Sunday, March 31, 2013

How To Be... an Archaeologist

Today is the FREE! release of "Part Eighteen: The Angel"
But, first, it's time for the letter "A"!

I've lost count of the number of times I've seen someone say something to the effect of, "Well, I saw Indiana Jones, and I wanted to be an archaeologist just like him!" And, you know, I get that. Who wouldn't want to be Indiana Jones? The only problem is that Indiana Jones was more of a treasure hunter than an archaeologist. Sure, he was a professor of archaeology, but that was as Dr. Jones. When he was Indy, he was after treasure!
"I doubt any archaeologist who spent part of their youth in the 1980's didn't have Indy as a huge influence in deciding his career. How could you not?" -- an archaeologist (no, really, it's a real quote!)
"No matter how hard they deny it, every archaeologist is a fan of Indiana Jones. Without him, our field wouldn't seem nearly as romantic as it does." -- another archaeologist

Archaeology, although it can contain a measure of treasure finding, is much more complex than that. First of all, in the United States, at least, archaeology is a branch of anthropology, specializing in the recovery and analysis of material culture and environmental data. Generally speaking, a degree in anthropology is suggested. However, none of the founders of the discipline had that degree as anthropology, in many ways, developed out of archaeology, although what it really was was tomb raiding. So how did they do it?

Well, one archaeologist says, "If you were that kid that always came home with dirt on your jeans and a bullfrog in your pocket, this might be the right job for you." I'm taking that to mean that the first thing you need to be an archaeologist is a love of getting dirty. Or, at least, a willingness. I have to take the bullfrog out of the picture, because, if the goal was just to catch bullfrogs, I'd have to say that path would more likely lead to herpetology (and, no, that has nothing to do with a disease).

So, once you're willing to get down in the dirt, what do you need? You need to like being outdoors, because, unless you just want to be a professor and teach, "you are going to spend a majority of your time outdoors, walking for miles on field surveys, digging for hours in the earth, and generally getting completely filthy every day."

Now, you need to know how to dig. I hear you saying, "But I know how to dig. Just get a shovel and go to it." That would be wrong. Unless you want to destroy the stuff you're digging up. The best way to learn how to dig is to attend a field school, a course that puts you out in the field, teaches you the tools of the trade, and gives you experience in digging with a spoon instead of a shovel. Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but it's not much of one. On a dig, the goal is to remove 5-10 cm of dirt at a time so that the soil and artifacts can reveal history, not just yield treasures. It is the responsibility of the archaeologist to convey that story to the world.

That's a good place to start, but you might remember that Indy had a pretty good grasp of the languages and cultures of the places he went, so, if you really want to excel, especially if you're going to be looking for buried treasure, you better start brushing up on those language skills! And, you know, acclimate yourself to the local cuisine. Oh, and have a good background in history and geography. And, well, there's actually too many things to list.

I suppose the real question is whether you want to be a real archaeologist or just a treasure hunter. A lot of the obvious places to just go dig things up have already been dug up or are in the process of being dug up, so that go-out-and-find-it-yourself archaeology is becoming harder and harder to do. All sorts of new technology help today's archaeologists find interesting places to dig for new stuff, including satellites! I don't think you actually have to know how to navigate a satellite, though, to be an archaeologist.

So there you go... where to start to be an archaeologist. Now, where did I put that shovel...?

Now that you know how to be an archaeologist, it's time to go dig up some FREE! books. Or, at least, parts of a book. Look at it like finding bits and pieces of an ancient manuscript! Here are today's FREE! Shadow Spinner offerings:
"Part Eighteen: The Angel" (NEW!!!)
"Part Seventeen: The Tree of Light"
"Part Sixteen: The Dark Tree"
"Part Fifteen: Food of the Garden"
"Part Eleven: The Kiss"
"Part Ten: The Broken Window"
"Part Nine: The Shadow of the Tree"
"Part Eight: The Cold and The Dark"
"Part Six: The Man with No Eyes"
"Part Five: The Police Car"
"Part Four: The Cop"
"Part Three: The Bedroom"
"Part Two: The Kitchen Table"
"Part One: The Tunnel"
"The Evil That Men Do"

That's 14 of 18 parts plus the part 0, "The Evil That Men Do"!
And, as an added bonus, I'll throw in Charter Shorts for FREE! today, too.

Make sure you pick up your copies today!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

How To Be...

All of us wanted to be something when we grew up. Some of us wanted to be lots of things, and, by that, I mean that what we wanted to be changed about as often as we changed our socks. Or underwear. Granted, for some of us (especially the boys) that wasn't as often as it should have been, but that's the way it is when you grow up on a farm, right, and only change your clothes every three or four days and the water in the tub turns brown when you get in. You know, back in the days when you had someone to guard you from wasting time getting clean, since you were only going to go back out and get completely dirty again, right, by saying things to your mother like, "The dirt is good for him." [And, just, by  the way, that's totally true. Science says so! No, seriously, not letting our kids be dirty is one of the big things some scientists are saying is the cause of the rise in things like asthma and allergies and having a weaker immune system in general.]
But I digress...

I wasn't one of those people that changed his mind a lot. I decided sometime between 3 and 4 that I was going to be a paleontologist when I grew up, and that's the only thing I ever wanted to be. Until I got to middle school, that is, and had to research the field rather than just the dinosaurs, and I realized I didn't want to be one after all. I had already discovered that I hated rocks, so that shoved paleontology right out the window when I came to the realization that I would have to know everything about rocks if I wanted to dig up dinosaurs.

The point, though, is that, as I was growing up, I collected a large assortment of books about dinosaurs. Because, you know, back in the day, that's how you did it. Of course, in any scientific field, books become quickly outdated, which was fine when I was a kid, because all I really wanted to do was read about dinosaurs anyway. But, when you're older, you want the most recent data and discoveries.

Which leads me to my next point...

When I abandoned paleontology, I switched to wanting to go into movie special effects, specifically, stop motion photography. Yeah, you can blame Lucas and The Empire Strikes Back. I'm pretty sure the Hoth battle still stands as the most awesome piece of stop motion work ever done. But guess what. There were no books on that stuff, because it was too new. So it became all about the magazines, and I started buying issues dealing with the stuff I was interested in, which, actually, was kind of few and far between, because special effects magazines all had to with makeup and monster masks and stuff. The library wasn't really any help, because they didn't keep those kinds of magazines, and, even if they had them, people were always walking out with them, so, see, the library didn't have them. It made it difficult to keep up with that kind of stuff.

My own kids have never had to deal with any of these kinds of issues because of the miracle of the Internet. Anything they want to be, anything they want to know about, any information they need is available to them. The most recent data, discoveries, experiments, whatever; it's all available without ever having to leave the house and without having to collect a huge collection of books or magazines that become worthless (scientifically) within a couple of years. It's a great and wondrous thing.

And, so, this is my A to Z topic: How To Be... Because, with the web, you can be whatever you want to be!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

I'd Rather Be Disney

I grew up on Six Flags. So to speak. The original one. The one that was built because Angus Wynne went to Disneyland and thought he would also build an amusement park, one that didn't require you to go all the way to the west coast, and, so, he built Six Flags near Dallas, kind of a halfway point in the U.S.

I only, actually, went to Six Flags a few times as a kid, but I went a lot as a teenager. A few times a year. It was only about two hours away, so, when we wanted a bigger trip, that's where we went. Not my family, my youth group. My family never went. See the "only a few times as a kid" (and that may be stretching it, as I can actually only remember going twice prior to being 15).

At any rate, I loved it. I thought Six Flags was great and the epitome of amusement parks. At this point in my life, I've been to several of the Six Flags parks, and, until last summer, I didn't think it could get better than that. Seriously. See, I'd never been to a Disney park, and, really, the only reason I even wanted to go to one was because of Star Tours. I mean, seriously, Disneyland couldn't really be that much better than Six Flags, right? Right? Well... how wrong I was, and you can read all about the trip to Disneyland starting here, if you're so inclined.

