Monday, December 24, 2012

A Timely Notion

"Life gets so much better when you give up on Perfect and set your sights on Better Than It Was Before."It's not my failure to post a new entry that depresses me.  It's my failure to even realize that I hadn't.  I feel I'm descending to a whole new level of depravity, here.  Pretty soon I'll be pouring Wild Turkey over my cereal, eating it out of a frisbee at 4 AM while arguing with the teevee, and wondering dimly who wet my pants.

But!  Until then, here is a piece of word art that my fantastic and totally undeserved buddy DR34MR made out of something I posted a little while ago.  (Y'all check her out - she is so unbelievably real.  The kind of gal who can tell a stain from twenty feet, and wear Cheerios in her hair with more class and style than ever came out of a bottle of Clairol.)

Anyway, I think it is especially appropriate here over the holidays, when things often don't turn out as splendid and lovely as Norman Rockwell promised they would, and it is too easy to blame yourself for letting down Martha Stewart, Bing Crosby, and the good people of the KISS Christmas Special. 

So here's to love, imperfection, and contentment, y'all.  Let's see if we can coax our ambitions out of that fancy get-up and into a nice pair of gravy-stained sweat pants.


--Hang on, Santa. We're coming.
--Hurry, boys. The eggs are hatching!
--What do we do?
--Wait a second. Everyone knows pterodactyls can't stand the screech of a guitar!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

10 Things I Learned From Watching "Skyfall"

Well, I tried to cut this for spoilers, but I can't get the dang cut to work.  So let me do this the old fashioned way and say

Hey

There's some spoilers here.

So probably you should see the movie first.

With that said...

10 Things I Learned From Watching "Skyfall"

1. If a female agent has a hard time driving big cars and assassinating bad guys, she'd probably be happier as a secretary.

2. Corollary to #1: if you have to fire a woman for gross incompetence, make sure you replace her with a man ASAP. 

3. Flicking your cigarette butt into a coworker's drink is a fun way to show how you respect her as a colleague and an equal.

4. Surprising a rape survivor in her shower is a great way to get laid.

5. Using a woman for target practice is *definitely* a waste of good Scotch.

6. Homosexuals are bad people who will molest you at the first opportunity. 

7. Corollary to #6: any good guys who happen to be homosexual will have the decency to keep that to themselves.

8. Nerds can type on their little keyboards all they want, but if you need to crack the unbreakable computer code, let a real man take a look at it.

9. Corollary to #8: you probably shouldn't have let Poindexter play with it in the first place - he's only going to make a bigger mess.

10. It's okay to be a physically and mentally unfit alcoholic pillhead who botches jobs and gets people killed, as long as you get the bad guy.

Look, I know it's supposed to be a fun spy movie, not a monumental step forward in the quest for diversity and social progress.  And I get that this is the James Bond franchise, not the MI6 Justice Friends.  He's the hero, so he's supposed to do most of the cool stuff and have all the deep and interesting flaws.

But that's exactly the problem.  If James Bond is a flawed hero, then I'm supposed to ride along in his head and root for him while he makes terrible decisions and treats women like garbage.  If he's a fundamentally broken anti-hero and we're *not* meant to identify with him, then this is basically a story about a guy who is rewarded for being a terrific asshole, mostly by virtue of being the least incompetent person in the movie.

I dunno.  This thing is currently sitting on $260 million and 92% on the Tomatometer, so it's clearly given a lot of people some solid entertainment.  But I'll say this much: anyone who still wants to lament America's descent into a dark age of political correctness needs to clam up and catch another matinee.

What do you say about a man like that?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Writer's Digestion: After the Elephant

I'm sure you guys have heard it before.  When you're despairing over your writing and how unfathomably far you have to go, some angelic soul will invariably offer you a comforting pat on the back and that sage advice: "it's like eating an elephant: just take it one bite at a time."

So you tie your bib like the obi sash of a battle-hardened samurai, daub HP sauce under your eyes, and make valkyries of your knife and fork, until the bones of your enemy lie devastated and fleshless before you.

There are other elephants after that, of course.  Some smaller, others tougher, maybe one or two abandoned halfway through the brisket, when the sun and the flies beat you to the punch.  But you sharpen your eating-irons and step up your game, until - an indeterminate tonnage of meat later - you finally achieve that coveted Diners Club card, and entry into the blessed realm of Cornutopia.

Where you are woefully unprepared for what awaits you.


The Writer's Food Pyramid?

It's wonderful, of course.  No more sweating over a solitary carcass: here, you are seated amidst the beautiful people, with ten thousand delectable niceties passed from one illustrious peer to the next.  The variety is astonishing, delightful; the camaraderie intoxicating; the honor immense.

Until you notice that you're falling behind.  More and more goodies pile up on your plate, untasted, growing cold, as you frantically stuff yourself, marveling in despair at the swift, graceful ease with which your betters not only seem to dispatch every dish - website Wellington, chicken-fried conference, blog au jus - but keep carving themselves fresh slices of elephant all the while.  And then you begin to wonder whether the unsettled churning in your gut is indigestion, or the bile-soaked fear that you just might not belong here after all.

Or maybe you don't.  Maybe you were smarter than me and didn't spend five years living exclusively on malt liquor and elephant.  Maybe you started working this other stuff into your regimen a long time ago.

But if you didn't or haven't or just started wondering what might happen when you finally do start to get somewhere, I'll tell you what I've figured out so far.

1.  If you feel overwhelmed by it all, it's probably because you're still trying to do All of Something, and it's hard to switch to Some of Everything.

2.  Nobody else is really doing All of Everything, even if it looks like they are.

3.  Since you can't possibly do All of Everything, you might as well focus on the Somethings that you actually enjoy, and the ones that will get you closer to your goals.  (The more closely you can align those two, the better.)

4.  Ultimately, the worst thing you can do is Nothing.

5.  Life gets so much better when you give up on Perfect and set your sights on Better Than It Was Before.

And because I can't resist: apologies to everyone, for everything.  There's so much I'm dying to write and read and talk about, and all I want for Christmas is to sit down and interbrain with you.  Gimme a few more days to make it home again, and I will pre-empt the hell out of Santa.

If you could put my lunch in a blender and liquefy it and put it into a caulking gun and then inject it right into my femoral artery, even better.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Next Big Thing: One Night in Sixes

Not going to lie: getting invited to participate in my very first blog hop is pretty dang exciting.  It's like I can close my eyes and hear Oprah asking the questions.  (A book club selection?  Oh, O, you shouldn't have!)

Ten thousand thanks to K.E. Skedgell for officially tagging me in to the Cool Kids Club.  Here we go!

What is your working title of your book?

One Night in Sixes.  Because some hack already took Tombstone, and The Good, the Bad, and the Amphibious doesn't have the right 'snap'.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I'll be straight: I've rebooted this book more times than I care to count.  The idea for the successful version came about when I quit saying, "okay, now I have all these cool characters lined up, what will I make them do?" and said, "okay, so there's a cowboy and a salesman trying to trade some horses – what goes wrong?"

What genre does your book fall under?

I've heard epic fantasy, historical fantasy, and Weird Western, but probably the best thing to call it is "rural fantasy."

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Well, right now I'm thinking Big Macintosh for the lead.

(With a big tip o' the hat to Lauren Faust, Hasbro, and GeneralZoi's Pony Creator, into which I have now poured several extremely pleasurable hours.)

I kid, of course.  But let's face it, re-imagining the cast as ponies is probably more fun for the casual observer than me waxing wishful about Max Pirkis and Rudy Youngblood.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

"It's a cowboys-and-Indians story, except that the cowboy's accidentally shot an Indian, and if the victim's family doesn't come after him, the fishmen will."

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I am the *luckiest* SOB in the world, because I am represented by none other than the Agent of My Dreams, Jennie Goloboy at Red Sofa Literary.  Don't hate me because she's beautiful.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Let me put it like this: if my book was a person, it'd be old enough to read itself.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I can't say The Rose of the Prophet, because that's too obscure.

I can't say The Dark Tower, because that's too awesome.

I can't even say True Grit, because that's not fantasy.

