When Submarines Were New

Ever wonder what it must have been like to serve on a submarine in World War I? You can’t visit or tour one, since there are no U.S. subs from that war on display. You may have seen and walked through a WW II sub in a museum, or seen one in a movie, but the earlier WW I subs are a mystery to most of us.

Recently, one of my wife’s relatives loaned me the journal of her grandfather, a submariner in WW I. I eagerly read it, and now offer you the following description.

Submarine L-10 (SS-50)

Chief Machinist’s Mate Frank Laugel served aboard the submarine USS L-10 (SS-50). (Back then, they didn’t give submarines names, only alphanumeric designations.) His journal covers the period from Monday, December 3, 1917 to Saturday, February 1, 1919.

The book itself is a U.S. Navy ledger book with lined pages; the cover is brown with purple trim. The binding is covered and protected with gray duct tape. Laugel began writing on page 1 and ended on 106 of 200. His cursive writing is quite legible, and I rarely had to pause to decipher a word. There are oil or grease stains on some pages.

The journal begins by chronicling the sub’s departure from Newport, Rhode Island on December 4, 1917 in the company of other submarines and the submarine tender USS Bushnell (AS-2), the crossing of the Atlantic and arrival at Port Delgado on Sao Miguel Island in the Azores on December 19.

They left Sao Miguel on December 30 to continue the crossing. The crew lost a man overboard, a gunner’s mate, on January 24, 1918. They arrived in Bantry Bay, Ireland on January 26, 1918.

The L-10 and its crew spent the war operating in and around Bantry Bay, going out for short excursions and returning to tie up alongside USS Bushnell. They saw little war action. They rarely sighted an enemy and never sunk anything.

The submarine left Ireland on Friday, January 3, 1919 and arrived at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on Saturday, February 1, the date of the final journal entry.

When the sub is at sea, Laugel’s entries carefully record the weather, the time of day the ship dives and surfaces, the depths they reach, and the number of engines running at any time. He identifies the other ships they sighted.

Laugel’s in-port journal entries state when other ships, both U.S. and allied, arrive and leave. He details the equipment that breaks aboard the sub and it seems he spends most of his days in port fixing things or cleaning the boat.

L-10 moored with her sister boats in British waters in 1918. The “A” (for “American”) was added to avoid confusion with British L-class submarines.

Journals are personal logs, begun for various personal reasons. A journal writer never intends for others to read his words, and therefore excludes things with which he’s intimately aware and feels no need to describe.

That’s true with Laugel’s journal. His entries are extremely impersonal. Except for a few brief mentions of the captain, he never mentions the names of any fellow crewmen, including the one lost overboard. Absent is any description of the submarine itself, or what life aboard was like.

Perhaps some of that is due to security restrictions, but then why did he feel free to note the submarine’s depth and the sightings of other vessels? Moreover, there would be nothing classified about his liberty time ashore, yet these entries contain equally sparse descriptions of this time, with brief mentions that he “went out to dinner…went to a dance…went to a movie…”

The closest Laugel gets to anything personal is in noting the receipt of every letter from Frieda, his girlfriend. He also mentions the occasional chances he gets to talk to Walter, presumably a relative or friend assigned to a different ship.

If Laugel feared death due to enemy action or submarine malfunction, he didn’t feel a need to write about it. There is one brief mention about the risks of war, and his attitude about that is philosophical.

L-10 moored with sister boats at the Philadelphia Navy Yard soon after her 1 February 1919 return to the U.S.

A journal-writer is often so close to events that he cannot know what will be important to others. Laugel describes the initial crossing of the Atlantic as mostly routine, free of drama. Yet, according to the Wikipedia entry on USS L-10, the submarine’s captain, Lieutenant Commander James C. Van de Carr, received the Navy Cross for his distinguished service.

In part, that citation reads, “While en route from Newport to the Azores, the submarine which he commanded was separated from the escort and the other submarines of the squadron, leaving him without a rendezvous. He thereupon proceeded to destination successfully, assuming the great responsibility of starting a 1,700-mile Atlantic Ocean run in winter weather and in a submarine of a class that had never been considered reliable under such conditions.”

From the journal, I can infer some things about Laugel, but these are just suppositions. Assuming he took the same care with the sub’s engines that he did in penning his journal, he was in large part responsible for the sub’s successful ocean crossing. A strong sense of humility must have prevented him from taking credit for any significant repairs; he only mentions team efforts, that “we” did this or that. I also sense he was a practical and methodical man, reserving his strong emotions for Frieda alone.

