Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Book Review: The Fort

 I first heard about the Penobscot Expedition of 1779 about twenty years ago from Charles Bracelen Flood's outstanding book Rise and Fight Again: Perilous Times Along the Road to Independence
So I was looking forward to reading Bernard Cornwell's spin to this epic disaster in his historical novel, The Fort.
I wasn't disappointed.
However, a considerable number of raters on Amazon.com were.  Almost half of the folks who read the book, didn't like it (42%, or 92 out of 218 ratings).  This was one of the highest unsatisfactory ratings I've seen levelled against a Bernard Cornwell work.
Many of the less-than 4-star raters started their comment with:  "I'm a big fan of Bernard Cornwell, but..."
...And then they'd discuss what they didn't like about the book.  The two comments I saw the most were shallow character development, rambling narrative and non-exciting action.
I liked the author's spin on Penobscot, and give it a 4-star rating, but the low raters aren't entirely wrong.
I suspect the main problem with the story is with the subject matter itself.  True, the Penobscot Expedition held the title of the worst American naval disaster until the Day of Infamy on December 7th, 1941. 
However, unlike the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the disaster at Penobscot was entirely self-induced and ended "...not with a bang, but with a whimper."  There were no titanic battles, or do or die moments.  Instead, once the British relief force arrived, the Americans fled up the Penobscot River, scuttled their ships and trudged through the wilderness back to Massachusetts.
This was all thanks to the ineptitude of three men:
Yes, he of the "Midnight Ride" was court martialed for "unsoldierly like behavior." 
That's putting it mildly.  The Wikipedia entry considers most of the accusations against Paul Revere were exaggerated by his political enemies.  But as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I read Charles Bracelen Flood's non-fiction account (which makes this is a good example of not relying solely on Wikipedia) .  I recall his portrayal of Mr. Midnight Rider was about as unflattering as Bernard Cornwell's.
Yes, Paul Revere was exonerated--eventually--as the American War of Independence was winding down, while his post-Penobscot military career was virtually non-existent.
So overall, The Fort isn't a miss-your-bus-stop page-turner.  I found it more interesting than exciting, especially since I knew the outcome wasn't going to end well for the "Cause of Liberty."
Maybe the book would have been better received if it were written as a narrative non-fiction piece.  A major step in doing this would have been to edit-out the fictional characters, even the fetching Bethany Fletcher.  This would have been relatively easy since all their last names ended with "F."
While the Penobscot Expedition may not be the stuff of legends, it certainly presents a tantalizing, "what if the Americans were better led?" question.
Here, some wargamers attempt to defeat the British--or at least minimize the number of ships needing to be scuttled.
(Image from: Gonzo History Gaming--Salute 2015!)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

PNWA 2015 Workshop Review #9: Project Manage Your Book to the Finish Line

(Image from:  CEP America, The Role of Project Management)
 While it is said that Writing is art, but Publishing is business; the dividing line between these two aspects are not clearly defined. 
Writing, or any artistic endeavor requires work, and work becomes a project, and a project may be one of several projects, and so--each and any project needs to be managed.
In this workshop, our hostess Wendy Kendall, explained how one could turn their Work In Progress into a finished product by using project management techniques.
(Note:  My attempts at finding Wendy Kendall-Author's website kept leading me to Wendy Kendall-the Fashion Designer in the UK).
First she defined what a project is:  A temporary activity to achieve a goal. 
She then went on to make the following recommendations:
Plan to win (by finishing your book).
Increase your level of commitment by telling others what you're planning to do, or actually doing.
Fear is your biggest enemy.
However:  Never let fear of striking out get in your way (Babe Ruth).
Commitment means sacrifice.
But don't try to do it all, which is where managing this project comes in.
Don't use lower priorities as an excuse to procrastinate, (which is often referred to as "Creative Avoidance").
Maintain self-commitment to your goal.
Having a goal will inspire you.
Make sure your goal is visible to you.
Stay focused and imitate the habits of successful people.
Identify what parts or your life/activity you can control when you're feeling overwhelmed (which may be often).
(Image found on:  The GradPost at UC, Feeling Overwhelmed)
Manage your time.
Define your own success.
Establish a specific finishing goal.
Put specific steps in your plan--then follow them.
End your writing day on an upswing, so you look forward to getting back into it.
Celebrate successive milestone you completed in each step.
Don't say negative things about yourself, and don't listen to negative and unconstructive comments.
Wendy recommended using a personalized project plan worksheet.
Identify required activities.
Identify dependencies and red flags that need to be mitigated.
Wendy defined a dependency as something that relied on something else in order to complete.
Gather fans by utilizing social media and platform-building.
This can include writing on-line columns, blogging, Twitter, Facebook.
Your platform and the material you write will become your brand.
Make separate personal and author social media accounts.
Know the demographics of potential fans on social media.
Despite your best efforts your plans may go astray.  If this occurs, find the point-of-departure and either restart from that point, or "take a detour." 
(Image found on:  CNX, The History of Project Management)
Finally:  Success is not guaranteed.
Losing doesn't make you a loser!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

