Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Crash Course on Conferences

At some point in your writing career, you'll probably find yourself indulging in a writer's conference. I hope you do: the experience is both dipped in Awesomesauce AND wrapped in bacon (yes, that's for you, Anthony & Doug). I've posted previously about conferences, but it occurred to me that I've never provided any "advice" on attending one. It's all well and good to jaunt through life with an adventurous and curious spirit, but it does ease the journey if you've a road map of sorts.

I do not pretend to provide the road map. But I do have some observations I'd like to share with you.

Things for the newbie to keep in mind:

1. Business cards: many conference attendees will have business cards. You can make your own or have them made for cheap or free through various on-line businesses. Tip: scribble pertinent details on the back of each business card as you receive it regarding the person you've met. After you get home, faced with a mountain of cards, you'll be thankful you did.

2. Prepare your pitch: Conference attendees are a friendly bunch, mostly comprised of people who hope you succeed. Success comes with practice in the field, and often you'll be asked, "Pitch me!" Tip: You may be asked for your "elevator pitch" -- which is about 30 seconds long -- or your two-minute pitch. Take advantage of the opportunity to practice; this way, if your pitch is unclear, your new friends can help you tweak it.

3. Network: The purposes of conferences are many. You can meet and pitch agents and editors; you can attend informative workshops; and you can meet many talented and knowledgeable writers. The friendships I've made through conferences, however, have been the most important part. I've learned so much from these extraordinary people, and it's awesome knowing people "in the trenches" who can critique a query letter or provide needed feedback. Tip: Avoid negativity or agent-bashing or whining about the industry. You never know who you will meet -- or how your attitude will impact their view of you.

4. Agents are human, too: Remember that if a conference has agents available, they've generally paid them to come and listen to your pitch. That being said, remember that not only are agents human, but they are not the enemy. They, too, want to discover the "next best thing," and they're not dedicating their lives to stopping you from finding success. Treat them with respect; give them the benefit of the doubt. Tip: Do not follow an agent into the bathroom or slip pages of a manuscript under his/her hotel door. It only marks you as an inconsiderate boor, and regardless of how brilliant your writing is -- you may well be written off completely.

5. Follow-up on manuscript requests: Oddly enough, after all of the hours dedicated to writing and all of the agony involved in pitching an agent, only 1 in 10 writers actually follows up on a request for pages. Sure, it's important to make sure you send in your best -- but darn it! Polish it, pitch it, send it! Tip: Make sure you mention in your query letter that you met the agent at Acme Writing Conference. Many times an agent will ask that you put the name of the conference in the subject line of the email; follow directions explicitly.

Conferences can be an exhilarating experience if you have a basic idea of what to expect. What positive or negative conference experiences have you had? Do recommend attending them? What are your favorite conferences? This is hardly an exhaustive list of tips -- what advice do you have to add to this list?

Monday, June 29, 2009

Fleeting Confidence


As a writer confidence can be a fleeting thing. While in the middle of a story, focused on placing words on the page, most of us don't necessarily worry about the absolute quality of the writing. We just want to finish, and figure we'll polish it up later.

This is the right approach, but it has a nasty side effect. It can cause confidence problems. Reading through the first draft, the writer can become extremely negative about the work, because.... well ... it sucks.

There will be moments of goodness, maybe even greatness, but there will also be moments of extreme suckage. (A technical writing term, in case you didn't know it.)

It's these moments of extreme suckage that can damage a writer's fragile confidence. It's these moments that can cause the writer to pause, and think about whether they really like to write, or not. These moments of suckage can make the writer think that they're no good.

When it happens, and it will, what are you going to do? Give up?

That's exactly what happens to some beginning writers. They write the first draft, start the process of revision, realize that what they've written blows chunks, and throw in the towel. A very unfortunate result after hours and days of work.

What should you do?

It's highly possible that there is no real story, and maybe the scene should be tossed, or maybe the entire book. Fine. Figure out what didn't work and write a new one. If that one doesn't work either, figure out what's wrong with that one and write another one.

The point being, that this tenacity and focus is what separates a writer, from someone who likes to write. A writer will continue to hone their craft until they can captivate readers with their storytelling. Someone who likes to write, will continue to write in their diary, and won't necessarily improve other than through practice.

Write the best story you can write. When revising, focus on making the story better, and don't get bogged down by the parts you hate. Make them better.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Fear is the Mind Killer


Do you have a favorite line?

Right now mine is the litany against fear from Dune. There is a current real world reason why this code is significant to me.

The Litany Against Fear:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

-Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear.

Why is the code significant to me right now?

Last Summer I sat at a dinner table with three of the fantasy/sci fi finalists at the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference. Each of the finalists did a nice job trying to keep there composure as the top three were announced. Third place was a woman at our table. Extra loud claps and cheers erupted from out table. It was cool. Second was someone else, who was not at our table. Claps and cheers. One more place to go. Two more finalists at the table and six more in the room of hundreds. First place in the finalist category goes to ... The husband of the winner jumped up and cheered as load as you could imagine. I smiled for the couple. And honestly the winner, who was a mom about my same age, looked shocked. I was so happy for them. It was a beautiful moment for the both of them. And, I though, that's what I want for my wife and I.

I drove home from the conference thinking, "That's what I am going to try for." And, I did. You know the steps: feedback, revision, feedback, revision, .... So, you can imagine that when I opened the link to the finalists and saw that my name was not there I felt an electric jolt (a pang, if you will) erupt from my heart.

It was painful, but a funny thing happened. I felt glad for one of the guys that was listed as a finalist. His name is Brad Gallaway and I had the pleasure of exchanging feedback with him this year. If you are interested in dark fantasy or video games you should check out his blog. http://drinkingcoffeecola.blogspot.com/

A thought came to me: "I am glad that I was a part of something." That something was of course the feedback exchange and Brad's success. Somehow that thought, the idea that just being in the game and being involved (even in a peripheral way) with some one's writing success helped the pain to pass through me.

This afternoon I was thinking about the whole writing life thing. I was thinking about the sacrifices and how I have stopped marathon training. I was also thinking about the next novel. There was a tension between continuing with the dream and letting the pain of rejection deter me. That's when the litany against fear came to mind.

What matters more than winning or losing is character, and the ability to continue fighting on.

So, I refuse to give in to the mind killer. I refuse to entertain the fear that I am not good enough or that I will never make it. I also refuse to disassociate from the pain. I embrace the pain and I am conscious of the reasons why it exists. Here's my theory, in brief. We will feel pain in proportion to the degree that we feel hope and desire. I felt a tremendous amount of hope and desire, therefore, it makes sense to feel a tremendous amount of disappoint and fear.

I don't think that it is good to stop hoping. That would make us lifeless and passionless. Feel the pain of rejection. Let it pass through you. And turn to look with the inner eye at the experience. Grow stronger from it. And know that if you do not give into fear (the little mind killer) you will continue on through the desert until you arrive at your destination. Once you arrive, who you are and how you have grown will matter more than the fact that you arrived. That is my code. If you are a friend of mine, feel free to hold me and others to it.

What helps you to let the pain pass through you?

1. Acknowledging it's validity helps me

2. Knowing that I have other writing and nonwriting successes and other sources of meaning helps me

3. Acknowledging the strength of the competition helps me

In his blog, Brad wrote, "The person who informed me that I was in the running said that this year's SF/F category had some fierce competition."

