Archive for the ‘Rant’ Category

Ruminations on Fathers Day

June 19, 2017

Author’s Note: I plan to extend my tour through other author’s websites on Wednesday, but until that time, I have a few spare thoughts about writing that came up through my reflections yesterday: Father’s Day.  The following is a whimsical and meandering, and maybe sometimes philosophical, look at fatherhood from the perspective of an outsider – and novel-writing from the perspective of a “nervous first-time dad.”

Ruminations on Father’s Day and Fathers in General

If necessity is the mother of invention, then what is the father of invention?  Yesterday was Father’s Day, a worldwide holiday in which we honor our forebears, specifically our fathers, with offerings of novelty ties with US presidents; authentic, old-fashioned shaving kits that we made in China last week; truly unique, only four more like them at Sears, grills for the upcoming feast; collections of beers from around the corner; and the burgers to go with those beers.

There are certain ironies in the stereotypical gifts that we pass along to our fathers on this day, particularly for me.  For example, my father dislikes wearing ties so much that he takes his off for his lunch breaks; he prefers the inexpensive razors because he doesn’t have to worry about throwing them out when they break down; he doesn’t drink (neither do I); he’s pretty much vegan; and he doesn’t like grills due to the carcinogens that they produce (after taking an applied chemistry class that discussed carcinogens at length, I don’t blame him).  To top it all off, my father is notoriously hard to shop for; it’s not that he doesn’t express gratitude; it’s that he doesn’t ever express a need for anything beyond what he has.  It’s an enviable place to be, and an enviable outlook on life.

I am not a father.  I hope to be there one day, but my two ‘children’ are a pair of felines.  Yes, they’re like children.  They’re constantly bickering, with the big brother picking on his little sister – a sister who happens to be roughly three times his age, but that’s beside the point.

Father’s Day is a day of appreciation, and a day of understanding everything that a man has done to contribute to your existence and who you are as a person.  (Cats already do that whenever you give them wet food)  In many ways, a man or a woman is a reflection of their father, for better or for worse.  For instance, my father-in-law is notoriously industrious; he will leave work in the afternoon and move on to his second job, coming home only to eat dinner and go to sleep.  My wife is equally as industrious, and is a whirlwind of productivity when she comes home.  I don’t know what my cats may have inherited from me, but I’m not sure that they care.

Fathers in Fiction

Fathers have historically been essential in much more than how one is reared.  For instance, numerous ancient texts, including some of the first texts that have been distinctly English, have discussed patriarchs, and patrilineal significance in great detail.  We see a little of this in Beowulf, a turn of the first millennium text that is one of the earliest surviving examples of English fiction.  Beowulf is the son of Ecgtheow, a victorious warrior who was exiled to Geatland (from Daneland) as part of a political power play.  Thus, when Beowulf brings up his father, he’s also establishing a bit of his own credibility as a warrior. This tradition carried on to stories such as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, where introductions sometimes involve more than a century’s worth of family histories.  Gimli, Son of Glóin, Son of Gróin, son of Farin, and so on.  By following the patterns of some of these pedigrees, I’d be Jim, Son of J the athlete, Son of H the aviator, Son of M the carpenter.  By the time I’ve hit that third antecedent, I’m already discussing two family migrations and a story that began more than 130 years ago.  Nevertheless, this type of pedigree is often important in high fantasy, science fiction, and even historical fiction, and the role of the father carries on again and again through fiction.

Writing is like Fatherhood

Over the past few weeks, I’ve put a little thought into how writing is like fatherhood, and hence the introduction, “necessity is the mother of invention,” which has appeared in many forms, and may be a bastardization of Plato’s The Republic (c.380 BCE).  If necessity is the mother of invention, then imagination is the father of fiction.  I’ve seen it many times before that a good writer must also be a good reader, but I don’t think I’m taking too much of a leap to say that there’s more to it than that.  A good reader can only write what they’ve already seen in their own reading.  A good writer must use their own imagination to expand upon and deviate from what they’ve read.  Similarly, a father is someone who has learned about fatherhood because they’ve experienced the opposite side of it as a son.  However, a good father must use their own intuition and their own imagination in order to build a strong relationship with their own children.  Just as my grandfather had a different relationship with his children than his father had with him, my father has had a different relationship with my sister and me than his father had with him.  In part, this is the natural order and the progression of time, but it is also the result of a man’s ability to create relationships.

