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Fictional Details: Timing and Chronology

Approaching the halfway mark in the first draft of my work in progress, all I want to do is forge ahead, laying down the road — or trail, or path — to the climax and conclusion, in which the big, important themes that are the whole point of the thing will shine and resonate in the brain of the delighted reader. Clanging gongs and fireworks, that’s what I’m aiming for.

So why am I agonizing over whether something happened yesterday or the day before? Or how long it takes to get from point A to point B? Wouldn’t that dinner last a lot longer than the conversation that was its entire purpose? And aren’t those characters having way too many drinks in too a short time? At this rate, they’ll be incapable of the action scene that follows.

Why agonize over these details? Because it matters, damn it! If to only one reader, or only to me, the author.

Especially in genres such as mystery and thriller, but even in semi-literary, quasi-supernatural, adventure-type opuses such as the one I’m working on, it’s necessary to pay attention to matters of timing and chronology.

Consider, for example, the word “minute,” meaning sixty seconds. People use it all the time in conversation with no expectation of accuracy. “I’ll just be a minute,” you say, when you know darned well it will be ten. Or, “It was here a minute ago,” when it was actually five seconds. That’s okay. But when a narrator uses that word, as in, “He stood staring at me for a minute without speaking,” just visualize it, and count those seconds. A minute is actually a long time. If someone stood silent and staring for an actual minute, you would be asking them if they were okay, and maybe calling 911. “Moment,” “second,” or “instant” are much better words here.

At some point before pressing that “Publish” button, a read-through for timing and continuity issues is definitely in order, either by the author or an attentive beta reader.

When I’m reading someone else’s book, I don’t look for stuff like this. I’m fine unless things seem seriously out of whack, such as going from July to Christmas in the turn of a page, or a if a character without supernatural abilities whips up a five-course dinner in half an hour. Readers give writers a kind of license about chronological details if they can follow the plot. But they do matter to me, the writer, as a matter of principle. When I’m working out plot details, I need to know that when I begin a paragraph with, “The next morning … ” the one after it doesn’t make a sudden jump into the following week.

Which is why I’m wrestling with moon phases, distances in and near Luxor, Egypt, the steps involved in launching a hot air balloon, and the chronology of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Trust me, it will all make sense when I’m done. With luck, that might even be in the present decade.

balloons luxor

Image courtesy of Pixabay

open books, grass

Summer Reading Roundup

I’ve been catching up on a virtual TBR pile of ebooks I acquired in the past couple of years — most (but not all) from Smashwords, and mainly during Read An Ebook Week and Summer/Winter Sale events. Many of them were free.

Free ebooks are considered problematic by many. Rumor has it they are picked up by persons deficient in morals whose purpose is simply to amass hundreds of ebooks — electronic hoarders, in effect. And, rumor adds, these books are never read. Indie authors are advised never to give away their books for free (except as part of KDP Select’s five free days, of course. Oh, and Goodreads giveaways, in which case you give someone a free print copy, and often pay for shipping it to them).

End of digression. Now, where was I? Oh yes — free ebooks. I have deliberately acquired quite a few, mainly from Smashwords. And I have read most of them. One thing I’ve found, though — it’s really easy to forget ebooks, free or otherwise. Unless I download and start reading an ebook right after I buy it, it disappears into the universe of electronic blips that live in my computer. Unlike physical books that accumulate to form tottering piles on the bedside table (or the floor), ebooks easily vanish from sight. And you know what happens then.

Anticipating summer reading time, I had a look through a file called My Digital Editions. I was happily shocked to find half a dozen titles I had completely forgotten about, sitting there unread. I copied them to my e-reader (yes, I still have one of those) and proceeded to read.

Here are my impressions of some of those ebooks. These aren’t in-depth reviews, just superficial observations. The titles are listed in the order I began reading.

 

The Crime Cafe 9 Book Set. A boxed set of nine stories by crime fiction writers featured on the Crime Cafe podcast with bonus interviews!

A perfect accompaniment for a long flight, bus ride, or any situation that may involve lengthy waits. These books were originally published some years ago, but are still worthy of attention. Hard boiled to cozy mystery, novel to novella-length crime fiction by nine different authors. Quality ranges from okay to excellent.

