Monday, May 30, 2011

"Danger, Will Robinson!" pt 3 (The bad boy)

Story Gimmicks I Hate
Pt. 3: The Bad Boy

Everyone loves a bad boy. From James Dean to Christian Slater (for all of you 80s people) to Wolverine. From Mercutio to Rhett Butler to Robin Hood. Cowboys. Well, I could go on, but I'm trying to stick to people and characters that are fairly recognizable. Everyone loves a bad boy. Even me. Seriously. Pick one: Superman or Batman? If sales can serve as the record for which we prefer, Batman has been winning that battle for decades. Han Solo. Need I say more?

I'm not going to try to get into why we love bad boys so much. There are too many theories to cover here. But the rampantness with which they run through our current fiction is testament to how popular they are. And that's kind of the problem. They're so popular, they've become cliche. They don't even make good anti-heroes anymore.

Part of the problem is the disconnect between reality and fiction. And we want to believe the fiction. Even in life. Okay, so, I lied. Here's my take on why we love bad boys: We want to believe there's a reason behind it. Something misunderstood or broken that if we could just get in there, we could make it all better (girls, you know that's true). Because we want to believe this, this is the way we write them. We give them some redeemable quality or incredible burden. Something that excuses the "bad boy" part and makes it okay. You know, Batman's parents were killed right in front of him. That kind of thing. And, oh, vampires. They're just so easy to do, because, well, you know they're people, too. It's not their fault they need to drink blood.

On a small scale, I can deal with this. I mean, Batman is a great character. I'm not dissing the Bat. I am dissing all the hoards who have come since then that have turned him into a cliche. But I get it. I do. It's interesting. I mean, seriously, how many times has Superman's origin been duplicated? Not the being the last survivor from a dead planet, but the being raised in idyllic circumstances by completely loving parents (adopted or not). For some reason, we want our heroes tortured. We need to give them reason to do what they do. Because, you know, simply doing what's right for the sake of doing what's right isn't enough.

The problem is that, if you look around at real people, bad boys are simply just that. Bad boys. Out for themselves. There is no underlying cause to the bad boyness other then selfishness and greed. We'd like to think there is, but, no. They really are just the jerks they look like. Seriously, just how many tortured vampires can there really be out there?

Speaking of vampires (again) and how bad boys are just really bad boys, Joss Whedon possibly handled this better than I've ever seen it done. You have Buffy and you have Angel, not the original tortured vampire but (arguably) the one that really got this new vampire craze going again. Angel's a bad boy. Cool. You can see he's tortured just by looking at him. On his own. Buffy's all into him. The classic bad boy with a heart of gold. Here's where the (very clever) metaphor comes in. Buffy succumbs to his charms and gives herself up to him, and, guess what, he really is just a jerk. Using her. Tossing her aside because he got what he wanted. And that is what bad boys are really like. See, Joss Whedon just proved it, so it must be true. And he didn't even use "like" or "as."

The problem here is that in the vast (VAST) majority of fiction, Buffy wakes up the next morning to find Angel snuggling with her (instead of being off on a murderous, vampiric rampage). Because that's what we want it to be like.

I understand the fantasy nature of the writing. The escapism. If we want real life, all we have to do is get out of bed in the morning. Who wants that, right? I mean, it's so much better when we can get up after noon, right? I guess what it boils down to is this: we all want our characters to stand out. To be identifiable. But when all of the characters look the same, act the same, they are all the same. Cut from the same mold.

Now, I'm saying this as someone who has not read Twilight (and I have no plans whatsoever to do so), but I know there are two camps. Two teams. But take a look at those two characters. What's the difference between them? Yeah, yeah, I know one's a vampire, and one's a werewolf, but that's like saying one wears a leather jacket and one wears a blue jean jacket. All I'm saying is that from the outside looking in, that seems to be the only significant difference between the two brooding male love interests.

Okay back to that whole "same mold" thing, bad boys are gingerbread men. We may decorate them differently, use different colors, different designs (even though the icing all tastes the same, too), when you get down to it, they're all still just gingerbread men. Cut from the same mold. Alike. When you're tired of eating gingerbread men (and I am), it doesn't matter how you dress them up, they all still taste the same.

Hope over to The Flying Cheetah, today, and take a look around. You might notice that I've done a guest movie review over there. You might also notice that it's a pretty cool blog. I follow it. And, you know, I have great taste and all of that, so, if I follow it, so should you!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Made of Awesome Contest

Well, it appears that I did not exactly follow all of the rules on this one. I was supposed to post this stuff, yesterday, but it was Saturday, and I was busy with the family, and I just plain ol' forgot to do it. So I'll try to catch up, now.

I'm joining in on the contest that Shelley Watters is hosting over on her blog. It just sounded like fun. As the title of this post suggests, it's the Made of Awesome contest. Since you don't actually have to take part in the critique section of the contest, I would suppose that that means that there is still time to sign up for it, if you're so inclined. Hopefully, people won't hold it against me that I'm posting my excerpt late... although, in actuality, the excerpt is up on my blog, as it's supposed to be, just not in a post, which, I'm sure, is people are expecting. So here's all the details I need to post followed by the excerpt (and, if you want to keep going, you can click on the little tab at the top that says The House on the Corner):

Title: The House on the Corner
Genre: MG/YA
Word Count: 120,000

First 250 words (264, to be exact):

The last bell of the school year is like waking up on Christmas morning. The last day of school waiting breathlessly in the dark straining for some sign of life out in the world so that you know it's time to get up. The bell finally rings and dawn breaks through the window springing you out of bed and three months of days lay glittering before you, presents waiting to be opened.

