Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How To Win at Magic: Part 1: The Harry Potter Effect

Back in 1993 a game came out that sort of changed everything about gaming. That game was called Magic.
There were really only two types of gaming back around 1990: RPG (role-playing (like D&D (get your minds out of the gutter))) and tabletopping (like Warhammer). That had been the status quo for a decade or so at that point. [Being a "gamer" meant something completely different back in 1990 than it does today (a good example of how terms change meaning), because video games had not yet had the explosion that MMOs such as Everquest and WoW would bring them.] To make this clear, prior to the release of Magic, my gamer buddies and I met several times a week to play many different games.

There was a night for D&D. There was another night for some other kind of role playing game which varied based on who was GMing and whatever game they wanted to be running. Other nights would be for Warhammer Fantasy Battle, the tabletop game we played. At least two nights of that a week in various formats. Sometimes, there were even board games like Risk and, every once in a while, poker. So, yeah, I was a pretty serious "gamer."

Mostly, the guys I gamed with had actual, real social skills. Many of the guys on the fringe, the guys we didn't play with on a regular basis, did not have social skills. As an example, on of those guys was called "Boogie" and that name had nothing to do with dancing. This was not a name that he was called behind his back. It was what he was known as, how he referred to himself, and he was in full knowledge of where the nickname came from, and he was fine with that. I only tell you that to confirm that some of those stereotypical views of "gamers" had a strong basis in reality.

Like I said, though, the guys I gamed with were mostly not like that, although they had all gone to the same high school as me, which meant that there was some amount of nerd in each of them just for the sake of the fact that you had to be smart to get into the school.

Mostly, we met at a particular friend's house, because, of all of us, he was the only one that was married and had a house. And a kid. This was probably the reason that only the socially adept were in our group, because, below a certain aptitude at communication and social graces, my friend's wife would not allow the person over to the house. Boogie was one of those people. He was allowed over one time to participate in a tabletop event, and my friend's wife very firmly let it be known after he had left that Boogie was not to come over again. We had another guy in the group that was only barely able to be there. The wife was always on the verge of kicking him out, because he had no control over his mouth.

There were some nights when we'd meet at the comic shop when those that were more like Boogie were allowed to be involved in whatever it was we were doing.

All of that is kind of beside the point, though. Mostly, it's just to show you how things were. We gamed. We played a lot of different games. We tried out new games. There were all kinds of things going on that we did, and we had different nights for the different things, so you could kind of pick and choose what nights you wanted to be involved. It was a lot of fun. Yes, I do miss those days.

Then came the fall of '93. One of the guys in our group took a trip out here to CA and brought Magic back with him because it hadn't yet made it to Louisiana. It changed everything. We were all, and I do mean all of us, fascinated by the game, and we all undertook it to get cards and put in a big group order through the mail to a CA retailer to get some. Seriously, it was well into '94 before the cards became available enough for any of the local stores to be able to stock the cards. Magic had the same effect on out little gaming world as Harry Potter had on the book world.

After Magic, everything was Magic. That's all we did. Often, we got together four or five nights a week to play. Once the local retailers were finally able to start stocking the cards (summer of '94 with the release of the Legends expansion), tournaments started happening, and everything became focused on that. Often, our evenings of playing were really only to refine our decks for the weekly tournament. [I was the top ranked player in north LA through '94 while we were tracking player stats. After that, Wizards of the Coast came up with their own ranking system, and we quit tracking it. It was a lot of hassle, and we had a lot of players in and out of the store by that point. (We were the biggest tournament location in north LA, so people would come from hours away to play every week.)] It was more than two years before we started filtering back into doing things that weren't Magic.

Harry Potter had pretty much the same impact on books and, well, kind of, everything. Harry Potter changed the landscape of popular culture and reading and movies and... like I said, everything. It was a, ready for it?, game changer.

The interesting thing to me about both of these phenomena is that neither creator created with the intention of "taking over the world." They made an excellent product, and it, the taking over the world, just happened. In fact, Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic, wasn't even trying to make/sell Magic. He had this other game, RoboRally, that he was trying to sell to WotC, but the guy at WotC told him what they really wanted was something portable. Garfield decided on a card game.

So... the first way to win at Magic: have a good idea and make it into the best product you can.

Here are some of my favorite cards from the Beta edition of Magic:
It's a great card, but it also went well with my whole elf thing from Warhammer (in which I played wood elves). No, I'm not going to explain how those things go together.
Not incredibly powerful but nice art and, again, elf.
The first Mox I ever pulled from a pack. The pack of cards cost $2.49; the Mox Emerald is currently worth over $500.00. I own this.
The most expensive card in Magic at up to $2000.00. Yes, I own this, too.
One of the best pieces of art from the initial series of cards.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"There's a poop on my floor."

Before I start into today's post, Briane Pagel has been working on his short story for the Great Chocolate Contest. He is, of course, serializing it. I'm not sure why exactly I'm saying "of course" other than that, coming from Briane, it feels like an "of course." At any rate, you can read the story up to its current part
here (part 1)
here (part 2)
here (part 3) and
here (part 4).
This is a good example of why I wanted to do this contest. Briane has taken this in such a different direction than I ever would have thought, and that is an "of course." Still, it's like nothing I would have imagined, and I can't wait to see where he's going with it. My favorite thing is Seal Team i. That's just pure genius. [Just in case you don't have the math background to understand why: "i" is the imaginary number used in all sorts of advanced mathematics. Since this is all based on the "Imagination Room," this is an awesome concept.] Also, the story guest stars Rusty, which is just awesome in and of itself. You should go read!

Today's post:

When you have an animal living in your house, you can just expect the occasional... accident. Even from potty trained animals, it's gonna happen at some point or another in all likelihood. Now, don't get me wrong, the dog is pretty good. She never pees in the house, and she only ever poops in the house if her stomach is upset, and she can't get outside. Like in the middle of the night. And I'm not gonna expand on what "upset" means. Let's just say that the last time we had an issue with her was at Christmas when I let her have a bunch of ham scraps, and by ham scraps I mean mostly ham fat. I will never do that again, because her stomach was upset for about two days after that, and, well, no one wants to clean that up.


This last weekend, my daughter had a friend over to spend the night. The dog
slept in the boys' room. Not that that's not where she normally sleeps, but she did that night because of the friend. The kids sleep with their doors closed at night, so, see, the dog slept in the boys' room means that that is where the dog was the whole night.

The cat was in my room. That's where the cat has decided he needs to sleep of late. At the end of my bed on either my feet or my wife's. Mostly, this is fine. Except that my daughter is more than a little upset that he, the cat,
I think he's contemplating painting his claws.
has decided not to sleep with her anymore. But, then, she's kind of dangerous when she sleeps, so I can understand why the cat might want to be somewhere else.

Basically, that night there had only been two living beings in my daughter's room: my daughter and her friend.

The next morning, as I was semi-dozing on the couch with the dog (because I'd had to get up at 6:00am to let the cat out), my daughter came and poked my in the arm and said in a half-dazed voice (because she wasn't completely awake yet), "Dad, there's a poop on my floor." I'm sorry, but pre-7:00am on a Sunday morning is too early to deal with that sh... stuff. Besides, my kids know that they are responsible for any poop left for them as gifts in their rooms. I took care of anything not in their rooms, but they get to deal with the stuff in their rooms. Let's call  it the price you have to pay for having a pet and for having that pet sleep in bed with you. However, it didn't make any sense that there could be poop in her room, because there had been no animals in her room.

