Friday, October 31, 2014

Lovely Death (a book review post)

The worst thing, if you can call it a "worst" thing, about Brandon Meyers and Bryan Pedas (from A Beer for the Shower) is that their volume output exceeds my ability to keep up with it. Unless I want to just quit reading other authors for a while. I actually skipped over a few of their releases to go straight to this one so I could get to it closer to its release date since I was already way past on the others. I'm not sorry I did so. This is easily in the top three books I've read so far this year (Brave New World takes the #1 spot), so, see, it took an 80-year-old classic to beat it.

I hesitate to call Lovely Death a horror story although it does contain some horrific elements. I'd say it's closer to a psychological thriller with supernatural elements. More and more of them as you move along, but it's the psychological aspects that I found interesting. How does a man deal with guilt and what is that guilt even about? And what will people do for love? Even unhealthy love and even when they know it's unhealthy love.

The book has a lot of symbolism and recurring themes, like the car and the idea of "our song" (and what that song is). Some of these are internal, important only to the book itself (like the specific "our song" that's used); some are external, more indicative of people in general (like the car and its representation of freedom). Consistent use of symbols can be a difficult thing to do, and Meyers pulls it off much more than adequately.

Another difficulty in stories like this is consistent characterization, because you inevitably need someone to do something stupid, like go down into the basement, to move the plot forward. That's often the point where not only does the audience yell, "Don't go into the woods!" but "She would never have done that!" There are none of those problems in Lovely Death. The characters are believable and consistent. It was... refreshing.

The book's greatest strength is that it's not conventional. I'm not going to use words like "unique," here, but the approach was not one I've seen before. It causes a "What's going on here?" reaction that will pull you in. Unfortunately, the book's greatest weakness is it's rather conventional ending. The kind of ending that you'd expect in a movie, which, granted, is probably the kind of ending most people want. However, because the beginning of the book strayed so far from the norm, I was hoping for an non-traditional ending. None of that is to say that I didn't like the ending; I did. It's just the ending I expected and hoped against. Well, except for one dangling plot thread that makes me wonder if there are plans to do more with this. I suppose I will just have to wait and see on that front.

I suppose I should mention the editing, since I always do, but it almost seems superfluous to mention it when I'm dealing with products from Pedas and Meyers. Other than a philosophical difference about a particular type of comma usage, the editing in Lovely Death couldn't really be better. There was one thing somewhere near the end, a missing word or something. I've read more "professionally edited" books than I can keep track of that had errors on every page, every page!, so one dropped word in a 300+ page book is hardly worth mentioning. I hear you wondering why I'm mentioning it, then, which is because I'm pointing out how spectacular the job is.

If you like supernatural, scary, horror, psychological, thriller type stuff, this is a book you should check out.

Oh, I should mention: The cover was done by Bryan Pedas who also did the cover for my new thing
"What Time Is the Tea Kettle?" You should go pick up both books today!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

What Time Is the Tea Kettle?

So I'm not much into promotion, even self-promotion; however, when I have a new product out, I figure I ought to at least mention it. Speaking of which, my new thing is out! Actually, it's two things. Two novelettes about the same character and his cat. I posted an excerpt from it quite a while back on a different site, so I'll give you that same taste in a moment. I'd call this new story whimsical. Definitely offbeat.

Bryan Pedas, from A Beer for the Shower, put together the spectacular cover, and I think he captured the feel of the story pretty well. He called it "absurdist" rather in the same vein as Carroll's Wonderland. Did you know that there's no real category for that? Well, there's not.

Briane Pagel, who also got an early look, said it's "perfect."

And my students, who also got to hear the excerpt, can't wait to find out what happens to Jeffry and what's up with the tea kettle.

I'm just going to say it: If you've liked anything I've written, this is one you should read.

PLUS! Not only do you get "What Time Is the Tea Kettle?" but you also get "Soul Cakes"! A second novelette featuring Jeffry and his owner. That's two for the price of one! Seriously, go pick up your copy, read it, love it, and leave a review!

Just to help you on the way, here is a bit of "What Time Is the Tea Kettle?"