I’m grateful for the chance to read Frank Laugel’s journal, and I shouldn’t criticize him for writing in such a dry style. He was a machinist’s mate scribbling in a journal for his own reasons. He wasn’t writing a novel or a movie script.

Frank Laugel, along with all U.S. submariners, has earned the unending admiration of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Fiction Writing: Not Your Normal Day Job

If you work at a typical desk job and want to write fiction at night, be prepared. The two occupations are not at all alike. But what if your day job suddenly got altered to be more like fiction writing? Let’s find out what that would be like.

You wake up at whatever time you like; you’re now setting your own hours. There’s no commute. You telework every day. No one sees you working, or checks on your progress. There are no meetings, no boring chats by the coffee machine, and no lunches with clients. Knock off early every day if you want; nobody cares how long you work.

Sounds like a dream job, right? There’s a down side.

Sitting at your computer, you produce your first work product of the day. (What’s the product? I don’t know; we’re talking about your current day job.) You e-mail it to your boss and wait. A few hours later, your boss e-mails you back to say the product didn’t suit her needs. She says she can’t accept it.

You’re stunned. She’s rejected your work. How can she do that? You know this job well and have worked at it for years. You e-mail her back asking what sort of product she needs, and asking what’s specifically wrong with the one you sent. She answers that she’s looking for really compelling products the customer will like. Moreover, she receives too many product submissions to list the deficiencies with each one; she only has time to accept or reject.

Her e-mail concludes on a positive and unexpected note, wishing you well with the product, adding that you can submit to any other department head in the company. That’s weird, you think. It’s as if, all of a sudden, you have more than one boss.

With some trepidation, you submit the work product to another department head. An hour later, he responds, thanking you but also saying it doesn’t suit his needs. You’re disappointed, but not shocked. By now, you’re catching on to the new company procedure and you simply submit your product to a different department head.

During the next two weeks, you submit it to every department head and all of them reject your product. Some take less than an hour to respond, but others take days. While waiting on them, you’ve been able to do other stuff around the house, watch some movies, and hit the bar scene on a few nights. The rejections distress you, though; things never used to be that way.

Ah, well, at least it’s payday, finally. Checking your bank account, you’re stunned to discover there’s been no money deposited to your account. You call the Pay Department, and the representative explains you had no products accepted during the pay period, so there’s no pay. The company is no longer on a salary system; they pay you only for accepted products, and calculate the amount based on customer purchases.

Hanging up the phone, you have a “We’re not in Kansas anymore” moment. In this new system, you realize you’ll have to churn out products fast, keep circulating them, and hope a few get accepted and that customers like them.

E-mailing a few friendly co-workers, you discover most are in the same boat, with zero pay. Word has it that one employee tripled her monthly income, but was told that was no guarantee of future earnings.

Welcome, fellow worker, to the fiction writing biz, where success is rare, and determined in part by how well you learn your craft and whether a fickle public likes your stories. You can complain the system’s unfair or rigged, but whining probably won’t make you feel better, and sure won’t change anything.

Fortunately, day jobs aren’t set up like the writing business. Still, writing makes a highly enjoyable hobby for most authors. Among them is—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Dissing the Dys-Dys

After reading Henry Farrell’s essay “Philip K. Dick and the Fake Humans” in the Boston Review, I felt compelled to comment.

Farrell’s essay is fascinating and well written, if somewhat unfocused. He begins by stating that literary dystopias suffer from a flaw in that all their mechanisms for controlling people are 100% functional. The devices used by dictators to keep people down always work. A more realistic depiction of a dystopia would include breakdowns, bugs, faults, etc.

He cites, for example, our own modern world where computers collect data on all of us, but the algorithms are glitch-prone and the software is just as likely to backfire against the programmers. Farrell then discusses how our cyber-modernity merges real and unreal, with bots, fake identities, avatars, etc.

Philip K. Dick

This, Farrell says, is Philip K. Dick’s future, not Aldous Huxley’s or George Orwell’s. The remainder of the essay delves into Dick’s books and that author’s themes of dysfunctional worlds and the blending of real with unreal. The essayist makes several comparisons between Dick’s stories and our world today.