In an effort to find out more information, I said, "What kind of poop?" This is a perfectly logical question and has specifically to do with what kind of clean up job the poop will entail. Basically, "is it hard or soft?" which is the framework within which I expected her answer to fall. Instead, she held up her hands indicating the size of the poop. What she was showing me with her hands was... well, much bigger than, say, a twinkie. My dog, my little dog, has never had a poop that got anywhere near the size of a twinkie, and, if she did, I'd immediately take her to the hospital, because something would be terribly wrong with her. I responded with the only thing that made any kind of sense in my brain (poop is too big for the dog, and the dog wasn't in her room anyway), "Maybe <her friend> pooped in your room?"

No, it probably wasn't the nicest thing to say, but, when you rule out the impossible, whatever is left, however improbable, must be true. Right? Besides, I've known kids to do much, much worse.

The comment did not amuse my daughter. At all. She sort of stomped away down the hall. I didn't get up. Poop on her floor is her job to clean up. And I was still busy trying to figure out how there could be poop on her floor anyway. And I still wasn't completely conscious. The dog was warm and cozifying, and I just didn't feel like moving. Yes, her friend was asleep through all of this.

I think my daughter really was, too.

A couple of minutes later, she came back, stopped next to me and said very flatly, "It was a sock," and walked away.

The laughter, my laughter, woke me up.

And that is the kind of thing that makes me, as a writer, glad I have kids, because there is no way I would ever have thought of anything like that on my own. Seriously, Alex, all writers need kids just as a source of material. They have a genius that adults can never find, and they don't even mean to do it. Don't be surprised if something like this shows up in something I someday write.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Vampire Karate Witches

As those of you that have been around for a while will know, I frequently mention the difference between what is good and what we like and that they are not necessarily the same thing. For you newer people, you can go back and check this post in particular to get the background). People like to think they are, because people want to think "I like this, so it is good" or "I don't like this, so this is bad." Whether we like something or not has no bearing on its quality of "goodness."

I have a direct experience of this to relate.

Over this past weekend, I went to see Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Let me just start by saying that we didn't go see this so much because we wanted to see it but because we were willing to see it. I was going with a friend and there weren't that many options of movies that he hadn't already seen, so that left us with less than a handful of movies to pick from (I think the actual number was three), and this was the one that rose to the top of things that we were both most willing to go see. For me, it was mostly about Jeremy Renner.

To say that this movie was bad is an understatement. The dialogue was horrible. The story was full of more holes than Swiss cheese. What's really big? Hmm... let's say a planet. But not a small planet like Pluto that gets downgraded from being a planet; let's say something around the size of Uranus, yeah, that one works for this. The plot holes were so big, Uranus could orbit right through them. The movie was absurd. Ludicrous, even. Actually, the movie was at Ludicrous Speed.

And I loved it for that. Okay, well, maybe I didn't love it, but I love it in concept. I enjoyed most of the heck out of it despite how bad it was.

I can imagine how the concept for this movie came about:

#1: Let's make a vampire movie!
#2: Vampires are too done, right now. People are over vampires.
#1: Well, let's make it vampire hunters, then!
#2: No, that's still vampires.
#3: What about witches? No one is doing witches.
#2: Ooh! We could do Hansel & Gretel! They fight a witch.
#1: Witches are lame. They're old hags that can't fight. You'd just have witch hunters walking in and killing all the witches.
#3: We can give them powers.
#1: Like vampires! They can be super strong and super fast.
#2: And know karate!

And, so, we get these huge fight scenes of pasty faced witches that look like vampires and act like vampires, except for the biting, where everyone smashes through trees and boulders and flings spells and never get hurt. It was kind of awesome. I mean, it was completely unashamed of itself in how bad it was. It was like watching a four-year-old rolling around in a mud puddle being all self-satisfied. In fact, it was exactly like that.

I mean, it was like watching kids play an imagination game where they keep making stuff up as they go.

It starts out in a pretty normal Hansel & Gretel setting with some peasant abandoning his children in the woods. The look of the movie is as if it's set in the 1600's. All hovels and burning at the stake and all of that. But, then, as they become witch hunters, there's a scene of newspaper clippings of all the witches they kill as hunters. Newspapers which, of course, didn't exist. All of the "photos" are sketches. The movie is full of anachronistic things of that nature. The movie just doesn't care if it fits the time period or not, which is part of what made it fun. It's also part of what makes it ludicrous.

Kid #1: We're being attacked by a witch!
Kid #2: I pull out my crossbow and shoot at her!
Kid #1: She's too fast for your lame crossbow.
Kid #2: It's a double-barrel machine crossbow!
Kid #1: Fine! I pull out my gun!
Kid #2: You can't have a gun! They didn't have guns!
Kid #1: They didn't have machine crossbows either.
Kid #2: You can have a gun.
Kid #1: It's big shotgun, and I shoot at the witch!

The whole movie is like that, and, really, it does just wallow in it, and it made it a lot of fun.

Unlike, say, Van Helsing (with Hugh Jackman) which is much  the same but took itself much too seriously to be enjoyable. In fact, Van Helsing is one of the worst movies I've ever seen, which is unfortunate, because I thought Jackman did a more then fine job with what he was given. Hansel & Gretel never takes itself seriously, and, so, I never had a problem with it. Despite all of the horrible inconsistencies. Even as I sit here writing this, I'm thinking about some of the stupid things in the movie, like the witches being, basically, a separate race and the fact that they don't actually look human at all, so why is there ever a witch problem to begin with? But I kind of also don't care even though my brain is yelling at me that I should care.

Seriously, it's up there yelling, "That's so stupid!" And I'm shrugging and responding, "But it was fun."

Which is not to say that I'd actually recommend the movie to anyone, because I wouldn't. Unless you like mindless action, because that's what this is. Mindless action with a vague setting. Total cotton candy. If you like that kind of thing, this movie is just for you.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Deliberate vs...: A Post About Thinking (Part Two)

If you didn't read part one of this post series, you should really go back and do that. I don't actually say that very often, even when I do a series of posts. Generally, I try to keep the individual posts episodic in nature while being related in overall subject matter. However, this post is directly linked to the last post in this series, and, although you can read it all on its own, it won't have the same relevance. As such, I'm not repeating my disclaimer about how this is not meant to offend anyone.

Also, the planned part two of this series has been pushed to part three, because I realized there's something else that needs to be talked about in relation to part one that is more closely related than where I was going next. So those three types of thinking will be in part three.

I find this particular piece of information fascinating. I find it fascinating, because I completely do not understand how anyone can be this way, and, yet, most people are precisely this way. And that, actually, scares me, because, as I said, I just can't comprehend this.

80% of people (and I have to wonder how strongly this 80% correlates to the last 80% I was talking about) can not (pay attention to that: they CAN NOT) anticipate negative outcomes. Wait a minute, it gets better. Not only can they not anticipate them, when told what the negative outcomes might be along with the positive ones, they can not retain the negative ones. Their brains focus only on the positive outcomes and completely forget that anything bad could happen.

There is that "everything will work out for the best" thing that people say, and, it turns out, it is not just something people say, it is something people really believe. Not in a general sense, either; they believe it in a personal sense. 80% of people believe that everything's going to be okay but, not just "okay," they believe things will be awesome. For them. Personally. Sometime in the future. And, I suppose, that's how people keep from existing in terminal depression even when things are horrible and, worse, completely hopeless.