So I'll just have to say, "oh, I couldn't possibly – it's too devastatingly original, you see!" while thrusting Firefly and The Wire DVDs at you under the table.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My fellow Americans, let me be real.  We are citizens of the most seminal, exceptional, infinitely improbable nation on earth.  But our history is a radiation that has been seeping into our bones for five hundred years.

This story is about people who are literally, supernaturally altered by the world they were born into and the cultures they've inherited. And about the only thing worse than what that prompts them to do to each other is what they've already done to themselves.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

In the fantasy genre, Molly Boone would not be considered an exceptional horse.  She can't fly or fight or be summoned by an ocarina, and she doesn't have a telepathic bond with anybody.  But I am proud as hell to say that she has already inspired a MapleStory character of the same name, and I think the old girl is well on her way to a storied career.

That reminds me, I have an e-mail to write.

In the meantime, you should absolutely check out five of my very favorite fellow bloggers, to whom I bequeath this meme:

Lena Frank, who writes the WEIRDEST Westerns I have ever seen!
Matthew Borgard, the Man of Many Muses (and seriously brain-stimulating blog posts)
Jamie Wyman, who is Schtupping my ego AS I TYPE
Cynthia McGean, the mythological creature known as The Teacher Who Still Makes Time to Write

and the mysterious masked figure known only as... The Sneaky Burrito


So maybe the better question is, am I the kind of brass-balled swindling son of a bitch you want to do business with?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Some Assembly Preferred

So here in the US, the electoral afterbirth has been mopped up, the tear-stained editorials have mostly dried, and the relevant political parties are changing back into their sweatpants and wife-beaters for another year.

Whew.

I tell you what flipped my lid, though: the morning after the election, I logged on to Facebook and saw a comment from one of my other-side-of-the-fence friends that stopped me dead in my Inter-tracks.

 "Fwoah," thought I. "THAT'S what this election was about for you? I didn't know we were voting on that!"

And I don't care to get too much into the partisan particulars just here, but suffice to say that for one of us, the Rebel Alliance has blown up the Death Star, and for the other, Luke Skywalker has just been murdered.

I don't expect that kind of reality-schism is news to anyone: there's something in the human brain that hardwires us to feel like a valiant, oppressed underdog no matter which side of what issue we happen to be on. But what gets me is that it is *almost impossible* for us to take in even the scantest handful of facts and NOT make a story out of them.

That lady in the Ford Dreadnought that just cut you off? Clearly a clueless ditzy gas-hog soccer mom.

The hurricane that ate New York? Obviously the result of global warming / the coming apocalypse / a completely random natural phenomenon / Ororo Munroe on bath salts.

I'm just saying.

These things don't exist in a vacuum. Our story-making brains are CONSTANTLY sifting through all the thousands of Erector-Set facts spread out around us, picking up the ones that fit our current project, and sidelining the rest.

Wait, you're telling me Governor Goodguy did THAT? Who reported it? Well, THEY'll say anything.

Hey, did you hear this rumor about Senator Sonofabitch? I knew he was a dirtbag!

And all of the above, my fellow fictioneers, is why I will always love stories that don't come pre-assembled. Sure, it's fun to pull a shiny new Transformers movie out of the box and start smashing up Decepticons. Sometimes it's nice to let good guys wear white hats and bad guys twirl their mustaches and damsels lap-dance on the train tracks.

But I got a special place in my heart for the writers who make building the toy part of its fun. "Okay, where does Shylock go? Yeah, he's kind of a dick, but if I make him the villain, then what kind of jerk-ass hero is Antonio?" "Well, and what do we do with the Ministry of Magic? Is it just an incompetent bureaucracy, or is it actually responsible for You-Know-Who?" "And while we're at it, I'm just gonna put Harry Dresden in his own special little box waaaaay over here."

Anyway: good luck with the building, y'all, and a special shout-out to all my fellow NaNo'ers who haven't yet started hallucinating word-count meters in your Wild Turkey writing binges.  Don't despair - we'll get there!

That was black magic, and it was easy to use. Easy and fun. Like Legos.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Confessions of a Closet Pedivore

This is Peaches.

She's a pretty great cat by any standard, but what I really love about her is that she's the most single-minded, laser-focused life-form I've ever met. When it's lovey time, you've got a furry vibrating mogwai draped on your face. When it's playtime, she's a mackerel-striped Lamborghini doing carpet-ripping donuts around the living room (or mauling feet, as above). And when it's time to go to the vet, there's an 8-pound meth-addled velociraptor in the Kozy Kitty crate.  Basically, no matter what she's doing, Peaches is doing it to the max.

I'm pretty much the same way. Not that I express affection by wiping eye-boogers on people's faces or anything - but man, it is SO easy to pick one thing and just go at it. Whether it's work or writing or hangout time, I shove everything else to one side, latch on to the goal like a facehugger alien, and don't let go until my success is skittering off the organ-splattered dinner table.

So to speak.

This kind of single-minded toe-chewing tenacity was essential in college, but lately I've been running hard up on its down side. It just doesn't work for things like losing weight, or saving money, or making e-friends - you know, the stuff that you can't just lock yourself in a room and power through for 8 hours at a time. And it is so dang exhausting to have to constantly keep on top of half a dozen little piddly things!

So for all you competent multi-taskers out there: what the heck is your secret? Do you make a schedule or a do-list or something? Is there a sticker chart on your wall where you give yourself a gold star every time you hit the gym or practice the glockenspiel? Tell me your winning strategy, so I can make it mine!

In the meantime, Peaches and I are going to use our mutant power to do NaNo this month.  Wish us luck!

The game's afoot;
Follow your spirit: and upon this charge,
Cry — God for Harry! England and Saint George!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Ode on a Texan Burn

I know - in the grand scheme of things, it's kind of goofy to get upset over a big old animatronic cowboy. He didn't do too much but wave, rattle off a catch-phrase or two, and frighten generations of small children with his Night of the Living Dummies face. (I can't imagine how many fragile psyches he mutilated when he burned up this morning.)

Seriously - Chucky wishes he was half as scary.

And I know that they're going to fix him up and put him back out there for next year. Good as new.

Except they'll have to replace his electrical systems, of course, and will probably take the liberty of giving him newer, more articulated movements when they do. They'll need to replace his burnt-up face too, and if you're going to do that, you might as well "update his look" for the 21st century - shoot, maybe redesign him right out of the uncanny valley altogether!

And this is where Keats screwed up on the Grecian Urn. Yeah, forever wilt thou love and she be fair... until somebody gets drunk at the company Christmas party and accidentally topples your Grecian asses into a million shattered pieces on the floor. Not so immortal now, are you?

So what I'm saying is this: we spend our lives coming to grips with the reality that all the people and creatures we love will change and eventually die, and it is damned annoying when the stuff you reasonably expect to stay the same, doesn't.

But then, I guess that's how we make room in the world for new things.

Anyway, going to the fair with the fam tomorrow, and I think I'll lay a corn dog down for Big Tex when we do. Thanks for all the nightmares, buddy.


The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. You could go there a hundred times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody'd be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Your Brain. Let Me Lick It.

Friends, Romans, netizens... lend me your enthusiasm.

No, really.  I'm about three-fourths of the way through this last great vocational hell-cycle, and it is broiling the joy from my very pores.

So do me this one great favor, and tell me what you're excited about right now. It doesn't need to be big or profound - it can be your favorite new show or your fantasy football team or your level eleventy-five elf-lord space-ranger. Basically, I want to hear about that thing you have to consciously keep yourself from nattering on about, in the most gushing, shameless detail you can muster.  Do this for me - let me taste the sweet nectar of your brain-space - and I shall ask nothing more!

CHEESE, Gromit!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Wedging Open the Wardrobe Door

You know, there's no shortage of Magical World stories out there. The ones where some schlubby Earth-person (usually of the teen varietal) is drawn into another world and has to pass the test, save the world, win the day before they can go back to their own life in Anywhere, USA. It's a fantasy-genre classic.

But there's a handful of yarns out there where the magic door stays open - or less literally, the magical/fantastic elements become a semi-permanent fixture of the hero's life. So then Dapper McTeen has to defeat the Dark Lord while simultaneously cramming for an algebra test.  (See: Animorphs, Sailor Moon, Buffy, Spider-Man, etc.) 