4. Looking forward with a positive attitude helps me

I once had an agent end an email in a wonderful way. He wrote, LOOK FORWARD : )

To me, that means focus on the path with a positive attitude, and continue on.


QUESTIONS OF THE DAY

-What's a meaningful line from literature to you?

-Do you have a mantra or mind-trick for letting pain pass through you?

Morning


For me, morning is the ideal writing time. That is, on those days when I don't have anywhere else to be. In the morning, my house is quiet, cool and calm, and lit with that perfect "slant of light."

In the morning I am at my most productive. Mornings are wonderful, and summer mornings are the best.

By the afternoon, heat settles in my non air-conditioned house, and the coffee pot is empty, and the noise beings, and family members make demands, and phones ring and sing and beep, and then the writing becomes slow and frustrating.

Any others have a perfect time of day for writing?


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Hope in the Mail

Recently I was given the pleasure of being rejected by an agent for three entirely different books, and yet she made me feel wonderful about all of them. Her comments were precise, insightful, and most importantly, personal. She is truly a top-quality agent to query, because she took the time to comment on each project. Granted, I’d had a slight connection, seeing as how one of my friends was a client of hers, but I firmly believe she would be a great agent for someone out there.

Andrea Somberg, by the way. I highly recommend. It just worked out that most of my material, subject matter, wasn’t quite right. Fire up the ol' agentquery.com and give her a look.

In any event, there’s still hope on the horizon, as two other agents are considering a book I’ve worked on for a good two years. And I guess that was the one thought I wanted to send out to all the hard-working aspiring writers out there. A friend of mine wanted me to write this in an article. It’s to have ‘Hope in the Mail’. Yeah, I know, sounds Lifetime/Hallmark, but, ever since a year and a half ago I’ve had at least one story being considered somewhere, anywhere, really. The reason for this started as a hope to get some excellent literary credentials, but has morphed into a more realistic approach: To teach Creative Writing at a university someday. You know, that lazy guy in the corner office who phones it in and only works part-time but makes full-time money.

This hope in the mail thing is pretty therapeutic for me. Of course, I have to maintain a level of productivity all the time, but even if something is out there, just one story, a flash even, then I know I’m trying, and that helps a lot.

I’ve had a gigantic amount of rejections, but sprinkled in there have been four publications, which look good on a resume, or at the bottom of a query.

Just a thought.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Fiscal Year of Social Media and Book Purchasing

I love to read books. I love to write about reading books. I love reading books almost as much as I love writing them.
A book trend that I cannot ignore is that within the last year, my book buying habits have completely changed.
First, the economy blows and while I have a nice job with a good, smart company, we’re pinching pennies here at Chez Pacheco. I make my lunch. Cutting down on the coffee shop trips (sadness). Bargain hunting at the wine store. Curtailing travel. Etc. If you haven’t personally received the message it’s time to circle the wagons, um, it’s time to circle the wagons.
Second, I purchase many books. Did I mention I love books?
I spent, on the average, $300 less in books from June ‘08 to June ‘09 than the year previous. However, that is just me. I have increased the amount of money I spend on books for the family. The family dramatically increased their book consumption, and even while we are heavy library users, there is value in owning your own book and supporting our favorite authors with purchasing dollars.
Let’s make this personal: I bought books to read for me and me alone. And many of them I found through word-of-mouth via social media. This is different from how I was buying books merely a year ago. Completely.
Let me give you an example of books for me me me:
Title Author How Found Found Notes
Cracked Up to Be Courtney Summers Social Media Blog link to author’s blog via a Tweet
Monster Hunter International Larry Correia Social Media Blog link to author’s blog
Better to Beg Forgiveness Michael Z. Williamson Me I purchase all this author’s books
The Pirate King R.A. Salvatore Me I purchase all this author’s Drizzt books
When the Whistle Blows Fran Slayton Social Media Twitter
Silver Phoenix Cindy Pon Social Media Blog link to author’s blog
Faery Rebel: Spell Hunter R. J. Anderson Social Media Blog link to author’s blog
Old Man’s War John Scalzi Social Media Email News Letter/Blog link to Amazon
Contract with Chaos Michael Z. Williamson Me I purchase all this author’s books
Effective Defense : The Woman, the Plan, the Gun Gila Hayes In person recommendation Research
Unwind Neal Shusterman Social Media Blog link to Amazon
Storm from the Shadows David Weber Me I buy all Honorverse books
Rite of Passage Alexei Panshin Me Replacement for lost book
Stewards of the Flame Sylvia Engdahl Social Media Author’s Website
The Master of Norriya Wayland Drew Me Replacement for lost book
Memoirs of Alcheringia Wayland Drew Me Replacement for lost book
Nightwalker Jocelynn Drake Social Media Blog link to Amazon
Off Armageddon Reef David Weber Me Browsing in Barnes and Nobel
Identity and Control: How Social Formations Emerge (Second Edition) Harrison C. White Me Research
The World Without Us Alan Weisman Social Media Google Hit via Research
Chindi Jack McDevitt In person recommendation Rare in bookstore recommendation
This list is not complete, I’m far too lazy to get a complete list, but it is close for a June-to-June look. This also does not include all the books I received as gifts (which were many, nom)
The prior year before that? One or two books in the “Social Media” category. I was not on Twitter. I did not use blogs for book purchasing decisions. I found books either by browsing the bookstore or by browsing Amazon or by talking to friends in person.
Let me reiterate this:
  • Prior to becoming active in social media, how found was mainly “Me”
  • After becoming active in online communities, online word-of-mouth recommendations carried significant weight in my book purchasing dollars
  • I spent $300 less on books for myself over the same time period
In the space of a year, my book buying habits changed dramatically, and I will say, for the better. I am spending less on books for myself, but I am no longer an isolated book buyer.
Adjust or die.
How many books have people bought in the fiscal year based on my recommendations?
Embrace change.
What is next year going to hold as the economy tanks further?
Keep your eyes wide open when making plans.
Is this the beginning of the social media revolution for books?
Adjust. Or. Die.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Tools of the Trade

There are many purposes for writing, a myriad of audiences, and an entire pocketful of definitions of success. But I'm going out on a limb here and guessing that the majority of you who actively engage in this blog (or lurk in the background) either 1) are writing something you want to see published in the nearby future or 2) wish you were writing something that could be published.

I say this as a caveat, of course. I'm staving off those who feel a laundry list rotated 30 degrees mango is the pinnacle of life's work. (And I do gently suggest that if you're writing the same novel these past 23 years, maybe it's time to move on.)

Read: That being said, I want to explore the tools of the writing trade. We all know that we should read what we want to write. It makes no sense to dismiss the foundational authors in the field nor the up and coming competition. In fact, the more we read, the more we know, the more we can add to the conversation, push the envelope, and strengthen the genre.

Research: And to counter the argument (that I've made myself in times past) that if I read it I may subconsciously steal it -- and thus I shouldn't read at all...Pashaw! I must tell you that I have crafted the most complex and delightful plots all by myself, winked at image in mirror because they were so witty and engaging, only to find that such plot (or character) exists full-fledged and very published some twenty years previous. It's my job to know my canon. And it's a bloody waste of time if I don't.

