Writing Exercise: Character Description

Writing challenge: Find a way to describe a character without using any detail that would show in a photograph of the person. No hair color, eye color, build, age, race, distinguishing features, etc.

Post your attempt in the comments.

Here’s mine:

Leila claimed to have caused arguments at seventy-three percent of the parties she attended and fistfights at seventeen percent—almost certainly a lie, but the statistical precision gave it the ring of truth. And certainly one could imagine fights erupting over and around Leila. Her tact and self-restraint tended to last exactly as long as her first drink, and she never stopped at one. She swore like a sailor and hated to end an evening without shedding at least one article of clothing. Any evening, anywhere, in any company.

Word-Count Warriors

My friendslist on LiveJournal, which consists primarily of fiction writers, has been all abuzz recently about this post by Rachel Aaron:

How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day

Now, as someone who would be thrilled to be producing 2,000 words a day on a regular basis, this gave me an instant case of wordcount envy. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do 10,000 words a day without an actual gun to my head. But Rachel’s tips are well worth exploring. Read the article for the full scoop, but in short, her advice boils down to:

  • Plan before you write. Writing is the most time-consuming way to discover that you’ve got the sequence of events wrong in your scene, or that you have chosen a really dull way of moving the scene forward. She suggests quickly writing a truncated description of the scene first. Not writing, but noting down what you will write.
  • Measure your writing. Tracking her output helped Rachel determine what times of day, locations, and circumstances resulted in the greatest productivity.
  • Get excited. Rachel’s biggest wordcounts happened on days she was writing the scenes she was the most excited about writing. The ones she was practically chortling over writing, ahead of time. Her worst days were scenes she wasn’t excited about. Which led to an a-ha! moment for her: “If I had scenes that were boring enough that I didn’t want to write them, then there was no way in hell anyone would want to read them. “

There’s a lot more in her post. Check it out, then stop back here and discuss.

Gmail accounts targeted by ‘state-sponsored attackers’

Do you have a Gmail account?  Do you think your PC security is ready for an attack by a nation-state?

There is evidence that a nation-state is targeting Gmail accounts:  http://nakedsecurity.sophos.com/2012/06/15/internet-explorer-zero-day-hijack-gmail-accounts/

They are using a never before seen weakness in Internet Explorer that allows an attacker to issue commands to your computer, and all you had to do was visit a web site contamminated with the attacker’s code.  You’re thinking, I don’t go to “those” web sites.  Think again.  Statistics collected by McAfee indicate that the major sources of malware are political, religious and opinion web sites.  The pornographic web sites tend to be more carefully run, well mainatained, and malware-free–they are a business, after all.

Microsoft has not yet issued a patch for this vulnerability, but there is a band-aide available at: http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/security/advisory/2719615

Thinking, I’m running a MAC, I don’t have to worry?  In this exact case, you’re right.  But, there is a large pool of malware out there targeting MAC users.  Guess what the largest distribution mechanism is?  Poorly maintained WordPress sites.  If you run a blog, and you host the WordPress server, you are almost certainly behind on your patches and may be infected with malware that is infecting everyone who visits your site.  Pretty cool.

Patch early.  Patch often.



An Important Website about Cow Abductions

Stop Cow Abductions

Stop Cow Abductions

The website cowabduction.com is performing an important public service of tracking mysterious cattle abductions, reporting on countermeasures (such as concrete decoys, and putting toupees on your cows to disguise them), with many “missing cow” posters and photos, and an interactive demo of how an abduction takes place (in the header image).

It’s good to see that someone is finally taking this frightening and heartbreaking phenomenon seriously.

Web development: The Cow shows How – themes, menus and headers

Time for new entries in my website design tutorial! I’ve added the following topics:

There were also significant edits to the Create pages entry.

My wife, Rebecca, is reviewing these pages (starting from the beginning). She has diplomatically suggested that the technical level might be too high for my intended audience of writers and artists, and that I might possibly be using too many words. So far, she’s four pages into her review, and there appears to be more red ink than black on the printout pages.

So I believe you can expect more revisions to existing topics, to simplify the language and remove choices — Rebecca thinks it’s better if I don’t offer too many options up front, but just tell people what to do. Later pages can show how to adjust things. Same information, different order. It seems like a reasonable idea.

