Thursday, November 29, 2012

Moving Beyond "Show Don't Tell"

I’m on a quest.  I’ve been reading Stephen King lately.  I’m working my way through Skeleton Crew, one of his many short story anthologies.  It’s a mixed bag of sorts, but most of it is splendid stuff. 

After each story, I’ll talk to my wife about it.  The conversation goes something like this:

“So there’s this tale where these four college kids go down to a lake, and on the lake there’s this oil-slick.  It traps them on a raft in the middle of the lake, and it starts sucking them under the water and EATING them!”

“Wait, the oil slick traps them?”


(laughing) “That sounds really stupid.”

“Yeah…uh...well, it’s a lot better the way HE tells it.”

Why is it that when Stephen King gets an idea I’m hooked, but when I look at my own writing it sounds flat and—well, for lack of a better word—made up?

So I’ve been taking a really close look at his short stories.  In just a few pages I can get an opening hook, a short plot, some characters, and a zinger of an ending.  In contrast, I’ve also been trolling through looking for cheap self-published schlock.  I’m hoping that in the process I can begin to tell what King (and other authors) does right, and what I (and the other self-published authors who aren’t Stephen King) do wrong.

No small challenge, there.

One thing that stands out to me are his descriptions.  They go way beyond the showing-not-telling kinds of depictions that we learn in workshops and writing classes.  King’s descriptions come alive.  Check this one out:
In the year 1927 we were playing jazz in a speak-easy just south of Morgan, Illinois, a town seventy miles from Chicago.  It was real hick country, not another big town for twenty miles in any direction.  But there were a lot of farmboys with a hankering for something stronger than Moxie after a hot day in the field, and a lot of would-be jazz-babies out stepping with their drugstore-cowboy boyfriends.  There were also some married men (you always know them, friend, they might as well be wearing signs) coming far out of their way to be where no one would recognize them while they cut a rug with their not-quite-legit lassies.
—The Wedding Gig

The thing that stands out the most for me is vibe.  Just listen to it.  The year is 1927, at a speak-easy seventy miles from Chicago, real hick country.  Would-be jazz-babies out stepping with their drugstore-cowboy boyfriends.  Married men coming out to cut a rug with their not-quite-legit lassies.

Can you feel it?

The other thing that grabs me is the personality that King attributes to the people that he’s describing.  Instead of describing individuals, he describes in caricatures.  He gives you a feel for what the people are like, and then the reader’s brain just fills in the rest.  

Listen once more: farmboys with a hankering for something stronger than Moxie after a hot day.  Jazz-babies with their drugstore-cowboy boyfriends.

This goes way beyond showing-not-telling.  This is more than merely cutting out stray adverbs, shunning passive voice, and pouring on the cleverly-placed action verbs.

This is vibe. It's a focus on mood, and atmosphere, and what's going on, and who's working the scene.

I’ve read enough of King's stuff to see him do this over and over.  Whenever he does a description, he doesn’t show the reader, so much as he describes what the thing is like.  He sketches its character, its personality…and your brain just fills in the rest.  This is brilliant stuff.

Here's another example (paraphrased a bit, for brevity):
The girls had come over to the apartment at midafternoon...there was a case of beer in the fridge and a new night Ranger album on Randy's battered stereo. The four of them set about getting pleasantly oiled.  Afer a while the talk had turned to the end of the long Indian summer they had been enjoying. The radio was predicting flurries for Wednesday.  LaVerne had advanced the opinion that weathermen predicting snow flurries in October should be shot.  No one had disagreed.
—The Raft

I like this scene.  Two college guys, having their girlfriends over.  I can hear Night Ranger blaring Sister Christian.  They're relaxing after a day of classes and studies.  I can hear the talk.

So I decided to hunt for a nice boring description in my own story and see if I couldn’t liven it up a little.  I picked this gem:

We stopped at the head table.  Lord Braxton sat in his great chair, a drinking horn in one hand and a thin wedge of cheese in the other.  Lady Aderyn leaned on his side.  Their children sat around them eating and playing with their food.  A trio of musicians played off to one side.

Yawn.  Let’s see if I can’t do better.  Instead of pouring on more description, see if I can’t toss in some vibe.
We stopped at the head table.  Lord Braxton sprawled in his great chair, a drinking horn in one hand and a spoon in the other.  He shoveled stew into his mouth like he was feeding an ox.  Lady Aderyn leaned on his side where she could whisper in his ear if she wanted, yet keep within arm’s reach of a wandering child.  Their children buzzed around them, too excited to eat or stay in their seats, playing with their food, reveling in the evening’s cheer.  A trio of musicians played off to one side.  I hadn’t seen them before.  They looked like the travelling kind that made their living from hall to hall. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Economy of Words

Overnarration happens when authors use too many words to express what they want to say.  Another term for this is “economy of words”.   A good narrative will use as few words as possible to describe what is happening.

Consider the following excerpt from a novel I found on Amazon (The names of the characters have been changed to protect the innocent):

Margret tremulously cowered behind the scraggly hyacinth bush, concealing herself behind the dark green leaves.  The ancient fountains stood cold and silent in the neglected garden.  Scarcely breathing, she watched as the dark stranger made his way through the garden.  Viciously searching any suspected hiding place, the stranger tore back branches, throwing aside shrubs and leaves.  Slowly Margret crept backwards.  Cautiously looking over her shoulder, she eased her way back toward an opening in the surrounding hedge.  Sliding one knee back after another, she felt the errant twig under her at the same time she heard it snap.  She froze.  The stranger whirled around and glared toward the hyacinth bush.  With long swift strides he crossed the crumbling courtyard and yanked the branches aside.

Use adverbs sparingly
Let’s talk about adverbs for a second.  I was a cook one summer in a long-term care facility.  The head chef told me to put celery seed in anything that had hamburger.  It was a wonderful suggestion, one that I use to this day—but he cautioned me: a little bit goes a long way.

Adverbs are like that.  Use sparingly.  In fact, most writers will tell you to avoid them like the plague.  However, if you pick up any novel published by any well-respected writer, you’ll see adverbs all over the place.  So what gives?

Here are three rules for whether you can keep an adverb or not:
1. Does it say something that has already been implied elsewhere?
2. When you take the adverb out, does the sentence feel broken?
3. Never EVER use an adverb in a dialog tag (i.e., “I hate you,” she said viciously).  Good dialog should imply what the adverb states (see rule #1).

So, let’s look over this paragraph and go on an adverb hunt.  We don’t need tremulously.  This adverb implies fear, and we already know that Margret is fearful because she is cowering.   Next we have scarcely.  I’d keep this one.  It’s short and it adds mood, and if you take it out the sentence doesn’t work.  After that we have viciously, which we can cut.  The rest of that same sentence describes the stranger tearing back branches, throwing aside shrubs and leaves, etc.  Then we have slowly, which we can give the ax.  Margret is creeping backwards.  It’s rather obvious that she is doing it slowly.  Finally, we have cautiously looking, which just begs to be replaced with something shorter.