The red tea kettle was blocking my view of the clock. It kept doing that. I sighed as I rolled over and sat up in bed. It was new and hadn't yet learned its place, so I picked it up by the handle and carried it out of the bedroom, down the darkened hall, and into the kitchen, only once stepping on one of the cat's toys, quite an accomplishment. I flicked the little stove light on and set the kettle on the counter.
What time was it again? That was when I realized that I'd forgotten to check the time after I picked up the kettle, so I glanced at the stove clock in the dim light of the kitchen to find it blocked by the red tea kettle, handle up so that I couldn't read the time. I glanced over to the counter top where I was sure I had just set it, but, yes, it was not there. I sighed again, shook my head slightly, and picked the tea kettle back up, looking for somewhere else to set it. It needed a place, its own place, to be. Maybe, then, it would quit wandering around.
I could put it in a cupboard, but that would just be inconvenient, having to get it in and out all of the time. I wanted it to live on the stove but on the burner where it wouldn't block the clock.
Oh! The clock. I wanted to know the time. I looked over at the clock, and there was the tea kettle again. Hadn't it just been in my hand? I was sure I hadn't set it down.
I reached for it again, but, at that moment, the cat floated by, ghostlike, doing whatever it is that cats do at night. He brushed my cheek with his tail as he lightly pressed one paw onto my shoulder as he passed by. Looking for flying bugs, I supposed.
His sudden spring to the ceiling almost caught me by surprise, and I saw him going for the spider in the corner where the ceiling met both walls on that side of the dining room that adjoined the kitchen.
The cat stiffened, caught in the act, but he couldn't stop like he would have been able to if he'd been on the floor. He looked back over his shoulder at me and “mew”ed just as he collided with the ceiling and bounced to the wall, grabbing hold with his claws.
The spider scurried into the crack where the two pieces of trim met. I could see him peeking out but was too far away to hear the cursing that I was sure was happening. Spiders like very much to curse. Most of them, anyway. Tarantulas are above that sort of thing. Or so they say.
The cat arched his back and, then, marched down the wall studiously ignoring me as I scolded him, “Geoffrey, what have I told you about the spiders? We leave the spiders alone. Spiders are good.” I spoke slowly and distinctly, as if he was hard of hearing, which, honestly, at that moment, he was.
When he got close enough, he leaped from the wall to the dining table and sat like the puff of smoke he had originally been named for.
I sighed and shook my head at the cat, thinking back to the small, gray puffball he'd been when he'd shown up on my doorstep. Like a puff of smoke when you blow out a match or a candle. All except for the toes on his front paws, which were white. I had determined to call him Smoke and actually had for a number of weeks.
Until my nephew came to visit.
He's my sister's kid. We don't ever see each other, my sister and me, unless she needs something. That particular day, she had needed me to babysit, her usual reason for seeing me, so she had dropped my nephew off at an obscene hour on a Saturday morning. A time when normal people are still sleeping. My nephew came in asking, “What's for lunch?”
I told him it was too early for lunch, to which he replied, “Actually, it's late for lunch. At school, it's already nap time.”
I grumbled and went to grub around in the kitchen and look for food.
He met the cat while I was trying to find slices of leftover pizza that I could pick enough of the mushrooms off of that it would convince him to pretend they weren't really there to begin with.
“Warm or cold?” I shouted out into the room with the TV that only worked three days a week.
“Cold's fine.”
“It's going to the table, then. Why don't you bring Smoke, and you can feed him some treats while we're eating.”
That's the great thing about pizza: I was about to have it for breakfast, and my nephew was having it for lunch, and we were both perfectly satisfied that all was right with the world with that arrangement.
He plopped the kitten down on the table in much the same spot as he was currently sitting and eyeing me sullenly for the scolding.
As I dropped several cat treats into the boy's hand, he said, “Why do you call him Smoke?”
“That's his name.”
“No, it's not.” He said it very matter-of-factly, very like when he had said, “At school, it's already nap time.”
That was annoying. I wasn't even awake yet. No pizza. No coffee. And less than four hours of sleep. “Yes, it is. I named him that.”
He looked at the cat, held out the hand with the treats, and cocked his head slightly as the cat took one and sat down with it.
“He says he already has a name, and he doesn't like Smoke.”
“What's wrong with Smoke?”
The boy shrugged, “I don't know. He says he doesn't like it.”
“Why didn't he tell me, then?” I raised one eyebrow at the kid, thinking I'd won.
He glanced back at the kitten and offered him another treat. The pizza, his slice and mine, was just sitting there on our plates waiting to be eaten, making me cranky, while my nephew chastised me on behalf of the ball of fur that looked like it was about to drift away.
“He says he did tell you. He says you don't listen.”
“I do, too, listen.” I crossed my arms, thinking back, trying to figure out if I'd been listening. I wasn't sure, and that made me more cranky, because the kid might be right.
“If you listened, you'd know his name is Jeffry.”
“Jeffry?” I blinked, stared at the kid, and picked up my slice of pizza. Just to make a statement by doing it. “What kind of name is Jeffry for a cat?”
The small shoulders of the boy shrugged as he took a bite of his pizza, “I don't know. I just know that's his name.”
I waved my pizza in the air, “I like Smoke better.”
With his mouth stuffed, barely comprehensible, he replied, “He doesn't like Smoke.”
“So. He's my cat.” I obstinately took a bite of my pizza.
The cat made a cat noise, not quite a meow, that I didn't catch. I should have, but it sounded jumbled.
After a moment of chewing, the boy said, “Jeffry says he'll call you Bob.”
“But my name's not...” I ripped a big hunk of pizza off with my teeth and sent it spluttering everywhere as I said, “Fine!” After I swallowed, I added, “Geoffrey, it is.” Internally, I smiled, knowing that neither of them could spell so couldn't tell that I had given the cat a name I wanted to give him anyway.
As the cat sat on the table and stared at me, I wasn't entirely sure he hadn't known all along. Cats always look like they have secrets, even when they don't. Who knows what was going on in that cat's head.
I saw the spider creeping back out of the crack in the ceiling, and I glanced up at it, “You leave that spider alone.”
The cat stood up, turned, and lifted its tail to me as it hopped off of the table, drifting off through the house but near the floor this time.
I stood there a moment in the arbitrary division between the kitchen and dining room completely unaware of what I was doing. Why I was up. What time it even was.
Oh! The time! I turned back to the stove, and there was the red tea kettle again blocking the clock. I grabbed the tea kettle and jerked it from the stove. 1:16 glowed dimly in green on the little panel on the back of the stove where the knobs are, and I stood there staring at the readout. I didn't even remember why I'd wanted to know what time it was. Or why I was awake...
Why was I awake? Something had woken me up. That's why I had been trying to look at the time. Oh, well. I had no idea what it was, if I had ever known at all. What I did know is that I was going back to bed.

I sighed and raised the red tea kettle up to eye level, “But what do I do with you?” I yawned, shook my head, and set the tea pot back down on the stove. I'd figure it out later.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Exploring Personality: A Reiteration (and a Preface)

Because there seems to be some confusion on this point, let me go back over the basis of the Enneagram again.

As a personality system, the Enneagram deals with primary motivations not behaviors. It is different from other personality profiling systems in that, because virtually every other personality system out there is based off of the Myers-Briggs to some extent, and it is a behavior based system. Yes, behaviors can change, especially over time and with maturity. That means that you may test differently on the Myers-Briggs at 40 than you did at 20. So, although the Enneagram looks at behaviors, it is not looking for behaviors, and that is a huge difference. Your primary internal motivation almost never changes. Seriously. And, no, you can't have more than one primary motivation (which is also why I hate "favorites" lists that have dozens of items on them). With the Enneagram, because it is looking past the behaviors to see what is driving them, people virtually always test the same at 40 as they did at 18. It is very rare (very) that someone's Enneagram type changes, and, if it does, it's usually because they suffered some sort of traumatic event.

Now, this does not mean that you might not get different results on an online test even from week to week, but that's because online tests are generally not very comprehensive. People want to sit down and do the thing in less than 10 minutes, so those things tend to be not very comprehensive. Added to that is the fact that people are often not very honest even with themselves or they might feel differently one day than they did the day before. A cursory 10-minute test is not going to catch those kinds of fluctuations.