In No Particular Order: a memoir / by Kevin Brennan. It’s true that life is linear, but the living of it is all over the map. In this memoir-in-vignettes, novelist Kevin Brennan (Parts Unknown, Yesterday Road) examines his life the way memories occur in the wild: in no particular order. Whether it’s recalling high school humiliations, ups and downs in love and romance, or unique interactions with the human race at home and abroad, Brennan both entertains and moves the reader with moments of unexpected poignancy and full-tilt humor. In No Particular Order is a deconstructed memoir, like no other because it looks at life as it really is — a kaleidoscope of individual moments.

Plucked from Kevin Brennan’s blog, this bouquet of vignettes and anecdotes presents a poignant picture of growing up and coming of age in the America of the 1960s through to the new millennium. These are thin but tasty slices of life to be savoured anytime. After reading, I find myself thinking, “Yeah!” or, “Oh!” or, “Hmm.”

The Man Who Found Birds Among the Stars, Part One: Eagle Ascendant / by Lorinda J. Taylor. Robbin Haysus Nikalishin was born on 31 October 2729 and became the first starship Captain to make contact with extraterrestrials. This book recounts the early life of this man who became one of Earth’s greatest heroes. All heroes are human beings and all human beings are flawed, and the man the Earth will come to know as “Capt. Robbie” was a very human man.

Combining hard SF with a coming-of-age story, this is an engrossing read. The future society in which the book is set is methodically constructed and fascinating. The fictional science sounded plausible to me. Step by step, the story builds to a gripping climax, ending with an irresistible situation that compels one to read Part Two.

The Man Who Found Birds Among the Stars, Part Two: Wounded Eagle / by Lorinda J. Taylor. In this second part of Capt. Robbin Nikalishin’s biography, the responsibility for the space disaster in Part One is determined and Prf. Eiginsh’s mystifying behavior is explained, while the Captain attempts to recover from the devastating aftereffects of the disaster. The resolution is bittersweet; will the Captain ever become capable of coping fully with the damage that was done to him? 

Exploring the causes and consequences of the catastrophe that ends Part One, this book is slower but equally interesting. Less technology and more psychology than the first volume.

Awful, Ohio / by Sirloin Furr. Troy Slushy’s exposure to his life-decimating job, depressed wife, and crumbling home encourage his desire for a life in perpetual darkness. It becomes his objective to destroy the bright, menacing beast that removes him from the ecstasy of his dreams, only to expose him to all of these worthless possessions. Troy Slushy declares that his mission is to destroy the sun.

A modern allegory? Experimental fiction? The author has forged a unique monstrosity, beating words into new shapes and meanings. I had to take a break at the halfway point to reset my brain.

A Long Night in Hell / by Jack Stornoway. The ride down the elevator to Agni Mining Station was like a ride into Hell itself. On a planet where you could never quite get warm enough, it quickly became uncomfortably warm, then uncomfortably hot. G. Drew Akers had been in deep mines before, he’d worked in one for two years in Hussy Crater in his early twenties.

This 10K-word story is categorized as science fiction, but the main character is a detective investigating a murder in a mining colony deep below the surface of Mars. Sadly, the tale does not live up to its intriguing setting.

Out of Focus / by Susan Egner. Morgan Grey photographs a prowler at her home 24 hours after her airline pilot-husband’s death. Picking up the pieces of her life, she debuts her photographic talents and features the unusual eyes of the prowler, setting off unforeseen events exposing her husband’s double life. The illusion of a perfect life gives way to the reality of a gifted artist’s celebrity—a life no longer out of focus.

A thriller of the “woman discovers her husband’s secrets after his death” type. Strangely, the reader is informed of the secrets early in the book, so the main question for the reader is when and how Morgan will discover them. Details about flying commercial airplanes, shooting photographs and processing film are interesting, and there are some suspenseful episodes, but the ending is rushed and unsatisfying. Includes a collection of metaphors and similes used to describe Morgan’s green eyes.

Baiting & Fishing / by Meredith Rae Morgan. A newspaper reporter investigates the circumstances of a corporate scandal, and finds the woman of his dreams. Is she his perfect match or a murderess? Is he a heel or a hero?