Thinking about those days of summer is all consuming at the end of the school year just like obsessing over Christmas presents all through the month of December. Planning. Anticipating. Day dreaming.

Being told halfway through May that we were moving was like having Christmas canceled. No presents. No plans. All the anticipation of spending summer with my friends, with my best friend, yanked away. Like waking up Christmas morning to find that the Grinch had visited.

It's not that we were moving that was the problem; it's that we were moving out of state. My parents had decided that moving at the beginning of summer would give us, us being my brother and sister and me, time to get used to the new neighborhood before school started. Like that would make it any better. Going back to school always sucks, but, this way, they were ruining the summer, too.

At least, I had been able to go see Return of the Jedi with my best friend, Cory, beforehand. We’d only been planning that for two years, and I would've had to hurt someone if we hadn't been able to do it.

Well, I hope you enjoyed it. Feel free to comment. This is for the sake of critiques, after all. Now... off I go to try and check out the entries!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Change Is Good?

Blogger has been frustrating me for several days. It seems to have developed an issue that's causing it to think that I'm always logged out, so it won't let me leave comments on some blogs. I decided I'd had just about enough when I realized that I couldn't respond to comments on MY OWN BLOG! What the heck? So I made some changes to the way comments are left on my blog. See, I'm hoping that it's the issue with blogger that is the reason I've had so few comments this week. Because, well, the other option is that it's just me. heh
So, yeah... if you've been having issues leaving comments, that should be fixed, now. I hope.

Change number two:
You may notice a new tabby thing up top. The new tab is the first chapter of the sequel to The House on the Corner. As you may also notice, it's called Brother's Keeper. I'm not certain that that is the title that will stick, but it's what I'm going with at the moment. I'd love comments on it. Of course, it's possible that it could be slightly disorienting if you haven't read House, yet. Then, again, maybe after reading it, you'll want to read House just so you'll know what's going on. Right? Right!

Change number three:
Well, okay, I'm not sure if this is exactly a change or not, but it's definitely a progression. I decided to hop in on a blogfest. My first. Yes, thank you. Thank you. I'm still not sure what I think about these things, but, for this one, I figured what the heck? Right. So it's the Power of Tension blogfest:
Here are the links to the hosts: Cally Jackson and Rachel Morgan. As you can see, today is the last day to enter. The scene I'm presenting is from The House on the Corner. It's fairly early on in the book, so you don't really need to worry about spoilers. I hope you enjoy it.

I guessed that must be the light, but I had never seen anything like it before. It made me want to try the lights or wake someone up to ask questions, but I knew if I did that, I wouldn’t get to explore on my own.

I decided, instead of opening any new doors, I would just use the one that was open. The one that led to the stairs. I stepped into the hallway and around the open door, pushing it almost closed. I didn’t want it to make any noise, so I didn’t close it all the way.

As I turned toward the staircase, a chill washed over me, and goosebumps broke out all over my arms. To the right of the staircase going up was another going down. The stairs started out wooden, just like the stairs going up, but, then, they turned to stone. The stairs just kept going and going down into the earth. Why was there a tunnel going underground in our house? I could feel the cold, damp coming up out of the tunnel and what felt like a long sigh. Without wanting to, I stepped down the first step. And, then, the next.

There was a low moan from the dark, and my heart started beating faster. My skin chilled as I broke out in a sweat. I didn't want to go down there, but I took another step anyway. I could almost feel the darkness on my skin as I took another step down. And another. And...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bright-sided (or How Positive Thinking Will Let You Down)

A few years ago (okay, more than a few), Barbara Ehrenreich wrote an excellent book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, about the near impossibility of making it as a single person trying to live off of a low wage position (like Wal-Mart). She did this by actually spending a year herself, a prize-winning novelist, trying to live solely off of what she could make from "entry level" positions. It's a fascinating book and one I would highly recommend. Intellectually knowing some of  the things she talks about in the book before reading it still did not prepare me for her recount of the reality of the situation. Even having gone through some of the experiences she did (I worked at Toys 'R' us in two different states), her book still opened my eyes to the reality she talks about.

I mention Nickel and Dimed, here, because I think it goes well with her latest book: Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. But I'll get to that in a moment.

I have been fed up with the whole positive thinking thing for years and years. A large part of the reason my wife and I no longer attend church is because of the prosperity doctrine (the religious take on positive thinking) and its prevalence in  the modern church. It actually makes me sick. Entering the writing world, now, I'm experiencing the positive thinking movement from a whole new angle, and it's not making me any happier than previous brushes with it in other venues. From that perspective, I think this may be an important book for writers to read. Despite claims from popular psychology that if you just stay positive, you will get what you want, most research actually shows that having a realistic view point is healthier and more likely to get you where you want to go.

Let me just say, though, that, if you are someone that believes  in positive psychology, you will hate this book.

