Southeast of Disorder


Thinking Sideways
November 4, 2008, 1:37 pm
Filed under: Writing | Tags: ,

A quick update for those who have asked: Holly Lisle’s How to Think Sideways writing course now accepts new students 24/7/365. Originally limited to one new class twice a year, Holly has redefined how she teaches and encourages students to interact, so the class has become a work-at-your-own-pace kind of thing.

Payments may be made monthly for six or 12 months. (For the very flush among us starving artists, Holly also will accept lump sums.)

I heartily recommend the course. Holly’s style is cheerful and witty, and the lessons are quite accessible, even for stubborn types like me. I’ve learned a lot about myself and my writing, as well as how to overcome some particularly obstinate writerly challenges. About the best thing I can say about Holly and her course is that they encourage writers to find paths that work for them, to uncover potential writers never knew they had and to have fun along the rocky road to publication.

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It’s official: I’ve lost my mind
November 2, 2008, 7:11 pm
Filed under: Writing | Tags: ,

I wasn’t going to participate in National Novel Writing Month this year. For months leading up to the Nov. 1 launch of the 10th annual 50,000-words-in-30-days challenge, I told myself “You have too much to do this year. Just let it go.” I told all my writing buddies I was going to spend November hacking and slashing at the 100,000-plus-word manuscript I’d dearly love to submit to a publisher before year’s end (if I can get it below 100,000 words without cutting my heart out or “offing” any more characters). I told my professional pals I’d be glad to embed myself in some new startup projects that look promising, even in a hibernating economy. I accepted a couple of big feature-writing assignments because, after all, I gotta eat even if the economy is hibernating.

And then Nov. 1 rolled around, and Muse leapt upon me like I was her best friend in the world and she’d missed me excruciatingly while she was vacationing for the past several months. (Yes, this is the same muse who ran off with God knows who to God knows where while her brain-dead writer pal muddled along solo with a manuscript badly in need of a Frankenstein-like jolt.)

To make a long story short, by the end of Saturday I had an outline and several scenes planned out. By Sunday evening I’d written 3,719 words.

It’s entirely possible those 3,719 words are all I’ll get written this month. Looking at my schedule, I’ve already determined that if I write any more, I’ll have to pen them in my sleep.

Now I understand why so many literary giants were alcoholics or drug abusers. They weren’t feeding their muses. They were trying to shut them up.

I wish I had been kinder to my mind while I had it. I miss it sometimes.



Freeware Review: Text Block Writer
October 16, 2008, 1:40 pm
Filed under: Writing | Tags: ,

I’m still bumping up against some creative roadblocks with my current work in progress, but thanks to a couple of freeware tools with which I’ve been experimenting, those annoying little disruptions are fewer and farther between. (I’ll never again complain about my muse’s hyperactivity, because when she decides to take a vacation, she doesn’t leave a number where she can be reached in case of emergency.)

So, while I’m sitting around hoping some stupendous solution to writer’s block will land upon me with an unmistakable thud, I thought I’d give other writers a heads-up about one of the tools I’ve found helpful. Maybe someone else will find it helpful too. (In the interest of full disclosure, I receive nothing for reviewing, endorsing or linking to this product.)

Understand that I didn’t pull this nifty freebie out of a hat. I spent far too many hours surfing the Web, reading product descriptions and reviews, and downloading and playing with demo packages that ranged in price from free to about $50. In addition, I’ve been a technology journalist for about ten years, so I feel at least marginally qualified to comment on software. Still, all of what follows comes with the caveat that it’s nothing more than my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

The program I’m using most often these days is Text Block Writer, a sort of virtual note card organizer and manager. Many writers prefer to use physical index cards to jot down scene ideas, because the tactile experience of arranging the cards into a workable pattern is important to them. I’m not a fan of physical note cards, primarily because not even I can read my handwriting when I become frenzied during particularly inspired moments, but also because I find thinking easier in front of a computer screen. (We all have our little peccadillos.)

Here’s a screen grab (click to enlarge):

Text Block Writer desktop

Text Block Writer desktop

Text Block Writer is quick to download, easy to install and the learning curve is quite shallow. File size is virtually unlimited, so each project can include as many or as few virtual cards as one desires. In addition, the desktop interface can include as many columns as the user wants to define. For my purposes, I defined five six-column pages upon which each column represents one chapter. (I could as easily have defined one 30-column page, but scrolling sideways makes me cranky.)