But I think that the analogy of novelist:novels::parent:children extends further than this, and is also why we are similarly so careful with our novels that they may seem like our children.  Children form over time; even though there aren’t any complete rewrites, child-rearing is much like novel writing (and editing) in the sense that you want to put both in the best possible situation for success.  Despite our best efforts, there will be shortfalls, and none will turn out perfect (would it be in poor taste to include a Todd Marinovich joke here?), but they all must face the world at some point, and they will all be perfect in their own way.  There are ways in which novel-writing is like motherhood, in the sense that they both have a gestation period that starts at conception, and ends with them being introduced to the World.  However, regardless of the gender of the writer or of the parent, the product is ultimately a reflection of its creators.

Thus, as I’m working through another editing process, and awaiting another round of beta readers, I realize that a large part of why I haven’t published my works yet is due to a common concern for both authors and fathers: that their children must be ready for the World.

Futurists aside, we cannot adequately predict what the World will be like as our works have time to mature.  What will the critics say about our novels when we publish them?  Will they survive for five years?  Will they survive for a hundred years?  It shouldn’t matter to us, but I think that there is a visceral desire to see the lives of our creative works exceed our own.  Today, with self-publishing, ebooks, and a seemingly endless amount of digital storage, we do not need to be Shakespeare or Byron, or Shelley or Harper Lee.  Our works – whether critical hits or monumental flops – can extend far beyond our own lives.  It’s a grandiose idea, yes, but think about how difficult it was for people to get their own copy of Chaucer’s work in his own time!  Think about what it was like for the little guy that we haven’t

Despite its popularity, The Canterbury Tales wasn’t “mass” produced until nearly eighty years after Chaucer’s death.  Why?  Because Chaucer predated the printing press!  Even then, William Caxton’s printing press of ~1480 (the original press for Chaucer’s work) was one of just a handful west of Germany.  Even 500 years later, by which time the technology had upgraded many times, the types of presses that print fiction were still limited in the sense that only a few companies were capable of true mass publication.  Today, anybody can publish through Amazon CreateSpace, Lulu, Barnes & Noble, and dozens of other publication services and digital storefronts.  We don’t need thousands of square feet to house all of the books in our local libraries (at least, not to the same extent we once did), as today’s libraries can house literally (and yes, the correct use of the word) millions of ebooks on a relatively inexpensive server.  So, what does this mean?

This means that you, Alan Smithee, Author of Awesome Book and its three sequels, may not live on as author of the “Universally Beloved Awesome Book series,” but your work may be on some server (either in the AWS data center, your local library’s server, or some infrastructure supporting the Cloud), long after you have retired your keyboard and taken up permanent residence with the worms.  Whether your book burns up the Kirkus Review, or the Kirkus Review tells readers to burn your book, your book will live on!

Until next time, this is the father of several books that are still in incubation, reminding you, in the words of the imitable Ralph Kiner “It [was] Father’s Day [yesterday] at Shea, so to all of you fathers out there, happy [belated] birthday!”

Author Sites: Content

June 12, 2017

Last week, I began a long post about author websites.  This all stems from my investigations into creating my own author website, and focuses on the real meat of the developer website: content.  If you’re interested in the visual aspect of an author website, please click here to review my previous post.

Odds are, if you’re following me on Twitter, you’re a fellow writer.  You’ve read through my rants and raves about writing, about sharing my writing in public, and about my efforts to drum up interest for, publish, and market my books.  You’ve probably scoffed at the bare bones nature of my blog, and wondered why I don’t include photos, artwork, or even buttons.  These are all baby steps; they will come, but let’s first point to the first thing an author website should do. If you said “sell my books,” then please take your seat at the back of the class.  In my last blog, I mentioned that most people don’t like to be marketed to (or sold to).  Yes, you create a website with “sell my books” as one desired outcome, but the first thing that the author site should do is introduce your writing to your potential reader.  By extension, you’re also introducing yourself, but the writing is the thing (with apologies to Hamlet)!  There’s a subtle difference between marketing to an audience and informing an audience.  This may sound like talking from both sides of my mouth, but both can be accomplished through a simple advertisement; the only difference is the content of that advertisement.