This whole area of study began over gambling addiction. Some people wondered why gambling addiction happened so as to be able to prevent it from happening, and what they found is that people suffering from gambling addiction absolutely cannot foresee the possibility that they might lose. Given scenarios of lower and lower odds of winning, they would keep going, and they would keep going because they believed that they would actually win. Some of them would keep going even if they were told "there is 0% chance that you will win this. You will not win this," because they couldn't believe that there was no chance that they would win.

That makes sense with gambling addicts, right? Well, when the financial collapse happened, that study was broadened because some people wondered if the cause or, at least, part of the cause was, basically, gambling addiction. Were those people that were in charge of all of that money behaving in the same way that gambling addicts behave? Well, yes. Yes, they were. But what they found out is that that behavior is endemic to all people. 80% of them, anyway. Because they literally can not believe that they will lose.

Even more interesting, they've found this same "risk taking" behavior in animals at around the same percentages. Evolutionary biologists are all over this. At the moment, the simple explanation is that the cautious members of the group insure the survival of the group against the recklessness of the rest of the group. The risk taking behavior is necessary, though, because, otherwise, the group would settle into its niche and cease to grow and change and, then, if there was any kind of catastrophe, the group would be wiped out.

From this perspective, it makes sense that so many people want only "decisiveness." Heedlessness is part of their brain chemistry. So to speak. However, that doesn't change the fact that most of those decisions are the wrong ones. That is why there are so many of those people, though. The cautious members hang back and watch the 80% stumble blindly ahead, most of them getting killed. The cautious ones then follow the ones that fortuitously chose the correct path. It's an interesting dynamic.

Now, I would imagine that most writers, the good ones, at any rate, fall into the 20% group that can envision bad outcomes to situations. You have to be able to think of the bad things to make the story interesting. Otherwise, you're just a happy happy joy joy writer. And I'm sure there are some of those out there, but I bet they are the minority among writers. I'd like to see a study on that, so, "science," get out there and do that! Beyond just thinking of the hypothetical bad outcome, the writer has to be able to put him/herself in the mental space of the character and experience that nastiness. I suppose, in the end, that's why there aren't more people that write. They can't think of the bad stuff.

I suppose, also, that that's why the 80% are attracted to stories where bad stuff happens and why they are surprised by the bad things that happen -- they just cannot anticipate those things, so they get the joy of being surprised every single time because, as I said, not only can they not anticipate those things, they can't remember them from one situation to the next.
That's good for us writerly people, I would say.

Next time we'll get back to those three thinking styles.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

I Like My Serial Hot

Actually, that's not precisely true. I like cold cereal, too. I don't actually eat any kind of cereal very often, but, if you're talking hot cereal, I make awesome grits. No, seriously. Yeah, I've dealt with you grit haters before. I've converted every single one of them that I've had the opportunity to make grits for. Starting with my wife way back when, because she tried to refuse to try them the first time I made them. Hmm... now, I want grits.

But, yeah, we're not really here to talk about cereal, are we? So on the subject of serials...

I learned in the last week that John Scalzi, whom I have never read but who seems to be kind of a big deal, has just started releasing his new sci-fi novel serially. Part two of his serialization just came out, and, now, I'm trying to decide if I want to read it. Not part two, the whole thing. Silly people. Anyway, looking over the reviews of part two, it looks like a lot of people are upset over the length while still loving the story. But, then, Scalzi isn't giving any of his installments away for free.

On the other side, the reviews for part one of his series were exceedingly positive and frequently very supportive of the serialization.

It shows why this serialization thing is an experiment.

And speaking of serializations...

As I mentioned, I finished Shadow Spinner last week, but that doesn't mean the serialization has ended. For one thing, I finished writing it, but I haven't even started editing yet. I did get some proof copies ordered, though, and, remember, that's one of the prizes in the Great Chocolate Contest (so you want to click that link and get right on that)! For another thing, I don't, yet, have a cover for the book, because, yes, the cover needs to be different from the serial covers in that it needs to be representative of the entire book, not just a chapter. That being said, the incredibly awesome Rusty is working with me on cover ideas. Okay, I asked him to come up with ideas. See, that's how much I trust his awesome artistic abilities! And, well, there are other things here and there that still need to be tweaked, so no actual release date, yet.

To preserve the serialization experience, I've decided to do some different things with the release of Spinner. Once I have the everything finished and it's ready to go, I'm only, initially, going to release it as a physical book. That will be for those people that really want to read the whole thing right now. Instead of having to wait two weeks for each e-part, you'll be able to order the whole thing as a physical copy. Once the serialization is over, the whole book will be available for the Kindle and (probably) the Nook. That's the plan, anyway. We'll see how it works out. At some point, I'll have my full report ready as to how I think this serialization thing worked out.

And, then, going back to the whole listopia thing, I have The House on the Corner and "Christmas on the Corner" on the Magical children's books list. [Actually, I have "The Tunnel" on there, too, but, even though there is magic in Shadow Spinner, it strikes me as less magical as a book. Yeah, don't ask me to explain that.] Anyway, it would be incredibly awesome if you guys could see your way over there to vote on it. If you've read it, that is. I can't bring myself to ask you to just go vote on it just for the sake of voting. So, yeah, there it is.

Man, I hate this marketing stuff!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Bone, Shadow Spinner, and Chocolate

I've mentioned before that I used to collect comic books. I've also mentioned that I've worked in comic book retail. One of the things I used to do was place all the comic orders. On one side, that's a pretty easy thing to do: You look at how many copies of, say, X-Men are selling each month, and you order that many copies. On the other side, it's incredibly complicated, because you have to be aware of what's going on in the series or if there is anything special planned so that you can anticipate any spikes in sales. You also have to know how well your back issues on the series are doing so that you can know if you need to order any extra copies to have available as back issues. There is a constant balancing of meeting the current demands of the store vs investing in the future value or hotness of an issue or series. Most comic book stores go out of business due to do over investment. It just doesn't matter if an issue goes from $3 to $30 in two months and you have 100 extra copies in the back if you don't have 100 people lined up to buy those copies. Most comic shops just can't take those kinds of risks.

Unfortunately, I've worked for people that didn't understand that.

At any rate, I was pretty good at picking good investments in comics, especially when it came to new titles, which was the hardest thing to do. That's where a lot of comic shop owners really messed up, too. A lot of them, in order not to miss some new series that makes it big, will order every single #1 issue every single month. Several of them. Just in case. Most of them, though, are just expensive toilet paper, and you spend way more covering your butt than you do off any individual series that makes it big. But, as I said, I was good at picking those, and I never picked a new #1 that wasn't worth looking at. Meaning, I never singled one out and said, "This is one you ought to get. It's going to be good," and ended up wrong.

Which is not to say I didn't have some times when I didn't take my own advice. My biggest regret is not buying this:
Bone came out at one of those points when I was pretty maxed out on my comic collecting. I'd seen some of Jeff Smith's work previously, though, from when he was doing comic strips in a college paper, and I knew he was good. So it was decision time. To add a new series into what I was collecting, I would have to drop one out, and I couldn't decide on which one to drop, so, reluctantly, I passed on Bone. However, I highly suggested that the owner of the store invest in Bone. The response was, "Why aren't you buying it, then?"

I should have bought it. That issue, 20 years later, is worth $300. The print run was so small that six months later, it was worth $50, and, a year later, $100. I should have bought it, and the store owner should have listened to me. In fact, he told me at the six month point on Bone that he highly regretted not listening to me. But those things happen. By the way, Bone is one of the best comic series I've ever read, and it was, wait for it, self-published. Yessiree, Bob, it was self-published.

That's why some store owners won't pass up #1's, because, unless it's a new X-Men or Batman or something, the print runs tend to be low, so, if it gets really popular, the #1 becomes relatively more valuable than the rest of the series.

