Sunday, April 22, 2012

Year One Retrospective

I completed my first short story around this same date one year ago. That was the first piece of fiction I'd ever written. I'd always wanted to write, and had endured year of urging by friends and family. (Okay, by family.) But I'd never found the time or been able to come up with anything interesting to write about.

The latter was my biggest stumbling block. I have a good command of language, but had no clue how to envision and flesh out a character, and even less how to plot out a story. I'd like to think I've improved somewhat in that regard :)

Since then, I've written more than 200,000 words, completed more than thirty short stories, have another ten or so partials that may or may not get finished, and finished the first draft of a 70k novel. I've self-published three short stories, almost sold several, and accumulated close to one hundred rejections from professional markets. I have a second novel in progress, also.

I generally spend an hour or two a day writing and several more thinking about writing. I've read maybe 20 books about writing, listened to thousands of hours of writing related podcasts, attended one convention, and done a ton of critiquing and being critiqued via the SlugTribe group in Austin and the Critters online group.

I work nearly full-time, help raise a toddler, and have a wife and several pets. I blog around once a week and occasionally tweet. My social life otherwise is pretty nonexistent.

I feel like I've accomplished a great deal in my first year, more (I believe) than most new writers. I'm proud of that.

I'm also starting to run headfirst into the wall. The one made up of inertia and apathy, the one that stops me cold with yet more rejections, with no sales, with yet another story that nobody seems to like. The one that makes me question why on earth I'm working so hard at something that looks increasingly hopeless in terms of actually ever paying any dividends.

I want to write full-time. I don't want to have to hold down another job just to be able to afford to write in my spare time. It's getting harder and harder to motivate myself to write at all. Turning out a story a month is getting tricky, much less the two or three a week that I  was managing. Not because writing is hard. Writing is as easy as ever.

Because not getting any appreciation is hard. Because not getting paid is hard. Because not knowing if I will ever get either of these things is hardest of all.

I could have gotten twice as much done this last year--if I saw a clear reward. I intended to do just that this year, but I've gotten sidetracked instead. I've slowed down, nearly chugged to a stop.

So, what now?

I've got too many stories to tell to quit. They won't leave me alone anymore. Even if I ask nicely. Even though nobody's listening.

In my first year writing fiction, I've written what amounts to several books. Writing part-time, with only the instruction I can beg, borrow or steal, I've managed to come very close to selling to professional markets. I'm getting so close I can almost taste it. I feel like I'm walking the Pattern, in Amber, with sparks above my head and everything there ever was pushing back against me.

Every autobiographical word I've read, from every writer I've ever listened to, indicates that it will get worse before it gets better. I can only hope and pray that I will measure up to the task. There is no going back.

Those few of you who read this, thanks so much for taking the time to be interested in my ramblings, and best of luck with your own writing.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Cheesy, Processed

Clever title is clever, amirite? Accurate, well thought out, or descriptive of the actual post is another matter, but we shall see, shan't we.

Shan't is a great word, BTW. Only an apostrophe and an n away from a weird past-tense vulgarity. An only an acid-trip away from William Shan'tner and the voyages of the starship Ain'terprise.

Okay, I'll stop now.

I'm back to musing on writing process related stuff this week. Most particularly: amplifying reader involvement with characters. I made some strides in that direction with a rewrite of an SF story, and hopefully have gotten a handle on a few things.

Most importantly: readers don't care about settings and events and cool gizmos and stuff. They care about characters. Everything else is window dressing. So, in a short story, the MC needs to be clearly delineated and compelling from the get-go. The reader absolutely has to care what happens to the MC next, or the story is over for the reader and they move on.

I think I finally have my head wrapped around that. Clever isn't enough. Well-written isn't enough. Nifty ideas are not enough. Amazing descriptions? So what. Great plot? Why does it matter. Answer: it doesn't, if it happens to an MC that the reader isn't involved with.

So I am penciling in Item Zero on my "is it a story?" checklist. It isn't a story if it doesn't have a compelling MC. Not necessarily likable or sympathetic, although that is probably almost always for the best. But compelling = required.

The full "is it a story?" list:

0) Compelling MC
1) With clear goals
2) That the MC acts upon (agency)
3) In the face of adversity (obstacles, setbacks)
4) resulting in tension mounting
5) until MC either achieves goals or fails

If you have all of the above, it's a story. If not, it's something else, possibly something (shudder) literary.