Saying the same thing twice
Next, let’s talk about saying things twice.  Take the first sentence (offending adverbs removed):

Margret cowered behind the scraggly hyacinth bush, concealing herself behind the dark green leaves. 

If you give this a careful look, you’ll see that the author describes Margret hiding twice.  Do we need both?  Here’s another one:

Viciously searching any suspected hiding place, the stranger tore back branches, throwing aside shrubs and leaves.

The first part is telling instead of showing.  The next part is restating what we’ve been told, with some more showing thrown in for good measure.

You might think that the author is trying to add detail, or that she is trying to describe how the stranger is searching.  But this sentence still sounds like it was written by an amateur, and here's why.

Your reader’s mind is powerful.  A few carefully chosen words can evoke an entire scene, none of which you need to waste words describing.  Never underestimate the reader’s own ability to fill in unwritten details. 

Read that last sentence again.  I’ll wait.

A good author will pick up on this.  A few well-chosen words, and the reader will create the entire scene for you. 

Let your work sit for a couple days before proofreading it.  When you go over it again, listen to the flow.  Pay attention to the implied image that your narrative creates in your mind as you’re reading it. 

Revise and shorten
Now let’s look at this:

Cautiously looking over her shoulder, she eased her way back toward an opening in the surrounding hedge.  Sliding one knee back after another, she felt the errant twig under her at the same time she heard it snap. 

The two sentences kind of overlap in their purpose.  Margret is cautious in the first sentence, then she’s sliding backwards on her knees (which itself is a cautious action).  Then we have a rather wordy description of a snapping twig.  We could clean this up and shorten it.

Look for places where your narrative starts to feel wordy.  Pay extra attention to places where you describe a character’s actions.  Remember, your reader’s mind is very powerful, and a few well-chosen words will convey a much tighter meaning than ten poorly chosen ones.

Final example
Here is the revised paragraph.  I could probably tighten this up some more, but you get the picture. 

Margret cowered behind the scraggly hyacinth bush.  The ancient fountains stood cold and silent in the neglected garden.  Scarcely breathing, she watched as the dark stranger tore back branches, and threw aside shrubs and leaves.  Glancing over her shoulder, Margret spied an opening in the garden’s surrounding hedge and crept her way toward it, sliding on her knees.  She felt the errant twig under her at the same time it gave a loud snap.  She froze.  The stranger whirled to face the hyacinth bush.  With long swift strides he crossed the crumbling courtyard and yanked the branches aside.

Notice the difference? 

In summary, three tools for tightening up your prose:
1. Cut out as many adverbs as you can.
2.  Look for places where your narrative implies the same thing more than once.
3.  Look for other ways you can replace longer phrases with shorter ones.

Less is more
What a really good example of writing that uses good economy of words?  Go to  This site has short creative non-fiction essays, 750 words or less.  It’s all brilliant writing, verbal ikebana, and candy for the mind!

Monday, June 4, 2012

One Smartphone to Rule Them All

Sometime in the next 8 months I'm going to buy two new Smartphones, one for me and one for my wife. I've spent a lot of time looking at the various devices and comparing the stats and the customer reviews. I've also spent time comparing the four carrier networks in my area: Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile.

What am I looking for?
Here is what I'm looking for in a SmartPhone:
Display: 4" or better. 1024x720, with a GPU.  I want to do gaming, and I want to be able to watch videos.  I also want a large screen so I can see what I'm browsing on the Internet.

CPU: 1.2GHz or better, dual-core or better. If you consider yourself any kind of a power user, you won't regret this. If you check stats you'll be surprised at how many phones are less than 1 Gigahertz (iPhone 4S).

Memory: 1 GB RAM, 16 GB Storage. I consider this a minimum. I'd gladly take 32 GB or 64 GB if I can get it.

Camera: 8 Megapixel, able to record full HD at 30 frames per second or better.

Other considerations
AMOLED displays better contrast (blacker blacks and more vivid colors). Some displays use Gorilla Glass, a new type of super-strong glass. I can't tell how many phones I've seen with cracked displays. It's worth it.

HTC likes to play up Beats Audio, which ships on several of their devices. You get a good pair of headphones, and a slightly better speaker system.

What are the best Android phones?
At the top of my list is the Samsung Galaxy S III.  Unfortunately, you can't get it in the US until June 21st.  It's expected to be rolled out in Canada on June 20. The European version packs an impressive quad-core CPU, but is only 3G. The US/Canadian version will be 4G LTE, but it will only be dual-core.

The next phone on my list is the HTC One X. Everything about this phone is stellar. Its only weakness is AT&T, which has yet to roll out its LTE network in more than a handful of cities. Go to AT&T's website and check their map. If you get LTE in your area, then this phone is a superb buy.

The next best phone to get, going purely on stats is the HTC Rezound. You can get this through Verizon. It's two flaws are its less impressive battery life, and it is still running Android 2.3.

After that, I would rate the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. This was the first Android 4.0 device (Ice Cream Sandwich). All the reviews I've read say this is a really good phone. Also available through Verizon. Customer reviews complain about the battery life and the camera which is only 5MP.

Now for the honorable mentions. These are the phones to get if you don't care about 1280x720 screen resolutions, but you still want that dual-core CPU and 1GB RAM. At the top of my list is the Droid RAZR Maxx. This is an awesome phone with 15 hour battery life. Variants worth mentioning are the Droid RAZR and the Droid 4. Next honorable mention is the HTC One S, which gets rave customer reviews everywhere I look. After that would be the Samsung Galaxy S II and all its variants (Skyrocket, etc.).

What about Apple?
I've got a friend who tells me that the iPhone 4S is hands-down the best point-and-shoot digital camera, period. Every review that I've read says that this is where Apple shines. Apple also has the best app-store, and the best hardware support network. Android has been out for several years now, and I still don't see people making stuff to work with Android devices. I do, however, see all kinds of accessories for your iPhone or iPod. The real down-side to Apple is that you're locked into their ecosystem. Apple really doesn't believe in playing with others, at all.

I still don't want an iPhone 4S.

Don't get me wrong. I'd love to have one, but when you stack it up to any Android device, the hardware is starting to look a little dated.

What I really want (and will patiently wait for) is its much-awaited successor. Right now anyone would be a fool to buy one, since Apple is due to release (the device currently referred to as) the iPhone 5 sometime this fall. I'm already disappointed to learn that its display will only be 3.999 inches. I hope at least its resolution will be 1280x720. Whatever Apple does, I'm sure we'll all snatch them up as quick as we can.

And now, a word about Windows Phone 7
I'm watching Microsoft very closely. For me, Microsoft is literally my bread and butter. I work as a software developer by trade, and my skill-set is heavily invested in Windows/.NET and the whole Microsoft ecoverse. (Is that a word?)

Microsoft has taken a very savvy approach, and gone after the economy market. They're hoping to gain penetration with rank-and-file users who want to do browsing, texting, and checking their email. Microsoft also has the added perk of being to edit Word/Excel documents, and full integration with X-Box live. Two very cool features.

