Acceptance! “Tafoni”

A quick note to share the news that my poem Tafoni was accepted to the California Writers Club’s 2024 ekphrastic book project, Vision and Verse: a Fusion of Poetry, Prose, Art and Photography! The poem will be paired with Image #7, the photograph entitled “Tafone” by Bradley Hoge.

I had not encountered the word “tafone” before seeing the photo prompt for this project. Apparently, this is the term for the crater-like hollows that develop honeycomb-like patterns in rock.

I also submitted microfiction prose for images 8 (“Yesterday”) and 10 (“Waiting for Godot”), but these were not selected. I plan to include these in the next issue of the Newsletter.

How I Write in 2024: Writing Process

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series How I Write

Embracing Longhand

Let 2023 be the year when, 3500 to 35,000 years behind the rest of humanity (depending how you count it), I (re)discovered the profound value of the handwritten word.

In April of last year, I posted about trying a longhand project: for the first time, attempting to draft a novel longhand over the summer. I never finished that project, but that notebook is still going. What I did discover is the myriad benefits of longhand writing during the “generative prose” phase. There’s a lot out there on the benefits of writing longhand, and I think nearly all of it is valid.

In addition to the benefits for the writing itself, I think personally its been great to disconnect from the screen (especially after a workday

Still Plantsing

The last time I sat down to really consider and explicate my writing process was my (very popular, according to site metrics) post called Plantsing With the Three Eggs. At a high level, I’d say the same general approach remains true for me today, with two differences in the details:

  • Draft Zero has been mostly replaced with a mix of worldbuilding using Obsidian and Wonderdraft, and generative prose written longhand in physical notebooks
  • The iterative nature of the plantsing approach has filtered down to the scene level, rather than being anchored on major plot points

Light Planning Up Front

After a mix of longhand freewriting and a period of world- or concept-building, I’ll fill in the first part of a high-level plot tool. Examples might be the Steps 1-4 of the Snowflake Method, laying out the First Egg up to the Inciting Incident, or summarizing in a few sentences each of the first five chapters of the 24 Chapter Outline. Whichever the tool, I usually know the following before starting to type a draft:

  • Who is the main character, and (in broad strokes) what will their main inner and outer conflicts be?
  • What are the major starting tensions of the external world? What parts of the systems and dynamics that make the world of the setting work are close to the breaking point?
  • What will be the Inciting Incident, the story event that breaks something about the status quo and binds the character’s internal character arc to the external plot?

Pantsing As I Go

As I write, I’ve noticed how the simple act of transliterating from handwritten notes and free-writing to first draft typed prose works as a pretty effective cleanup and editing step. It’s far from perfect, but goes from maybe 40% to 80% in one pass. With the plot defined only a few scenes ahead, I also feel free to change the direction and tone of individual scenes as they come out.

I allow the characters to surprise me: to have personalities I didn’t intend, to take ill-advised actions and make mistakes that get them into trouble, and to channel little sparks of raw feeling from whatever is going on in my subconscious at the time. On completion of a scene, I revise the plan based on what happened, and try to propagate differences down to the end of the Act. Then, iterate!

How I Write in 2024: Software Pt 2 – Obsidian and Wonderdraft

I discovered the Obsidian note-taking app a couple of years ago and thought it was interesting, but it never really grabbed me until a friend pointed out that custom plugins and themes were available from the user community. Once I realized the breadth of plugins and customizations available, it was clear to me that I had grossly underestimated this piece of software.

It is not a mere note-taking app – it’s possibly the best application for organizing and cross-linking information (of any kind – text, image, video, attached file, etc) that I’ve found anywhere. It has become my software tool of choice for creative work.

Oh yeah, and it’s free.

At its core, I think of Obsidian as a private, self-contained wiki, called a Vault, that uses standard markdown language to link information between snippets of text, called notes. Notes within a Vault can be nested, grouped, given searchable meta-data, and cross-linked into webs of related information and ideas. Plugins allow a wide array of customizations to the appearance, behavior, and features of the interface.

The image above shows a snapshot of the Vault for my in-progress fantasy novel, Covenant of the Seasons. At left you can see a Scrivener-esque binder of nested organization of notes, and in the main window, the note about the main continent of Teol’Nagar, which includes an embedded image exported from Wonderdraft, my map making software of choice. The written information + the obligatory continent map = really all you need for writing fantasy, right?

