Casablanca’s Rick as Arthurian legend

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson looks at Casablanca as a type of Arthurian legend

One of my favorite movies is Casablanca, the story of an American café owner during World War II. Recently, I have been reading about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In particular, Mallory’s Le Mort De Arthur., but other books as well. This morning, it dawned on me that there are significant parallels. I may well explore this over a period of time, but for now, I am wondering what the story of Casablanca would be like, if it were told like an Arthurian romance? How about this:

Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a Knight-errant named Rick. Rick, and his faithful squire Sam, were in Paris recovering from their travels, when they happened upon a beautiful Queen Ilsa. Queen Ilsa was hiding from evil dark knights when she rescued by Rick. Good king Victor was also on the run from the evil dark knights,  and was reported dead. Rick pledged his undying devotion and protection to Ilsa.

One day, Queen Ilsa was told that good king Victor had been rescued from the evil dark knights, but he was weak and so she fled the protection of Rick to be with her king. Rick thought she had rejected his protection and devotion, and went into a far away land of exile. He ceased to be a knight, and rejected his chivalric code.

But a knight is always a knight, even when he is in exile, and soon the people began to rally around the brave knight Rick. He hears about a young knight who is searching for the holy grail, and despite Ricks claim that he has abandoned his chivalric code, he agrees to help the young knight with his quest. When the knight is killed by the evil dark knights, Rick protects the holy grail.

One day, a young damsel comes to Rick in distress. The evil sheriff is attempting to hold her love hostage, and tries to steal her virtue. Rick rescues her from the evil sheriff, restores her to her love, and risks retaliation from the evil sheriff.

Good King Victor and beautiful queen Ilsa arrive in Casablanca and interrupt Ricks exile. The king tells Rick that he needs help to escape from the evil dark knights. The queen appeals to Ricks Chivalry, but Rick must first fight a demon to prove he is worthy to be of service to the king, and to protect the queens honor. After a long battle that lasts all night and all day, Rick emerges victorious and ready to be of service to the king and queen.

Now, he must figure out how to defeat the evil dark knight, and avoid the wrath of the sheriff. He comes up with a brilliant plan to turn the weaknesses of the evil dark knight and the sheriff against themselves. He decides to deliver the holy grail to the king and queen, and thus to return them to their rightful place.

To prove himself a worthy knight, and to return to his chivalric code, he must pass four tests. The first test, is he must outsmart the sheriff and hide the holy grail. Next, he must deal with tricky merchants and beat them in a battle of wits. Third he has to get the king and queen safely to their chargers, so they can leave exile at the appropriate time. Fourth, he must battle the evil dark knight in a fight to the death. and lastly, and perhaps the greatest fight of all, Rick must conquer his passions, and prove himself a worthy knight.

The good knight Rick delivers the holy grail to king, saves the queen, outsmarts the local merchants, kills the evil dark knight, and proves himself to be a noble and good knight. He resumes his wanderings, and once again seeks to defend the weak, help the helpless, and live a righteous life.

In a later article, I may look at specific elements of the chivalric code as they apply to Rick.

A few books that inspire me

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about books that inspire

When I think of books that inspire me, it is hard to come up with a list – especially one that is in order. Blaise Pascal’s book Pensees is one that springs readily to mind. It is a collection of short thoughts, that is great for morning reading. I think I read it all in one or two sittings, and that is not the best way to read it, because some of the passages are pretty deep, and require reflection.

Another book that I have read many times, is Sun Tzu The Art of War, this classic book has been reprised by various business writing gurus, and others to the point that it almost becomes a cliché. But don’t let the popularity of the book diminish it. Again, like Pascal, this book is a number of short aphorisms and is well worth spending a week or more in reading and in contemplation.

Another of my favorites is The Analects by Confucius. This is another one of those books where every page is loaded with not one gem, but an entire strand of wisdom. I have read The Analects several times, and each time I walk away with a new appreciation.

I also like poetry. For example the poems of Li Ching-Chao are beautiful. In fact, reading about her life itself is an inspiration. But one can draw inspiration from other places as well. For example, Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus stands as a stark warning to those who pursue knowledge with no inhibitions or restraint. A similar message is also provided by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Biography can often provide sources for inspiration. For example, I spent about half the time I was reading Ray Monk’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius highlighting passages. I came away with a realization that the book was not only talking about Wittgenstein’s duty towards his genius, but also the duty of others towards him in helping him to utilize his genius.