Unfortunately, none of the Windows phones fall into my hardware requirements. They all have a 800x480 screen, they all have single-core CPUs, they all have 512MB of RAM. Like I said, these are all impressive stats for mid-market phones. But this isn't the hardware that I want.

If you want a Windows phone, then there are three worth mentioning. They are the Nokia Lumina 900, the HTC Titan II, and the Samsung Focus S (which apparently is a Samsung Galaxy S running Windows instead). A friend of mine is a salesman for AT&T, and he says that the Nokia is a hot seller. It's a solid product, and has virtually no customer returns. The Titan II is a good phone, but it's far too expensive for the features that it has.

I've only ran into one person who owned a Windows 7 phone who didn't like it. Everyone else was pleased. No one was super excited, though.

I'm really, really waiting for Windows Phone 8. This will be do or die for Microsoft, and it has been two years too long in coming. Microsoft has a lot of ground to make up, here.

What is the best carrier? The two leaders in this game are Verizon and AT&T. Every review I read says that AT&T's 4G is faster but not as reliable. You can count on Verizon to have LTE in more places.

You also need to consider each carrier's 3G network. When you can't get a 4G signal, this is what your device falls back to. Verizon's 3G network is EVDO, which is much slower than AT&T's HSPA+. This means that when you're out in Podunkville, AT&T is much more likely to give you a better signal than Verizon.

T-Mobile and Sprint are both way behind. T-Mobile uses HSPA+ technology. It is fast as far as 3G goes, but it's still not LTE. Sprint has plans to roll out an LTE network of its own, but that's still a good while down the road.

So, which is better? Check the map for your area. If you can get 4G with either Verizon or AT&T, then go with the carrier who offers the device and data plan that best meets your needs. Right now you'll get better overall performance with Verizon. If you can only get 3G then any of the four carriers will work for you.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Oquirrh Hills 2012 eBook Contest Winners

Earlier this year my League of Utah Writers chapter held an eBook contest.  There were six categories, and books were judged based on writing, cover design, website, and overall presentation.

Contest generes:
  • General
  • YA/Juvenile
  • Sci-fi/Fantasy
  • Romance/Inspirational
  • Historical
The deadline was extended through March, and the results were announced on the 15th.  Here are the winners: 

1st Place: Counting Crows by T W Abbott 
2nd Place: Kuhlain's Quest by L Charles Grant 

Romance / Inspirational:
1st Place: Love on Laird Lane by Cindy A Christiansen 
2nd Place: Braving the Blaze by Cindy A Christiansen 
3rd Place: Inside Hope by Krista Siegler 

Young Adult / Juvenile:
1st Place: Become by Ali Cross 
2nd Place: The Darkness Within by Sara Fitzgerald 

1st Place: Five Scalps by Jerry A Matney & D A Gordon 
2nd Place: Woman War Chief by Jerry A Matney & D A Gordon 
3rd Place: I, Nephi by K M Mittan 

So, I took first place in Fantasy.  This was pretty exciting.  The contest was a good exercise for me because it made me really think about presentation, and my website, and the cover, and everything else that goes along with ePublishing a story.

Right now you can read the novel for free.  The story works really well standing on its own.  I'd like to make a series based on these characters, something like Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew set in a mythical Anglo Saxon England.  I like the period of history where paganism was slowly being replaced by Christianity, when people worshiped Christ but still invoked Thunor or Woden when they needed a little extra luck.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Golden Eagle Visits Our Neighborhood

We don't see ravens every day, so when a pair of them began swooping over our street and making a fuss, I stopped what I was doing for a second look.  They were enormous.  I called my kids over and pointed them out.  Then--on sheer impulse--I went into the house and got my camera.  It's not like ravens are all that rare, but I think they're wonderful.  The ancient Scandinavians considered them the messengers of Odin, and that makes them kind of cool.

I can't describe why I went for my camera, or why I went out my garage instead of trying to get a picture from my back yard, but I'm so glad I did.  It was just one of those moments of rare serendipity where an impulse paid off in a way I'll never forget.

Across the street, a honey locust tree towers over a neighbor's yard.  The ravens were swooping around, croaking and diving.  I didn't realize they were after something until I got close.  Then I realized it was an enormous bird.  It was a monster.

It was a golden eagle.

This guy was just sitting there, cool and alert.  Every now and then one of the ravens would land and try to get close.  The raven would squawk and peck the bark of the tree.  At one point, one of the ravens ripped off a small branch, gave it a good thrashing and then threw it down.  Very dramatic!

All this time, the eagle just sat there.

This guy was enormous.  To give you a size comparison, consider that an adult raven is about two feet long from beak to tail.  Here's another side-by-side photo.  The raven is trying to look tough.

I could almost hear the eagle saying, "Come one step closer.  Just, one, step..."

That was quite a sight.

Ravens are feisty and very cunning.  You usually don't see them hanging around cities, or places where Man lives.  They like the wild country.  You're more likely to see one picking a carcass by the side of a remote stretch of highway then you are to see one circling our neighborhood.

Even more rare is to get a visit from a golden eagle.  My kids were awed.

Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd, and before long all the neighbors had their cameras out, and were clicking away.  People were slowing down as they drove past and gazing into the treetops.  The eagle was very well camouflaged.

I would never have seen it had there not been a pair of angry ravens making all that noise.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Strawbery Banana Split

When I'm not writing I like to make ice cream.  I make all kinds of stuff.  Once you know the basic ingredients (your sweet cream base), it's pretty much whatever you're in the mood for.  I call this one Strawberry Banana Split:
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup of sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 cups whipping cream
  • 1 cup of milk
  • 1/2 overripe banana
  • 5 strawberries
  • 2 tablespoons of semi-sweet mini chocolate chips
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
Makes one quart.


Start with the eggs, whipping them till they are a creamy yellow.  Throw in the sugar and vanilla.  Whip some more.  Then add the cream and milk.  Whip some more.  This is your sweet cream base.

Using a fork, mash the strawberries and bananas together.  Add in the lemon juice.  Lemon juice brings out the flavor of any fruit.  I used a food processor when I did this, and I wouldn't recommend it.  The blades can break open the strawberry seeds and give your ice cream a slightly bitter aftertaste.  :-P

When you've got it all mashed together, mix it into your sweet cream base.  Throw in the chocolate chips.  Don't use full-sized chocolate chips. They get hard as a rock when they freeze, and you'll crack a tooth.

Pour it into the freezer and freeze.

Serve with almond slivers and marachino cherries.

MMMMMMM.  Ice cream.

No back to writing.  Hope you feel inspired!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Understanding the New Publishing Market

The advent of eReaders has changed the publishing landscape for good. Everyone is struggling to understand just what this means, but a trend is beginning to develop. Here is what it means for the next three to five years.

For a while now I’ve been suspicious about two things:
  1. As a self-published author, if you can meet or exceed the same kinds of sales figures that a traditional publisher would require, then they WILL notice you and be interested. 
  2. Even if you land a contract with a traditional publisher, you have the same amount of work to find your readers and market your work.

Everyone knows that #2 is true. Even still, I couldn’t believe #1 until I had multiple editors tell me to my face that they had—in recent months—signed contracts with writers who were previously self-published.