The key plugin to install for novel writing is Longform. Longform allows for easy drag-and-drop organization of notes that represent scenes into nested chapters, top-level managing of different drafts, and compiling discrete pieces written in whatever order they came out into clean, combined documents, which with the Pandoc plugin, can be exported in formats such as docx, odt, pdf, etc. (Which, along with the binder of non-prose information organization, are what I would consider the most important features of Scrivener.)

The second most useful plugin I’ve found for novel writing in Obsidian is Excalidraw. For lovers of Scrivener’s corkboard plotting tool, hold on to your butts — this tool blows the corkboard clean out of the water. Above you can see the main POV plot line for Covenant of the Seasons in green, with subplots in purple and cyan, with red conspiracy board yarn leading off to flowcharts such as the one shown above for the high-level of how magic works in my world.

These diagrams are, of course, embeddable and linkable across the entire Obsidian Vault, making them dynamic and integrated with the whole project. I love having all of the worldbuilding information, research notes, and the prose manuscript itself in one place! I can even pin frequently referenced notes into their own tabs for quick switching.

Other useful plugins that I won’t go into much detail about include Typewriter Scroll, Kanban, and Second Window. The latter two are more useful when I’m using Obsidian to run a Dungeons and Dragons campaign (and there’s a whole host of plugins that make that amazing) but that’s a post for a different day!

I would recommend Obsidian for any writer who wants a clean sandbox environment without a lot of structure, and who doesn’t mind a little upfront setup work. In return, Obsidian can offer you the fully customizable, internally cross-linkable mind palace you’ve always dreamed of!

Stay tuned for at least one more post in this series, on how all these tools get strung together in my writing process and workflow.

How I Write in 2024: Software Pt 1 – Scrivener

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series How I Write

Continuing the series documenting my writing tools and process, this post describes the software I use. I hope to follow it up with another post on Obsidian, and another on the workflow that uses these hardware and software tools.

Literature and Latte’s Scrivener application has become a mainstay of the writing world. I won’t spend a lot of time repeating all its praises and criticisms, which are readily available elsewhere with a quick search. But I will say that there is no more assured sign of dominance than the fact that it is one of the most mimicked applications out there, with droves of posts on writing fora, asking for (usually free) lookalikes.

When Scrivener first came out, the approach of combining the drafting environment with virtual binder for organization of notes, planning, and research was a game-changing innovation vs the standard word processor. Now their approach has become essentially standard, with applications like Quoll, Bibisco, Manuskript, and even Novelr taking cues from Scrivener’s layout.

Bottom line: Scrivener is worth it, especially if you have an OS on which it runs natively (Windows or MacOS). A standard license is currently $59, and it has been one of my most used applications over the last ten years, from short stories to novel-length projects. They let you install your license on multiple machines for personal use and customer service has been excellent.

For a professional, polished product that has in my experience always worked and done what I wanted it to do, with dedicated help and support, sixty bucks is more than a fair price. If the haters want to stand on principle about free software and open file formats, fine, you can do that – but don’t whine about being unable to find anything close for free!

I would *not* recommend Scrivener for anyone who wants a minimalist writing environment. For that, you might like FocusWriter, which I occasionally use for freewriting.

Scrivener on Linux

Scrivener should work hassle-free on Windows or MacOS. However, my only mjor complaint with Scrivener is that they do not natively support installation on Linux. There’s a lot out there complaining about this and on how to get it working, and I won’t rehash those tantrums (some of them mine) or descriptions in detail here. I will, however, document what worked for me on my Asus L203N netbook running Linux Mint 21.2 Victoria, as a reference.