I got a different message when I was reading David Fraser’s Kinights Cross: A life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. In this book, I was struck over and over again how one person in horrible circumstances had to constantly wrestle to balance his perceived duty with is personal sense of honor.

A history book, not a biography, The Cruise of the Sea Eagle by Blaine Pardoetold the story of Count Felix von Luckner during World War I. He was called the Gentleman Pirate, and he typified a person of honor trying to behave with honor in horrible and challenging circumstances.

Why do you read?

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about different reasons for reading

Recently, I was asked on Facebook to suggest some books for a person to read. He said that apparently I read a lot, and therefore would like to see some of my suggestions. I thought about replying directly with a list of some of my favorite books, but even that task would be somewhat daunting. Then it dawned on me that I cannot really make a suggested reading list until I know a persons motivation for reading.

What are my favorite books? The reason that question is tough for me is that I read for many different reasons, and while I may read a great book, for a particular reason, it may not even mean that I even enjoyed the book, or that I would recommend it to someone else. Reading, after all, is an intensely personal activity – and it is one reason that a persons library reading habits should be protected by privacy laws.

So before I can even begin to think about a reading list, I must first examine reasons for reading. I read for the following reasons:

1. To learn things. First of all, I am a learner, a student, someone who is addicted to learning. I learn for the fun and for the pleasure of learning. My interests are varied and wide in this area. I am not just talking about how-to manuals such as How to make hand cut dovetails, or how to use adobe Photoshop. I read philosophy, psychology, math, science, music, art. history, archeology, and yes the ubiquitous how-to books as well. I have recently been reading books about celestial navigation – it is a fascinating subject, and one that I have nearly no hopes of ever being able to use in real life. But to think that there are highways mapped out in the sky is intriguing.

2. To be challenged. Reading provides one with an excellent chance to step outside of ones narrowly defined shell of comfort, and to confront a wide world of strange, and different ideas. Rousseau, Locke, Sartre, Russell, Kant, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and others all form an interesting chorus through which one may wish to set about attempting to harmonize ideas. I like to do the following: pick a writer. Read about the writers life. Read their seminal works. This becomes really important for people such as Wittgenstein whose philosophy was so closely intertwined with their life experiences. To understand the writing it is important to understand the person. At times this also extends to reading a history book or two about the times in which the person lived, although a good biography will bring in some of that type of information.

3. To be inspired. Reading literary friction is a great way to be inspired. Reading biographies of great people is also a great way to be inspired.

4. To be entertained. Reading is a great way to be entertained, to escape from the drudgeries of ones day to day life. It is a great way to see new places, to experience new things, and to walk in the shoes of another character for a few hours. This entertainment can be pure escapist, or it can also teach, challenge, and inspire while also entertaining. If it does that, then it is great literature.

So why do you read? In the next few days I will talk about books that I have read in each of the above categories. In the meantime, if you want something fun to read, try “The Butcherbird” by Geoffrey Cousins an Australian writer. It is a fun, fast paced book set in Sydney (one of my favorite cities in the world).

Its like like, with the boring stuff removed

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about the importance of leaving out the boring stuff

I believe it was the legendary Elmore Leonard who when asked about the secret to his success replied that, “I try to leave out the stuff that people tend to skip over.” While this sounds like simple intuitive advice, it is often one of the hardest things for a new (or even experienced) writer to do. It is because, I, the writer, know my subject and know what I must tell the reader so they will know what I am talking about. This is true in both non-fiction, and in fiction writing as well. Let me first address the non-fiction angle.

Often, a topic needs a background information section. This is commonly called level setting. Advanced readers usually skip over this stuff because they assume they already know the background (many times unfortunately they do not, and when they come to the section where they NEEDED that information, they are often frustrated). Beginners often skip over this section as well because they assume it will be too technical, and they only want to get up and running. So this is a perfect case of the stuff people tend to skip over. Now, as a subject matter expert, I feel the information must be presented. So what can I do? There are three things I can do to help this.