Beyond reading and research, what can the writer do? MFAs and writing workshops are expensive options but certainly doable, if one has the inclination. Conferences build a wider but more shallow knowledge base in a shorter amount of time, but they too tend to be rather spendy.

Three Tools of the Trade that I use:

1. Trade Magazines: I subscribe to Writer's Digest. I find it chock full of surface bits, nothing really deep, but it keeps me in the game and aware of what's going on out there. I also am tentatively subscribed to Realms of Fantasy (I say tentatively because they sent my check back, saying they were ceasing publication back in April. The latest news, however, is that they've been bought out by Tir Na Nog Press and won't close). These two magazines cover the two areas I'm interested in: publication and fantasy.

2. Podcasts: Like any native of the 21st century, I find I must multi-task or go crazy. Although I've cut my commute down from two hours a day to twenty minutes, I still have plenty of time to engage the internal while the external is waiting in line at the post office or sweating at the gym. So I listen to podcosts. My two favorite are from Odyssey, the Fantasy Writing Workshop, and Writing Excuses. Both aim their podcast length at about 15 minutes.

3. Social Networking: I find inspiration, news, and encouragement via my social network. I'm not on every single day, but when I do jump on, I feel engaged and welcomed. That's what counts, right? Well, that and the fact that it is pretty amazing to find out what's going on in agent and editor minds across the land. So I blog here and over at Alex Moore. You can find me at Twitter and Facebook, though I'm just easing in to the latter. Do be-friend me there, since I'm just dipping my toes in! Oh wait. I don't know how to tell you where I'm at on Facebook. *le sigh*

I am looking for other tools, however, and hope that you'll toss them my way, if you have any that work for you. I'm especially looking for podcasts and trade magazines that you've found invaluable. Yes, my focus is science fiction and fantasy, but I'm open to anything that improves writing. After all, that's what we do!

Monday, June 22, 2009

How do you invent interesting characters?

I admit, I struggle with this one. You've heard me say before, this is the area of my writing that I have to work on the hardest.

Come up with an interesting plot? No problem. Weave in some cool technology? Got it covered. Layer it with deep characters? ... umm, well... I try.

My second (as yet unpublished) novel had a character that spent a lot of time trying to make real. His name is Badar Baqai.

This is the name of someone I knew a long time ago, and I'm sure he won't mind me using his name. If not, well I can always change it.

Badar was born in the US to a Saudi princess who had an affair with a African-American soldier during the first Gulf War (future book?) . His aunt is acting as his mother, her husband as his father. Badar knows nothing of this until very late in the book, and it provides an interesting plot arc. Part of what happens is that he is coerced into doing something to find out the truth about his past.

Badar is a professional gamer. He has made millions of dollars playing games on the video game circuit. He isn't just satisfied with beating his opponent, he has to dominate them, humiliate them, using any means necessary. He will stop at nothing, even cheating, to win.

He was contracted by the US military to virtually command an elite strike team using an interface that closely resembles the video games he has been playing. These soldiers have head gear similar to the those in the picture at the right. They receive orders as to where to go, what to do, through this interface.

It's kind of like Enders Game, in that, when Badar plays the game, real soldiers are carrying out orders. But unlike Enders Game, both Badar and the soldiers knows that this is the case.

Would I associate with Badar if he was a real person that I worked with? Probably not. He has his good side, but he's just too competitive. I would always feel that I was competing with him, and Badar has to win.

It took me a long time to deepen this character. I knew he was going to be a professional gamer. I knew he wanted to win, but the other details came over time as I tried to think of other interesting parts of his background.

Where do you get your characters from? How do you make them real?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Adventurous Research!



You may have heard about unplug week from Alex's blog or from cruising around and seeing that a number of people have decided to take a scheduled break in a group attempt to get some other stuff done, to focus.

Well, if you took the challenge, what did you focus on?

I did some adventuring today!


I led my brother on a hike that started with a walk over a suspension bridge that spans the width of the Yakima river. You can see the cliff faces in the photo from there. Then, we continued on by a ravine trail that climbed and fell with the mountains. My brother is as interested in the science of volcanoes as many people are about novels, so I had a good time talking about clues of volcanic activity with him: porous rocks, basalt columns, and cliff faces that slant up nearly one hundred feet because of plate tectonics.


What does the adventure have to do with writing?


1. I'm searching for details for the world in my fantasy novels: sounds, sights, smells, textures, air currents, creatures, flowers, ...


2. I'm rediscovering a sense of adventure and what it feels like to go on a journey. So many fantasy novels involve getting around on foot, mine included, so best to remember what a steep ascent up to the top of a mountain feels like. The last half a mile was enough to make my calves burn and make me breathe hard, especially when my brother brushed bake the sage and I breathed in enough of the pungent stuff to make me feel a bit high.
If you haven't smelled it, you should. It's the dominant scent up in the mountains. There's the smell of sage and the smell of fresh air. If you haven't smelled sage, I'm not sure what I could compare it to. It's dry, pungent, and pleasant. I can tell you what it does to me. It makes me realize I'm in a different place. I grew up where the air is moist, wet as a drink of water. Up here in the desert mountains the air is hot and dry. Lizards crawl around--little horny toads that look like miniature dirt dragons. If you don't know, sage can be a scrub brush that grows by your knees, or it can grow up over your head. If you brush between two bushes, in order to continue on the trail, your hand will carry the scent and when the bush swings back your senses will be overwhelmed.


If you have a good description of what the scent of sage is like, feel free to let everybody know.


3. Epic views and petite details


I climbed high enough to look down on mountains, and out across the miles to the Mt. Stewart Range, which still has snow on its jagged peaks.


I saw a caterpillar with mustard yellow dots the exact same color as the moss growing on the branch that it clung to. The caterpillar was unusual because it had many spikes, just like a cactus. About twenty feet up the trail my brother spotted a blue butterfly. So, I left the caterpillar and took a picture of the butterfly in the sage.


I think that these kinds of adventures are good for discovering details that will make a story world real. I don't think it matters what the genre is.


People have different reasons for writing. One reason that I write is to live a life worth writing about. I'd go on adventures anyway, but fantasy writing is a fun way to share observations about the physical world. I've probably cut back too much on the details. I've read so much about getting to the action and developing tension on every page. That's all good and cool, but I think that there is something quite important about characters taking the time in the novel to experience the epic views and to comment on the petite details, the meaningful stuff in our world. I think that my next novel will focus more on these scents and sounds ... and there will probably be a blue butterfly.



Saturday, June 20, 2009

Word Count Goals

Many writers set daily or weekly goals. Stephen King in his book On Writing tells how he sets for himself a daily goal of 2000 words, after which he is free to do as he pleases. Other writers set goals of 1000 or 500 words per day. Some go with 4000 words per week.

If you do use your word-count to measure your progress, what exactly is the goal you set, and what counts towards that goal? Is it words only, as measured by your computer? Does re-writing a 1000-word excerpt count for a whole new 1000-word stint? What about anti-words? Do you give yourself word-count credit for cutting out excess words? Let's hear from the writers.

Personally, I find that setting word goals is very useful. During those times when I set goals, I meet them, or at least I come close. When I do not set goals, I can become quite lazy! How about you?

Friday, June 19, 2009

What's social media done for you lately?

A writing friend and I were talking about this the other day.

Her position was that these days, unless you have a famous friend that's willing to blurb you, some 'in' with a publisher or some other way of getting a lot of notice, you're basically screwed in this business. No debut, no nuthin'.