  1. Download and install Wine from WineHQ (for Linux Mint, I used a .deb package, since Mint is Ubuntu-based). I am running Wine 8.0.2.
  2. Install Scrivener (wine Scrivener-installer.exe) – I am running Scrivener
  3. Run winecfg and set the Windows version for Scrivener to Windows 7.
  4. In winecfg, set the Graphics options, Window settings to have the following three boxes checked: “Allow the window manager to decorate the windows”, “Allow the window manager to control the windows”, and “Emulate a virtual desktop”.
  5. You may also need to fiddle with some graphics settings in winecfg to make it look nice. For example, I have the virtual desktop set to 1366×768 at 100 dpi. I also suggest changing the application fonts in Scrivener’s options to more Linux-native variants like FreeSerif or LiberationSerif, etc.
  6. In winecfg, go to the LIbraries tab, and add overrides for the libraries mscoree and sapi. Both of these should be set to “Native (Windows)”.

Unfortunately, from all I’ve read, it does seem as though every installation is slightly different, and truth be told, even my installation is not 100% stable. Hopefully the above works for you! But you may need to tweak and fiddle, which is annoying. I do want to reemphasize though, that from my point of view, there really is no actual replacement for Scrivener, though there are serviceable off-brand lookalikes.

Despite the $60 cost and the couple hours of fiddling it took to get it work on my writing system, I still think it’s worth it. This is especially true if you intend to do a lot of your own editing, formatting, and even self-publishing as an indie author.

To be clear, I no longer first draft in Scrivener – stay tuned for another post on Obsidian and FocusWriter, which provide cleaner, more minimalist environments for just getting the initial story down distraction-free. However, for editing, polishing, and (for indie works) publishing, Scrivener would still be my tool of choice.

How I Write in 2024: Writing Hardware

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series How I Write

I’ve decided to start a new series called How I Write.

I realized the other day that this author blog is over ten years old at this point, with a first post on July 24th, 2013 that was a tribute to Carl Sagan’s famous Pale Blue Dot commentary. Since then, both the tools with which and manner in which I write have changed markedly over time.

I’ll focus this post on my present set of writing tools — that is, the physical objects that enable my writing process and host the writing software I use, each of which will be the subject of later posts.

Here is my writing station. Yes, I keep it minimalist! A single shelf for spare notebooks and pens and such below a table with enough room for a small netbook, keyboard, notebook, baby monitor, and a cup of coffee.

The desk faces a corner, with a neutral spine chair to get some core stability in while writing and also to not get too comfortable and slouchy. I’m there to work on something, not lounge about.

I do brainstorming and initial drafting of snippets longhand, in a dedicated notebook for each project. They are generally “composition” size (which is typically A5 or very close) and lined. The one at left below is what I’m using for my in-progress novel Covenant of the Seasons, and a fairly generic spiral bound one from Target. The other two are more interesting, but thinner, and from Cognitive Surplus.

The small netbook laptop is dedicated to writing only, separate from my laptop for general personal use and certainly my work laptop. It is an Asus piece of shit that intentionally lacks the CPU or RAM to run anything shiny, with a screen intentionally too small to make any browsing, videos, or even reading satisfying or even comfortable. Not that I could browse on it if I wanted to… It runs LinuxMint with every non-system internet-capable application removed except Dropbox, to sync writing files. It doesn’t even have a browser! Hard to get distracted without internet.

(Note that the netbook is for drafting and basic revision only. For deep-dive editing and formatting, I will use my normal laptop with a monitor. I’m not a masochist.)

The keyboard is a Keychron C1 wired + backlit mechanical keyboard, shown here with the keycaps removed. Every key that inserts a character is fitted with Kalih Box Jade (heavy + clicky = typewriter feel!) switches, and all non-character keys are fitted with Gateron Pro 3.0 Brown (tactile + non-clicky) switches.

As for the longhand equivalent of a keyboard, the pens, I am less particular. I can specify more pens that I *don’t* like than any particular pen that I love. Still looking! However, in the meanwhile, I’ve found it hard to complain about either the Sharpie S-Gel 0.7mm pen or the Uniball Signo #207 Needle 0.7mm gel pen. I have yet to find a ballpoint that doesn’t annoy me – too much resistance/friction for long duration writing.

Stay tuned for at least two more posts as 2024 opens, on my Writing Software and Writing Process.

#IWSG: For Whom Do I Write Book Reviews?

This entry is part 16 of 16 in the series Insecure Writer's Support Group

On the first Wednesday of every month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (open to anyone and full of great resources and information for writers) post their answers to a monthly prompt on their blogs. Authors benefit from getting an insightful prompt for generating more blog content, and IWSG links all respondents, which is a way for writers to discover each other. Pretty neat!