Comments, questions, and votes for which topics to do next, are welcome!

When Will You Make an End of This?

We had a little discussion recently about when to write “The End.”  I had written the end of a sub-plot, had its crisis and resolution, and moved on to start the final Act.  That left people questioning my sanity—“That’s a perfectly good ending, and now you’ve gone off in another direction AND let the air out of the tires.”


I didn’t have a very good answer at the time, beyond saying that I had a different actual ending in mind and you’ll have to read it and see if you agree.  This piece is a collection of some of my thoughts on endings and what they need to contain. 

 First of all, the ending is one of the earliest things that needs to be known in a story.  If you don’t know the ending, then all the rest that preceded was unguided wandering that eventually terminated because the writer got tired or found a spot that “felt good” to end at.  If you have an end in mind at the beginning of your writing, then the beginning of the story is able to ask the question that the ending must answer.  Everything in-between is designed to move the story in a dramatically satisfying way up to that pre-defined conclusion.

 I’m going to use an iconic film as my example–Jaws.  In the opening of Jaws, a girl is killed by something in the water, her body is found, gruesomely torn, the coroner declares cause of death to be “shark attack” and the new sheriff sets out to make signs closing the beaches.  At this early point in the movie, most moviegoers will not leave the movie theater happy unless the ending makes it clear that either the shark has won or the sheriff has won.  If the movie ended when they were still searching for the shark, especially after numerous other incidents, you would feel cheated.  Cheated because the story asked a question that it didn’t answer.  Further, if the sheriff took out his service revolver and killed the shark with a single bullet, you would also feel cheated—what kind of battle was THAT?

 So, I’m arguing that (most) endings need to do two things.  First, they need to answer the reader’s (viewer’s) question that the beginning of the story posed.  Second, the Protagonist needs to have achieved their final victory (or defeat) by the exertion of their most extreme efforts.  The final test should be a powerful antagonist pitted against a powerful protagonist, both capable of winning and both capable of losing.  The protagonist should have faced a number of trials building up to this point, but the climax has to be their ultimate test. 

 An “ultimate test” doesn’t require every protagonist to save the universe or lift a locomotive off the tracks.  It has to be a test that for this protagonist and this story is their ultimate test.  Perhaps that test will be the alcoholic husband putting the stopper back into a bottle of booze rather than taking the anesthetizing slug he craves after the death of his wife.  Maybe the test is when a 13 year old, new at school, struggling to fit in, goes against all the popular kids and stands up for some other kid who is being bullied. 

All of the text leading up to this final test is preparing the reader for it.  They know something has to happen, maybe even think what it is likely to be, and then you deliver it.  With luck you will deliver something that is logically and emotionally satisfying–“It had to be that way,” and maybe even something that the readers are hoping for, and maybe something they didn’t see coming.

(Hence, again, the need for planning and actually knowing the end in order to properly build up to it.)

 There is always the small matter of craft.  Despite your best efforts to plan an ending and its precursor events, you still need to execute them well.  Many opportunities for failure and mischance await the writer (I’ve tried my hand at a great many of them).

 I haven’t said anything about whether the ending should be tragic or comic (in the dramatic sense), nor ironic (a multilayered ending where victory might have been achieved on one level, yet tragedy on another.)  That’s the subject of a different post.

As to the original question regarding my work in progress:  I believe that I have neither answered the question posed by the beginning of the book, nor have I subjected the protagonist to a test that stretches them to the limits of their capabilities—moral, physical, psychological. 

There certainly are other valid perspectives on what makes a good ending and how to get there.  What are your thoughts?  There also certainly are major issues I haven’t touched on that go into making a “good” ending.  What do you feel in this discussion is most deficient?

 Here are links to a couple other useful discussions on this topic:

A.T. Mahan, the So-So Sailor who Rocked the Whole World’s Boat

Here is the promised article on the alternative theory to Julian Corbett. It is not an EXSUM of the book, but a quick overview with some notes for writers. You can find an EXSUM on my personal website, address at the bottom of this article. Sea power/maritime theory is the framework, but there is a much broader application as well.