And what does that have to do with anything? Well, for one thing, I just like to talk about comic books sometimes. And Bone was self-published. Jeff Smith went over to Image for a while, but he didn't like how that worked out and ended up going back to self-publishing.

However, what that really has to do with is that I just finished Shadow Spinner! Yep! Tiberius is now the star of his very own 50,000 word book! Hopefully, I will have figured out CreateSpace's new system and have it all formatted and stuff tomorrow so that I can order some proof copies. What's the big deal about proof copies? Well, like a comic book #1, they have a really low print run. So to speak. Well, considering that they limit you to only five proofs, it is really low.

And you still might be thinking, "What does this have to do with anything?"

Remember the Great Chocolate Contest and how I mentioned that there might be an extra special prize? Well, there will be an extra special prize. I will also be giving away one signed proof copy of Shadow Spinner as part of the prizes for the winner of the Great Chocolate Contest. Add that to the best chocolate in the entire world (that I've tasted), and you have, like, a no lose situation. I mean, if you win, you can't lose! Wait a minute... Never mind...

Both prizes might not go to the same person, or, then again, they might. It's all going to depend upon the entries and how good they are. However, Briane Pagel, because of his dislike of physical books, is automatically disqualified from winning  the proof copy, so that's good for all of you, because he's been letting it be known that no one else needs to enter since he's intending to win. (That sounds like a challenge to me!) Even if he does win, he can only win the chocolate, which will mean that someone else would get to win the book. Of course, there are all sorts of other things that could end up happening with that, too.

Remember, all short stories are due to me (email would be great) by February 6, the two year anniversary of The House on the Corner (and the 43rd anniversary of me). If you want to post them on your blog, do that, too! Let me know, and I'll link people over to it.

I'll have more info on Shadow Spinner and its current serialization coming up soon.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Let's go for a walk... Part 8: The Ruins

It's been a while since we've been on a walk with my dog, so I figure it's about time to do that again, especially since I got sidetracked, last year, by A to Z and never told y'all about the ruins. Actually, I did mention them back in the post about Goblin Town, but I didn't go into too much detail.
This area was first settled by the Russians. They set up here in the early 1800's in order to hunt these guys:
The sea otter. The sea otter has the thickest fur of all other animals, so their pelts are very valuable. You know, more valuable than gold and all of that. [As a total aside, they were hunted to near extinction by 1900, at which point less than 1% of their estimated original population was left, as few as 1000 of them still in the wild (from a population that may have exceeded 300,000 in 1800). No, it wasn't just the Russians that did this, but they were (mostly) responsible for it in this area.]

What the Russians found here, though, was more than just sea otters. They found an area infested with goblins, goblins that also hunted otters but not to the extreme that humans did.

Initially, the Russians set up Fort Ross.
The fort was to defend against goblin attacks. They even joined forces with various Native American tribes to fight against the goblins that were being agitated by the swelling numbers of settlers.

Eventually, the Russian-American Company collaborated to build a stone fortress just down the creek from where I live. It must have been an impressive structure based upon the ruins that are still there. You can see the outline of how big the structure was in the remains of the foundation.
The goblins didn't take kindly to the building of a castle in the midst of their lands, so they mustered their various tribes for a large assault against the humans with the intention of driving them out of their lands. It was a terrible battle. Vicious. Bloody. The creek ran red with the blood of the fallen for weeks.

The humans lost. And the goblins tore down the castle, leaving no stone upon another.

But it came at a tremendous cost to the goblins. The survivors were forced to join together into one tribe just to survive. Retreating to their tunnels,

they have remained hidden through the years as the humans came back and completely overran lands that were once theirs.

However, of late, they have once again been growing bold and can often be seen crawling out of their tunnels at dusk to scavenge for food and other bits and pieces of things they find useful.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Deliberate vs...: A Post About Thinking (Part One)

Before I start, I just want to say that I'm not talking about anyone in particular in this post (and the next). In all actuality, I have no way of knowing what sort of thought processes any of you have. I'm speaking in generalities based on studies of people and how people tend to be. If you feel personally offended by anything I say here, I just want to point out that it's not me pointing that finger at you; it's you. I can't do anything about that.

This post is not about gun control or about guns at all other than that it is a response to a comment from my Freedom Line post, so I don't want any comments about guns or civil rights or anything else even if I mention that conversation, which I will. If you want to comment about guns, go read that other post and the comment thread there and make your comment on that thread. This is not a conversation about guns.

However, during that conversation, I was told that I was having a knee-jerk reaction to the recent child massacre and that if I would only apply reason to what I was saying I would see that I am wrong. If only I could approach the subject intellectually rather than emotionally, I would find a different answer to that question. The problem, then, is that my post was not based off of any kind of emotional reaction at all. Beside the fact that the views expressed in that post were not new to me, I waited weeks to make that post so that I would have time to get my thoughts in order (rather than the next day (or the same day) as many other bloggers did), just as it has taken me two weeks since that comment was made for me to get my thoughts in order to make this post. I just don't make rash comments.

Let me add here that this is something about me that often creates... issues... between my wife and me. She will ask me something and want a response right then, but I just don't have one for her. I have to think about almost everything before I respond to it. This goes for movies and books and, well, everything. On top of that, I can almost always separate my emotional response from my actual views about an individual topic (you can see my recent review of An Unexpected Journey for an example of that). Most people respond like this:
"I don't like this thing; therefore, it is bad," or
"I do like this thing; therefore it is good."
I talked about that stuff here and also in some other post that I'm not going to keep looking for right now. At any rate, those things are not necessarily the truth. 2/3 of my kids don't like broccoli, but I'm, like, 99.7% sure that broccoli is not just good but very good. Whether they like it or not.

Having said all of that, there are two basic ways that people "think" about things, two ways that people arrive at conclusions and decisions: one is what we would call decisive, but that is more because of an incorrect perception that decisive also means "quick," which it does not; and deliberate, which involves more time and actual thought before coming to a conclusion. In all actuality, what we call "decisive decision making" involves almost no thought at all. It's all emotion and "gut" instinct.

Guess which one is the most prevalent. And guess which one we, as a culture, hail as superior. Yeah, "decisiveness". Culturally, we are ALL over that shhhtuff, like a fly on it. How prevalent? Oh, probably something like 80% of people arrive at what they believe about a subject based on this model of "thinking." Or maybe I should say non-thinking. 80% (It might be as low as 70%, but many studies indicate a number higher than 80%, possibly as high as 90%)! That means that most people just respond to things without ever bothering to actually think about the outcome.

So, yeah, most people that responded to the child massacre in Newtown by yelling "No more guns!" did so as an emotional response to the situation. However, most people that have responded to that by yelling "You can't have our guns!" have responded in the same way. Neither side has invested much thought into the issue. From that standpoint, both sides are wrong. [I am personally horrified (emotional response) that gun stores are now complaining that they can't keep supplied, right now, due to the rush of people to buy more guns and that the specific weapon used to murder those children is the item in the greatest demand. Not that I don't understand the compulsion, but you can't tell me those people are acting rationally.]

I should also add that virtually all of the decisions that lead to the housing bubble and the economic collapse of 2008 were made by these 80% of people [this is not my opinion; there have been many studies on the causes of the economic collapse and every single one of them points to bad, "positive" decisions]. In many cases, the people actually evaluating what was going on and saying things like "this is a bad idea" or "we need to slow down," the people waving the red flags back in '06 and '07, were fired outright. Well, let go. They were told they were no longer needed and to take their "negativity" elsewhere. Why? Because we love people that will quickly arrive at a decision and act on it right then at that very moment. Don't stop to think! Just do it! We call those people decisive and hold them up as the epitome of how to be. Don't show doubt. Don't evaluate. Just react.

