Monday, October 24, 2016

Editing For Exposition

    When it comes to writing, if there’s one thing I've noticed that really separates the novices from the pros, it’s probably the use of exposition. Novice writers tend to explain each and every little detail, inserting plenty of adjectives and adverbs to be sure the reader doesn’t miss a beat. The result is “fluffy” writing, where much is superfluous and just begging for the editor’s DELETE key. In a way, it’s kind of like someone delivering the punchline of a joke and then immediately nudging you in the ribs.
    Haha! You get it? It’s funny because…
    Yeah, we get it. It’s funny. Or at least it was funny.
    Too much exposition in a story has the same effect on readers. They don’t want all the details; they don’t need them. They just need the story. Whatever isn’t story shouldn’t be there. Good writing simply conveys the essential elements and leaves the rest to the reader’s imagination. Let them figure out what color the protagonist’s hair is, or whether your villain said something ‘maniacally’ or ‘vengefully’. So much of this is excess.
    This isn’t to say I’m an expert writer by any means, and I’m certainly guilty of this exact thing in my writing. But I am improving! The key is editing. During the composition of the second and third drafts, I labor over each and every word. Does it need to be there? Can the verb+adverb combo be replaced by a better verb? (Instead of “said angrily”, can I use “fumed”, “spat” or possibly “hissed”?) Can several words be condensed into one? Do I need to say (“He bent over to inspect the sidewalk” or can it just be “He inspected the sidewalk closely”?)
    Editing is tireless work, but it’s got to be done and the results are worth it. Check out this excerpt from an early draft of The Unrighteous.

“I can’t believe we’ve been on this plane for over nine hours,” Naomi said, looking over her shoulder at her husband. Charlie returned a neutral expression.  His mouth opened slightly as if to say something, but he thought better of it.
    “Don’t worry, it’ll be over soon,” He finally said positively, removing a highlighter from his lapel pocket and underlining something.
    Naomi glared at her husband. “Ugh. I just really want to land. I don’t know how you stand it,” she sighed.
    Charlie shrugged distractedly. “I dunno. I guess I never really minded flying. It helps clear my mind I guess. It helps that I’ve got something to occupy myself with, too. You didn’t bring anything to read?”
    Naomi let out a soft groan. “I don’t feel like reading. How are you not worried?” She complained.
    “What makes you think I’m not worried? I’m worried,” Charlie said.
    “You don’t look it. Reading books, napping. I can barely think of anything else.”
    “Naomi, everything will be fine,” Charlie said reassuringly. He tried to put his arm around her but changed his mind, discovering that the headrests formed an awkward barrier between their seats...

   The passage above is a good start. There are some important unspoken cues given by both Charlie and Naomi to suggest their differing moods and personalities. Charlie is content studying his book while his wife yearns for his acknowledgment of her discomfort. The problem is all those verbs and adverbs. Ok, sure, we see her impatience and frustration in  “groaned”, “glared”, “complained”, “sighed”, and the adverbs “distractedly”, “positively”, and “reassuringly” help show that Charlie isn't engaged. But do these words really need to be there? Can the reader infer any of this without the exposition?
    Let's see...

“I can’t believe we’ve been in the air for over nine hours,” Naomi said. Charlie wore a neutral expression.  His mouth opened slightly, then closed again.
    “It’ll be over soon,” He said, removing a highlighter from his lapel pocket and underlining something.
    Naomi glared at her husband. “I just really want to land. I don’t know how you stand it.”
    Charlie shrugged. “I dunno. Never really minded flying. Helps clear my mind I guess. It helps that I’ve got something to occupy myself with, too. You didn’t bring anything to read?”
    Naomi let out a soft groan. “I don’t feel like reading. How are you not worried?”
    “What makes you think I’m not worried? I’m worried.”
    “You don’t look it. Reading books, napping. I can barely think of anything else.”
    “Naomi, everything will be fine,” Charlie tried to put his arm around her but changed his mind, discovering that the headrests formed an awkward barrier between their seats.

   Much better, no? The dialogue still works without a lot of the previous verbs and adverbs. Instead of directly saying that Charlie is distracted, I can imply it by having him speak in short, clipped sentences. His mind is elsewhere; he’s not giving his wife his full attention. And really, do we need the words “complained”, “sighed”, "positively" and "reassuringly"? Isn’t that obvious from what’s being said?
    Notably, the second version has nearly forty words fewer than the first. But I think that’s part of what makes it better. After all, less is more. Cut the excess!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Music for writer’s block

It’s a scary thing, writer’s block. It’s like… the doldrums. There you are, the captain of your story, enjoying the wind in your sails as your novel just breezes along, adding a few thousand words each day to your hefty first draft, when suddenly the air is still. Inspiration is gone. The novel stuck. Not knowing what comes next in your own story can be frustrating, disheartening, and a bit like quicksand–the longer you do nothing, the harder it is to get out.

In the fifteen-month process of writing Critical Times, there were more than a few times where I’d go several weeks to a month without adding even a single word to the first draft. Then there were the numerous other times where I’d open the file just to be perplexed by the current scene, unsure what ought to happen next. Although I had some idea of how I wanted things to play out in the final half of the book, what I actually wrote in the final draft bears almost no resemblance to that original concept. As I’ve said before, I write better this way, not being too meticulous about plotting but rather letting things happen organically as the characters deal with the situations that arise.