Yes, up and coming works are a focal point for many websites, but providing an “Order Now” page at the front and center of your website only works if you have hundreds of thousands of adoring fans and you know that you’ll sell out your first edition — maybe even on pre-order.  If you look at Dean Koontz’s site, for instance, you see that he is advertising The Silent Corner.  However, when you click the “Learn More” button, you see two things — one, a brief (and far too marketing-speak) introduction to the book, and two, a brief synopsis.  It isn’t until you get below the fold where you find “Advance Praise for The Silent Corner,” as well as where you can pre-order his book.  Yes, the marketing is there, as are the “sales” links, but Mr. Koontz does not treat his website like the ear piercing booth at your local mall.  No, he saves the sale for somewhere else.

Last week, I promised some opinions on what CONTENT should be included in the typical author’s website.  I’d discussed a little about this when I discussed individual book pages, so please refer back to that for a bit more detail.  However, here are eight (or, would you believe, thirteen) more things that you should consider when you are creating content for your author website.

1) BOOKS – As mentioned before, the books are the things that are really drawing people to your site, and they are also the items that you should be discussing the most.  There are layers to what you can provide on your author website.  Some of the content that I envision for my own book page include:

a) A Brief Synopsis – No, I’m not going to give away the plot twist in the third act, but I will provide something a little more substantial than what I would put on the back of a book jacket. This might include more detail about the plot itself, or more information about the principal characters.

b) Character lists – who are the people in your novel? Who do people need to remember? If you’re a part of a book club, or a lit teacher, you know that people are doing this already as a means of understanding and staying connected with the book.  However, it does help to do a little of the work for them.   I haven’t done character lists of other writers’ books before, except for when I needed to do them for coursework.  That being said, imagine somebody who comes back to a book somewhat infrequently, to the point that they have to remind themselves every time about that Daenarys and Jon Snow don’t really know each other, or have trouble identifying the various other characters that may have some familial relationship to each other.

c) Maps – Another item that comes to mind is a map. I’ve already seen enough maps of Westeros to know that they’re out there, but what about the map of the Harry Potter world? What about a map that identifies the various locations of District Six and where they come from, as opposed to the characters of District Two?

d) Glossaries – If you’re into high fantasy or science fiction, there may also need to be a glossary. Particularly if you’re dealing with technical real-world stuff (or even technical, fictitious stuff, people aren’t going to necessarily know the difference between a jump drive and an FTL drive, even if they’re the same thing in your universe. They might know that a Halfling is approximately half the size of something, but what is it half the size of – are the “humans” in your world really like the humans that you would see in Times Square?  Your universe has its own rules, and it may be difficult for people to remember those rules and how they may be any different from Tolkien’s or Alastair Reynolds’ or Burroughs’ Barsoom.  I sometimes need them for real-world books, even when the only thing I’m trying to figure out is what the difference is between a vicar and a priest.  If you’re prone to reading American books, you better be well prepared for understanding that a fanny is a polite word for somebody’s bottom, and that rooting for something is not vulgar in the slightest (and probably not what you Aussies think it means).   Sometimes, this comes down to very common words or tropisms.  Wizard, witch, and warlock — what does that mean to you?  In some of the fantasy books of my childhood, a warlock was simply a male witch.  In Rowling, a male witch is a wizard.

e) Backgrounds – As for other odds and ends about the book itself, remember that people will be approaching your book for all different purposes. If you’ve written a historical fiction / period piece, you might need some collateral to explain to the modern reader why Thermopylae was an important battle in Greek history, or where the ancient Troas (Troy) was in relation to Crete.  You might need to explain the importance of neck rings in Dinka culture, or why some parts of China would engage in foot-binding.

There may be many other items that relate to an individual book that you’d like to put on your author website.  As mentioned, I’ve discussed a few here.  However, there are many other items that may not directly relate to your books, but rather to you as an author.

2) News – There are several ways of putting out news on websites. Having no headlines to drum up myself, I tend to append my news to the end of these blog posts.  If I had news of more substance, I would have a separate place for all of it.  If you’re generating a lot of news-worthy items (and I mean a lot), you might think about a monthly or bi-monthly newsletter.  I wouldn’t recommend much more than 26 per year (and even that may be a lot).  As much as fanboys might love a given author, even the New York Times Bestsellers don’t have that much news in a given week.  Even if you are the type of author that generates a lot of news, it may be worthwhile to put out the news as it happens.  If you’re releasing a new short story on Smashwords, why wait two weeks until your next newsletter?

