Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Open Door

The other day I asked my wife why she puts up with me.  She told me (jokingly I'm almost certain) that she keeps me around for the Howard Carter stories.

Stephen King is quite adamant that a writer should write the first draft of every book with the door firmly closed.  Keep the world out and be alone with the text at least for that first dance with your characters.  Then, and only then, he advises that you open the door for a select few to share the second draft.

I understand and appreciate what I assume is King's thought process.  There's a certain mystique to writing like that -- a writer alone, nailing the story to the page with the hammerstrikes of the keys as the world waits outside, wonder what magic is happening on the other side of the door.

We like to think that someone's outside waiting to read the story. 

In reality?  Not so much.  Well, maybe for Mr. King, but for most of us the only person outside that door is our spouse, perhaps a roommate or two or if you're young enough it's your mother wondering when you're going to come down to dinner since she called you twenty minutes ago!.

Due respect to all the people I just mentioned, but I've written reams of pages like that, shut behind a door to be alone with my thoughts, telling stories to the inkwell as I kept them at arm's length.

So it came to pass that when I opened the door recently and put the first draft of my current work-in-progress out there for anyone to read and react to or ignore as they saw fit, it was a learning experience for all of us.  (Well, I can't really speak for my old roomies, but they periodically check in on Facebook, so maybe them too, who knows?)  .

Honestly, I didn't expect much to happen.

But something odd happened... it changed the way I was writing it.  And something even stranger happened... people started reading it.  Not a lot, but a few.  Many of them dear friends, but some of them complete strangers. 

The strangest thing was when I realized that some of them were finally beginning to understand why I rush to the keyboard every morning to see what happens next.  Because despite this blog and all the writing I do about writing, I think that it's only now that even my wife really gets why I do that, or really understand that even though I'm using an outline, sometimes the twists and turns are as much a surprise to me as they are to my readers.

All art is ultimately made for the artist.  I still believe that.  As an artist, it's encoded in my DNA.  And King's closed-door policy is predicated upon that notion -- that first you have to please yourself and then open the door to see if it pleases anyone else.  And I respect that as I do any artistic tradition.  Inviting your audience in too early is a dangerous proposition and I didn't have any idea what it would do to the story as I was telling it.

I never really thought of writing as a performance art before, and I'm not entirely certain I recommend it, because it's a lot of additional pressure.  It's so very much easier to hide on a desert island and complete the whole manuscript.

But Howard Carter is a story I'm telling to my wife, to my family, to my friends, and because this is the Internet, To Whom It May Concern.  It's going out piecemeal rather than as a complete thing, a series of letters/chapters that I've rolled up and stuffed in bottles and dropped into the vast and chaotic seas of the web in hopes that that wash ashore in some sort of logical order.

Don't worry, I numbered them to be helpful.

And I hope you too decide to keep me around because of Howard Carter.  There's really not much more a writer can ask for than that.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

For Your Consideration: Part One, Howard Carter Saves the World


For a limited time only, I've posted part one of my latest WIP: Howard Carter Saves the World, a humorous Sci-Fi romp with all of the robots, aliens, mad scientists and secret government agencies you could possibly hope for.

Author's Note & Disclaimers
(Just to make things official and all that...)
Prologue: Tractors Aren't Supposed to Do That
Chapter One: A Robot Too Far
Chapter Two: The Mummy's Curse
Chapter Three: Late for School
Chapter Four: Android On the Run
Chapter Five: Perfectly Normal Lives
Chapter Six: Accept No Subsitutes
Chapter Seven: The Goonies Paradox
Chapter Eight: The Calm Before the Storm
Chapter Nine: That Kind of Place
Chapter Ten: A Very True and Accurate History of Astronomy (that you didn't hear from me)
Chapter Eleven: Dropships and Detentions
Chapter Twelve: A Jig Goes Up
Chapter Thirteen: What Would Howard Do?
Chapter Fourteen: Magenta Alert
Chapter Fifteen:  Signal to Noise
Chapter Sixteen: Sparks Fly Up
Chapter Seventeen: This Must Be the Place
Chapter Eighteen: Time and/or Space
Chapter Nineteen: Why Mothers Insist Upon Helmets
Chapter Twenty: Another Colossal Mistake
hapter Twenty-One: Inlaws and Outlaws

Sunday, December 5, 2010


The creative impulse takes many forms and often comes from a place of frustration with what's out there not living up to the potential you can see.

When I was a kid, I made quite a few of my own toys.  All of my favorite toy guns came from the crates of miscellaneous junk beneath my grandfather's work bench, not Toys-R-Us.  Not because we were poor, but because I thought the toys I envisioned in my head were just that much cooler than the ones you could buy at the toy store.  The 1970's and 80's were woefully short of space helmets and other spaceman spiffery because it was all Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars in the toy stores.  I loved my Star Wars figures as much as the next kid, but I really wanted Buck Rogers and for that I had to make my own  I think I was born twenty years too late for the real golden age of space toys and all the very cool robots and ray guns that accompanied the space race.

Thankfully, my parents and grandparents encouraged this sort of thing.  At least until I went as far as getting into pounding heated nails into tiny swords for my GI Joes.

Dad drew the line at me becoming an eight-year-old blacksmith.

I harkened to the nameless students slaving away on Star Wars miniatures who eventually became the nucleus for Industrial Light & Magic and yearned to work alongside the master of creating wonder from foam and felt, the late great Jim Henson.  And early on, I had a particular affection for Santa's elfin helpers as well.

Even those toys I did buy (or was given as gifts) eventually found their way under the tools.  All of my favorite GI Joe and Star Wars characters and vehicles were custom paint jobs and crazy amalgamations made to suit my own fancy, characters in my own extended storylines.

This was a childhood custom-built for a future artist and author, I suppose.

As an adult, I transferred this into sculpture and artwork, but I always go back to the toys.  I troll the junk drawer and the woodshop and the aisles of misfit toys that stock the shelves of thrift stores, looking for something neat, something overlooked, something broken.  Sometimes I repair the toys on the spot and put them back on the shelf, sometimes I take them home and toss them in a box to be later turned into something entirely other.

Really these impulses are all extensions of the same brain frequency, the translation of a mental picture into a three-dimensional object.  A sculpture is the same as a toy is the same as a table is the same as a novel.  I've made props for renaissance faires and small theatrical productions, I've created elaborate costumes for science fiction conventions (especially Steampunk, naturally) and even had a blog for awhile on creating period costumes for men. 

These things are my toys, as carefully crafted as any story I've ever written. Whether it's a story or a toy or a reproduction of a 15th century wheelbarrow, in the end what this is really about is making neat stuff.

And I like being the guy that makes neat stuff.

Friday, December 3, 2010

1,2,3, Who Are You Writing For? :: One Story, Many Audiences

“A writer is, after all, only half his book. The other half is the reader and from the reader the writer learns.”
PL Travers, Creator of Mary Poppins 
Until you start writing about the lives of kids and their families, you don't fully grasp the genius manner in which JK Rowling moved her characters from scene to scene with minimum chit-chat and precious little mono-syllabic grunting in response to questions posed by authority figures.