PNWA 2015 Workshop Review # 8: Bringing the Past to Life

(Image from:  Writing Historical Novels; Being a Disciplined Author by Julian Stockwin)
My reading habits seem to suffer from a split-personality disorder.

On the one hand I love reading sci-fi and fantasy.  This taps in to my curiosity and wonderment about the future and different worlds.

On the other hand, history was my favorite subject during my K-12 years.  However, text books can be boring.  Sometime during my adolescent years I discovered exploits of Horatio Hornblower and Richard Bolitho, which got me hooked on historical fiction.

So I didn't think twice about attending this Bringing the Past to Life workshop immediately after attending one on sci-fi and fantasy. 

It's in my reading nature.

Anyway, the workshop was hosted by:

Dave Boling

Bharti Kirchner

Janet Oakley, and

Candace Robb

This workshop was an open panel discussion, much like the sci-fi workshop.  But instead of looking forward to the future, or different worlds, we examined the framework of the past and examined how to make stories fit into that framework.

Regarding this genre there's a few questions that you can ask yourself.

First off:  Could your story be classified as Historical Fiction?

Usually if the setting takes place 50 years or more in the past.  A setting earlier than this is considered more contemporary.

(Image from:  Pin Us, Brown Water Navy Vietnam)

Next, ask yourself:  Why have you been drawn to historical fiction?

It could be:

You have a personal connection to the past (ancestors who lived during a certain time).
Or, you have a desire to understand what it was like to live in the past.

Finally:  Can you bring meaning to historical moments?

To accomplish this you need to:

Immerse yourself in the time and culture.
Make sure everything in the story works within a specific time frame.

Remember:  History supplies the plot, you do the research and create a fictional family.
Also keep in mind that the past is more complex and sophisticated than people today realize.

To conduct effective research:

Utilize websites that end in "org," or "edu" (organization and education, respectively).
Seek advice from librarians, historical society members and museum personnel.
Put your story in a place you want to travel to--because you'll need to in order to give your story an element of authenticity.

To keep you motivated, choose a topic you're passionate about.
Try to create a "chills moment."  That is show the reader how rough life was in the past.

People, even within your own country, didn't talk the same way they do now.

(Image from:  All Posters, Captain Horatio Hornblower)

While you can't, or at least shouldn't, reproduce ancient speech patterns, you can use a similar format on how they addressed each other.
Use the proverbs, sayings and phrases that were common at the time.

No matter what you discover in your research, writing your story might seem like a struggle.

Just remember to keep at it--no matter how slow the going may seem.

(Image from:  Wikipedia entry on the USS Constitution)

Monday, September 21, 2015

Fix Bayonets 2015 Game Day Review

(Image from Red Headed T-Shirts)
This past Saturday marked the Fifth Annual Fix Bayonets Game Day at Fort Steilacoom.

Player entry fees went to the fort's historic fund.

I was in between work shifts, so I only had time to do my usual fly-by and say hi to some of my gaming friends. 

(The fort's Quarters 2 temporarily converted to a game room)
I missed the morning game period but took some pictures of the three afternoon game sessions.

1. The Last Train to Krasnoyark, a Colonial Adventure scenario in 15mm (figure scale).

(Bill Vanderpool rolling the dice to determine the effectiveness of his attack)

(Russians and Japanese troops attack a Chinese fort)

2. Rhodesia '76 in 20mm. 

(Lawrence Bateman, host of Fix Bayonets, turns to chat with a gamer at another table)

(A Rhodesian de Havilland Vampire makes a strafing run on the compound)

3. An All Quiet on the Martian Front encounter. 

(Martian war machines attempting to breach the British defensive line)

(A Mk-II Baldwin Steam Tank gets brewed-up by a Martian heat ray)

And of course, no gathering of gamers, no matter how big or small, would be complete without a Bring and Buy. 

(The B&B:  Transforms one gamer's junk into another gamer's treasure)
Everyone enjoyed themselves and hope to see Fix Bayonets continue as an annual September-ish event.