Middle-aged reporter Ray Bailey is easy to like and sympathize with, as what starts out a potential big story turns into a charming romance. The vanishing lifestyle of Gulf Coast Florida is a big feature of this book — especially fishing, eating fish, and more fishing. Turns out Ray’s mystery woman is a whiz at fishing, and really rich, and great-looking. And a bunch of other things as well, some of them not so good. Kept me reading, and wondering.

The Eternal Librarian / by Meyari McFarland. When humanity went to the stars they took many things with them. Brencis ensured that they took the books. Unfortunately, humanity also took along their greed, their blindness and their short-sighted focus on all the wrong things. The Eternal Librarian is a touching exploration of human nature, determination and the love of learning that is dedicated to librarians and book lovers everywhere.

Well, the description pretty much sums it up. A short story with a sincere message.

 

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

 

 

setting sun through wildfire smoke, maple tree

Strange Days

The south coast of British Columbia is in the middle of a heat wave. High temperatures are in or near the 30s (degrees C; 85 to 100 F), but more than that, easterly winds have brought a haze of smoke from fires in the interior.

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The light has a strange coppery hue. As it rises and sets, the sun is blood red, and the moon is a rich gold colour even when high in the sky. Parts of the garden are on life support delivered by hose and watering can, and some plants are doing peculiar things.

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The foliage of this columbine plant has turned a dark purple, almost black.

Having an afternoon sleep (siesta?) is the thing to do, but on getting up I feel weirdly disconnected. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear chanting from somewhere in the neighbourhood, or to meet a small dragon in the woods. It’s as though some unknown prophecy is manifesting. And in those days the sun was the colour of blood, and fires sprang up, and strange beasts roamed the land…

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All this is fancy, of course. People close to the fire zones, who have been evacuated or lost property to the fires, are living the grim reality.

We’ll all welcome cooler temperatures — and rain.

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view from Marine Sciences Centre, Bamfield BC

Bamfield Revisited

Two years ago, I wrote a post about a visit to the town of Bamfield, British Columbia, to attend two concerts of that year’s Music By The Sea festival.

I just got back from this year’s MBTS, having attended three concerts and spent more time exploring this unique community on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Highlights for me included the Sunday matinee concert, which featured chamber music by Brahms and Smetana performed by some excellent young musicians. I was sharper and more attentive than the previous evening, after the four hour boat trip down the Alberni Inlet. The clear light of noon in the superlative performance space made this matinee concert a treat for both eyes and ears. Evening concerts are enhanced by sunsets that create a magnificent backdrop behind the performers.

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Rix Centre for Ocean Discoveries at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre

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The view from the Rix Centre’s balcony.

Other highlights included visits to Brady’s Beach near Bamfield, and Pachena Beach, several kilometres away.

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Brady’s Beach on a perfect July day.

Then there were the Gunneras…

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A huge patch of huge plants — the Gunneras that might eat Bamfield?

I’m not sure which species these are, Gunnera manicata or G. tinctoria, but it doesn’t really matter. Apparently they can become invasive, which is a scary thought.

Sadly, the calls of the Swainson’s thrushes, which so entranced me in 2015, were not as evident this time. Apparently, these birds have a short breeding season, and Music By The Sea 2015 was held in early July, so it may be this year the thrushes were mostly finished with the singing which is used by males to claim territory. I hope their numbers haven’t declined; they migrate to South America for the winter, flying by night, so may be killed by collisions with windows, radio and cell-phone towers, and tall buildings. It would be unfortunate if these little singers disappeared from a place that celebrates music every year.

 

planning, yellow pencil, paper

The Ultimate Spoiler

When talking about books, or writing book reviews, the spoiler is a definite no-no. Revealing plot twists or a book’s ending to those who haven’t read it spoils the experience to the point they may decide not to bother.

Plot-driven fiction is way more susceptible to spoilers than so-called “literary” fiction, which depends less on revelations than on artful use of language. It’s the difference between rushing to a destination and stopping to view the scenery along the way.

As a book’s author, I have a special relationship with the book. In a way, for me, it’s already spoiled, unless I were totally “pantsing” it — writing by feel, without any outline or plan at all. And even that applies only to the first draft. Once I start revising or rewriting, I know how it all works out.