My basic position was that I saw her point, but I felt like through social media we had a unique opportunity to promote ourselves; even if we're debut authors, even if we don't know anybody, we now, through this medium, have a way to join the conversation and prepare for the opportunity that comes our way.

To this point, I have facebook. I have twitter and my blog. I have xing.com, (a German linkup) and linkedin. I chill at AbsoluteWrite and the VerlaKay boards, and answer/help where I can make a difference. I write on this blog, and others, and make a point of visiting new blogs and carrying it forward to meet others. I believe that through my actions on these social media networks, I bring myself closer to my goal: publication, and friends and colleagues that are interested in the same sort of things I am. (As well as have fun.)

So here's my question for you, as we're still moving but I wanted to make sure I had a 'proper' entry this week (:-)): What is your position on social media, as an author? Because if you're reading this blog, you are certainly one of those.

(And, while we're on the subject, I'd like you to give me the opportunity to follow your conversation. Leave me your blog, your twitter name, your facebook - or friend me - and I'll be adding to your comments, too!)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

What do you think?

Recently I’ve been going out of my way to find books in the bookstore with these requirements:

1) First-time author (meaning, their first novel)
2) Not someone writing uniquely about a different country (ala Kite Runner, etc…)
3) The writer should have no connections with publishing companies/family of published writers, etc…
4) No platform (meaning an already semi-celebrity, or someone who has worked for the CIA for 20 years, etc…)
5) The book is under 300 pages

As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, I’ve found less than two. =). Of course I don’t expect much success with my top five requirements. It’s what I hunt for. About a week ago I was fortunate to find a novel called ‘The Girl She Used To Be’, by David Cristofano. Great book, writing flowed, the voice was crystal clear. Of course before I started the book, I found that he met the top five requirements above. He had somewhat of a platform. The book is about the Witness Protection Program and he did work with the federal government for ‘over a decade’, but it didn’t sound huge enough to warrant a book deal with Grand Central Publishing. So it gave me hope, and I just wanted to pass along this criteria to you, because so often I talk to friends (or myself) and get frustrated about how some stories seem ‘phoned in’, or sloppy, or just downright lazy. And then that up and coming writer thinks…’well damn. My story is as good as that.’ Only recently did I realize I was referring to a bestselling author’s 21st novel…of course they’re getting a little lazy.

There are two parts to my blog entry this week, because I myself was lazy and missed last Thursday (sorry about that…brother got married!)

I am going to try and sound very objective here because I want to hear what everybody thinks about these phrases that I see in about 98% of published books. Again, the phrases below have been lifted from bestselling books, and I want to know what you think.

-he cocked an eyebrow.
-…raises a curious, disapproving eyebrow.
-she pursed her lips.
-Her heart panged.

There are others, but I’d love to hear what you think. True, they are taken out of context, but I don’t think it does that much harm.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Forgotten Tool of the Trade

I love you laser printer! I love you very much.

I have a Brother duplex laser printer I bought on sale at Officer Depot. As a consumer, any type of office equipment I need, I purchase there. Sometimes they have genuine sales not requiring some rebate I need to go through to “save!”

Another reason is their return policy is king. If I had a problem they would happily take whatever back, it did not matter if whatever was some electronic thing. They did this with an expensive photo printer with a broken feeder out of the box, and apologized for the difficulty.

I love you Office Depot!

I cannot imagine proofreading/line editing a novel without this printer. I cannot! If I want to waste paper, I put it in draft, and in minutes, I have printed like 350 pages and the printer sits there, waiting for more. If I want to conserve paper and amuse the cats, I put it in duplex mode. It takes twice as long to print, but that means it prints like this: ZOOM (turn paper around) ZOOM instead of like this: ZOOM!

Many people I know who had laser printers in the past have switched to color inkjet printers. The modern color inkjet printer is a little marvel. It can print photos reasonably well and for general usage, they can’t be beat. Color printouts are king. Many are all-in-one: printer, scanner, and copier.

For the novelist, inkjet printers are demon spawn. They are sloooooooow and you can almost hear the ink sucking sound from your wallet as you print, even if you print in B&W draft.

Now the ink in a laser printer is not exactly cheap either, until you take in account how long the toner cartridge lasts, and how many pages you get out of it. I’ve had my printer nine months and I am still using the wanker toner cartridge that came with it. I have a real cartridge standing by; it looks a bit lonely sitting on the shelf.

Economic times are hard, but if you are absent a modern black and white laser printer, as a novelist, you’re missing out. Cut down the lattes to three a week instead of daily and save the pennies. You won’t regret it.

And to completely geek out this geek post: my printer isn’t even attached to a computer. I simply plugged it into my network switch, which, in turn, has a wireless switch connected to it. I print to it from anywhere in my house.

I love you laser printer!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Going AWOL

The ever delightful Lady Glamis has dared her many followers to Unplug. Actually she's invited us in her sweet and warm way, but the concept remains constant: Unplug from the Internet for an entire week each month.

Dedicate that week to whatever you wish, of course, but we writers are pretty focused. An entire week to simply write. No blogging. No misspent hours combing those intriguing blogs or sites or "researching" or emailing or tweeting. Just blessed silence. And time to write.

That prompted grey matter spasms. Seriously? I know I spend far too much time visiting blogs and commenting and contemplating and thinking and being a part of the on-line community. But I also know I gain a great deal from that interaction.

But then I realized: If I'm honest with myself, I know that I've written far far less now that I blog. Yikes. That's a powerful and gut-wrenching self-realization. Yuck. Not exactly something I want to face. But it's true.

So, now to you:

1. How does blogging influence your writing for the positive?
2. How does blogging influence your writing for the negative?
3. How many minutes/hours per day/week do you spend blogging?
4. How do yo balance your writing life with your on-line life?
5. Are you, too, planning on "unplugging" the third week of every month?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Real Scenes From Your Life

I listen to a lot of podcasts. Podcasts about science, podcasts about technology, and podcasts about writing. Writers on Writing features authors, agents, and editors talking about the process of writing. Barbara DeMarco Barrett is great at getting useful tidbits other authors use to write great books.

The other podcast that I have found recently is the Odyssey Writing Workshop. It is a series of presentations to select authors about how to get their work from almost ready to publish, to ready to publish.

It is that podcast that gave me the idea for this post.

Do you ever use events that have happened to you in your work? I have. Although I changed some of the details, it's an interesting exercise to take a scenario that you are very familiar with and modify it to fit a scene in your work.

In the workshop they suggested to take a scenario from your life, and write it for a fantasy, or science fiction, or horror novel. Add your characters to the mix and see how the scene comes alive.

Here's a scene from my aviation thriller, Lost in the Sky.



As much as I hate to admit it, this was very similar to a discussion that I had with my ex-wife, before she was ex. By the way, the names have been changed to protect the guilty.



“I told you, you need to call first.” Karen said when she answered the door.

“Why do I have to call to see my wife?”

“Because you don’t live here anymore.”

“Wasn’t my idea. I just went along with it so we would have some time to work things out.” Bill said.

A scowl crossed her face.

“I don’t think things are going to work out.”

“Yeah, that’s what you always say.”

“How many times are we going to try the same things over and over?”

“What do you mean?” Bill asked.

“How many times have we tried to work things out over the last year?” she asked.