  1. After I write the section, go back over and see what I can delete, and what must stay. Think about moving some of the essential reference information to an appendix. I did this on one of my WMI books, and turned a 65 page boring chapter into a 33 page very compelling chapter. It was thanks to one of my peer reviewers who had the heart to tell me the chapter was boring.
  2. Think of ways to call attention to the essential details. I use all formatting aids at my disposal. Tables, Hints, comments, callouts, readers tips all are fair game if the series style guide permits them. Also think about graphics. I once turned five pages of boring detailed information into a single flow chart. Visio is a great tool for creating professional looking flow charts, and it will export many common formats that are acceptable to publishers. If not, it will usually be good enough to give their in-house graphics team a starting point for what you have in mind.
  3. Break the sections up. Give the section headings compelling names. Instead of a single A level head that is called Background, break it into several lesser headings, and maybe call one the essentials, another how it works, and still another a deep dive. In this way, you are grouping the information for the different levels of writers.

When it comes to fiction writing, I find that writers often become victims of the protagonist’s backstory. Often writing guides have lengthy forms that the writer is supposed to fill out. It includes everything from where the person went to high school, to what the first pet was. After spending weeks on this exercise, the writer is anxious to turn some of this work into page count on the work in progress. So, boom, page after page of boring stuff that readers skip over.

When in doubt, cut it out! Quite often less is more. Do I really need to know if the protagonist is a seven foot tall white guy that resembles a mop? Does this make any difference than if he was a five foot tall person of oriental descent? It might, or it might not. If the stature of the protagonist is going to be important later on in the story, then maybe the detail should be in there. But if not, then leave it out. It don’t matter. For instance, in the first case, the protagonist is captured, and locked in a pit. Ten foot from the floor, is a chain that releases an emergency ladder. Ok. For the seven foot dude, no sweat. For the five foot guy, there must be another avenue of escape. In this example, the detail is important and should be presented. In fact, it is essential to build credibility. If all along I am reading thinking the protagonist is a five foot tall dude ( for example, no mention of him bending down to get into a cap, sitting on his knees when he flies, bumping his head when walking into a diner) and then suddenly he jumps ten feet and escapes, I am going to feel cheated as a reader. 

The absolute most important rule

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about the most important rule when writing either fiction or non-fiction

Show! Don’t Tell. Show, don’t tell. This is the most important rule of all when it comes to writing either fiction or non-fiction. Ok, I don’t really know this to be true, I have done no systematic writers rules analysis, but dude (or dudette) it is important. Here are a couple examples.

Suppose I am writing a fictional work, and my protagonist is angry with someone who is withholding information in a murder investigation. My protagonist knows this person has information, but he cannot prove it. I could write the following:

Petty Officer Bare was angry with Bell. In fact, he was so angry that he could bite nails in half.

In spite of the lame cliché this sentence does not really do too much for my novel. Now, I decide to show that Petty Officer Bare is angry, rather than simply telling you that he is angry.

Petty Officer Bare felt his jaw tighten. His muscles formed tight little knots and throbbed as blood flowed through them. His mouth filled with an iron metal flavor. Damn, he thought, bit my lip again. He spoke softly, and with deliberate punctuation, “Please tell me what you know about Petty Officer Powers murder.”

In Non-Fiction show don’t tell is even more important. How many hours have I wasted trying to find instructions for doing some simple task, and I constantly run across articles that say, “You can have your computer do this.” Ok, I think, and I read the article, but it never tells me HOW to make my computer do this or that. It simply tells me that such a thing is possible. For me these types of articles are worse than useless, they are actually a detriment because they clutter up search engine results, while providing little to the corpus of knowledge on a subject.

Am I being cruel? I don’t think so. Consider this, if I did not know that a particular thing was possible, then obviously I would not be searching for it. The way search engines work (at least today) is that they rarely return something that is not at least somewhat related to what I typed in. Therefore if I am searching for how to enable the screen saver on my computer, I do not need an article telling me that one of the great features of Windows is that I can set my own screen saver – I already know that. What I want to know is where do I go to enable this feature. In other words, show, don’t tell. With technical articles, blogs and books, this often takes the form of a series of screen shots. This is because, most actions on a computer now days, require an entire series of actions, not a simple point and click. At times, this becomes even more confusing because I need to download additional software or drivers, or turn on some obscure advanced feature first. Once again, Show, don’t tell. Show me how to get to the secret location, where I can enable the hidden feature, so that I can turn on the really useful feature.

