Archive for November, 2018

Library Book Sale Finds: The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie

I don’t think I’ve done one of these all year. Whoops.

(For those who are new, I acquired a ton of books at a few library book sales a few years back, and occasionally I will read one. I like library book sales because I think you’re more likely to buy books you wouldn’t otherwise, so it’s a good place to find a new favorite author–or a book so ridiculous you have to share it with everyone you know.)

I love Agatha Christie so I tend to pick up everything by her that I find. (Because her stories are often republished under different titles, or shorts are moved around, this sometimes means I end up with the same stories multiple times.)

I suspect I bought this one because I’ve always wanted to see The Mousetrap, which is a play Agatha Christie wrote that’s been running continuously in London since 1952. It has a twist ending, which the audience is asked not to reveal (it’s probably somewhere on the Internet, because we can’t have nice things).

At the request of the author, the short story that the play is based on has not been published since the play opened. Luckily for me, this book is from 1949.

(Though, to be honest, we don’t seem to be sticking to that anymore. A simple Google search turns up a bunch of editions.)

(Of course, now I can never see the play because I know the twist. Or at least, I won’t be surprised. It is a VERY nice twist.)

The book itself is a short story collection (the original title being Three Blind Mice and Other Stories), with “Three Blind Mice/The Mousetrap” taking up about a third of the book. There are also four Miss Marple stories, three Poirot stories, and one featuring a Mr. Harley Quin, whom I’ve never heard of before, but am tickled by the name.

Title: The Mousetrap
Author: Agatha Christie
Genre: Mystery/short story collection
Publication Year: 1949

Pros: Everything
Not longer

(Varying dates for the individual stories, of course.)

I don’t have a lot to say about the individual stories–don’t want to give away anything–but it is a good mix, with some nonstandard twists that were very interesting. Miss Marple is my favorite, so I was glad to get so many stories about her (and they were all new to me, yay!) and am also fairly fond of Poirot, so it was all good.

I really enjoyed this collection. I would definitely recommend it, though, of course, who knows if other editions will have the same stories (aside from the first one, of course). Also, if you guys know any modern authors who write in a similar style to Agatha Christie, please tell me.

Have a lovely weekend, squiders! My show opens tomorrow, so I’m a bit in panic mode. It should be fine–it’s in good shape, I know my bits–but it’s a bit mentally taxing.


What is an Outline? (Part 2)

Good morning, squiders! Last week we started talking about the basics of outlining. We’ll finish that up today.

What are the parts of an outline?

Again, this varies wildly from author to author. A basic outline, the one most people think of when they think “outline,” contains the plot. Plot, in this case, is the order of events that happen in a story. Things like “Characters A & B discover a dead body in their garden” and “When they call the police, they discover someone has framed them for murder.”

And, to be fair, this is an integral part of almost all outlines. Even if you’re a pantser, and you just need to know where to start (“In a park, where Character A has just seen Character B, the most beautiful man she’s ever laid eyes on”), there’s still a tiny bit of plot. Having at least a basic idea of the story you want to tell is typically a good thing.

How the plot is laid out again varies, based on the type of outline one is using.

Aside from plot (and subplots), outlines might also include:

  • Character information (names, ages, appearance, personality, history, etc.)
  • Setting information (helpful to have all in one place for consistency)
  • Theme(s)
  • Arcs (internal, external, relationships, plot, character)
  • Target word counts (“this chapter should be about 2000 words”)
  • Goals (“this scene introduces Love Interest B”)
  • Bits of prose or dialogue (to remember to include)
  • Premise
  • Chronology (if you’re mixing timelines or telling a story out of order, or in a specific pattern)

Getting started outlining

Last week we touched briefly on how to know how much of an outline one needs before they start writing. While experience is the best teacher here, I find that the best way to feel your way out if you’re just beginning is incrementally.

Start with your premise. A premise is the idea of the story, like “What if Hamlet only pretended to die?” or “Romeo and Juliet, but told in space with pirates.” This is your starting point, in most cases, the idea that popped in your head that you want to try out.

Stop. See how you feel.

Next, try out a basic plot OR characters. Most authors write either plot-driven or character-driven stories, so a lot of people find one or the other comes to them first. If you need some inspiration, feel free to go through the Story Ideas section of the blog.

You don’t need to do a lot of work here. Your character can be “Carrie, 27, newly arrived on the orbiting station.” Your plot can be “Recently-graduated engineer arrives at her post to find it completely deserted.”

(Hm. I kind of like that one.)