However, having worked with the actual tests (the ones that take hours to complete because they have hundreds of questions) and having worked with experts who do this stuff for a living, I can speak for the veracity of the system as a whole. It's possible that personality type is fluid when you're a kid but, by the time you've made it through adolescence, your type is pretty much set. You have a primary motivation that directs the way you interact with the world. It may assert itself in different types of behaviors, mostly based upon your emotional state, but the same motivation is behind it.

And that is why this stuff works so well when developing characters for books. For making your characters believable. If you know what the motivations are for your characters, you can make them behave in believable ways. Nothing kills a book quicker than characters doing things that are, well, out of character. As I said before, "Stupidity is not the same as personality," and having a character make a stupid choice to move the plot along doesn't mean that it's a choice the character would have made. When the audience responds, "He would never have done that!" you know you've done something wrong. When they see the stupid choice coming, though, and fear it, you know you've done it right because, then, the readers are seeing the personality and the motivations of the character.

At any rate, I would suggest that you take the test, not necessarily so that you'll know what type you are, just so that you can see how it works. If you do want to know for yourself, though, be honest with your answers. I left a link to the test back in this post. If you take it, let me know what you are.

Now, on to other things! Other thing, Here's your introduction to the next triad of personality types.
Enneagram types 5, 6, and 7 make up the intellectual triad of the Enneagram. These types are data based. They are information gatherers. They tend to react to situations from a more rational viewpoint, especially when compared to the emotional triad (types 2, 3, and 4). Where other types, when asked why they did something, may say, "I don't know," the intellectuals can almost always tell you exactly why they made the decision they made and hand you the numbers to back it up. Their emotional center is fear; gathering information and making informed decisions is a way of combating that fear. The intellectuals are also attracted to ideas and ideals; relationships are less important and can sometimes be means of achieving other objectives.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


Some of you may have noticed that it's October. Some more of you may have even noticed that Halloween is this week. Halloween is generally the time of all things scary... Okay, maybe not all things.  Probably not even most things. A lot of things. Maybe I should start over...?

Halloween is a time we celebrate scary things... Wait. Is "celebrate" the right word there? Does anyone celebrate scary? Hmm... Okay, yeah, they do. The gravedigger down the street and his family certainly celebrate the scary. True story.


In honor of the "scariest" day of the year, we at Indie Writers Monthly have put together an all scare issue. Okay, well, it's not all scare, because some of it's about how to write scary things, and that part isn't all that scary. And it wasn't really "we," either, because we had a contest for scary micro-fiction, so a lot of the stories were written by them. In fact, I didn't even write one. I told my son to do it for me. The scary part was that I thought he was going to make me write it after all, because he sat and stared at the blank computer monitor for about six hours (don't worry; I'm pretty sure it's part of his process) then, just as I was about to send him to bed, he whipped out a story in about 20 minutes. Maybe 30. Of all the stories submitted, his freaked me out the most. Seriously. It caught me completely off guard and made me go "oh! ew!" Which is not to say that there aren't other freaky and scary stories in there, because there are.

So here's the October issue:
And you can pick it up here.

And just to give you a taste of what's inside, here's my son's story:


It was too warm to sleep. I struggled with the heat: the window was open, covers were off, but it just wasn’t cool enough. I tossed and turned, attempting to find a comfortable, cool spot to sleep.

I froze. A scuffing noise sounded outside my bedroom. I don’t know why, but I was paralyzed with fear.

I slowly pushed myself out of bed. As soon as my feet touched the floor, however, the boards squeaked. I stiffened again. In the silence, the noise continued.

I inched toward my light, determined to make no sound. Once the light clicked on, I saw nothing out of place.

I started to breathe a sigh of relief but quickly drew it back as I advanced toward the door. I still didn’t know what was out there.

As the door screeched open, I cringed. A part of the hallway that my room branched off of was revealed. I saw that the culprit of the sound was only a mouse.

I let the sigh escape my lips.

The mouse turned to face the wall and started scrambling up. I watched in horrid fascination as it clung to the ceiling then dropped into my gaping mouth. It struggled and squirmed down my throat.

I had let my sigh go all too soon.

Monday, October 27, 2014

In Short Supply (a book review post)

You can see my review of part one of A Shot in the Light here.
There will be some slight spoilery-ness since this is a review of part two, but it's not going to be significant spoilery-ness. In other words, I don't think it's going to hurt anything for you to know any of what I might say in this review.
Also, I have no idea what the cover of this part has to do with this part of the story. As far as I can tell, there is no relevance. Unless I've forgotten something, but I don't think I have. Maybe I just don't understand what the picture is.

Okay, so we find out pretty much right away that there is some kind of conspiracy going on. That there is a conspiracy both helps the story and hurts it. Well, at this point, it hurts it, because it raises the "How the heck do you contrive a conspiracy to spread a deadly flu around and expect that work out?" question. Maybe, down the line, there will be an answer to that, but everything so far undermines the story's plausibility. Still, there are eight parts to go, and people do do incredibly stupid things, so I'm willing to go with that. For the moment. That there is a conspiracy helps in that it makes sense out of a few things from "A Flock of Ill Omens."

However, there is an issue from part one that carries over into this one, and it's something I have to talk about, especially in light of the current Ebola crisis. One of the things that is so far pushing the plot of A Shot in the Light (and, granted, this is only part two) is the lack of information to people. This bothered me in part one, but it's even worse in part two. There are repeated statements in the book about how there is no news getting out about how bad the flu epidemic is and how many people are dying from it (and even just in part two it's a considerable amount). The central characters (two of which are reporters) are having to do all of the research themselves. One of them even says something to the effect of how no one else in the world but her has the information that she has.

The problem, though, is that these characters in the book do almost all of their research online. Yeah, I said they are using the Internet to find all this stuff out, but the presentation is as if these people are the only ones with the skills to do this, so no one else knows what's really going on, and no one is reporting on this stuff. That includes the reporters, by the way. People are in the dark except for how things are immediately affecting them.