Those kinds of stories maybe don't fit so neatly into Joseph Campbell's narrative designs, but I've always had a soft spot for them.  Because that's what real life is.  No dying alien ever takes the time to write a note saying "Please excuse Hal Jordan from his mission tomorrow; he has to go save the galaxy."  That sucker just drops a load in your lap and croaks. 

And for most of us, if the giant purple wormhole in the sky is not *actively* spewing out Geiger-esque alien abominations, it is really, really tempting to just leave the spandex in the dryer and try like the dickens to get caught up on e-mails before you have to start fixing dinner.  This is why so many of us are rattling around with unfinished manuscripts and lingering guilt.  It's not because you're a grown-up and the wardrobe door to Narnia has closed.  It's because it's all blocked up with dirty clothes and boxes of unsorted tax documents and that one cooler you're afraid to open because you're pretty sure you never cleaned out the leftovers from last year's 4th of July shindig. 

On second thought, maybe I'll let Mr. Tumnus come find me.

This is pretty much where I've been at the last couple of weeks.  Missed writer's workshop on Wednesday because I had to go give an exam out in Alfred J. Shitkicker County.  Missed FenCon this weekend - 8 hours of driving/delivering on Friday, 14 hours of helping a friend move house on Saturday, 10 hours of teaching and tutoring on Sunday.  Good chance of missing workshop again tomorrow, because my company is comprised of helpless assholes.  It's exhausting and depressing and miserable and I want to go play cowboys-and-frog-monsters so bad I can taste it.  (It tastes kinda like pickled boot-leather, if you were wondering.)  More than anything, I really, really, REALLY want to finish the first draft of my book proposal before my in-laws hit town on the 13th - to hit Save, turn 30, and enjoy a week of unrelenting Texo-Scottish anarchy with a clear conscience and an empty inbox.

So wish me luck, fellow Fantasians, and the best of same with your own wardrobes, wormholes, star-gates, and time machines.  There are wondrous worlds on the other side - we just gotta get there!

Life isn't all fricaseed frogs and eel pie.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

By the Power of the Crimson Couch...

...I have spat, shook hands, signed papers, and am now officially represented by Jennie Goloboy at Red Sofa Literary.  (Yeah, that high-pitched "eeeeeeee" you've been hearing for the last couple of weeks was probably me.  Sorry.)

Yes, I made a cake.  No, I'm not the least bit sorry.
 

Thanks all for your hand-holding and well-wishes (and the constant supply of fresh paper bags for breathing, barfing, and/or boozing in the meanwhile.)  It's hard to know how I got so lucky, but I can say for a sure fact that landing the Agent of My Dreams would not have happened without the Friends of My Everyday Life.  There's a fresh and fantastically intimidating mountain of things to do now, but be assured that I will do y'all proud.  I shall not fail!

Dear Mr. Potter,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

America: Chasing the Bear Since 1776

You know, I've been wading through American history for awhile now, and have yet to come out smelling of fruits and flowers. After awhile, it's easy to get cynical and start sketching out ideas for Brutal Oppression Bingo.

But I have to say, this post (from a Scottish gent, posting on a Scottish football forum) made my whole day. From Dundee Barry himself:
America's class.
It's given us the blues, rock 'n' roll, soul, hip hop and house. It doesn't f**k about with sandwich fillings (ask for a corn beef sandwich here and you're getting charged extra for more than two slices; ask for one in America and they're putting ALL the corn fucking beef on that sandwich, my friend.) American people are, in my experience, probably more friendly and courteous than the people of any other nation on the planet. Much more so than Scottish people, who owe a great deal of their reputation to being a bit drunk most of the time.
Americans are baws oot. The best example I can give recalls sitting in a bar out in the beautiful wilderness of Yosemite National Park late one night. It was a busy, friendly place full of the sound of that happy din you find in the best bars. It was a good scene.
Suddenly someone storms in all excited, shouting, "There's a fuckin' bear outside!" There was a collective gasp, then silence.
And then the place erupted into a cheer and they all charged out after that bear. Every single one of them. The place emptied in seconds. Had there been a bugle to hand it would surely have been used to sound the charge. I sat at the bar for five minutes on my own wondering what the f**k was going on until they trickled back in with bear-chasing grins and a thirst. They didn't catch it, but hot-fucking-dog did they enjoy going after. f**k knows what their next move would've been had there been a man-on-bear confrontation.
Now, if that happened here we'd just sit there all worried as we procrastinated over who should be called into action. The police? The council? Our mums? Probably all of the above. That's the kind of thing someone else will have to sort out for us. We're too busy bitching and whinging and having a chip on our shoulder to be dealing with it.

This, I feel, is why America runs the show at a global level. They're the only one instinctively chasing the bears.
I could go on. Saved by the Bell, Legion of Doom, the end of Rocky IV, playing golf on the Moon, inventing the gloryhole and a electing a string of shaggers, cowboys, film stars, crooks and a black guy as their president. What's not to like?
America: f**k yeah.
*cues 'Freebird'*

You know, sometimes it's nice to see yourself from somebody else's point of view.  And it's definitely good to lighten up once in awhile.  (Don't get cocky, though: I've been there, and let me tell you, the Scottish mastery of junk food, public services, and casual, blister-raising sarcasm far exceeds our own.  Generations of fortified wine and knife crime have made them a cagey and fearsome people.)

But a handy tip, if you don't peruse the remainder of that thread: should you ever need to enrage a British person on-the-spot, ask him about herbs, mirrors, or aluminum foil.  My fellow Americans, we bear in our mouths a potent Yankee Kryptonite, and have made the English-speaking world our unwilling spittoon.

Remember, there is no "I" in "Team America".

Saturday, September 1, 2012

School's In. Brain's Out.

Hey, why am I getting pageviews all of a sudden?  Don't you people know I haven't updated in a week?

Sorry for absenteeism of late - not so much here (cuz I don't expect anyone's been frantically autorefreshing this thing) but elsewhere.  Been behind on blog-reading and commenting - and speaking of which, if anybody knows of a good tool for tracking comments/discussions across multiple sites, I sure would love to know about it.  I found some, but they've almost all gone belly-up.

Anyway, so real life's been eating my lunch lately, mostly in a good way.  See, I'm a private instructor/tutor for high school students, which means that work always goes bananas at the beginning of the school year.  That's fine, but this year my company has moved a huge majority of the business online - so now I am NOT ONLY available to the aspiring apple-cheeked youth of the DFW metroplex, but ALSO serving all four time zones in the continental United States.  This is fun as hell on the one hand (I can scream at hysterically tired 17-year-olds from the comfort of my fetid pajamas!) and brutally exhausting on the other. 

More annoyingly, it's taken a ginsu knife to my free time.  As in, chopped it all into tiny, non-contiguous pieces, which I seem to be using to stare, slack-jawed with wonderment, at Wikipedia pictures of dugongs.

THAT FACE.

More annoyingly still, doing so many encore performances of the great instructional song and dance is draining my batteries bigtime.  At the end of the day, I can handle chores or bills or whatever the hell else is on the honey-do-list, but the thought of turning around to get leisure-time sociable just makes me want to press my face between the couch cushions until I can inhale the comforting potpourri of stale Cheeto crumbs and cat gas.

But you know, I reckon there's no shortage of teachers and nurses and parents - oh God, you poor human bouncy-castles! - who've had to pull a double and still get things done on the side.  Which means I don't have too much excuse.  So if you hear any unseemly slurping sounds over the next couple of weeks, that's me sucking it up and getting back on track.  Hopefully without too many juvenile casualties.

Children, your performance was miserable. Your parents will all receive phone calls instructing them to love you less.

Friday, August 24, 2012

When the Cavalry Ain't Coming

You know what's BS about Pandora's Box? 

You (or at least I) grew up hearing about how she opened the box and let every imaginable evil out into the world - war and death and disease and inner-ear zits and all the rest - but then she closes the box and hey, it's okay, because HOPE is still inside.

Well hold on there, Sparky: if Hope were still in the box, we wouldn't have it out here in the real world, right?

I've always preferred the scholars who translate that word, elpis, as Expectation.  Without Expectation - without actually KNOWING how we're going to die or what-all's going to happen to us in the meantime - we have a chance to go forward optimistically, to live the Eric Idle creed and Always Look on the Bright Side of Life... because hell, you never know; today might really be better than yesterday!