Much of Farrell’s essay is a celebration of Philip K. Dick’s work. I haven’t read much by PKD, just the collection Minority Report and Other Stories, which includes “The Minority Report,” “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” “Paycheck,” “Second Variety,” and “The Eyes Have It.” These tales show Dick’s tendency to fuse real and unreal, and feature unexpected plot twists.

It’s a thought-provoking essay, and it provoked several for me. First, no author who writes a book set in the future has ever gotten it completely right. Nor does any author expect to. The human world is too complex to capture in a story. Orwell and Huxley weren’t writing to predict, so much as to warn. I’m sure the same is true of Philip K. Dick.

Even if all three authors had been in the forecasting business, it’s expected, not remarkable, that the one born in 1928 would come closer to envisioning our modern world than the ones born in 1903 or 1894.

There’s a reason technology never breaks down in most literary dystopias. The point of these stories is to show the effect of a well-functioning freedom-crushing government on humans, to show an individual’s struggle against that society, whether futile or successful. If the machinery of a dystopian regime were glitchy and error-ridden, that would lessen the intensity of the conflict.

“Brazil” movie poster
Scene from “Modern Times”

Moreover, writers other than Philip K. Dick have explored dysfunctional dystopias (hmmm…dys-dys?) before. For me, the 1985 movie Brazil, written and directed by Terry Gilliam, comes to mind. The 1936 film Modern Times, with Charlie Chaplin, could be another example. These depictions inject hiccups and goof-ups into their dystopias, making them not only humorous but also more realistic, more human. When done well, such stories still bring out the basic human-vs.-society conflict that is the essence of dystopian literature.

I commend Henry Farrell for his fascinating essay, with its detailed comparisons of PKD’s stories to modern life. However, I’m not ready to classify our real world as a dystopia, or utopia. We’re somewhere in-between. Things would have to get much, much worse before I’d classify our world as a dystopia, whether of the functional or dysfunctional variety. Sorry if it seems like I’ve been dissing the dys-dys, but that’s just me being—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Your Author Photo

These days, if you’re going to be an author, you need an author photo. When you get yours taken, it needs to be better than mine in several ways.

First, why do you need an author photo? Maybe you’d prefer not to have one, believing your image will turn readers away. If so, ask yourself if you’ve ever refused to buy a book because of the picture of the author. Nobody does that. For the real people who will buy your book, it’s comforting for them to see what kind of real person wrote it.

Mary Robinette Kowal listed the four functions of an author photo, but those functions boil down to one idea: it’s a selling tool.

If we analyze my author photo, we can identify several things I did wrong:

  1. I didn’t hire a professional photographer. Hannah Collins emphasized that in her post on author photos. Instead, I asked my wife, who is not a photographer, “Honey, would you take a picture of me?” Ever helpful and supportive, she replied, “Do I have to?”
  2. We didn’t take many shots from which to choose. Vicki Lesage had hundreds of shots taken. My wife snapped one and my session was over.
  3. The setting isn’t indicative of my genre. Kat said the mood of the pic should match the mood of your books. My outdoor photo shows green foliage behind me as I wear a red shirt. Can you tell anything about my genre from that?
  4. It’s oriented as a portrait, not landscape. Thomas Umstattd stressed that point, since a photographer can do a lot with the side space, and a publisher can crop the photo to a portrait if necessary. My wife and I gave no thought to that.
  5. The photo lacks props. Both Ms. Collins and Ms. Lesage suggested using minimal props, the latter saying it’s an author photo, not a garage sale. However, I used no props at all.
  6. I didn’t use lighting to the best effect. Chris Robley advised you to play around with lighting to bring out the best image of you. My wife and I didn’t consider that for a moment.
  7. I didn’t bring several outfit changes to the photo shoot. Randy Susan Meyers said that’s important because you may not know in advance what clothes will look best in the photo. I showed up with one shirt…way too few.
  8. I didn’t wear makeup. Ms. Kowal believed even guys can benefit from makeup. Maybe so, but I didn’t use it for my photo, and wouldn’t know where to begin.

Even though I did many things ‘wrong,’ I think my wife took a good photo, considering whom she had to work with as a subject. It works reasonably well as a selling tool. Look at the picture again. It’s clearly the image of a guy whose books you’d like to read. Those eyes and that smile mesmerize you; you feel compelled by irresistible forces to drop what you’re doing and buy books written by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Writing with Spectators

In his book The Way the Future Was, the late science fiction author Frederik Pohl stated, “Writing is not a spectator sport.” Oh, yeah? I set out to prove him wrong.