The problem with that is that in almost every study done, these people are shown to be wrong something like 70-80% of the time. Because they don't bother to stop and engage their brains, they come to the wrong decision. Do the wrong thing. And they take everyone else with them. And, yet, we continue to hail these people as heroes and follow them blindly in almost all circumstances. It's like... it's like deciding that the person you're going to cheat off of in math class is the kid scoring 30% on his tests because he's failing in such a self-assured manner.

This phenomenon baffles me to no end, and I'm sure it's what leads to mobs. No one wants to listen to the guy saying, "Hey, this is a bad idea!" And no one, and I mean no one, wants to be that guy. It sucks to be that guy. I know, because I grew up being that guy. You end up being the guy standing alone while everyone else goes off to do something stupid. Sure, later, they come back and say, "Man, you were right. We shouldn't have done that." But it doesn't keep you from being alone.

Maybe it all has to do with patience; I don't know. Most people don't have any, and that leads to bad and wrong decisions. Maybe it's just that most people aren't that smart. That sounds bad, because, by definition, most people are of average intelligence. I'm not one of those people (which is not me being arrogant, it's me stating an objective truth based upon actual data (which I will not go into right now)). Unfortunately, it sometimes (sometimes more than sometimes) causes me to look down on people of average intelligence as being less intelligent than they actually are, if that makes any sense. I do try to control that, though, and I'm much better than I was when I was in high school.

At any rate, I'm not one for jumping to conclusions, because I just don't jump. I have to gather evidence and look at all sides of a situation, and, sometimes, I'm never ready to come down conclusively on an issue. This is usually because I don't feel that the evidence from any side is conclusive enough. In that respect, I'm not the best at giving a definitive answer about things, contrary to how it might be seen on here at times, because I want room to accept new information and modify what I think about a subject based on new information. This, also, is contrary to how most people are. Post-high school (and certainly post-college), most people (much greater than 80%) will completely dismiss new information about a subject they have previously arrived at a conclusion about. It makes me sad, because it's the thing that has caused the huge political and religious divide in our country. It's also why, generation after generation, you typically have the young pitted against the old, because the old just will not accept that there could be anything new to add to what they know.

All of that to say that if more people would just slow down and actually look at the evidence, both sides of the evidence, or, maybe, all sides of the evidence, we might not have such a huge gap in our world. I don't see that happening any time soon, though.
Next time, the three types of decision making processes.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Listopia and "The Clearing"

Goodreads is one of those great resources for writers (and readers) that I have yet to take full advantage of. Mostly, it's a lack of time to really investigate the website. I keep telling myself, "After the next book, after the next book," but I keep adding things to my list of things to do, so it's getting more and more unlikely that I will ever get around to figuring out how to fully put that site to use. I do know two things at the moment:
1. You can add me on Goodreads, which you should do if you're on there. If you're not on there and you read, you should be on there.
2. They have this thing called Listopia that allows you to put books on lists and/or vote for books on lists. This is really good for two things:

  • you're a reader and you're looking for something to read
  • you're a writer and you want your books to get more visibility
The problem, then, is that there are a LOT of lists. I mean, there are really a lot of lists. I've been told by many people that I need to get my books on some lists, but it's one of those tasks where I go over there and look and blink a lot while being overwhelmed by the sheer bulk of the number of lists involved and I can't figure out which list to start with.

However, I did stumble across one list that seems pretty perfect for Shadow Spinner: the list for Best Serial Novel.
So here's the favor I have to ask: If you have read any of Shadow Spinner (you can see all of the parts listed to the right), please go over and vote for it. It would also really help if you could leave a rating for the parts you've read. All of these little things can be a great help to us poor writerly folk.

Oh, and if you really want to help me out, if you see a list that would be good for either Spinner or The House on the Corner (or "Christmas on the Corner"), please feel free to add them to the list and give them a vote. If you let me know that you've added anything to a list, I'll make sure to mention it.

And, now, for the big NEWS of the day, today is the FREE! release of "Part Thirteen: The Clearing"! It will be FREE! today, Monday, January 21, and tomorrow, Tuesday, January 22.

This chapter of Shadow Spinner marks a turning point for Tib, so, if you've been following along, and you should be following along since I give them away for FREE! as often as I can, you'll want to know what's happening since Michael... um, well, just in case you're not quite caught up, I'll not say what happened in part 12.

Speaking of Part Twelve: The Gash in the Floor, it is also FREE! today. Other FREE! parts today are
Part Seven: The Moth and the Shadow
Part Six: The Man with No Eyes
Part Five: The Police Car and
Part Four: The Cop
That's nearly half of the parts available for FREE! this time around.

Also, don't forget about The Great Chocolate Contest! The prize is a box of the absolute best chocolate in the entire world (that I've ever tasted). You don't want to miss out on that!
There might also be an extra special prize added to the chocolate. I should (hopefully) know about that one by the end of the week.

Now, go pick up "The Clearing" and get to reading!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Middle School Boys Are Pantsers

It's Friday night as I'm writing this, and I'm sitting here in the midst of a sleepover for my middle child who just turned 12. How do you turn this aging thing off? Seriously! I'm tired of them getting older. Once May gets here, we're going to lose our last single digit child, and that's... very upsetting.

Anyway, I'm sitting her in the midst of this... well, there's no better word for it than chaos. Maybe cacophony. Actually, I really like the word cacophony. It just has such a cool sound to it. See, it's hard to stay on track with all the noise Noise NOISE and the constant distractions.
"Even better than the real thing... child..."
"Oh, my gosh! You guys are so premature!"
And, um, a lot of video game babble that I don't understand and can't repeat although the words "Mario"  and "Zelda" are common.
And there seems to be an outbreak of wet willies.

But all of that is beside the point. If there even is a point.

Well, no, there is a point.
"You're on  the road, but you've got not destination..."
The point is that middle school boys, possibly all boys, are pantsers. Other than  the fact that I bought some pizza and that they had cake, there is no plan at all involved in any of this. At all. In fact, if there had been a plan, a plot of any kind, it wouldn't have worked, because you can't get all of them onto the same thing at the same time unless it has to do with food, and  there was no way that I was going to plan a sleepover that totally revolved around food.
"Through the storm, we reach the shore. You give it all, but I want more."

But, see, I know this about boys. They are kind of easy that way. You invite them over and make sure they have video games available, and they are totally self entertaining. Maybe a movie when it gets late. Actually, yes, a movie when it gets late otherwise they just keep playing video games until they become comatose. That's another word I like, by the way.

You want to know some other words I like? Sure you do. And, if you don't, well, that's too bad.
"Is it getting better, or do you feel the same?"
I like "adamant" and "belligerent." I like the sounds of both of those, too, and I especially like them because they sound like what they are.
"Did I disappoint you or leave a bad taste in your mouth?"
I mean, if I didn't know what adamant meant, I could almost guess it just from the sound of the word. And belligerent sounds like someone itching for a fight.
Did I mention the wet willies?

See, boys, they don't need the plots. They just do their thing. Sometimes they're doing it together, but never are all of them doing it. There's always one or two off on the laptop or some iContraption doing something completely separate from everyone else and being completely fine with it.
"But I still haven't found what I'm looking for."

"No! No pillow lights!"
"Wait! No pillow fights! Turn the light on!"