When you think about this, it’s amazing any book at all has a tension-filled plot or a surprise ending. Knowing how the story will end makes it hard to create an atmosphere of peril for the characters. It’s too easy to slip into a relaxed tone and pace, like going to a familiar place down a well-worn path.

How does the writer create tension and suspense for the reader? By calling on the brute force of imagination, dancing around the scenes being plotted, seeing them from all sides at once.  Then skewing the view, applying disguises, drawing scrims over crucial details.

Writers have to read their works like readers do, be aware of the expectations they are creating, and either fulfill them or jerk them away and deliver something totally unexpected. Even though they already know the ending.

No wonder writing — the initial act of creation — is so hard!

This is why I personally don’t favour strict outlining or detailed planning. I need to have a specific ending in mind, but I don’t really know how I’m going to get there. When I sit down to write another chapter, I have a list called Things That Must Happen, but quite often, some of them don’t, and unexpected ones do.

Having wiggle room in the plot gives my characters chances to do the opposite of what I thought they might, to try and fail before they arrive at the destinations I have in mind for them, and for me to experience a surprise or two, just like I hope my readers will.

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Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.

 

 

clock mechanism plus numbers

Optimal Order: Reading the Herbert West Series

 

When I wrote the four books that make up the Herbert West Series, I intended them to work as stand-alone novels. And they do, sort of, but to fully appreciate the second through fourth books, it’s really helpful to have read the first one.

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To complicate things, I also wrote and published four Supplements to the series, short stories that fit within or between the four books.

The first book of the series, The Friendship of Mortals, and all four Supplements, are available as free downloads. More information here.

From July 1st to 31st, Books 2, 3, and 4 of the series will be available at 50% off the regular prices, at the Smashwords store only, as part of the Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale.

For readers new to the series, here is the optimal order in which to read the books and supplements:

  • Book 1, The Friendship of Mortals
  • Supplement 1, The Nexus : a portal to the Herbert West Series
  • Supplement 2, From the Annexe : an untold tale
  • Book 2, Islands of the Gulf Volume 1, The Journey
  • Book 3, Islands of the Gulf Volume 2, The Treasure
  • Supplement 3, A Visit to Luxor
  • Supplement 4, One of the Fourteen
  • Book 4, Hunting the Phoenix.

 

In whatever order a reader may wish to read, it’s best to save Book 4, Hunting the Phoenix, for the end — well, because it’s the end.

Herbert West Series Composite

HW Series Supps Composite

 

 

 

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay, enhanced with Canva.

 

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Smashwords Survey 2017

Once again, Smashwords CEO Mark Coker has crunched the numbers and shared them with indie authors.

Find the complete results here.

 

And get ready to go ebook bargain hunting. The Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale starts July 1st!

Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale 2016

Books 2, 3 and 4 of the Herbert West Series will be available at half price.

Crescent Moon

The Moon Over Luxor

For my current work in progress, the phases of the moon at Luxor, Egypt, in the autumn of 1962 are a moderately significant plot factor. I could have ignored facts and written the moon to suit my plot, but that didn’t feel right. For sure, once the book is published, someone will point out the inconvenient facts. So — research required. Thanks to the Internet, I found this:

Moon Phases for Luxor, Egypt in 1962

Lunation New Moon First Quarter Full Moon Third Quarter Duration
483 Jan 6 2:35 pm Jan 13 7:01 am Jan 20 8:16 pm Jan 29 1:36 am 29d 11h 35m
484 Feb 5 2:09 am Feb 11 5:42 pm Feb 19 3:17 pm Feb 27 5:49 pm 29d 10h 21m
485 Mar 6 12:30 pm Mar 13 6:38 am Mar 21 9:55 am Mar 29 6:10 am 29d 9h 14m
486 Apr 4 9:44 pm Apr 11 9:50 pm Apr 20 2:33 am Apr 27 2:58 pm 29d 8h 40m
487 May 4 7:24 am May 11 3:44 pm May 19 5:31 pm May 26 10:05 pm 29d 9h 02m
488 Jun 2 4:26 pm Jun 10 9:21 am Jun 18 5:02 am Jun 25 2:42 am 29d 10h 25m
489 Jul 2 2:52 am Jul 10 2:39 am Jul 17 2:40 pm Jul 24 7:18 am 29d 12h 31m
490 Jul 31 3:23 pm Aug 8 6:54 pm Aug 15 11:09 pm Aug 22 1:26 pm 29d 14h 45m
491 Aug 30 6:08 am Sep 7 9:44 am Sep 14 7:11 am Sep 20 10:35 pm 29d 16h 30m
492 Sep 28 10:39 pm Oct 6 9:54 pm Oct 13 2:32 pm Oct 20 10:47 am 29d 17h 25m
493 Oct 28 3:04 pm Nov 5 9:14 am Nov 12 12:03 am Nov 19 4:09 am 29d 17h 25m
494 Nov 27 8:29 am Dec 4 6:47 pm Dec 11 11:27 am Dec 19 12:42 am 29d 16h 29m
495 Dec 27 12:58 am 29d 14h 43m
* All times are local time for Cairo. Time is adjusted for DST when applicable. Dates are based on the Gregorian calendar.