I rented a football stadium, hired two commentators, and advertised for several thousand of my fans to watch me write. Here’s the transcript, as broadcast:

Pat: “It’s a beautiful afternoon here at the stadium and we’ve got quite a crowd for this amazing event. Wouldn’t you say so, John?”

John: “No doubt about that, Pat, weather-wise and crowd-size-wise. But this is the first time I’ve covered one of these writer athletes, and I’m not sure what to expect.”

Pat: “It’s a first for both of us. Look, the writer himself has entered the field and is making his way to the center, and the crowd’s cheering.”

John: “I like his confidence. You can see it in his walk. He’s not swaggering or strutting, just striding with confidence. I like that.”

Pat: “Tonight’s writer is Steven R. Southard. He’s been writing for several seasons already, and his career is on an upswing. He’s reached midfield now and is sitting at the desk there. The crowd is settling down. I’m guessing things will start soon.”

John: “I’m a bit confused, Pat. There’s no team with him. No opposing team out there, either. Not a single referee, and no coaches pacing the sidelines.”

Pat: “I guess that’s the way writing is, John. Must be a solitary thing. Look, Steve has turned on his computer. The stadium scoreboard is off so I don’t know if time has started or not.”

John: “I think we must have a second-rate writer, here, Pat. This guy is just staring into space. He hasn’t typed a thing. Now he’s sipping some coffee. I sorta expected more action, typing-wise.”

Pat: “Maybe fiction writing isn’t all typing. Apparently there is some amount of thinking involved, too.”

John: “If he keeps this up, he’s going to be traded in the off-season. This is just the kind of lazy work ethic that…hold on. He’s typing on the keyboard now. He’s actually typing.”

Pat: “True, John, he is. We can’t see the words from here. We’ll see if we can get a close-up view. He’s definitely pounding out some prose.”

John: “And the crowd’s getting into it, too. They can sense the energy. Still, he might want to work on his posture, because—uh, oh. He stopped. Did he call for a timeout? We’re back to that staring-into-space play that didn’t work before. How many timeouts do they allow in this sport?”

Pat: “I’m not sure, but we’re going to cut to a commercial break. Don’t change the channel, folks. There’s more exciting action coming up.”


Pat: “We’re back, live at the stadium. There was some activity during the break.”

John: (odd sound, possibly yawning) “Yeah, but it was the wrong kinda action, Pat. No typing at all. Southard got up from his chair and paced around the desk a few times, gesturing and talking to himself. He’s not going to get any stories written that way.”

Pat: “He sure isn’t. A lot of fans seem to agree too, and are leaving for the parking lot. It’s hard to know if our writer is making any progress down there on the field.”

John: “Progress? He hardly moves. I can’t stand this anymore. This isn’t a sport! The boredom is killing me. I’d rather watch goalposts rust, or wait for Astroturf to grow. I’m leaving.”

Pat: “We’ve only been here fifteen minutes, John.”

John: “Then why do I feel fifteen years older, age-wise?”

The broadcast ended soon after that when both commentators and all the camera operators left. Perhaps Frederik Pohl was right after all, um, correctness-wise. From now on, writing will return to being a non-spectator event for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Writing Aloud

Most writers type the first drafts of their stories. A few, like me, hand-write their first drafts. Perhaps you’d like to try a third way…dictating your stories.

That’s right. Forget the keyboard or pen. Just speak your story into a recording device.


Why might you want to do that? On her site, Cindy Grigg offers 13 compelling reasons. I was struck by the first one, speed. After getting used to dictating stories, many writers find they can crank out their first draft prose much faster. That saves time and makes them more prolific.

Thomas A. Edison dictating in 1907

You might also benefit from the increased mobility. Speaking into your handheld digital voice recorder or cellphone, you’re freed from the shackles of your desk and chair and the need to have two hands on a keyboard. You can wander around the house, around the neighborhood, through the nearest park. The walking (1) keeps you healthier, (2) avoids any chance of eye strain or repetitive motion injuries, and (3) provides more varied stimulation for your senses that you can work into your fiction.

I think Grigg is onto something, too, in listing strengthened storytelling voice as another advantage. I’ve advised writers to read near-final drafts aloud before submitting them as a way of improving readability. Why not speak it aloud from the start?

Further, when dictating, it’s easier to turn off your inner editor. I’ve mentioned before how important that is when creating your first draft.


