Litlets

November 7, 2010

Book Review: Brewing Fine Fiction

Filed under: books,e-books,Fiction,reading,Reviews,What I'm Reading — crcb @ 10:18 pm
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Brewing Fine Fiction: Advice for Writers from the Authors at Book View Cafe (http://bookviewcafe.com/)
edited by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff and Pati Nagle

Brewing Fine Fiction is a collection of fiction-writing articles by many authors. I read the ebook version, but it is also available as a printed book. (Disclaimer: I received this book for free through LibraryThing. Reviewing the book, whether positively or negatively, makes it more likely that I will receive other books in the future. I am receiving no other compensation for this review.)

The articles in BFF are primarily about genre fiction, mostly of the fantastic variety (fantasy and science fiction), but most would be just as relevant to mainstream fiction. Authors ranges from the famous (Ursula K. Le Guin) to the less well known, at least to me (Chris Dolley). The book is arranged into five categories: The Basics, Craft, Research, Marketing Your Work and The Writer’s Life.

I find little to take issue with in this collection. The distinction between The Basics and Craft escapes me; I can see any article in either section being put in the other. A couple of pieces made me wonder whether the editors were padding the book out to a contractually determined page count. For instance, “How to Escape from the Slushpile,” by Madeleine E. Robins, has the virtue of brevity (about 500 words), but makes only two points: follow standard submission and formatting procedures, and write a good book. Any writer who finds this helpful isn’t ready for most of the other articles gathered in BFF.

But the bulk of the articles are far better than this, and any fiction writer would find much in here to like and use. Standouts for me include Sherwood Smith’s “Sweating the Little Stuff” and Judith Tarr’s “The Alien in the Pasture: A Brief Disquisition on Horses for Writers.” The latter should be required reading for any writer of swords-and-sorcery fantasy, or westerns. (I’ve been guilty of treating horses as grass-fueled motorcycles in some of my attempts at fiction.)

One of the nice little features of this book is the use of literary quotations between articles, for reinforcement or counterpoint.

Overall, Brewing Fine Fiction is a worthwhile addition to any fiction writer’s reference collection. I know there are some articles I’ll be going back to multiple times.

January 18, 2009

Software for Writers Review: StorYBook

StorYBook is free, open-source software for novelists. (Other writers too, supposedly, but I think that’s a stretch.)

There are novelists who outline their plots, write biographies of all their major characters, and create many maps, diagrams and charts before typing, “Chapter 1. Scubby Malone rubbed his unshaven chin…” StorYBook is for them. It is not for me.

If you want to write fiction in a more structured way than I do, this might be just what you’re looking for. It looks like it would be very good at organizing chronology, characters, settings and subplots (“strands”). I’m a geek, and I’ve created spreadsheets and templated documents to do that for me. Even so, it sometimes takes me a few minutes to find out how old the main character would be in 1977, for instance, or whether his mother was in rehab when he got beaten up after school. (Is it obvious I write comedies?)

StorYBook constrains narrative thought into a modular format, which could be good or bad, depending on the novel and the novelist. From my limited tinkering, it seems rigid. For instance, when creating a new scene, you have to specify a date. Even the requirement to specify a character’s gender might be an annoyance if you’re writing speculative fiction. Male/Female could be too many choices for the Aeeoia (who are sapient ameboids), too few for the Khekhlee (who need seven), and too fixed for the Aglogline (who switch genders every few years).

The pros and cons below are based on about forty-five minutes of testing, and when I say there’s no way to do X or Y in StorYBook, it could mean only that I didn’t find the way.

Pro:

  • Open Source and free (GPL license)
  • Cross-platform: works on Windows, Mac or Linux
  • Interface is relatively uncluttered
  • Organizes chronology, characters, locations and plot strands
  • Provides a variety of reports and views
  • Reports can be exported to various formats
  • Scenes can be imported from text files
  • Drag-and-drop to move scenes, add a character to a scene, etc.