Stop. See how you feel.

The temptation can be to do a ton of work up front. And to be fair, sometimes you need to. If you want to write about a subject you know nothing about, research is essential, and can help form your plot and characters moving forward. And some people need five pages of notes/outline for each chapter of their story. You might be one of those.

But I want to warn you about a phenomenon I call Plot Death. I see it in conjunction with NaNoWriMo a lot, where there is a set starting date when people can begin writing. Since they can’t write, they plan. And they plan. And they plan, plan, plan.

And they overplan. And they lose all interest in the story.

Most people have a general range of information they need to start writing. Too little, and they get stuck, unsure where to go. Too much, and the story has lost its magic. What fun is writing if everything’s already planned out? Where’s the magic of discovery, of creativity?

(Again, as a disclaimer, some people love–and need–that level of detail. But it should be something you work up to, not start out with.)

So do a little at a time. Plan out your basic character. Feel like you need their backstory before you start? Add it in. How do you feel? Ready? Still need more?

Start with a basic plot. Feel good? Go. Want more structure? You can plan out the first couple chapters and try that, or hit your major plot points, leaving the spaces in between up in the air. Now how do you feel?

At some point, the story is going to start coming to you. You’ll get an idea of side characters, or scenes, or conversations. (Write these things down so you don’t forget them.) And then start writing. See how it goes. Do you find yourself struggling to think of what comes next? It might help to outline a little more (maybe adding in other viewpoint characters or side plots). Words flowing? Keep going.

Adjust as necessary.

As time goes by, you’ll start to instinctually be able to tell what information you need, and how much of it. For example, I don’t need to do a lot of prep work on characters–they come easily to me–but it’s helpful for me to check my structure and my plot points because my pacing gets way off without that. You’ll learn what’s best for you.

Next week, we’ll discuss why you need–or want–an outline.

How are you doing, squiders? Thoughts on getting started outlining?

Mars Trilogy Readalong: Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Ugh, guys, I’m sorry this took me so long to get through. I don’t really have any good excuses, except I should have started more than a week before we were supposed to be talking about it, especially since it’s almost 600 pages.

To sum up, as I told my dog last night: this is not a hopeful book. This is a book about how humanity is stupid and self-destructive.

I mean, I hope we eventually get into a hopeful phase, but who knows!

Red Mars came out in 1992 and won the Nebula in 1993. It covers somewhere between 35 and 40 years of time, starting with the colonist selection process on Earth and following them through the trip to Mars and approximately 30 years on Mars itself. It’s told in eight sections, with a different viewpoint character for each section (though Nadia and Frank each get two), and each viewpoint character is a member of the First Hundred, as the first colonists are called over time.

Most sections cover a decent amount of time, sometimes years, and there is also usually a time jump between sections (though section 8 follows directly from section 7). The book sets up characters on various sides of different issues, such as terraforming (the greens “let’s do this as fast as possible” vs. the reds “leave Mars alone–what right have we to meddle?”), colonization, emigration, corporations, government, etc. Genetic engineering is also present, but aside from its relation to terraforming (they create specialized algae that can survive on Mars’ surface), at least in this book, it’s treated as a uniformly good thing (i.e., no characters are presented as against it). I will be interested to see if that changes as the books go on.

There may be SPOILERS moving forward, so be aware.

The plot of the book is fairly chronological rather than action based. While we do open somewhere in the middle, subsequent chapters and sections start from the beginning and run straight through. The First Hundred are selected, leave for Mars on the Ares, an immense spaceship with some artificial gravity, gardens, farms, etc. (even birds) to try and help with mental states on the long voyage. On the voyage, we see the first signs that people have different plans for the planet and different ideologies, and that some people lied throughout the selection process.

They arrive at Mars and get started building up the infrastructure necessary to produce air and water, build habitats, and start exploring. Things are good. But eventually those ideological differences pop back up, especially in relation to terraforming and whether or not they need to get Earth’s permission before they do things. And a large section of the First Hundred disappear, becoming the Lost Colony, without any warning.

As time goes on, more people arrive from Earth, different factions with different goals, and without cohesive goals or leadership, tensions start to rise. Big corporations start sending a ton of workers and “security,” sabotages start happening, people disappear–and Earth is no help, because Earth is also falling apart, due to global warming and increasing numbers of wars.