So really, what’s the difference whether I self-publish or not?

  1. Other writers will stick their noses up at me.
  2. Being traditionally published lends a certain amount of credibility that my work has met a minimum bar of quality.
  3. A publisher will set me up with lots of great marketing opportunities.
Let’s address these one by one.

First, you need to get over what others think about you. If people are reading your stuff, that’s really all that matters. That’s the bottom line. Period. Have you ever heard the phrase, “the customer is always right?” Success talks. Your readers know if you’ve got the goods. You have no control what other writers think. So focus on your craft. Focus on doing your best work. Write consistently and write often. Focus on understanding your target audience and building a connection with your readers. Focus on finishing your books and getting the word out.

You were told that as an aspiring writer you’d need a thick skin. This hasn’t changed, and it never will.

Second, if a publisher prints something, does that make it inherently better than something independently written by me or you? Maybe a little, but consider this. Few books these days ever get reviewed by a copy editor. Anyone who has been traditionally published will tell you that. You can meet or exceed that bar on your own if you have at least two beta readers who are willing to line-edit. If not, then you can always hire an editor.

And what about story quality? Do you really think editors are infallible here? When was the last time you took a look at the bargain bin at the local grocery store?
Do you know who I think is the ultimate judge of quality? Readers. Honestly, does anything else matter?

That said, would I ever consider taking a contract with a traditional publisher? That depends on a lot of things, but the general answer is YES! A traditional publisher can get you into a lot of markets that you will never reach. A good agent will maximize your success with foreign rights and subsidiary rights, and help you get an audio book made, and all that other juicy stuff. But this time you will have LEVERAGE. You will have a proven track record for success, which gives you negotiating power. Just remember to be professional. You can never afford to be a jerk.

So now the game has changed. Think of Amazon and Smashwords as the new slush pile. Here is how this is going to play out. It’s easy:

  1.  Step 1. You write a book. Make it enjoyable. Do the very best you can with story, character, and style.
  2. Step 2. Get input from some friends—your beta readers. If they don’t like it then do some revision, or go back to step #1 and write a different book.
  3. Step 3. Keep doing 1 and 2 until you have something they really like.
  4. Step 4. At the same time, learn to blog. Learn the ins and outs of social networking. Learn to connect with other readers and other writers. Help promote their work and become part of the community.
  5. Step 5. When you have a finished book, have someone edit it. Get someone to do cover art. Get someone to do layout. Or, you can do this stuff yourself; many people do. It’s up to you.
  6. Step 6. Publish on Amazon. Publish on Smashwords.
  7. Step 7. Go back to step #1 and repeat. Learn to balance step 1 and step 4. Set goals and pace yourself.
  8. Step 8. Continue networking with the traditional side of the industry. If a traditional publisher offers you a contract, make darn sure you aren’t signing away your ePublishing rights. And never, ever trust an agent unless they treat you with respect and they’re willing to actually read your work.
Who will determine whether or not you are successful?

  1. You. You will never be successful unless you sit down and do it. You will never be successful unless you believe in yourself, and that you can produce quality work. That has never changed, and never will.
  2. Your readers. Readers are your life-blood. If you are producing quality material, then your success is limited only by your ability to connect with people, and convert them into readers. That’s the one thing that will remain constant no matter what route you take.
I read a blog post by Kerry Wilkinson, who recently shot to the top of the charts. I suggest you go through it, yourself. (

Here’s a quote:

“I've read a few articles predicting the end of the traditional publishing industry and don't really agree with it. What I suspect will happen is that the industry will pick up on the type of methods people like myself use and adapt them into their own business models. I guess the key thing is how quickly they can do that.”

Here’s a really insightful blog post by Jon F. Merz. Jon has published several books traditionally, and has recently switched to ePublishing. His story is very compelling:

Here’s some stats from author John Brown’s blog:


Friday, March 9, 2012

Eleven Deadly Pills, and One Placebo

I got asked this question in an interview when I went to work for Microsoft as an intern in 1997.  You've probably heard the version with nine pills, and the safe one is heavier.  What if there were twelve pills and you don't know if the safe one is lighter or heavier?
*   *   *

The Story:
There once was a wise scholar of an ancient land who commited a grave offense against the king, and was sentenced to death. The king, in an attempt to put the scholar's wisdom to the ultimate test, devised an ingenious riddle.

He gave the scholar 12 tiny pills. He was told that 11 of these pills were the deadliest poison, so mortal that upon taking one a man would die in seconds. The 12th pill was a mere placebo, and was completely harmless.

The scholar was also given a simple balance scale, where he might weigh the pills against each other. He was told that all the poison pills were of the exact same weight, but that the placebo weighed differently from them all. He had only THREE tries to find the placebo and live.

Things that you can assume:
1. The difference in weight of each pill is too small to descern by touch.
2. There is absolutely no way to tell by looking at the pills which one is the placebo

There are a number of solutions to this problem. The easiest way to explain the approach is to imagine that each pill has a letter, so you can keep track of them.

Step 1:
The objective on your first try is to rule out as many pills as you can. Weigh A+B+C+D against E+F+G+H. If they do NOT balance then go to step 2. If they DO balance, then that means A through H are all poison, and your placebo is one of I, J, K, or L.

For your second try weigh I+J against A+B, which you know are both poison.
1. If they balance then you know the placebo is K or L. Weigh K against A. If K versus A balances, then L is the placebo. If they don’t balance then the placebo is K.
2. Otherwise, the placebo is I or J. Weigh I versus A. If they balance then the placebo is J, otherwise it’s I.

Step 2:
Okay, let’s take a close look at what we know. If the pill was heavy then it will be on the side that dropped. If the pill was light then it will be on the side that rose. Your next step must accomplish two objectives. You must find out if the placebo is heavier or lighter, and you must eliminate as many pills as you can. You’re going to have to get creative.

Take note of which side was heavier in step 1. Split the heavy side into two groups of two each. Next, pick any two pills from the lighter side and add one to each of the groups you made from the heavier side.

When you’re done you’ll have three groups of pills. For example, assume the left side was heavier. Your first group will have A+B+E. Your second group will have C+D+F. Your last group will be G+H.

Weigh A+B+E against C+D+F. If they do NOT balance then go to step 3. If they DO balance then your placebo is either G or H.

For your final try, weigh G against A. If G and A balance then the placebo is H, otherwise it’s G.

Step 3:
Time to dust off your skills of logical deduction. Look at which side was heavier in step 2. If A+B+E was heavier then it means that either A+B was a heavy placebo, or that F (in the right-side pan) was a light placebo. Weigh A against B. If they balance then F is the placebo. Otherwise the heavier one of either A or B is the placebo.

Otherwise, if C+D+F is heavier then it means that either C+D was a heavy placebo or that E was a light placebo. Weigh C+D. If they balance then E is the placebo. Otherwise the heavier one of either C or D is the placebo.