She starts with her own eye-opening experience with positive thinking. As a cancer patient. There is a notion in the cancer community, especially the breast cancer community, that the way to beat cancer to is "stay positive." If you stay positive, the cancer can not win. And, if it does, it was because the patient allowed in enough negative thoughts that the cancer was able to win. From there, she details the original rise of positive thinking back in the 1800s and how it has evolved to what it is today.

Now, I relate Bright-sided to Nickel and Dimed because of the recent (by recent, I mean the last 30 years) rise of positive thinking in the business world. Back in the 80s, when companies realized they could make money from down-sizing their employees, they needed something, anything, to keep the left over work force not just working for them but happy to be there working for them despite the fact that they no longer had any job security. The answer? Positive thinking. Large companies began bringing in positive thinking coaches to affirm the remaining employees that they were there because they were "worthy." The way to get ahead was to be a bigger fish and to work harder. The people that had been down-sized were down-sized because they just weren't good enough (of course, the actual truth of that is that most often the choices of who would stay and go were completely arbitrary, completely unrelated to performance).

All of this positive thinking in the work place resulted in the people at the top completely buying into it  themselves. Good things, and only good things, come to those who stay positive. Some of the business scenarios she talks about are truly, truly frightening. And all of this positive thinking lead directly to the economic collapse we are all currently wallowing in. The direct tie-in to Nickel and Dimed? In the 60s, the average difference in pay between the lowest paid employee and the highest paid employee in a company was a mere ratio of 1:24. Yes, I say mere, although, to me, that seems a bit staggering. That difference today? Greater than 1:300. I can't even comprehend that. But the people at the top not only don't see anything wrong with this, they think they deserve it. By the virtue of their positive thinking.

There's a section on the rise in the prosperity doctrine in the church, too. The idea that God is nothing more than a vending machine. You put in your positive thoughts and God gives you stuff you want. I could rant about this for a while. How none of this is Biblical. How it's all just more life coach non-sense to raise money. But, you know, you can read the book. Or watch it on TV. There are any number of prosperity preachers you can tune into.

The last section deals with the rise of popular psychology. Also a money making scheme. I have always, since I was a kid, held science as something close to sacred. Scientists were objective. They looked at the data. They didn't make emotional decisions about the data or try to skew the data to prove their point. They didn't hold those kinds of beliefs. Because science isn't about what we believe, it's about what is. Right? I wish I could still believe that. However, we continue to get news about how this scientist or that research team falsified data to support various claims. This goes back decades. As it turns out, positive psychology has no data to support any of its claims. Some data may suggest correlations, but there is no research that actually shows that any of what positive psychology says is true is, actually, true. Because I don't have the book in front of me (it's out on loan), I'll paraphrase what one positive psychologist said to Ehrenreich: "The research/science hasn't caught up to the claims (of positive psychology)." In true positive thinking form, though, they fully believe that some day their research will bear fruit and prove their claims.

Writing is a tough field, especially today when the publishing industry is slowly imploding and seems unwilling to do anything about it. I imagine the guys at the top are caught in the same positive thinking bubbles that the guys responsible for the economic implosion, especially the housing industry, were caught in. I think it's important that we, as the writers, not get caught in that same bubble. In a field where only 1 in 1000 make it (in the traditional sense), we need to be realistic, not cling to positivity. No, I'm not saying to give up. I am saying that the way to make it as a writer is determination and perseverance. Thinking happy thoughts will not get you published. Keeping at it will.

Monday, May 23, 2011

"Danger, Will Robinson!" (Or Story Gimmicks We Can Do Without) Part 2

Part 2: How bad is bad?

As an author, one of the things you have to do is convince your readers that the bad guy is a bad guy. The reader has to know that the hero is in real and imminent danger. There's a short cut for this that, really, I just hate. Every time I see it. Unfortunately, I have to blame it on George Lucas and Darth Vader.

Vader is easily one of the most menacing villains ever created. Ever. Total aside:
I'm sure this is one of the things that lies at the heart of many people's dislike of the prequels. No one really wanted to know that Vader had once been a lovable kid and whiny teenager. They wanted to believe he'd been the kind of kid that set banthas on fire and pulled the legs off of womp rats. But the point was that he had been just a normal kid. The lesson being, as Yoda showed Luke in Empire, that anyone (everyone) has the capacity to turn evil. To go to the dark side.

The thing is is that no one ever doubts that Vader is a bad guy. From the moment he steps through the smoke filled airlock littered with bodies, everyone knows this dude is bad. If you didn't know it, the casual way he tosses aside the dead Captain Antilles, whom he has just choked to death while holding him suspended several feet off the ground with one arm! proves it. I could go on.

Still, no one really knew just how Bad Vader is until The Empire Strikes Back. I mean, we all know he'll kill his enemies without a second thought. Even casually. Without regard. But when he force chokes Admiral Ozzel via hologram for messing up the Hoth invasion (which he wasn't really to blame for, because it was the probe droid that had alerted the rebels), that's when we know. Really know. Vader is BAD. He's so bad he'll kill, well, anyone. The lesson here is that, man, you really don't want to piss off Vader.

But Lucas didn't do any of those things to prove to us how bad Vader is. We know. We've always known. Since that first moment at the airlock. Everything else flows out of just how BAD Vader is. Somewhere in there, though, the lesson that was communicated was that if you want to prove just how bad your villain is, have him kill some of his underlings. Usually without any legitimate provocation.