Each virtual card represents one scene, and it can hold as much or as little information as one wants to include. (Yes, each card will hold an entire scene as it appears in the WIP, but I use them to jot down just the classic “essential details” like point of view, conflict, characters and basic action.)  Scenes can be arranged within columns in whatever order the user desires. They can be moved around. They can be deleted, although that’s never really necessary because the “Block Shelf” space near the lower right-hand corner serves as a repository for unused scenes until you find a place to put them. The Block Shelf also will hold cards for scenes that pop into your head unbidden, just in case you want to add them somewhere later.

Cards also can be color-coded to indicate anything your little heart desires. I color-coded the ones in the example to indicate character POV at a glance.

Along the right-hand side of the page are a number of tabs that offer quick access to an overview of the cards included in the project, a card index, grouping options and the ability to change certain aspects of the project’s layout if you decide you’d like to try another way of looking at the desktop. The program is capable of printing everything in hard-copy form.

On the negative side, people who are accustomed to working with physical index cards will have to adjust their eyes to an altered reality. The virtual cards in Text Block Writer look nothing like the real thing. However, for the money (Did I mention the software is free?), this is a killer app for writers who use Windows-based computers. Sadly, it’s not available for other platforms.

The developer also offers a sort of big brother to Text Block Writer: Text Block Author. It has a few additional bells and whistles and only costs $19.95, but I didn’t find enough important bells and whistles to convince me to buy it. Author also doesn’t seem to be in active development right now; the most recent update was released in 2007.



In the beginning, there was the word
September 30, 2008, 3:08 pm
Filed under: hurricane, Writing

I’ve decided that in-between fits of Ike-inspired cleaning, I’m going to relax by taking a page from Nina Katchadourian’s book, so to speak. Katchadourian is the mastermind behind the Sorted Books Project, which has captured my imagination quite completely. The concept entreats both halves of my brain to play. If there’s one thing I have a surfeit of — besides Ike’s detritus — it’s books, and this seems like a thoroughly engaging way to use them in ways other than they were intended to be used. (The best things in our lives always have more than one purpose.)

Here’s one of my favorites among Katchadourian’s creations. Read the book spines from top to bottom.

I’m not a poet by any stretch of the imagination, but I think the books on my shelves (and my nightstand and my coffee table and my mantel and my bathroom counter and almost every other horizontal space in my house) will do the heavy lifting for me. Can you imagine what fun it would be to walk into someone’s home and find little “Easter eggs” like this scattered about?

I’m going to stack books strategically in various spots and see how long it takes someone to notice what’s up.



Right Brain vs. Left Brain
August 31, 2008, 8:43 am
Filed under: Writing | Tags: ,

Occasionally I take off on little Web-based excursions that are the virtual equivalents of unplanned car trips: I start on a Web page I’ve visited for some Really Important Reason, and before I realize what’s happened, I’m 100 miles down a wholly unrelated, winding road I didn’t even know existed. The reason I don’t turn around and head back for home and safety before I find myself standing beside an out-of-gas vehicle and praying for the largesse of kind strangers is that I’m fascinated with the before-undiscovered scenery. It speaks to me in new and exciting ways, and I’m a glutton for that sort of experience. I find it enormously difficult to “do the intelligent thing” and stick close to home lest I become hopelessly lost.

Even though these impromptu treasure hunts sometimes get in the way of legitimate work, very seldom are they complete wastes of time (at least in my mind, which family and friends increasingly seem to think I’ve misplaced). Today, for example, I followed a link from Holly Lisle’s plot-building mini-course to StoryToolz.com, which led me to romance novelist Stephanie Tyler’s blog, which led me to a right-brain-vs.-left-brain test on the website of the Australian newspaper Herald Sun.

