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Classic Book Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Given the reach and influence The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has had into pop culture, along with the admiration many of my friends have had for the series since we were young teens, I expected this book to be well suited to my taste and a pleasure to read. Unfortunately, perhaps my expectations were too high.

While there were a few gems of imagination and pure oddity which rightfully belong in the larger pop-culture and literary canon of references, there were so many details which were weird, seemingly just for the sake of being weird, that the actual plot was drug to a glacial pace. 

Furthermore, I found that the non-sequiturs humor, which I admit is perfectly in line with many great works of entertainment from the same era of UK humor, rarely landed for me, and again the jokes were so numerous they proved a huge distraction from the plot. One caveat I'll add, however, is that I can see where I might have found the rambling humor and saturation of visual oddity, a bit more appealing if I were 13 years old.

I had planned to read the entire series, and in fact, I bought all five books, but now I'm don't feel what I got out of this book warrants putting its successors at the top of my reading list.
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How Long Did It Take You to Write?


Though my first novel has been out for only a year, I’ve already noticed there are a few questions that seem to arise over and over again from the prospective readers I meet while promoting the book. “Where’d you get the idea?” “Is it a series?” “Where is it set?” All are straightforward questions which are easy enough to answer. I believe, going forward as an author, I should expect to answer those same questions every time I step out into the world intending to push my stories onto the public. But then there’s another frequent question: “How long did it take you to write,” which isn’t quite so straightforward to answer. If you’re an author, is this one you hear often?

It’s not that I can’t remember when I first sat down and opened that new Word file which would become my manuscript, or that I can’t calculate the length of time between then and when the book came out. That’s simple. The difficulty in answering is in the implication the question gives of the asker. It is almost certain that they have an idea they’ve been harboring for their own novel, but have actually written little or nothing of it, and they’re trying to gain perspective on the work ahead of them if they move forward with it. Like a person standing at the bottom of a big hill, shouting to another who’s standing on top: “How far is it up?”

Knowing that a mountain of work lies ahead when one undertakes writing a novel, I feel obligated not to mislead a prospective writer, nor do I want to dissuade them. Writing a novel is likely to be measured in months and years, not days and weeks. On top of that, for a first time author, after they’ve finished they’ll likely spend more months, if not over a year hunting for a publisher, and should they find one, their publisher will likely spend months, if not a year, preparing the material and the book’s marketing before it is finally released.

That said, not all months are created equal. One author might spend 18 months writing their novel, but still be working a day-job at the same time, while another author might spend 6 months writing their novel, working on the book full-time. Sometimes the writing process involves waiting time. An author might finish a draft and have to put it down for a few weeks, or a few months, to return to it with fresh eyes. An author might also be using the services of an editor or a critiquing group between drafts, and be subject to weeks or a month, waiting for those notes, before digging in on the next draft.

I am personally working away on my next novel, with the intent of working on it full-time, but I find that having another book already out means organizing and traveling to personal appearances every few weeks, interviews, blogging and keeping up with social media to cultivate my audience, plus reading and reviewing fellow authors, which all take time. Thus, even full-time writing only allows for a part-time schedule of actually composing the words on the pages of my next manuscript. All of this makes telling that eager but inexperienced writer “a year,” “eighteen months,” “two years,” at best incomplete answers.

“How long did it take you to write?” Recently, I’ve stumbled on a relatively simple way to answer which fellow authors might find helpful to respond effectively, and which might truly impart accurate perspective to the asker. Measure the effort in hours.

I spent about 1,500 hours on my first novel, from page one of my first draft through the end of the polished manuscript that actually found me a publisher. (Though that is not the end of the process, mind you.)

Of course every author and every project are different, but now the prospective author can calculate a realistic approximation. If they can spend 40 hours a week on their manuscript, they might expect about 8 or 9 months for writing a novel similar in length to mine. If they can spend 50 or 60 hours a week, they might cut that down. If they work full-time elsewhere and raise a family, and can only spare 10 hours a week, they might realistically expect the project to take 3 years. In any case, hopefully the process will streamline with successive books.

To all you prospective authors, it’s a lot of work. I hope this helps. Good luck.