The objective is to get words from your head into word processor text. When you type on a keyboard, the process is direct. If you write by hand, there’s another step when you transcribe from your handwritten pages and type it on the keyboard.

For dictation methods, you can speak into your computer microphone or your cellphone and make use of speech recognition software to convert your words directly into digital text.

Or you can use a digital voice recorder or cell phone to record your voice into a .wav or MP3 format. Then you’ll go through a second step, to transcribe the words from one of those formats into the word processor. You can do that by (1) listening and typing them yourself, (2) paying someone else to do that, like Kevin J. Anderson does, or (3) playing your voice back into your computer’s speech recognition software.

The Adjustment

Shifting from typing or handwriting to dictation takes some getting used to. Be prepared for some discomfort at first. According to Monica Leonelle, in her interview with Joanna Penn, the shift can take a few months before you’re used to it.

My Experience

A few years ago, I tried Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition software. I was able to train the Dragon, but I couldn’t get comfortable speaking my first drafts that way. I returned to writing by hand.

I’m having second thoughts about dictation now. For years, I’ve adapted my fiction writing to accommodate my day job. I’ll be retiring soon, so my writing habits will have to change. Perhaps writing aloud will prove to be the new optimum method for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

22 Ways to Celebrate Science Fiction Day

Today is National Science Fiction Day. Wait…National SF Day? Since no nation officially recognizes it, I suggest we rename it Galactic Science Fiction Day. After all, the Milky Way Galaxy has officially recognized it. Don’t believe me? Prove me wrong.

Dr. Isaac Asimov

January 2 is an apt date for SF Day. It’s Isaac Asimov’s birthday. Maybe. I seem to recall reading that Isaac wasn’t 100% sure of his birthdate. That ambiguity makes the date even more fitting.

Also, January 2 is so close to the beginning of the year that it seems to retain a connection to the recent past while also causing us to think about the promise of the year ahead. Rather a nice metaphor for SF.

If you’re wondering just how to celebrate SF Day, well, fellow Earthling, you’ve beamed to the right blog post. Here’s a list of 22 ways to celebrate. I hoped to list all 42 ways, but Heinlein’s Star Beast ate 20 of them.

  1. Read a SF short story or novel. If you need a suggestion for which to read, may I (ahem) recommend any of my stories? Click the Stories tab. Or you could read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, a classic that’s 200 years old this year.
  2. Watch a SF movie or TV show. Luckily, there are plenty of quality choices these days.

That takes care of the two obvious ways to celebrate. Now on to the more unconventional ways:

  1. Prepare and serve some SF-themed food and drink. You can get some great ideas for this in posts by Mike Brotherton, Meg Shields, Meredith Woerner and at a site called aliencuisine.com. There are, by the way, at least two mixed drink recipes called the Captain Nemo—this one, and this one.
  2. Listen to some SF-inspired music. You have plenty from which to choose, including movie and TV show sound tracks and various SF-inspired rock songs.
  3. Dress as your favorite SF character.
  4. Play a SF-themed video game.
  5. Write a fan email or letter to your favorite (living) SF author. (The Poseidon’s Scribe blog accepts comments. Just saying.)
  6. Write a review of a favorite SF story or novel.
  7. Build a model of your favorite SF vehicle.
  8. Grab a partner and play a game of 3-dimensional chess.

If your celebratory mood takes a creative twist, consider the following:

  1. Compose, or just hum, your very own SF song.
  2. Draw a picture of a musical instrument of the future.
  3. Write a SF-inspired poem.
  4. Imagine how life could be different for someone like you living 100 or 1000 years from now.
  5. Pick a current trend you’ve observed (social, governmental, or any type of trend), and extrapolate it in your mind, imagining the future implications.
  6. Make a list of possible future sports, or ways science may influence current sports.
  7. Draw or write a description of the most bizarre alien you can think of.
  8. Draw or write a description of your own SF vehicle. It can be any type of vehicle, traveling through (or within or athwart, or whateverwhichway) any medium.
  9. Draw or write a description of the house (or other building) of the future.
  10. Imagine what your current job will be like for workers 100 or 1000 years from now.
  11. Imagine your favorite super-power. What is it? What problems might occur if you had it? What scientific advances might have to happen for you to get that super-power?
  12. Write an outline for your own SF story or novel or screenplay. Or write the whole tale.