I just can't buy into this idea at all. It seems to me to go beyond just implausible to downright impossible. I mean, personally, I get all of my news online. All of it. Because that's what happens when you don't have TV. Okay, actually, I get some very minor parts from the radio when I'm in the car, but I don't spend a huge amount of time driving, so it is just a small portion and usually along the lines of getting the headlines, which I later read about online if I hadn't already seen it. I am not at all unique in getting the vastness of my news from the Internet, so the idea that the populace of the United States is ignorant of the extent of this flu virus in the book because there is no news of it is beyond what I can buy into. And, heck, with what we've seen of the coverage of Ebola in the US, it just heightens to me what a weak plot ploy this is.

Okay, yes, there's a conspiracy. But no conspiracy is enough to stop all the free roaming people of the Internet to talk about things. People would know what's going on.

Also, I continue to be bothered by how all of the characters have the same mannerisms. Although there are many point-of-view characters, it's like reading from the POV of the same character all the time. Even the military guy acts just like all of the women. Everything is all business all the time in the same crisp, efficient pattern. And that more than one character has thoughts of how everything is like being a spy just heightens that none of the characters have distinctive personalities.

The writing is fast paced, though, and, because of the Ebola issue, I'm interested to see where the author takes it, so I plan to keep reading. I'll read at least through part four and see how I feel at that point.

Friday, October 24, 2014

What the Pumpkins Did

First, the pumpkins did this:
Then a little of this:
And some of this:

This is what was left:
And this is what was made:
The bread:
The curry soup:
I have to add that this was a creation by me. When I told my wife what I was making, she said, "That's fine, but you don't get to be mad at me if I don't like it." She loved it. She was surprised.

The toasted seeds:
I'd never had toasted pumpkin seeds before, so I was surprised at how good these are. I'll definitely be toasting all of my pumpkin seeds from now on.

All of that, and we still have more pumpkins to use. Pie is soon to come.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Exploring Personality: Part Six -- "I'm special!" (an IWM post)

"You are all individuals!"
"I'm not."
--If you don't know, you don't deserve to know

The Individualist

Have you ever wondered how

Edgar Allan Poe
Virginia Woolf
Tennessee Williams
J. D. Salinger
Anne Rice
Hank Williams
Judy Garland
Bob Dylan
Paul Simon
Angelina Jolie
Johnny Depp

may all be related? Sure, I could list more people, but if those haven't hooked you, no one else will. If you want to find out what they all have in common, follow the link over to Indie Writers Monthly to find out. It's just a finger twitch away. And there are songs!

Monday, October 20, 2014

My Cat Caught a Lizard, and Other Things

Oh... I can't resist mentioning the grammar in the title...
Can't... resist...

It's just that it's such a good example of using a comma for clarification of meaning, not for telling someone where to pause or take a breath. See, these two sentences mean different things:
"My cat caught a lizard and other things."
"My cat caught a lizard, and other things."
The first sentence means my cat caught other things along with the lizard, which, with my cat, could be almost anything. Actually, I think he caught a spider this morning, too.
The second means that my cat caught only a lizard and there are other things I'm going to talk about.
Commas. They're important.
And not for telling me how to breathe.

I've made no secret, even though I haven't mentioned it in a while, of my antipathy for Windows 8. It's like a book, a horrible-bad book, that your English professor wrote and then made you read as an assignment. But, not just read it, read it over and over again. And it never gets any better, just... you get used to it. But, then, he tells you that he's made it better. You know, major re-writes and edits and all of that, but people start reading it and they tell you it's pretty much just the same. Maybe worse. Definitely not better. You don't bother with the new one.

That's me and Windows 8.1. I haven't known a single person who has said to me, "Oh, yeah, you should definitely switch to 8.1. It's way better." No... Pretty much everyone has told me that it's pretty much the same. A few of said they liked it less. So my computer has been prompting me to "upgrade" to 8.1 for a while, now. Months. Every time it prompted me, I told it "no." Why bother for just more of the same. I am, at least, used to Win8.
I guess it got tired of asking.

The other night, it just up and told me, "Heya, I'm upgrading to Windows 8.1. I can do it right now, or I can do it tomorrow. When do you want that to happen?" What I wanted to tell it was "NO!" but it wouldn't let me. I tried... well, I tried all sorts of things and it wouldn't let me stop the "upgrade" even though my stuff in the "Should I upgrade?" section told me that I could opt out.

Then it told me I needed to backup all of my files, which was fine except that I couldn't. I backed up my document files, but I have all of my photos on the computer, and I didn't have anything to put them all on nor did I have time to do it by the time I realized there was no way to stop the 8.1 installation. Really, I wouldn't have had time to do it without at least a week of notice. I was pretty furious by that point. Sort of a walking rant.

When the computer finally prompted, "I'm going to install Win 8.1, right now," I thought I had beat it by simply turning the computer off... but I was wrong. An hour or so later, the prompt came up again. And I turned the computer off again. But, when I turned it back on, it said, "Screw you! I'm installing this sucker, right now!"

Have I mentioned that I hate computers? Yeah... Kind of like how I hate cars. They should just work. Period. And they should work in the way you want them to work.

I have Win8.1 now. Here's what's changed:

  • Everything is slower now. The computer takes longer to boot and pages take longer to load. You know, it's the heightened security or whatever.
  • I no longer have to sign out of Windows before I can turn my computer off. Seriously, why was that even a thing? So that's one positive thing, although I still have to go to the start screen to do that.
  • All of my files are now backed up to the "cloud." Because, as we have seen with the recent cloud hacking of celebrities "special" pictures, the cloud is more secure than having things just on my computer.
All of that and my cat caught a lizard. In the house. It was a western fence lizard
which I think are pretty cool because they're immune to Lyme disease. He was playing with it under the kitchen table, but I didn't pay any attention to him, because that's where he likes to play with pieces of cardboard he pulls off his scratching box or with the little strips off the Netflix envelopes. But he just kept going and going. Usually, he's only good for entertaining himself in that way for 5-10 minutes, but, once he crossed the 20 minute mark, I began to wonder what he was doing. At some point, I checked. He had a lizard. Amazingly, it was intact. Apparently, all he was doing was batting it around and throwing it in the air. However, it was still dead.
It was sad-making.