To all you established authors, how do you answer this question?

Originally Posted on "Marilyn's Musings" blog, March, 2015.
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The Seed of a Story


It’s a none-to-uncommon question for authors, “where did you get the idea for your book?” But it’s not always an easy question to answer. I wonder if we can do a little better?
For me, I have many ideas swimming around in my head. Sometimes it’s a character, but I’m not sure where I’ll use them. Other times it’s a setting, a plot twist, or just a moment of intensity all without corresponding context. Once in a while, with a little luck, a bunch of these ideas come together and form something bigger, a foundation. Who’s to say which of that cluster was first, or even where it came from?
With my recently released novel, “Until the Sun Rises – One Night in Drake Mansion,” I similarly can’t put my figure on any single element as having spawned the rest of my tangled web. However, I can recall the very first scene from the story I began developing.
The majority of the novel is set in the present, but a portion takes place in the past. The first past section involves a mysterious, secret, and very thematically dark magic show which adds to the mystery set in the present with a parallel mystery to unfold in the past. Essentially, it’s a tangential story line, a secondary mystery that draws the reader to learn about certain characters pertaining to the primary mystery and plot. It adds character depth, intrigue, and plot layers. Of course the two plotlines intersect explosively, but it’s interesting in retrospect for the secondary plotline to have been the genesis of the main story, converse to what one might expect.
This magic show moment and its characters were first. From there, I created scenes to give readers background on the characters, to get you acquainted. Next, I developed plot that puts the characters into that moment. After that, I developed additional scenes to give that moment direct consequence, and more to show readers what those characters do after that moment, how it impacted them.  With this thread woven, I stepped back and asked, “how can I make this even deeper, even more consequential, intriguing, captivating?” The answer came with adding what eventually became the primary plotline, which underwent it’s own similar development.
Returning to the question, “where did you get the idea?” It feels like I just had that first moment in my head. Did I see a weird magic show that made it dawn on me? Not that I recall? Did I base the characters on something I saw, read, or heard? I don’t think so. In fact, I believe I invented the scene and the character specifically because I’d never seen anything like that scene before. The rest was created to give others a chance to find it as interesting as I did.
Perhaps in the future I’ll read an article and it will directly inspire a new story. Certainly that occurs with non-fiction, and I can imagine the same for fiction - where a real life story inspires a similar, but even more intriguing scenario. That just hasn’t been my experience. In the mean time, perhaps a better go-to question for authors is, “what part of your story did you explore first?” This might cut to the desired incite into the creative process even faster.
Authors, what part of your story did you explore first?
Originally Posted at the "Omni Mystery Blog,"  June, 2015.
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My First Vonnegut Experience, Though Likely Not My Last.

I've always been familiar with Vonnegut's name but not particularly versed in his material. I'd seen the movie based on his novel Mother Night, but outside of knowing a few titles, seeing his cameo in Back to School, and of course his connection with the University of Iowa, that was the extent of my familiarity. However, recently I'd encountered an intriguing, simple and playful, yet deep quote from Cat's Cradle. I felt it was time I gave Vonnegut a read and I was not disappointed.

The voice with which the book is authored is often playful, lighthearted, and downright fun, but the story itself bare quite biting criticism of many of society's driving forces - government and religion to name a few. Vonnegut eases into his opinions backhandedly and with an essentially neutral protagonist who is merely a victim of happenstance, landing readers on yet another drawback of such institutions before you know it.

The story of the book, my personal litmus test, starts with a very average seeming Joe. He's a writer and I suspect not-so-dissimilar to Vonnegut himself, conducting research for a novel. Along the way he encounters other seemingly unimportant characters, though by the end the narrator and almost every character along the way end up playing a role in what is essentially the end of the world. A master class is "raising the stakes" if every there was one. Undoubtedly Vonnegut's criticisms would not have been so palatable without the playful and surprising vehicle of this intriguing plot.

My only woe with Cat Cradle is that I didn't read it sooner.
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"The Book Was Better” Part 2


Regarding the prevailing attitude toward movie adaptations of books, I will contend that books are not gospel. (In the non-religious definition of the word.)