And now it's time for Mad Libs. With poop. Seriously. Every single one of them has to have the word "poop" or some variant at least once. Unfortunately, some of them are really funny:
"What big poops you have!"

But anyway...
You see how difficult it is to stay on track with all of this... this... stuff... going on?

I'm quite sure this must be what it's like to pants a book. See, the thing is, the boys, they're okay with what's going on, but no one else has a clue as to what's happening or what they're talking about.

My daughter got bored with them. She went off to practice her accordion because she didn't have anything else to do. The boys never noticed she left.

It's completely different from when my daughter has a party. Those things have to be planned. Plotted. Completely. They want things to do. Activities. A time frame. It's an entirely different experience. Okay, true, my daughter's not quite a middle schooler, yet, but I'm pretty sure this isn't gonna change. And the boys have always been like this.

What I do know is that if I were to try and introduce a few girls into this party and make them play by the boy's rules, they'd drive me crazy with how bored they'd get. And, during one of my daughter's parties, if I were to try and put some boys into it, they'd just wander off and not participate.

I don't really know what all of this really has to do with writing other than that different types of people like different kinds of things. Some people like books that don't have a distinct plot where things just sort of happen. Some people like books where only things that matter to the story happen in the story. What I do know is that the two types of people don't mix very well.

I won't be planning any co-ed parties for a while, that's for sure. Wait, what's that I said about halting that whole aging thing?

Oh! Also, don't forget the Great Chocolate Contest in which you could win the greatest chocolate in the world (that I've ever tasted)! Seriously, this stuff is as good as Russel Crowe's ego is big!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Big 30-0! and the Great Chocolate Contest!

So... something happened yesterday that I wasn't paying attention to. The problem with this is that I was paying attention to paying attention to it, because I wanted to do something special for it. BUT I thought had more drafts in my draft folder than I actually did, so I didn't realize until after the fact that I had posted my 300th post! In less than two years, which is much better than I thought I would be doing. But there it is! 300 published posts (301 with this one) and a handful of drafts of things in progress (not to mention my handwritten notes for post ideas that got packed away when we moved that I still haven't located). I'm not really sure why 300 seems to be a significant number to me, but it does. I'm think I won't do another one of these until I get to 501, and if anyone gets the reference, please let me know. The 501 is significant.
[Yes, I know that's not much to go on, but it will separate the men from the boys, metaphorically speaking.]

Stepping to the side for a moment, I mentioned recently that I had discovered the best chocolate ever. And I have! This stuff is the BEST chocolate in the world! At least, it's the best chocolate that I've ever tasted, and that's saying something. No, I don't know what it's saying, but I'm sure it is. Look, I like to taste things (be nice!)... I like to try new foods (is that better?), so, when I get the chance, chocolate is one of the things I like to sample. I've tried lots of different types of chocolates over the years, and this stuff is by far the best ever. It's all hand made right here in a store not all that far from my house. The stuff is divine.

Back when I mentioned that I'd discovered this chocolate, I also said that I would try to think of a contest for which the chocolate could be the prize, well, I've done that. Yep, in honor of 300 posts, and in honor of my birthday, which is coming up, and in honor of the birthday of the first edition of The House on the Corner,
which, quite by accident, turns two on my birthday (the one pictured is the 2nd edition, but that's the one that's available), I have a contest!

To some extent, this contest is a little not fair, but it's my contest, and I AM going to be giving away the best chocolate in the ENTIRE world, so, oh, well, you will just have to deal with it.

So here's the deal:
I have been thinking for a while that it would be fun to do a collection of short stories based on The House on the Corner and the Imagination Room. Those of you that have read the book will understand how that can work. I actually have two already: one that I wrote that is included at the end of the book called "Let Down Your Hair" and one that my son wrote called "Into the Trench" that is included in Charter Shorts. There's so much room for more stories there, though, and I just don't have time, right now, to write any, so, hey, why not get some other people to do that work for me, right? It will be kind of like Tom Sawyer convincing his friends to pay him to do his chores.

And here's how it works:
Write a short story based on a trip in the Imagination Room from The House on the Corner. Submit it to me by February 6, 2013. I'll pick the best one based almost completely on, just, which one I like the best, although I may have my kids help with the choosing if I can't decide. The author of the story I pick as "the best" will win a box of the GREATEST CHOCOLATE in the world. And, maybe, another special prize as well, but I'm not completely certain about the second one yet (but I'll let you know as soon as I am). There may even be more than one prize if there are multiple entries that I think are just awesome. It would be really nice if I had your permission to include your story in a special collection of House short stories as well. Oh, and just to be clear, I want short stories, so that would make your cutoff point 7500 words (though I'm not gonna quibble too much if it goes longer than that (although it would be nice if they were under 10,000 words)).

Yes, I do realize that you have to have read The House on the Corner to be able to enter this, so, if you haven't, you ought to get on that, don't you think? And, no, this is not really a sneaky way to get more sales or reviews or anything like that, although both would be nice. I just think, since quite a few of you (at least 3 or 4), have read it, that this will be a lot of fun. Assuming people actually submit stories. You can even post the stories on your blogs once you write them, and I'll link over to them.
One other note, because so many of my students at school have read the book, I'm gonna open the contest to my creative writing class, too, so you better bring your best, because some of those kids can really write!

Well, there you have it. I hope some of you decide to take part and that this is a fun idea for more than just me. If I'm wrong about that, please let me know. Otherwise, get to writing!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Nothing Beats a Warm Puppy

I've been talking about my cat a lot, lately. I think that's because it's really an odd thing for me to be attached to a cat. I've never owned one before (unless you count the one we had when I was around four, but we didn't have it for very long, because the neighbors thought it was fun to torture the cat in order to torture me, so we had to get rid of the cat to keep them from escalating to killing it, which, evidently, they told me they were going to do (I was four, and I don't really remember all of that; however, I do remember them tying it to their ceiling fan (on their front porch) and turning it on until the cat flew off)), and I never actually wanted to own one, so all of this with the cat is new to me.

I grew up having dogs, and I feel like I've been neglecting my dog in my blog posts of late in preference to the cat, not that the dog knows this, but it makes me feel bad. After all, nothing beats a warm puppy.
I'm not sure there is anything cuter than that, my little foxy dog. Well, except maybe this:
Speaking of warm puppies, we have the Snoopy Ice Skating Arena here where I live, and they have a cafe attached to it: the Warm Puppy Cafe. See, you can't beat a warm puppy! Here's the real proof, though:
Yeah, that's me after the dog has put me to sleep, because she does that. She's so warm and cozy, if she gets in my lap, she just puts me to sleep. It's like she secretes endorphins right into my brain, and I can't resist. It's a pretty awesome feeling. As close as I'll ever get to what it was like to nap with my kids like this when they were babies, that is until they have grand kids. And as much as I want that, I don't want it for a very long time, so the dog works pretty well in the mean time.

It's been a long time since I've done any of my "Let's Go for a Walk" (with the dog) series,
so expect another one of those sometime soon. I still haven't told y'all about the ruins.

So... I love my cat. Man, that is so weird to say. Wait, let me try that again: I love my cat. Yeah, that's weird. I worry about him, because he's out and about during the day. I don't worry about the dog like that. I don't have to, because she's right here with me all day long. Most often, she's curled up in her little bed down by my feet, and I love having her right here. If I want to get some cuddle time in, she's right here, and I can go sit on the couch with her while I try to work out what's happening next to Tib. [Speaking of Tib, the next part of Shadow Spinner, "Part Thirteen: The Clearing," should be out this next Monday, January 21, and it marks a whole new direction for Tib. If you're all the way caught up through part 12 (like you should be), you'll know that something happened at the end of that one, and nothing will be the same after.] So, as much as I love my cat, I love my dog. I want to say I love my dog more, but I think I just love my dog different. She's always here for me.