I don't mean that last part in a snide way.  I uttered my share of monosyllables in my day, and I raised eye rolling to such a level of athleticism that it was seriously considered for inclusion in the 1988 Olympic games.

The Soviets threatened a boycott and I lost my shot at a gold  medal.

To be honest, I spend as little time as possible thinking about my audience.  I think that if most writers were honest with themselves and you, they do too.  Partly because art is always created for the artist because that's when our imaginations are most free of boundaries, and partly because it's easy to freeze up from the imaginary rotten tomatoes you can just see coming your way.  Nevertheless, there's a point in any story when the writer must decide on the intended audience for the story.  As Travers said above, the writer is only half of their book.

Because thinking about who your words are aimed at intrinsically changes your storytelling. It's the old saw about a tree falling in the forest not making a sound without an ear to hear it.

Without your audience, you're just killing trees.

This is complicated when each genre carries with it a whole passel of responsibilities and expectations.  Not only a responsibility to be respectful of the history of the genre itself, but also familiar with the peculiar ecology of the place, knowing what pitfalls to avoid, and the expectations of... (wait for it) ...the audience.

I don't want this to get sidelined and wrapped up in the whole "Perils of Genre" debate.  I covered that already here and discussed my own peculiar sub-genre of "Nerd Adventure" as well.

I've written widely across the spectrum, but never encountered a dance quite like the one in which I am currently engaged.  I've said that Howard Carter is a book for kids, but really it's a book about kids.  And I think it's a book kids would like.

When you are trying to breathe life into a younger character, you have to decide which kids you want to write for.  Are you creating stories for the actual young people you wish to enjoy your work or the young stalwarts their parents wish they were (or think they are, which amounts to the same thing).

We all remember being twelve or thirteen and I'd wage that not one of us was exactly what our parents thought we were and the world in which we lived was hidden from them.  All an adult has to do is walk into a room of chattering children and watch the ripple effect their presence has as they cross the floor.  The world of children is not the world of adults and that bears exploration and consideration because the books written for kids are almost entirely written by adults.  Adults who remember at least enough to sound genuine.

I've often thought that one of the main reasons that books and movies like Stand by Me and American Grafitti and even Goonies hold such sway is that they remind us of a time when our worlds didn't extend beyond what we could see, and that peculiar parallel culture of which we were all too briefly citizens.  And you will notice that not one of these feature young people acting like little angels.

       One cold winter’s day back in the fourth grade, Howard stayed home sick from school and he and his dad had their first “Don’t Tell Mom I Let You Watch This” movie marathon.  That day they watched some of his dad’s favorite movies from when he was a kid. Stand By Me, Goonies and The Christmas Story flickered on the screen one after the other as Howard's fever soared, his hallucinations joining the adventurous bands of misfits gathered to outsmart murderers and teachers and pirates and parents.
      In some ways, that day set the tone for their relationship as his dad began thrusting movies and books into his hands that inevitably featured clever kids besting spies and pirates and evil wizards mostly by breaking every rule they came across.  Howard learned pretty quickly that adults loved those stories right up to the point where their kids began acting anything like the characters.
      Howard thought of it as The Goonies Paradox: "This is awesome, but don't ever do or be anything like this."

Howard Carter Saves the World, Chapter 7: The Goonies Paradox

Most all of my favorite authors wrote for both children and adults: JRR Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, Roald Dahl, Michael Chabon... the list goes on.  And some of my most favorite authors wrote books that were shelved only in the kids section but draw adults like moths.  Norm Juster and JK Rowling spring to mind.

To turn what Travers was talking about in the quote at the top of this post on its ear, I'll say that when writing for or about kids, you're really only a third of the whole.  The other two parts are kids and their parents and that's a balancing act indeed.  Will your young characters talk, act and think like real kids, or are they going to speak, act and think in a way that will not draw any ire from their parents?

JK Rowling knows this.  I think every successful writer does, especially those who manage to stand astride the two worlds by speaking to the youthful reader while awakening the last lingering echoes of childhood in the adult half.

I have no idea whether or not I can pull this off, which is why I'm doing it.  Keeping my young characters alive and funny was my primary concern going into this and now my primary concern as I find myself in the middle is keeping them alive in the minds of my readers.

Because no matter who you're writing for, that is the real magic trick.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Jig is Up :: NaNoWriMo 2010 Recap & Results

Power corrupts, but without power it's too dark to see... or something like that.  At any rate, lack of power is bad for the life of your laptop battery.

I regret to inform you that I did not succeed at completing a 50,000 word novel in a month. Part of it was repeated storms that shook the Puget Sound region and knocked out power to my home for days on end.  If the month of November taught me one thing, it's that I'm not cut out for the quill pen and gaslight style of writing.  Don't get me wrong, I love pens and I've written out about half of the Howard Carter stories longhand as it is.  And I'd be happy with a typewriter, but not by candlelight and not with food spoiling in the fridge and a thousand-thousand other worries associated with freak storms and power outages...

In short this was not a month conducive to quiet contemplation of the antics of boys, robots and mad scientists.

I have enough words here and there written about Howard Carter to have cobbled together enough of a draft to hit the magic number and get my "NaNoWriMo Winner" badge, but it wouldn't be a novel, it would be a pastiche of different ideas, many of which didn't work.  There are those who say the wordcount is all, but I disagree.  The goal was to write a novel.  If it was all about hitting wordcounts, I could've transcribed the dictionary and hit the mark easily enough.

I came here to tell a story and that is what I am going to do.

Howard Carter shall continue until he's done with me and I'm done with him.  As I am a man of my word, I shall continue to write his current adventure and post updates as I finish each chapter.

So no, I did not finish NaNoWriMo in high style.  Earnest congratulations go out to those who managed it.  This is no small thing, writing 50,000 words in thirty days.  And though I didn't "win" I refuse to mourn either the rainout or the loss of a single game in what is - in the end - a long season.

Get updates, notices on new chapters, bonus material and more on my Facebook Author's Page!  And stay tuned for more Howard Carter Saves the World!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Thought of the day...

"And frame your mind to mirth and merriment,
which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life.
-William Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew

*Note: Be ye pregnant or suckling thy young, consult ye thy midwife ere you assay a regimen of Merriment or Mirth. Useth ye only as thou art directed. Void where it might be circumscribed by the Queen's wishes or edict of the privy council.  Claims of longevity have been neither evaluated nor verified by Her Majesty, her health ministry or the FDA.  Frameth your mind at thine own risk.  Do not frame your mind whilst operating heavy equipment such as a catapult or printing press.  Some studies performed by the grumpiest of scientists indicate grumpy people are more highly evolved.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Writers In Real Life :: Cue the writing montage!