Many choose to, or unwittingly, take the stance that a story in novel form is the absolute embodiment of an author’s ideas, and therefore anything else imparting that story, which differs in the slightest, is inherently wrong. I believe this is at the root of criticism for novel adaptations. I also believe this is mistaken and I assert the book is not gospel.
As a screenwriter, one quickly learns your writing is anything but absolute. Directors will ignore and change details, actors will change lines, intentionally and accidentally, and that’s just the start of the compromises between your vision and the resulting movie. A screenwriter’s material is not gospel; it’s one interpretation of many. However, if it has a compelling story and a deep emotional draw, all those people’s changes will be made in the interest of telling the story well, even if they aren’t telling it the way you did. This is the best for which a screenwriter can hope – that all the compromises and changes made to your original work are done so in order to tell the story well. This is a notion everyone needs to bring to books.
Having also written a novel, I can see the book is not the 100% embodiment of my story either. In my mind, the settings are so vivid I could spend pages and pages describing each one, but that wouldn’t make for a good read, so I cut it down to only what you need to know to get the feel, or what elements of the setting will interact with characters, then I move on.  In my mind, I have elaborate back-stories for every character, even those with only brief appearances. Again, interesting to me, I could write pages and pages on them, but again not interesting if it doesn’t affect the core story, so alas they’re largely omitted from the novel.
In my mind, I have lengths of story before the point in time at which my plot begins as well as after the novel’s plot concludes. Again, the book must have limitation in order to be a tight, moving, and engaging story, so those elements get trimmed, though many writers may save them for sequels and prequels. I suspect we’ve all begun books, which insufficiently trimmed such excess and tangents, though fewer of us have finished said books. 
To me, all this is what makes it exciting to talk with, and ask questions to writers we love. If everything they possibly imagined was in their book, there would be no need or interest in asking them about their work, it would all be in the book. But the author cuts their internal story down to only the richest element. When you love a detail or character, you ask the author about it and they have much more information from the story in their mind to share, and it’s wonderful. 
Thus, I maintain that the book, in itself is a derivative of a story. The only 100% accurate version of the story exits is the author’s mind, and will only ever exist there. The book is a derivative of that story, a trimmed, edited, and compromised output meant to streamline the story, to make a derived version which is the most enjoyable for reading.
Many movies adapted from books are accused of doing the same - trimming, adjusting, streamlining, and leaving out plot and details in order to tailor the story into one, compact, and well-flowing movie. I pose this is just another version of what has already taken place between the author’s mind and the book, and is no more or less valid.  The format of a book being enjoyable to read requires this shaping, and the format of a movie being enjoyable to watch also requires it.
I’ll go a step further. If the author’s story only exits in its entirety within the authors mind, and that which reaches the pages of a book is a derivative of that story, what reaches the readers mind is not even that derivative. For much of what an author omits, be it back story or descriptive details, we the readers fill back in from our own imaginations and experiences.  If an author chooses not to elaborately describe a mundane waiting room, because it doesn’t serve the story, we readers impose a vision comprised of all the mundane waiting rooms we’ve sat in.
Even the author cannot account for all the details we readers create for the story. The author can only hope to generally guide them. Thus, the story that reaches the readers mind is in turn a derivative of the story in the book, or (for those also versed in mathematics as I am) a second derivative of the author’s story. This is why it is also enjoyable to discuss books with fellow readers, to compare how the story is perceived given each individual’s unique profile of added details and inherently differing second derivative versions of the story.
This however poses another impossibility for adapted movies, for we cannot compare a movie to an author’s internal story, nor can we actually compare the movie to the story in a book. We can only compare a movie to the second derivative story in our minds, which is unique to only us, yet we expect the movie to live up to our vision.
The movie is also a second derivative. Derived from the book, derived from the story in the author’s mind.  Besides being tailored to fit the medium of movies the best, the story’s ambiguous details now get filled in by the actors, director, wardrobe designer, set builders, computer artists, and any number of people involved with a movie’s production. Wherever these details come from, they are certain not to match the details in any given reader’s mind.
These might even come from the original author. The movie could go back to the author, ask him/her questions about all the details the author left out, or consult interviews or other writings the author composed referring to their original ideas, and then build the movie’s version of the story with those details. In such a case, one could argue the movie’s version of certain aspects of the story might be more closely accurate to the author’s story than is any given reader’s version.
Whatever the case, between the author’s internal version of the story, the book’s version, each reader’s version, and the movie version, one certainty is that no two versions will be the same. Rather than dwell on how different those differences are we should embrace those differences and relish comparing them, just like we might relish comparing thoughts with a fellow reader. Most importantly, I ask you to consider that the book is in no way necessarily more or less correct than any other version.
The book is not gospel; it’s one interpretation of many. Once you’ve accepted it, the enjoyment comes from understanding what has created the differences…
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"The Book Was Better" Part 1