See you next year!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

PNWA 2015 Workshop Review #7: Key Elements of Science Fiction and Fantasy

(Image found on Wikipedia)

 Since I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, I thought attending this panel discussion on the key elements of these genres was in order.

Panel members were:

Nancy Kress

Jennifer Letwack (editor)

Kat Richardson

Terry Persun

Nicole Persun

I often encounter Terry & Nicole at literary events like this, and I enjoy their presentations. 

Here's a list of tidbits I managed to jot down:

While sci-fi and fantasy "...explore strange new worlds..." this doesn't mean anything goes in these realms. 

Strange, or otherwise, these worlds have to make sense to the reader.

So in Worldbuilding you need to understand the economies, money, and political power of the society you're creating (Nancy Kress).

While sci-fi/fantasy are based on "what-if" speculation, the genre has always looked at our society and extrapolated from it.  The genre serves as a reflection of our society.

Readers want to see characters involved with technology/magic.

Worldbuilding is the environment for character development and interaction.  The setting isn't merely a backdrop, but a prop to illustrate how your characters interact.

Sci-fi and fantasy are inheritors of the Victorian Novel, which addressed sweeping questions about society.

Speculative fiction has always set up as a mirror against our society.

As to writing the story--don't info dump.

Create a desire within a reader to explore the world you created.
Scatter the details throughout the book.
Once you know your world, the details will seep in.
Assume your readers know more about your world than you do.
Insert only the details that will move your story forward.
Be sure to add the other senses, not just sight.

Consider sci-fi and fantasy to be resting on top of the three-legged stool, with each stool representing:


If any one leg is weak, then the entire story will fall.

Despite the exotic settings, a sci-fi or fantasy story needs to answer these two key questions any author of fiction should ask himself:

What do my characters want?

What could go wrong?

Failure to answer these satisfactorily and your manuscript will face an editor's wrath...

(Image: Death Dealer by Frank Frazetta)

Friday, September 18, 2015

PNWA 2015 Workshop Review #6: Treat Your Book Like a Start-Up

(Image from:  Innorobo.com)

You're probably worried I'm jumping the timeline track again a la Quentin Tarantino, apparently skipping from Workshop Review #3 to #6.

I assure you I'm not.  At least not this time.

According to my notes, I have the Agents and Editors Forums listed as Workshops # 4 & #5, which I previously posted.  I wrote them first because during our busy fire season, these laundry-list entries were quick and easy to concoct.  (We're still dealing with wildfires here in WA State, but the weather has taken a turn for the better and we're slowly getting the fires under control--for now).

Anyway, the Treat Your Book Like a Start-Up was presented by Lucy Silag.

Since nearly every start-up needs more than just a CEO, a book often needs the help of more than one author in order to get published. 

This is where beta readers come in.

(Image found on Steven Symes blog, from Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson)
Miss Silag's tips on recruiting beta readers:
Select readers who are familiar with the genre you are writing in.
Find a reader who is another writer.
Betas can be found through writers groups, librarians, social groups (online and in real life), on-line forums and workshops, as well as through writing classes (classroom and on-line).
Keep in mind you're not just giving out your manuscript for folks to read at their leisure--you need to get feedback.
If you're not getting the feedback you need, you'll need to rethink your start-up strategy.
You may have to remind your beta recruits about adhering to the deadline you've established.
If a beta doesn't follow through, then it would be wise to seek out another recruit for your next book.
(Image found on From Isi, originally from Peanuts by Charles Schultz)
Finding reliable betas can develop into meaningful relationships and networking.
After obtaining the feedback you need, you'll feel more confident about publishing your book.
Another good indicator occurs when a reader says your book reminds them of another popular work.
There may be times when you don't agree with a reader's feedback, so it helps to recruit as many betas as possible in order to get something of a consensus.
To help alleviate any difficulty, be sure to read widely in you genre so you know the standards.
And speaking of standards, if you join Book Country, the site provides standardized critique data, which you could include in your query letters.
Finally, be sure to thank all your beta readers.
(Image from:  Jenna Moreci's YouTube Channel)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