Still, at the point I went to Disneyland, it had been a good 10 years since I'd been to a Six Flags, so, although I knew Disney was better, it was kind of an abstract thing, because it had been so long since I'd been to a Six Flags, the memory wasn't really fresh enough to know why Disney was better.

My younger son received for his birthday, this year, a season pass to Six Flags: Discovery Kingdom. Actually, for his birthday, the entire family received season passes. This is, of course, a mixed blessing, because, on the one hand: yea! season passes!, but, on the other hand: oh, season passes; now, we have to go enough to make them worthwhile. This past weekend was our first trip (because we had to go by the end of the first week of April to activate our parking pass, which would have become void if we didn't (and can I just say, "What the heck?" I mean, it's paid for. It's not quite fair to put a time limit on when it can be activated especially since the park only opened for the season two weeks ago).

So what did I learn about why Disney is better after our first trip of  the season to Six Flags?

1. Everything at Disneyland is designed to make the experience better for the user. For instance, when we went to Disneyland, everything we needed was mailed to us ahead of time, and we had it all when we got there, so getting into Disneyland was smooth and hassle free. However, when we got to Six Flags, we had to go get IDs made for our passes, and that was the longest line we had of the day, nearly two hours just to get IDs, not to mention that the parking pass is specific to me, so, if my wife wanted to take the kids to Six Flags on a day that I couldn't go (which won't happen, but still...), she would have to pay for parking.

2. Disneyland is SO clean. It's clean for two reasons: If you have some piece of trash in your hand (like, you just finished a beverage), and you want to throw it away, there is a trash can right there for you. They make disposing of trash so convenient, it's almost more trouble to drop it on the ground. But, if you do, there are people walking around with brooms constantly cleaning up. It's not only the "happiest place on Earth," I would bet it's the cleanest. On the other hand, Six Flags makes it extremely difficult to get rid of trash. There are no trash cans at all in the ride lines, so, if you get in a line with a beverage and want to throw your trash away before you get on the ride, you CAN'T, because there are NO trash cans. But, yet, they have signs up everywhere saying "Please Keep Our Park Clean." I just want to know how they expect that to happen when the trash cans are hidden. And they have no people walking around on clean up duty.

3. There are ads all over Six Flags for EVERYTHING, the most annoying of which are the ads to upgrade. Upgrade your daily ticket to a season pass, upgrade your season pass to a gold pass, upgrade to a Flash pass so that you can get on the rides more quickly. Upgrade to a season pass for meals. Buy a souvenir cup that you can refill for cheap. Everything aimed and designed to get the customer to spend more and more money. There's none of this stuff at Disneyland. Maybe, Disneyland is enough of an ad in and of itself, I don't know, but there are not banners and ads all over the place trying to get you to spend more and more money. Okay, so they have gift shops everywhere, but so does Six Flags, and those aren't as obtrusive as all the banner ads.

4. Water. We all know that staying hydrated is important. I mean, really important. To help you with this issue, Disneyland does two things: 1. Water is pretty cheap, not more than $2.00 a bottle, and some of the places you can eat let you have free cups of water, rather like a lot of restaurants do. 2. You can bring things in with you, so, if you choose, you can bring in water or snacks or whatever rather than being forced to buy it in the park. Six Flags, however, charges $4.00 for a bottle of water, which is beyond ridiculous. AND they don't allow you to bring in anything from outside the park. Not even water. This just seems wrong to me.

5. Six Flags (all of them) is mostly a park of roller coasters. That's cool. I mean, you know, roller coasters are cool. They are the biggest attractions at Six Flag parks. There's not a lot there beyond the roller coasters, though. Not overall. Discovery Kingdom does have some animal shows and stuff, because it was a Marine World before Six Flags bought it, so there is still a dolphin show (which we missed because an employee WORKING AT THE DOLPHIN SHOW told me the incorrect time for the next show) and a tiger show, and you can (pay more money to) ride elephants (I guess that's the "elephant upgrade"), and stuff like that, but the main things, the big attractions, are the roller coasters (and let me just add that 2/3 of my children do not like roller coasters). I compare this to an action movie where the focus is on the explosions with just enough story to tie them together. Disneyland, on the other hand, has a well developed plot with plenty of action to keep it exciting, but it also has character development and cool settings and all the things you'd expect from a really good book. Although there are roller coasters, it's not about the roller coasters.

6. The lines. Disney knows that waiting in line is a dreary experience, and they do everything they can to make the experience better. There are things to look, environments to experience, all sorts of things to ease the pain of waiting in line, including being able to get "fast passes" to get onto some rides more quickly, and that fast pass thing is just an extra they offer to you. For free. None of that Six Flags. Six Flags is like the Soviet Union of amusement parks. Just drudging through the lines for hours. Nothing to see. Nothing to do. Only ads. And no trash cans. Oh, and their version of the fast pass, the "Flash Pass" (after the The Flash comic book character), costs extra money (see point 3).

And that's why, as a writer, I'd rather be Disney. Sure, roller coasters may be exciting, eye catching and all of that, and they may be fun (they are), but, at the end of the day, I was ready to leave Six Flags. And, you know, we'll have a good time when we go back, but it's really light fair. Surface. I was never ready to leave Disneyland. It was only with reluctance that we left each night because we were too tired to go on, but we were never just ready to leave. And we couldn't wait to get back the next morning. Of course, my kids can't wait to go back to Six Flags, even the ones that don't like roller coasters, and that's okay. They're kids. They're not quite able to differentiate yet. Which is not to say that they don't think Disneyland is better, because they do, but they still approach both experiences with approximately the same level of enthusiasm. Right now, the roller coasters work for them (or the butterfly habitat), mostly because they're young, but there will come a day when just the roller coasters won't be enough.

And that's okay. There are books I read when I was young, books that I enjoyed, that I can't go back to now. They were good for me at the time. However, when you continue to expand and deepen your reading, you find you can't go back to those other books with the same kind of enjoyment, just like I will never again be able to enjoy Six Flags in the way I did before I went to Disneyland. Disneyland is just better. And that's the kind of books I want to write, too.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Visual Evidence

For those of you that wanted visual evidence of yesterday's post, here you go:
That's really all I have for today.
Come back tomorrow where you'll hear me talk about how I want to be an amusement park.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

For One Brief Moment...

Last Monday was the release of "Part Seventeen: The Tree of Light" in my Shadow Spinner serialization.
Maybe some of you picked it up? I think you must have, because it was the best release day I've had for any of the parts so far. But not only that, I had the biggest download day I've ever had. By far.

"Part Two: The Kitchen Table" lead the downloads and peaked at #14 on Amazon's list of free downloads on the science fiction, fantasy, and magic list (unless it went higher at some point that I didn't notice). I had 6 of the top 20 spots. But...
That's not the best part!
See, it wasn't just my best day for free downloads, it was my best day for paid downloads. By far. I mean, I got months' worth of paid downloads last week, and something happened that I would never have suspected.

"Part Six: The Man with No Eyes"
which was not free last week, kept climbing the charts. The paid charts. My stuff spikes up into the top 100,000 fairly frequently, but I'm more used to them hovering in the 500,000 range. At any rate, I noticed when it was in the top 100,000, but I didn't think much of it. It stayed that way for a long time, too, because Amazon didn't update their stats in a timely manner, last week. Generally, it's every hour or so, but, last Monday, it took them 6-8 hours to do an update. I was watching the downloads climb, but, still, I hadn't given any thought to the ranking. Until it finally updated, that is, and it shot onto the paid sci-fi, fantasy, and magic chart at #96. I was in the top 3000 on the sales chart. And the downloads kept happening. And, then, I was in the top 2000 and, later, just over 1000. I landed at #72 on the paid s/f/m list. That was pretty cool!