Happy Natio—er, I mean Galactic Science Fiction Day. Perhaps you can think of ways to celebrate that are beyond the imagination of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Orwell or Wells—Can Science Save Humanity?

Will Science save humankind, or lead us to our doom? The Internet is buzzing lately with various online outlets reprinting this article by Richard Gunderman in The Conversation, about a debate between H. G. Wells and George Orwell on this topic.

H.G. Wells, best known for his science fiction novels such as The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, believed science was the best hope for humanity’s future. George Orwell, an essayist, critic, and author of 1984 and Animal Farm, took a less optimistic view.

The article makes it sound like a lively back-and-forth argument ensued, but from the essays cited, it seems rather one-sided. In the early 1940s, H.G. Wells was in his late 70s and near death. George Orwell was in his late 30s, (though not too far from his own death at 46). From what I can glean, this was mostly Orwell criticizing Wells, not the other way around.

Before we explore the ‘debate,’ let me define terms. Science is a systematic process for gaining knowledge about the universe through experimentation. Since it involves the accumulation of knowledge, it’s unlikely that Science, by itself, can either save or destroy humanity. I think of Engineering as the application of scientific knowledge to design, invent, and produce useful products.

When both Wells and Orwell refer to Science, I think they meant to include Engineering. For the purpose of this blogpost, I’ll use that same shorthand meaning of Science.

Wells grew up in an era far different from Orwell’s. He saw the rapid development of science—automobiles, submarines, airplanes, relativity, skyscrapers, rocketry, and medicine—and foresaw amazing wonders that would benefit mankind. He figured the same scientific process that could produce those wonders could also lead to better government if we placed scientists in charge.

Let’s give Wells some credit, though. He was no Pollyanna. Many of his novels portrayed the misuse of science for destructive ends. But George Orwell seized on some of Wells’ more optimistic—though lesser known—writings.

In the early 1940s, Orwell watched with growing horror at the growth of Hitler’s Germany and saw it as the embodiment of Wells’ ideas, a nation of submarines, rockets, and airplanes, with science-minded people running the show. To Orwell, Deutschland was no Utopia. He castigated Wells in a couple of scathing essays.

In his article in The Conversation, Gunderman claims the debate is still relevant today. It’s been 75 years since Orwell penned his criticisms; have we learned enough to settle the argument?

Since that time, Science has split the atom to provide electricity, visited the Marianas Trench, landed on the Moon, built and commercialized the Internet, put instant communication in our pockets, sent probes to explore the outer planets, multiplied crop yields, mapped the human genome, and extended lifespans through medical breakthroughs.

On the other hand, Science also brought us nuclear weapons, the Apollo 1 fire and two space shuttle disasters, Chernobyl, computer viruses, armed drones, and electronic spying. Soon, perhaps, an artificial intelligence Singularity may be looming.

In my view, science is a tool, like a knife or hammer. People can use it for good or evil. It amplifies our capacity for both. The concepts of good or evil reside in the individual human mind. To ask if Science will save humanity is like asking if a hammer will save humanity. It depends on how we use the tool.

The real question is whether our good natures will prevail over our evil ones. I think there are far more good people than evil ones, but the evil ones have greater influence per capita. For some reason, a few clever evil people can sway many good people to their side.

So far, across the span of human time our good natures have won out and the products of science have proffered more benefits than harm. On average, life is better now than in the past, for most. But it’s a close thing, and our history shows frequent backsliding.

Whether humanity achieves Utopia, destroys itself, or some outcome in between, Science will deserve neither credit nor blame. Only the human capacity for love or hate will determine our future. And that’s the realm of fiction writers like—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Defeating Distraction, Finding Focus

You’re writing at a good pace, but then get distracted, torn away from your story. You hate when that happens, but sometimes the diversion is irresistible. What causes that, and how can you prevent it?

We live in a distraction-rich environment. Even before the Internet, there were rooms to clean, library books to return, lawns to mow, desk items to straighten, and windows to gaze through. Today, there are Facebook posts to like, tweets to retweet, texts to answer, online stores to shop in, blog posts to read, and new sites to explore.

Still, this tendency to get distracted doesn’t make sense, does it? You sat down fully intending to write your story. Then things went awry; that best-laid plan went askew, you diverted to a tangent. Why does that happen?

Let’s separate two types of distraction—external and internal—and tackle each separately.

External Distractions

These attack you from outside and appeal to one or more senses. A funny show comes on TV, a favorite song blares from the radio, the cat snuggles against you, a pleasant aroma wafts from the kitchen.