It sounds so easy.  Think up some characters, give them something to do and when they're done, write "The End" and then pack it up, send it off to the publishers and wait for your royalty cheque.  I think there's supposed to be a couple of bottles of scotch consumed in there somewhere, but really, hi diddly's Castle's life for me. 

If only it could be like that.

Writing is hard work.  It's a job.  And like any other job, there are moments when the clock ticks perceptibly slower and you take as many coffee breaks as you can manage without getting fired.  Only because you work for yourself, you'd have to let yourself go... and if you do, you end up playing video games in your pajamas.

That's when those two bottles of scotch I mentioned appear and then disappear, I think.

Let's blame Hollywood.  They're always a good go-to when blame must be levied.  There are simply too many TV shows and movies where - when it comes time to write a story - the actual writing is a montage of quick cuts of typing like the wind or otherwise looking like you've not a care in the world between the moment the paper is rolled under the platent and the moment you rip it out and throw it aside.  Too much Castle and Murder She Wrote, not enough... actually I can't think of any television shows that display writers as just trying to get through the day

Movies are a bit better, but there's still far too many uplifting tales about writers almost flippantly turning out reams of amazing stories with the flick of a pen and the stern but loving teacher spouting writer's aphorisms.  "Write what you know!"  they cry and off the students gallumphing go to become bestsellers.  There's too many Finding Forresters and not enough Wonder Boys where Grady Trip stumbles through the movie in a drugged stupor because he can't think of an ending.

These movies and television shows are written by writers... you'd think they'd know better. Face it, there's not nearly enough Misery in these stories.

Not that I'm advocating that we all get kidnapped by rabid fans, nor that we all become become dissolute wordsmiths, wandering drunkenly from our bottle of scotch to our typewriter.  Nor do I think that all television shows should join Stephen King's seemingly bottomless oeuvre of  "Writers have a hard enough lot that I can write endless reams of horror novels about it."  But I do wonder where this meme of writer-as-wealthy gad about comes from.

Maybe we should be blaming Fitzgerald and his lot instead.

Honestly, I like most of these movies and television shows that I'm griping about.  Castle is mental popcorn and a heckuva lot of fun to watch.  And while I'm sure that there are authors out there like Castle and the rest, I'm equally certain that they are few and very very far between.

The problem with those depictions of writers is that it makes me feel a little odd sometimes to be sitting in front of the keyboard when I should be out there "whooping it up" (as my grandmother would say).  But books are the damndest things.  In order for them to come into existence, some poor schmuck has to sit down and write them.

As Peter DeVries famously said, the worst part about being a writer is the paperwork.

Books don't happen accidentally, scribbled on napkins while being chauffeured from one posh shindig to the next.  At least not novels worth the reading.  Writing a novel-length story is an act of will.  It takes an almost fanatical devotion to the language and the ability to ignore distractions like video games, the internet, books you'd rather be reading, other things you'd rather be writing, and also the aforementioned scotch.

So... in a sort anti-NaNoWriMo pep talk I say this: If you want a life of swanky parties and adulation from the masses, become a musician or an actor.  Good luck to you.  Break a leg and all that.   (Or you can do what I do and maintain friendships with actors and musicians so you'll get invited to their parties... but I digress.)

Writing is about telling your friends and family to leave you alone for extended periods so you can swill coffee and put words on a page.  On the bright side, rarely does it require you to hire a band or a DJ or a caterer and the cleanup usually amounts to washing a few coffee cups.

In this time of writers making YouTube videos and keeping blogs and Facebook pages and whatnot, it's amazing that anyone doesn't know this already, but writing is a job. You have to show up every day and sit down and write actual words on an actual page.

Either it's your profession (and you treat it that way) or it's not and never will be.

This, I think is the great value of NaNoWriMo for the working novelist and the publishing industry in general. Hundreds of thousands of people are learning each and every November that novels don't occur randomly in nature.  It's not a swirl of cocktail parties and gala openings, it's a lonely, difficult slog through the dictionary in hopes that you'll reach the other end and look back to see a coherent story behind you.  And looking back at what you've accomplished makes the effort worth the journey.

So this is my NaNoWriMo pep talk for the publishing industry and all the naysayers out there among the professional novelists. I think that this event which celebrates the act of writing also serves the purpose of reinvigorating in the minds of all the people who participate, an appreciation for the novel as an art form.  Especially those who drop out halfway through.

So take heart professionals and amateurs alike.  Monday marks the halfway point.  And when the novel is done - or at least the first draft - that is when you get to party.  Don't forget to put out a bucket of pens and those all-important cocktail napkins in case inspiration should strike your guests.

Friday, November 12, 2010

My NaNoWriMo Pep Talk

I haven't been asked to write a pep talk for National Novel Writing Month.  But writing something no one asked you to write is really the point of NaNoWriMo, isn't it?  So in the spirit of the month, I'll be doing it anyway.

At this point, you'll have become aware of several things (if you weren't already):
  1. Inspiration isn't enough...Writing is work. Sometimes, it is hard work.  Hollywood has done writers a great disservice by painting our lives in bright colors and swirling montages of inspired geniuses whipping paper out of a typewriter.  Sometimes, it can be like that.  Sometimes the muse wanders past, humming her little tune and you get to hum along. But not always, and often the muse is nowhere to be found.

    The fact is that what makes a writer isn't writing on the days when the muses are singing, what makes you a Writer is showing up to put words on a page even when she isn't.

  2. No one cares that you're writing a novel. Well... almost no one.  They did at first.  At the beginning of the novel-writing process everyone you know is rooting for you, cheering you on.  By the halfway point, they've mostly forgotten that you're doing it, and ere the end, wishing you'd just shut up about it and finish the damn thing already.  Writing is a lonely profession.  All the parties and writer's conferences and coffee shops in the world won't change the fact that in the end it's just you and a blinking cursor. 

    This is how the writer's critique group came into being.  Writer's communities, Twitter's #amwriting hash tag, message boards (like those on the NaNoWriMo site, when it's working), blogs like this one, and all the many ways to share your mid-noveling angst with other writers.   This month is meant to show you many things about novel-writing, one key element is the value of knowing other writers.

    Don't worry, I still want to hear about your novel.

  3. Characters don't always do as they're told.Characters are like children.  You made them, but you can't always make them do what you want them to when you want them to do it.  Though in this case, it's not because they have their own volition or live in their own parallel dimension from which you are simply taking dictation (though it may feel that way at times: See point 1) but because they are the sum of what you've put into them and they must use that to react to the story you plopped them down in the middle of.  The fears, prejudices, education and quirks you gave them will dictate how they react to events.  Sometimes, this internal logic will not be what you originally thought it would be.

    Go with it.  The goal is to get the story told in the most natural sequence of events you can imagine.  Sometimes this means letting the internal logic of your characters guide you.  That's why you created them.  Be proud of them and let them tell your story.