PNWA 2015 Workshop Review #3: The Writer's Connection

(Image from:  Crestleaf, 19 Strange Professions of Your Ancestors that Don't Exist Today)
 The last, and only workshop at the end of the Summer Conference's first day was an inspirational finale. 
The Writer's Connection was hosted by PNWA's perennial emcee Robert Dugoni
In the five non-consecutive years I've been attending this convention, Bob Dugoni has demonstrated an unflagging appreciation for the help PNWA provided to his writing career.  I admire him for the enthusiastic way he gives back to the writing community.
Bob reminded the mass audience attending this workshop that this 60th Anniversary of PNWA was about connections.  So he started the workshop by discussing his rocky road to success.
Bob's Backstory:
A lawyer by trade, he became increasingly afraid he'd never get a chance to write novels.
His turning point came when a relative, who's a well-known portrait photographer, gave him the following advice:
--Follow your dreams and the money will come.  Follow the money and you'll lose your dreams.
--Immerse yourself in the community of artists. 
--Make yourself available to many and many will make themselves available to you.
--Think of writing as your job.
--Love what you do and you'll never have to work a day in your life.
So Bob joined a writer's group (PNWA?) and his writing career took shape.
Bob's first batch of advice dealt with making personal connections:
Your first connection is to yourself.
--You have to know yourself as a person and as a writer.
--Because understanding who you are helps you understand what's the best story you should write.
Meet people and ask questions.
You want a business relationship that's genuine.
It takes time to build an audience (an observation from James Rollins).
Writers need to write more than one book to build an audience.
Write honestly (advice via Stephen King).
Writing is a different form of entertainment that other forms of media, because--
--Reading is interactive.
--To read a story well is to follow it.
--It's a collaboration between reader and the author.
Try to write a book that resonates with others and touch the reader on some fundamental level.
Bob next discussed character development.
Where do characters come from?
You, the writer.
Characters are of you--but they're not you (no matter how whacked-out the characters may be).
A writer plays the role of ever character in a story.
So to develop a character ask yourself these questions:
Where's he from?
Who are his parents?
What is his birth order among siblings, if any.
How did this affect him?
What religion does he practice?
What schools did he go to?
--Was he the star?  The nerd? A bully, or was bullied?
What was his life-changing event?
Was he in the military?
--Did he see combat?
Type of personality--adventurous, or cautious?
Is he married, or single?
And--What would be the quote on his tombstone?
Continuing-on with character development:
You need to be aware of the people around you, which will help visualize the characters you want to create.
Be aware of peoples' physical features and mannerisms.  (As a writer, you don't have the luxury of overlooking this).
Ask yourself what five characteristics you'd tag a character with if he were standing in a police line-up.
From character development, Bob moved on to discuss the writing process.
Writers are different.  They're quirky. 
Understand your writing process.
Understand you're weird. (I've known this about myself for as far back as I can remember).
Don't throw out any ideas.  They may come in handy.
Don't buy into the idea that you have to suffer for your art.
Figure out how to tap into your muse, and understand what your assigned muse is telling you.
Figure out where and when you're most creative.
Treat writing as a career, not a hobby.
Be sure to place yourself in an environment that's conducive to writing.
You have to write a novel to understand how to write a novel, and once you're finished write the next book.  You will get better.
Understand simple concepts.
Understand that a story is a journey, both a physical and an emotional one, where the emotional journey sparks the physical one.
If you're experiencing Writer's Block:  Do some research, or get some exercise.
Being a writer means understanding what you control, which is the writing--not the publishing.
Don't give up on writing.
Don't be afraid of failing--it's the first step to success.
Don't let rejections get you down.
Help dispel the myth that writing books is easy and innate.
And speaking of books, Bob recommended having at least six reference books.
(He rapidly cited his top six pix, but couldn't write them down fast enough).
As to books in general, read one that speaks to you.
Practice the Six P's:
Passion, and
Bob ended the workshop by getting the audience to stand and recite an altered-for-writers form of Aragorn's speech at the Black Gate.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

