Thursday, October 13, 2016

Rest Well, Rick Walton

Rick Walton's funeral is Saturday.

Those words were not easy to type.

I've wanted to write about Rick for a while, but I found it too difficult. Writing about him now means acknowledging something I don't want to acknowledge. Rick Walton is really gone.

Few people would argue that there has ever been anybody more important to the Utah children's writing community than Rick. He was a teacher, a mentor, a cheerleader. A friend.

A friend, even if he'd never met you personally.

There are so many people who know Rick better than I do. (Even now, I can't stay in past tense.) I got to know him a little bit online, exchanging word play in the Yahoo group he led, which may have been the first real online gathering place for Utah kidlit writers. I met Rick in person, finally, at a conference. Wherever writers for young people gathered in Utah, Rick was there. He didn't necessarily insert himself everywhere or dominate, but he was there, like the Professor Emeritus overseeing everything, just by his presence. I was even taught by Rick in one conference session.

Rick was just as open to chatting with and encouraging people who were just starting to explore writing for kids as he was people who had published multiple books.

As I said, many people have closer personal ties to Rick. He enhanced the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands. And that doesn't include the countless people he touched with his books. I was recently on a BART train heading into San Francisco, and saw a woman several seats in front of me sharing Rick's Frankenstein with a child. I'm glad I was able to tell him about that.

I didn't see him in person for a few years, although we continued to share interesting or funny words with each other online once in a while. I don't even know if Rick knew who I was, really, at that point. Then, one day, he put out a call for people to help him with several projects he had in the works. I volunteered to help him with what was at that time still a pretty vague concept for a project exploring interesting roots of words. He picked me to help him. Next thing I knew I was at his house, talking words, exploring the thing we both loved so much. I hadn't seen him in a while, so the obvious effects of Parkinson's Disease, a cruel illness I've observed too closely in my family, took me by surprise.

But he was still sharp. Still creative. Still working on more projects than any mere mortal could handle. I feel bad that I have such a hard time juggling three or four projects. Rick had so many pots on the fire. (Rick would excuse the cliche. In fact, he'd probably tell me where it came from, then he'd flip it on its head and turn it into something funny.) Over the next few weeks, as the project started to take shape and gain momentum, we emailed each other almost daily, sharing our etymological discoveries.

The prospective publisher ended up pulling the plug on this project, and our collaboration was over. But I enjoyed that short period in his circle, and learned a lot from him. He didn't actually teach me anything. He didn't have to actually teach. You couldn't be around him long without learning, and without feeling like you had somebody in your corner.

Not too long after our momentary collaboration, Rick's brain tumor was discovered, and he moved into a care center near my home. I visited him whenever I could, which was not nearly often enough. At first, I went a couple times a week, but when I went back to school, my time was suddenly eaten up and I went when I could.

I wish I had been able to go more.

He loved visitors. He loved to hear how our writing projects were going, who we were submitting our work to, what projects we had in the works. Even as it became harder for him to make himself understood when speaking, he'd ask questions and give encouragement. For a while, a few of us would visit once a week to write with him. But that soon became difficult for him, leaving him visibly exhausted and frustrated.

I wish so many things. I wish I had visited more often. I wish I could have helped him more and helped him better when he asked for assistance. I wish I had known him better before he got sick. I wish I had been able to complete our collaboration.

Most of all, I wish he were still here.

See, even when he was sick, even when he was nearing the end of his far-too-short life and was clearly frustrated and depressed about not being able to develop all of those ideas that constantly exploded from the brain that was working against him, he encouraged and coached and led our writing community. He was losing the energy that was so much a part of who he was, but he still shared what he could, and absorbed what he could from his visitors. By just being here, just being on the planet, he made us better writers. Even when his own physical abilities failed him.

It's tempting, when somebody dies, to talk about the hole their passing left. But Rick gave so much, put so much out there, that he left a mountain behind.

Rick Walton forever changed the Utah writing community. He's gone now, but his influence will live on. Even when there's nobody left who remembers him personally, there will be people taught by the people he taught. There will be books by the people he encouraged and coached, and by the people they encouraged and coached. And, of course, there will be his books, somewhere around 100 of them, although an actual count is complicated because he did so many different things.

There will never be another Rick Walton. So many people were inspired by him. More importantly, so many people loved him. I hope he knew that. I hope he really understood that.

Goodbye, my friend. It really was a pleasure to know you. Most of all, thank you. Thank you for being there, and for letting me and so many others into your huge circle, and for giving us so much of yourself.

If anybody deserves a good rest, it's you. But I don't suppose you're resting. There are too many stories left to tell.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

A Dedicated Writing Computer on the Cheap

Several of us have probably been there: We decide we want a dedicated computer for writing, so we go out and spend a few hundred dollars on a new computer, and next thing we know, we're checking out Facebook and playing games. Yeah, we're writing too, maybe, but it's just another computer, being used for everything.

There's an easier, cheaper way to get a dedicated computer.