December 6 question: Book reviews are for the readers. When you leave a book review do you review for the Reader or the Author? Is it about what you liked and enjoyed about your reading experience, or do you critique the author?

Hmm, I might quibble with the question itself. The first sentence of the prompt is a (proposed? presumed? pre-concluded?) answer to the second, and the third sentence assumes a false dichotomy.

But I think I can answer the spirit of the question this way: Neither. I write book reviews for myself.

Note that I make a distinction between reviews and providing thoughtful critique directly to an author that has explicitly requested it of me, the latter of which I think is a very useful practice that I am always honored to be asked to do.

The act of writing the review helps me organize my thoughts on the book’s contents and how it made me feel. The outcome is twofold. Firstly, composing the helps me summarize my own takeaways as a reader, which then leads to a reflection of what it makes me think of in my own life, what new I might have learned, and how I might be changed as a person. Secondly, the review helps me condense and package takeaways for my own writing, such as lessons to be learned in structure, pacing, character, or just interesting elements that might inspire something else I’m writing.

If another reader or the author happens to find the comments helpful too, that’s great! But it’s rare I ever post a review anywhere, unless explicitly invited to, or I really feel that I have something unique to say (for example as with my review of The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida). Another exception might be when I post “reviews” to closed fora of friends, such as on a shared Discord server, for the purposes of personal discussion.

Maybe this is cynical, but it seems that public reviews are so flooded by repetitive and substanceless postings, most of which I cannot tell whether they are real or fake (or just propaganda – “Hey! Everybody check out my friend’s new book! It’s amazing!”) anymore, I’m not sure what good contributing my own drop to the sea of endless internet comments really accomplishes.

As a reader, I can’t say I put much stock in general consumer reviews of books (or any other subjective medium). There have been so many occasions where I love a book (or movie) with lackluster reviews, or DNF a book that has stellar reviews, that I have very little confidence that they actually correlate well with my own enjoyment. Instead, I’ll take recommendations from friends and family who know my taste, or from curated sources that I’ve grown to trust over time.

And as a writer, while it certainly is a wonderful feeling to see people engaging with something I wrote, I doubt I would actually change anything about my writing based on any particular review, unless perhaps some criticism is very serious and pervasive. But if that were true, I would hope that I would catch such a problem well before publication — through multiple rounds of workshopping with writers, making use of beta readers, and seeking out independent editing.

TL;DR – Pretty convinced that 90% of online book reviews are useless. Accepting challenges.

#IWSG: NaNoWriMo!

This entry is part 15 of 16 in the series Insecure Writer's Support Group

On the first Wednesday of every month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (open to anyone and full of great resources and information for writers) post their answers to a monthly prompt on their blogs.

Authors benefit from getting an insightful prompt for generating more blog content, and IWSG links all respondents, which is a way for writers to discover each other. Pretty neat!

November 1 question: November is National Novel Writing Month. Have you ever participated? If not, why not?

I have indeed participated! According to my NaNoWriMo account, I have made 11 attempts at either NaNo or its summer cousin, Camp NaNo, and succeeded once: ending with a complete Draft Zero novel in 2014. Even that was a bit of a stretch, because I only managed 40,000 words, not 50,000… but the overall effort I count as a success, because that draft resulted in my first (and only) published novel, Red Soil Through Our Fingers!

Despite my low “win” rate (9%), I am a big believer in the power of NaNo. Even the ten times I started a project and didn’t technically meet the objective (50,000 words in 30 days), the benefits of simply giving it a shot were numerous. I explored ideas, bonded with friends, and generated prose – most of which was shit, and not immediately useful for anything, but decent chunks of it got recycled into other stories. All writing is compostable, and even what never gets used is not a waste.

I will not be making an official attempt this year, as I currently have a two-week-old infant. However! In the late night hours when I’m “on duty” but baby is sleeping, I have been making a few pages of progress here and there on my Longhand Project, which has been low-key resurrected… as always, “we’ll see” if it gets anywhere.

#IWSG: Finding IWSG

This entry is part 12 of 16 in the series Insecure Writer's Support Group

On the first Wednesday of every month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (open to anyone and full of great resources and information for writers) post their answers to a monthly prompt on their blogs.