The cure for these might seem simple; just eliminate external sources of distraction. Write in a bare, soundproof room with the door shut, on a computer disconnected from the net.

That might work for some, but for many of us it’s not practical. It’s better to start by eliminating your most common, most alluring distractions if you can. As for the others, learn to become aware when a distractor is pulling you away. At the onset of each distraction, make a conscious decision to allow it or not.

Consider setting up a “focus object,” an inspirational something to redirect you toward your story, akin to the busts of Beethoven atop pianos. I made a framed picture of Jules Verne with the caption “Keep writing, Steve,” and mounted it above my desk. Pick a focus object specific to you and glance at it when you feel the tug of some external interruption.

Internal Distractions

The internal ones are worse, since your own mind assails you and there’s no one else to blame. Your mind wanders away from your story and suddenly there’s something else needing your attention. You have a bill due today; this story idea needs additional research; you’re wondering what that old high school friend is up to.

These generally occur when you’re stuck and need to solve an unexpected story problem. You feel you have to pause and think before writing further. That’s the moment when your brain takes a meandering walk.

As with external distractions, part of the cure is learning to recognize the distraction at the moment it occurs. If you were truly stuck just before that instant, maybe a short break is just the thing you need. Your subconscious can work on the problem while you’re engaged in the distracting activity.

If you were making progress right before that moment, ask yourself this question: “Is this the best use of my time right now?” On occasion, the distraction will be the best answer. Most times, you’ll realize you should return to your story.

Final Thoughts

Visualization is another technique for dealing with distractions. Keep a vision of you finishing your story, admiring it, and submitting it for publication. Think of how good that will feel. Use that vision to get you focused back on writing.

Recognize, too, that you can’t stay focused forever. You need to give your brain a rest. The Pomodoro Technique can be a way to promote both proper focusing and reasonable breaks.

You’ll find more great advice on dealing with distractions at this post by Leo Babauta and this one by Margarita Tartakovsky.

I hope you enjoyed… Sorry, I’ve got to go. Something else has attracted the attention of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

4 Ways to Fix the Boring Parts

Alfred Hitchcock once said, “Drama is life with the dull parts cut out of it.” Is that the secret to good fiction writing? Can it be that simple?

Let’s say you’re looking over the story you just finished writing and you see a section where the action really drags. While writing, it seemed necessary to describe a scene fully or explain a character’s backstory so later plot actions would make sense. Now you’re torn. Should you follow Hitchcock’s advice and just cut that section, or leave it in at the risk of boring your readers?

I recommend using the following process to deal with boring sections of your story:

  1. No matter what the nature of boring part, and no matter what attribute makes it boring, ask if you really need it at all. If readers can still follow the plot or identify with the characters without that part, or if it’s some superfluous tangent, then obey Alfred and cut it out. (Okay, you can save the text in some ‘deleted darlings’ file for use in a different story if you want, but cut it out of this one.)
  2. If the boring part of your story feels like the action is dragging and it could use some interesting twist, see author Steve Parolini’s entertaining post. He’ll delight you with 12 plot twists you can use. As you read them, you’ll realize there are many more; the dozen he gives you may suggest others that will fit your story better. Note: these twists may well send your story in unplanned (but definitely unboring) directions.
  3. If the boring part is a setting depiction, or a description of character backstory, or a detailed explanation of some aspect of the story, it’s possible you really do need to convey that information somehow. That part, though currently boring, is necessary for the reader to enjoy or understand the story. For this situation, turn to this post by mooderino, (which also has a wonderfully fitting image), who provides three options for that boring part:
    1. Move it later. Don’t put it at the beginning, but save it for a point when the reader is hooked on the story and the protagonist.
    2. Move it to a scene when that character is alone. The reader isn’t expecting much action in these scenes, and the reader is catching her breath from a previous action scene.
    3. Split it up and sprinkle it around. Perhaps you can insert pieces of the information into more interesting scenes, thus allowing those details to emerge as the story moves along.
  4. If none of the preceding steps really work for you; if that boring part reveals something important about the plot, character, or setting; then take the risk and leave it right where it is. That’s the advice of author Richard Riley in this post. You might just want to edit that boring part to put more energy in the words, but other than that, just leave it.

If this has helped you deal with a boring section of your story, leave a comment, but be careful not to wake up—

Poseidon’s Scribe