But, see, right above me on  the chart, at #69, was The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. I just sort of blinked. Because, well, see, I was right there on the chart with him. What? It was pretty unbelievable.

And that's how I left it when I went to bed.

But that's not the best part!

Because, when I got up on Tuesday morning, I found that there had been more downloads, and "The Man with No Eyes" was sitting at #68 on the list, just above The Graveyard Book, which was still at #69. That! THAT was unbelievable. Surreal. I wanted a screen shot of it, but, see, I'd tried that when I was below Gaiman on the list, and I couldn't get it to work. Well, the computer was saying it was happening, but, when I tried to open the screen shots, I just got a page with the Amazon logo at the top; the rest was blank, so I knew that wasn't going to happen.

When I told my wife about the list, she said, "Take a screen shot!" And I told her I couldn't get it to work. I'm blaming Windows 8. My wife, though, was able to do some kind of screen capture from work and sent it to me... but my computer won't open it. Of course.

However! She did print it out, so, next to me here at my computer, I have the printed page of where, for one brief moment, I was higher on the chart than Neil Gaiman.

Yeah, I still don't believe it, either.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

On Poetry (part 3)

Many of you may be wondering, at this point, why I'm bothering to talk about poetry at all; after all, as I already pointed out, "Only poets read poetry." What does it have to do with everyone else? Well... honestly? Nothing.

And everything.

Just for the aesthetics, I think everyone who is a reader, which should be everyone even though it's not, should learn how to read poetry. Not the new stuff, either. I mean really learn to read poetry. I'm fairly convinced that learning to read poetry broadens our minds to the beauty of language, saying things elegantly, and allows us expand upon the types of things that we read. I'm sorry, but I don't care if you read 500 books last year if 498 of them were romance or light fantasy. That's the equivalent of only eating candy. Okay, I'm not really sorry. None of which  is to say that you need to always be reading poetry; I don't spend a lot of time with poetry anymore, but I used to, which is part of why I don't spend so much time with it, now, because, as I've said numerous times, I'm not much on re-reading.

There are also some great stories that ought to be experienced in the language and form they were written in as much as possible. Thinks like Beowulf and Gilgamesh. Heck, I've even read Le Morte d'Arthur, and, my gosh, there is so much more there than in any modern interpretations of Malory. Not that I'm suggesting that everyone run out and buy a copy of Malory, because, man, that was a tough read, and it took me a year to get through it. The point is that we miss so much by just discounting older, poetic works.

But writers... well, I don't really understand why any writer would discount poetry, especially classical poetry, as something not worthwhile to, at least, read. To be a good writer, a writer must write, but a writer must also read, and the more broadly the writer readers, the better his writing grows. Poetry is certainly not something that should be discounted just because it's poetry.

Of course, I think authors should also write poetry. And I don't mean author's should write prose in verse form and call it free verse, either. Authors can only benefit from learning the structure and flow of poetry and practice at writing it. It's like a football player taking ballet, and I don't think you'll find any that have done that who will tell you that it was a waste of time. Personally, I think the sonnet works best, because it has such a rigid structure. If you can write a sonnet, you can write anything.

And, no, I'm not much of a poet. I tried for a good long time at it though. Back when I was 15 or so, I had it stuck in my head that you couldn't be a "real" writer unless you wrote poetry. That was the dividing line between being a "writer" and being a "real writer." But, then, teenagers always have strange ideas. I wrote a lot of poetry back then. All of it bad. I probably still have it packed away somewhere, but I don't think I'd want to read about 99% of it. I focused on poetry early on in college, too, until one of my professors famously told me, "This is great prose, but it's lousy poetry," a statement that really opened my eyes to everything that I've been talking about in these posts about how poetry is not (and can not be) just prose written in verse form.

So, yeah, from time to time, I play with poetry. I have sonnets. And, at some point, I'll share some of them. I have some project notes for some more substantial pieces of poetry, too, but poetry requires a lot of time and effort on my part, that whole what is stressed and what is not is really difficult for me, always has been, so I end up pushing those projects down the list in favor of things I can finish more quickly. But, so as not to leave you empty-handed and to prove that, yes, I stand by what I'm saying here, I'll give you a sample of something I wrote a few years ago. Right before I started House, I think. Or, maybe, right after I started it. A few years ago, at any rate. No explanations this time, because it's always better to see how the reader interprets these things rather than just spelling it out, but I might be willing to answer some questions, depending upon what they are, if anyone has any.

The Dissolution of Love

The snow fell hard and heavy the day we
met, covering over that old empty
field. Filling in the holes, hiding the roots
and broken glass from our crunching boots.
The snow grew deep, blanketing all in white
and hiding all that was wrong from our sight.
In this pristine place, we would meet and play
in the field of snow until the day
was gone. And the days, they passed, and the snow
continued to fall and deepen and grow.
Until one day, we did decide to make
a snowman and, on this, put all at stake.
So we set to work upon the base
piling up the snow with all due haste.
Upon this base we placed the body that
Together we rolled into being, patting
the snow down hard and firm. Then the head
settled at last upon the top and wed
to the body below. Now complete but
for the details. Two rocks for eyes we put
upon the face and then for the nose and
mouth we added more. Our gloves for the hands,
we each gave one, joining our naked palms
to keep them warm. Our hearts, as one, grew calm
as we placed our last tokens: my hat, your
scarf. In our knowledge that all was secure,
we walked away to other things, other
pursuits, sure that our snowman would be safe.
Hand-in-hand, enjoying one another,
we left him alone like a long lost waif.
Forgotten, he stayed as we went on our
way, until we reached a time when joined hands
became a burden. So in that hour
we returned to where our lonely man stands
and retrieved our gloves so that we could act
independently. One eye, we found, had
fallen loose. Recognizing, then, the fact
that left alone he would not last, in gladness
we made a vow to watch over him
together. But quickly tiresome that chore
grew and, so, we forsook that very whim
and the promise that would have held us more
tightly bound together. Alone we left
him, once again, to brave the coming storm.
The rains and winds came as he stood bereft
of care and then the sun to rob his form.
The sun, more frequently, would show its eye,
driving back the snow and breaking the frost
that held the little field in grip. The sky,
cleared to blue, loosed its wind and winter lost
its battle. With no snow left to hold us,
we parted ways without a backward glance
for our poor creation. The wind’s last gust
lost my hat. Your scarf left, muddied, to dance
in the wind, caught in the last patch of snow --
the dirty heap of snow left behind from
our joint endeavor. But how could we know
that this would be all that that would become?

copyright 2013 Andrew Leon

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Dreamers of the Day

"...the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible." -- T. E. Lawrence

The Cairo Conference, the one in 1921, is one of the most pivotal points in modern history in that it set the stage for much of the world's current problems in the Middle East. Possibly all of them. The best thing that can be said it about it is that, thankfully, the United States wasn't involved in what happened. It's difficult for me to understand how it is that any man or group of men can think it's okay to determine the destiny and place in the world of people who have not agreed to that. That would be rather like me coming into your house, organizing it to meet my own needs, telling you which parts of your own house you were allowed to be in, and which possessions were still yours. Let me give you a hint: it's not the oil.

This is the backdrop against which Mary Doria Russell sets her historical fiction novel, Dreamers of the Day. And what a great title. Have I mentioned how much I like a good title? Not today? Well, I do, and that's a great title. Fortunately, it's from a quote by T. E. Lawrence, so, you know, if I ever decide I want to use it, I can, and I won't even have to feel bad about it. Lawrence, of course, is a central figure in the book.