Which is why, when done well, historical fiction can REALLY put your emotional knickers in a twist.

Take this book here: Between Shades of Gray.  (And no, I don't know what Ruta Sepetys thinks about E.L. James, but I would LOVE to see a cage-match for title rights.)  It's about a young Lithuanian girl named Lina, who's taken from her home by Soviet police in the summer of 1941, and condemned to a brutal Siberian labor camp, along with thousands of other political prisoners.  At first glance, it's one of these Very Important Books that get big applause on the YA circuit, because it highlights and humanizes an especially horrendous period in history in a way that's accessible to young folks today.

So there I am, reading along with my 9th-grade tutoring student as the atrocities mount and the body count rises, and I start feeling my old Anne-Frank instincts kicking in.  "Come on, Lina - just hang in there 'til '45, and then G.I. Joe and the Allies are gonna come romping and stomping through there and everything'll be... wait, hold on."

I actually had to go look it up, because - come on, how much did YOU learn about Lithuanian history?

And I tell you what, friends, that one Google search got me right in the breadbox.  No stars and stripes for these poor souls: Lithuania and the other Baltic states were swallowed whole, annexed by the USSR (you remember, those other guys who were so helpful in blowing up the Death Star that we went halfsies on Germany), and the pathetic fraction of those millions of stolen citizens who survived internment weren't pardoned until 1954.   The Baltic states didn't reappear on the world map until *1991*. 

Which means that in all probability, Lina wouldn't live to see her country resurrected.  (No spoilers for the book here - its scope doesn't extend nearly that far.)  She and the millions whose experience she represents would have lived the remainder of their lives as second-class citizens, slowly smothered to death by age and unrelenting censorship. 

But okay, that's maybe not news: if you one-upped me and stayed awake in fourth-period history class, you knew all that already.  You would crack open this same book already knowing how the broader strokes of the story will play out, even if you don't know what will happen to the individual characters.  (There's that Expectation thing again: for the Baltic prisoners as a whole, it's already flown the coop - we know how things will turn out for them - but hey, Lina and her family might still make it somehow!  Turn them pages faster, damn you!)

Instead, what I want to point out is how, when we see tragedy like this in historical fiction, it's so often played in a "damn, just missed it" context.  All Quiet on the Western Front, Grave of the Fireflies, The Plague  - hell, even Titanic sucks you in with this timeless trope, that better days are just around the corner for anyone who can make it that far.

But I think we can get just as much moral mileage, if not more, out of stories on the other side of optimism: when the author (of the novel or the history book, either one) has made it clear that there's not going to be any reinforcements or armistice or vaccine coming - that with the course of history already set, any hope to be had must come from the characters themselves.

Anyway, that's my deep thought for the week, hope you enjoyed it.  And now to bed, cuz tomorrow is going to be exceptionally long on Hope and short on Expectation.

They took me in my nightgown.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Share-Bears II: Secrets of the Ooze

This entry started with two awesome folks who submitted their favorite blog entries after I'd already posted the others.

But then I left it alone in the lab overnight, and it started to mutate. The green bubbly goo overflowed the Erlenmeyer flask. Strange vapors curled their gaseous tendrils up into the air vents. And then there was no containing it.

Here they stand, terrible in their glory.

Jon Gibbs, author of "Fur-Face" and the forthcoming "Barnum's Revenge."  His entry is perfectly hilarious in its own right: Paperback Writer: Great song, but what if it was a real query letter?

But aspiring authors of the blogosphere, take note: THIS guy, you need to follow.  I don't care what you're writing.  This gent is a sterling example of how to blog: he is ALWAYS sharing links, running contests, hosting fun giveaways, interviewing up-and-coming new writers, and doing everything else under the sun to make this long and solitary road a little less so for all of us.  His mutant power is generosity, his emblem is an oversized smiley, and he is the kind of superhero you don't need a radioactive spider-bite to emulate.  Get on it!



Pamela Skjolsvik, aka The Death Writer.  Her post isn't what you'd think (in the words of one commenter, it is "comely and honest and blew me away"): D is for Daughter

Have you ever worked in a prison?  Quietly barfed in your seat during a Broadway play?  Interviewed an executed man's grieving mother?  Let's be real: trying to write for any kind of publication is the ego equivalent of a self-inflicted chemical burn.  But writing personal non-fiction, writing just what you've really done and said and experienced, and putting THAT out to be pooh-poohed, has to be like putting in your contacts during a sandstorm.  I'm not sure which part gives me more respect for Pam: that she's braved the world and done all those amazing things, or that she has the courage to write about them (and herself by proxy) and collect rejection not just for a story she made up, but for pieces of her own life.  All I know is, she makes real look GOOD.

Oh, and the better news is: she is accepting guest writers for her blog!  If you have experienced loss/grief or work in a closely associated profession, check out her blog and drop her a line - she has built a terrific audience, and is not stingy about sharing it.


Lastly, there is one person for whom I have no link, because she has no blog. In fact, she didn't request inclusion here at all.  But I'm going to shout her out anyway, because she has done so much to spit-shine my soul - quietly, selflessly, and mostly without knowing me from Adam - and for absolutely no return.

To be clear: I'm no butthead.  I got the memo about sharing, taking turns, and playing nice back in my juice-box days.  But I was amazed at how a single out-of-the-blue note from this lady *completely* made my week.  It was a walloping big reminder about how much power we have to affect other people - and I mean serious, major-league, lecture-from-Uncle-Ben POWER - and how easily one can drop a fifty-megaton sunshine-bomb on somebody, and with no more than a few minutes' time investment.  I need to do that to more people, more often.  In the meantime: thank you, Yorkist, for so thoughtfully irradiating me.


So, good people of the Internet, let me turn it over to you: who rocks YOUR world?

--Did you see that?
--That's the way to do it - that's old school.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Warm, But Not Fuzzy

I have a confession to make.

I live in constant, pulsating terror that somebody, somewhere Might Not Like Me.  I avoid confrontation like the hantavirus and My Little Pony fandom.

But even with my pathological drive towards Niceness At All Costs, I'm not sure I agree with this article here.  The thrust of it, sure: it's chiefly about self-published authors getting ragged on by those on the legacy track, and I absolutely agree that going to war over which end of the egg to break makes us all look like a bunch of slap-fighting Lilliputians.  But this part here:

Writers should be sticking together, not bashing each other.

And this part here:

The bottom line is we are all writers. We all dreamed the same dream. We all labor over words, agonizing when the writing is not going well and rejoicing when the words are flowing. I used to love and respect trade-published writers. I still do. In fact, I love all writers. No matter how they are published.

--give me pause, because I don't have anywhere near Ms. Shireman's vast platonic love for writerdom.   Not by half.  Why should I?  I mean, there's a reason why, if I told somebody I was self-published, their first thought would not be, "boy, I bet that's a stellar, top-notch professional piece of work you got there!"  There's a reason why, if I turned in an 800-page manuscript, the agent or editor's first thought would not be, "by Jove, this surely is a lean and stunningly taut epic odyssey - it must be mine!"

These people were not born prejudiced.  They got that way because other writers before me went and peed in the pool.  Not always deliberately, not always as serial offenders, but nevertheless, the failure of their quality-control sphincters costs us all.  In the fantasy section, for example, many readers have sworn off starting a series before it's complete, because so many series have met protracted, unsatisfying, or simply nonexistent ends.  Their reluctance is both understandable and a sure-fire way to strangle the market - because if readers aren't willing to spend money on a newly-released Book One, publishers sure as hell aren't going to lose more money putting out a Book Two, and where does that leave me with my thirteen-volume LegendSword of the Elf-Castle Prophecy saga?

So, okay.  Nobody is pretending that terrible books and terrible writers don't exist.  Thanks to the magic of the Internet, readers can brand such works with the Single Star of Infamy.  Meanwhile, the advice for writers is to comport oneself as an adult at the Thanksgiving table: don't ask about Uncle Jimmy's parole hearing or point when Grandma puts her sleeve in the gravy, but stick to safe subjects and keep things positive.