Here's the one I hate the most:
Main bad dude is trying to kill some good dude(s). He decides the way to do this is by using some weapon that has a mass effect. Like a bomb. Or a missile. Something  that will make a huge explosion and kill everyone in the area. The problem is that the good dude is fighting the underlings of the main bad dude. He shows his disregard for his men by ordering that the device that will cause a huge explosion be used to kill the good dude(s) and, thus, his own men.

Okay, so he's a bad guy. We get it. However, he really needs to kill the good dude(s), and his men are expendable. And in the way. But, wait! We're not finished, yet. Because that's not bad enough. Nooo! Because you can (almost) make a case for what he's doing. He needs to get rid of the good dude(s), and the men that are fighting the good dude(s) are probably going to die anyway while failing at their job of killing the good dude(s). So we have a bad guy, but, really, is that bad enough? Evidently not.

Invariably, what follows here is that some well meaning underling stands up to the main bad dude and says, "But, wait, sir; that will kill all of our men, too!" A legitimate concern. I mean, when you see your boss killing your fellow employees, it doesn't say much for your job security, now does it? How can you rule the universe alongside the big bad dude if you're dead? Underling wants to know that the main bad dude really does care and that he just didn't realize he'd be killing his own men. He wants the guy to say, "Oh! Well, we can't do that. Cancel that order."

But that's not what happens. Ever. If some guy stands up and tells the big bad that he's about to kill his own men, the thing that always happens is that the big bad pulls out a gun (or appropriate equivalent) and turns and shoots his underling in the head. This is usually followed by some sort of question along these lines, "Does anyone else have anything to say?" Of course, all the other underlings busily return to their tasks. You know, of making sure their co-workers end up dead.

There are two main reasons I hate this:
1. It's lazy writing. This almost always happens sometime in  the first third of the story. It's just a short cut so that we can see that the bad guy really is a BAD guy. But it just doesn't work for me. It's too done, now. It doesn't make the bad guy any badder. Really, it's enough for me to know he's the bad guy. It's enough for me to know that he wants to kill the good guy. I don't care if he's so bad that he's willing, or even eager, to kill his own men. It's a short cut that doesn't go anywhere. It's not like the audience cares if he's going to off his own men. If you want us to believe that your villain is really vile, build it up. Don't use it as a short cut.

2. It's completely unrealistic. Seriously, if you knew your boss was willing to kill you to achieve his own agenda, would you keep working for him? Well, maybe, if it was just you that thought that, but if everyone believed that? People would be bailing at the first chance they got. Historically, we know this is true. There have been times when the means of various armies of motivating their men was "go fight our enemy or we'll kill you." The role officers played was to stand at the back and shoot people trying to run away. The men would fight because they might survive against the enemy, which was better odds than they had if they tried to run. However, they deserted in droves every chance they got. The bad guys that resorted to these methods never succeeded because they couldn't keep any men working for them. In fact, bad guys that did things like disregard the safety of their men often got killed in their sleep (or on the toilet) by those same men. So it doesn't work for me when an author expects me to believe that underlings will go blithely about their business while their boss randomly culls them.

Of course, there are other ways to short cut the villain. Undermine his villain-ness by having him do senseless things. Often, it's to have him go out of his way to kill civilians or other people not involved in the story. And that can be okay. The trick is to not resort to, well, for lack of a better way of putting it, senseless violence to sell your villain as a bad guy. I mean that in the sense that the violence needs to have a reason for the villain. Let me say that another way: The villain must have a reason for his behavior. It doesn't matter if it's a reason that the audience doesn't understand, but it must be the villain's reason, and it must be consistent. Vader is a great villain not because he kills his underlings but because he kills those that fail him. Failure is not tolerated. Vader has a reason for the things he does as opposed to doing things to fulfill the reasons of the author.

If a hero can only be as "good" as his villain, then give me good, well thought out villains. Don't give me cardboard villains doing cliche things like shooting their underlings for airing a legitimate concern.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Publishing and the Real Estate Market

Everyone knows that the real estate market is a mess. The collapse of the real estate market has been, in many ways, the central issue in the economic crisis in the USA. Banks are now involved as the seller in 50% of all housing transactions. Especially in the lower end of the housing market. That number may still be growing. The problem with the bank being involved as the seller is that the bank doesn't care about anyone other than itself, and, since it's not a person, it cares for nothing more than getting the most money it can at the expense of anyone else involved.

Anyone paying attention to it knows that the publishing industry is a mess. Its infrastructure is collapsing due to technological changes and the growing demand by authors to have more control over their work (When someone like Dan Brown switches from a major publisher to a POD (print on demand) model, it's about control). The publishing industry, so far, refuses to change. It continues to cling to the way it's always done things, and, since it's not a person, it cares for nothing more than getting  the most money it can at the expense of anyone else involved.

My wife and I have been trying to buy a house for a number of months, and this is the thought that occurred to me this morning (This is only a thought, a parallel; there is no real point beyond this. I just found it interesting.): the real estate market and publishing are a lot alike, at the moment. In our price range, virtually all of the houses are bank owned or soon-to-be bank owned (short sales (that's when the owner needs to sell the house for less than what they owe on it (usually because they're going into foreclosure))), so we've been dealing with banks more than we've wanted to.