“A few” Bill admitted “but we are learning something new each time, and I thought it was helping.”

“Seems to me we’ve been learning new ways to piss each other off.”

“Maybe,” Bill paused “but we also learn what the other expects. Don’t you think?”

“I’m not sure, it just seems like the same issues again and again, but with a different twist.”

“Well the only issue seems to be that you don’t want me around anymore.”

“I don’t like to be around you when you’re angry.”

“I’m not always angry.” Bill said.

“If feels that way to me.”

Bill paused and shuffled his feet for a moment. He looked up at her.

“I don’t know why we just can’t go back to the way things used to be.”

Karen turned away and didn’t speak for a few moments.

“Because I love you, but I’m not IN love with you.” she said.

“What? What kind of Hollywood crap is that?” Bill said, his blood starting to boil a little.

“That sounds like some stupid Hollywood chick flick where the knight in shining armor and the princess live happily ever after. Well guess what, that’s a fairy tale. That’s not real life. In the real world two people have to work hard at a relationship. It’s full of compromises and a whole lot of work, but billions of people do it everyday. Why can’t you?”

“I just don’t have that feeling for you anymore.”

“That in love feeling you’re looking for, that’s not real, that’s a writers’ fantasy, that’s not real life.”

Karen paused before speaking.

“I know that you’d like to snap your fingers and have everything the way that it used to be when we first met, but I don’t know how I lost it, and I don’t know how or even if I can get it back.”

“You’re right, I would love to snap my fingers and get it all back. I’d love to have a wife that loved me as much as I love her, a job where I felt fulfilled at the end of the day, and the satisfaction that I was making a difference in the world.”

“I don’t see that happening and I think it starts with your job.”



FYI, I am pleased to announce that my aviation thriller got a mention in the Indie Book Awards.



It's not the New York Times Bestseller List, but I'll take it.

OK, so now it's your turn. What scenes have you used from your life?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Why a Fantasy Reference Guide and World Building Matters!



There are many, many books on the craft of writing, but not so many that focus on fantasy. I've been disappointed with most of the books on writing fantasy, but the WRITER'S COMPLETE FANTASY REFERENCE is a good reference for being a better writer and reader of fantasy.

WHY???

It gets into the details of what matters when reading and writing fantasy and has tons of sketches. It's more like a cultural encyclopedia than a craft of writing book.

I would say that the top strength of this book is it's focus on world building and its use of sketches.

Let's say that you want to tackle a George R.R. Martin book, or another epic fantasy that describes knights in battle. You could use this book as a reference to get a very detailed visual on different types of weapons, different parts of a knight's armor, and the anatomy of a castle.

The problem with reading fantasy comes when the reader does not know the terms that the author is using. The author might write that the enemy used both trebuchets and catapults to storm the castle. As a reader you might wonder what the difference is. They both hurl rocks, right? That can be a bit frustrating. Well, just reference your handy dandy fantasy reference book and you can get a very good sense of the difference. Just in case you were wondering, a trebuchet is a sixty foot tall siege engine that is used to assault a castle with three hundred pound rocks, or cattle, from 200-300 yards away. A trebuchet is more destructive and more expensive than a catapult (just in case you were in the market for a siege engine).

One of the other things that I love about this book is that it does not just focus on fantasy worlds built around European cultures. Among other things, there is a chapter on the following world cultures.

Egyptian
Chinese
Mughal
Mayan
Aztec
Zoltec
Zapotec
Mixtec
Mississippian
Maori
Incan
This chapter gets into the dynamics of culture that are relevant to a writer interested in world building.

So, let's say you are not a fantasy reader or a fantasy writer. You might be thinking, "Why should I care about all this stuff?"

Well, just as character building and conflict are essential to any good novel, so to is a sense of the place a character is from and the place where the story or action takes place. If you can convey a sense of time and place, a sense of how the culture works, readers (even nonfantasy readers) will be much, much more into your novel. I bet you could think of nonfantasy books and movies that made the most of cultural elements. MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING and BREAKING AWAY are two movies about contemporary life that come to mind. BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM is another.

I love to know how people work within a culture, especially when they struggle against it or find meaning in it. Are there things you could do or have done to give your reader a sense of time and place, a sense of how the story world works.

If you have not read Jeanne Dupreau's THE CITY OF EMBER, you really should. The world building is wonderful. And guess what? If you are too busy to read it, you can watch a movie version that actually does a good job of telling the story. This story will be shelved in the children's section. I looked for it on the YA shelves after seeing the movie, but couldn't find it. It cracks me up how some fantasy stories can send adults into the children's section. How does that happen? I think it's the world building.
WRITING UPDATE:
I mailed out the fifty page partial to Donald Maass on Wednesday. I will let you know when I get news, whatever the news may be.
Best of luck on your writing journey. I'd be interested in getting updates on your writing journey. Do you have any good news or tough rejection letters? And, if any one took me up on the challenge to go on adventure to find oblique details that relate to their story world, of course, let me know. I went on a great hike up in the desert mountains and will post on it soon. Hopefully some of the photos turned out well.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

What does an editor's "No" mean, anyway?

Today's post is really just something I found which I'd like to share. On his website, novelist David L. Robbins offers eight pieces of advice to aspiring writers. All of his advice is experienced, insightful, and well worth the time to read. The eighth and final is piece of advice is:


Understand that No does not mean stop, it means only Not this direction.
When an editor or agent says No, they are simply telling you to go another
way, you cannot go through me. But there are other ways. No one must have
the power to make you stop writing...


This, I think, is the correct way to view rejection.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Today?

Today, you must forgive me. We're in the midst of a 72-hour operation to pack our entire house for a move to Berlin, and I only just realized today is Friday (I kept thinking it was Wednesday for some reason).

So I'd like to ask you something about you:

- what are you working on right now?
- how far are you into it?
- what are your plans for it? (i.e., query, pub, what exactly?)
- have you set yourself a goal to finish it?
- how's that goal looking?

I might be a little odd the next couple weeks, but I'll be back in force in July. Promise.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tales of Seduction