So, given that classy, successful people generally don't get that way by crowing "I KNOW YOU ARE BUT WHAT AM I", does criticism have any place in a writer's public persona?  Do we decry harmful trends but keep careful not to name names?  Can we criticize a book while scrupulously avoiding any dig at the author?  Is it ever acceptable to slam books like this, or do we just talk over their noise by loudly praising better ones?

I dunno - what do you think?

There's a dark side to the paradise of the pool.  A yellow evil that lurks in the warm spots created by the pee-terrorist known only as... The Urinator.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Who Wants To Be An Armadillionaire?

This is late, and that's largely because I got back home to an apartment with no A/C.  Did I mention it's 108 degrees all this week?

But that is not the point.  The point is: PEOPLE ARE AMAZING.  I will fast-forward through my hollering and squealing about how fantastic ArmadilloCon was in order to reiterate that.  The guy I choffed cheese-balls with in the con suite?  Yeah, he's an insanely good comic book artist.  The lady who chatted with me about community college courses?  Is the same supreme maven of horse how-tos who brought her stallion to DFWcon for a hands-on class experience.  I met black-belt seamstresses, master marksmen, confectioners, con-founders, costumers, historians, and musicians who play instruments I've never HEARD of.  And these were the ordinary con-going plebes!

What I mean to say is, it's easy to be cynical about People These Days - to watch Sex and the Sixth-Grade Reading Level fly off the shelves, to see the ratings for America's Shortest Attention Span, and to think "my God, we're doomed."  But it was nothing less than Neosporin for the soul to put myself in the company of so many people who take a profound delight in learning everything there is to know about something, no matter how strange or obscure or ridiculous it might seem to the muggles, and who know the real secret of superheroes everywhere: if you aren't born with amazing mutant powers, you'd goddamn well better grow some.

Anyway, so here in celebration of the joyful and learnedly strange are a select few of the self-made heroes in my life, who have graciously agreed to put a piece of themselves on public display:

  • Cynthia McGean, with the one great truth for writers everywhere: You Can't Win if You Don't Play
  • Tanya G (T!), with a top-notch photo essay on Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller's Frankenstein  (Two screenings, in which the gents switch roles between Victor and the Creature, with phenomenally different results.  Take heed, fellow scribblers: your plot is a given; it's your characters that sell it!)
  • The lovely Lunaryss keeps her blogging cards close to her chest, but we will here mark February 29th, 2012 as the day she KO'd cancer.  FLAWLESS VICTORY.
  • And Frank, the light of my dark, the Phoenix Wright to my Miles Edgeworth, who is much too modest to point to a blog entry, left me a comment which I would here immortalize as golden advice to middle-beginning creative types everywhere: Put Down the Doritos and Love Your Larval Stage.

And as soon as I kidnap somebody with blast-chilling superpowers, I will be off to do exactly that!

This story is about the Baudelaires. And they are the sort of people who know that there's always something. Something to invent, something to read, something to bite, and something to do, to make a sanctuary, no matter how small.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Dry Heaves of Destiny

Well, folks, I went and did it.  Did one more cut n' polish (down from 124,682 to 119,516, HA!), formatted, saved, attached, and sent to the Agent of My Dreams.

After thirteen years, I am no longer Writing a Book.  I have Written a Book.  I am Shopping a Manuscript.  I am Actively Seeking Publication.

I have pupated.

And I wouldn't have gotten this far without truly phenomenal people in my life.

So I was hoping y'all could help me celebrate.  If you're game, reply here with a link to a favorite post on your blog.  It can be anything - just anything you're especially proud of - and on Monday I'll post them up here so that we can see, notice, and applaud your most potent stroke of genius.  (With a tip of the hat to Jon Gibbs, Mr. Fur-Face himself, from whom I have received this sacred ritual.)

In the meantime, I'm off to have a quick barf, and then it's forward and onward to ArmadilloCon.  Gimme some good stuff, guys - as of now, I am fresh out!

Sorry, Venkman.  I'm terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Acne of American Independence

So as you know, we of the American persuasion celebrated our Independence Day this month.  Or as Chris Rock tweeted:
"Happy white peoples independence day the slaves weren't free but I'm sure they enjoyed fireworks."

He took some heat for that, but it's worth a mention. American liberty started with white men, and over the last 230-odd years, we've expanded the boundaries of legally-codified freedom to include former slaves, women, children, people of different colors and nationalities and abilities and beliefs.  Inch by bloody legislative inch, we are adding to the non-discrimination clause on the McDonald's job application.  And we're not hardly finished yet.

We tend to be proud of how far we've come - we in Texas celebrate Juneteenth, for example, to remember the day on which slaves finally achieved their freedom - but when you think about it, many of our most momentous social-progress moments were less a pioneering world achievement and more the end of a prolonged temper-tantrum.  We fought a massive, bloody war over slavery (seriously, what other country had to kill almost a million of its own citizens to get person-owning off the books?), spent the next hundred years perfecting the feng-shui of separate drinking fountains, and when the Supreme Court finally said "no, but seriously" in 1954, the result was Massive Resistance.  Nowadays, discrimination needs a softer touch - for example, just-so-happening to give hiring preference to "Laura" over "Lakisha", even when they have the same resumé - but it's still a fine American art.

To be clear: we are not a nation of assholes.  I firmly believe that.  Our national trophy cabinet is full of fantastic achievements - in the arts, in science, in government and industry and discovery and technological innovation - that fully merit the "we're #1" foam finger. 

But socially, in the way we treat our citizens, we've lagged behind.  We were, what, the 25th country to end slavery, the 30th to grant women the right to vote, the 98th to pass something resembling a universal health care system (behind freaking Tajikistan!)  If we abolished the death penalty tomorrow, we'd be the 99th country to do so. 

Which is why I don't think we've reached true independence yet.  In this one aspect, we are still a pupating adolescent - you know the ones.  They define their cliques by who's in and who's out.  They're obsessed with siblings and peers who might be getting unfair advantages or special treatment.  And when Mom even opens her mouth to say "Honey, could you please take out the - ", she triggers a boiling geyser of indignation.  "I KNOW ALREADY - get off my back, Ma!"

Yes, the trash will be taken out.

Yes, segregation and discrimination will be ended.

But by God, we are going to do it sullenly, shoddily, and at the last possible minute.

Because that's how someone behaves when they feel insecure - when they're still trying to stake out their independence and worrying about every little infringement upon it.  Think about how different life is as an adult.  Mom's on the phone, carping at you about grandbabies and how you're not getting any younger and and what about that nice Jamie Wilkerson from last summer's Bible retreat?  "Sure, Ma," you say, hoisting your black-leather knee-highs into the stirrups on the body swing.  "Hey, I gotta let you go - I've got a few friends over."

To me, THAT is what real independence looks like.  It doesn't mean you stop caring about other people.  It doesn't mean you don't take an active interest in things that affect your life.  But you no longer have to lie awake at night, staring at the ceiling and tasting bile at the thought of someone, somewhere, telling you what to do or getting something they don't deserve.  You are secure, because you have enough.

So!  Here's to American independence, y'all: it's going to be glorious, even if it doesn't come with a bow-topped red ferrari in the driveway.

Oh, and here's to my fellow AbsoluteWrite bloggers!  Check out these truly superior links on this month's blogging chain:

orion_mk3 - http://nonexistentbooks.wordpress.com (link to this month's post)
knotanes - http://knotane.wordpress.com/ (link to this month's post)
meowzbark - http://erlessard.wordpress.com/ (link to this month's post)
Ralph Pines - http://ralfast.wordpress.com/ (link to this month's post)
randi.lee - http://emotionalnovel.blogspot.com/ (link to this month's post)
writingismypassion - http://charityfaye.blogspot.com/ (link to this month's post)
pyrosama - http://matrix-hole.blogspot.com/ (link to this month's post)
bmadsen - http://hospitaloflife.wordpress.com/ (link to this month's post)
Poppy - http://poet-slash-writer.blogspot.com/ (link to this month's post)
areteus - http://lurkingmusings.wordpress.com/ (link to this month's post)
Sweetwheat - http://gomezkarla.blogspot.com/ (link to this month's post)

and stay tuned for:

ThorHuman - http://knikriverstatic.com/
MelodySRV - http://createamelody.com/
Tomspy77 - http://thomaswillamspychalski.wordpress.com/
dclary - http://davidwclary.com

--Beavis and Butt-head, on behalf of your fellow Americans, I extend my deepest thanks. You exemplify a fine new crop of young Americans who will grow into the leaders of this great country.
--Huh huh huh huh. He said "extend."