  4. Middles suck.  Beginning a story's relatively easy, ending one is easier; but getting from one to the other? Aye, there's the rub...  The middle part of your story is where it's easiest to get lost.  If you have to write down "And Then Something Funny Happens" (ATSFH) and go on to the next scene, do it. 

    Take a run at it and bull through.  It's a first draft, it doesn't have to be pretty.  Momentum is the only way to push through the middle and get to the really fun bit where everything goes to hell and your hero swoops in to save the National Peanut Putter Reserve from the terrorists.  (Or everyone is overcome by the ennui of a peanut butterless world and succumbs to the ineffability of jam, depending on what sort of novel you're writing.)
Thirty days hath September, April, June and November.  Thirty days! I might as well have quoted Lewis Carroll and said "We're all mad here!"

But that's the genius of the thing.  Thirty days is a short enough timespan that it's possible to begin, push through and finish while the muse's whistle is still hanging in the air.  Short enough that your family and friends won't grow too over-tired of hearing you complain about how hard this is.  And since the end is nigh from the outset, there's less impetus for your characters to wander off on side adventures

We are gathered here in this limited window when it seems the whole world is writing too, cheering us on long after our loved ones have started changing the subject.  Because the ultimate takeaway from this should be that you have the will to sit down and do it even when it's not easy.  That you can spend the time alone with your story, even when it's not working.  That you can create characters that will do for you, even if not the way you thought they would.  That you recognize the mass and momentum of your tale and that it will see you through this roughest of rough drafts.

And ultimately, finally, and most importantly, no one that you've ever heard of was asked to sit down and write their first novel. But they did it anyway.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lost Epiphanies & Cat Toys

It is not my wallet and keys that I worry about;
I will always find those things eventually.
It's the ideas that I should keep chained to my belt;
The 4 am epiphanies that would fix my story,
fix my life, fix my computer, fix my name in the stars!
Those evaporate into the velvety darkness,
Lost dreams that flutter against the windows,
Sweet escape from the grey mists of my thoughts,
Only to get caught and then eaten by the cat.
Though he never vomits the ideas on the rug.
I like to think he's keeping them for me,
Tucked away in his fur against my hour of need,
Purr and play memory, my furry little thumbdrive.
Or a girdle book, its tail tucked in my belt,
Like a medieval student of forgotten classics,
Trying to remember his Latin declensions
Felix, Felis, Feli, Felem...

Oh, but that's not right, I've more than one!
More cats and dreams and ideas and schemes,
In the dark watches when the stars are high,
And whispering cats hunt the laggard thoughts,
The next idea, the new idea, THE BIG IDEA!
Pounced and purred and knocked under the bed
For a furry dragon to sleep atop a magpie's hoard
Of dustbunnies and half-remembered dreams.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

These Are the Voices In My Head :: The Narrator

One of the reasons I like doing NaNoWriMo is that it gives me a sort of short-form method to explain the sort of decisions that lead from the initial kernel of an idea to a written story.

When I was a kid, my fabulous Great Aunt Cookie would periodically sweep into town like Mary Poppins and shower us with gifts.  On the surface -- as as far as my young mind could tell -- Aunt Cookie was the textbook maiden aunt.  She wore very proper hats and had exquisite taste* and smelled of lilacs..  it was almost as if she'd studied under the great maiden aunts of yore in an unbroken line from some ur-aunt in the depths of very stylish history.

In reality, she was also a very successful businesswoman and patron of the arts.

Because I was a kid, though, I knew her by her presents and one of the best presents she ever got us was a record player and a set of Disney storybooks that included read-along LP records.  My favorite was Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.

(I warned you a long time ago I was ever so slightly nuts. 
It's not my fault if you don't take the tee shirt seriously.)

To this day, whenever a narrator speaks in a book, the voice I hear in my head is the clipped and oh-so-proper tones of Sebastian Cabot, the narrator of those records and the voice of Bagheera in The Jungle Book, another favorite of young Scottie.  Even in books where the narrator was silly, such as Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in my mind it is the faintly-disapproving voice of Mr. Cabot reading the part.

I wasn't very far into the preparations for Howard Carter Saves the World before I began to realize I was going to need to stand quite a bit further back from the characters than I normally do.

When I'm writing mysteries, suspense or thrillers, I usually stick to what some people call 'Limited Third Person' or 'Close Third' which means I'm writing in 3rd person, but I don't let the camera float around, but keep it following one or two characters. Furthermore, if they don't know it, the reader doesn't hear about it until the focus characters find it out. 

That's a great strategy for writing suspense.  It gives you some of the the immediacy of first-person without necessarily shackling you to viewing the whole story through your main character's eyes.  In my case, I tend to have two main characters, AJ MacLeod and Jordan Elias, so the camera follows them around more or less interchangeably as the story progresses.  The 'camera' sits just over his or her shoulder and sometimes pulls back to view the wide-angle shot.  You're not inside their head, but you don't get to see things they wouldn't notice.

Third person was never in question as the POV that would be right for the Howard Carter story.  The book is going to involve a lot of actions by characters and entities and robots and aliens, not all of which would become lead characters.  I was going to need an omniscient narrator to tell the reader what was going on in the secret government bunker, the mad scientist's lab, the boy genius' room... without that guide, I feared the reader would quickly get lost.

Thankfully, in the sort of semi-humorous science fiction I wanted to explore with the Howard Carter story, there's often a narrator actually setting things up for you à la Rod Serling in the Twilight Zone or interjecting and interfering in the story as Sebastian Cabot did in my Winnie the Pooh storybooks.

I've always liked finding humorous ways to tell stories and I always sort of liked the idea that the narrator didn't entirely approve of all of the characters in the story he was telling.  Sebastian Cabot was frequently beset by the demands of Tigger and this led to the self-deprecating narrative stylings of Jim Henson and then Douglas Adams and all of those bled into the works of Christopher Moore (that specialist in the art of the unreliable narrator) and Eoin Colfer.  All of which dovetailed nicely with the mission statement I gave my wife: "If Nick Adams was written by Douglas Adams..."

Until I made this decision, Howard Carter was just a kid with some robots.  A bundle of ideas but no real story.  Sometimes you have to settle on the storyteller before you can choose the tale.

And that's as close to a definition of my "literary voice" as you're likely to get.
*  Considering I was a bit of a puddle-splashing, rocks-in-his-pockets, frogs and pollywogs kind of Huck Finn of a boy, let reassure you by saying that this was the estimation of my sister and you should take her word for it.

Friday, November 5, 2010

David Sedaris on The Daily Show

Sedaris and Jon Stewart talk writing during a Daily Show interview.  He has some fascinating things to say about using animals as visual shorthand.  As ever, Sedaris gets extra points for being both right and funny at the same time. . .

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
David Sedaris
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Scenes From a Coffee Shop :: The Writer's Life Part.. um... I've lost track

The other day I was sitting next to a couple of other writers (both published in non fiction/academic) at the coffee shop where I write most days, when I became aware that they were discussing the TV show Castle and specifically, Nathan Fillion's character, a mystery author.  Being a fan of the show, I tuned in in time to hear one of them say "I do all of those things, it's almost as if it was written by actual writers!"