There was another thing, too, but I can't remember what it was. That's what comes of being interrupted as many times as I have. Always am. Probably, it wasn't important, and this is long enough anyway.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (season one thoughts)

I know that most of you are way past season one of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. at this point (meaning you're watching season two), those of you that are watching at all, at any rate; however, since we have to wait till shows are out on DVD, we're only just now finishing up season one. But, since the DVDs did just recently come out, I suppose this is actually a decent time for a review of the season.

Basically, last year, when the show debuted, I heard a lot of whining about it. Yeah, I'm just going to call it whining, because it all had to do with misplaced expectations. People expected The Avengers on TV, but that's not what they got. No, what they got was something more along the line of Whedon's Dollhouse, another show people didn't have patience for and piled on misplaced expectations (because they were hoping for another Firefly). I'm just gonna say, when you're dealing with Joss Whedon, it's never a good idea to come into anything with expectations. I'm sure that the actual reason that Firefly failed was because Whedon fans (who mostly rejected Firefly at first) were expecting something more along the lines of Buffy and Angel. So did Fox, by the way, and marketed it as such, because that's where Whedon's fan base was at the time.

So SHIELD comes in as a slow build, because it kind of has to. It has to introduce us to a whole new cast of characters, which was something Avengers didn't have to do because Marvel had already done that with all of the individual movies. It was slow, but it was solid. My kids loved it from the first episode, including my daughter who has been known to just get up and walk out of the room if something isn't exciting enough to hold her attention.

The biggest issue with SHIELD is that it's greatest strength -- Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson -- is also its biggest weakness. Gregg's Coulson is great as a side character, like he was in the movies. He's the unassuming guy on the fringes who occasionally delivers a very dry, witty line. But that Coulson is not the kind of character that can be the lead in a show. There's just not enough energy and charisma there. The only reason it worked at all is because, as the side character, we'd all come to love him from the movies and were suitably upset when he... well, you know. [I don't want to spoil it for anyone who may not have actually seen The Avengers, though I find that hard to imagine.] However, he's not the kind of guy we want to spend all of our time with. He's not commanding enough. I mean, it's fine to have Coulson along for the ride, but it's really Nick Fury or Captain America or Iron Man we want to be hanging out with.

The other real issue with the show is that Skye, the character who is supposed to be our "average Joe" window into the Marvel universe, isn't quite normal enough for us to connect with. Not in that way, at any rate. It doesn't take long to know that Skye really isn't a normal and, thus, our connection is lost, leaving Coulson as our only link, which would be okay if he wasn't the team leader.

Beyond that, though, the show is quite good. It has good dialogue and interesting characters. Even the characters who start out as those quintessential emotionless fighting machines turn out to have more to them than they seemed to at the beginning, but we have to work our way into them to find that out, as it should be. And, best for me, the show really doesn't have any one-offs. Even the episodes that seem to be one shots tie into the overall story. That it tied directly in with the events of Winter Soldier was also quite superb.

Other good things:
J. August Richards -- It's good to see him again, and I hope that the appearance of Deathlok heralds something more.
David Conrad -- I'd completely forgotten about him, but he's well cast as Ian Quinn.
(grudgingly) Bill Paxton -- I am not a fan of Paxton's, but he's done a great job as John Garrett. So good in fact... but that would be telling.
Saffron Burrows -- She did a great job making me not like her and hoping that Hand was... that would also be telling.

The final analysis is that we, all of us, really like the show. My kids love the show. I think it's great that they've centered the plot around the thing I was talking about in my Winter Soldier review, specifically the Nick Fury vs. SHIELD thing. I can't wait to see what's in store in season two... next year, after it's released on DVD.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Exploring Personality: Part Five -- "I'm the best there is at what I do." (an IWM post)

"Recognition is the greatest motivator."

The Achiever

Last post (in this series) we were talking about those people that get involved in everything because they want to help. Now, we move on to those people that get involved in everything because they want to be in charge. Not that being in charge is goal; they just want to be as successful as possible, which usually ends with them being in charge. This is that person you knew in high school who was student council president... and president of the honor society... probably captain of the sportsball team... and, maybe, even captain of the debate team. All of that and a 4.0 GPA to boot. None of these things is because the person is more talented than other people or smarter than other people but because the person is more driven to succeed. The classic example of the overachiever.

Meet Type Three: the Achiever.

Oh, wait. You wanted to know about The Achiever? Well, you'll have to do that thing where you hop over to Indie Writers Monthly to find out about them. Threes... you either love them or hate them. Go find out why.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Woggle-Bug Book (a book review post)

The Woggle-Bug Book is not precisely part of the Oz books as it doesn't take place in Oz or really have anything to do with Oz other than the Woggle Bug. Actually, the book is adapted from the musical adaptation of the second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz. Well, loosely adapted. The Woggle Bug is a supporting character in Marvelous Land, but it sounds like much of the plot of the musical is related specifically to the Woggle Bug and his love for a dress, which is what the book is about except set in New York. Maybe. Some American city, at any rate.

So, yes, the book is about how the Woggle Bug falls in love with a dress. He sees it on a department store mannequin and is taken in by its colors, but he can't distinguish it from the person who is wearing it, so the whole plot revolves around him chasing after the various possessors of the dress. And smashing hats. The premise is, in all actuality, entirely amusing.

However, the execution is lacking, especially by today's standards, considering that the book is filled with racial caricatures. I'm sure those things were amusing in their time, but it was a time when Blackface was considered a high form of entertainment. Needless to say, by today's standards, the stereotypes are, at the least, insulting.

I don't really understand the need to set the book in the real world for any other reason than to include those characters. Baum still felt the need to have the Woggle Bug encounter a bunch of talking animals, so it seems to me the book would have worked just fine in Oz. Except that it was done as a child's picture book, not a novel, so, maybe, they thought the book would work better in a familiar setting. It was more than a century ago, so it's hard to say. It doesn't translate well to modern day, though, because of the racial issues.

However, that probably makes the book ripe for a modern interpretation because, as I said, the premise is really very funny and put the Woggle Bug's life in jeopardy on more than one occasion. I wouldn't suggest the original for more than die-hard Oz fans.

