Thursday, February 26, 2009

First draft creator

I'm sure every writer wishes there was a way to get their brilliant thoughts into a Word document exactly as intended, perfect first time. Instead most of us labor away at a first draft, delete and rewrite endlessly, and then tinker (so-called "polishing") for far too long after that to end up with something that's not even halfway as fantastic as it was when our brains first thought it up.

There's no magic device to achieve the first stage -- the first draft -- but I have a tool that seems to work wonders: an Alphasmart.

It's a keyboard, nothing else, with six lines of text displayed in Courier font. No mouse, no formatting, very few editing tools (cut and paste, basically). It's these limitations that make it work for me -- I just write. I don't care if it's crap -- it takes too much effort with cursor keys to fix it anyway. (Using the computer, I spend most of my time going back to fix stuff I already wrote, which doesn't make the draft grow any longer.)

I can write at least 1000 words an hour like this, sometimes twice that. I know it's very rough stuff, but at least it's a draft. Writers write, then they edit. The Alphasmart stops me doing both at the same time.

(The Alphasmart is also a nifty travel companion -- light and robust, with a battery that lasts literally for months.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Choosing Star Wars

Kristin Nelson just blogged about The People Versus George Lucas - an independent documentary by and about fans (and ex-fans) of Lucas and the Star Wars movies. Like many who grew up with Star Wars, I was disappointed by the sequels. As the opening crawl of Episode 1 began, I held my breath at the words "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." only to feel my jaw drop in dismay when I read about the "alarming chain of events" with regard to taxation disputes.

I saw the second movie with low hopes but was let down nevertheless. I wrote a scathing review for the screenwriting class I was taking at the time. I remember scribbling on a notepad in the dark, wishing I knew shorthand, so I could later quote some of the awful dialogue between the lovebirds.

As for Episode 3, I've seen bits of it on TV but never paid enough attention to follow the plot.

Flashback to happier times... My dad took me and my brother to see the original movie in 1978. We children were given the choice - Star Wars with dad, or International Velvet with mum. My two sisters chose the latter - a "sequel" to the 1944 Elizabeth Taylor movie National Velvet. For some reason I picked Star Wars - perhaps because I wasn't quite old enough to have entered the "horse-mad" stage that many young girls go through.

We arrived 20 minutes late and sat in the front row behind a solid white barricade. Every time I rewatch the movie, I'm always surprised by the first few minutes that we missed, because my brain doesn't include them in my memory of the film. (Fortunately, in those days the movie ran in a continuous loop and you could stay as long as you liked, so we watched the start of the next showing to see the opening.)

We didn't go to the cinema much as children. I don't remember the movie having a huge effect on me (I don't think I even saw the next two at the cinema) but it's the only movie where I can recall exactly where I sat and exactly what the cinema looked like.

My favorite character was R2-D2. I had a tiny wind-up R2-D2 that may also have been a pencil sharpener. If only I'd anticipated e-Bay when I was ten years old, I would have held onto it...

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Romantic elements

My book is currently on submission. My agent forwarded a strange comment this week from an editor (my science fiction has too much science in it) - which got me thinking about subgenres. I've heard from those who don't read science fiction that it's a limiting genre - it has to be about spaceships and rayguns and robots, right? The reverse is true. Science fiction is the most expansive genre there is because you can combine it with other genres and quite literally write about absolutely anything. You just need to include a "What if?" What if something about science, culture, or history was plausibly different from what we know now? (I say "plausibly" because the implausible, or more accurately the impossible, would push the story into the realm of fantasy.)

Song of Scarabaeus is science fiction with what I call "a touch of romance", or what the industry calls "romantic elements." (I use the former description because the romantic elements are very light - I wanted to allow room for development in a sequel.) Other subgenres include mystery, suspense, adventure, historical, literary, etc. Then there's "futuristic romance," which reads like a romance novel but in a sci-fi setting (the relationship is at least as important as the plot). Examples I've enjoyed are Linnea Sinclair and CJ Barry. I enjoy a good romance - in fact, I prefer to see a romance in just about any fiction I'm reading - and I belong to our local Romance Writers of America chapter.

And speaking of romance, it's Valentine's Day. I considered making my husband pink starship cookies but settled for something more traditional. I am Christmas-Cookiemaker Extraordinaire, but it was nice to try something different:

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Last night I watched a couple of episodes of Morphed, the Nat Geo program that follows the evolution of one line of animals (dinosaur to turkey; land mammal to whale). The narrator has a gorgeous rich voice and sounds just like Worf's brother (but is not). Anyway, as a former biology major I love this kind of thing. The land mammal-to-whale story took millions of years but in Song of Scarabaeus I found a way to speed up "evolution" - quote marks used because it doesn't work the same way as normal evolution at all. It might be called "guided evolution".