Seduced
I love word-of-mouth recommendations for books. There are books I never would have bought, checked out, or read, unless one of my friends or a familiar librarian recommended them to me:
Oh my God, Daniel Pinkwater! And, truth be told, this YA book was the first time I encountered, and started using, the world “snark” beyond Lewis Carroll.
A librarian recommended this YA science fiction book, and wow. I immediately snarfed it and all of her other books. Outstanding stories all and her prose I adore.
I distinctly remember the librarian telling me this was not just a “book for girls”. And it wasn’t. This and her Children of the Star books were simply amazing.
And, to top it off, Ms. Engdahl is a very nice lady. I emailed her and thanked her for her books, and she emailed me back! We had a wonderful dialog, and I will never forget her kindness.
This was the first Tom Clancy book I read, recommended by a co-worker. Thanks dude, you were right, techno-thrillers were indeed going to be a hot genre.
So not a fan of big books that year (1989), having been burned by big books for like two years prior. But one of my friends read this the day it was released in January 1990, and told me about it. I have the original first edition in soft cover.
This coming-of-age book really resonated with me, as the person who recommended it knew it would. I am a sucker for a protagonist who grows so much in a novel.
Later I learned this book was an ode to a proper education wrapped around a poke at Robert Heinlein.
Heh.
I had been searching for a book like this for a long time, and then gave up. Then WHAM! A recommendation from an email group comes across my desk. And oh my gosh is it good.
It’s dry and academic. And perfect.
My former manager recommended this book at lunch. Very compelling and I used it as research material in the second novel I wrote. I had overdosed on non-fiction when it came out, and would have never picked it up without the nod from my very smart ex-boss.
I had given up on what seems like a huge swath of books in the teen market because of their pretentious formulization and epic FAIL characterization. It was like Judy Blume didn’t exist.
On Janet Reid’s blog I followed a link to the author's web site, and was hooked. Man, I just dig Courtney’s haunting, honest prose. When I grow up, I want to write dialog like Courtney.
Courtney is also a big sweetie-pie.
If you read enough libertarian gun nut blogs (and I say that with fondness!), you’ll eventually come across Larry’s website or a recommendation for MHI. Oh man, this ex-POD book was so good; Baen picked it up.
To the forgotten Libertarian Gun Nut™ who recommended this book, I salute you. This was the best book I read in 2008, easily. MHI is wrapped in bacon and coated in awesomesauce.
Thoughts on Seduction
Truth be told, I have read many books people have recommended to me, but really, there are only a select few I could honestly say, “no way would I have ever read that on my own.” I left the books I would come up on my own off this short list, which, of course, received edits for brevity.
Consequently, I recommend more than I receive. That is okay. I single handily made six people read Blackhawk Down before it was popular. Literally, I shoved the book in their face and said, “don’t talk to me unless you read this.”
“But…”
“I said DON’T TALK TO ME!”
I depart with this little factoid. The rate of books I am reading by recommendation via word-of-mouth has increased dramatically. Reason? Social media. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook.
But we all know that.
Right? Right?!
What have you read by recommendation that you never would have noticed yourself?
Seduced
I love word-of-mouth recommendations for books. There are books I never would have bought, checked out, or read, unless one of my friends or a familiar librarian recommended them to me:
The Snark Out Boys and the Avocado of Death by Daniel J. Pinkwater
Oh my God, Daniel Pinkwater! And, truth be told, this YA book was the first time I encountered, and started using, the world “snark” beyond Lewis Carroll.
Enchantress from the Stars by Sylvia Louise Engdahl
A librarian recommended this YA science fiction book, and wow. I immediately snarfed it and all of her other books. Outstanding stories all and her prose I adore.
I distinctly remember the librarian telling me this was not just a “book for girls”. And it wasn’t. This and her Children of the Star books were simply amazing.
And, to top it off, Ms. Engdahl is a very nice lady. I emailed her and thanked her for her books, and she emailed me back! We had a wonderful dialog, and I will never forget her kindness.
Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy and Larry Bond
This was the first Tom Clancy book I read, recommended by a co-worker. Thanks dude, you were right, techno-thrillers were indeed going to be a hot genre.
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
So not a fan of big books that year (1989), having been burned by big books for like two years prior. But one of my friends read this the day it was released in January 1990, and told me about it. I have the original first edition in soft cover.
Rite of Passage by Alexei_Panshin
This coming-of-age book really resonated with me, as the person who recommended it knew it would. I am a sucker for a protagonist who grows so much in a novel.
Later I learned this book was an ode to a proper education wrapped around a poke at Robert Heinlein.
Heh.
Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women’s Self-Defense by Martha McCaughey
I had been searching for a book like this for a long time, and then gave up. Then WHAM! A recommendation from an email group comes across my desk. And oh my gosh is it good.
It’s dry and academic. And perfect.
Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
My former manager recommended this book at lunch. Very compelling and I used it as research material in the second novel I wrote. I had overdosed on non-fiction when it came out, and would have never picked it up without the nod from my very smart ex-boss.
Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers
I had given up on what seems like a huge swath of books in the teen market because of their pretentious formulization and epic FAIL characterization. It was like Judy Blume didn’t exist.
On Janet Reid’s blog I followed a link to her website and was hooked. Man, I just dig Courtney’s haunting, honest prose. When I grow up, I want to write dialog like Courtney.
Courtney is also a big sweetie-pie.
Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia
If you read enough libertarian gun nut blogs (and I say that with fondness!), you’ll eventually come across Larry’s website or a recommendation for MHI. Oh man, this ex-POD book was so good; Baen picked it up.
To the forgotten Libertarian Gun Nut™ who recommended this book, I salute you. This was the best book I read in 2008, easily. MHI is wrapped in bacon and coated in awesomesauce.
Thoughts on Seduction
Truth be told, I have read many books people of recommended to me, but really, there are only a select few I could honestly say, “no way would I have ever read that on my own.” I left those off my short list, which, of course, received edits for brevity.
Consequently, I recommend more than I receive. That is okay. I single handily made six people read Blackhawk Down before it was popular. Literally, I shoved the book in their face and said, “don’t talk to me unless you read this.”
“But…”
“I said DON’T TALK TO ME!”
I depart with this little factoid. The rate of books I am reading by recommendation via word-of-mouth has increased dramatically. Reason? Social media. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook.
But we all know that.
Right? Right?!
What have you read by recommendation that you never would have noticed your own?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Summer Beckons


There are always distractions in the writer's life. We battle piles of laundry and stacks of dishes. We duel with classes and jobs and sometimes both. We balance family time with must-read-books and snatches of sleep. And there are always the holidays, reassuring us that nothing beats copious amounts of time spent baking or eating or wrapping or unwrapping.

Somehow we manage. We make time for writing. Some of us steal snatches of time throughout the week. Some of us are binge writers; some of us are daily methodical writers. Some, like the Ken Kisers of the World, block out 12 am - 3 am each night as sacred for the muse. And we know that we bloody well better make time because we're the only ones who care enough to carry the germ of an idea through gestation to birth.

But then there's summer. Grass to be mowed. Sun to wallow in. BBQs to indulge in. And then the water sports, from beach bumming to fishing to dangling pretty painted toes off the dock...

How do you write during the summer? Everyone has a different method, of course, and I'm interested in yours. What do you do in order to ensure that your summer has a slice of the writing life? Or do I have it all wrong? Is summer really any different from December or any other month of the year? Does it come down to will-power, tenacity, and determination once again?

Monday, June 8, 2009

What are your Writing Goals?


Well I'm looking forward to that multi-million dollar advance, so that I can buy that estate home on five acres on top of the hill. It's going to be an 8000 square foot mansion, with 8 bedrooms, a guest house, 5 car garage, huge swimming pool, surrounded by 20 acres of grapes.

When I go to book signings there's going to be a line of anxious fans stretching around the block waiting for hours to get my autograph.

I'll do readings at packed stadiums where crowds of screaming young girls will faint from excitement. (That one was for you Anthony)

My schedule on the talk show circuit will be so full that Oprah will have to wait her turn.

When I walk into my hometown Borders, inside the front door will be a mound of my books so tall you won't be able see what's on the other side.

Oh and by the way I'm expecting this to happen by Christmas.

Am I dreaming just a little maybe? or maybe a lot.

I'm all for being a self confident writer, but I think you also have to set realistic goals. I think there are writers who set their goals much too high, don't reach them on their first try, and give up. You must set goals that push yourself, but setting your goals way too high will only cause you to fail and become disillusioned. Writing is about setting hard to reach, but attainable goals, continually polishing your craft, and not giving up.