And, now, for something I've never done before: a review of the specific edition I purchased.
I picked up a free edition of The Woggle-Bug Book for my Kindle, and it was definitely an example of getting what you paid for. The person responsible for the adaptation did a piss poor job of it. For one thing, the original book had illustrations; evidently, those illustrations had captions. The captions were included in the narrative text of the book wherever they happened to fall, which was quite jarring. The book is in past tense, but the captions are in present, so you'd suddenly get this present tense summary of the current action of the book. Also, the book, especially toward the end, is full of typos. It was very apparent that not much time or attention was given to making the book presentable. I would certainly not recommend this edition of the book to anyone, even for the low, low price of FREE.

Friday, October 10, 2014

When Perfect Isn't Good Enough

It's probably an odd thing to say on a blog from a writer, a blog that often deals with writing, and from someone who teaches creative writing, but I was a math person when I was a kid. Technically, I suppose I still am, but I loved math when I was a kid. I did math for fun when I was a kid. Seriously. I loved math and I loved to read; I suppose that was an odd combination. People seem to think so, anyway. At any rate, I gave up on math a long time ago. It all started with geometry.

Don't get me wrong, I was good at geometry, excellent, actually, but I'll get to that in a moment. I was good at it; I just hated it. To be fair to Geometry, it wasn't Geometry's fault that I hated it. No, that honor goes to the teacher who made us memorize all the theorems and postulates by chapter notation. So, on a test, if we had to do a proof (and you always had to do proofs, because that's what geometry is), and we needed to use a particular theorem, we had to know it as, for instance, Theorem 16.2 and, then, quote the theorem. But the 16.2 part was completely arbitrary based on the book we were using, and it kind of pissed me off that we had to know that when it was completely not useful once we were out of the class.

Also, I hated doing problems that could potentially take up an entire sheet of paper.

But I was good at it. As in, I had the highest grade in the class good at it, and I didn't even pay attention. Reading was strictly forbidden during my geometry class. The teacher routinely had a stack of books she'd taken away from students for reading during class, but she let me read. I suppose when you have a student whose carrying 106% that it might be safer just to let him read. Did I mention that this was honors geometry? Yeah, it was.

There are two things you need to know:
1. Every test had a couple of bonus problems on it. [Yes, I always did the bonus problems. Not because I wanted the points, but because I couldn't make myself leave the problems blank.]
2. Along with the grade for the specific test, when we got the tests back, our overall grade was also on the test. Actually, it was our grade before the test and after the test so that we could see how the test had affected our grades.

I say every test had bonus problems, but there was one that didn't. I didn't think it was significant at the time. Not while I was taking the test, at any rate. However, I didn't feel that way about it when I got the test back. See, the 100% I'd made on the test had lowered my grade in the class. Yeah, you heard me; the perfect score lowered my grade. I sat there and stared at that for a while being kind of weirded out by it. Then, I did the math. You know, just to be sure I was seeing what I was seeing even though I knew that I was. Yes, the 100% lowered my grade.

There's just something inherently not right about that. It didn't matter from any kind of practical standpoint, but my sense of justice was... It wasn't happy with the situation. My teacher thought it was funny. And it is funny, but, as you can see, it made an impression on me. And it's a bit of a life lesson: There are times when you can do everything right, do a perfect job, and it will hurt your score. So to speak. You did all you could do, and it was all the right stuff to do, but it still has a negative impact.

I suppose the way to look at that is this:
Suppose you had done nothing. Or that you had done the wrong thing. The negative impact would have been so much greater. So it becomes all about doing the most you can to keep the negative results at a minimum. I guess, in some situations, that's the best you can hope for.

The thing that has me thinking about this is that my daughter is going through the same sort of thing right now in Spanish. She has something like 110% in the class (or 112% (something ridiculous, at any rate)) and, recently, she turned something in on which she only got 105%. Yes, it brought her grade down. She was very upset. There were a lot of "It's not fair!"s thrown around. I did explain it to her and told her my geometry story (which made her feel slightly better since it had happened to someone else), but it didn't really keep her from seething about it for a while. It just made her more determined to get her grade back up to where it was.

She has a good attitude about those things. I mean, she has the right attitude in how to deal with them. Instead of getting depressed or saying "what's the point," she's using it as motivation. That's how you respond to the inequities in life, let them inspire you to rise higher.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Exploring Personality: Part Four -- "Let Me Give You a Hand" (an IWM post)

When you give..., do not announce it with be honored by others. When you give do not [even] let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. -- Matthew 6:2-3 (paraphrased)

The Helper

Have you ever known one of those people who wants to help with everything, even when you don't want help. They might do things for you (for your own good) that you don't want done or do everything because that's just the kind of people they are. Usually, they'll let you know about it, too. "So-and-so couldn't survive without me; I do everything for him." They like to help, and they like for everyone to know about it. Helping is what type 2 is all about.

The type 2, known as The Helper or The Giver, derives his sense of self worth from what he is doing for those around him.

To find out the rest, you'll have to help me out by clicking this link. You should also leave a comment. Comments are nice and affirming. I mean, I don't do all of this as some kind of altruistic gesture. I want comments! Tell me how much you need and appreciate me! What else am I doing this for?

Hmm... it looks like I was letting a little bit of type two out. What? You don't understand? Head over to Indie Writers Monthly and figure it out.
And, before you ask, no, I am not a two. Help you? Puhleease...

Monday, October 6, 2014

Let Me Incite You

There's a lot of talk in the "writing world" [I'm not exactly sure what the "writing world" is, which is why it's the "writing world" and not the writing world. I think it must be like, to some extent, the "wizarding world" (which probably doesn't need the quotation marks (or maybe it does)) but, then, I wonder if there is a special school for people in the "writing world," a Penwarts or something, and, if there is, why wasn't I invited?] about starting in "the middle of the action" (this feels like it's going to be a quotation mark-heavy post) and how important it is to hooking your reader. However, I'm not quite sure that people understand what it means to "start in the middle of the action."