The key is to always pick the two from the heavier side in step 1

Example 1:
Let’s suppose F is a heavy placebo.
1. We weigh A-D against E-H. The right side is heavy.
2. We take E+F+A and weigh it against G+H+B. E+F+A sinks.
3. We weigh E against F (remember always to pick the heavy ones from step 1). We see that F is heavier, and that’s the one.

Example 2:
Let’s suppose B is a light placebo.
1. We weigh A-D against E-H. The right side is heavy, again.
2. Weigh E+F+A against G+H+B. E+F+A sinks.
3. Weigh E against F. They balance, so we know that it was the pill from the light side in step 2. That’s B

Example 3:
Suppose A is a light placebo:
1. We weigh A-D against E-H. The right side is heavy, again.
2. Weigh E+F+A against G+H+B. G+H+B is heavier.
3. Weigh G against H. They balance, so we go to the odd pill in the light pan from step 2. That’s A.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Medieval Gems for Writers: Did Medieval Houses Have Chimneys

It’s not uncommon to pick up a novel with a medieval setting and hear a description of a cottage with rooms, a loft, lots of furniture like chairs and beds, windows, and a large fireplace with a chimney. Most of us in modern times find it hard to imagine a house without all these trappings. Is that the way it was?

Probably not.

Pick your culture, time period, and social class.
Your story will have more presence if you try and base the cultural setting upon a specific time period and a specific nationality. For example, Tolkien relied heavily on Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian history. His writing is rife with Old English words and phrases, early Germanic customs, poetry, architecture, etc.

For the purposes of this article I’ll focus on what I know about the Germanic peoples. This includes the Scandinavians, the Germans, the Franks, and the Anglo-Saxons. All of these peoples were related at one time. They originated from what is modern-day Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and the Netherlands.

I wish I knew more about the Celtic peoples (Gauls, Britons, Picts, etc.), but they had the unfortunate habit of never writing anything down. Everything we know about them we get either through the archaeological record or from second-hand accounts written by Romans, who tended to look down on everyone around them.

There is no firm dividing line in European history as a whole. The early middle ages (the Dark Ages, as some people call it) began around 500AD, and lasted till 1100AD. The high middle ages began sometime around then, and lasted until the Renaissance. The Renaissance began in Italy in the 1300s but didn’t reach England until the 1600s.

Houses and Buildings
You must remember that life in the early middle ages (what some people call the Dark Ages) revolved around the farm. Everyone farmed, from the rich to the poor. The central building on a farm was the hall. This was more or less a really large hut. It was usually long and rectangular. In earlier times it housed animals at one end and people at the other. In slightly later times people had out-buildings where they smoked meat, stored food, kept animals, and even lived. However, the principal building was always the Hall. This is where the lord and his family slept, as well as the lord’s fighting men, his slaves, and anyone else who had sworn to serve him.

Halls could get quite crowded.

Every lord named his hall. The hall of King Hrothgar in Beowulf was called Heorot. Heorot is the Old English word for a hart, which is a male red deer (the female being called a roe). In Lord of the Rings, Théoden, king of Rohan named his hall Meduseld. In Old English, Meduseld literally means “mead-hall”.

The best authors never invent. They’re just really clever about what they copy. When authors invent, we end up with things like sparkly vampires.

Another feature of the hall was the sacred oak. Before they became Christianized, Germanic lords commonly built their hall near a great oak tree. This was a central feature in the yard in front of the hall. This was discontinued in the late 700s as Charlemagne pushed into modern-day Germany and literally forced everyone to become Christian.

You’ll hear a lot of people saying that early Anglo Saxon houses were basically a square pit with a roof over it. Here’s an example of one.

We know this couldn’t have worked because the thatch would quickly rot away, and the house itself would have been very damp. We do know that the Saxons built structures like this, but it is more likely that they were cellars, or perhaps workshops.

Cruck-built houses were very common. A cruck is a curved frame that is carved from the trunk and a single large branch from an oak tree. It has an arched shape. Here is a picture of a cruck-framed house.

In earlier times the posts were buried in the ground. However any structure that they wanted to last would have been set on a stone foundation of some sort. If you’ve ever put up a fence in your back yard you know that your posts rot away quickly unless they’re set in concrete.

Roofing varied from region to region. In England it was nearly always thatch. They did have wooden roofs made of flat planks, but those were more expensive. In Scandinavia they used shingles. It really depends on what building materials are easiest to come by and easiest to work with.

Chimneys and fireplaces were not in use until the high middle ages--around 1200 at the earliest. And even then they were only found in stone castles.  It’s hard to know exactly when they came into general use in peoples' houses. I’m guessing that they were common by the 1500s.

So what did people from earlier times do? One theory is that they built a large hole in their roof directly above the hearth. The obvious problem with that idea is that it would have let in the rain. I have to wonder if they didn’t have a way of covering the hole with a louver or a flap that they could adjust and keep propped open with a long pole.

A much better theory is that they put the smoke-hole at each end of the roof. Here is a picture of a Scandinavian hall from Wikipedia. You can see the smoke holes.

Without a chimney you can imagine that the rafters got all sooty. This is how they cured meats, by the way.

Romans built out of stone, but the Germanic people seldom did. Monasteries and abbeys were built of stone. Churches were sometimes built out of stone. However, no one else did anything with stone until the 1200s. The reason? Trees were in abundant supply, and wood is so much easier to work with than rocks.

Walls were made of wattle and daub. Wattle is made primarily made from split hazel rods. You take a hazel tree, cut off all the big branches so that it looks like a tall stump. After a year it will grow long whip-like rods that can be split and woven into a lath. See “pollarding” in Wikipedia. People planted hazel trees close together and pruned them like this so that they grew into a dense hedge. Fences and animal pens were also commonly woven from wattle.

Daub is an aggregate material made from wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung (eeeew), and straw. To make a wall of wattle and daub, you make a wattle panel that fits into the space you want to fill, then smear (or daub) this special mud over it. It lasts for quite a while and it insulates well.

Another building material was turf. They used this in Iceland and in places where trees were scarce. Turf walls are thicker. It insulates well against heat in the summer and cold in the winter.

Inside the building, the wall could be paneled or lined with wainscoting. They also hung tapestries, furs, shields, and all manner of weapons.

Again, stone was rare before the 1200s. Stone or tile floors were not seen in the early middle ages. Until that time, floors were of two types.

The first type was packed earth. It would not be uncommon to cover the floor with straw mixed with sweet-smelling herbs. I imagine it got swept out and replaced often, otherwise the trash and accumulated filth would attract all manner of vermin. This type of flooring was common especially among the poorer class throughout the early middle ages.

A second type of floor was in use during the later Anglo Saxon period. It was mad of wooden planks set on joists. Below this floor would be a pit that could be used as cold storage.

Germanic halls quite often had a raised wooden platform that ran the length of the hall. They could set up tables so that the platform was used as a bench. At night they took down the tables and slept on the platform.

Windows were unheard of in early medieval times, even among the rich. When windows did come into use, they had no glass and were closed off with shutters. The Anglo Saxons had windows with glass before 1066. Their windows were long and vertical, with a triangular arch at the top. The rest of Europe had glass windows by 1200.