Con:

  • Many parts of the interface are not immediately clear: the button icons are often enigmatic, and it’s not obvious up front how Projects, Parts, Strands, Chapters and Scenes all fit together
  • No local help: must be connected to the internet
  • No way to export a manuscript (only reports)
  • No way to import larger components than scenes
  • Too rigidly structured for some writing styles

December 6, 2008

Software for Writers Review: TextRoom

TextRoom 0.2.5 is, judging by the numbering, a beta version, and many of its shortcomings undoubtedly stem from that. According to the software’s wiki (http://code.google.com/p/textroom/), TextRoom is “simple open-source full-screen rich text editor for writers.” Basic formatting is enabled: font, font size, italic, underline and bold. TextRoom is available for Windows and Linux at http://code.google.com/p/textroom/downloads/list.

Cons:

  • The interface is unintuitive.
  • The help documentation consists of one pop-up window keyboard listing shortcuts. I cannot find any further documentation, either in the program itself or online.
  • There is no visual indication of selected text.
  • There seems to be no way to change the default document font; it must be changed for each document. Default foreground/background colors can be changed (I have mine set to a nostalgic blue background/white foreground scheme), and the default font for the status bar can be changed.
  • Formatting is glitchy. For example, I often have to press the prescribed keyboard shortcut twice to turn on bold, italic or underline.
  • Documents are saved in HTML 4 (strict) format, though the default extension is TXR. No other options are provided.
  • For the timed writing mode, it is not clear what units of time are being used. I tried setting it for “2” and starting the timed mode, but after three minutes I could not tell that anything had happened.
  • Saving documents has a bug that made me lose one version of this review because it was saved as an empty document.

Pros:

  • The statusbar (at the bottom of the screen) shows a running wordcount total.
  • There are modes for targeted writing, either by wordcount or by time limit, and a deadline feature.
  • One nice feature of the wiki is a list of alternatives to TextRoom.
  • The interface and feature set are deliberately kept simple so that writers, who are TextRoom’s target users, can focus on one thing: writing.

Overall impression:
I find two features of TextRoom useful: the running word count (something I would like to see standard in word processing software), and the targeted modes for writing exercises. However, the bug in saving documents is impossible for me to overlook, and I will not be using the current version of TextRoom. I will keep an eye on future releases, though.

May 25, 2008

What I’m Reading: The Everything Philosophy Book

Filed under: reading — crcb @ 10:35 am
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I’ve been working through a slim volume of Pico della Mirandola’s writings for weeks. The 282-page* Everything Philosophy Book, by James Mannion, took me three days.

I usually like the Everything series of books from Adams Media. Mannion’s book is interesting in spots, but overall it disappointed me. It’s badly written (the “breezy,” “casual,” “cliches don’t count against you if they’re in quotes” style grows tiresome quickly), it’s badly proofed, and it’s unfocused.

The first 16 chapters are an overview of Western philosophy, from the pre-Socratics to “Modern and Postmodern Philosophers.” The remaining nine chapters are a grab-bag — almost as if the author had run out of things to say, but had to pad the book to a contracted-for length. I suppose I can see a reason for the chapters on religions, and (sparse though it is) the chapter on African and Native American philosophies. But shouldn’t chapter 21, on Objectivism and Right Livelihood, and chapter 24, on New Age beliefs, be included in the historical overview? (As chapters 18 and 19, perhaps. Just a thought.)

And then there are the more puzzling chapters. Chapter 17, “Sociology and Anthropology.” Chapter 18, “Psychology.” OK, I could make a case for those fields being relevant to philosophy (Marx and Maslow), though I’m not sure Mannion makes that case. But a long chapter on Alcoholics Anonymous? The philosophies of Star Trek (the original series), The Avengers (not the movie) and other long-defunct TV shows? Couldn’t the author just bump up the font size and use wider margins?

And then there are the oversimplifications. Some degree of that is necessary in an overview for a general audience. I’m just not sure how much is deliberate, and how much is through ignorance. Does Mannion really not know the difference between reincarnation and transmigration of souls, for example?

But perhaps the most perplexing philosophical question this book raises is — Why do I write more about books I dislike than books I like?

*Counting appendices, which I read.

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