So many movies released these days are derivative of other materials: comic books, video games, and most often from books.  Whenever movies adapted from books are released there’s an immediate wave, both in public reviews and personal exchanges, assenting that “the book was better.” In this, and the coming series of posts, I’ll analyze the pitfalls of this comparison, take a deeper look at the nature of both formats of storytelling, suggest a better way of thinking, and note some methodology for future adaptations.
I can’t and won’t defend every movie based on a book which disappoints. There are bad movies, both adapted and originals, just as sure as there are bad books that somehow get made into movies. However, as a writer of both novels and screenplays, familiar with the movie making process, I can offer a unique perspective.
I often see how what might be viewed as “missing” or “changed” by the book lover watching the movie, would have been very difficult and even more detrimental to include in the movie simply because of what movies can and cannot do well.  As a result, I typically enjoy both the movie and the book, relishing the differences, rather than dwelling on them. With that in mind, I believe an adjustment to the way most people think regarding this comparison of media could bring a lot more pleasure and less aggravation to dual-media experience.
My first issue with comparing books and adapted movies is what typically carries over between the two. What elements from your first experience with the story, be it movie or book, carry over into your experience with the second?
A case study:
One of my favorite books is “The Eiger Sanction” by Trevanian. A favorite of my father’s which he introduced me to. It was published well before I was born, and years later (though still before I was born) a movie based on the book was made. It was directed by and starred Clint Eastwood, one of his early directorial efforts. I remember seeing the movie when I was very young and really enjoying it. I thought I understood why my father liked the book so much. However, at the time of the movie’s release it was shunned by many critics as “lacking the sophistication of the book’s character,” among other dismal comparisons to its root material.
It would be years later before I was old enough to actually read the novel myself. While I then found there was indeed much more to this story, character depth, subplot, etc., it didn’t make me hate the movie or change my opinion of it.  I just enjoyed the book too, for what it offered different from the movie. I did notice however, that certain elements of the movie carried over into my enjoyment of the book.
In this particular example, a large part of the movie takes place while climbing a specific mountain in the Alps. The movie was filled with beautiful shots of this mountain range. Many parts of the book occur while mountain climbing, including the action filled climax, and all these were really filmed on that spectacular mountain. The setting was stunning, and the notion of all these intense scenes and conversations happening while the characters are doing complex and dangerous climbing activities was incredibly consuming.  In the book, good as it is, Trevanian could not do justice to this mountain setting. That’s not a criticism, he just couldn’t pause the story to spend pages and pages detailing these impressive, towering monsters, and while he supplied enough technical climbing details for readers to understand the complexity, the film has the ability to stream the ever-present difficulty and danger, without pausing the dialog or action for a single moment. 
These were the elements I brought over in my mind from the movie to the book. When Trevanian touched on the setting, I filled in the rest with the visuals from the movie, something a reader who hadn’t seen the movie could only do if they’d been to the Alps. Similarly, the duality of the plot and the separate action of climbing was always in my mind through the book, though Trevanian had to alternate between the two, again carried from the movie.
In short, the unique details of the movie carried over into my mind while experiencing the book, enhancing it, while so many who read the book first, saw only what the movie could not, or did not do. In general, very few readers it seems will bring those book details into the theater with them the way that the movie details came with me to the book.
When you read a book and find wonderfully deep characters, each with backstories, great little subplots, and you watch an adapted movie only to find all these elements have been omitted, shortened, or changed almost beyond recognition, you see only that something is missing. However, when you watch a movie, and see beautiful full settings and hear voices and see faces, if you then go read the book, often you don’t complain that the setting description is short changed, or the description of characters looks and voices are under explained.  Often we just carry the movie detail over and let it shape the book we read, as we’re reading it.
Another battle movies must face is competing with ideas that are only in a reader’s mind. There are many cases when an author, in interest of keeping a story moving, must keep description brief.  You don’t want to spend pages describing a room only to have a few lines of dialog and move to another location. So you give two sentences describing the room and move on, but two sentences doesn’t complete an entire room so we readers fill in the rest, filling in with details of our own choosing, and details of similar rooms we’ve been in. This makes books fun for our imaginations, but then pits movies against ideas that exist only in our minds, ideas not even the author of the book can fully account for.
As a writer of books, of course I don’t want people to wait to buy my book until after a movie is made of it, in order to watch the movie first and read the book second. No one will make a movie of a book that no one is reading, waiting for a movie instead. However, I do think we readers and viewers can enjoy both versions of a particular work, even when they might differ greatly, if we think of things a little differently and amend our expectations, and I’ll tell you how…in my next few posts.
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Can a Story Ever Truely Be Told?