I've been fascinated with Lawrence for a couple of decades at least. Probably longer. He's such an interesting person in history, and, I think, Russell did a more than admirable job of portraying him in the book. He certainly "felt" right based upon what I know of him. Not that it's easy to know what a person was like from reading about him in history, but, still...

One of the things I like most about Russell is that her books are not all cookie cutters of each other as is the case with many authors. Each of her books has a unique feel and perspective, often unsettling at first when you go in expecting something resembling a previous work of hers.

In The Sparrow we have third person past from one character in two different time settings. There's the story of what's happening now and the story of what happened in the past, and the thing that makes it so captivating is that you can't figure out how what happened lead to what's happening.

Children of God (sequel to Sparrow) is also third person past but has multiple perspectives and is, kind of, what's happening now and what's happening in the future. It's an interesting shift.

A Thread of Grace is third person present with multiple perspectives, and it really through me off when I started it. After her other two books, it just felt sort of wrong. Until I got into it.

Dreamers of the Day is first person past but also break occasionally for the narrator to speak to the audience. The beginning is very much a "let me tell you how this all started" and was kind of weird, and, again, I wasn't sure I was going to like it. But I did. If you have any interest in history, the book is especially fascinating.

At any rate, she has not satisfied herself with having any particular style that is recognizably hers other than having superb writing. She tries new things every time, and I like that.

Dreamers also has an interesting ending. There are hints all through the book, but, for me, I kept thinking, "Nah, she wouldn't do that," but she did, and it managed to add extra weight to the book. I'd tell you about it, but I don't want to ruin it for anyone.

The Sparrow is still my favorite book by Russell, but each of her books has been excellent, and I'm looking forward to working Doc into my reading schedule.

Oh, and, now, once again, I want to read Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. One of these days, I need to get around to that.

"All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible."

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Top Ten Movies and the Tree

Today is the FREE! release of "Part Seventeen: The Tree of Light"
Make sure you pick up your copy! (And more on that in a moment...) And notice the wonderful new cover by the fabulous Rusty Webb!

It's also the day of Alex Cavanaugh's Top Ten Movie thing (click the link for the list).
Let's get the movies out of the way first.

As per usual, I'm breaking the rules a bit. Many of the movies I list will be franchises rather than movies. Mostly, because devoting six of 10 spots to Star Wars seems a little redundant, and, well, even the least of the Star Wars movies is greater than most other movies. This will allow for more variety on my list. Oh, and I should also say that I kind of hate making lists like this, because, if I were to make the same list next week, it might be slightly different. That's why I have a "significance" page not a "favorites" page. The things that have been significant don't change. But enough of that; let's get to it...

Daredevil (2003) -- This was one of my top super hero movies until Marvel got into the game for real and started making their own movies. I still think it's one of the most watchable and is a great adaptation at the same time. It's completely underrated.

Ladyhawke (1985) -- During high school, my best friend and I spent the better part of a year watching this movie virtually every weekend. It almost made the actual top 10, but it's probably been too long since I've seen it to really know where it stands.

Fellowship of the Ring (2001) -- Fellowship was a great movie, perfectly captured the spirit of the books, and it deserves to be in the top 10. However, it fell off the list, because I don't feel compelled to put the other movies up there along with it, and it wasn't strong enough to stand next to the other top 10s all by itself.

Goonies (1985) -- This was the movie that my brother and his best friend watched almost every weekend for the better part of a year, and I often sat and watched it with them. [I know, you'd think I did nothing but watch movies when I was in high school, but most of this movie watching happened after midnight when it was too late to do anything else.] Then there was a period where my kids wore out this video, too.

10. Robin Hood (1973) -- The Disney version of Robin Hood was the first movie I ever fell in love with. And I did. I wanted to be Robin Hood, and he was the hero of my boyhood, along with Spider-Man, prior to Luke Skywalker.

9. Better Off Dead (1985) -- The other movie my best friend and I spent the better part of a year watching virtually every weekend. Even more than Ladyhawke. It was the most quoted movie of my high school career, especially, "Man, now that's a real shame when folks be throwin' away a perfectly good white boy like that."
And "I want my two dollars!"
And "Gee, I'm real sorry your <whatever bad thing just happened> blew up."
And... I need to stop, or I'll just quote the whole movie.
However, I do still use on my kids whenever we're having something they don't like for dinner, "It's got raisins in it... you like raisins."

8. Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) -- Not quite as quotable as Better Off Dead but so much more tapped into the souls of us all who grew up in the 80s. No one really wanted to be Lane Meyer, but we all wanted to be Ferris.

7. Toy Story (1995/1999/2010) -- One of the greatest movies about friendship ever made. And they just kept getting better. The third one made me cry. I don't know that there's more to be said than that.

The Incredibles (2004) -- My feelings about this movie can be summed up in the line, "When everyone's special, no one is." If you don't understand, you probably won't understand.

Ratatouille (2007) -- Similar in theme to Incredibles but with the addition of not dismissing someone because you think they know who they are.

6. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) -- The second movie to ever make me cry (the first was The Fox and the Hound, which almost made the list) and possibly the event that nudged D&D into cultural awareness in any real sense. I'm still hoping, though, that Spielberg doesn't cave and make a sequel.

5. Iron Man (2008) -- The second virtually perfect super hero movie. I saw it three times its opening weekend (not, actually, on purpose) and could have gone back for more. Downey (whom I had been following since the 80s (Less Than Zero, anyone?)) was amazing. "I am Iron Man."

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) -- The third virtually perfect super hero movie. Chris Evans was absolutely perfect for the role, and I was so relieved when they went with him (they almost didn't because of his portrayal of Johnny Storm). As with Iron Man, Marvel really captured the character and threw him up on the screen.

The Avengers (2012) -- I don't even know what to say about this one. Whedon tied all the other movies together perfectly. It stands as the masterpiece of superhero movies.

4. Spider-Man (2002/2004/2007) -- The movie I waited my whole life to see. Spider-Man has always been my favorite superhero. Always. I remember playing Spider-Man when I was four, maybe even three. He was always so cool with all the jokes and stuff, and, really, is there a better set of super powers? Not when you throw in how smart he is, there's not. Sam Raimi was the very first (director) to capture the essence of a comic book hero and throw it up on the screen for us to see. [Admittedly, Hugh Jackman's Wolverine was the very first perfect performance of a character in 2000's X-Men. Unfortunately, the X-Movies have been pushed too far down to make the list.] And it had the line "With great power comes great responsibility," unlike some lesser Spider-Man movies.

3. Indiana Jones (1981/1984/1989/2008) -- The greatest adventure movies ever made. Period. Adventure does have a name...

2. Dead Poets Society (1989) -- I left high school completely tired of math and science and being told I had to do something in math or science, or math and science. I was tired of having my math test scores waved in my face all the time. Drawing had already been squashed out of me, but writing had not. I was good at it. On the sly, my English teachers would let me know how good at it I was without talking about math or science. So I went on to college and immediately declared English as my major... only to have all of my advisors start yelling at me. But I held to it. I never doubted my decision, but that doesn't mean  that you know that you know that you're right. I walked out of DPS after my first year as an English major, and I knew that I knew that I'd made the right decision.

1. Star Wars (1977/1980/1983/1999/2002/2005) -- What can I say? Star Wars changed my life. Not that it didn't change the lives of lots of kids. Watching it that first time was like being in a darkened room, only you don't know that it's dark, and having someone flip on the light. It opened my mind and my imagination. And I watched it do that same thing to both of my boys. The flip of a switch. It was more gradual with my daughter, but it's there for her, too. It's the most quoted movie in our house. It's the most quoted movie of my life.
How could expect there to be anything different in this spot?