Just as Julian Corbett was a surprise to the world of Maritime Theory because he was never a sailor, Alfred Thayer Mahan was a surprise because he wasn’t a very good sailor. In fact, Mahan was a dreadful ship’s Captain, responsible for a number of collisions and mishaps.

A poor sailor indeed, but also a man possessed of a brilliant and well-informed mind. In 1890, when he published the first edition of The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, it was the first major attempt at a unified theory of naval warfare. He was by some decades Corbett’s predecessor.

Perhaps Mahan was a poor sailor, because he only went to the Navy to spite his father, an Army officer who taught at West Point and exercised significant influence on Amy academics and doctrine at that time. Eschewing an appointment to West Point, Mahan attended Columbia University for two years, then transferred to the Naval Academy in defiance of his parent’s wishes.

After a brilliant academic career (but sub-par operational career) in the Navy, he died from heart failure in 1914, a few months after the outbreak of WWI. Though never a war hero, his books made him one of the most importnat naval historians and theorists in his period, and he remains influential today.

The tone and context of Influence indicates that Mahan wrote it, not just to inform academics, but to influence national policy. In 1890, the world was undergoing dramatic social, political, and technological change, and Mahan witnessed a contracting world with powerful states leveraging their navies in pursuit of economic and political control. Following the American Civil war, the US made an expedition to Korea (1871) where Japan made its own expedition a few years later. During this period, the French entangled themselves in their second war in Indochina (which would not be their last) and Britain worked furiously to quash rebellions throughout its empire. Control of the sea (which Mahan refers to as “Command of the sea”) was often the decisive factor. The industrial revolution of the previous century was bringing powerful new technologies to heavy industry, and by extension, to the rapidly evolving capabilities of warships. America, with her vast natural resources and industrious population, was a ripe plum that the great powers of Europe universally lusted after. America’s repulsion of Britain in 1812 was the real war of independence, and this great, but internationally unproven nation was just beginning to emerge as an international economic power, and potential military power.

Mahan considered all these things, and determined that his country would either have to step up and take control of its destiny, or be endlessly played and manipulated by European interests. He preferred the first alternative.

Now, before I begin a discussion of the content of his book, I wish to point out that, while Mahan ostensibly wrote Influence as a history, it presents itself as a highly prescriptive work of theory. Mahan did not draw lessons from history; he used historical examples to reinforce his preconceptions. The result was a work reminiscent of Jomini, detailing how naval forces should organize, operate, and fight. Mahan was adamant that the fundamental purpose of a navy was command of the sea, and promoted the navy’s role as the destruction of the enemy fleet through a decisive naval battle. Like many land war theorists before him (especially Jomini) he believed that naval strategy should center around seeking out the enemy’s center of gravity and destroying it. To Mahan, this was the enemy fleet.

Now, all this sounds perfectly reasonable and unsurprising. But you must remember that the money required to build the massive, modern fleet Mahan proposed would more than double the entire military budget. In fact, it would have dwarfed nearly all other government expenditures at the time. He was not proposing a new tactic, he was proposing a new America.

Mahan’s America would be a world power, flexing its muscles on every foreign shore, demonstrating might and looking for a fight. It would be the protector and facilitator of American mercantile dominance, as we began to export the products of our fields and the work of our hands to willing buyers around the world. Mahan was, in short, the man who drew the map for America’s future as the world’s greatest superpower.

This may seem like a stretch. If it is, it’s less stretch than you might think. Mahan’s vision, once realized, empowered American industry by opening world markets as never before. It would not be fully realized in his lifetime, at least not in America. The British embraced his model, and used it to obtain and maintain sea dominance over Europe and much of the world through WWII.

Japan attempted to use the decisive battle theory as well. They built the most powerful fleet in the Pacific prior to WWII, and used it to capture and control a huge percentage of the Asian Pacific.

Nonetheless, Mahan’s theory not necessarily a success story. Britain’s reliance on decisive battle theory left her terribly vulnerable to German U-boat attacks on her shipping (including the vast amount coming in from America) and nearly starved her out of the war. Japan’s reliance on decisive battle led to the destruction of the bulk of its fleet at Midway, and put Japan on the defensive for the rest of the war.