And not guided in the sense of animal breeders creating new kinds of dogs through selective breeding. In Song, evolution occurs when tailor-made retroviruses alter the genes of plants and animals to change the organisms during their lifetimes. (These changes are also passed on to offspring.) This usually takes place on planets with very primitive life, organisms with short reproductive cycles, so an entire ecosystem can get a facelift in a few months or years.

The objective is to create an ecosystem suitable for human life - removing the toxins, balancing the oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, creating topsoil and nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and so on. At least, that's when things go right.

When things go wrong, anything can happen... anything my imagination can dream up!

Monday, February 9, 2009


Australia's southeast just had its worst day of bushfires on record, reporting 96 dead and hundreds of homes lost. My sister and her family live right in the middle of the affected area. They stayed with their home after spending days "preparing for World War Three," as my sister put it. Their home is mudbrick, not wood, and is surrounded by grassland, not trees. And they had a brick shed to retreat to if a grassfire (lit by burning embers) came through. As of today, the fire has moved through and doesn't seem to have hit their township.

All this reminded me of Ash Wednesday - Australia's previous worst bushfire disaster in 1983. Our family had just immigrated to Australia a couple of years before. My grandfather in England heard of the terrible fires on the news and called us to see if we were okay. We lived in the suburbs and could smell the smoke in the air, but were never in danger.

I was amazed he would think otherwise, but he had only the news reports to go by. He had no sense of the size of our city, the suburbs, or the proximity of the bushfires beyond that zone. It's hard to get a sense of scale when you're looking from the outside with limited information.

Friday, February 6, 2009


Joss Whedon has a new TV show starting next week, which reminded me about Firefly. I loved that show. My husband has the Serenity Role Playing Game book - he plays D&D but has never tried this game. We just like the pictures. My favorite part of the book - actually, the only part I understand because I don't play RPGs - is the plan-diagrams of various spaceships from the RPG 'verse.

Much of Song of Scarabaeus takes place on a ship, so I knew early on I'd need a diagram of it to keep directions and locations straight. Similarly, for an unrelated book I'm writing, I needed a plan of the huge house where my heroine lives. I was addicted to Lego as a child, usually making houses with the generic blocks that were more readily available in those days (these days it all seems to come in kits). Another addiction was drawing house plans, so all this is huge fun for me.

There's various software out there for creating house plans, although they're all modern of course and my story is futuristic. I ended up purchasing Punch Home and Landscape and it's pretty good. You simply draw the walls, windows and doors, add furniture and textures, and then "walk through" a 3D rendering of the house. (My system can't always handle the mansion I created...)

But now I desperately want the same kind of thing for creating spaceships. Or maybe I need to take a technical drawing class so I can draw blueprints like the ones in the Serenity book. Failing that, I'm stuck with my pathetic line drawings made in Word. Now don't laugh, but here's a deck of the Hoi Polloi, the ship from Song of S (click to enlarge).

This only includes the rooms actually mentioned in the book - there are various nooks and crannies, and of course the bulkheads are not 2mm thick as the diagram implies. The faint line around the edge is the outline of the lower three decks (topdeck is smaller).

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Permission to write crap

Until this week, I was an editor. I worked for 12 years in the publishing industry as a project editor and a freelance copyeditor, mostly in educational publishing. While this taught me a lot about publishing and writing, it's also turned out to be a hindrance. I can't turn off my inner editor.

When a writer is asked how one becomes a writer, a frequent answer (certainly the one I'd give) is that to become a writer you have to write. Write lots. And get something finished. Many an aspiring writer has a "bottom drawer" (i.e. computer folder) full of first chapters, myself included. You have to write something, finish it and then polish it.

Bear with me - these two thoughts are related: I have trouble finishing that first draft because I edit as I go. I hate leaving behind a sentence until I'm happy with it. I can't move on from a shoddy paragraph until its been edited to death. Rewriting a chapter until it satisfies me and moving on to the next is a major milestone. What this means is that even though I can write thousands of words in a day, my word count might rise only a few hundred or even go backwards.

I'm learning to overcome this. I have given myself permission to write crap. The important thing is to get that story transferred from my head to the Word file. No one else reads my first draft, ever. I wouldn't show it to my husband, let alone my critique group.

What made me think of this is that instead of writing my sequel, I spent the day re-reading the first book (fiddling as I went, of course - just a little) and remembering the long process of mashing that manuscript into shape from its pathetic first draft. A shape that scored me an agent, so it must have something going for it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Side-tracked by enneagrams

Today I got sidetracked by enneagrams, which someone mentioned to me on the weekend. According to this system, there are nine basic personality types. I took the online test from the perspectives of my two main characters, who turned out to be a "reformer" and a "challenger".

I don't know how useful the test is for real people, but the descriptions matched my fictional characters beautifully and have given me some ideas in terms of how they need to grow in book 2, and how their personal relationship will develop.