I think, that with computers at least, many times at least, the problem may be that the writer does not know how to really do it. They made a change away from the default configuration, or installed updates, a long time ago. Therefore, it comes back to how many updates have been applied, how many tweaks have been made. Careful documentation on their part will help. Also create reference, baseline images of installations. Using these baseline images, try to enable the feature. Then document the sequence, and take lots of screen shots.

So, it may not be the most important rule, but Show! Don’t Tell, is certainly one that will transform your writing – regardless of your genre.

The book process–what are the major steps

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about the major states in a book project

I am often asked by people about writing a book. It seems that because people learn how to read and to write in elementary school, they feel they have been writing all their life. Ok, but I played baseball for hours on end in the backyard with my brother. It does mean I am ready for a major league contract.

The thing is that most people have no idea what is involved in writing a book, neither the time commitment nor the steps from idea to publication. I have written 14 non-fiction books in the field of computer science. My books have appeared under most of the major imprints in that area of publishing. The process I describe here applies specifically to that narrow field. Keep in mind that fiction differs a bit, and I will talk about that at a later date.

The major steps going from idea to publication for a non-fiction book:

  1. Come up with a compelling idea
  2. Do market research to see competing titles
  3. Decide hour your book will be different than all the rest
  4. Develop a detailed outline – down to at least the level a b headings
  5. Decide how to group your material into sections – indicate sections in the outline
  6. Shop your outline around for peer review – ideally you should get feedback from at least three or four notables in the field
  7. Write up your proposal, and send it to your agent. Give your agent an idea as to who you think would like the book. If you do not have an agent, then submit it to the various publishers. In your proposal say why you are the person uniquely qualified to write this specific book. Including your previous publishing, blogging, and speaking credentials.
  8. One you sign the contract, begin writing. You will have a deadline, make sure you create a writing schedule to meet that deadline with at least two or three weeks “slop” in it. More is better, but with the field of non-fiction, timing is everything.
  9. Once you complete the first chapter, you will probably want to submit it to the acquisitions editor at the publisher. He or she will do a quick style check to see if everything is groovy. If it is not, he will send the chapter off to editorial for a developmental edit. They will go through it with a fine tooth comb, and it will come back to you with more red on it than the planet Jupiter in the spring. Once you get this, skim it, set it aside, and come back and look at it the next day after you have a chance to calm down. Remember, publishers want you to succeed. They also know their business. Follow their lead and it will be awesome. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn from the best. Take all suggestions to heart, and your final edit will be much smoother and cleaner. Your contract will call for a clean, acceptable manuscript, and you must clear editorial before book heads to the publisher. So learn the ropes here.
  10. If you have been writing while waiting on the developmental edit (a good thing since you have a deadline) then you will need to go back over the stuff you wrote since the first submission. You can do it at night when you are really tired and not feeling like writing, because it is grunt work for the most part. Just part of the drudgery of being a professional writer.
  11. If you are smart, when you were getting peer review for your outline, you were also fishing around for someone to provide peer review for your book as well. If you were, you should begin sending the chapters out to your peers. Keep track and assign deadlines. People work best with deadlines, and you cannot hold up your writing schedule waiting on peer review. You should develop a pool of people willing to do this, also tell them that they do not have to do each chapter, but that they should get any feedback within a week.
  12. Collect peer review for your chapters, and then make the peer review changes as required. Once done, mark it off of your schedule. You finally have a chapter complete (sort of).
  13. Different publishers work differently, but I like the ones that allow me to send in a chapter when it is complete. They will slip stream these into editorial, so that when I complete writing, the book is nearly edited. Others want everything at once, and then they edit the book as a complete entity. This adds several weeks to the schedule, but may produce a more cohesive output. On the other hand, the edit work in progress publishers, can easily catch stuff in mid-stream, that were perhaps missed in the developmental edit, and so results in progressively cleaner chapters. Either which way, there are several edits:
    1. The line edit – this is grammar, clarity, and stuff like that.
    2. The style editor – this is specific to the publisher. Each publisher has their own style guide, that realistically is available to the writer, but no one expects you to become an expert on their own stylistic quirks. This is the style editor job to bring the language into their specific compliance. Also there are style committees, and the style guide is changed semi-annually.
    3. The technical editor – the subject matter expert hired by the publisher to ensure your book is not an embarrassment (to either you or to the publishing house). Of the three, I feel the most important one is the technical editor. The other two, I usually say, ok, whatever. I mean, if they want a comma at the end of a series, or not, what does it mean to me? But if the technical editor wants me to call a double-bamboozled-triple helix a Schwartzkolf knot, then he had better prove it to first with references. I may learn something. It may also be, and often is, the difference between standard academic naming convention and common industry standard naming conventions.
  14. Once each of the different edits are completed, it is time for the once and over. Now, here is the thing, we have peer review comments, we have at least three different editors, as well as my own edits, so the word document is getting pretty busy with all the corrections. I have quite often seen situations where the edits were confusing, and even ended up changing something that was clear and correct into something that was unclear and misleading. This is now the chance to review all of it before it is sent to be paged.
  15. Everything is sent off, and the book is now paged. In the old days, this involved literal setting of type. Now days, modern publishers convert the docs into XML, and feed that to the machines and boom … quickly you will start receiving PDF “page proofs”. This shows how all the figures will look, where the captions will be, how the pages will break, and so forth and so on. This is the last chance to make sure everything is groovy before the book goes to press. Do your work here well. Enlist friends to give it a quick once and over as well. In fact, dozens and dozens of people at the publishing house, the contract editors, the printer, everyone will be looking at this. When it is a go, then they hit print on the big machine, and they do an initial run.
  16. Cool I get my author copies. Each contract, sets forth a specific number of author copies. This has ranged from three copies to more than a dozen copies. Some publishers make it easy for you to get extra copies by buying them essential at cost, and others provide a decent discount. I always give my author copies away to my peer reviewers as a way of saying thanks. My mom and brother often get copies as well.
  17. You will be contacted by the marketing department from the publisher. This step actually varies from publisher to publisher. They will want to know who you know so they can provide review copies to bloggers, book reviewers, and other influential people who will fall in love with your book and add it to the essential references sets.
  18. Cool, now I have a review on Amazon. Bummer it was a bad review. Oh well, remember even Charles Dickens gets bad reviews on Amazon. Let it go. In fact, I seldom check Amazon for my books anymore. I like to look at it before I go to a conference or I speak somewhere, because if I recognize the name, it is really cool to say, thank you for a great review. But other than that, let it go.

