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!