“Thanks, Mr. L”

Robert Ferrigno’s one of my favourite thriller writers, and I wish the library carried more of his books. Here’s his tribute to the late, great Elmore Leonard, who passed away last month:

http://nationalreview.com/article/356661/thanks-mr-l-robert-ferrigno

Easy advice, but hard to put into practice, and even harder to sustain. But it gave Ferrigno the boost he needed, and I can’t help but try to follow it myself.

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How Zombies Saved My Training

I’m writing this after my first 5k run in forever.

Now I’m not ashamed to admit this — when it comes to endurance, sometimes my mind needs pushing more than my body does. Freediving has driven the point home, so in preparation for a big event I’m ratcheting the cardio up a notch.

And now it seems I’ve found an ally: the audio adventure/music player Zombies, Run! Instead of explaining it, I’ll just link to the developers, who explain it here:

But what appeals to me about Zombies, Run! is not just the mental occupation, but the combination of a gripping story and characters you actually grow to care about with actual, real-world utility. Naomi Alderman’s writing is beginning to grow on me, and the voice actors do a great job in fleshing out the characters’ decisiveness, hesitation and regret without any visuals. It’s amazing how much developers Six to Start have accomplished with far fewer resources than big-name studios, and there’s a clear lesson here — it’s participation, immersion and relevance that make quality narratives.

I think I’ve just found a great place to feed both my inner reader and athlete, and it’s been one bright spot in a very dark week. So as the distance grows, so will the benefits … and the immersion into a story that’s got me hooked enough to keep going, but disengaged enough not to come back on rest days.

Zombies, Run! is a testament to the power of creativity; it’s not often such a great — and useful — take on the undead comes out. So check it out on the Play Store, plug yourself in and go.

Of course, the real world is still there. Watch out for vehicles.

The Admirals – a quick workshop on non-fiction openings

I’ve always been a history buff. From the age of seven I devoured the old ChildCraft encyclopaedias, then I moved on to a History textbook in lower secondary that I read cover to cover even before the school term opened.

The result has been a working knowledge of Western history from ancient times and Southeast Asia from modern, which I’m still adding to every day I can. (For my favourite reads now, check out the Goodreads feed on the sidebar.)

So I was at the library one evening when I spotted a book on four great leaders of the US Navy in World War 2:

The Admirals book cover

Historian Walter Borneman’s The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy and King — The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea was about a topic I hadn’t been much interested in before — the personalities behind the US Navy’s victories in the war at sea and how such vastly different men worked together, rather than the fighting crews that won them their victories.

But like a good work of non-fiction, it intrigued me enough to take a second look. So I cracked it open and read the Preface … and the next thing I knew, it was two hours later and the library was about to close.

I’m going to share what I learned about compelling beginnings from the very first part of The Admirals, and how you too can turn the neutral reader into a fascinated receiver of the stories you will soon put into his head. Continue reading

“We’re all the hero of our own story.”

I largely heard about this news story from my Facebook feed. Apparently, at least three secondary school girls participated in a cancer charity’s fundraising drive, called Hair for Hope — where people raise money and have their locks shorn off, like army recruits at Basic Military Training. The principal of their school ordered them to wear wigs, touching off an online firestorm.

Anyway, this story is more complicated than it looks on the surface — there are at least two sides to it, and enough bytes have been used commenting on them. Instead, I’ll focus on the writing lesson to draw:

We’re all the hero of our own story.

Jim Butcher, The Dresden Files: Turn Coat

Here be conflict. But while the principal is being painted as the villain of the piece, the fact remains that no character in a conflict does ‘good’ or ‘bad’ things simply because they’re nasty or evil. Rather, they each have aims that make perfect sense to them, and the conflict comes because those aims clash.

In schools, it can be sending a message versus obedience to school rules. In war, peace with honour versus pacification at any cost. In life, staying true to yourself versus gaining a temporary advantage.

So even if a character is clearly placed in your mind as a villain, be sure to give him or her a goal the audience can relate to, even if they don’t necessarily share that goal. You might disagree with the principal’s stance on bald heads in girls’ schools.

But strong audience understanding will raise the stakes, build jeopardy and make characters, good or bad, more three-dimensional and relatable — even if we don’t for a moment want them to win.

Gunslinger: Myth, Fact or Both?

I’ve always enjoyed Robert Rath’s writing. Agree with him or not, he nails the issue in a way no one else can.

Here’s his take on the narrative of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, a game so low-priced but thrilling, it honestly felt like we’d stolen it. Check Rath’s essay out here:

http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/columns/criticalintel/10486-History-and-Legend-in-Call-of-Juarez-Gunslinger

The man was a visionary.

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

George Orwell, ‘Politics and the English Language

Well, better than than never. It turns out the British government has finally turned on to a fact known to readers of Orwell for years — that language itself can be twisted or just plain allowed to obscure, rather than clearly communicate ideas.

The whole essay should be required reading for anyone in academia, politics or business. Do yourself and your writing a favour by reading it … and then you’ll know what your narrator, fiction or non, is not supposed to sound like.

And of course, what your bureaucrats are supposed to sound like if your story goes that way. It worked for Yes, Prime Minister, didn’t it?

When Not to Follow Your Heart

Short answer: where submissions are concerned, or if you’re interested in getting published at all. Follow the lead of your emotions all you want early on, but know when to discard them; readers can’t read your mind, only your words.

On first drafts it’s okay to let it all out. Put it this way: first drafts are like imitating Richard Marx at a karaoke lounge. Submissions are like auditioning for American Idol.

Ernest Hemingway put it very well: “The first draft of everything is shit.” In other words, it’s perfectly fine if your first draft is bad — in fact, many authors discourage critiquing that first draft as you write it. Accusing your first effort at crafting a novel-length story or book of being substandard is like accusing your DNA of being slightly acidic (it is).

In fact, the folks at Nanowrimo (a competition where you pump out a 50,000-word novel over the month of November) specifically designed the competition so, if you keep to the 1,667-words per day output the challenge demands, you won’t have time to do that. Continue reading

4 Lessons from Captain ‘Som Ting Wong’

“This is one of the more incredible stories you’ll read about journalistic malpractice and government stupidity and ineptitude.” Rick Moran, ‘What’s in a Name? Ask Captain Som Ting Wong’

The incident does have some teachable moments:

  1. Faster is not always better. In an age where news networks and reporters race to ‘scoop’ each other, there’re bound to be slip-ups. Not every error is as obvious as this one, but did nobody even take the time to read the names out? Even government bureaus are made of human beings, with the capacity to lie, forget and yes, troll.
  2. Google is your friend. According to Moran, the names of the aircrew had already been released, and if someone had actually taken a minute to verify, the whole thing could have been avoided.
  3. Snopes is an even better one. Got a juicy story in your inbox? Don’t hit Forward till you’ve checked here: http://www.snopes.com. I’ve read books where the author passed on an urban legend — like so and so had committed suicide when he was still very much alive. It’s not directly related, but the attitude we need is the same — always verify.
  4. If you’re not sure, check. If you’re sure, double check. Always assume that when you write out a fact, someone will check you up on it.

The truth is that editors and proofreaders can’t check everything, and besides, it’s YOUR name on the cover, not ours. Make sure readers can trust what you pass off as actual, living history. There’s always time to verify the ‘facts’ appearing in your work, and a single error can leave Som Ting really Wong with your reputation that you may never fix.