Monday, July 16, 2012

Yes, Virginia, There is a Navajo Word for "MySpace"

Okay, I have a thesis, which is this: if you want to know what an author is really interested in, look at a terrible book of theirs*, and see what it's filled with.  (It will have been there in good books too, but it's easiest to see in later ones, when the author's built up a track record and some editorial clout and is free to let their fetishes overgrow plot and character.)

FOR EXAMPLE: 

Jean Auel, author of the Earth's Children series.  The lady is over-the-moon about cave paintings.  Her first book in the series is the mega-famous Clan of the Cave Bear.  The last book?  The Land of Painted Caves.  Two stars on Amazon, and guess what folks are mad about.

Terry Goodkind, author of The Sword of Truth series.  Objectivism.  And possibly rape.  But definitely objectivism.  Let's call it John Galt non-con and leave it at that.

Stephenie Meyer, author of... like you don't know.  Look, it's a romance targeted at teen girls, it's not going to NOT feature lavish descriptions of Hunky McHotpants and Smoldering Native of the Beefcake People.  But her white-hot frantic macroing of phrases like "his dazzling pale perfect God-like marble Aryan perfection" gives you a pretty clear picture of what tops her own personal Lickability Index.

*note: this isn't a universal method.  There are plenty of other ways to screw up a book, most of them absolutely well-intentioned, and many authors go their whole careers without taking more than modest sips from the well of self-gratification.

Anyway, so I've decided: twenty years from now, when I'm bloated with egotistical methane and out of ideas, I'd like to go off the rails by indulging in a 500-page linguistic wank-a-thon.  Look, TELL me this isn't cool:
Five Terms From Countryboy79's Archive of Navajo Slang

Girlfriend/Boyfriend - Bich'áayaa íí'áhí  - "the one that sticks up from under his armpit."

Microwave - Bee na'niildóhó - "you warm things up with it."

Days Inn in St. Michael's, AZ - Ba' Dziztiní - "lying down waiting for someone."

Snow Flurry - Ayéhé néiidiníyódí - "the weather that drives the in-laws in."

Movie Theater - Da'níl'íidi - "where they are shown." 
Azee' handéhé - "falling medicine"
There are dozens more on the page (which you will have to visit if you want to know how to say "Burger King"!)  But even from this small sampling, you can see a pattern: notice how all five are nouns, things, but the literal translations are all actions, talking about what the thing does or how it behaves or what it's used for.  You could, if you looked up the language on Wikipedia, find out that it's a remarkably verb-heavy language, with relatively few nouns to speak of - but you don't need a massive encyclopedia article to tell you that, if you've seen even a few examples like these.

So I guess what I'm saying is, what gets me absolutely, gobsmackingly besmitten about languages is that, like an author, they tell you what's important to them - all you have to do is listen long enough.

In every word there sleeps an image.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Vocabulorgy

I don't know if I've said it lately, but I get SO STOKED when I play with words.  I just... I want to dress them up and put them in the Malibu Barbie playset and make them have hot plastic tongue-sex until they pop out a whole passel of cute cuddly slang-babies.

Anyway, here for the fun of it are ten of my favorite Latin words. Let's bring these back, you guys, seriously.

crapularius - for getting rid of a hangover

demurmuro - to grumble through (e.g., a performance)

edento - to knock the teeth out of

effutuere - to wear out through excessive sex

frustulentus - full of crumbs

intervomere - to throw up amongst

pergraecor - to go completely Greek, to have a ball

rasito - to shave regularly

subinvito - to invite unenthusiastically

vapularis - in for a flogging

Substantive post later this week.  It's the last sprint to the manuscript-submitting finish line, and I am tearing up track.

lucubro (v tr) - to compose at night; (v intr) to burn the midnight oil.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Authors on Twitter, or, The Problem With Selling Jesus

Let's be honest: evangelism is a rough gig.

And as trying as it must be to brave the tide of rude indifference as you hand out New Testaments outside the ShopKo, or to tell yourself that leaving Chick tracts in bathrooms is a legitimate and fruitful use of your time, the worst has to be the door-to-door business.

You show up, pressed and professional and with a holy gleam in your eye that would put a Fuller Brush salesman to shame.  You knock, and steel your smile as you venture the first words that will - God willing! - snatch this lost lamb in the Winnie-the-Pooh nightgown from Satan's slavering jaws... and she slams the door in your face.  Repeat dozens of times a day, every day, and it's a wonder you don't throw your bike in front of an oncoming bus and run off to join the Pepsi Generation.

Let's meditate for a minute on the real problem here.

When you knock at my door, you're making two sizable assumptions: first, that I have not already found Jesus, and second, that I am receptive to receiving Him.  (There's a third issue with the door-to-door model, namely that your ringing of the bell compelled me to stop fornicating or beating my children long enough to answer the door, which puts me in a coarse mood before the Word even enters into it.  But we'll leave that one aside.)

Is this you?  It probably shouldn't be.

If I've already got the Holy Spirit within me, then you've wasted your time.

If I'm a hellbound heathen and happy with it, then you've likewise wasted your time.

In fact, your approach works reliably only if I have A) not heard of or never seriously considered your faith, B) found myself unhappily lacking in the spiritual department, and C) cultivated a lifestyle and identity not radically incompatible with your beliefs.  That's a pretty hard trifecta to hit.

So what I am saying, aspiring authors of the Twitterverse, is that if you follow me, and I click and find that most of your tweets are hawking your book, there's really no incentive for me to follow you back.

First of all, if I don't read your genre, I'm not going to read your book no matter how good it is.  And secondly, let's say I DO buy your book, and read it, and give it eleventeen stars on Amazon and Goodreads and tell all my friends and blog about how Three Hundred and Eighty-Five Shades of Beige opened my eyes to the tyranny of accent walls.  What do I get for all that?  If the answer is "pretty much just more tweets about your book," then there's no reason for me to keep following you.  I have used you up.  You have nothing to offer but more annoying ads for Cheetos, when my fingers are already orange with the chem-o-cheez proof of my fealty.

So whether you're selling the Great Armenian Novel or a ticket out of perdition - please, y'all, think about your business model.  Leave my doorbell for the cops, and focus on selling yourself.  Make me think "man, s/he's so cool and rad and deep and interesting - this kind stranger surely possesses some unearthly wisdom.  It must be mine!"  That right there is the difference between "eh, nothing for me here" and "okay, Aunt Matilda, you know that grammarian Regency romance isn't my thing, but this author I know has a book out - it's called Pride and Parentheses, and you simply MUST read it."

By the way, I'm absolutely not an expert on how to do Twitter the "right" way.  That would be Kate Cornell, the blackest belt in social media that *I* know, and Ben M. Wallace - and if you're feeling adrift, I highly recommend his Giving the Bird: The Indie Author's Guide To Twitter.  (I know it says indie, but he'll let you read it even if you're not self-publishing.  He's cool like that.) 

And then we got the people who knock on your door at 6:30 in the morning on Sunday going, "Have you found Jesus?"  You just wanna come to the door nude and go, "No, help me look for him!  Come on!"

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Pixar Princess

Right, first of all: can I put my hand up and ask that we get MORE movies where the trailer doesn't cover 3/4 of the plot?  It was so refreshing to go see Brave this weekend and enjoy some honest-to-god surprises for a change.

Still, it was hard to watch without thinking about the conversation that must have been its genesis.  I picture it something like this:

Bob Iger and John Lasseter get together to play Barbies and talk girl power.

Disney Exec:  "Right, so John, buddy... we love your movies, but you know what they're saying - the Pixar canon's getting to be sort of a boys' club, and it's about time you kicked in for the princess collection, so..."

John Lasseter: "Seriously?  Can't I just do another movie about cars?  What if it starred a girl car, could we - "

Disney: "Er, no.  No more cars, John, really.  No, what we're going to need for this one is a princess, and I mean an honest-to-god human being, not a robot or a fish or what-have-you.  She'll need to be headstrong and want to follow her dreams - are you getting this? - and see if you can do something ethnic; that's big with the kids these days."