Other common window materials were vellum or horn. These could keep the weather out and let a little light in.

The hearth was all important in nearly every culture. Fire is very hard to start by hand, so the hearth was kept burning year-round. This is where you cooked. This is where you ate. This is what kept your house lit at night. This is how you stayed warm in the winter.

The hearth was always placed in the middle of the main room. There were no fireplaces until the high middle ages. If your floor was made of packed earth, then the hearth was a fire-pit lined with stones. If your floor was wood then the hearth was set in a hole in the floor, or it was built of a stone box that was set on the floor.

Here is a picture of Beorn's Hall from The Hobbit, drawn by J.R.R. Tolkien.  I've taken the liberty of pointing out the various features that I've talked about so far in this blog.

Furniture was sparse. Chairs were rare, people mostly sat on stools or benches. If you sat in a chair, you were a lord or you were in a position of considerable authority. This is how the word “chairman” came to be.

Trestle tables were very common, and were used throughout the middle ages. A trestle is a stand, like a saw-horse. You take two of these and lay a long board across it, and there you have a table. To make it look nice you could throw an embroidered table cloth over it. When you need more space you can take it apart and store it somewhere else. Very practical.

As an interesting side-note, the word board originally meant a table. A “board room” is a conference room with a long table. A “board of directors” is a group of elected representatives in charge of a company. The person in charge is called the “chairman of the board”.

Another common furniture item was the chest. These came in all styles and sizes. You could store things in them, and you could use them as a bench or a stool.

There were undoubtedly shelves, but cupboards were probably not seen until later periods. People hung things from hooks that dangled from the rafters.

There is a lot of debate as to whether or not people in early medieval times owned beds. Early Germanic peoples slept together in a large hall, and for the most part they slept on blankets, furs and fleeces. The floors of most houses were strewn with rushes, which were swept out and replaced regularly. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to sleep on that.

Ultimately what you pick to put in your story is up to you.  However, the less you invent, the more authentic your setting will feel.

Here are some of the references I used for this blog. One of my favorite sites is Regia Anglorum. They have a ton of stuff about the Anglo Saxon period. Also, never underestimate Wikipedia, but make sure you get a second opinion any time you decide to use something found there.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Medieval Gems for Writers: Do Geese Make Good Guard Dogs?

Today I got an instant message from my wife while I was at work. She said “Geese make better guard dogs than…well, guard dogs.”

I landed a few well-aimed retorts for that; but then she told me a most curious tale. Apparently, it’s true!

She was citing a paper published by the Department of Archaeology, at the University of Sheffield:

The reputation that geese had for keeping a watch undoubtedly stems from a famous episode dating back to 390 BC. Apparently Rome had been taken by the Gauls, and the cackling of the geese on the Capitol awakened the Romans just in time to save the Temple of Juno from the enemies’ attack.

As a writer I appreciate any window into history I can get, especially anecdotes like geese saving the Temple of Juno. I shall certainly use that in a story, sometime.

The paper was a trove of early medieval factoids about the use of geese and ducks in Britain, starting from the time of the Romans until the Conquest in 1066. As a writer of medieval fantasy, I’m always wondering what my characters are going to have for dinner. So here you have it, the truth about Geese and Ducks in Anglo-Saxon England.


Geese were valued for many reasons. You can pluck a goose twice a year without having to slaughter it (that’s gotta hurt). The down from the breast feathers made excellent bedding, and was mixed with wool to stuff cushions and pillows.

The larger feathers were used to make quills. Anyone who has written with a quill-pen knows that they don’t last long, so monasteries undoubtedly kept a flock of geese. Aside from all this, goose is a good source of food, both for the meat and for the eggs.

Anyone who’s ever owned a goose knows what kind of noise they can make, so the idea of using them to raise the alarm when you have an intruder is very clever. There are no documented accounts of the Saxons using geese for this purpose, but the Romans were known for it. Don’t expect geese to keep robbers out, however. All you need to send them running is a heavy stick. I know that from my own experience.


As for ducks, they were looked down upon as a poor-man’s food. Apparently they’ll eat anything, and as any hunter will tell you, an animal tastes like what it eats. I’ve been told that wild duck can have a fishy flavor, which doesn’t surprise me.

The Romans had a taste for duck, but the Anglo-Saxons couldn’t stand it. In fact, ducks were often considered a public nuisance, as they flocked around public water supplies and left the ponds and river banks polluted.


I’ve never had goose, but a quick search on the internet reveals that it is all fatty dark meat and has a flavor all its own, but its taste is most similar to duck.

I’ve had duck before. The meat is very dark, and its flavor is a bit like chicken but with a very strong dark-meat taste. You can cook it rare or well done, just like beef. You can get Peking Duck at Chinese restaurants, but beware that they slice the carcass crossways—bones and all—and you’ll be picking splinters out of your teeth all night. You can get duck at any French restaurant. Make sure you get it medium or well done, as rare duck has a disturbing, gummy (albeit flavorful) texture.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Prisoners and the Hats: A Logic Puzzle

Are you ready to feed your inner geek? Let's go.

Five men are doomed to be executed by firing squad. On the night before their execution they are given a chance to spare their lives. They must follow these instructions, and if any prisoner violates the rules then all the prisoners will be shot:
  1. The prisoners will be brought to the wall, where they are to form a line, each one standing about four feet apart from the other.
  2. The prisoners will then turn to the right, so that they are standing back to front. The wall will be on their right, and the firing squad will be on their left.
  3. No prisoner may turn around to look at the prisoner behind them. If anyone turns around, everyone will be immediately shot.
  4. They are free lean sideways and see the prisoners in front of them if they like, but they must not turn around to see the prisoners behind them.
  5. No prisoner may touch the other prisoners, or all five will be immediately shot.
  6. Starting from the back of the line, the warden will place one hat upon each prisoner's head. The hat will be either white or black, based on the flip of a coin. None of the prisoners will be able to see the color of the hat that is placed on their own head. They can see the hats of the prisoners in front of them, but they must not turn around or look behind them, or all five prisoners will be shot.
  7. After all the hats have been placed, each prisoner must guess the color of their hat. The prisoners will be asked one by one, starting with prisoner 5 at the back of the line, moving forward until prisoner 1 at the front of the line has answered.
  8. When asked, each prisoner must say either "white" or "black". If the prisoner says anything else, all prisoners will be immediately shot. Each prisoner must answer right away. There will be no time to think about the answer or mull it over.
  9. They must answer in English. Prisoners may not vary the speed, pitch, emotion, accent, tone, etc. of their voice so as to convey more information than the mere color of their hat.
  10. If the warden thinks the prisoners are trying to bend the rules or quibble in any way, all the prisoners will be shot.
After all the prisoners have given their answers, those who correctly guessed the color of the hat that they are wearing will be spared and set free. The rest will be shot.

The prisoners have all night to think about their quandary. They stay awake figuring out a way so that they can pass the ordeal together and spare the most lives possible. They are allowed to talk freely among themselves, prepare their plan, and practice it until the morning.
What will they do?