PNWA 2015 Workshop Review #2: Secrets to Turning Your Dreams into a Reality

(Image found on inactive link to Frontierless)
It often seems like my writing projects are moving at glacial speed.  If that.
With this feeling in mind, I thought I needed dual dose of inspiration and motivation.
Thankfully, William Kenower and Ingrid Hicks were on-hand to provide the necessary medicine.
Both spent several minutes discussing what spurred them to write.
Ingrid's Backstory
This wife and mother of two was struggling financially, found herself going blind.
She started out as a journalist, but took a memoir writing class.
With the onset of her illness she felt her life was slipping away.
Her epiphany occurred when her children did a birthday skit of her lamenting about never writing her novel.
Her financial and parenting responsibilities didn't change--her mindset did.
Began waking up 1.5 hours earlier I order to write.
Bill's Backstory
Worked as a waiter for 17 years in order to write books.  Left waiting tables in 07.
His epiphany moment came while visiting a friend in California, who suggested he become a motivational speaker and blogger.
His first gig was in Spokane, WA with the Society of Children's Writers & Illustrators.  He felt he was in over his head, but managed to pull off and impromptu speech.
Met PNWA President Pam Binder and started Author Magazine.
Now I'm not sure who exactly said what during this workshop, but what follows are some snippets of advice for struggling writers.
First, a note about dreams:
If you have a dream, a sleeping dream, no one knows about it unless you tell them about it.
It doesn't exist in the physical world.
But what are the stumbling blocks that are keeping your from fulfilling your dream (in this case being a successful writer)?
The biggest block is money.  People feel trapped in their careers.
Ask yourself:  Is it possible to make a living as a writer?
Writing, however, doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing deal.
Some steps to whittle-down the stumbling block include:
Believe in yourself.
Make writing a priority.
Writing is a job that you can get paid for automatically while doing it.
Create an environment that pleases you and is conducive to writing.
Writing should be a friendly and pleasing experience.
Look at writing to be a journey of discovery.
Keep in mind the creative process doesn't care exactly what it is you're doing, as long as you're creating something.
Allow yourself enough time to write each scene.
Pay attention to how you feel.
Your job is to feel good!
(Image from:  The Odyssey Online, The Beauty of a Bucket List)

Thursday, September 10, 2015

PNWA 2015 Workshop Review #1: Writing Active Settings

(Image from:  The Last Dog)
Well it's been nearly two months since I attended PNWA's Summer Conference. This year's intense fire season forced me to jump around on few reviews I've posted so far like Quentin Tarantino directing a film.
I've just now managed to sit down, read my notes and look back at the first workshop I attended at the conference: Writing Active Setting by Mary Buckham.  This seminar was gleaned from tidbits of her Writing Active Setting Series.
However, Miss Buckham explained there are two issues with setting:
1. You have none whatsoever that helps orient the reader, or
2. You have too much, which stops the story flow
(Image from:  How Much Detail is Too Much Detail in Relationship)
Use an Active Setting to:
Show characterization
Show sensory detail
Show emotion
Foreshadow complications, or develop conflict
Show backstory
Orient the reader
Impact the pacing of an action sequence
Show it as a character in the story, or when place matters
Miss Beckham cited some recommendations found in Dwight V Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer about crafting a setting:
Your reader has never been there
It's a sensory world
It's a subjective world
(A slight case of Author Intrusion occurs if a setting is described the same way by two different characters)
The details must matter, however don't focus your reader on something that's not pertinent to the story.
The Big Question was:  How do you initially show the setting in a scene?

Mary Buckham's rule of thumb:

With the first few paragraphs of a new scene, chapter, or change of location.  The questions of "where?" and "what time of day?" need to be answered.

She then went through her "...down and dirty ways to take your setting from blah to vital..." (Conference Guidebook, pg. 9).

Which were:

(Image from:  TV Tropes/City Noir)

Setting to show characterization

The same setting will be described differently by different characters.  (During the workshop an example of Secret Service Agent, and a mom on an outing with her family were used).
Readers will have very little context without character input/observations.
Filter through one character's experience at a time--no rapid head-hopping.
However, don't stop the story flow, unless the place reveals something.

Setting to show sensory detail

This is an underrated took in the writer's tool kit. 
Use more than just sight to describe a setting, but you don't have to include all 5 senses.

Setting to show emotion

Emotion is determined by your word choices and what you focus the reader on.
Setting can create mood and mood can drive action.
There can be an emotional change in the scene, which can make it easier for the reader to accept what unfolds in the story.

Setting to create complications

(Apparently, this concept was so complicated I didn't write any detailed notes, or examples about it).

Setting to show backstory

Orients the reader to the where and when of the story.
The reader assumes there's more information on the page than is really there.

Setting in an action sequence

Words of warning here:  Be wary of writing more about the setting than the story can handle.  Only a few words of description are needed.  Once again--don't slow the pacing and describe too much detail.

Setting as a character in the story

The Old Man and the Sea, The Perfect Storm were examples used to show how the environment was an essential character. 
Know your genre!
Be conscious of your story and it's needs.
Stop thinking of setting as simply a way to show where the reader is, but a rich medium to show (not tell) and to thread-in backstory, or emotion to deepen the conflict, and above all, to draw the reader deeper into your story.

Adding color to a setting

Great settings accomplish "double and triple duty."  That is, they add sensory detail, characterization, conflict, and back story.


Creating an describing a great setting can be an asset in capturing the reader's imagination. 

Which is the primary goal of good story telling.

(Image from: What She Said Marketing, The Art of Storytelling)