Authors benefit from getting an insightful prompt for generating more blog content, and IWSG links all respondents, which is a way for writers to discover each other. Pretty neat!

September 6 question: The IWSG celebrates 12 years today! When did you discover the IWSG, how do you connect, and how has it helped you?

I first heard about IWSG from Toi Thomas, a fellow writer and classmate in writing course we both took from The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk called “Becoming a Master Writer” (with John Dedakis). I had been bemoaning my lack of production lately, saying that it had been hard to establish and maintain a regular habit of writing. She suggested IWSG as means of sparking some blog content to get the juices flowing.

I think it has worked! I’m under no illusions that writing blog content is the same as writing prose. I can dink around on my author website for hours, but at the end of the day that doesn’t make me a writer – at least, not in the sense that I want to be. However, the monthly prompt to write something often serves as an indirect prompt to reflect on what I have written lately, what I’d like to write, and what I should be writing.

It’s fairly typical that after composing an IWSG post, I’ll also open up my notebooks or files and at least take a look around, and then this prompts further poking and more often than not, writing. I can also credit IWSG with helping me move toward a more general shift in philosophy from product-focused (which was ironically not producing anything) to process-focused (which has been excellent for addressing the root problem in the first place, consistency).

Thanks IWSG! Even when it seems like I can’t make any other progress on writing, often I can look forward to the first Wednesday of the month where I know I’ll get a little nudge in the right direction again.

Book Review: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

I don’t write book reviews much anymore. Even though I’m no longer on GoodReads, it has long since felt as though there is little I could say that hasn’t been said and posted repetitively on some social media or another a billion times already. But The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, by Shehan Karunatilaka, had such a strong, personal impact on me, I think it’s worth typing something up here, if only to focus on the aspects that I know will affect my own personal journey as a writer.

First, a very basic plot summary: Maali Almeida – war photographer, broken idealist, and gay player of the field – is dead. He wakes up, with no memory of what happened, in a kind of purgatory – a bureaucratic quagmire full of fellow Sri Lankans all quite used to waiting in long government office lines and bickering about it. He has seven moons to decide if he will continue on to the afterlife or remain behind to haunt the mortal world until his soul is eaten by demons. What follows is Maali’s quest to find out who killed him, and more importantly to convey his last sentiments and wishes to the two people most dear to him in life. Along the way, Maali faces his own mistakes, hopes, hypocrisies, missed chances, and pockets of happiness against the backdrop of 1980s Sri Lanka, which were arguably the most horrific years of the decades long, brutal, multi-way civil war that wracked the country of my parents and heritage.

Permission to be Sri Lankan

Though I am not Sri Lankan myself (that is, I was not born there nor have I ever lived there, and I do not consider it my country), it is certainly the land of my heritage and one with which I feel a strong cultural connection. My name, my extended family, the food I consider to be “home cooking”, and where I’d love to take my future child someday to show them their roots are all Sri Lankan.

When writing though, I often wonder how much of that to put in. Is it relatable? Do I have the right to talk about a country that isn’t mine, a claimed ethnic background that comes with egregiously American-accented Sinhala and no directly lived experience? Am I allowed to draw on a mythos and cosmological perspective, say for fantasy world-building, from a culture in which I am very nearly a tourist myself? Will the general reader be turned off by characters with unfamiliar, unpronounceable Sinhalese names?

Seven Moons was remarkably empowering in this sense. The novel is full of fantastically Lankan names like A.S.P. Ranchagoda and all manner of Lankan places that I can remember from trips to visit my grandparents when they were still alive. The mannerisms of Lankan speech, behavior, and thinking are so well captured, I can literally visualize the entire story being acted out by members of the Sri Lankan diaspora community that I know. (I do wonder how these mannerism and quirks convey, if at all, to non-Lankan readers.) And yet, the author has also clearly taken Lankan popular mythology, ancient history, and modern urban culture and thoroughly remixed it with whatever he damn well pleased into a fascinating blend of magical realism (Salman Rushdie comes to mind) meets gritty political thriller and contemporary murder mystery.