See, the problem there is the word "action." We all have this Idea of what Action is, and it involves car chases and shootouts and smashing and crashing and all of that just like at the beginning of the movie The Goonies, which is rather brilliant, actually, in putting all of that in there and making it mean something without actually skipping... oh, wait, I think I'm jumping ahead. At any rate, what people think when they read that about "starting in the middle of the action" is "starting in the middle of the Action," and that's not what that means.

For those of you that don't know, I've been teaching creative writing for a few years at my kids' (well, now, "kid's," since there's only one left at the school) middle school. One of the things that I have to talk about every year -- and not just every year but multiple times every year -- is where the kids should begin their stories, how it starts. About half of the short stories I get start with the protagonist (almost always a middle schooler) waking up, getting dressed, brushing her teeth (the teeth brushing is always included, which is good, you know, because I'd say that probably means the authors are brushing their teeth, too, but I do, also, find it curious), eating breakfast, and going off to school. I equate this with standing in line, a long one, for a roller coaster at an amusement park. Lines are boring and pretty much the same no matter where you're standing in it, at an amusement park or at the bank or in a grocery store. And most everyone does the same kinds of things when they get up in the morning, and we don't want to read about it.

The thing is, the line is not part of the roller coaster. It is not "the action."
The action starts somewhere around the curve going up. How much before is, yes, subjective and probably depends upon the kind of story it is, but I'd say it's the part of the line where you're actually on the ride itself or, maybe, when you're in the little herding areas being sent along to the meat processing... oh, wait! Roller coaster... right! ...being sent along to the specific part of the ride where you're going to sit or to the specific car (or boat or whatever) that you're going to be in.
That part of the story is called the "exposition," and you can see it circled in the above drawing.  "The action" of the story starts with the exposition, not somewhere up the line of rising action. If you have to skip the exposition because you think it's too boring to draw in readers, then you need to strengthen your exposition, not find some sequence of Action to start in the middle of and, then, flashback to the exposition so that it makes sense.

Those of you who pay a little more attention may have noticed a red line through the action in the middle of the exposition: That line is called the "inciting incident."
The inciting incident is the moment in the story where the protagonist's life is sent off in a different direction. We also call this the "point of change." The exposition should be centered around this event, thus you are starting in the middle of the action, not somewhere back in the boring, mundane stuff that makes up everyone's life. Like getting up every morning and getting ready for school or work.

I most frequently use Star Wars (specifically A New Hope) to illustrate this (because it is the most common denominator among the students. Always. Even more than Harry Potter). The action starts with Luke buying the droids, his inciting incident, the point where his life changed (and, yes, I know that's not where the movie starts. That stuff up in space with Leia and the droids is prologue). That moment, the purchase of the droids, is not Action. It is, however, in the middle of the action.

Another curious thing about my middle schoolers: The most common inciting incident is the protagonist receiving a mysterious note or book.

The point is that "starting in the middle of the action" does not mean, necessarily, starting with something exciting, starting with Action. It just means finding that point in which your protagonist's life changes, where it veers off course. That can be a very boring thing, in all actuality. Like buying a pair of droids or finding a mysterious note or a birthday party. Not everything has to be explosions and gun fights.

All of which leads me to what had me thinking about "inciting incidents" in the first place, other than that's what we're working on in class, right now. The thought was something like, "If someone was making a biopic of your life, what would your inciting incident be?" I mean, there's no need to cover anyone's whole life in one story, right, so, if you were looking for the most significant moment, the moment of change, what would it be? Sure, that can be a lot of different things depending on the story you want to tell, but, let's say, it's about, for me, being a writer. That inciting incident is not one of Action. It was just a quiet moment where I read something (I talked about it way back here if you want to read about it), but it changed me.

Anyway... That was just a stray thought that prompted all of this, but I do think it's important to not skip the exposition and to know what your inciting incident is. If you're a writer, that is. Or if you're not, depending upon how you want to take this. Maybe you've never had an inciting incident in your life and you need one? Sometimes, all it takes is a decision.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Songs of Innocence (a music review post)

A couple of weeks ago, my wife walked in the door from work; as usual, I was cooking dinner. What was not usual was that I was listening to the new U2 album, Songs of Innocence. Now, it's not unusual for me to be listening to U2, but, you know, Innocence was a surprise, and she only knew about it because I had emailed her, more than slightly excitedly, about the fact that U2 had given it away! I'd been saying that there was a good chance that the next U2 album would be the last CD I ever bought (I'm pretty sure I haven't bought any CDs since their last album, No Line on the Horizon) but, instead of having to go out and buy it, U2 gave it to me! Although I might still have to buy the CD when it's released so that I can take it with me in the car.

But I digress...

So she walked in the door and said, "How is it?"
And I said, "Well, I'm not sure. I'm still getting used to it."
And she, completely understanding what I meant, said, "Ah, yeah. Because it's U2."

I want to make a point here: With other bands, when they release something new, you don't have to "get used to it." You may not know the specific songs, but the sound is almost always the same. This is seldom the case with U2.

Let's flashback to the summer of 1993 and the release of Zooropa. People were pissed. That was not the U2 they were looking for. And that wasn't the first time that had happened. I knew people who had liked pre-Joshua Tree U2 who swore them off when that album came out, people protested the new material on Rattle and Hum because what they'd really wanted was just more of The Joshua Tree. But the reaction to Zooropa was probably the worst. People just hated it.

Well... The worst until now. Which, you know, astounds me. I mean, people are actually offended that U2 gave away Songs of Innocence. Like it physically hurt them in some way. And, of course, the critics and reviewers are ripping it to shreds. And the thing that made me think of all this is because I was reading a review of the album (from Newsweek, I think) in which the reviewer was talking about all of the great things U2 did with Zooropa and Pop and, then, All That You Can't Leave Behind and how, in relation to those albums, how much of a disappointment Songs of Innocence is (including belittling Bono for writing a song about his mother). Of course, my reaction was, "Dude, I was there when Zooropa came out, and I know how much people hated it." Except me and this one friend of mine who I gamed with. We'd listen to it before everyone else got there (he loved "Lemon" and would crank it up and sing it... poorly) and have to listen to them complain as they arrived: "Turn that shit off." So, yeah, I know what people thought of Zooropa at the time and it wasn't that it was a great anything other than, maybe, a steaming turd on the cold ground.

