be tackling as a newbie, especially since I’m trying to teach myself how to write fiction at the same time.

Coming up with ideas is easy for me. Putting it down on paper is the hard part.

Writing a book is hard. But it's fun too.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Long Uphill Road to Writing Well

As part of my quest to become a (good) fiction writer, I’m reading everything I can lay my hands on. Right now, that means books, articles on the Internet, and blogs. Blogs are a great resource, but there are so many of them I will never have time to read them all. So I’m concentrating on the ones designed to help newbies like me.

I’ve discovered one downside to reading all these blogs. They often leave me depressed. It’s not that there isn’t useful information in these blogs, but I often find myself disheartened at how well everyone else seems to be able to write. The authors probably didn’t even spend much time composing these posts, yet their writing flows so much better than my feeble attempts at writing.

I envy how easily writing comes to these people.

I’ve always had difficulty converting the ideas in my head into words on paper. I stare at the computer screen with my mind full of thoughts and I have difficulty coming up with a way of describing those thoughts without sounding like a high school student writing his first essay.

Not that there’s anything wrong with high school students.

You’d probably be horrified to find out just how long it took for me to get this written, so I won’t tell you. I’m just hoping that with practice, everything becomes easier with time.

We’ll see.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Journey Begins

Finally!  My first post!  I've been planning on starting this blog for quite some time, but I've always been able to find reasons why I should do something else instead.  To be honest, I wasn't looking forward to having to decide how the blog would look (color schemes, layout, etc.), but I finally decided that enough was enough.  I grabbed the simplest template Blogger offered, used the default colors, and started writing this post.   As a result, this blog is still a work in progress.  I'll be rearranging the layout and adding all sorts of widgets over the next few weeks (or months), but I hope to be posting on a regular basis in the meantime.

The reason for this blog is simple.  I've decided to teach myself how to write fiction and this blog will track my progess toward that goal.
First, a confession.  I've always hated writing.  It's has always felt like a chore to me.  I've written reports for scientific journals (I'm a research chemist), but it was like pulling teeth.  Now this may sound strange coming from someone who is writtng a blog about writing, but it's the truth.  It turns out that though I may detest writing non-fiction, I've discovered that writing fiction can actually be fun. 

And for that, I blame J K Rowling.

Let me explain.  After I finished the "The Deathly Hallows," the seventh book in the Harry Potter series, I started thinking about how Ms. Rowling (or anyone else for that matter) might go about writing an eighth book.  A few ideas occurred to me that night, but I didn't dwell on the matter.  Over the next few weeks though, more and more ideas came to mind -- characters, plot twists, unusual events that could only occur at Hogwarts.  You get the point.  Soon I had so many ideas buillt up that I felt the need to write them down just to keep from losing them. 

Eventually I made the decision to write a story based on those ideas.  It might be lame, but at least the ideas wouldn't be wasted.

And then a funny thing happened.  I discovered I liked writing fiction.  Inventing characters and working up intricate plots filled with mysteries is a lot of fun.  And now I want to spend all my time doing it.

But there is a lot more to writing fiction than coming up with a good story.  There are all sorts of techniques to master and I quickly discovered that I have a lot to learn.  Tightly scripted dialogue, character development, pacing -- these are all things I'm now in the process of trying to teach myself.

So that's the point of this blog -- tracking my progress as a writier of fiction.  Hopefully you'll stay around long enough to find out where this leads.

BTW, since I''m a chemist you can expect me to occasionally write about science topics which I think you might also find interesting.  

Thanks for reading.