What can you do this month that will advance your writing? Is there a writing class you can take at the local college? Maybe it's time to pick up that next book on writing.

What can you finish in the next three months that you can get your writers group to review?

What are you going to have complete by the end of the year that you can send out to agents?

My goals?
Next month I'm going to Thrillerfest in NY and suck up as much as I can from all the amazing thriller writers, editors, and agents in attendance. Before I go I am going to have a killer query done.

In the next three months I'm going to lay out the groundwork for my next novel. (legal thriller)

By next summer I expect to have the first draft of my next novel complete

Set your goals for those things you can control, polish, polish, polish your craft, and smile in the face of adversity. Someday you'll look back on the journey and realize just how much fun you had fighting through the process.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Search for Oblique Details!





I've been driving through the desert mountains between my home and my work with the idea of moving to Minneapolis on my mind. That means leaving behind the geography of my fantasy world, which has been inspired--in part--by the geography of Washington State.

There's the Olympic Mountains to the far west, the Strait of Juan De Fuca and the San Juan Islands, the Cascade Mountains, and then the desert basin and the desert mountains of Central Washington.

Somehow the thought of moving has made the idea of recording some of the desert geography all that much more urgent. What if I never move back?

So, I recently started bringing my camera with me.

Now, I can still hear Maass talking about oblique details and I can still picture Patrick at the conference smiling because of what we heard. That's all stuck with me, and inspired me to search for oblique details.

That's my challenge for you. Search for oblique details in your story world and report back on what you find. Post it on your blog and/or leave a comment. Let me know what you find! Show it in words, show it in photos, or leave it in a song recording, or a clip from a video game. How ever you report back, make sure to show what you see because you were exploring or observing closely.

I usually get in a hurry and take the freeway over the mountains from Ellensburg to Yakima, but I decided to start taking the canyon river road.

Here's what I typically see on the drive:

There's the river. It's blue and cuts through the desert mountains. Right now the summer sun has not backed the life out of the plant life growing on the rocky slopes. There's still a light green hue from spring blooms, and sage grows in patches.

Once in awhile I see big horn sheep in herds, sometimes I see eagles.

Round golden hills steeply sloop down to the river. There are places by the water where tall trees grow and offer shade to travelers.

Sometimes I pull over and walk the river or just take the time to feel the heat and smell the wild flowers. Right now, there's a pleasant desert-sweet sent, and birds sing as they swoop from limb to limb.

These are the things that have become typical for me to see, but just a few days ago I noticed a public access road that I had not previously seen. I put on the brakes and took what amounted to a u-turn, and I'm so glad that I did.

Near the canyon river, far below the golden hill tops, I found a place of green where red eyed tree frogs and bright colored flowers live. It struck me as a place where the people of my story world would go to do significant things.

So, here for your enjoyment, are a couple of photos from that world. I hope that you appreciate the details, and the fact that this place of green, and life, is a place surrounded by desert hills and heat that is unlike anything you would experience in Western Washington. It's a world of sage and golden mountains. The river that cuts through it creates a path of life and pockets of beauty that mean so much more because there are so few places like it in the desert mountains.



Saturday, June 6, 2009

Fiction vs. Non-fiction

Last week I posted on the difficulty of making a living from writing. This is especially true of fiction writing. What I'm wondering this week is how many fiction writers try their hand at serious non-fiction writing.

It makes sense, after all. If a short story sells to a professional market for $.05 a word, then a 4000-word story will earn $200. That's considered good! Now a non-fiction article of the same length might sell for $1 a word. Quite a difference, isn't it?

I've heard that a typical advance on a novel might be $5000. And correct me if I'm wrong here, novelists, but I've heard that unless the book sells very well, there are no guarantees of any money beyond this initial advance. Now that's pretty lousy for a year's work.

I realize that most people who write fiction do so because they love it. Yes, obviously, they would have to love it. So, let's hear from fiction writers - do you supplement your income by writing non-fiction? Have you? Are you trying to? Is it easy? Difficult? A necessity? And do you enjoy it?

Friday, June 5, 2009

History as Helper

Here's a fun little fact about yours truly: 

I like history. As in, the history of my family. 

I've been tracking down (it seems like) details on my background for a looong time. Yesterday evening I finally got some facts confirmed and straightened out, and I'm going to sit here for a minute and just...be happy. 

Say hello to my great-great Grandpa on my mother's mother's side: 


His name was Thomas Stone, and he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. This is what I really dig about researching. For instance, we knew on her side there's lotsa old well-off lawyerly guys...and we knew vaguely that there was someone like this, coming from one of the first blokes off the Mayflower. But seriously, to actually have it confirmed, and then be able toread about him,  it just somehow feels more ... real. 

In addition, I have information on another dear-to-me relative that I've always had trouble discovering information on...a Belle Haughey, a Choctaw that married my great-gramps back when that really was frowned upon. (There's a book in that one, so details will be slim here). 

What does that have to do with writing? 

Well, if you look at the top of it, not much. I mean, they're dead and gone, right? They certainly can't help me get a publishing contract. 

However. 

The longer I do this and the better I become at it (and it's only a slow improvement, heh) I come to realize I write books with themes that are important to me. I don't really get the theme or question when I'm writing it, or right when I get the idea...I get it later, when (for instance) I'm talking to my critique group and something just pops out, or I'm running and something falls into place with a click. 

I end up writing about things that I puzzle over, things that make me a better person once I get them out and on paper, and for that, for that history that spills over and out into a more satisfied Jen, I'm happy. 

Now my plan is to track down Ms. Haughey on the rolls, or try to, and see what I find out. If you have a recommendation on how to do this, I'm all ears. 

(I'll cross post this to Adventures for Friday)