Cool, eh?

Dates of moon phases for almost anywhere in any year may be found here.

Yet another example of obscure info needed by writers. How did we ever manage before the Internet? Libraries, librarians, and reference books — remember them?

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

 

Friends or Enemies? No, Just Plants.

“Peach-Leaf Bellflower, Garden Enemy #2” is one of my most-viewed posts. It was written in a fit of pique after I stabbed a hyacinth bulb while engaged in a heavy session of digging up peach-leaved bellflower (Campanula persicifolia) that had spread by runnng roots. I have since relented in my harsh judgement of that plant.

Partly it’s because I’ve decided there are plants even more apt to spread and harder to control. To wit: Oregon grape, snowberry, periwinkle (both Vinca major and V. minor), achillea, bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum), and certain daylilies. I’ve fought more desperate battles with these than I ever waged against the bellflower (which is rather attractive just now, in its first flush of bloom).

It’s dumb of gardeners to blame plants for being themselves, bestowing upon them unkind epithets such as “thug” or “garden enemy.” (Not that the plants give a damn). I’m the one who decided to plant peach-leaved bellflower, Oregon grape, and snowberry in my garden, thinking them good choices because they are drought-tolerant, or native species, or both. Thing is, they succeed in our local conditions precisely because of their deep-rooting, runner-producing tendencies.

A recent reading of Noel Kingsbury’s excellent book, Garden Flora, gave me a new perspective on this — grouping or classifying plants by ecological habit, as well as by habitat or anatomy.

In looking at the longevity and persistence of plants, some are called “clonal” and others “non-clonal.” The first group includes those that spread by rhizomes, roots or stolons, and others that stay in one place but increase in size. Non-clonal plants are generally short-lived, but produce lots of seeds to ensure persistence. Both types are represented in my garden. The spreaders and seeders are the ones that give me grief, and on the whole, the seeders are easier to deal with. Deadheading is a lot easier than digging up Mahonia roots, let me tell you.

Kingsbury says the non-clonal plants tend to be pioneers, moving into an area and flourishing briefly, only to be supplanted by clonal competitors, whose roots, whether running or expanding in place, allow them to dominate their environment.

Learning about the science of things is a good antidote to the human tendency to personify. Plants don’t run or produce zillions of seeds just to bug gardeners, but as a survival technique. If gardeners were aware of these habits before they introduced plants to their precious patches of earth, much physical exertion and gnashing of teeth could be avoided, or at least minimized.

It would be helpful if writers of advice for gardeners included this aspect of plant performance in their writings. I’m sure if I had read something like “this is a tough, drought-resisting native plant, but gardeners should be aware that it spreads vigorously in conditions that meet its needs,” I would have avoided some plants, and situated others more carefully.

Beguiled by fervid descriptions of a plant’s flower colour, reliability, or the fact that it’s a native adapted to local conditions, I have rushed out, bought one or more, and installed them in my small patch of land. They took hold and flourished. Fast-forward a few years to see me whine and swear at colonizing shoots metres away from the original plant, often in the middle of some pampered darling that’s trying to make up its mind as to whether life is worth living. By this time, of course, the original plant has grown large enough that removing it would be a major project of the back-breaking variety.

The gardener mutters and swears. The clonal plant clones. The planet rotates. The gardener digs, chops, mutters, and swears.

Innocents, take note!

June 11, 2016

The Hori-hori Knife — essential weapon for battling suckers.