Wait... what?

A bit of stammering later, it came to light that the chap speaking had meant to say 'Authors'.  And that's a fine distinction as far as it goes.  I won't embarrass him further or force him to defend his position by giving out his email address and Twitter handle, (Wait... do college professors Twitter? Maybe not.).  It certainly begs that eternal question that troubles everyone who ever put words on a page: When are you a real writer?  I mean really real.  Willing to put it on a business card real.

The easy answer is when you're making a living at it, but that leaves out a whole slew of people who are avidly putting words on paper, including a lot of well-known authors who've kept their day jobs.  You may recall that on the first day of National Novel Writing Month, the Office of Letters & Light reported 150,000 writers fed over 55 million words through their word-counting app on that one day alone.  And their website was down and unavailable for a good part of the day!

This all ties into why I had such a problem with that Salon rant.  Because it implies that the people who are already "in" are "in" and everyone else is "out" and needs to stay and consume what the hip kids darn well tell them to.  I stand opposed to that sort of cool-kid clique mentality.

But that brings us back around to the question... Are those people allowed to self-identify as Writers?

You're darn tootin.

In my not-so-humble opinion, it's about devoting yourself to the art of storytelling, to feeding our culture and keeping it alive and kicking in the mind of readers and writers everywhere.  At the end of the month, for good bad or indifferent, you wrote a novel.  Does that make you an author?  If not, then what does?

I've heard other attempts to cut this knot: professional memberships, critical reception, academic degrees... all of which are easily dispensed with by holding up significant contributions to the canon by people who don't fit those pigeon holes.  The one thing they all had in common was dedication to the art of arranging words on a page to evoke an emotion in the mind.

Being a writer is more than a profession.

So, while writers exist on a continuum like every other calling, and there are certainly laymen aplenty, I hate to hear anyone say that one variety of writer is 'real' and another is... fake?  I hardly think so.  For decades, my teachers told me JRR Tolkien and Ray Bradbury weren't real writers and their books weren't real books.  I didn't believe it then and I don't believe it now.

The guys in the cafe are walking the same path as Mark Bowden, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, JRR Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Helen Fielding, James Joyce, Dorothy Parker, Nora Roberts, Jonathan Franzen, the people who write Castle, the NaNoWriMoers and all the rest.  Some of us will never earn a living or gain critical acclaim or even critical notice.  That's the way it goes.

Some time ago, I was on the phone with my friend Joan.  Joan lives in New York and has worked in various capacities for some of the big publishing houses and her husband still does.  At some point in the conversation she asked what I was up to and I said "Oh, still trying to be a writer..."

As I recall, there was a moment of silence on the other end of the line and then "Stop saying it like that. You've put the time in, Scott. You are a writer."  Then she offered to fly out to Seattle and kick my ass.

(Now that's a good friend.)

Our side trips may be different and we'll each get something different from the trip, but if we're willing to put our time in, then we are all pilgrims on the same road. Society's designated dreamers don't need a license, a degree or permission to dream.  Never have, never will.

You've put enough time into this that you've asked yourself the question  and this is one of those times when asking the question is the answer.

And if necessary, I can see if Joan is available to fly out and kick you in the ass.

Monday, November 1, 2010

First Day Wrapup :: Scenes From a Space Helmet

Part One: A Robot Too Far is up on the site for you to read if you've a mind to.  Just click the title and you'll be whisked away by the internet djinn.

The first day of National Novel Writing Month has drawn to a close (at least for me) here on the west coast and my total stands somewhere north of 2,500 words.  Many of my friends rested their efforts around the 5,000 mark and I wish them well.  I'm a marathoner and I have a lot of long races under my belt and an innate fear of tripping myself up by outrunning my supply lines.

Mixed metaphor, party of one?

The folks at the Office of Letters & Light (our hosts) tell us that around 150,000 of us wrote about 55 million words today.  That's astounding. No wonder the site kept crashing today! 

The first complete section/chapter of the novel is posted and I'm happy with it overall.  You'll notice a distinct difference in the tone and delivery from past items I've shared, and that's on purpose.  I wanted to just sit down and talk through my computer, tell a story to an audience of friends... which is what we're all doing really, no matter what month it happens to be.

For me, NaNoWriMo is a time to experiment, to play with words and see what they're capable of.  To build giant robots and send them tromping across Missouri cornfields or send a young man hurtling back in time.

Because this is an homage to all the great science fiction I grew up on, the field is wide open and I intend to draw from the whole panoply of what came before.  In some ways I've thrown a pile of chits emblazoned with my favorite elements of science fiction into a hat and I'm pulling them out one by one and seeing if I can make them fun, funny or just silly enough to keeping you smiling while I reach into the hat to draw the next one.

The danger is that I'll end up with a meaningless jumble, or even worse, a horrible pastiche.  Of course, the danger of walking the edge is that you'll fall off.  The threat of failure is half the fun.

In the opening scene, an escaped android, an alien invader and a secret government agency were all introduced.  A famous author and a famous physicist were mentioned and a mad scientist or two hovered around the edge of things, waiting for their cues.  Tomorrow, we meet our hero and begin to get better acquainted with his world which is very similar to ours, and yet just different enough... well, you'll see.

Believe it or not, all of this makes sense and ties together before the end.  I promise.

In the meantime, enjoy the ride!


Cry Havoc & Loose the Dogs of NaNoWriMo...

Greetings readers.  This is your mad scientist speaking, welcoming you aboard the good ship Pages to type.  We're ready to get underway, so so I'll need you to turn off your cyborgs and blow out the pilot lights in your jetpacks for the duration of the flight.  We're charted out a fairly smooth flight this month, but reality is a pain in the butt, so it's likely we'll hit turbulence midflight.  Which we've planned for, so let's just get off the ground and see what happens.

Once again we thank you for choosing to fly with us today and we hope you enjoy your flight.  Oh yes, and when all else fails, please remember to focus on the bright red poster emblazoned on every bulkhead.

And if that fails, remember what William Shakespeare said at the top of every play: Sit down, shut up and hang on (or something like that, he might've phrased it differently).

Track my progress and read each chapter as it's written by clicking the helpful reminder from Her Mechanical Majesty found below...

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Classic-Style Story Deserves a Classic-Style Cover

Planning to write old school SciFi makes me nostalgic for those ratty little paperbacks my dad used to pay a quarter for off a flea market spinner rack. They usually had a space man or a robot on the cover. If I was lucky, there was a girl and maybe some dude with a laser pistol, but they ALWAYS had titles in all-caps.

So it was only a matter of time before I created a ratty pulp mass market cover for Howard Carter.  And with some time on my hands and a day to go before I can start officially putting words on the screen, I had to do something right?