I’m truly a believer in lifelong learning, that no matter how much you know, or think you know, you’re learning everyday. With my first novel on its way in a couple months, I am well aware that I have a great deal of learning to do when it comes to writing.
That said, as I’ve gone from the story in my mind, to my first draft, through revisions, and finally to that final draft set to print, I’ve had to learn a few lessons and had to make some shifts in my thinking to get me there. Thoughts that might be useful to writers out there now, with their stories in their minds, with first chapters written or even first drafts, who are struggling with where to go next.
One such lesson, or shift in thought that I had to make, was to let go of the notion that the story in my mind will be the story in a reader’s mind when I am done and the book is out. I’ve come to understand that this will not be the case, and in fact could never be the case.  Was I to describe every detail of setting, every detail of a character’s appearance, every thought each character has, and all the backstory each character carries, I suspect I wouldn’t live long enough to finish even one story. Thus, we as writers streamline the details to what we feel is most important for our readers to experience, and what best serves our plot. Everything else, everything we omit from the vision in our mind, then becomes open to interpretation by the reader. 
The story that reaches the page is only an approximation of the story in an author’s mind, and from those words, a brand new story is created in the mind of each reader. Their story is unique from any other reader’s and twice removed from the original thoughts. Can a story ever truly be told? I would submit that the answer is no. Only an approximation of the story can be told.
Some of this might seem obvious, but acknowledging it becomes particularly important when rewriting and refining your work. After a writer has their first draft, it can seem like cutting a part of yourself, to undergo editing pieces of your story away.  But, in almost all cases, it is necessary to do so in order to make your writing the best it can be – in order to create a work that is dense with captivating content, even when that means cutting vivid details, thoughts, emotions and yes even sometime plot.
The story in your mind will always be far greater than the story that fits into your book. You’ll always have plot that leads up to the beginning of your novel, plot that continues after your novel, backstories for characters that don’t effect this specific plot line enough to warrant inclusion, details of settings that were simply too elaborate to include while maintaining the speed of your plot through your book.
What reaches the page will always be merely an approximation of your story. Accepting this allows you to understand that cutting the book doesn’t change your story; it only changes the approximation of your story that the book holds. Thus, rather than aim to tell your story on the page, you must aim to create the best reader experience of your story that you can. Creating a better reader experience only stands to improve your readership and allow you to continue to tell stories.
Besides that, there’s other good news. For if you could get every detail of the story onto the page, you the writer would then be useless to the story. The story would exist, and you would no longer matter. However, as it is, when you hold so much more story in your mind, you always have more to offer to those who care to dig further.  When fans seek you out to answer questions they have from your book, you have a great deal of additional information to provide - more details, more experiences, more side stories, more background, and maybe even more novels.
 * Note, the examples and descriptions of this essay reflect the creation process for a novel, however many of the same ideas could be applied to a short story, a poem, a song, a painting, or any other narrative from of expression.  Speaking to one scenario only serves to keep the thought concise.
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