So I guess I don’t need to be “culturally accurate” to be interesting? And if a guy named Karunatilaka (for god’s sake) can win the Booker Prize and have the NY literati call him a genius, hey, maybe I have a shot? Thanks for the boost, Shehan aiya.

Mechanics and Structure

I’ve been trying to “read like a writer” more, especially with fiction, and think intentionally about how the author structured the story and what techniques they used to convey plot, character, and theme. I like how the author used the story itself to impose a natural structure on the plot – the book takes place, obviously, over seven moons of time with the main, load-bearing narrative thread being the murder mystery plot featuring Maali’s friends Jaki and DD, who are still alive, as they try to piece together what happened to him.

Maali cares less about figuring out who killed him than resolving his feelings and regrets with respect to DD and Jaki, who can neither see nor hear him directly. Maali also wants them to find the negatives of certain photos he took during his career photographing the Sri Lankan Civil War, and to make them public – thus, he hopes, vindicating his life’s work now that he is dead. His inner character arc progresses through reflections and realizations prompted by aspects of his relationships with DD and Jaki, helped along by plenty of flashbacks to scenes between some combination of the three of them when he was still alive.

I really liked the parallel paths of external plot driving the narrative with internal character threads hanging off of it and providing depth, the two story paths intertwined but distinct. I may actually try that same approach with the novel idea I’m working on now.

Oscar Wilde is credited with saying, “If you are going to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh. Otherwise, they’ll kill you.” In the manner of the best comedians, Karunatilaka uses plenty of dry wit and hilarious Lankan situational irony to get away with stripping bare the hypocrisies of literally everyone even remotely involved in the civil war, including Sri Lankan government, the Tamil Tiger revolutionaries, the JVP communists, the Indian Peacekeeping Force, various so-called charities, the western nations who armed all sides and trained their torturers while pretending to try to broker peace, the upper middle class English speaking educated “Colombo Bubble” who lived lives of relative safety while most of the country burned, and pretty much everyone else with an opinion of any kind.

The influence of Kurt Vonnegut very evident. If you liked Slaughterhouse Five, you’ll vibe with this.

A Character Arc With Something To Say

In his writing workshop on Masterclass, Salman Rushdie says “Work close to the bull.” The bull, in this analogy, is the dangerous emotional or personal truth that lurks in your subconscious lived experience, which may gore you if you step too close without preparation. But a matador who pretends to fight the bull but stands far from the horns, and is thus never in any real danger, delivers a lackluster and boring performance.

Karunatilaka has done an admirable job of working close to the bull. The corruption, brutality, homophobia, idealism, cynicism, hope, love, rage, and frustration dripping from Seven Moons certainly seems drawn from powerful lived experience and emotional truth. Even if none of the events and feelings described never occurred directly to the author, which I very much doubt, then they are at least rendered skillfully enough to appear so, which in the literary context is the same thing.

I think what hooks me about the protagonist, Maali, is that while outwardly he is a cynic, underneath he really wants to believe. He is, in fact, a shattered idealist, hyperaware of his own flaws yet lacking the courage to face them, showing up to the one cause that he believes in – war photography that is unsparing of the futile horror of war – simply because he can’t think of any other way he can make a difference in an uncaring and randomly cruel world.

“How else to explain the world’s madness? If there’s a heavenly father, he must be like your father: absent, lazy and possibly evil. For atheists there are only moral choices. Accept that we are alone and strive to create heaven on earth. Or accept that no one’s watching and do whatever the hell you like. The latter is by far easier.”

– Shehan Karunatilaka, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

Indeed, the worldview that blares through the chaos and strife of the novel is not only contemptuous of religion of any kind, but unflinchingly (if reluctantly) outright nihilist. And yet, ultimately, I didn’t find the novel to be depressing, but rather an admonishment to make the best use of the fleeting moments we have to live the best lives we can, before inevitable oblivion where nothing else matters anyway.

“Because, on reflection, once you have seen your own face and recognized the color of your eyes, tasted the air and smelled the soil, drunk from the purest fountains and the dirtiest wells, that is the kindest thing you can say about life. It’s not nothing.”

– Shehan Karunatilaka, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

If that sounds bleak, I’m not sure he would apologize. And I’m not sure he has to.

I’m taking notes.