We cannot take away from Mahan’s brilliance, but neither should we lionize him as a savior. His principles are sound, when applied by a country willing to make the sacrifices of blood and treasure to make them work. But any country that cannot expect to be the biggest dog in the fight will only find his methods as the quickest route to ruin.

So, taking Corbett from last week and Mahan from this week, what are we to make of these two men?

They were both brilliant visionaries. Both were well regarded in their day. Both are read to this day by students of military theory. And, interestingly, one was a very poor seaman and one was not a seaman at all.

What can we make of this as writers?

First, it is a fascinating story in its own right. These two colorful and talented individuals, assessing the same set of conditions arrived at almost diametrically opposed conclusions. And yet historians and theorists still often side with one or the other. One is essentially and offense-first approach, and the other a defense-oriented approach. One focuses attacks the enemy’s resources, the other on their combat power.

Second, when world building, consider the issues that make war at sea. The sea is vast, and running into one another is unlikely, unless you are patrolling the places where ships have to go to resupply, etc. I do not know of a single episode where combatants saw each other out in the open ocean. And if you are at war, you really have two choices: mass your fleet for decisive battle or guard your own shipping (using convoys) and attack the enemy’s supply lines. You can’t defend very many places if you concentrate your forces for attack. You can either protect your Sea Lines of Communication, or you can hunt down the enemy’s fleet: you almost certainly can’t do both.

This same concept can, of course, be adapted to land warfare, and if you are really creative, to virtually any type of conflict. We continually choose whether we should go after our problems on the periphery while carefully building our resiliencies, or concentrate our efforts and try to attack head on (knowing that failure, in the second case, is potentially catastrophic.)  This can be a great way of framing a key aspect of every character’s personality: how does she tend to solve conflict?

If you know how your character responds to conflict, you have come a long way in knowing your character.


In a forthcoming article, I will discuss my theory of war. It is not earth-shakingly new or unfathomably deep, but it is relatively comprehensive in scope and might be useful when you are developing large scale conflicts for your world.

If you would like to read a more detailed EXSUM of Mahan’s book, go to http://monstercorral.com/ and read the full article on A.T. Mahan.

Final Exits — Death Scenes in Film and Literature

“A dying man can do nothing easy.” — Benjamin Franklin on his deathbed, April 17, 1790

Final exits are satisfying in literature and film.  They are moments of revelation, betrayal, sadness or wit.  Sometimes the dying person has a chance to say a few bon mots or a teary goodbye.  Often mysteries are resolved or in the case of the word, “Rosebud,” in Citizen Kane, launched.   Death propels the action, giving impetus to other characters that may have been stalled.  Death illuminates the life of the character that has passed, adding poignancy.  Death is meaningful, and possesses a great sense of dramatic timing.

In real life, death scenes usually suck.  They either drag out, or the person dies so quickly that there is no chance for goodbyes.  In real life, death does not have good dramatic timing.  Having been present at a number of death beds, dying is often more about waiting than wisdom.  Good exit lines are rare, which is why I will always treasure the final words of Oscar Wilde: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”

Death with his daughter Susan and his servant (from the Hogfather)

As I am currently on death watch for another relative, I am taking solace in fiction.  Fiction has a gift for making sense of the senseless, and I think that I really need that.  This week I’ve been rereading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman #8 and some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.  Both feature Death as a main character, though the two representations of Death are very different.  Gaiman’s Death is a perky girl Goth, in love with life and the living.  Pratchett’s Death is skeletal and wields a scythe, but has a wonderfully dry sense of humor and strong relationships.  In both representations, Death has human moments, and cares deeply about the people he or she takes.  I find comfort in both visions.

Thinking about this has made me wonder if any of you out there have a favorite fictional death scene that you want to share.  What made it meaningful and memorable to you?

The floor is open.

Scribbling Across the Great Divide

Lately I’ve been pondering the great divide in the literary world. Call the two sides what you will–Artists and Hacks? Snobs and Scribblers?–the gulf feels vast and gaping. Consider these real-life quotes from teachers, readers and writers of my acquaintance:

  • “Anyone can write a plot-driven story.”
  • “You can always tell a literary award winner–it’s the story where nothing ever happens.”
  • “Genre fiction isn’t literature.”
  • “That highbrow crap puts me to sleep.”