We had an offer accepted on a house a few weeks ago. It's a short sale, so there's a lot that has to happen between the bank (the actual owner (because banks do actually own most everyone's homes)) and the seller (the person (family) living in the house) before anything actually happens with  that. The problem is this: one of the inspections shows extensive dry rot in the siding on the house. It may have affected the structure of the house, but they don't know, because they'd have to remove the siding to find out. Will they do that? No. And why not? The current price is a fair price if the structure is intact; however, it's much too high if there's structural damage to the house. Does the bank want to have to lower the price? No. Does the bank care about anything beyond how much they can get? No. It's better for them not to know about structural damage. At some point, someone will come along and either not know to check that stuff or not care about it.

We've run into this problem over and over again looking at houses. Bank owned properties come as they are. Period. In short, they don't care about the actual product they're selling as long as someone buys it. As an aside, the thing I'm finding morbidly amusing is the investors that are buying these houses from the banks, fixing them up, and, then, finding, because the housing market is still in a decline, that they can't sell them for more than they paid for them even after pouring in thousands of dollars to fix them. Sometimes, they have to sell them for less. The publishing industry mirrors this lack of care for their products. They do this by what I'll call marketing genres. Vampires are popular, right now, so, they say to their agents, find us some people writing about vampires. No, we don't care if they're any good, vampires sell. Until everyone gets tired of vampires because of all the crappy vampire books that are coming out. But they'll just move onto whatever replaces vampires.

Then there are the agents. We like our real estate agent as a person. We often have doubts about her as a real estate agent. She keeps wanting us to buy the house she wants us to buy. Insisting that we should look at houses that don't fit the parameters of what we're looking for. And she's always pushing us toward buying at the high end of what we've been approved for instead of the range we keep saying we want to purchase within. And why not? The more we spend on a house, the more she makes. We understand her motivation, and we try to work around it as best we can, especially knowing that that is what we will have to deal with no matter what agent we have.

Likewise, literary agents are, also, interested in their paychecks. It's understandable. However, when you're working for an organization that's collapsing, it can make you kind of desperate. Oh, and if you think agents work for the authors, you really need to look, again, at the structure of the industry. The money stream is from the publisher, to the agent, then, finally, to the author. If it wasn't that way, there would not be various scandals in recent years about agents syphoning money away from their authors to themselves. At any rate, agents are clinging more and more tightly to the publishers and the publishers demands rather than working for the author and/or looking for new things. Publishers don't want new things; they want what's already proving to sell.

I know these parallels aren't exact, but, when I have a bank that wants to unload a house on me that may have structural issues, I'm reminded of some of the books I've read. Here's the thing, though, what's good for me is not what's good for someone else. Most people don't have the standards I do for books, and that's fine for them. Just like, I'm assuming, most people don't have the standards my wife and I do for a house. After all, the house with the special pot lab in the garage sold soon after we looked at it. Different people have different needs. And, well, if the buyer was planning to set up a pot lab, he was getting just what he needed. Cheap!

There is a positive, though, at least on the publishing side: there are alternatives. And, maybe, the publishing industry will evolve itself to meet the changes that are occurring in society (although, I don't really believe that). Authors do have other avenues they can use rather than trying to get on board a leaking ship. Unfortunately, in home buying, there aren't a lot of alternatives.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Chapter One

Today, I'm going to take a little time out to talk about my book. I haven't really done a lot of that, actually talking about it, although I mention it from time to time. However, there are some changes coming up with it and a new tab, so I thought I'd talk a bit about what's going on  there.

I made my book available for purchase back in January. That was probably a little earlier than I should have, but I'm glad that I did. I'll go more into how all of that came about sometime later, just in case any of the information is valuable to anyone. At any rate, I thought I'd done a fairly good job on the editing here at my computer, and, to a certain extent I did; however, when I got my proof copy and started back reading it in my kids' classes at their school, I started picking up mistakes that I had missed on the computer screen. I was fairly horrified. None of them were horrible enough, though, to prompt me to pull the book from availability, as many of them were only recognizable as mistakes to me. Except a homophone early on  the book, which I decided to ignore, for the moment, and the inclusion of the wrong name for a character late in the book (that was the one that really horrified me).

Anyway... none of that is what I really want to talk about.

There are several things that are unconventional about my novel, but, then, I'm fairly unconventional, so what can I say? One of those things is changing. I'm not really sure how I feel about the change, though, which is why I'm here talking about it.

One of the things I wanted to do with the book is give it the feeling of a story that's being told by a group of kids, 3 kids, to be exact. Now, if you've ever tried to listen to multiple kids trying to tell you how something happened, you will realize that what you don't get is a nice, steady stream of information. What you do get is a lot of interruptions and arguments. I wanted the book to feel like that. To do that, there are flashes of arguments and fighting between the siblings as they tell the story. The flashes switch from the 1st person narrative of whomever is speaking at that moment to 3rd person. I kind of like the feel of it.