Eventually the “revolution” happens–a number of rebel factions, not coordinating with each other, attack, destroying towns (reliant on thin domes for their atmospheres) and killing people. The “security” forces retaliate, shooting down from orbit. There is mass chaos, with all these factions working for themselves and the Earth forces (mostly these corporate security forces as well as some UN-approved ones) trying to lock everything down. The space elevator is destroyed, crashing down to the planet. Phobos is destroyed. The First Hundred become targets–Earth is trying to peg them as scapegoats and ring leaders–and they manage to escape to the Lost Colony at the end.


This was actually a fairly quick read, all things considered–depending on whose point of view the section is in. I found Nadia the easiest to read and Frank the hardest; I’m sure other people would feel differently. Even when the characters spend forever building habitats or exploring the vastness of Mars, the book never feels slow (though I admit I occasionally skimmed sections with a lot of place names, which just didn’t mean anything to me). It does a great job of showing what life might be like on Mars, and a great job presenting a number of characters who are obviously different from each other. I would recommend it if you like hard science fiction, especially near future stuff, or space exploration.

Also, apparently the first person walks on Mars by 2020, and colonizing by 2026, so we’d better get on it.

Did you read this with me, squiders? What did you think?

Green Mars is next. Let’s do the end of January for it, so we can get through the holidays without going crazy.

Landsquid Sketches

Sorry, squiders, no Red Mars discussion today. We’ve had a really bad week, personally, around these parts, and I’m just not done.

(I’m close, but I don’t see any way it’s going to happen today, around everything else that’s going on. Plus each section has a different point of view character and I’m super not digging being in the current one’s head, especially after [spoilers].)

So, instead, I’m going to share some landsquid sketches. I think I told you guys that I’m trying out a few online courses on drawing, coloring, and shading, with the idea of doing children’s books (both picture and chapter books) with illustrations. I did a digital coloring class last week (you can see the results of that over at the Turtleduck Press blog), and this week I’m doing digital sketching and character design.

I have a wacom tablet that my spouse got me several years ago. I used it for a bit (you might have seen the results here on the blog), but when I switched to my current two-monitor set-up, the graphics drivers couldn’t seem to manage the tablet correctly, and I had to stop using it.

But I’ve plugged it back in, and since I had to get a new computer about a year ago, apparently this one can handle both the dual monitors and the tablet, so hooray! We’re back in business.

Except, of course, that I find there’s a bit of a learning curve drawing with the tablet. See for yourself.

landsquid sketches

(They’re light because the class recommends sketching in a light color so they’re easier to “ink” later.)

I’m trying out different eyes, obviously–the center one is the way I’ve always drawn landsquid (for almost ten years now–wow!) but I’ve always found it a bit hard to do expressions. Any preferences on the eyes? I kind of like the anime-style ones (far left) but I’m not sure they’re any better expression-wise. But the ones with pupils look weird to me.

I don’t know. Even when I was using the wacom before, I never found it as natural to use as just drawing on a piece of paper. So we’ll see if it gets better.

Anyway, thanks for understanding, squiders. Red Mars on Tuesday even if it kills me, and more outlining on Thurs–wait, Thanksgiving. Um, Friday.

What is an Outline? (Part 1)

Okay, squiders! Let’s dig into outlines.

What is an outline?

In the most basic terms, an outline is a plan you make before you begin a story.

You’re probably familiar with the form they teach you back in elementary school (five paragraphs, intro, three body paragraphs–strong, weak, strongest–and a conclusion), with the alternating letters and Roman numerals.

This is indeed an outline–and you’ll see something similar if you go into an outline mode in any word processing software–but that’s only one type of outline, and really more of a style than anything else.

(If you are writing a technical or nonfiction document that requires an outline, this is what you’ll want to include. But fiction works differently.)

You’re welcome to use that if it works for you, but, seriously, an outline is just a plan. Any plan. And how much, and what’s included varies person to person and story to story.

Some people pick a main character and a starting situation and jump feet first into the actual writing. Other people write hundreds of pages, outlining dialogue, characters, theme, arcs, plot points, relative word count, etc.

Most people fall somewhere in the middle.

Some people jot down a few ideas on a napkin. Others use Scrivener, or Word.

But basically, you need something to start writing a story. And whatever that something is is part of your outline. You may not call it that. It may not feel like that. But it is, nonetheless, essentially an outline. Even without the indents and Roman numerals.

Plotter vs. Pantser

If you’ve been around writing communities, you’ve probably heard the terms “plotter” and “panster.” A pantser is a writer who write by the seat of their pants. They require very little starting information before they jump into a story. A plotter is a writer who painstaking plots everything out before they begin writing.