I’m not sure where all this leaves me, except uncomfortably stretched with a foot in each camp. As a reader I worship equally at the twin altars of fine literary writing and rip-roaring good tales; both have given me endless hours of pleasure. But as a writer you’re apparently expected to choose, or at least to strap on a pen name whenever you sneak out to fraternize with the enemy.

It’s all such nonsense. The real division isn’t between artistic writers and commercial ones, it’s between good writers and bad ones–and there’s plenty of awful and awe-inspiring writing on both sides of the perceived literary chasm. For every craftless hack cranking out formulaic tripe, O my friends and fiends, there’s a navel-gazing pretender who thinks poetic adjectives can spin shit into gold.

Speaking of chasms, will someone please explain this artificial distinction drawn between genre fiction and everything else? Wherever you shelve his books, Kurt Vonnegut is a science fiction writer. You can call it magical realism till you’re blue in the face, but Alice Hoffman is a fantasy writer. So are Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, Gunter Grass, Tom Robbins, Mark Helprin, Salman Rushdie and scores of other writers you’ll find in Fiction and Literature. Jane Austen wrote romance novels (really juicy ones). Crime and Punishment is a psychological thriller. Dickens wrote for the masses, not the ages.

It’s little wonder that genre fiction, so derided in literary circles and scorned in MFA programs, looks like a ghetto. People keep insisting that its best and brightest citizens live in a different neighborhood altogether.

This post was originally published on my Wordswoman blog.

Interview with a Cow Rider

Boy riding a cow in the 1950s in Minnesota, courtesy Life magazine.

Boy riding a cow in the 1950s in Minnesota, courtesy Life magazine.

One hears a lot about cowboys and cattle herding, but very little about people actually riding on cows.  When my friend Todd W told me about his history as a Cow Rider, I knew that I had to interview him for this blog.

Me: Todd, I understand that you used to ride cows as a child.  Can you tell me about how you got started?

Todd: As a small child, my grandparents lived close to each other. One had a small hobby farm with horses and ponies. That is where I learned and honed my skills as a rider.

When my family and I would leave, we would drive down the dirt road to the other grandparents home. Which was a small dairy farm, and of course, being the next Roy Roger, I wanted to continue riding. But one problem, they only had cows to ride, so my parents plopped me on the back of one, and that is how I got started.

Me: What does riding a cow feel like?  Is the cow mostly cooperative?
Todd: Mind you, I was riding bareback with no reins, so it was probably harder than it needed to be. Physically, it was awkward. Cows have very broad backs. I kind of felt like a turkey wishbone being pulled apart as I was doing gymnastic splits incorrectly. There was no way I could have put my feet in stirrups, even if I had a saddle.

Mentally, I was beginning my failed attempt at becoming a pro rodeo bull rider, so I was elated.

The cow was VERY cooperative. At a full trot, we moved about two feet for another mouthful of grass.
Me: Writers love details.  Do cows smell differently than horses?  Are they sweatier or less sweaty?
Todd:  Why, yes, they do. I can only describe a cow’s smell as earthy and a horse as musky. I slightly prefer the scent of a cow over a horse, unless the horse is standing in hay. Then the aroma is greatly improved.

From personal experience, I have never been on or seen a cow that sweats, so I guess the horse wins.

Me: How far did you wind up traveling on your cow?

Todd: Over a three year period, I would estimate about 30 feet. 20 feet of that was due to the fact that I rode once from the barn to the pasture.

Me: What was the silliest thing that happened to you while cow riding?
Todd:  It would have to be the time I turned around and sat backwards to figure out what everyone was pointing and laughing at. The odor soon gave me the clue I was looking for. You know, thinking back on that, I wonder why there is cow pie bingo when the cows never move.
Me: Do you have a current picture of you (with or without a cowboy
hat) that you would like to share?
Sorry, no photos available. I do believe there are rules concerning hats and riding animals though. I believe the people riding horses and herding cattle are allowed to wear cowboy hats. If you ride a cow, no hat is required, but if you insist on wearing one, it should be a baseball cap that says John Deere or have a grain storage facility logo on it.