Oh, November, why must you wait until Monday to begin?  Why, oh why, oh why?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Why Bother?

At least two people who've read only the brief description of the novel I'll be writing for National Novel Writing Month have asked me why I'd bother writing about boy geniuses and giant robots.

I find this approach simultaneously amusing and frustrating.  The idea that seems to be operating here is that in order to tell a new story, all of the characters have to be of a variety no one else has ever thought of before.  As if such a thing were even possible.

Entire forests have been expended in pursuit of young wizard's apprentices and orphans, yet that didn't stop JK Rowling.  She knew that even though she was walking in the footsteps of everyone from Charles Dickens to Craig Shaw Gardner, her book would be different because she wrote it.  And thank God she did too -- Harry Potter almost single-handedly reawakened the sleeping giant of midgrade and young adult fiction.

Because she wasn't afraid to take a comfortable idea -- the boy wizard -- and say something new with it.  In many ways, she rewrote David Copperfield for a post-Tolkien world.  She took almost word-for-word the  grafted on a lot of ideas that were floating around at the time and synthesized them into something that felt new even though nothing really new happened in those books.

I don't remember the last time I read anything that was literally unprecedented.  The Odyssey, maybe.  And Joseph Campbell assures us that Homer's epic mostly feels original simply because it's far enough in the dark and hoary past that we just don't know where Homer got his ideas.  While that's no excuse for not attempting do to something new, the best anyone (Homer included) can really hope for is to look at something with fresh eyes.

Which puts me in mind of something I read the other day...
"While the optimist tells you the glass is half-full, the hipster tells you they knew about the glass before you and it's not cool anymore." -Anonymous

The quote was unattributed when it crossed my desk, so I'm not sure who came up with it, but I find it very telling.

Tom Swift was the iconic boy genius.  Over a hundred books have featured the character over the years and almost every writer I admire from Asimov to Douglas Adams have pointed to young Master Swift as an inspiration. Talk about territory that's been thoroughly explored.  But just as Star Wars didn't signal the end of spaceships and laser guns (quite the opposite, actually) Tom Swift didn't bankrupt the storytelling power of the young genius. Walking that same ground has come have Encyclopedia Brown, The Mad Scientist's Club, Artemis Fowl IIHermione Granger, Veronica Mars and Agatha Heterodyne.  My personal favorites among many, many others.

And while my young genius may be informed by all of those and more, and may have come out of a childhood spent absorbing the adventures of Tom Swift and Encyclopedia Brown, he's not going to be either.  Nor will he be any of the other young geniuses featured in the stories I've absorbed during my stay on this odd little planet.  It goes back to what I've said a thousand times about why ideas can't be copyrighted -- because if you and I set out to write a book from the same idea, the two books would not even remotely resemble one another.

Don't get me wrong, there are many stories that have been told a thousand times and characters that need a rest. Our culture likes to dry up a well before we move on to drilling the next one.  I'm personally rather sick of stories about vampires, werewolves and zombies, but that doesn't mean there's nothing new to say with those characters.

It may or may not be true that there's nothing new under the sun.  The greatest stories ever told all came from somewhere, but that didn't keep those writing them from licking the tip of their pen and getting to work writing them.

Howard Carter is a deliberate homage to the science fiction of the past and the unrealized promises concocted to brighten up The World of Tomorrow.  Promises written so deeply into our culture that everyone periodically gazes skyward and dreams wistfully of a jet pack or flying car.  (A phenomenon that is directly proportional to the amount of ground traffic around you.)  Even his name was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs's iconic character John Carter.  But this isn't an Edgar Rice Burroughs story, it's a Scott Perkins story.  And in some ways, it's going to be a story that looks at the 21st century we have and contrasts it with the 21st century we were promised.  (Yes, that's been done before too and I still don't care.)

There is a fine line between creating a pastiche and paying homage.  And don't think I'm not looking down at the wreckage of those who slipped and fell before me. The danger is half the fun.
- Scott

Howard Carter Saves the Earth is my next novel, to be written in public by posting chapters as they are finished.  Subscribe to my Facebook page and/or follow me on Twitter to receive updates, links and free short stories.  You can also read "Tractors Aren't Supposed to Do That", a prologue posted here last Tuesday.

SideNote: I was delighted to discover recently that the earliest adventures of TOM SWIFT are out of copyright and available as free downloads via Project Gutenberg.  Just enter "Tom Swift" into the title search. Of course, all of these books predate modern sensibilities, so the usual caveats apply.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Block Party :: Dealing with writer's block (Redux)

Everyone's talking about Writer's Block all of a sudden.  I think it's the looming aspect of NaNoWriMo that brings it out of people, that fear of getting to day fifteen and getting stuck.

I usually don't get writer's block.  Which isn't the same as saying I never get stuck or write myself into a cul de sac.  To my mind, that much-feared malady exists on a far more epic scale than merely running out of words for the day.  That happens all the time.  In my world, writer's block is about running out of words for the month. I had it once - that sick feeling that it was gone and would never come back - and I got over it once I figured out that the secret to finding the next word really was writing the next word.  That's the dumbest-sounding advice anyone can ever give you, but it's also true (and #5 on my infamous list of Writer's Block cures, for those keeping score).

Personally, I think that a big part of writer's block is the fear of it happening much more than the actuality of the thing.  It's the bugbear under the bed, the monster in the anxiety closet of too many writer's offices.  So what do you do to disarm a bogey man?  We mock them, of course.

So, in the interest of a bit of fun and making fun of the bugbears, I've generated a list of some of my favorite and most oddball advice on writer's block...

Send in the monsters:  
"One thing that happens with comedy writers is that they are all really good at coming up with beginnings... really good set ups, but they can't figure out how to pay them off. What my father figured out was, if you can't get out, you just either blow something up, or eat something, or just throw penguins in the air."  - Brian Henson, son of Jim Henson

It's hard for a non-functional scene to continue if a monster runs in and eats everything.  But it's not about Cookie Monster running into the scene and gobbling up everything in sight.  I don't know about you, but there are no monsters at the end of most of my books.  It's about getting out of the scene any way you can once the business is done.  Cut it off and move on and if you have to, you can clean it up in post. 

Remember Chandler's Law.
"When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand." - Raymond Chandler

This is the tried & true default position for mystery writers on page and screen and has been since the man said it.  If you're writing a kids book, maybe it's a squirt gun.  If you're writing science fiction, it's a ray gun.  If you're writing a farce, a lit bomb.  And if you're writing a melancholic disquisition of the futility of modern life and there's no room for a man with any kind of gun, make it a banana.  Those things are lethal! 

I know that I restated this as 'Kill someone' on my last list, but you don't have to kill anyone to do this.  The trick isn't always about finding the next word so much as it is about finding a way to move the scene into a new and more urgent place.  Change the game.  It's hard to lose at chess when you're playing Monopoly.