So how long does all this take? You should plan on a year of doing nothing but eating / sleeping / working / writing. That is it. Once the author copies arrive, you can take a breather. What now? For me, I like to relax with a good book that is completely different than what I have been writing. Either that, or maybe go spend some time in the woodworking shop doing something different.

Then if you want, after a couple weeks, get back on the horse, and try it again. I hope you have a wonderful day.

Conflict and a lack of resolution

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about the need for conflict in ones writing

One of the themes when I was growing up was, “Why can’t we all just get along.” It was a noble sentiment. There were some who could not even agree on that. Whether getting along is practical or not, one should at least agree that in principal anyway, getting along is a worthy goal. Oh well. Maybe I don’t understand the controversy surrounding getting along with others.

One thing I do know. When writing, we cannot have happy books about happy people doing happy things. Why? Well, it quickly becomes boring. At least so it would appear. Maybe it is boring because, for the most part, our own lives are fairly stress and conflict free. I don’t know, I am not a sociologist. I just know that after a while, books with no conflict quickly end up on the not completed stack in my house.

So there needs to be conflict. How that conflict resolves depends on the nature of the book. If it is a mystery novel, these things are general out of the traditional romance field and so they have somewhat happy endings. Most mysteries the murder is solved. It is a more modern tradition where the criminal gets away with it, but at least the murder is solved. Most of the time, the murder is solved, the murderer is caught and brought to justice in some way.

But along the way, the protagonist is in for a heck of a ride. Everything bad that can happen will generally happen. If it is easy, then the task is not worthy of the protagonist. This springs from the early epic traditions. The hero is a normal flawed individual, who using a peculiar set of skills solves the mystery. Sometimes it is a piece of trivia that unlocks the mystery – such as how long it takes to cook traditional grits. At other times, it is simply the ability to keep on asking questions to the point of annoying a suspect. This is the, “Oh by the way sir. One more thing…..” The antagonist invariably falls into the trap of their own hubris.

So we love our heroes. We give them certain abilities, and then set their world upside down. It is a strange world, but also it is a pretty safe bet that the protagonist will be in peril often, but will also … just barely … squeak by. Conflict. But safe conflict. And know the hero will not die.