However... it breaks the flow of the story. Of course, this was, actually, the intent. Again, if you've ever tried to listen to a group of kids tell a story, you frequently have to guide them back to the point from whatever disagreement they are having. And here's the conflict: the kids I read to seem to really like those parts. They're funny. They get lots of laughs. A few of them have told me those are their favorite parts (including my own oldest child). Adults, though... well, those parts don't really seem to be working for the adults. They're too jarring. Break up the flow too much.

I waffled on this issue for a long time. Is it a book for kids? or is it a book for adults? Well, hopefully, it's a book for both. I think it is. If it's a book for both, what do I do with those bits? In the end, I decided that, although the kids love those parts, they'll still like the book even without them in there. Adults, though, may not like the book with them in there, so out they go. Of course, this should also serve to drop my word count, not that I think my word count is too high, but it's certainly too high by industry standards.

All of that to say, if you want to really see my editing process, I'm making that available to you. The new chapter 1 for the 2nd edition of The House on the Corner is available via the tab up there at the top of the page. The old chapter 1 from the 1st edition of the book is available to read here. If you feel like you have the time, read them both, and let me know what you think. Once I'm ready to release the 2nd edition, however, I will be removing the old chapter 1 preview.

That being said, if you're interested in the 1st edition of the book, it only has a couple more weeks of availability. I should be finished with my revisions for the 2nd edition soon, and I'm going to pull the 1st edition about a week ahead of releasing the 2nd.

Thanks for indulging me! I hope you enjoy the read. If you do, let me know. If you don't, let me know that, too.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

"Danger, Will Robinson!" Part 1 (Or Story Gimmicks We (I) Can Do Without)

 [Disclaimer: I originally posted this just before blogger went down on Thursday. Since I composed it within blogger, when blogger went down, I lost all of it except the couple of paragraphs I'd typed on Tuesday. I didn't get my post back. All of that to say, if you are one of the few that read this before blogger went down (if you were in that half hour window), this is no longer quite the same post. I had to re-write most of it, and it grew a bit differently, this time.]

Part One: The Big Reveal

I was watching a show a few weeks ago and became annoyed at a particular plot device that was used. It's become an increasingly popular plot device that my wife and I had commented on previously. A few days later, I was watching a different show (this time, with my wife), and it used the same plot device. It's a show I like, but the words, "I hate when they do that" came right out of my mouth. This post is not about that plot device (that one will come later). It did make me start thinking, though, about story gimmicks that I've grown increasingly tired of seeing. I've made a list!

Because I've previously mentioned "the big reveal," I thought I'd start with that.

The big reveal is not always a bad thing. In fact, often, it's quite necessary. Here's where I, again, realize that I need to read some of these Agatha Christie novels I have laying around. Mystery is the genre that relies on the big reveal the most. If the mystery writer has done a good job, the big reveal is the time when the author reveals how the protagonist fit together all the clues that the reader missed to figure out "who done it." This goes back at least as far as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes and is used to great effect in TV shows like Monk and Castle. (And Psych. My kids love that show (so do I).)

The problem with the big reveal is that it's so easy to screw it up. The easiest way is to just make it redundant. I was reading an urban fantasy detective thing somewhat recently, and the author had done just this. I was on, like, page 88 or something insane like that, and, in an attempt to lay a clue, the author gave away the whole plot. I could have (should have) put the book down right then, because it was torture reading the rest of the book. I couldn't take the protagonist seriously, because all I could think about was how stupid she was. I wanted to shake her and point to page 88, but I kept reading. I mean, I kept thinking "maybe, I'm wrong" although I knew I wasn't. And I wasn't. And the big reveal at the end of the book caught the protagonist by surprise but not me. I didn't read anymore books in that series.

Here's the thing: the reader wants to have an “ah-ha!” moment. That's why s/he's reading a mystery to begin with. The trick is to take the reader right to the edge of that moment, but not let them have it until the big reveal. The mystery writer wants the reader to say, “Oh! I should have known! I should have seen that!” It's difficult. Possibly the most difficult kind of writing there is. The author has to balance readers of vastly different intelligence and reading experience and lead them all to the same place at the same time. I have no plans to write any mysteries.

Of course, the big reveal is not only used in mysteries. Authors like to keep readers in the dark. It's part of the job. It builds suspense. And it leads to the issue which is the one that I probably dislike the most. The author leaves out necessary details (clues) on purpose, details that should be being included, for the purpose of keeping the reader from figuring out what's going on. Like in The Illusionist, as I mentioned in a previous post. I always fill ripped off when an author falls back on this tactic. It's clumsy and cheap. If the author can't lace the clues through the story so that the reader (viewer) has the chance to figure it out on his own, the author shouldn't write that story. Or, at least, shouldn't make that story public. Work on it till you get it right.

Of course, then there's when the author has decided that the reader just isn't smart enough to figure it out on his/her own and uses the big reveal in an arrogant manner in which to say “you're not smart enough to figure this out, so, here, let me just tell you.” That's just insulting. Even to readers who weren't going to figure it out. This is why Holmes had Watson, to have someone to filter clues to so that the reader had a chance. Can you imagine Sherlock Holmes with no Watson. Holmes just going about his business of being more clever than everyone (including the reader) and, then, just announcing at the end the who and why. And, yet, some authors are completely content to do, basically, just that.