  1. The prisoners all share the same cell, and are free to say whatever they want, and rehearse whatever plan they come up with.
  2. They are altruistic, and each would give his life for the other if it meant that more lives could be saved than lost.
  3. There are no mirrors at the place of execution. Just a large empty brick room with the firing squad at one end.
  4. None of the prisoners knows anything about the toss of the coin or the hat on their own head.
  5. Only the prisoners behind you know the color of your hat. Neither you nor anyone in front of you can see the color of your hat.
  6. The coin-toss is truly random. There is no pattern to who gets a white hat or who gets a black hat.

The person in the back of the line has no information to work with. His odds are at best 50/50. So whatever he says, he might as well use his chance to save the lives the rest.

One solution would be for prisoner 5 to shout the color of prisoner 4’s hat. Prisoner 4 can then be spared. This can be repeated with prisoner 3 and 2. Prisoner 1 can say whatever he wants. This solution will guarantee that at least two prisoners are spared.

There is a much better solution, which is guaranteed to save 4 lives. Pretend you are one of the prisoners. Before everyone begins, all prisoners must count the number of white hats that they see in front of them and remember that number. As each prisoner behind you calls out the color of their hat, you must add one to your total every time you hear the color “white”. When it gets to your turn, if the number in your head is even then you shout out “white”. If the number in your head is odd then you shout out “black”.

Let’s work through an example. Suppose that everyone’s hat is black. All prisoners will have a count of 0.

  1. Prisoner 5 sees 0 white hats. Since 0 is even, he shouts “white”.

  2. Prisoner 4 hears “white”, and his count becomes 1. Since 1 is odd he shouts out “black”.

  3. Prisoner 3’s count is also 1, so he shouts out “black”

  4. Prisoner 2’s count is 1, so he shouts out “black”

  5. Prisoner 1’s count always starts at zero, so he has to pay attention to what the prisoners behind him say. Since he only heard one prisoner shout “white”, his count is 1, and he shouts “black”.

Prisoner 5’s answer was wrong in this case. He dies by firing squad, but his four other mates get to walk out alive.

That seemed way too easy. Let’s do it again. Suppose that everyone’s hat is white.

  1. Prisoner 5 sees 4 white hats. That’s an even number so he shouts “white”.

  2. Prisoner 4 sees 3 white hats. He heard prisoner 5 shout white, so he adds 1, which brings his total to 4. Since 4 is even number, he also says “white”.

  3. Prisoner 3 sees 2 white hats. Both prisoner 4 and 5 said “white”, so he adds two to his number, which brings his total to four. Again, he says “white”.

  4. Prisoner 2’s total starts at 1. He adds 3, which gives him 4, so he says “white”.

  5. Prisoner 1 has been keeping careful count. He is at 4, so he says “white”.

This time prisoner 5 was correct, so they all get to live.

Still don’t believe me? Let’s alternate so that prisoner 1 is white, 2 is black, 3 is white, 4 is black, and 5 is white.


  1. Prisoner 5 counts 2 white hats. That’s even so he shouts “white”.

  2. Prisoner 4 sees 2 white hats. Since prisoner 5 said “white”, he adds one and his total is now 3. He shouts “black”.

  3. Prisoner 3 sees 1 white hat. Prisoner 5 said “white”, so his number is 2. That number is odd, so he shouts “white”.

  4. Prisoner 2 sees 1 white hat. His count is now 3, which is even so he shouts “black”.

  5. Prisoner 1 sees 0 white hats, but he’s been listening and his mental total is 2. He shouts “white”.

This system works for any combination of white and black hats, and is guaranteed to spare the lives of the first four prisoners. Prisoner 5 will never have more than a 50/50 chance.

Try some combinations for yourself.


Computers use a system of error-checking called parity whenever they have to transmit data across a wire, or store it in a memory chip. Depending on the algorithm, the receiving computer can tell if there was an error and ask for a transmission. Some algorithms will allow the receiver to figure out which bit got garbled and correct the problem. Look up “error detection and correction” on Wikipedia for more information.

For more discussion you can check out this article on Wikipedia

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Three Steps to Reveal Character: A Study of Treasure Island

I recently discovered Robert Louis Stevenson, and fell in love with Treasure Island. You might say that Stevenson was the Stephanie Meyer of the late 1800s. His work spawned a host of pirate novels, and fueled a genre that lived on for sixty years.

The story is told in first person by a young boy named Jim Hawkins, the son of a couple who owns an inn in Bristol, which is named the Admiral Benbow. As the story unfolds, the reader encounters a brilliant multi-dimensional portrayal of character that anyone could take a lesson from.

An old sea-man comes to stay at the Hawkins’s inn. He calls himself Captain Jack—not to be confused with Captain Jack Sparrow of Disney fame (we learn later that the sea-man’s name is Bill Flint). Stevenson gives this gritty description:

I remember him as if it were yesterday…a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pig-tail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat; his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the saber cut across one cheek, a dirty livid white. I remember him looking round the cove and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:

Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest,

Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

In the high, old tottering voice that seemed to have been tuned and broken at the capstan bars.

[he] called roughly for a glass of rum. This, when it was brought to him, he drank slowly, like a connoisseur, lingering on the taste, and still looking about him at the cliffs and up at our signboard.

“This is a handy cove,” says he, at length; “and a pleasant sittyated grog-shop.”

Every detail serves a double purpose

When introducing a character you want to pick details that reveal that character’s personality.

You often hear people say “show, don’t tell.” I believe a more powerful technique is to evoke. For instance, when you read “nut-brown man,” you get an image of someone who has spent a lot of time in the sun. “hands ragged and scarred, etc.” evokes a life of hard labor. I especially love “the saber cut across one cheek, a dirty livid white.” Beautifully vivid.

The introduction of this character is a critical element in the story. Treasure Island follows Joseph Campbell’s monomyth pattern (see Hero With a Thousand Faces). Captain Jack serves as the herald, whose role is to deliver the call to adventure that sweeps the hero into the story. Captain Jack’s vivid portrayal serves to paint a picture of the types of characters that Jim Hawkins is certain to encounter as the story progresses.

Have your character make an entrance

This technique doesn’t always have to be used, but it can serve to further cement a character’s disposition in the reader’s mind. The pattern usually has two steps:

  1. Have the character do something idiosyncratic, something unique to their personality.
  2. Then have them say something.

After giving a description of Captain Jack, Stevenson has him sing a little ditty, then calls for a glass of rum. He drinks it while standing in the street, then utters his highly stylized line of dialog. By the end of this introduction you’re popping with curiosity, and dying to know who this person is.

Show interactions with other characters

To add further depth, show how the other characters react. Some reactions will be positive, and others will be negative. When you show one character reacting to another, you at once shed light upon the personalities of both characters.

Young Jim Hawkins doesn’t know what to make of this sea-man. To add to the mystery, Captain Jack takes Jim aside and offers to pay him a silver four-penny each month if he will keep a “weather eye open for a seafaring man with one leg.” If Jim sees such a man, he is to let the captain know as soon as possible.