The Raspberry Pi computer has become a sensation among tech-heads. This miniature computer, about the size of a playing card, packs enough punch to handle some pretty sophisticated projects, and more than enough for basic writing tasks. And it costs $39.95.

You don't get much for $39.95, though. Just the main computer board. I recommend picking up the complete starter kit. For about $75 you get the computer, a power supply, a case, an HDMI cable, and a memory card, as well as a couple other doodads.

In its standard configuration, the Pi comes with the Linux operating system and LibreOffice, as well as some other apps, but you could easily set up a distraction-free writing application, such as Focuswriter, or use Google Docs.

Of course, because the Raspberry Pi is a full computer, you could still get distracted by the Internet and games, or whatever your particular writing distraction happens to be. If you want to really go distraction free, you could set up the computer to boot to a command line, then open your editor and file straight from the command line. That way, you don't even see the other applications, and can't easily switch over to something that isn't writing. It might feel a little bit like 1990, but it works.

In the case, the Pi is about the size of a cigarette pack. You can use the HDMI cable to hook it up to a monitor or TV. Pick up a wireless keyboard (like the Logitech MK270, $19.95 for a keyboard and mouse on Amazon), and you have a fully fledged writing computer for about $100.

The Pi uses very little power, so once you have it set up, tuck it behind your TV or monitor and let it sit, powered on, where you can almost forget you even have it.

With a wireless keyboard and with your computer hooked up to your TV (and tucked neatly out of the way behind it), you can comfortably write from your couch or a favorite chair.

Setting up the Pi is easier if you're reasonably comfortable with a computer, but it's not that hard, even if you're not. It really depends on how much you want to customize it.

Here's mine:

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Modern Middle-Grade Classics

This Thursday (May 11) the #mglitchat on Twitter will be about modern classics. If you want to join the discussion, hop on Twitter at 7 PM Mountain Time, 9:00 Eastern and search for #mglitchat.

In case you haven't heard of #mglitchat before, I'll explain what it is. Several writers (many published--you might even recognize some of them) and even some editors and agents get together weekly to discuss a topic having to do with Middle Grade books. I usually keep Amazon open in another tab to keep track of all the book recommendations that come up in the chats.

For those of you who do the #pitchwars thing, several of the mentors participate, so this is a good opportunity to get to know them and what they like.

#mglitchat has become a part of my weekly routine. It is always worth the hour spent reading tweets.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Great Deal! Scrivener 50% Off!

I'm popping in today to let you know about a great deal I found. For the next five days, Scrivener 2 is available from AndroidPit for $22.50 for Mac, half off the usual $45 price tag. For Windows, it's $20, half off the usual $40. So if you've been wondering whether to try Scrivener, you might want to jump on this deal.

Android Pit also has Scapple, the mind mapping and white boarding tool from the makers of Scrivener for $8.99, 40% off, for both Mac and Windows. This deal only lasts four more days. I've been using the trial version of Scapple the past week for a school project and I really like it, so I'm taking advantage of this deal.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Continuing the discussion

As you've no doubt noticed, posts have been scarce on our little blog recently. Our regular contributors have dropped off due to busy lives and, in some cases, the demands of the increasing success of their writing careers.

We will continue to post to this blog from time to time, but we're basically on hiatus for now. We're not going away, but the infrequent posts will likely stay that way for a while. If you're interested in becoming part of a rejuvenated blog writing team, drop us a comment. In the meantime, I recommend that you continue to find help in our archives. There's a ton of great info to be found.

For more current information and quick feedback, I encourage you to visit the Utah Children's Writers Facebook page, where several blog readers and contributors hang out. I would like to see that page become more active as a meeting place for members of our large writing community. Like any Facebook page, the UCW page is only as active as the people who post to it, so help us help you by joining in or starting new conversations.

Thanks to everybody who has participated in this blog, either as a writer or reader. We have a large, active community, and I hope to see all of you on Facebook and in other places.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Author website ideas

Because I need to redesign my own author site, I looked at several writers' sites to find ideas. Here are some of my findings.
John le Carré
I like how the author's site captures his genre, with recent tweets showing on his home page as "intercepted" messages.

I also enjoyed le CarrĂ©'s Bio page, which was humorous and revealed enough personal information to make me feel a connection, without oversharing.
E L James
I have no interest at all in James' books. However, her site is attractive. There is one feature I really like and might borrow for my own. Tucked under the "Gallery" section, where I wouldn't expect it, she has a "Soundtracks" page. This page lists music she associates with her stories. 

This is a fun way to reveal something about the work, as well as about the author. James links to a soundtracks collection on YouTube, so fans can hear the music.
Joe Abercrombie
I'm not familiar with Abercrombie's work, but his site gives me a way to change that. He provides sample chapters from his books, available on-screen or as epub, mobi, or pdf files.

My old site had some chapters, and one caught the attention of an agent's assistant who was trolling the Web. She requested more. Ultimately, the book was for a younger audience than her agent repped, so nothing came of the request. However, I did learn that providing chapters can attract attention and interest, even for an "underpublished" author.
J.K. Rowling
Rowling's site does not create a feel for her books, but it may well reflect her own personality. The design is clean and sparse and looks like something a writer who is as organized as she reportedly is might create.
When you first click deeper into her site, you are presented with coach marks that provide hints to help navigate the site.