The last one I see commonly is where the author just doesn't know how to reveal things little by little so has some character or other come in and just lay things out for everyone. Sometimes, it's in an effort to make the story more concise (because it's going to take 200 pages to reveal the details in a more organic way), but, mostly, it's that the author has a story that's more complicated than s/he knows how to deal with, so uses the big reveal as an info dump so that the reader has all the info s/he needs. I can be sympathetic to this one, but, really, go back and work that stuff into the story. Or leave it out.

I'm sure there are other misuses of the big reveal, but these are the ones that I see regularly. The ones that bother me. Well, there's also the “little reveal.” Basically, where the big reveal is broken up and spread through the whole book. I'm reading The Lightning Thief, right now, and I'm really not enjoying it. It's too bad, too, because I wanted to enjoy it. Both of my boys liked the Percy Jackson books. My oldest son really liked them. I enjoyed the movie. But, man, Riordan has Percy just break character, basically, to info dump on me so that he can do in a sentence or two what would take paragraphs (or pages) to do otherwise. It's so annoying! And feels to me like he was trying to cut his word count down.

I suppose what I'm trying to say here is that you have to be careful with the big reveal. To put it in other terms, the big reveal is a way of telling, not showing, and we all know that we should show, right? If you're going to use the big reveal, be sure it's at a place where it's necessary to tell. Don't use it just because it's easier or more convenient.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

More tabby things...

I'm here to announce another new tab!

But, first, some changes to the old tab. I sort of left off a very important book. It's kind of embarrassing that I left it off, but there are reasons. Not that I'm going to try and explain them. That would tell you too much about how my convoluted brain works, and you probably wouldn't understand anyway. Or, maybe, you would, which would be worse. Much worse. So let's just leave it at that. The book has been added into the list, at any rate, so it's all good, now. Right?

Also, I added on some comedians. Not sure why I didn't think to add them in to begin with, but I didn't think about it until Abbot and Costello came up in casual conversation within my household, yesterday. They were important enough to influence my book, so they should be on the list. You can find the comedians down at the bottom of the list. Not that that's where they belong, but it's where they ended up.

As for the new tab, it's all about how crafty I am. It was supposed to be about painting, but I figured I'd throw in the rest, too. There are some pics of miniatures I've painted, and a couple of links to more pics of miniatures I've painted. Those will lead you to facebook, so, if you're on facebook, and you want to send me an invite, feel free to do so. Also, you may actually have to be logged into facebook for the links to work. I thought I had those things set to public, but it made me be logged in to access the links. I don't think you have to have me friended to see them, but I don't know for sure.

Now, if I could only figure out how to change the silly background for my blog! Not that I don't like the books, but it's sooo used! However, blogspot keeps telling me that the pics I'm trying to import to serve as a new background are too big, which I just don't get...
Well, at least, I managed to figure out the tabs! One thing at a time, right?

Friday, May 6, 2011

If he be worthy... (of pop culture)

Star Wars amazes me with its ability to continually evolve our culture. Everyone, well, most everyone, acknowledges the deep impact that A New Hope made when it was released in 1977. Many, though, would believe that that is where the impact ended. I say thee nay! The Phantom Menace, also, made many lasting changes in our (pop) cultural awareness and created many changes within the movie industry, not the least of which was Lucas' insistence that TPM only be played in theaters with digital sound. That was the reason for the price hike in tickets when TPM was released as theaters scrambled to update their sound systems and cover the costs out of someone else's pockets. However, TPM is responsible for creating another cultural phenomenon: the midnight movie release.

And let me just say: "I'm getting too old for this sort of thing."

It's been a couple of years since I went to a midnight show, and, last night, I remembered why. And it's not just because I don't have the same stamina that I had a dozen years ago when TPM came out and I still wasn't 30, because I handled it better than the not-yet-30-year-old friend I went to the midnight showing of Thor with. I mean, I don't have that same stamina, and I'm feeling the lack of sleep today in a way I wouldn't have a dozen years ago, but, really, that's not the issue.

When TPM came out, -everyone- went to the midnight show. I don't mean that in the sense that everyone went, but Star Wars fans of all ages went. There were kids there. There were teens there. But, more importantly, there were adults there. Real adults. Not just college students. People in their 20s, yes, but also people in their 30s, 40s, and, even, 50s. It was calmer. More civilised. Not random and clumsy like midnight showings are today.

There has been a slow devolution to the crowd at these midnight things. People my age just, really, don't show up for them anymore. It's all kids, now. It's like some surreal kegger with no alcohol. Not that I've ever been to a kegger, but, you know, I've seen them in movies. People jumping over the seats. Throwing things. Being loud. I remember thinking all of this a couple or few years ago when Spider-Man 3 came out. How I was never going to another midnight show again. Ever. But midnight last night ended up being the only available time I'd have to go see Thor with my friend this weekend (it's a very busy weekend), and we wanted to see it this weekend, so we went to the midnight show.

Around 11:20 a guy comes in dressed as Thor. It wasn't a bad costume. He was the only one dressed up, but there is always, at least, one. The theater management chased him down and awarded him with 12" Thor action figure. We know, because he talked about it very loudly. He was, by far, the loudest person in the theater, in fact. And he proceeded to sit down right behind us. Him and his buds. Of which, one was a girl. Also quite loud. He and the girl proceeded to open the action figure and play with it and complain about the fact that it came with a sword. Not that the hammer wasn't there, but there was also a sword. I'm thinking "bonus" but they went on about the inclusion of the sword at some length.