Here’s the test:

Right brain vs. left brain

Right brain vs. left brain

Now, answer this question: Does the woman’s figure appear to rotate clockwise or counterclockwise? According to the Herald Sun, most people see the figure rotating counterclockwise. (I assume that’s to the left in the Southern Hemisphere, as it is in the Northern Hemisphere, although I could be wrong.) Those people’s left brains are dominant, meaning they tend to be logical, detail-oriented, math-and-science types. Scientists also have determined most of them are right-handed. The folks who see her spinning clockwise generally are ruled by their right brains, the side which primarily is the seat of emotions, philosophy, symbolism and risk-taking. (The Herald Sun‘s website has interesting lists of right-brain and left-brain characteristics; see the “right-brain-vs.-left-brain test” link, above).

Many fiction writers and visual artists are right-brain types. Even though I’ve been writing fiction since childhood, I’ve always considered myself a left-brainer, and I do find numerous left-brain characteristics within my essential self. However, no matter how long I concentrate on that darn spinning woman, I can’t make her rotate counterclockwise (although the Herald Sun insists some people can make her switch directions).

Here’s another interesting right-brain-vs.-left-brain exercise.

Here are my results:


You Are 25% Left Brained, 75% Right Brained


The left side of your brain controls verbal ability, attention to detail, and reasoning.

Left brained people are good at communication and persuading others.

If you’re left brained, you are likely good at math and logic.

Your left brain prefers dogs, reading, and quiet.

The right side of your brain is all about creativity and flexibility.

Daring and intuitive, right brained people see the world in their unique way.

If you’re right brained, you likely have a talent for creative writing and art.

Your right brain prefers day dreaming, philosophy, and sports.

I don’t know why the results surprised me, but they did.

In which direction do you see the woman spinning? What did your results on the second right-brain-vs.-left-brain test say about you? Do the results jive or clash with what you’ve always thought about yourself? For very different reasons, both sides of my brain would be interested to know how other people reacted.



The Insanity Defense
April 2, 2008, 9:35 pm
Filed under: Writing | Tags: , ,

Aspiring fiction authors can be classified in any number of ways, but among the most prominent categories seem to be “uncannily brilliant,” “deeply devoted to substance abuse,” and “just plain nuts.” The jury is divided about which camp I fall into, but at last poll the Twelve Angry Critics leaned heavily toward acquittal by virtue of insanity.Frankly, after much rumination, I’ve decided an insanity defense is the only plausible one for We Who Are Determined to Embarrass Ourselves Repeatedly by Committing Tripe to Paper. There’s plenty of evidence, after all at least in my case. What else but insanity could explain the devolution of an otherwise relatively normal, reasonably intelligent, fairly articulate person into a raving lunatic who engages in lengthy conversations with imaginary friends?

No one warned me about this unnerving possibility when I signed on to write fiction. Shouldn’t there be a clause in my contract somewhere? I’d like to see a label like the ones pharmaceutical companies are required to include with medications: “WARNING: Possible side effects of the writing life may include spreading hips, estrangement from family and friends, deteriorating eyesight, insomnia, abbreviated attention span, inability to abandon lost causes, crabbiness, extended periods of depression punctuated by brief euphoria, loss of interest in the real world, self-doubt, a tendency to woolgather at odd moments, and talking to people who don’t exist.”

It’s that last one that plays most decisively into the insanity defense. (Wouldn’t we all be ecstatic if spreading hips did?)

I finally succumbed to the realization I was lost in a fiction fog when I began talking to characters. By “talking,” I don’t mean the occasional rhetorical “Hmm…. What would you do if…?” I mean literally carrying on protracted give-and-take conversations. Actually, arguments might be a better term.

These fanciful forays into which I seem to depart more frequently as time passes both amuse and appall people of the grown-up variety. Even my dog becomes concerned or perhaps I’m mistaking his pawing and whining for something it is not. He simply may be jealous that none of the entities with whom I communicate so elaborately is him. Oddly, children don’t seem to mind at all.

After 15 years, my significant other has learned just to ignore me. The crazy babbling and fixed stares no longer cause him to reach for the phone number of the nice men with white coats and butterfly nets. (Of course, this is the same man who frequently finds his life in jeopardy when he bursts into my writing space to tell me some horrendous, funny-only-to-men joke just as I’m about to craft the quintessential bit of dialog that will save the day, so his judgment is questionable, at best.)

But I digress (which ought to be another of those fully disclosed possible side effects). About those character interactions: Lately I’ve begun to feel like a temperamental director dealing with a herd of malcontents and unrepentant hams.