(NOTE: It is interesting to note that a pantser may still have an outline for a story. It won’t be a “this happens, then this happens” sort, but they may still flesh out characters, world, theme, and general arcs in a less official format.)

Most writers fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Some may pants some types of projects but prefer to outline others. And those writers that do outline may do different levels for a short story versus a novel, or between one genre and another.

In my experience, most writers start off as pantsers and move toward plotters as their careers progress. This is not always true; Stephen King famously does not outline, and neither does John Scalzi, as examples.

How do I know how much outline I need?

You’re not going to like this answer, but–experience. As you write more, you try new things, and you learn what works for you and what makes you want to jump out a window. And eventually you find a process that works best for you (or maybe a few, if you write multiple lengths/genres).

If you’re just starting out, however, next week we’ll talk about how to get started with outlining, and how to try out different levels of outlining to find a good starting place. You’re not going to find your perfect outlining process on the first time out, but you can probably triangulate an amount of information that will work, even if it’s not perfect.

Any thoughts on outline basics, squiders? Agree that your outline is essentially your plan, whether you call it an outline or not?

Outlining Introduction

So, my darling squiders, I have gone through my nonfiction book ideas, and there’s only ONE left for the series.

Madness, I know. Thank you guys again for coming along with me on these book posts! After this one is done, the idea will be to consolidate the posts off the blog, add new information/sections where applicable, and release them as ebooks.

But, for now, let’s talk about outlining. Or talk about the fact that we’ll be talking about outlining.

Outlining can be scary for many new writers. There are a lot of misconceptions about what an outline is or isn’t, what the point of it is, and why you even need one. We’ll tackle all of these concepts, as well as types of outline and how to tell how much outlining works for you personally, in the coming weeks.

If you have any questions about outlines that you would like me to address, please drop them in the comments!

I’m excited to get into this subject because while I am not that detailed of an outliner myself, the whole process appeals to the analytical side of my brain. And the poor analytical side needs some exercise every now and then.

We’ll start whatever day next week ends up not being Red Mars day. See you then!

Making Nano Work For Me

Afternoon, squiders! If you are doing Nano, you should be 10K at the end of today. How’s it going?

As we discussed as a possibility last week, in the end I decided to do a time goal. 45 minutes a day. 22.5 hours for the month. Most writing-related activities count, whether it be looking for short story markets, writing, or outlining.

We’re technically 20% done with the month. How’s it going? Pretty good.

As of yesterday I’m 17 minutes behind schedule, which isn’t terrible. (But I do feel like the time limit has the potential to snowball more than a word count limit does. But maybe that’s crazy.) And so far I have:

  • Checked and updated all my KDP data from the CreateSpace/KDP move
  • Finished the draft of my anthology story (I wrote 2K in an hour yesterday!)
  • Identified short stories for revision/editing
  • Identified markets for other short stories

So not shabby. I made a list of things that have needed to be done forever and it’s very satisfying to cross things off. On the deck to day is sending out the short stories to said selected markets and working on my monthly serial section.

Nano has gotten so huge because of the creative momentum it drags along with it. I think it’s a great thing for people who want to write but who have never successfully managed to get very far. The quantity over quality approach kind of forces you to produce something, whether it’s good or not, and a lot of times that can teach you enough about yourself and your process so that you can go on to continue writing outside of Nano.

But I think it’s also important to be honest with yourself about Nano. I did Nano for ten years straight (plus one additional year). I came out of that with two drafts that to this day are unfinished (though the space dinosaurs are almost done and will hopefully be gotten to later in the month; the other one will rot on my hard drive until the end of time), one draft that was eventually finished and published (Shards), two drafts that have been edited and sent to agents (both YA) without much luck so far, and many, many iterations of my trilogy (I’ve spent…::counts::…six Nanos on the trilogy). Nano is great if you are in a place where a new first draft is both useful and timely. But after awhile, you start to build up drafts, and sometimes you need to, you know, actually do something with them.

I know this isn’t a real Nano. I haven’t declared a project on the website. I probably will not go to any official write-ins (how can there be 20 every week and none at a decent time?). I won’t update my time anywhere anyone else will see it. But there isn’t any reason I can’t harness that creative momentum and use it for what I need it for.

And if you can see how to do it for your goals, I recommend you do so as well.

Red Mars continues to be too…something…for me to read at my normal pace so I’m going to put it off again, probably til next Thursday. But if it speeds up here, I reserve the right to do it on Tuesday instead. I’m also going to look over my nonfiction series today and get everything organized moving forward, so expect an update on that in the near future as well.