Lasseter: *doodling Mater with an afro in notepad margins* "Ethnic, right..."

Disney: "Make sure you have a talking animal - and no goddamn magic dog-collars, John, just play it straight.  And songs, of course - do you need Phil Collins' number?"

Lasseter: "Er - no, thanks, I've got it.  Speaking of Phil, do you think we could do something like Tarzan, where she doesn't actually have to - "

Disney: "John..."

Lasseter: "No, really - look, I tell you what: get me off the hook with the singing, and we'll do THREE funny animals - three CUTE funny animals.  Think of the merchandise!"

Disney: "Well... all right, but don't get screwy.  Standard operating procedure on the rest: soaring vistas, inspiring message, a handsome prince..."

Lasseter: "At least one handsome prince, got it."

Disney: "What?"

Lasseter: "Nothing, nevermind - say, have you read about The Hunger Games?  Let me run something by you..."

18 months later: Disney execs drop by to see the first ten minutes of test animation.  There's a heartwarming childhood scene, Merida chafing against the demands of princess-dom, soaring vistas and rousing music.  Disney execs leave, pleased.

John Lasseter shuts the door after them, turns around, and claps his hands briskly.  "RIGHT," he says to his creative team.  "Here's what we're going to do..."

I don't want to get married - I want to stay single and let my hair flow in the wind as I ride through the glen, firing arrows into the sunset!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Trimming the Fat, round 4

IT IS DONE.

Words axed:



Starting word count: 149,284
Ending word count: 124,682

Hot DAMN.  I know that that bar up there is 398 words shy of the 25,000 I swore to after the fact - I will work on that, and do one more quickie run to tweak a couple of the world-building particulars.  But for now, on the last day of the month, let it be recorded that I did what I said I was going to do, on time and at goal. 

I totally failed at all the other stuff, though.

So, new targets for July:

1.  E-mail the Agent of My Dreams to see how she'd like the manuscript sent (the website's grand but kind of vague on this point.)

2.  Finish, suck it up, and hit SEND.

3.  Avert slow descent into nail-biting madness by finishing promised critique and *starting a new thing*.  Maybe a short story.

More interesting content forthcoming.  I actually have about fifty awesome topics I want to rip into, but the sandman cometh.

We did it!  We did it!  We did it, yay!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Trimming the Fat, round 3

End of week 3!  Delete-o-Meter says:



Here to celebrate are five reasons why trimming the fat from your manuscript beats trying to shrink your own personal flab.

1.  Deleting excess words is way easier than deleting excess donuts.

2.  Butt-in-chair is the solution, not the problem.

3.  Eating does not have a Ctrl+Z function.  (Well, it does, but it's icky and very bad for you.)

4.  No fat person has ever been split into a trilogy.

5.  You can't revert back to a saved copy of your gut. 

Good luck to everyone out there who's working on either front, and remember: just say no to purple prose and pork sweats!

I'm not fat, I'm fluffy.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Adding the Egg

Gentle readers, let me tell you a story.

It's a story about cake.

In the latter half of the 1950's, sales of commercial cake mix flatlined.  Which was a real stumper for Duncan Hines et al: they'd enjoyed barnstorming sales numbers in the ten years since the first high-quality, shelf-stable mixes went on the national market. 

During this time, cake mixes had been marketed overwhelmingly for convenience.  Here's an example from 1955:
"So simple you CAN'T go wrong."

So General Mills dispatched a fellow named Ernest Dichter to get to the root of the problem.  As Laura Shapiro reports in her excellent book, he came to this conclusion:

After interviewing women and exploring the emotions that surrounded cakes and baking, Dichter reported that the very simplicity of mixes - just add water and stir - made women feel self-indulgent for using them. There wasn't enough work involved. In order to enjoy the emotional rewards of presenting a homemade cake, they had to be persuaded that they had really baked it, and such an illusion was impossible to maintain if they did virtually nothing.

The solution?  Give the baker more to do.  In microcosm, this could be as simple as adding an egg to the mix, transforming the process from menial dump-and-stir to 'real' baking.  But in the bigger picture, this idea took off in the form of cake decorating.  Marketing emphasis shifted to what the baker would do once the cake came out of the oven: a whole explosion of creative and often labor-intensive cake-crafting how-tos ensued, next to which the 'indulgence' of using a prepackaged mix was nothing.


"Try one of the happy ideas on these pages and just listen to the praise you get!"

Y'all know where I'm going with this, right?

In fiction writing, the idea of "leaving the reader something to do" works on almost every level.  It can be as small as saying that John slammed the door, and leaving the reader to understand that he's left the room.  It can be as vast as writing a story about some talking farm-animals, and prompting the reader to draw in the real-world politics and human nature behind them.  But if you do everything yourself - if you explain and describe like a manic entomologist, if your characters feel all the necessary feelings and reach all the necessary conclusions and wax philosophical about What It All Means - then eventually your reader will get the idea that the story can get along perfectly well without him, and check out.

Sure, the whole DIY angle has its downsides.  Betty Crocker knows, some fool will use bad eggs or forget to grease the pan or try to frost it while it's still hot, and then get pissed at you when it doesn't turn out right.  (And as my patient and forbearing beta readers have taught me, it DOES help if you actually include some directions.)  But anytime you feel tempted to idiot-proof your story, hold fast to the sacred tenets of our man Ernest Dichter up there: good fiction, like homemade cake, is about helping the audience enjoy the emotional rewards of their work.  And they can only do that if we give them work to do.

(Big shout-out for this post to my fearless betas and my workshop posse, who are as sweet vinegar to the dry baking soda of my soul.  Also, if this post has given you a mind to indulge, head on over to Book Binge, where Jenny Martin will hook you up with all manner of prose-and-pastry double-headers.)

Cake, and grief counseling, will be available at the conclusion of the test.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Snow White and the Festering Fairy Tale

I love my sister.  She's everything I'm not, in all the best ways.  She does this thing, where she purses her lips and makes this dog-whistle-pitched fart noise, and...

... anyway, the point is: she's great, but I do kind of want to punch her in the arm for making me sit through Snow White and the Huntsman this weekend.  It was terrible, not in a "this was a total waste of time" way, but in that much more insidious "this could/should have been SO GOOD" way.

Hell-bent to get my money's worth after the fact (well, her money's worth), I've sat back and tried to figure out what derailed my train to Magical Fantasy Wonderland.  Which got me thinking, "all right, so what separates a good fairytale retelling from a bad one?"

Here's what I got.  (Modest Snow White spoilers included; read on if you already know or already know you don't care.)

First of all, one quick political aside: it SUCKS that they did not cast any actual dwarves for this movie.  I wouldn't care as much if they were one-dimensional clownish buffoons, but the writers did a terrific job of making the dwarves into admirable, relatable, interesting characters - which I'm sure is why the casting director said, "oh, these roles are much too important for you, shorties - we'll just shrink Ian McShane & co. down to size and call it a day."  Bastards.  I love what CGI has done for fantasy filmmaking, but every now and then I wish we could go back to the '80s, when you HAD to strip Warwick Davis out of the Ewok suit and let him play Willow.  How many talented actors are missing out on a career because of this digital hobbitizing bullshit?

Anyway, okay, so movie.  Quick, what are some of your favorite fairytale films?  My short-list: The Princess Bride, Shrek, Tangled, and of course The Emperor's New Groove.  I'm sure you have others.  But I'll bet yours follow the same rule as mine:  if you're going to play by fairy-tale rules, you need to keep a fairy-tale atmosphere.  The granddad, in The Princess Bride?  He's not just there to read the book - he keeps reminding us that this IS a book, and a fairytale book at that, so that when ludicrously improbable stuff happens, we are okay with the idea of "mostly dead" or what-have-you, because it fits the story.  The Emperor's New Groove does the same thing in hilarious fourth-wall-breaking fashion, lampshading obvious plot-holes so that we can have a laugh, turn off our inner critic, and get on with the action.

One of these ladies is trying to be taken seriously.