Thursday, June 4, 2009

And the Beat Goes On

I was with my wife inside a super-duper mega store (the kind that makes you think about The Truman Show, and the wall of clouds) when we passed a table full of men’s cologne. And, lo and behold, I saw it. I saw the first true signs of the apocalypse: Tim McGraw’s new ‘fragrance’.
He decided to drop his first name, so the test bottle read, simply, in silver letters: McGraw. A glass bottle that looks like a smashed flask, with a black top. I read the coupon-sized printout in front: “McGraw is a spicy woody fragrance with notes of bergamot, nutmeg, lavender, moss, amber, patchouli, sandalwood and aged whisky”.
I shook my head and walked toward the food aisles.
“What’s so funny?” she asked me.
“…Notes.”
“…yeah?”
“On the print-out. It said ‘notes’. Since he sings, they decided to use the word ‘Notes’, like it was some kind of pun.”
She laughed, and as we walked around the super thunder power market center, I kept imagining scenarios with men who get caught wearing ‘too much’ of that sweet cologne that probably cost millions of dollars to make. The first situation I thought of was simple: You’re at a friend’s house, having, I don’t know, an egg nog party, and everyone’s wearing a Christmas sweater, laughing at every other line cause, damn, sometimes you just need to laugh. And then in walks this guy. He’s bald, tight black t-shirt, his itty bitty sleeves rolled up so he can show you his King of Hearts tattoo. The guy clears his throat and nods at everyone as he passes, but you just happen to recognize that scent.
“Hey,” you say.
“Wha—“
“What kind of cologne are you wearing?”
“I don’t wear…”
“Dude, seriously…”
He looks around. “McGraw,” he says.
“Tim McGraw?”
“Sure, I don’t know…”
“You’re wearing Tim McGraw.”
“Ha ha.”
“So right now you smell like Tim McGraw.”
“Look dude, I get it…my girl got it for me. She likes it.”
“Where’s your girl right now?”
“…Piss off.”
When I think about capitalism, and the required onslaught of products that are hurled toward us by giant-sized discus throwers, it doesn’t take me long to understand how we, in a way, need recession. At least for my wife and I, we don’t feel this economic blast of sadness because all we see is the glorious decline in gas prices. To us, and I have to think to millions of others (I’m not unique), this recession is still inside our TV sets, screaming at us with their hair on fire: It’s over! For the love of God sell your house and move. Sell your house! Aaah!
I’m not an economics expert, but I have to believe that every economy, every government, inhales and exhales. And what I would love, more than anything else, is to watch this gigantic country full of power and ego blow everything, including McGraw, off its selling tables and get back toward something resembling honesty. As I kept saying to my wife, walking down the aisles built for humans on stilts: “We have TOO MANY PRODUCTS.” Is it not clear enough by now that the majority use most of their day staring at three different-sized screens…TV, Computer, cell phone. With this new electronic holy trinity, does it matter anymore what we surround ourselves with?
We got back home and within seconds contradicted everything I felt angry about. I stared at one of three screens that enslaves us and I looked up an article on McGraw, only so I could extend my shake-of-the-head anger a little longer, and I saw that the creator was going for a more woody, spicy scent which would radiate masculinity. Then I thought about running madly into the middle of a forest. I imagined myself falling on the long grass and letting the rain drench me. Because of my horrible selection of things I choose to remember, I would recall knowing that Wayne Newton, who became furious over his voice not changing, once left his family and walked into the woods and let out primal roars ‘for over six and a half hours’ until his voice had disappeared. In its place grew the nasal-yet-husky baritone we’ve grown to, um…love.
Tim McGraw, Wayne Newton…Patrick Parr.
Let the exhale continue…

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

YA: Evolve or Die

This post contains graphic violence and is rated R by the Hack Writer Association of Snark, Vim and Vigor (HWAoSVM™).

Kids today are intense and dynamic--more so then when you were growing up.

How does that impact your writing, and what are you going to do about it?

Today I present unto you three videos.

I culled these videos from three video games past their prime. They contain spoilers, but because of their age, if you have not played them yet (finger wag), then it is probably safe for you to dive right in. For the most part, they are actual game footage: about 90%. As you watch the videos (each is about four minutes long), I want you to keep that in mind. These are not simply static videos.

Young adults are playing these video games. Teens.

The first video is from a science fiction first-person shooter, Gears of War. This video contains violence. This is a fan created video set to music.

The second video is a genre-bending action adventure game, Assassin’s Creed. This video also contains violence. This is also a fan created video set to music.

The third video is direct game footage from a science fiction action role-playing game, Mass Effect. This video does not contain violence, but is simply creepy as Hell. As you watch this video, keep in mind it is an interactive cinematic. Note the player is making choices, and it is not simply “choose your own adventure” type choices either. I won’t go into the role-playing aspects of Mass Effect, but you can see how the player is choosing to emote and speak, and the game is responding to those choices.

Ready? Here we go! Isn’t this exciting?



This is not an essay about violence, although I will assert (having played all three of these games), that, in the context of the story, the visceral reality presented to the player is completely appropriate. That is, the story is such that the violence depicted fits.

But I digress.

These videos are intense and dynamic. The games are not composed completely of that intensity level, but then again there are portions more intense than what you see.

I am going to use these videos as bullet points to common misconceptions and inaccuracies ported about as facts. But they are not facts. They are unsubstantiated inaccuracies, at best; false conclusions presented for nefarious purposes at the worst.

I hear: Kids today have short attention spans.

Oh Really? Me thinks people have been saying that since the dawn of civilization. This is adult weasel-speak for “I don’t understand kids”.

Here’s what I think: Kids are progressively able to parse and process raw data faster than the generation previous. Technology today gives your typical teen a significant empowerment advantage: they can network with their friends and query faster than some people can blink (and I only exaggerate slightly).

I hear: Kids who play video games do not read books.

There is no real evidence to support this statement, nor have I seen it. All the kids I know that play video games are avid readers. They treat video games as books. That is, they play the game until they finish it, and then they move on. Much like reading a book.

Massive Multiplayer Online games do carry a culture of obsession. This seems to be a non-age specific phenomena.

What does seem true is kids who play video games watch less TV.

I hear: Video gamers are boys.

Ah, no. These three games the videos are from? I personally know more girls and women who play those games than I know men or boys.

Sure, more boys than girls do play video games, but every year it is less and less. As the plotting for these games improves beyond the cliché, so does their audience widen.

The three things I hear are bad, not because they are simply untrue, but because they are repeated often. They lead one, particularly a writer, to conclude that video games are competition for books. And that has not been my experience. When I was a kid, I personally knew peers who simply would not read a book. Today, I know other kids who will not read a book. I also know of kids who play these games who do read books, just as I know kids who play video games and do not read unless asked to do so.

Those video playing young adults? These teens expect good writing. They expect forward-moving plots and a high-degree of entertainment. They expect realism in the context of the world presented. They are not looking for a video game on paper. They are looking for something intense and dynamic.

How does that impact your writing, and what are you going to do about it?

I can’t answer that question, but I can make a general observation:

  • If you are writing for teens
  • At some point in the not so distant future
  • If you do not play these types of video games
  • It will be the same as a writer who is not reading what her audience is reading

In other words, you’re screwed.

Don’t believe me? Watch those three videos again and tell me not how you are going to compete with that, but how they don’t impact your readers.

Lastly, I present to you another video.


These are the games teens, your readers present and future, are playing.

Evolve or die.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Got Armature?

"It's not the pearls but the string that makes the necklace." --unknown

In the art world, an armature is the framework that supports and ultimately gives shape to a clay sculpture. It's this wire frame that provides the structure and strength for the final product. Prop shops for movies use them, too, for monsters, masks, creatures, you-name-it costumes and props.

Two items of import are readily evident: An armature provides structure and it is invisible to the naked eye. It is an essential piece of the overall product, but the viewer should never see so much as a wire poking through.

As a writer, a novelist, why do you care? Well, Brian McDonald, screenwriter extraordinaire, explained it all like this: Your masterpiece must have a point that you're trying to prove. Every decision you make is based on that point. So, the armature is the message that your story proves. [Note: the message must go somewhere. You can't have a message like "love" -- but you can have one that states "love sucks."

Did I mention that it provides structure? And that it's invisible?

He also stressed that every scene must prove this point -- anything else just dilutes the message. Sub-themes may emerge, but they will always complement your point. Don't muddy the work.

Okay. I'll buy that. But I'm still wrapping my head around the invisible part. My reading sorrows of the past year have all revolved around the lack on invisibility of this armature. From Anthony Horowitz to Eion Colfer, I swear it feels like every YA author out there is clumsily foisting his personal message down my throat.

So, I'm curious: how do you balance the need for thematic continuity with the requirement of invisibility? Or do you even worry about a message or theme? If not, how do you achieve cohesiveness throughout your work? If so, how do you create the illusion that it's natural and organic? How do you make us forget the armature exists?