“Augh! Cut! Cut!”

“What? What did we do?”

“That’s a good question. Exactly what is it you thought you were doing there?”

“Improvising.”

“Improvising? You do realize there’s a script, right?”

“Yeah, but it’s all wrong right here. Nobody behaves like that. It’s bogus.”

“Bogus?” I shake my head wearily. “See this is part of the problem: You’re from the 18th century; that word’s not in your vocabulary. Who gave you permission to take off on your own little tangent?”

Just about then, another character usually joins the fray. “You know, if I were the hero, I’d….”

“You’re not the hero!” I hiss, whirling on him. “If you’d spend as much time developing your own role as you do analyzing his, we’d all be the better for it.”

Depending on the character, at this point he’ll either sulk meaning I have to expend valuable mental energy soothing his wounded feelings or dive into a particularly vile tirade denouncing my writing ability. The latter does nothing to improve my relationship with a cast already seriously doubting my fitness to be their leader.

Every once in a while, I find someone from a completely different project costuming himself or herself in the current project’s wardrobe and stealthily sneaking onto the set.

“You there! The Merry Man in the back. Aren’t you supposed to be on Stage 4 plotting with the rest of the gang in Last Train to Comanche Wells?”

“Uh… well, yeah,” he’ll answer, nervously shuffling his dusty, worn cowboy boots, “but… well, to tell you the truth, ma’am, they’re about to bore me to death over there. And it’s confusing very confusing.”

“Incompetents and amateurs!” I explode. “Who’s in charge on Stage 4? I want him nuked!”

“Nuked?” (Misplaced Cowboy Guy only thought he was confused before.)

“Oh fer cryin’ out loud…. Ask one of the Rigelians to explain it to you.”

About the time I begin chastising the hero from Chaste Through the Snow because he won’t stop pressing the heroine’s heaving bosom to his manly chest while for the umpteenth time uttering “Your eyes are like limpid sapphire pools” as she faints at the prospect of consummating their forbidden lust, I find myself consumed by heaving sobs of despair. It’s precisely at that moment the gaggle of slightly flighty but endearing, hard-as-nails southern belles escapes the pages of The Bougainvillea Ladies’ Luncheon Club and rushes to console me.

“Get away from me! I don’t want chocolate! Well, I do, but not right now.”

“Let me freshen your iced tea, sugah.”

“Hon, what you need is a good roll in the sack with that hunk from Chaste.”

“You know, my mother always told me….”

“Augh! Just gimme the damn chocolate and go back to fanning yourselves on the verandah, will ya? WHY CAN’T ANY OF YOU BEHAVE?!”

Half of them mutter “Ingrate!” under their breaths, and the others cluck knowingly and whisper, “This time the hero lives, but the writer is about to perish by her own hand.”

“I can hear you, you know!” Bunch of know-it-all buttinskis. (I’m not above an occasional under-the-breath mutter myself.)

Perhaps insanity is a virtue after all. A rubber room is looking more appealing all the time.



Of Bulwer-Lytton and Darwin
August 25, 2007, 12:24 pm
Filed under: Language, Writing | Tags: ,

The following was forwarded to me by a writer/editor friend, to whom it was forwarded by her mother (a former English teacher). I haven’t shown it to my mother (also a former English teacher) yet, but I wonder if she’ll laugh, cry or despair when I do.

For the record, I laughed … before checking my own creative endeavors and falling into despair.

All is lost!!!! Number 14 had to be the result of a math test gone bad. Number 8 was so good, it bore repeating. As we age, we will need to learn to speak another language, and it won’t be at all poetic.

Every year, English teachers from across the country can submit their collections of actual similes and metaphors found in high school essays. These excerpts are published each year to the amusement of teachers across the country. Here are last year’s winners:

1. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

2. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

3. He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.

4. She grew on him like she was a colony of E.Coli, and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.

5. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

6. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

7. He was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree.

8. He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.

9. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.

10. McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.

11. From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you’re on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.

12. Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.

13. The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.

14. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

15. They lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan’s teeth.

16. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

17. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant, and she was the East River.

18. Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.

19. Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.

20. The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.

21. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

22. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame, maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

23. The ballerina rose gracefully en Pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

24. It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.

25. He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.