And, well, even the cat likes the dog, that's why we ended up with the cat to begin with.
(That's my younger son, who just turned 12 against my will, getting into the picture there.)

Monday, January 14, 2013

Why We Need To Go To Space

As a society, we've given up on space travel. It's not really a part of our cultural consciousness anymore. Not the way it used to be. First, there was the drive to reach the moon, and, once achieved, there was this innate belief that we had only just started. We had, for all intents and purposes, reached the "final frontier."

But, then, we abandoned it. Like, standing on the brink, we shied away. We couldn't take that leap.

Not that I think it's that simple, but, really, it kind of is. The money people looked, and wouldn't make that leap of faith that going out into space would be worth it. At least, it wouldn't be worth it to them, and screw the future, if you know what I mean. But it was that kind of thinking in the 80's (and 90's), the "what are you doing for me now?" thinking, that brought us to where we are. Which is not exactly the best place to be.

My childhood was full of visions and fantasies about what it would be like in space, and there was this expectation among all of us my age that it was going to happen. Not if. When.

Maybe it was the Challenger explosion that caused the change. Or, at least, started the change. At any rate, it's not something that we dream about culturally anymore.

And it's really too bad, because I think we're in sore need of that dream.

It's kind of obvious from a practical standpoint why we're in need of greater space exploration. Just the resources we could get from mining asteroids would be tremendous. Rather than go into all of this, you can just go check out Planetary Resources for all the details.
As an investment, just a simple monetary investment, space is looking really good.

However, I don't think this is where we would find our greatest reward.

For millennia, man explored the world. Man dreamed about the world. Man dreamed about the places he hadn't been. It did something for his spirit. Something unquantifiable. But, then, not all that long ago, we reached the end of the world. There's nowhere left to go. Nowhere to dream about. Not even the oceans or the air for all practical purposes. Not even under the Earth. That unquantifiable thing, that thing that used to inspire men to go and explore, is gone.

There is nowhere to go.

It's hard to say what we've lost as a society because of this, because we don't know which people would be the ones to grow restless and take off into the distance to discover now places. New worlds. Maybe it is that some, at least, of the current societal unrest is due to the fact that people that used to be the ones that would go explore can no longer do that. They have wanderlust that can't be fulfilled.

Like my cat when he wants to go outside.
I think we have people like this. Stuck in cities and wanting to get out, clawing at the door, meowing, but no one will let them go. Because there isn't anywhere to go.

Have you ever been stuck inside with a cat that wants to go out? It's much worse, in general, than being stuck inside with a dog. Dogs can (usually) be distracted, not so with cats. Just like with the cat, these people that want "out" need a place to go.
Space is that place...

Can you imagine what it would be like to have people taking off into space just for the sake of going? [Let me just say that I am not one of those people that would be going, but I think it would be so cool for those that would.] The kinds of things we would learn.
The kinds of dreams that would be born.

Which brings me to the other thing we've lost: dreams.

Once upon a time, man wrote about the dreams he had of the places he'd never been. Africa. India. The American Frontier. Under the oceans and up in the sky. Even space. But we've quit writing about those places, because we know what's there. Well, except for space, but, like I said, we've mostly given up on that. And we think we know what's there. Even though we haven't been there, we look through our magic glasses and decide all we need to do is look. Or send a tiny robot.

But I wonder...

I wonder what would happen if we actually decided to go. Like when we decided to go to the moon. The dreams that decision awoke in us. What would happen if we did that again? What kinds of things would we write about the things that we would dream?

That, those dreams, and those things people wrote about those dreams, that would be our greatest reward.
Because, when it comes down to it, it's the things that can't be quantified that we live for.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

What We Can Learn From the Great Comic Storytellers

Comedians were a big part of my childhood. My cousin, the one that ate ketchup, introduced me to a lot of them at an early age. I'm not talking modern stand up comics, either. No, I'm talking classic comedians here like Abbott and Costello, Jerry Clower, and Bill Cosby. Okay, so my cousin really only introduced me to Jerry Clower, but that's significant for reasons I'll get to momentarily.

I grew up watching Abbott and Costello on Saturday mornings. It seems to me that "Who's on First" has always been a part of my life. In fact, when I was in high school, I had partner that I used to perform A&C skits with. "Who's on First" was, of course, our big number, but we had several others as well. It was a lot of fun. But I digress...

My wife and I have been introducing our kids to some of these great comedians recently. Well, Abbott and Costello have always been a thing because "Who's on First" is kind of part of my vocabulary, and I own several collections of their movies. But they hadn't been incredibly interested in my attempts to work in Bill Cosby and others in the past. Something clicked a couple of weeks ago, though, over dinner. I think my wife and I were talking about "the curse," and my younger son started asking questions about it, so we started talking about Cosby, and one thing lead to another which lead to me digging out my VHS (yes, you read that rightly) copy of Bill Cosby: Himself.

[I was about the age of my younger son, 11, when I saw Himself for the first time. It was a Saturday morning, and I was the only one up, and I laughed so hard at the bit about the dentist that I woke up the entire house, and my mom came running downstairs because she thought I was dying or something.]

Despite the protests of my daughter, who wanted to watch Buffy, we spent the evening watching Himself, and all three of them were rolling... well, I was going to say by the end of it, but that's not precisely accurate, because all three of them were rolling well before we got to the dentist. They've been quoting Cosby and singing "Dad is great! Give us the chocolate cake!" ever since then.

All of that lead to this:
"Chicken Heart" is possibly my very favorite Cosby routine, but it's not really a reference you can make and expect anyone to understand. Except, now, my kids, who keep talking about spreading jello on the floor.

So we've been listening to all of these old story-telling comedians, and it's also the start of a new quarter at school, which always means some new kids in my creative writing class, so we always spend the first few class periods going over the plot arc

 or, as they like to call it, the plot roller coaster (because of my son and the fact that I draw it that way). Probably because of the timing of the two things, I realized how these great stories these comedians used to tell follow the plot arc. It wasn't just guys standing up telling jokes and one-liners.

Let's look at "Chicken Heart." In the first 20 seconds, Cosby sets us up with the exposition: "I'm seven years old [there's our protagonist], and I'm standing up in my crib [and there's our setting]." Also, there's our hook. Seven years old and in a crib? What? It's really quite brilliant. And, then, he expands the exposition while moving into the rising action: "My parents are going out, see." And he just keeps layering and layering on the suspense about what's going on: the invisible black snakes, sneaking out of the crib, the radio. The jello. All the way to the climax, which I'm not going to say, because you should just listen to it. And after all of that, he brings it back down with some falling action and a bit of denouement: "For two years, anyone that would pass by our house..." It's just great story telling.

If you've never heard of Jerry Clower, you should look into him. My cousin had some of his records, and we used to listen to them when I was a kid. Let me just say: it's hard to find this stuff these days. The clip I wanted to include here by Clower is his "Coon Huntin' Story," but I couldn't find the whole thing anywhere. Clower tends more to end on the punchline and skip the falling action and resolution, which is the case in  the clip I am including (ignore the video and just listen to him talk (also, ignore the music crap at the end (I told you, this stuff is hard to find. I had to take what I could get.)), but in the "Coon Huntin' Story," he gives us the whole plot arc, which is why I wanted that one, but I couldn't find part 2. At any rate, this is another of my favorites by Clower, so listen and pay attention to how he sets up the story.