Shadow Spinner

Today is a big day for Shadow Spinner! It's the halfway point of the story, and there are some significant revelations. But no spoilers. Go read it if you want to know; after all, it's FREE! Well, today it is. And tomorrow. Here's the list of today's FREE! parts!

FREE! on Monday, March 18 and Tuesday, March 19:
"Part Seventeen: The Tree of Light"
FREE! only on Monday, March 18:
"Part Sixteen: The Dark Tree"
"Part Fifteen: Food of the Garden"
"Part Fourteen: Anger and Laughter"
"Part Eleven: The Kiss"
"Part Ten: The Broken Window"
"Part Nine: The Shadow of the Tree"
"Part Eight: The Cold and the Dark"
"Part Seven: The Moth and the Shadow"
"Part Five: The Police Car"
"Part Four: The Cop"
"Part Three: The Bedroom"
"Part Two: The Kitchen Table"
"Part One: The Tunnel"
Look at that! That's 14 out of 17 parts for FREE! But that's not all, because you can also get little tale that started all of this off:
"The Evil That Men Do"

As an added bonus, you can also find "Christmas on the Corner" available for FREE! To quote one reviewer's response to the novella, "What I liked best, and what surprised me most about this story was the amazing depth of emotion." Make sure you pick it up while you have  the chance to get it FREE!

And that will just about do me for today. Enjoy the movie list and pick up the FREE! stuff. Who can say no to FREE!, right?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

"This is no time to panic."

"This is the perfect time to panic!"

Okay, so no one is really panicking, but that's one of those lines that pops into my head anytime anything is going wrong. Sometimes, it's joined by the corollary to the first part of that exchange: "Don't Panic!"
It always makes me want to grab a towel.
Speaking of which, it was Douglas Adams' birthday this week.
And all the loose computer cables we have running everywhere right now makes me think of him, because he had things to say about loose computer wiring and cables.
Which brings me back to what all of this is about. Or one of the things this is about.

We are in the midst of restructuring our computer set up, because I was gifted a computer by my good friend that works over at Lucasfilm, which is very timely, because I'm sure my wife's (old) computer is going to drop dead any day now. It's just like the one I had drop dead back in the fall, and we got them at the same time, and it's sounding really bad, lately. Like a guy with lung cancer or something. I'm halfway expecting it to explode or some such. But I digress...

So we have this new computer, which is currently set up across the room from the place where it will eventually be, so there are cords stretched all over the place. The worst one is the one running from our phone socket on the wall in the kitchen over to the modem. Earlier this week, my oldest son stepped on it and jerked it forcefully from the jack, breaking the clip that holds it in. Of course, that was accompanied by a loss of Internet connection, which was accompanied by me losing what I was working on, because I couldn't save it.

Why couldn't I save it? Well, because... That's the best answer I have. Once I got everything set back up again, my computer wouldn't recognize the connection. The other computers did, but my computer kept saying, "Hey, Buddy, what do you think you're doing? We got no connection here."
No, I do not know why my computer talks like that, but it does. And I said, "Why, yes, we do have a connection," and I held it up and showed it and said, "The other computer recognize it; why not you?"
And it replied, "I'm tellin' ya's, we got no connection."
And we went on like that until I shut it off. When I turned it back on, it said, "Oh, hey, you plugged us back in."
But I didn't get to save anything, because I had to re-boot to get the computer to recognize that I had re-connected everything.

Then, Wednesday morning, the dog jumped on the phone line.
It wasn't exactly her fault; she thought she was getting a treat and got all excited. Well, actually, she was getting a treat, so she had a reason to get all excited; my younger son just didn't think about where he was standing when he was offering it to her.

Whatever she did, she did it good. I spent around 30 minutes trying to get the connection working again and hadn't managed it by the time I had to get the kids to school. Once I got home, I spent another hour working on it before I got everything working. It's like the sudden disruption just fired everything, and I had to go over every piece of equipment and every connection. I don't know what was actually knocked loose or what, but, eventually, I did something that got it all working again.

And, while I was doing all of that, I had Bill Murray screaming in my head, "And if I can't work, THEN I CAN'T WORK!"

Which just makes me glad I'm not more plugged in than I am, because I hear too many stories about people that don't know what to do with themselves when they lose or break their phones. No, sir, I don't want one of those.

Then there's the cat...
As I've mentioned before, the cat, my cat, Jack, has some kind of weird abusive relationship with this orange tabby from down the street. I call him The Orange. The Orange will come down to my house and pin my cat down and make a horrible mewling noise. This noise greatly disturbs my dog, and she goes crazy barking, but I can still hear the horrible sounds The Orange makes even over her barking.

It started up yesterday, and I opened the front door to find Jack huddled at the bottom of the steps with The Orange standing over him going "merow" "merow" merow." However, The Orange knows enough not to hang around when I come out, so he turned tail and ran. But, see, my cat can't just let him go. Jack always follows him anytime anything like this happens. And they go through bushes and crap that I can't go through, but I have to follow them so that I can get in between them, which gives The Orange a chance to run all the way off, and, then, Jack will come home.

But, yesterday, I didn't get around the hedge in time, because The Orange was really running much more quickly than normal, and Jack was chasing him, so I got around just in time to see The Orange turn on Jack and attack him.

You know how in cartoons when animals fight they always show these dust clouds with the occasional paw or whatever popping out of it. Now, I know why. This looked exactly like that. It was, like, three seconds of a squalling blur. And you know how they say "the fur was flying"? Well, I know where that comes from, too, because a great cloud of fur flew out in every direction, which only heightened the sense of them fighting in a dust cloud. I just stood there and blinked and wondered if I'd stepped into a cartoon. Then it was over, and The Orange was running for home.

I don't know if that means Jack won or not. He watched The Orange run off and, then, walked away. Actually, he came home with me and lounged around in the house for a couple of hours which isn't something he generally does at  that time of day unless it's raining. I couldn't find any wounds on him, although he can be kind of difficult with being examined.

The thing that disturbs me is that the owners of The Orange acknowledge that their cat is a bully (and I've heard complaints about him from other people in the neighborhood -- on the other hand, everyone in  the neighborhood loves Jack (heck, people come to my house just to see Jack if he's hanging out in the driveway)) and, yet, do nothing about his behavior or his comings and goings or anything. It would be one thing if Jack was going down to their house and these problems were happening, but, no, The Orange comes here, and I have to run him off (at least) a couple of times a day.

Which makes me want to sign Jack up for martial arts training. Or something.

I think I need to just get a towel that I always carry with me...

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Danger of Desperation (an Indie Life post)

For those of you who haven't noticed, there's been a big to-do in the publishing world in the last week or so. But, before that...

It can be difficult to be involved in artistic fields. There's so much angst over whether you're good enough, whether people will like your work, whether people will like you. It creates a huge drive for recognition. Confirmation. Validation. The desire for validation can be... distracting. The desire to be validated, to be told, "yes, you are good," can become the goal rather than doing the art. The need for an agent, for a publisher, more important than doing the writing and just making it available.

This need, this desperate grasp for someone unconnected to you to tell you that you're good, that you do good work, that your writing (art, music, whatever) deserves to be seen can make us do, well, stupid things. It can make us agree to things that our sane, rational minds would have us run away from. But, in that moment, that moment of someone saying to you, "we want you," you can forget to look at the situation and, instead, just say "yes! yes! yes!"

I've kind of lost track of the number of authors I've seen that have signed with some small publisher that said "we want you" but, then, left them to do all the work (editing, cover, marketing) only to keep a large part of any money that was made. And all of that with no advance. But the validation has been so important that many of them don't care. Or they do end up caring and regret the decision to go with the small publisher. It's a hard thing to deal with. And many small publishers count on that. Some of them even demand money from you.