Media breakdown: I'm almost done with Charles Stross's Rule 34. I liked Halting State (the semi-prequel), but wasn't amazed by it. Rule 34 is amazing. The second-person POV is still weird, still fun, and still gimmicky, but it works anyway and does provide a very close feeling to the narrative. The SF/concept elements are fabulously deviant and fun. No spoilers here, but this novel is rude, raw, and brilliantly paranoid. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Comparison Shopper: Sansa MP3 players - Fuze+ Vs Clip Zip

Advance warning: there will probably be very little writing related content in this week's post. Hopefully you are as relieved about that as I am. If not, no worries. I'm planning a year-one review/retrospective/report-card type thingee in the next few weeks that should scratch that itch quite nicely.

Today's blog is all about a category of tech I use on a daily basis: MP3 players. Note that when I say MP3 player, I really mean PMP (personal media players.) I will be covering a lot of personal use characteristics in order to make this comparison helpful. The most important is this: I use my MP3 players almost exclusively for podcasts and audiobooks. If your interest is mainly in music, and especially if you are an audiophile with a huge collection that you want to carry, my understanding is that neither of these players may be the best option, although installing Rockbox seems to alleviate most people's concerns.

I own roughly one bajillion devices that are capable of playing audio files (most can also handle pictures, text, and video as well.) Only two are truly portable and small enough for regular use: a very dumb phone that I only use for--Gasp!--phone calls and SMS messaging and an Olympus digital voice recorder (VN-8100PC) that really deserves its own review. Both are often used simultaneously with a PMP, so neither is appropriate as a full-time solution. I understand the allure of the smartphone (i- or android, pick your flavor), but I've found that multiple, dedicated gadgets work far better for me. Battery life, price per item, and ease of multitasking are all factors.

Anyway, enough with background material and rational, and on with the comparison.

I've used a Fuze+ for approximately 20-30 hours a week for the last year and half, since not long after the launch of the device. I originally hoped to use it in a similar manner to how I actually use tablets now, for playing videos (mostly podcasts, as is a large portion of my listening) as well as audio. The Fuze+'s screen is really nice for navigation, but not good for video. The optimal viewing angle is portrait mode, at an angle (the way a user looks at it when navigating menus.) As a result, landscape-view looks terrible.

The Clip Zip, on the other hand, features a tiny 96x96 screen and no native video capability. With Rockbox installed, you can play videos on it, but the screen is the worst possible quality, so there isn't much point. The Fuze+ isn't a good choice for video, but it still beats out the Clip Zip. Same for photos (also not supported by stock firmware on the Clip Zip.)

Both have recording functions that are good in a quiet room, but awful in a moving vehicle due to interference. Both have an FM radio that works decently. Both use microUSB for transfer and charging. Both have microSD slots. Both have the same EQ and audio playback functions, which are very good. Both have excellent sound quality, which is the main point, right?

A side-note concerning the microSD slots: this is the reason I don't have any interest in i-products. Not having a physical way to expand memory and hotswap files is incredibly clumsy and consumer-unfriendly. I also have no interest in proprietary formats, connectors, and so on. No USB and SD support (any flavor, regular to micro) = no sale.

Everything else roughly equivalent, with the following exceptions: the CZ's firmware is slightly better, the CZ features a stopwatch (woo-hoo), the C+ has better battery life (although the CZ's is more than adequate for a full workday), the 4GB CZ is about half the price of the 8GB F+, and the physical controls are different. The last two are the most salient points. To be blunt: the touch controls on the F+ are frustratingly awful, even with the newest firmware; the physical buttons of the CZ are simple, easy, and a relief after a year and a half of torture :) .

An 8GB version of the CZ is available, but at a $20 or so premium. This is overpriced compared to the simpler expedient of adding an  SD card (I can get a 4GB for around $5 these days.) I haven't actually bothered yet, because it turns out 4Gb is enough (not roomy, but adequate.) I will probably add that SD card eventually, but am in no hurry.

So, that covers the main points. I think it's time for a pro/con list.


Pros: large screen, slightly better battery life, 8GB memory in lowest priced model

Cons: Terrible touch-pad interface, slightly less well-developed firmware, heavier and bulkier than the CZ

Clip Zip

Pros: physical buttons, small and light, handy clip, half the price of Fuze+, nearly stable Rockbox port available, stopwatch

Cons: ugly and small screen, native firmware doesn't support photo/video, only 4GB in lowest priced model


Considering that both are really only useful as music players, and that the touch interface is so god-awful compared to physical buttons, I am much happier with the Clip Zip than I was with the Fuze+. Add Rockbox and a cheap SD card and the CZ does 90% of what the Fuze+ does, at a little more than half the cost, and in a much handier and more convenient form factor.

And that's all I got. Any question, feel free to ask in the comments. See you next week.