Go to the library.
"I can’t function as a writer unless I’m reading somebody else — somebody better than me — and stripping off parts and reverse-engineering special effects and so on as I go. Maybe I need somebody to compete with, or just somebody to remind me that things that seem impossible are in fact possible (for other people)."  -Lev Grossman, The Thief & The Soloist: A Very Brief Taxonomy of Writers

Like the man said.  Sometimes all it takes is reminding yourself that your task is attainable because that guy did it.  And in all honesty, if you need to do this, why not go the extra mile and read something bad  I mean anything you can find that's distressingly terrible.  You know the book I'm talking about, it's hovering in your mind's eye as you read this and the bile rises in your throat at the thought of cracking that cover.  And as you read it - whatever it is - constantly remind yourself that if that shlock found a publisher and an audience, what are you so worried about?  Now put that crap away and write something good, would you? 

You are human, deal with it.
I can't find the exact quote, but Margaret Atwood once said that if she waited for perfection, she'd never write anything.  Most of every writing books I've read have two parts.  Part One: The author coming to terms with their own fallible humanity.  Part Two: Convincing the reader of theirs.  Let me summarize and save you the read: Because you are human, you're not going to create a perfect story. It's high time you got over it.

Now go away.
"Writing is 10% talent and 90% being able to ignore the internet." -Unknown

Never was so much time wasted by so many while so few knew how to get things done by turning it off.  This blog included, why are you reading this when you could be writing?  Now off with you, you've pages to type.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Teaser Tuesday: Tractors Aren't Supposed to Do That

NaNoWriMo is 13 days away!  And today I'm posting a glimpse of things to come, a prologue I wrote when I first took a pass at this story and probably the only part of the story that I plan to keep.

Without further ado...


The Engels Family Farm, Rural Missouri, Early tomorrow morning

Bob Engels had been a farmer his entire life.  He had never known anything except the smell of tractor exhaust and the pleasant sight of acres and acres of the green and growing.

Green and glowing, however, was a bit out of his wheelhouse.

It began as a normal morning of mumbled pleasantries around the breakfast table as he and his family tried to chase away the phantoms of sleep with coffee and flapjacks.

The doorbell rang and they glanced at one another and then over at the front door.  No one who knew them ever came to the front door; friends and family entered and exited through the kitchen as was right and proper.  They lived too far out in the boonies for salesmen or missionaries to bother -- the world left his family to fend for themselves in the venues of vacuum cleaners and eternal salvation.

Then the tractor walked past the kitchen window.

Lumbered, he supposed was a better word for it, sort of a slow, ponderous march across the back garden.   It took Bob a minute or two to get past ‘Oh, that’s odd’ and all the way to ‘Tractors aren’t supposed to do that.’  The family rose as one to watch the big green tractor step almost daintily over the back fence and strike out across the fields in big loping strides.

The doorbell rang again.

“Walter, get the door,” Bob mumbled to his eldest son.  “Mabel, fetch me my shotgun.”

“What good’s a shotgun going to do against…” His wife gestured out the window.  “Against that?”

Bob didn’t know.  He only knew that was what his daddy would do and somehow he felt like it was the right thing to do when your farm equipment was trying to make a break for it.  His hands ached for the smooth surface of the walnut stock.

He heard voices from the hall and turned to find Walter leading another boy into the kitchen.  The kid was Walter’s age, but dressed in a suit and tie that looked like he’d been sleeping in a ditch for a week.

“Who is this?”

“I’m Howard Carter, sir.”  The boy stuck out his hand.  The fingernails were dirty with axle grease and Bob Engels got the feeling he was about to find out why his tractor was running away.  His hands itched for that shotgun.  Or a switch.  Teach the little hooligan a lesson about turning a man’s property into a robot...

The first flying saucer shattered the front window as it roared over the house.  Everyone ducked.  Except Howard Carter.  The strange boy stared up at the shaking ceiling with the look of someone facing an algebra test that they’d stayed up all night studying for: resigned but ready.

“What was…” The second flying saucer drownedt the rest of Bob’s question.  He looked up to find the boy watching him.

“I’m sorry about your tractors -- I’ll try to get them back to you in one piece, I promise.”  The boy led the way out into the garage with the Engels family falling in behind him like soldiers behind a general.
Outside the sky was alight with a sickly green glow and one of the neighbor’s big combine harvesters was tapping its foot, waiting impatiently for the boy as more flying saucers lit the sky overhead.

“When the government gets here, tell them I went on ahead,” Howard Carter shouted over the whine of the spaceships.  Bob Engels nodded dumbly.  What could he say to this odd boy and his robot army?

“What is this?” Walter shouted.  “Why are you here?”

The boy stared at him and then glanced up at the sky.

“I’m here to save the world.”

The harvester bent down and plucked the kid off the driveway and raised him to sit on its mighty green shoulder.  The Engels family waved as the robot and its boy turned and lumbered off across the fields in the direction of the woods.

Bob stood watching for awhile and then turned to his family.  He caught a glimpse out of the corner of his eye of the battered old farm truck watching him from the shadows of the garage. 

“Well?  What are you waiting for?  You might as well get after him!”

The truck flashed its headlights and sprinted off down the driveway and across the culvert while overhead, the saucers began to circle and land.

Read New Chapters as they are written on the NaNoWriMo page of the Pages to Type website and get updates and notices when new chapters are posted by following me on FacebookFacebookor Twitter Twitter!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Your humble patience pray :: Guidance from Master Shakespeare

All the world's a stage...
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

In the prologue to Henry V is found the advice every writer or actor should hear in their heads as they embark upon any effort to present events larger than their stage or page can hold.  Not familiar with it?  You should be, and not only because it's the beginning of one of the Great Works, but because it holds an enormous amount of advice for writers from one of the greatest (if not the greatest) writer ever to lift a pen.

In these words, Shakespeare admits to and then dispenses with the doubts his audience might hold in their hearts that he can pull off the sprawling battle of Agincourt and unfurl the landmark event of English history in the space and time constraints of the stage.  He admits right away the limitations of the stage and actors to truly capture the events about to unfold without the willing assistance of the audience's imagination.

And as he said in a later play 'Aye, there's the rub'.  Nothing you write is going to work if you forget this simple fact: You are putting images in someone else's head and it's your job to give them enough to suspend their disbelief and let their imaginations do the rest.
But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
A novel is not a stage... or is it?  Certainly, you can populate the vasty fields of your imaginary worlds with  all the armies of man and monsters you care to name... but really, how much can you describe them before the reality breaks down and it becomes a treatise on the arms & equippage of imaginary armies?  Too much is worse than too little.   You can't show it all, some part of the action and world will always fall off the stage.  And take it from a sometimes actor, the lap of the front row is a bad place to end up.

So your problem is somewhat the opposite of Shakespeare's stage, but the solution is the same...

O, pardon! since a crooked figure may 
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great account,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder...

I've read many an early draft of fantasy epics and space operas that dwelled so intricately on the arms and equipment of each armsman and space ship (or whatever) that you forget you're reading a novel and begin to wonder whether this is a doctoral dissertation.