But, then, most of us are at least somewhat aware of vanity presses and know to stay away from them, right? Right? Well, let's just be safe: if any publisher ever asks you for money to publish your book, don't just say "no;" run away as fast as you can, too.

Which brings us to the whole "to-do."

Just recently, Random House has established some new digital-only imprints. These imprints have been designed to take advantage of the new digital era but, from all appearances, at the expense of the author. The imprints seem to be specifically targeting new authors and pre-published authors. Authors who don't know their way around the publishing world. See, the big publishers almost never take unsolicited manuscripts; that means you have to have an agent if you want to get published by someone like Random House. But these new imprints? No agent needed. Anyone can submit to them.

And that one thing is going to be a huge draw for unpublished authors -- the chance to be published by one of the "big 6" without the need of an agent.
And Random House is set up to accept as many takers as possible, because, why?, it's digital only, remember?

You know that saying about when something is too good to be true...?
Yes, there is a catch... actually, there are a lot of them. All of them designed to squeeze the unsuspecting author like a grape.

1. No advance.
2. They charge back to the author all of the production costs. No, you don't have to pay anything up front, but all of the costs of editing, cover design, marketing; it all comes out of the pocket of the author.
3. They get to own your soul. Seriously. They own all rights to your work in every possible format in place you can think of. Well, at least, any place on Earth. They own all licensing options. AND they own the crack at any sequel you may ever write.
4. If your book is successful enough that they decide they want to do a print version of it, you get charged for all of that, too.

The whole thing is horrendous. If you really want to know the whole story, I suggest you read the following posts by John Scalzi, who also happens to be the president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America:
1. Hydra
2. Alibi
3. The direction?
4. The Letter
5. The Response
6. Why advance are important
7. You have more power than you think

Look, I understand that it can seem a small thing to take terms that don't include an advance or any of these other things when you're trying to get in the door. After all, you're already not making anything, right? What can it hurt, and, at least, this way you have a chance. Right? And with a big publisher, too! But don't let your desperation lead you down the path of foolishness. Don't feed the big parasitic organism that's seeking to drain you of all of your creativity. In the end, it's just not worth it, no matter how "necessary" it may seem at the time. Desperation... it's a dangerous thing.

I strongly suggest that you go read those posts by Scalzi. Yeah, that's a lot of reading, but you'll be glad you did.

Random House, due to the huge outcry against the terms they were offering through these new imprints, has responded by amending  the terms they're offering in their contracts. What they're offering is still not great, but it's better than it was. You can read about the changes here and Scalzi's thoughts on them here. Again, this is strongly suggested reading.

This post has been brought to you by Indie Life.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Look Homeward, Angel

My oldest son's newest drama production opened this past weekend: Look Homeward, Angel. The play is based on the book by Thomas Wolfe, which is considered a masterpiece of American literature. The play ran on Broadway for nearly 600 shows and won several awards. Most importantly, though, this was my son's first lead role.

He was in the role of 17-year-old Eugene Gant, a boy desperately wanting out from under his mother's controlling thumb but unsure of how to do that. That is until 23-year-old Laura James shows up at his family's boarding house. Without meaning to, my son completely channeled Jimmy Stewart for this role, and it was impressive. There's this one scene where Eugene is telling Laura the kinds of things you can feel and see by laying your hand on a train, the places you get pieces of, and it could have been that scene from It's a Wonderful Life where Stewart is talking about how he's going to see the world. Mostly, though, he takes that stammer and transforms it into a boy who is unsure of himself and how to get what he wants out of life. He was really quite good.

The rest of the cast was good, too, just mostly not as good. The girl who played Eugene's mother was probably as good, though I found her to get better as she moved through the play, which leads me to think that her performance in the first act may have been a little weak. The boy that played Eugene's father had moments where I thought Jim Carrey had stepped in for him.

Overall, I just continue to be impressed and more impressed with the drama department at my son's high school. They do good work and, most impressively, they do most of it themselves. They have a teacher there, but he seems to be there mostly to supervise and to prompt them to work it out for themselves. Whatever he does, he gets good stuff from the students.

Shadow Spinner News

Every year, the school my younger kids go to has an auction fund raising event. It's kind of a big deal as it accounts for the bulk of the school's funds every year. This year, I decided to donate one of my proof copies of Shadow Spinner to the auction. After all, I had an extra one, since no one won it back during the Greatest Chocolate in the World contest. Just to be clear, only three of these books exist: the one I'm using as my editing copy (that's got red marks all in it), the one my younger son stole from me, and the one I donated (signed). There will be no other proof copies like this as next time I order proofs, there will be cover art on the book.

I was kind of unsure about donating the book. I mean, although I have fans at the school, it's not a kid event, so it made me a bit uneasy. What if it just sat there and no one bid on it at all, you know? That would be, like, the height of embarrassment to have them bring it back to me after the auction with a "sorry, no one wanted it." But! I took it up and donated it anyway. I mean, even if someone paid $5.00 for it, that would be $5.00, right?

I had to fill in a retail value of the book on the donation form, so I put $12.00, because I think that's what it's going to be priced at in physical form. I think. The woman taking the book from me, though, told me I should point out on  the form that it was a proof copy and not something you could actually buy, so I wrote that in.

Now, I didn't go to the auction (because it was the same night as my son's opening performance in Look Homeward, Angel), so I'm not sure if that information was available to the public or not. I have no idea how the items were displayed and what information was included or anything (it was a silent auction), but I imagine it just sat on a table somewhere with a sheet of paper next to it for people to write their bids on. Just a plain gray book with no cover art sitting on a table.

And it went for $30.00. I'm pretty pleased with that. I hope it turns out to be a worthwhile investment for the family that got it.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

On Poetry (part 2)

I mentioned last time that people don't read poetry anymore, which is a true thing. Not that no one reads poetry, but, if you're not being made to do it for school or something, there's not a very strong likelihood that you're ever going to bother with poetry again. Less than 5% of you, in fact (and, maybe, by "you," I don't mean the "you" of you reading this blog, because that you reads more than other people, but the "you" of people out there isn't reading poetry, or reading much at all, for that matter). But... why? Why don't people read poetry anymore? It used to be that everyone read poetry. [And if, by chance, you want to read an exceptional bit of poetry, a piece (and a post) inspired by part 1 of this series (link above), just click here. Briane actually does a great job explaining his thoughts on why poetry requires structure, and he does it much more eloquently than I did. And he did it with a poem that he wrote in, basically, an afternoon, and that just blows me away, because poetry, writing it, is not my strong suit.]

I think the biggest reason people no longer read poetry is that people don't know how to read it. Any of it. And I think that the rise of free verse in the 20th century has played a big part in that. It has, in effect, untaught us on how to read poetry. Free verse tends to be fragmentary in that each line contains a complete thought, and you read it line by line. Now, let me be clear, this is not all free verse, and it certainly isn't the way free verse was when it was first becoming a "thing," back when actual poets were writing it (yeah, that sounds derisive of everyone else, but when you look at the free verse of, say, Walt Whitman, and, then, look at the free verse of the guy down  the street, well, I'm sure you understand what I mean (but, then, maybe Whitman's poetry is a little too structured to really be free verse? At least, free verse as it's become)). I'll just throw in at this point that it's not free verse as it was that I don't like but free verse as it is. [Just like it's not "modern art" as it was when Picasso was doing it that I don't like, but modern art as it is now (as Elizabeth Twist said, "after a while it's just so many paint splatters on canvas.").]

Let me just illustrate the point with a story:

Way back when I was junior in high school, I was one day standing around outside of the cafeteria (which are now, inexplicably, called lunch rooms) talking to my English teacher. No, not about anything in particular. Yeah, I was that kid that liked to hang out and talk to my teachers when they weren't busy. Which wasn't often, so we took those opportunities whenever they were available. [At my school, this wasn't actually an uncommon behavior.] So we were chatting, and another guy walked up with his English text in his hand which meant there was a question coming. We were doing some Shakespeare play or other at the time, and the guy, whom I will call Calvin, said, "I don't understand any of this, can you explain it to me?"