Then... then it got really good. The guy started translating the runes on the hammer. You know, because he's an expert at that sort of thing. He determined that they had spelled some of it incorrectly. Not the runes, he said, but the English. Yes, they misspelled the runes so that the English came out wrong. And he knows, because he's an expert. And an English major. He stated that several times. I'm guessing because that gives him an extra ability to translate Norse runes.

I really, really wanted to laugh. At him. Not with him. But I was good, and I didn't. Because I do have a degree in English. A finished degree. Not an in process degree. Not that that makes a huge difference, but I do, amazingly enough, remember being 20 and being, well, full of myself. But I keep telling myself I wasn't that bad. I wasn't! For one thing, I'm sure I was never that loud. Of course, I'm not the kind of personality that dresses up for those kinds of things, either. Even when they're Star Wars.

Finally, the movie started! Mostly, they shut up. Mostly. At least, we were able to tune them out once we got involved in the show. Up until the point where the film went out of alignment during the climax, and they started yelling about it. Of course, they weren't the only ones yelling, at that point. It took the theater personnel almost 10 minutes before they fixed that.

Despite all of the... technical... difficulties, the movie was good. Not Iron Man or Spider-Man good, but good. Certainly better than The Dark Knight although I'm sure that that will be a very unpopular opinion (but seriously, have you ever tried to sit through Dark Knight a second time. If you can't sit through something on a second viewing... well, that just drops the rating). And Hemsworth was an excellent choice for Thor. I was impressed. I'm going to have to consider not allowing my wife to see the movie, since he does parade around sans shirt at one point. Ray Stevenson, also, was excellent. It was good to see the Warriors Three in the film.

Asgard has a great look. It's very Jack Kirby. Stan Lee makes his traditional cameo. There's a nod to Journey Into Mystery, the comic book in which Thor makes his first appearance, if you're paying enough attention to catch it. And it was good to see Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) get more play. Even Hawkeye makes a brief appearance, which was also great. Anthony Hopkins filled out the role of Odin perfectly, and he probably didn't even break a sweat doing it. Although he did lose an eye.

None of this to say that the movie didn't have some faults. There were some changes made to Marvel cannon that I can't bring myself to approve of. The main one, on the surface, was made for "story" reasons, but it wasn't necessary. If you're not a comic person, a Thor person, specifically, you'll never know, but it's one of those things that, as a fan, I have to wonder what they were thinking when they did that. Yes, it bothers me. But it doesn't affect the movie itself. The main flaw with movie is a bit of waffling with the character of Thor. He vacillates between being confused about Earth and seeming to not know where he is or what's going on to being very wise about Earth and the ways of man. It's like they couldn't decide which way to play the character and so used either of the extremes to fit the mood they wanted at any given moment. It would have been okay to have started at confused and ended at wise, but going back-and-forth doesn't really work.

I do wish I had gone to see it in 3d, though. Some of those scenes looked like they would have been amazing in 3d. But they keep jacking up the price difference between the 2d and the 3d, and they finally jacked up to where I'm not willing to pay that difference. At least not until The Phantom Menace hits theaters in 3d next February. And, possibly, Cars 2 this summer, because that's how my kids will want to see that.

At any rate, Thor shouldn't have the issues that Marvel has had with the Hulk movies. It's enjoyable. It's not deep, but it is a good romp. It places another piece of the puzzle for the upcoming Avengers movie, and it lays the groundwork for a sequel that should be able to go a bit deeper and do a bit more, so I think it was a great start to the franchise. Yes, I say franchise, because I will be very surprised if we don't get word soon that there is another in the works.

I hope you all enjoyed this pop culture edition. Remember, it stays crispy in milk!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Those darn tabs!

I finally sat down this past weekend and figured out how to add additional pages to my blog, and, let me just tell you, it's completely non-intuitive! To make it worse, blogspot has undergone some changes since their help pages were created, and they've never been updated. It's so totally not helpful to get a screenshot of a page with options that don't exist anymore! However, I muddled through it, and I've added my very first additional page! Yea!

Not to cover what's on  that page, but... One of the things I've been missing about my blog page is my list of favorites. But, although I love looking at people's lists, I kind of hate those lists, too. I mean, it's like having someone ask you what's your favorite ice cream and just listing off all the flavors at Baskin Robbins. I wanted to make mine different. I tried, before, with that list gadget. I was trying to make my list but add something short about why that particular thing was on the list, but, well, that didn't really work, so I scrapped that idea.

Then, I was going to do a post about it, but that doesn't work, either, because, you know, you want that to be the kind of thing that people can access whenever they want, but, if it's a post, it becomes old and gets buried. So making it a separate page was really the only way I could see of doing it.

It just took a while to figure out.

But, now that I have, I have to figure out what to do with all of these pages I have available! Actually, it's not really all that many, so, although I originally planned for each topic: books, movies, television shows, music to have its own page, I decided it would be best if all of those things shared a page, instead. A really long page.

Anyway... I hope you find it interesting. Feel free to leave me comments here (on this post) if you have any about any  of the things I talk about over there in my "Of Significance..." tab.