Let one or two speak for many.  How do you cram an army onto a stage or page?  The same way Shakespeare did.  The same way, incidentally, as Tolkien did.  And John Toland and Joss Whedon in Firefly for that matter.  By giving us a handful of representative characters who stand in for the millions.  One crooked figure from which your audience is to extrapolate the millions unseen.

I'm about to unleash an army of aliens and giant robots upon the fields of the earth but don't look to me to create them in intimate detail.  Tell us they exist.  Set the scene and pan the camera across the field as the armies of monsters and mechanized monstrosities clash and then shift your focus to the heroes because the next line might be the single-greatest line in any prologue in English history, the prayer every writer utters in the dark watches of the night...

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts

Get your audience rooting for your characters (and you by extension) and they will suspend their disbelief, willingly participate in your ruse.  They will populate an imaginary field with aliens and robots and clothe your naked scaffold.  They will fill in the gaps where you eliminated all those adverbs.  When you get them on your side, you don't need to tell them that your character said something 'tiredly', they'll be so wrapped up in the action that they'll read it tiredly.

Because that's the secret:  The reader wants you to succeed.  They want you to tell them a story and as long as you never betray them, they will follow you through the gates of hell and allow you to take one character and let them stand in for thousands and compress the events of years into a few pages.

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts 
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour glass...
Time and character compression are your friends, but only if the audience is.  And it's easier to get them on your side if the stage is not so awash in characters and needless detail that they can't find the story.

At the end of the day, writing is writing, whether it's a play or a sci fi lark about a boy genius who turns farm equipment into robots.  End the end, even Shakespeare knew that no matter what you are trying to say about the human condition, it all boils down you connecting with your listener and getting them on your side long enough to hear you out.

And as I prepare to send my muse into the field on a mission to which she is unaccustomed, that's a great comfort to me.  Bring on the robots! Cue the aliens!
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
Exit, stage left.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Writing in public & other matters...

I know that I've been scarce the past couple of weeks.  In November, you might get a little tired of me, so think fondly of this little respite.

Here's what's happening behind the scenes...

  • I've been rolling-out a new computer program and database at the Writing & Tutoring Center where I work managing data.  It's been sapping my energies and making my hands hurt because the software's designers didn't seem to care that someone would eventually have to use this program.  I put in a requisition for an ergonomic mouse.
  • I'm finally setting up a 'real' website.  (Remember those? They're like blogs, but more static) More details on that soon.  I promise some free content and much coolness as a reward for showing up.
  • Speaking of websites... I've been setting up a Google space to post chapters of my NaNoWriMo novel as I write it.  Each chapter will be posted as I finish it.  It's a work in progress.
  • One of the reasons I'm reviving my Midgrade/YA idea for this is to make it as fun to read and write as I can make it with a minimum of research necessary.  One of the mistakes I made last year was focusing on a story that would require significant research, which is never fun if you have to do it on the fly.

    Boy genius, mad scientist, aliens and giant robots?  I think I can handle making that up out of whole cloth without needing run to the library too often.
  • And what's an effort like this without a logo?  I made a quick logo that should look a bit familiar since it's generated using the same set of photos I used for the masthead on this blog.

More news later.  Things are still in flux aro7und here.  I appreciate your patience, mind the dust and please accept my apologies in advance if the construction workers whistle at you...


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Math for Writers & An Announcement

It's hard not to picture it like the beginning of the TV show 'Numbers'. . .

That's what I call compelling math.

There are limited number of words knocking around in the world, but hiding among them are all of the stories you can imagine -- my stories, your stories, the unknown plays of William Shakespeare, the lost works of William Blake, the stories that have been told and the stories that are yet to be told.

Richard Price famously noted how crazy it is that writers spend year after year rearranging twenty-six letters over and over again.  It's crazy, but inspiring too, because all stories are made of the same elements combined in different ways. Letters form words almost on their own, but it's enthusiasm and human will that forces them into one end of the clattering, whirring machines and draws a story out the other end.

Starting November 1st, I'll begin writing a novel. If all goes well, I'll have 50,000 words in the bank and a finished first draft.  Adrenaline sports for literary masochists.

And you can follow along!  Following the example of my friend Maggie, I will be setting up a website, either on WordPress or Google Sites where I'll post chapters as I finish them. For the occasion, I'll be rebooting my abandoned YA science fiction story from scratch, throwing out everything except the characters and starting over completely.

50,000 words in month, written in public.  The literary equivalent of working without a net.  A raw and unedited glimpse inside the strange world that exists inside my head in a story that I first pitched to my wife as 'The Nick Adams stories as if they'd been written by Douglas Adams."

Stay tuned for 'Howard Carter Saves the Earth'.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Quote of the moment...

"You're trying to create something that people will actually believe, but it's not so much a symbol of the thing as you're trying to do the thing itself."

-Jim Henson

Friday, October 1, 2010

Intellectual Freedom

There's an unwritten contract between writer and reader. The author is here to challenge you, to hold up a mirror and show you what they see, a new viewpoint different from your own. It is in the nature of any reflection that we will not always see what we expect to see. At its worst it is merely titillating, but at its best this is the beginning of a conversation.

The juxtaposition of different viewpoints, one set beside the next, interlocking reflections of life in our times (or past times in some cases) adds depth and understanding because no single image can be the entire picture. In the words of the oft-censored author Douglas Adams: "The function of art is to hold the mirror up to nature, and there simply isn’t a mirror big enough..."

Without the conversation, without seeing as much of the picture as is available to you, all the reflections available to you, you cannot hope to have a fully-realized picture of our culture. Pull the mirror off the wall and the reflection will go away but it will not change what it showed. Only by taking all the images available -- even those we disagree with -- and overlaying them can we begin to see the whole interconnected collage of overlapping lives and loves and wonder that surrounds us. The whole of creation laid out before us in the stacks of the world library.

Last year, Judith Krug died, leaving behind a tradition of raising up those voices that others would silence. Ms Krug founded "Banned Books Week" from the aptly-named Office of Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association.

Art is supposed to be a challenge to your viewpoint. If all we ever read or hear are those voices which already agree with us, then we are stagnant and the conversation dies. And that... that would be truly tragic.

The Hall of Dangerous Ideas includes the likes ofL Geoffery Chaucer, Montaigne, William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, George Orwell, John Steinbeck, Joseph Heller, JD Salinger, the Christina Bible, the Quran and the US Constitution. These are the dangers when we allow someone else to decide what we can read.  Some of the greatest minds and influential works ever to pass from pen to page have all been censored, blocked, burned and banned.  And through it all, the real literary heroes have been the librarians who stepped in front of the censors and said "Not on my watch".

UPenn offers the following list of banned literature:

Find out more and get your own free unplugged robot bookmark downloads from The American Library Association (ALA) Office of Intellectual Freedom.