Now, I just want to say that not understanding Shakespeare was a pretty common occurrence, even at my school, but I'd never really understood why people struggled with it so. My teacher, though, knew what the problem was, and he said, "Read to me the part you don't understand."
[I'm choosing a piece from Macbeth for this example 1. because it doesn't really matter what I use as an example (it's still valid) 2. because, by the time I'd graduated from high school, I'd already had to read Macbeth three or four times, so there is every likelihood that this was the play in question.]

Calvin read:
"Is this a dagger which I see before me," [And, yes, I can't help reading that line without thinking of John Wayne.]
No problem without one, right? But he went on after a pause,
"The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee."
We're mostly okay, still, at this point, and the next one was okay, too.
"I have thee not, and yet I see thee still."
However, then, we get to
"Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible"
You have to understand, here, that, with each line, he's pausing and starting a new "sentence" every time he started reading a new line, so, as he went through
"To feeling as to sight? or art thou but"
"A dagger of the mind, a false creation,"
"Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?"
"I see thee yet, in form as palpable"
"As this which now I draw."
His face grew more and more confused the farther along he went, because, face it, "Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?" doesn't make much sense as a complete thought.

And I, because I was shocked at his reading, said, before I realized what I was doing, "You're reading it all wrong!" Calvin gave me a look that communicated something along the lines of "You're saying I can't read?" and said something like, "If I'm reading it, how can I be reading it wrong?"

My English teacher took the book from his hands and handed it to me and said, "What do you mean by that?"

"You have to follow the punctuation," I said, "not read it line by line."

"Go ahead and read it," my teacher said.

So I read:
"Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible to feeling as to sight? Or art thou but a dagger of the mind, a false creation, proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? I see thee yet, in form as palpable as this which now I draw."

As I read, Calvin got a minor look of amazement on his face as he suddenly understood the meaning of the passage. My teacher took the book from my hands and said as he handed it back to Calvin, "You were reading it wrong."

Which is nothing against Calvin, because, like I said, evidently, this was a pretty common issue, and it was still an issue when I was in college majoring in English even amongst other English majors. And it continues to be a problem, a steadily increasing problem, as far as I can tell. Not just with Shakespeare but with any poetry at all. We've, culturally speaking, forgotten how to read poetry, and it keeps people from understanding it, so they can't derive any enjoyment from it.

But, wait! That's not exactly correct, because you can read almost all free verse poetry, especially stuff from the past half century or so, in this precise line by line manner. The problem, then, is that most free verse poetry just isn't that good because it's written by people that have no actual ability to write structured poetry, so it ends up being thought fragments on paper. Or, at best, pretty prose written in verse form. In the end, though, the option for the "common man" is to read poetry they don't understand or read poetry that just, on the whole, isn't any good. Stuck between the veritable rock and hard place, most people just don't read it at all.

The whole thing is kind of sad. Makes me sad. There's a lot of great poetry out there. Personally, I'm partial to Wordsworth, Shelley, the romantics in general, actually, Burns, Frost, even Tolkien (because he wrote more than a bit of poetry, himself). Well, I could go on, but that's not really the point. The point is that if more people knew how to read poetry, maybe more people would write poetry. Real poetry. Not just emotional vomit on a piece of paper. Or, maybe, if more people took the time to learn how to write actual, structured poetry, more people would read it.

Or, maybe, we should all just be satisfied with the poetry that pop music offers us? But I don't think so...

Thursday, March 7, 2013

On Poetry (part 1)

What is poetry?

You'd think that question would have an easy answer. Really, you would. I bet you even think you know what that answer is. Probably, you'd be wrong. Believe it or not, what, exactly, poetry is is a hotly (in some circles) debated subject (most people really don't care). And the definitions extend from the end of "anything created is poetry" to "creative acts employing language" to the other, more restrictive, end of "language using rhythm and rhyme." This disagreement is not new. It's so old, in fact, that Aristotle tackled this whole debate in his book Poetics around 2500 years ago. Yeah, we haven't made much progress.

What we do know is that poetry began in song. Well, we almost know that. We're fairly confident of it, at any rate. I find that somewhat fitting considering that poetry has ended in song (but more on that in a moment). It's likely that poetry went beyond song and into oral story telling as the rhythm of it assisted in remembering the tales.

Some of the oldest poetry we have, and the oldest epic poetry, is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Our oldest (partial) copies are nearly 4000 years old.

None of which gets us any closer to the answer to "what is poetry?"

And that's not a question I'm even going to attempt to give a definitive answer to, because what poetry is has been and meant different things to different cultures all throughout history. So much so that I doubt there is even a definitive answer anymore (or ever (see Aristotle)), which is why people are still arguing over it. For our purposes, though, I think there are two significant points, maybe three:

1. Rhythm. The root of poetry has always been rhythm. It came from songs, remember? And it's the rhythm, the cadence, that made it useful for early man and lead to its evolution.

2. Prose split off from poetry. Literary prose has only existed for a few hundred years, almost no time at all in comparison to the length of time poetry has existed. There are specific reasons for the evolution of prose from poetry, but one of the biggest was its lack of structure. The lack of structure made it easier to translate. [There's a lot more to this, but that's all that's important for this discussion.]

3. Which brings us to structure, which is really the issue in all of this.

I'm just gonna say it and get it out of the way: on the whole, I dislike "modern poetry." I dislike it as not being poetry at all, because so much of "modern poetry" has no structure. It's prose written in verse form. Taking a piece of prose and writing it as if it's poetry does not make it poetry. I don't care how good the prose is. Most of our actual poetry that's being written today is found in pop music. Poetry has ended in song. See? That's where it finds its structure. Beyond that, poetry is mostly dead. As has been said, "Only poets read poetry."

And that's almost exactly true, too. The statistic for Americans that read poetry (and Americans are far more likely to read poetry than anyone else in the world) has fallen below 5% as of a couple of years ago. Even online! Seriously, when stumbling across a poem online, basically, having it shoved in your face, less than 5% of people will bother to read it even with it right there in front of them.
Unless it's lyrics to a song they like, then they might... but, then, we don't consider that reading poetry.

And why is it that people no longer read poetry? I'm going to say that it's because people no longer know how to write poetry. And I'm gonna blame that on free verse. Here's where we talk about Picasso again. Free verse did to poetry what Picasso did to painting. It made anyone think they could do it. Free verse arose from the desire for something new, just like cubism and surrealism for Picasso. Other people looked at those paintings and thought "I can do that," only they couldn't. Not really. Picasso could do it because he was trained. And free verse suffers from the same fate; all people think they can be poets just be writing in verse form.

And it's just not true.

John Livingston Lowes said in 1916, "Free verse may be written as very beautiful prose; prose may be written as very beautiful free verse. Which is which?"
That's kind of where I come down on it, and where you can see that I don't reach all the way to the end of that spectrum I mentioned where anything is poetry or, even, anything using language is poetry.

Robert Frost said that free verse is like "playing tennis without a net."

And T. S. Eliot said, "No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job."

So here's the thing:
Prose split off from poetry so that we can have writing without structure. Isn't, then, free verse the same thing? Poetry without structure? Yeah, it is, and we call that prose.

That's as close to a definition of what poetry is that I'm going to get: It's structured writing. It has a rhythm of some sort. It has some form it has to follow. Some of it rhymes. Free verse, like prose, has none of these things. The beauty of poetry, though, is found in its structure. Like a great architectural achievement.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

"If you decide not to make things..." (an IWSG post)

"If you decide not to make things, all you've done is deprive the world of all the stuff you could have brought to it."
--Neil Gaiman

This is a great quote by Neil and not something that I haven't said before, but I've never said it like that, and I love the way he put it: "...all you've done is deprive the world..." That's just fantastic.