The captain behaves in an excessively paranoid fashion. The Admiral Benbow is a popular place for seafaring men to seek room and board. The captain is wary of every guest, spying upon them before allowing himself to be seen. Once he is at ease, he will be extra quiet until they check out.

After Captain Jack settles in, he begins terrorizing the guests.

There were nights when he took a deal more rum and water than his head would carry; and then he would sometimes sit and sing his wicked, old, wild sea-songs, minding nobody; but sometimes he would call for glasses round, and force all the trembling company to listen to his stories or bear a chorus to his singing. Often I have heard the house shaking with “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum,” all the neighbors joining in for dear life, with the fear of death upon them, and each singing louder than the other to avoid remark. … he would slap his hand on the table for silence all around; he would fly up in a passion of anger at a question, or sometimes because none was put, and so he judged the company was not following his story. Nor would he allow anyone to leave the inn till he had drunk himself sleepy and reeled off to bed.

…people were frightened at the time, but on looking back they rather liked it; it was a fine excitement in a quiet country life; and there was even a party of the younger men who pretended to admire him, calling him a “true sea-dog,” and a “real old salt,” and such like names, and saying there was the sort of man that made England terrible at sea.

…I remember observing the contrast the neat, bright doctor, with his power [wig] as white as snow…and pleasant manners made with the coltish country folk, and above all, with that filthy, heavy, bleared scarecrow of a pirate of ours, sitting far gone in rum, with his arms on the table. Suddenly he—the captain, that is—began to pipe up his eternal song…

All of this is woven and blended into the story as it progresses. The ultimate effect is brilliant and vivid.

In summary:

  1. Make every description do double-duty. Pick details that that reveal a character’s personality.
  2. Have your character make an entrance. Have them do something peculiar to their nature, then have them say something that reveals their mood.
  3. Portray interactions with other characters.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Learning From Online Reviews

I attneded a presentation by author J. Scott Savage titled, Using Reviews to Improve Your Writing. It was awesome. He presented a method for doing market research for potential novel ideas that you have.

Go to or, and find five books that are similar to the kind of book you’re writing. Read through as many of the reviews as you can. Here is what you’re looking for:

One-star reviews
These reviews were from people that were not the target audience. Jeff recommended that you print them out and tape them to your wall. Then when you’re feeling down you can read them and tell yourself “That book was a best-seller, and someone still hated it.” Everyone looks for something different in a book. If you haven’t disgusted a few readers then your work probably isn’t very original.

Two-star reviews.
This happens when a book didn’t quite live up to the expectations of the reader. Take a hard look and ask yourself if anything in this review applies to your own work. Ask yourself if there isn’t something you can do better, some new twist you can try.

Three-star reviews.
These reviews tend to be the most useful, because they come squarely from the target audience (especially true if the book is the first in a series). Pay attention to what these readers liked. Pay attention to what they didn’t like. Look for trends, and make sure you don’t follow the same mistakes that the author made. Emphasize in your work the things that these readers praised.

Four-star reviews
For most people this means that they liked the book a lot. You’ll get good info here, too.

Five-star reviews
Mom, is that you?

The series effect

Here is another exercise you can do to understand what your readers are looking for. To illustrate, go to Amazon and take a look at the Recluse series, by author L. E. Modesitt Jr. Here is an analysis of the first five books in the series (there are currently 16).

  1. The Magic of Recluse: 131 reviews, 3.5 stars. Very few people are in the middle. Most reviewers either liked it or hated it.

  2. The Towers of the Sunset: 49 reviews, 3.5 stars. The trend is sort of flat, with an even distribution of likes and dislikes.

  3. The Magic Engineer: 40 reviews, 3.5 stars. By this time the positive reviews are definitely more numerous than the negative reviews.

  4. The Order War: 18 reviews, 3.5 stars. Trend is similar to book 3. People are beginning to comment how the writing has improved.

  5. The Death of Chaos: 20 reviews, 4 stars. The trend is definitely positive. Very few negative reviews.

Did you notice that each successive book gets fewer and fewer reviews?

The first book in a series is always going to have lower reviews because it’s the one that everyone reads. The author is going to get a mix of people who liked it and people who detested it. Those who didn’t like book 1 will not buy book 2, so when book 2 comes out there will be fewer reviews but more of them will be positive. This trend will continue as the series progresses until book 5 when you see only a handful of reviewers, and they are overwhelmingly positive.

In short, only fans review the later books in a series. By this time the author has established themselves with their target audience. Pay close attention to what the reviewers praise. There will still be bad reviews. These are from fans who got let down. What didn’t they like?

As you write your own stories, keep in mind that book 1 is your most important work. This is the vehicle for introducing your writing to new readers. It will always sell the most copies. Some people will love it and some will despise it. Don't try to please everyone. Know your target audience, and write specifically for them. Your later books will always get better reviews.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

eBooks-A Good Way to Get Published?

I got a huge, huge pick-up from this year’s Life, the Universe, and Everything symposium. There’s always a class or two that I find worth it to go and see. This year was like a second Christmas. I focused mostly on the classes about ePublishing, and self-promotion.

This was by far the most sanguine panel I went to. At the start of this panel I was about 60% sold on the idea of ePublishing. By the end of this panel I was 90% sold. The important thing to remember is that there isn’t just one thing that brings in sales. It’s a combination of many things. One of the panelists used this analogy of using a hammer to pound invisible nails. You don’t know where to hit, and the best thing to do is start swinging.

Here is a short list of things that you should try. Each one of these is a discussion in and of itself, so if you want more information, copy and paste the item into Google:

  1. Amazon KDP Select.

  2. Smashwords.

  3. Blog Reviews

  4. Book Bombs

  5. Try to get at least three reviews on Amazon

  6. Book Trailers

Above all, make sure you keep writing. You have to learn to split your time evenly between writing and promoting. What is a good percentage? There isn’t one. Set goals. Make a resolution to produce one new novel as often as you feel comfortable, and to keep an active presence in the Internet. The important thing is consistency.
Some things to beware of:

  1. Don’t ePublish until you have at least three books to put up. Why? Because having more stuff gives the impression of credibility. Content is king, and it gives people a reason to come back to your website again and again.

  2. Space your releases about three to four months apart. If you have more books, put a “coming soon” notice so that your readers will be reminded to check back.

  3. Don’t let people hijack your schedule. It’s easy to get stuck waiting for artists, beta-readers, and others hold you back. If you know your work is ready to go, then go. The nice thing about ePublishing is that you can change things if you need to.

I’ve been skeptical about ePublishing, but now I’m completely sold for three very important reasons:

  1. Amazon and Smashwords are the new slush pile. Publishers are not the least bit picky about picking up a self-published author who has a proven track record for success. The only people who look down on ePublishing are other authors.

  2. The skills required for promoting your work are identical whether you are self-published or commercially published. It’s a huge win with publishers if you have an established following.

  3. It’s just so easy. The tools are all there, and there is no risk to you. If you stick with it until you’ve obtained a measure of success, it will eventually lead to a publishing contract.

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter. My username is @TWAbbottJr. If you have a blog and something you want to say, this is a great way to get out the word. Follow me and I'll follow you.