This is why I found music so helpful. I’ve said before that I work visually, and I mean that in the most literal way possible. I see the characters and the lighting and the weather and try to frame the shot as a director for a movie might. Then it’s lights camera action and I’m transcribing what I see as it unfolds. And apart from what I’m seeing, I’m also taking cues from what I hear. What’s the soundtrack for this scene? Do I hear the high, tense wail of violins to suggest impending danger, or a low, rhythmic drum and heavy, deep brass notes signaling a call to action? What emotional reaction is this music eliciting?

In this vein, starting with this novel I actually listened to the music that I thought fit the scenes as I wrote them. I found that doing this was incredibly helpful, as it helped push the story along when I found myself stuck, sort of like having a handy little outboard motor on my sailboat when the wind died down.

Aside from music, I also listened to a lot of rain and thunderstorm sounds. As any of you keeping up with Critical Times know by now, the setting of the story is much darker than the first two novels, and having the constant sound of rain and thunder in my head just seemed appropriate, especially for the end of the book. (No spoilers! That’s all I’ll say!)

Anyhow, I thought I’d share links to the YouTube mixes and rain tracks that were responsible for at least some of Critical Times. Who knows, maybe you’ll enjoy listening along as you read, too?

Cinematic, intense music great for action scenes with high tension.

Lighter, more reflective, helpful for scenes where Luke or Amy were reflecting on things.

For everything else...

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

So you want to build a house?

Designing and building your own house is an aspect of the New World that many of us look forward to eagerly. In a world where poor quality, environmentally harmful, and otherwise hazardous building materials (not to mention corner-cutting building techniques) have become the norm, this is completely understandable. Just think, one day soon we'll actually be able to design and construct the house of our dreams!

But what, exactly, goes into actually building a house? While we have no idea what kinds of houses we'll eventually be making, it's likely that somewhere along the line we'll learn how to re-purpose materials directly from the natural environment. Truth be told, these types of homes typically last much longer and require less insulation (and are thus cheaper to heat and cool) than the ones most of us live in.

Still, building a home from natural materials is no small task. It requires a plethora of skills (tree felling, woodworking and carpentry, masonry, brickmaking, etc etc) and much forethought. The result, though, can be breathtaking.

Check out this video below from someone who's actually done it:

A description from the uploader of the video:

This is a documentary movie uncovering the process of building a wooden house with hand tools from local materials starting from forest till the living space.

I built my house from trees that I felled with an axe and two man crosscut saw in my own forest. I did it following the research of old carpenter's calendar that coniferous trees should be felled in January's first days when the new moon rises and the deciduous trees should be felled in the winter time during the old moon. In winter time trees are sleeping and the juice and moisture content is very low in them. As time passes timber felled in winter becomes light and strong.

In the building process I used mostly traditional carpenters hand tools - axes, hand saws, timber framing chisels and slicks, old Stanley planes, augers, draw knives and mostly human energy. All the ground work for fundaments and the basement earth digging was done by hand with shovels. The foundation consists mostly of bigger and smaller rocks and boulders. Lime, sand and concrete mixture are using only in small amounts - to hold the boulders together. The visible part over the ground level - boulder mosaic has been masoned with hand split local granite.

The House has been built based on the western part of Latvia - Kurland/Kurzeme (German influence) historical wooden architecture typical technique - Timber Frame construction with sliding log walls between the posts. House is two carpentry technique union - Timber Frame (that is typical in France, Germany, Great Britain, North America and other countries) and traditional Latvian log building technique, between the logs using moss from the local swamp.

In the walls, timber frame and roof construction there I used only wood joints and wooden pegs to hold the main construction together - no nails, screws or steel plates. Walls are insulated with 250mm thick dry pine and larch shaving layer (leftover from the local cabinet makers workshop). Overall exterior wall thickness is 50cm. In the walls (except wind vapour breathable membrane over the roof) has not been used any plastic or modern synthetic materials.

To preserve the wood from the spoiling, fame posts, sills, top beams and final cladding boards are treated with fire and pine tar mixed with Tung oil. This wood preservation technique was adapted from the Japanese traditional wood preservation technique Shou Sugi Ban (焼杉板).

Exterior cladding boards recoating each 10-15 years Tung oil and pine or birch tar mixture, the house can last more than 500 years. As an example is taken Norwegian stave churches that stands more than 500 years until nowadays.

Roofing is three layer white oak shingles (each 10mm thick, 120mm wide and 720mm long) laid in two directional technique. Overall amount of shingles used is 15 000 pieces. Roof walls are insulated with ecological wood fibre wool and wood fibre panels. Over the wood fibre panels are plastered natural plaster - mixture of sand, clay powder, lime, linen fibre, salt, wheat flour. Overall thickness of the plaster is 20mm and over all amount of plaster used on the walls are 5000 kilos. It works also as thermal mass and improves energy performance.

Exterior measurements of the house is 6.5 x 13 meters. Living space in both floors are 120sq/m. The house is being heated with clay plastered brick bread oven and smaller oven made of clay tiles in the kitchen. To heat up both floors of the house, when outside it is minus 10 degrees (Celsium) only small oven is heated once a day. When freeze gets below -15, -20 C, we heat up the bread oven. Once it is heated, because of it’s thermal mass of 5 tons, it keeps the warmth 2-3 days. To heat up all the house (120 sq/m) in the winter time we use not more than 4 m3 of dry firewood. This is 2nd winter we are living there and we still heat up the house with the leftovers of lumber from the building process. And it will be enough for 3 more years.

I have fulfilled my vision to a build natural, ecological house with high thermal efficiency, low energy consumption, sustainable, using local materials such as - wood, stone, old and new clay bricks, moss, linen fibre, clay, water, lime, wheat flour, salt and wood shavings.

--Jacob, carpenter, craftsman and founder of John Neeman Tools.