Although I don't think her site is complex enough to require coach marks, I think it's interesting that she provides them. Coach marks can be useful to orient visitors and show them what to expect when they click on page elements.
Bernard Cornwell
Bernard Cornwell has striking and attractive banners (or mastheads) that instantly tells me what I can expect from one of his books. 

The banner for each page is different, which can be a little confusing, but the design is the same on each page despite the image changes so I don't feel like I'm being thrown to a different site. Each banner is attractive, and I feel like I know what his books are like just from clicking to a few pages.
Besides the attractive images, which displays his brand, Cornwell provides nav links that are easy to understand and almost beg me to click them.
I really like that he has a page where he responds to reader questions. Of course, this is of limited use to an author who has yet to interest enough readers to generate questions, but even an unpublished author could use a Q&A format to provide information about his or her work and why potential readers and publishers might be interested. This is a way to enhance the brand and demonstrate a platform or other qualifications.
Marcel Theroux
Theroux's site has a charming feature I didn't see anywhere else: drawings of his study and items that mean something to him.

The only thing that bothered me about these drawings is that there are so few of them. The same few drawings are repeated on different pages throughout the site. He doesn't have that many pages, so he could have used a different drawing for each page. This is an interesting way to reveal something about the author and to create a connection with readers.
Theroux's site is unusual in that the navigation links are in the center of the page, something I haven't seen much. I think it works with his design.

Whether you are designing your new site or tweaking an existing site, it's a good idea to examine the sites of other authors, especially those in similar genres.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The antagonist: Hero or villain?

In many stories, the antagonist may even be more important than your main character. Your main character cannot become sympathetic without an opposing force.

The antagonist is more than just a bad guy who tries to stop the good guy. A good antagonist actually pushes the protagonist to action. The bad guy gives the good guy a reason to behave like a good guy. Because he is so important, your antagonist has to be every bit as real, every bit as well-rounded, as the protagonist.

The Antagonist is Evil


 No. The good antagonist is not evil. OK, he could be, but not for the mere sake of being evil. It's fun to write the bad guy who ties maidens to railroad tracks for fun, and throws the hero's One True Love on to the conveyor belt at the saw mill just because he can. The kind of bad guy who spends his time laughing maniacally while he twirls his 'stache. There's one secret, one thing you need to remember, if you want your antagonist to be truly interesting:

The antagonist honestly believes he is the good guy. Everything he does has a reason, and to him, those reasons are Right. They are Correct. They are Good.

Your good guy needs flaws and your antagonist needs positive characteristics. In some stories, the reader might even start to wonder just which character is the good guy and which is the bad guy. Few characters are as dull as the arch-villain who is evil just because being evil is evil. People aren't like that. Even people with a warped sense of reality (another little secret: we all have a warped sense of reality, shaped by our imperfect perceptions), do things for a reason. There are truly evil actions, and your bad guy might do some of them. But we humans have an almost unending supply of rationalizations for what we do.

A Rebel With a Cause

Your antagonist has his own character arc. Give your antagonist a cause. She wants to accomplish something, wants that more than anything else. And, like your protagonist, she is prepared to do what she has to do to achieve it, because that's what people do when something is of ultimate importance. Even a bad guy who wants to do something truly awful, like blow up a stadium full of innocent people, does it because he believes it has to be done to achieve the end result, which he believes to be for the ultimate good.  
  • Sauron thought he was doing Middle Earth a favor by taking dominion.
  • Saruman thought he was doing good by trying to stop the Black Lord and taking the power himself.
  • Darth Vadar probably saw the Jedi as nefarious upstarts who wanted to thwart his plan to make the universe a better place.

A Hero in His Own Mind

The antagonist believes he's the hero. Your protagonist, who stands in his way, is the villain.

We are both nice people. The last cookie is sitting on the counter. You want it. I want it. Boom: conflict! In my story, you are now a villain because you want what I want.


My favorite example of this principle comes from politics. No matter what your political position is, your side is right and the other side is wrong. Maybe even evil. The thing is, the other side looks at you the same way. Why? Because each side believes it is right. If they were allowed to have their way, the world would be a spectacularly better place. It's the same with your hero and villain.  

Which one is the bad guy?

Molly has a new puppy. This puppy is so naughty. When she takes it for walks, it pulls at the leash and tries to go its own way. It doesn't follow Molly's perfectly reasonable rules. When the puppy runs away, Molly is devastated. How could her puppy be so wicked?

But what is the puppy doing, really? It's being true to its own puppiness. It doesn't understand Molly's unnatural rules. All she does is try to to restrain it and she scolds it for simply being what it is. 

Let your reader sympathize with the villain, and understand why he wants what he wants, and maybe even see his point. If your reader can sympathize with both the hero and the villain, the conflict becomes more real, the stakes are raised, and your reader is more engaged.

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