I think this stuff played a much more significant role in the way I learned to tell stories than I realized before now. I mean, I started out, when I was a kid, repeating these stories. It was only later that I found my own, but, when I did find my own, I told them in the same manner as these guys.

Which is the point: I think we can all look at the story telling techniques of these great comedians and learn a lot from them. Things I think we often forget in our fast-paced, modern lives. Even things we're told are unimportant by publishers and television, because they just want us to get right to "it" and skip the set up. Don't skip the set up. That's what makes everything else interesting.

Now, if I've caused anyone to get caught up listening to any of these guys... well, I'm not really sorry.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

"Are you the guy that made The House on the Corner?"

I spend a lot of time at my kids' school. The younger kids' school, that is. I don't spend any time at the high school my oldest goes to. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I read from House in the 6th grade class, and, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I teach creative writing as an elective in the middle school there (I have 14 students this quarter).

Earlier this week as I was walking across campus, a young boy, a 1st grader, ran up to me. Now, I knew who this boy was because he's the younger brother of one of my younger son's friends, so I thought it was going to be something related to that. I was kind of surprised when he said, "Are you the guy that made The House on the Corner?" And I wasn't sure what was going on, either, because he's a few years younger than any of the kids I've read to at  this point. But I smiled and said yes. His face exploded in a grin, and he said, "I love your book! It's great!" Then, he turned around and ran off.

It was really sweet. I was touched.

And I love that question: am I the guy that made the book? Not wrote it. Made it. It's amusing to me, because, actually, that's how all the kids ask me that question when they ask it of me. "Are you the guy that made The House on the Corner?" I used to say, "Well, yes, I wrote it," but I don't do that anymore, because I don't think there's a significant difference to them. It would be like asking George Lucas if he wrote Star Wars. Well, yes, he did, but, really, he made Star Wars. And that's what it is to these kids. I made this world, for lack of a better term, called The House on the Corner.

It's funny, because I never think of it that way. I never think of it as a world building project, although I know that it is. It's just not in my head that way. It's not like my son building with his Legos or in Minecraft. I sit down and I write. Sure, I visualize and try to bring that environment to life, but I don't think about it as building a world. Clearly, that's what it is to these kids, though.

It's all kind of cool.

I really like that question, at this point. Yes, I made The House on  the Corner.
What fun!

My other favorite question, and I get this one from even the middle schoolers, is "When are you going to make House into a movie?"

I still have to hold in the laughter when they ask me that, but I love that they ask me. Like I just need to decide to do it, you know? After all, I did make the book, why can't I just make the movie the same way? I've been asked that question twice this week, in fact. I guess I'll have to get on that.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Flash (in the pan) Fiction

Flash fiction is not one of my favorite forms of writing. In fact, you could say that I kind of hate it. I dislike it so much that I've had to restart this post four times for being much too harsh. It's not really the fault of the flash fiction, either; it's those people that write flash fiction. No, not you that have written a short story or three that happen to fall into the "flash fiction" range, but those people that just love "flash fiction" because it's so unique and forces you to do so much with so little and all of that other pretentious hogwash.

And it is. Pretentious. And hogwash.

It's especially pretentious since most (almost all) of what those people write when they're doing all of their flash fiction crap is crap. C. R. A. P.

Here's something I read recently that kind of illustrates the point. It was someone talking about the "grand tradition" of flash fiction and how it goes back decades and decades. Um... no... the term "flash fiction" didn't appear until the early 90's, so it, as a thing, certainly wasn't a thing before that. Which is not to say that short stories under 1000 words didn't exist before then, because they did, and they, at various points, had various other names. But, sometimes, when things are given a "name," they become a "thing," and "flash fiction" has only been a "thing" for two decades (which is, technically, decades, but it's hardly "decades"), and it's only been a "real thing" for, maybe, the last decade or so.

But that's kind of the thing, they are JUST short stories. In fact, on the scale of literary items, so to speak, "flash fiction" doesn't even exist. You have:
short stories -- less than 7500 words
novelettes -- 7500 - 17,500 words
novellas -- 17,500 - 40,000 words
novels -- 40,000+ words
Yeah, I did research on this stuff for my creative class, and that's really the generally accepted breakdown. Something close to that, anyway. No one even mentions flash fiction in terms of publication. Generally speaking, if a magazine (or whoever) wants something that would fall into the "flash fiction" category, they ask for SHORT STORIES at around the 1000 word length.

Yeah, I know a lot of you are probably thinking I'm getting all worked up over nothing, and I can see that, but let me give you a similar example. I thought about speech as a major when I was in college, so I took the requisite intro to speech class. WOW! Now there was a class that was trying too hard. You think psychology tries hard to be recognized as a science, try taking a speech class. One of the things we learned early on is that there are specific "scientific" names for the distances people stand away from you when you talk to them. (and I am completely making these names up, because I don't remember (nor do I care to remember) what the actual names are) So, if someone is standing within 2" of you, he is in your "C" zone. If he is 2-4" away, he is in your "R" zone. If he's 4-8" away, he's in your "A" zone, and, if he's 8-12" away, he's in your "P" zone. Yes, because all of that, also, is CRAP. While it's true that how close to you someone stands is important, because it affects different people in different ways, there are also cultural and personal distinctions about  this stuff, so it's NOT THE SAME for everyone, so giving these arbitrary distances names was just a way to sound all sciency about it, and it didn't mean anything.

And that's how I feel about "flash fiction."

Oh, and I decided not major in speech, because, after that class, I figured it was just going to be a waste of time. Speech, as a major, is like trying to dress a pig in a dress and pass it off as your prom date.


So... flash fiction just tries too hard. It does. It's trying hard to be something more than just a short story, and, the truth is, it is just a short story. Except, mostly, they're very poorly written short stories.
And here's why:

1. Frequently, because the author is trying to stuff, say, a 5000 word story into an artificial 1000 word format, he has to rely on lots of exposition (or Telling) to impart enough of the story to make it make sense, so what we end up with is 500-700 words of the author telling us the background and only a few hundred words of the actual action of the story (the Showing). It's very unsatisfying, and I'm always left feeling like the author should have just written another few thousand words so that we could actually experience more of the story as story rather than as "historical" prologue.

Mostly, people should just write the story that needs to be told without worrying about how long or short it is. Shorter, contrary to popular belief, is not better, as I'm continually telling the kids in my creative writing class, who always want to get away with shorter, and I have to tell them to go back and expand expand expand. Show me the action; don't just tell me what happened. Flash fiction writers need to take this lesson to heart. If half of your flash fiction is Telling, you're writing in the wrong format. Period.

2. I suppose because the format is so short, authors of flash fiction often feel like they need to work in some kind of twist ending. Something unexpected to give us a shock at the end. These things sort of give flash fiction a joke-like quality, like they need some kind of punch line. The twists often feel forced and unnatural, too, which makes them bad jokes. I've not read a single piece of flash fiction with a twist at the end that was worth reading. Especially when the twist is accomplished through some gruesome act for no other reason than to be shocking.

I truly hope this fad of flash fiction passes relatively quickly, because it's reducing story telling to the same level that free verse reduced poetry, which is garbage. None of that is to say there aren't good examples out there, but it's not something just anyone can do with any skill. Learn how to tell a story and use as many words as you need to tell that story. If it happens to fall under 1000 words, great, but, if not, don't force it. It's pretty much the same as cutting off your toes to get your foot into a smaller shoe.