It seems that it has aged well.

Which makes me wonder how people will feel about this one in a couple of years once they've adjusted to another change in U2's sound. As for me, I knew it had won me over the next morning when I got up with one of the songs running through my head. Not that I knew what the song was; I just had this song, the music, in my head. As I busied myself with making breakfast, I started trying to push it out and started humming it trying to figure out what it was. It only took a few minutes for me to realize it was a song from Innocence, so I put it on. Since then, I've had probably half a dozen of the songs from the album bubble up in my head when I'm doing other things, so I know I like it. A lot. There are great lyrics on this album.

Here's the breakdown so far:
My top pick -- "Every Breaking Wave"
It's actually, probably, my #2 song, but it's my wife's favorite, which bumps it to the #1 spot, because it's a very close #2 for me. Favorite line -- "I thought I heard the Captain's voice, but it's hard to listen while you preach."

The close second -- "Song for Someone"
This was the song running through my head that morning. This one starts out with a startling line that I love and just keeps building: "You got a face not spoiled by beauty." I wish I had thought of that line. But my favorite line: "...I'm a long way from where I was and where I need to be."

But the song that really lingers with me a lot the more I listen (though it's still at third) -- "Iris (Hold Me Close)," the song Bono wrote about his mother, which I think is pretty great, but that one reviewer finds offensive that Bono would dare to write a personal song.
My favorite line: "Free yourself to be yourself. If only you could see yourself."

Currently at fourth, because my daughter loves this one -- "Raised By Wolves"
I'm just assuming for the moment that this song is about all the conflict in Ireland when U2 were teens. That's what makes sense to me. Favorite line: "The worst things in the world are justified by belief."

There are some other of the songs vying for attention in my head, too, so it's possible that that list could change. There's a great group of lines, for instance, in "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)": "We got language so we can't communicate, religion so I can love and hate, music so I can exaggerate my pain and give it a name." This is a great song with which to lead off this album. It's all about how music, how a song, can change your life. That one song that catches in you and changes the way you view the world. For me, that song came from U2. I remember where I was, the very moment I first heard "With Or Without You." I'd never heard a song like that before. And thing is, I wasn't even really listening to the music that was playing. It was just a friend's car stereo that was on as background noise while a bunch of us were hanging out. But that song came on and caught me.

U2 is still catching me. Even when they change their sound, I still come away with  their words and their music running through my head. So the reviewers and critics can bash them all they want (and complain about how intrusive it is to be given something completely free (seriously, what the heck?)), but my bet is that once people get over being all irate and offended and actually listen to the album that they will also find songs running in their heads. And at some point, when U2 has changed their sound yet again, some reviewer will be hearkening back to the great Songs of Innocence and wondering why U2 can't do it that way again.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Great Pumpkins! (an IWSG post)

Last IWSG, I was talking about how late it was that we planted our garden this year. And it was. Very late. You can go read about that here.

As late it was planted, though, it is doing very well, now. Sure, we didn't get things like tomatoes as early as everyone else, but we're getting them faster than we can eat them, now. In fact, it's time to start making and freezing sauce.

The above picture is the first three pumpkins to come off the vines. There are three more I'm going to get soon (in fact, by the time this posts, I will probably already have gotten them). AND the vines have suddenly put out all kinds of new growth, so there may be more pumpkins next month! Or early November. And here, that's a totally doable thing, because they're not going to freeze.

The picture above, still showing the pumpkins, also shows "the monster." Or, shall I say, "the attack of the killer tomato vine." [My kids totally accused me of making it up when I told them about the movie Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!] Let me just make it perfectly clear: We did not plant this particular tomato vine. It grew there all on its own.
You can't really see the placement of the vine in the picture, but it's right next to the front door of our house. Back behind the "the monster" is the gate to the backyard. My daughter hates this tomato plant, because it keeps growing over the sidewalk leading to the front door (no matter how often I cut it back), and it has grown up and through the lattice by the front door, so it attacks people is they go in and out of our house.

Now, I just want to be clear, here. We are in the middle of the worst drought on record in California. I did not water this plant for the entire month of July and most of August. I was hoping that by not watering it, it would, you know, scale itself back. Not grow so crazily. But it did grow crazily even without the water and, today, when I was picking tomatoes, I got as many off of it as I did off of all of other vines, the vines we actually planted and took care of, combined. In fact, I didn't finish picking from it, because I ran out of storage space, so I got an equivalent amount and left A LOT behind. It is The Monster.

When the vine first started growing, my wife wanted me to pull it up. "It's in a bad place; it will never survive; we don't even know what kind of tomato that is." But I didn't see any reason to just pull it up. My idea was to just let it grow and see what happened. Of course, since then, my daughter has been the big advocate for killing it, but my wife doesn't want to do that anymore. Mostly, I think, she is just amazed at it. I know I am. What a huge success from such an unexpected source.

Which is the point. We don't ever really know what's going to take off and be successful and what's, despite our best efforts, just going to sit there going nowhere. Or just piddle along. Or whatever. It's like when you work really hard on something, something you think is great, and show it to someone and he just shrugs at it and says, basically, "So." But, then, you have this other thing that you just threw together and don't think is anything special and someone comes along and really loves it. Really loves it. As in, "This is great!"

So you nurture your ideas and let them grow, even the ones you don't think will go anywhere, because you may just end up with something huge. As I mentioned recently, that is how Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started out.

And you may end up with some pumpkins, too. Things that take a lot of work, that look doubtful for a while, but yield a nice prize at the end. By the way, between the beginning of this post and now, I did go out and pull those other three pumpkins. They're in a nice pile on my table, at the moment, and we have big plans for them. It's all a matter of keeping your options open and not closing off ideas just because you don't think they will amount to anything. I mean, "the monster" grew out of rocks, basically in a completely inhospitable environment, with people trampling on it and no water. And, well, my daughter's scared of it because it wants to eat her. That's what she says, anyway.

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This post has been brought you in part by the Insecure Writer's Support Group.