This is one place where Snow White REALLY falls down.  It starts off magically enough, with Thor's voice-over telling the story about the rose, the queen, the fair little princess, etc.  But then we slide right into reality.  The world outside the castle is straight out of Les Miserables: the streets are rivers of mud, the people are filthy and ugly and unshaven - shoot, you can just about feel the itch of the pubic lice.  Everything about the atmosphere is oozing nasty, gritty realism... so by the time Snow White escapes her tower and swims to freedom and there just-so-happens to be a white horse literally sitting on the beach waiting for her to show up, your inner critic is screaming, Artax, what the fuck?
 
This constant clash of fairytale plot devices and syphilis-blistered setting continues through the whole movie.  Cartoonishly over-the-top Disney villain!  No, wait - implied pedophilia!  Magical happy fairyland paradise!  No, wait - tragic demise of secondary character!  I'm not saying you can't have "true love's first kiss" and "death by boiling oil" in the same story - I'm saying that if you're going to tie your fairytale to a ten-pound brick of gritty realism and drop it off a bridge, you'd better make sure you give it enough internal consistency (i.e. rules for magic) to make the swim.

I have more to say, but this is a good place to stop for now.  So let me turn the mic over in the meantime: what about you guys?  Did you see the movie?  What do you consider essential in a good fairytale?

We're promised gold, and what do we get?  Poo!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Trimming the Fat, round 2

End of week 2!  Delete-o-Meter says:



MAN ALIVE, I am excited.  Here is what is blowing my mind: I am halfway to goal, halfway through the manuscript, and I have ripped out 11,000 words without hacking up the story.  Seriously.  I haven't deleted any scenes (though I've reduced a few down from pages to scant paragraphs), haven't axed any characters (though I've turned several to nameless NPCs), and the only change to the story itself has been *adding* clarity and a sprinkling of relevant backstory to the pot.  Holy crap.

I can remember lying and telling somebody that it was 135,000 words (instead of 149,000), and thinking "yeah, it's 135,000 all right - in that dystopian mirror-universe where I've murdered two secondary characters and chopped off the beginning in a fit of Procrustean pique."  Well, let me tell you, shame-filled past self: here in this universe, the sheriff and the shopkeeper have NOT been assassinated, Chapter One is still Chapter One (because that's where the story starts and everything goes to hell, dammit!), and Spock does not have a goatee.  And I am going to get this sucker down to 125,000, or so help me God, he will eat his Vulcan hat.

To be clear: that might not be the end of the road.  That 125,000 might need to come down further.  But if I can get this thing to where the presentation of the story is as good as the story itself, I will call it a job well done and be pleased to submit it for professional consideration.

Much love to all the NaNo campers out there in the meantime: all over the world, keyboards are wearing out in the genesis of fresh new stories, and the bookshelves will be better for it!

--Thank you, Fairy Godmother!
--Just call me F.G.M.  I hate excess verbiage.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Changing Perspective

Once upon a time, I decided to write a fantasy novel.  And lo, it was anime.

Wait, let's fast forward. 

Once upon a time, I realized that the vaguely-defined, sanitary-generic medieval setting for my fantasy novel was as boring as a packet of unflavored oatmeal on a flat gray pillow, and deleted it.

"Everybody since Tolkien has been doing Euromedieval fantasy," thought I.  "What'll I do instead?"

By and by, I hit on the idea of setting it in something like the American West.  A stunning leap forward for fiction?  No.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I actually had something to say about a setting like that. 

You know, so much fantasy is about Our Heroes rallying together to beat the Dark Lord, and for me, growing up in America has basically been the act of cracking open the family album and realizing that the Dark Lord was dear old great-great-granddad, and he WON.  And that most of the privileges I grew up with are the spoils of unimaginably brutal conquests, and that their consequences are still falling like dominoes through five hundred years of history and right through the present - right into the future! - and that even though *I* didn't do any of those horrible things, I'm still a product of them, and all I have to do to help keep my ancestors' monstrous legacy alive is to complacently mind my own business and accept things the way they are.

It's some galling shit, y'all.

So I decided, "right, if I'm going to do this, I gotta get it RIGHT."  No noble savages, magic Negroes, whitewashing, tokenism, and most especially no heroic white-folks leading a bunch of good-hearted helpless brown people to salvation. 

Anyway, I've been reading up on some of these ways that reasonably well-intentioned writers Get It Wrong, and am still continually amazed at how often I am just bowled over in the process.  At some point, you understand why the stereotypes in Twilight are so immensely awful, have read all about the enormous cringeworthy problems with The Help, are actively unpacking your invisible knapsack, and reckon you're levelling up your cultural awareness.  "Man!" you start thinking.  "I am so enlightened, I should move to Seattle and start ordering my free-trade coffee in Gujarati!"

Then somebody tells you that To Kill A Mockingbird is racist, and your mind is blown.

Well, mine was, anyway.  It was an astonishing reminder of how much I STILL don't know, how readily I STILL make all kinds of sick cultural assumptions, and how much I am STILL a product of my programming. 

Not gonna lie, it's a bummer.

But it's all right, because I'm still going to educate myself.  In Paper Mario terms, my goal is to go from this:




To this:

(Granted, Mr. Mario himself is kinda symbolic: he's white, powerful, heroic, and those hapless wacky fungus-folks in the Mushroom Kingdom never can keep their shit straight without him.)

So what I'm saying is, learning to see in eye-popping cultural 3D is almost certainly a lifelong and imperfect project.  The prospect of Getting It Wrong is intimidating, because the only thing I dread more than getting savaged by critics is actually, seriously hurting somebody through my own blundering ignorance.

But it's also tremendously exciting.  In many ways, trying to write fiction for a living is kind of a selfish pursuit.  You're not curing cancer or saving the rainforest or teaching orphaned kittens to read - mostly you're just trying to pursue your passion profitably enough to quit working second shift at WeenieWorld. 

This part, though - this isn't about quitting the day job or getting famous or book-slapping the naysayers in your life with a hardcover copy of the novel they said you'd never write.  This is about helping to fill in the gaps on the shelves, giving readers of all backgrounds more characters and stories worthy of them, and making your (tiny, individual) contribution towards the raising of the literary bar.

No, changing perspective isn't as easy as pushing a button - but the view is so, so worth it.

And we'll call them... 'goombas'.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Trimming the Fat


Oh, man.  You guys, I am SO EXCITED.  I read this post from Ms. Mandy Hubbard, and even though I am not a big YA person, and even though I am especially not a big "yet another pretty white girl on the cover" person, I want to read that book so bad.  I don't even know what the plot is; just the story of how it came to be is enough to sell me on it. 

If I can stand on that point for just a second: I'm just this year dipping my toes into the World-Wide Writers' Web, but so far, it feels like the default business model is "write something, peter out, trunk it, write something else, get bored, trunk it, write something else, revise it, revise it, trunk it, write something else..."  I haven't exactly done that - even though I have repeatedly deleted EVERYTHING except for a couple of character names and traits, it's always felt like reworking the same story to me - and it's surprisingly heartening to read about somebody else who did that and ended up with a stellar, first-rate work of fiction.

Anyway, she put in her time and got there.  I gotta get there too.  So here's this week's progress, illustrated by what I will call the Delete-o-Meter:




This round, the goal is to revise according to the feedback I've gotten from my readers, and also to shrink the manuscript by at least 15%.  I've revised 4 out of the 16 chapters (I have long chapters, okay - shut up!), and obliterated over 5,000 words.  I am so dang proud of that.

Maybe I'm not doing it right, because although there have been moments of "dang, that was one pretty paragraph," it's not been blood/sweat/tears at any point.  It always amazes me, how I will finish a draft and INVARIABLY feel like it's the most perfect, untouchable thing ever, and pull my hair at the very prospect of mangling it at someone else's behest.  Six months down the road, however, I'm pink-slipping paragraphs and pages and scenes like an Enron executive. 

I suppose it's all in the vision, huh?  You will snarl and snap and cling to your masterpiece, but as soon as you can visualize its superior form, you're mangling it in the bathtub with calm, fanatical precision.

Well, I hope you are, anyway.  I'll feel awkward if I'm the only one.

One pound of flesh, no more, no less.  No cartilage, no bone, but only flesh.