Often, people will feel great conflict over creating. It can be debilitating.

"Is it good enough?"
"Am I good enough?"
"What if it's no good?"
"Am I just wasting my time?"
Oh, it goes on and on and on, and, if you visit enough blogs of pre-published writers or, even, some post-published writers, you will run into all of it and more.

I think, maybe, we're asking ourselves the wrong question. Oh, I get it. "Is it good enough?" is an important question if you're trying to get traditionally published and all of that, despite the evidence that plenty of stuff that isn't really "good enough" gets traditionally published all the time. Some of that stuff that isn't "good enough" even becomes incredibly popular. But that question, that question about being good enough, isn't so important in a digital age of self-publishing. If it was ever important at all.

I think the better question to be asking is, "Is it me enough?" Is it the story that you want to tell? Is it the story that only you can tell? Are you bringing to the world that thing that only you can bring to it?

Of course, that circles back around to "am I good enough?" and "what if no one likes me?" Questions, really, about self worth and esteem, and those can be... well, those can be hard to ignore. But we need to ignore them. We need to ignore them so that we can focus on that story that can only come from us.

So... some examples:

George Lucas made a short film while he was in college called "THX-1138" which is supposed to be brilliant. When he graduated, he wanted to make a movie called American Graffiti, but he couldn't get anyone to be interested in that. What he found was people that wanted him to make a full length feature out of THX. He said THX wasn't a full length kind of thing, but that's what they wanted, so that ended up being his first movie. It didn't do as well as everyone else thought it would. Once he was able to make Graffiti, which he did for almost no money because THX had flopped, it became the most successful film ever made up to that point and held that title for something like 30 years.

Lucas was under contract with Universal for two movies, and the next movie he wanted to make was this thing called Star Wars which Universal wouldn't back. They wanted a sequel to Graffiti. Lucas said that story was finished and didn't want to make a sequel. Eventually, he got 20th Century Fox to take Star Wars, and Universal got American Graffiti 2. How many of you knew there was a sequel?

Tolkien wrote this whole history of this place called Middle Earth, but he couldn't get anyone interested in what he called The Silmarillion. He ended up getting an unrelated novel, The Hobbit, published. The publisher wanted a sequel, but Tolkien didn't have a sequel in mind for it nor did he want to write one. They insisted. He did try, but what came out of that attempt was more Middle Earth, The Lord of the Rings, which the publisher didn't want. They ended up taking it anyway, probably realizing they just weren't going to get what they wanted out of Tolkien. And, in the end, The Hobbit became part of Middle Earth.

Heck, even Twilight was something that came straight out of Stephanie Meyer, because, before that book, if you had asked anyone if they would have thought that sparkly vampires would be a good idea, I don't think you would have found a single person that would have said "yes."

I could go on and on with these examples and go one to debate the success or lack there of when artists strayed from what the story that was coming from them into other areas. For instance, the thing most criticized about Return of the Jedi is the ewoks, a thing which Lucas did not envision but fell back on because he didn't feel like he could realize his vision of an epic battle of wookies against the Empire. There's Kevin Smith and his decline in success as he tried to move toward making movies he thought people wanted rather than making the movies he wanted to make. And more and more and more.

The thing is, though, when you try to make what you think people want, everyone is disappointed, because you can't meet the expectations of everyone and, then, you haven't even made something you're happy with, so no one is happy. Make the thing that only you can make -- the book, the movie, the painting -- and don't worry about the rest. Don't deprive the world of that thing that only you can bring to it.

I'll leave you with this:

[This post has been brought to you by the Insecure Writer's Support Group.]

Monday, March 4, 2013

I'd Rather Be Writing

If you've been following along, you'll know that I finished the actual writing of Shadow Spinner back during January. ["Part Sixteen: The Dark Tree" is still available as a FREE! download today!] That means that since then what I've been doing is editing. Have I mentioned before how much I hate editing? I'm pretty sure I have, but it may have been awhile.

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't hate editing in general so much. For instance, lately, I've been doing editing for Rusty, which is good. For one thing, I get to see his work before everyone else, but, also, I get to help him get it out to everyone else, because he has some stories that people need to read. I've also been editing various works of my creative writing students, which is not quite so likable as editing for Rusty, but that's frequently because I'll get to the end of something to find it not finished. Which is not to say that it wasn't turned in as finished, but it's quite apparent that the student, after writing 1000 words (which is a lot for many of them), just decided to be finished rather than actually finishing the story, and, then, I have to go take it back to the student and say, "Hey, you need to add an ending to your story." This can often result in me never seeing that particular story again as the student has lost interest in it and moved on to something else (which is less a middle school problem and more a pre-published writer problem), but it certainly means that I will have to edit the same story a second time when I get it back (sometimes still not finished, so repeat), which is a waste of time. [Remember, these are middle school kids. The only issue here is that we're getting close to the end of the school year, and I'm trying to get their completed stories in so that I can get them ready for the second Charter Shorts collection.]

However, when it comes to my own work, I hate editing. Once I've finished writing it, I just want to be finished writing it. If you get what I mean. I'm not one of those speed writers that can whip out a 40,000 word novel every two months and, then, spend the next four months revising, rewriting, editing. I hate all of that stuff, so I spend a long time with my work when I'm doing it the first time. It does, at least, cut out the revising and rewriting. It doesn't matter how careful I am, though, I can't make the editing part disappear. Spell check is great, and I'm able to catch an awful lot doing my initial draft, but it doesn't catch things like left out words (my bane!), homophones, or things with an "s" tagged onto the end for no apparent reason (Seriously, I have no idea where they come from or how they get there. Why does my brain want to make so many things into plurals? If you know, please tell me).

What it all really comes down to is that I would rather be writing. And, now, after over a month away from any serious work on any project, I'm starting to feel it. I get... all antsy. Kind of irritable. When I don't feel like I'm getting enough writing time in, I get... well, my wife says I get cranky. I don't think I've been cranky yet, probably because I am having time to work even if it is editing, but I'm starting to feel that way on the inside. It's like... I don't know... It's like being dissatisfied with everything all of the time. I mean, geez, Brother's Keeper is calling to me! Yelling at me, actually. "Finish me! Finish me!" And, to make matters worse, my side project, The Destiny Murders, is also poking at me and saying things like, "Finish him!" It's kind of a Mortal Kombat kind of thing. I say that because it reminds me of how my kids are when one of them is waiting for another of them to get off the computer.

"You've been on for an hour; it's my turn!"
"Just give me a moment!"
"How long is that gonna take?"
"Just a moment!"
"But it's my turn!"
"Just let me finish this!"

That can go one for 20 minutes, sometimes. And that's what the inside of my head feels like right now. Yeah, it's not really a lot of fun.

Of course, you can add to that the mounting pressure of A-to-Z which I had intended to be finished with by now (the writing of the posts) but which I haven't even started researching yet.

Thinking about it, I think the inside of my head feels like the inside of a bag with a couple or few cats in it.

I often see where people are talking about how they've taken a break from writing for a while and how good it was, but, really, I just can't take it. Seriously. Last summer when we were off on vacation (the first vacation in more years than it's worth adding up), my favorite part of it was sitting out on the deck in the mornings with my mocha and writing. And, when we went to Disneyland, I wrote a whole short story (which will be available as soon as I have a cover for it (unless I feel compelled to do another editing pass ("don't do it!" (that was one of those other projects objecting)))). All of that to say, I don't want a break. I'm no good with those. They make me all itchy on the inside.

Basically, I'd rather be writing.