3) Blog – Well, of course I would point to this.  After all, you’re reading my blog.  However, a blog is a useful, less formal means of keeping in touch with your readers, your friends, and other writers.  I try to blog about twice per week, but I wouldn’t blog nearly as much if I knew that I was under deadline for some great opportunity.  A few of the authors that I’ve examined over time put out a blog 1 to 2 times per month, but many of those authors are also of the sort where writing is their full-time profession, and they hardly need to build their audience.

4) Reviews – This can go both ways.  It is useful to put up reviews of your own books, particularly if they’re thorough.  It may also be useful to put up reviews of books that you’ve enjoyed.  At the same time, if reviews are too detailed, they might give away too much information, and you don’t want to be on record as absolutely slamming another author – no matter how much you think they might deserve it.

5) Appearances – Are you the errant author?  Will you be in Seattle one weekend and San Diego the next?  Are you doing book signings at your neighborhood bookseller, or having a reading at your local library?  If the answer is yes to any of these questions, you will want to share this with your audience.  If you’re the type of writer that is speaking at a charity function, add that, too, even if it has nothing to do with your books. If you have a following, they will want to see you in the flesh, and they will be wondering why your Awesome Book: Volume IV remains in the development stage.  (By the way, I’d laugh so hard I’d cry if I saw Awesome Book: Volume III on a book rack!)

6) FAQs – There’s a reason why you’ll see FAQs on numerous websites.  If there are stock questions that you always get asked, you might want to address them all at once on your website.  At the same time, you need to be careful.  Not all questions deserved to be answered, and some of them fall into the realm of personally identifiable information (PII) or “password questions.”  Sorry, nobody needs to know your mother’s maiden name, unless you’re Melanie Griffith (her mother is Tippi Hedren of The Birds).  If you’re Melanie Griffith, you might want to share your pedigree with the World.

7) Bio – As much as that website might say AntonioSaavedra.com or AngelinavanHeusen.com, the website is not about you, it’s about your writing.  That doesn’t mean that you can’t have a little something about you in store for the reader.  Many of the top authors that I’ve researched have little bios.  These bios are much like what you’d see on the back of a book, but some get into a bit more depth, discussing former professors, other occupations held, inspirations for writing, and other life details.  My own bio is very sparse, which is probably just a force of habit.  It isn’t as if you’re not getting enough about me through this blog!

8) Contact Information – Keep this brief, and don’t give away the whole enchilada.  I have some thoughts about why you might not want to share much, but there are a few items that you might want to share: Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram accounts are useful, as they are not nearly as personal as Facebook.  If you have a P.O. Box for fan mail and the like, this is also useful.  I wouldn’t provide a street address, for obvious reasons.  If you’re from a small town (like Jenner, CA), you might not even want to use a P.O. Box at your closest post office.  Instead, as is the case with Jenner, you might want to have a P.O. Box in Bodega Bay or Guerneville – they are not exactly the big city, but they’re both ten miles further away from where you sleep at night.  If you have a little bit more time, then creating email forms can be useful.  These allow people to quickly and conveniently contact you, but do not give away your email address.

Thanks for tagging along for this whopper of a post. Expect another post later this week, but I can’t promise the timing!

—–

Is there anything that I missed? Please feel free to add it in the comments below.

Photo Attribution: Unsplash on Pexels. Creative Common 0 License

Author Sites: Aesthetics

June 9, 2017

Get out your color wheels, design fans; it’s time to talk about website design!  This was initially intended as a single post, with smaller follow-ups, but the information has since exploded, and I had to segment this off into two posts.  Check in soon for the second part, where I talk about content!

But first, let’s talk about the beauty of website design (as it relates to author sites)!

Just so we’re on the level, I should be one to talk — this is my website: plain, simple, and as of June 2017 black text on a white background with a blue band across the top.  This is a basic template for WordPress, and it has served me well over the past several years since I started blogging under the “jowenenglish” banner.  It isn’t intended as a complete site, and I will update this someday.  In fact, this post (and, now, at least one more post in the series) has come out of some of my research into creating my own website.

I’ve learned a lot from my colleague, David, on the matter, and I wanted to share some of the thoughts that have crossed my mind as I not only research other authors’ websites, but also research websites as part of my day job.  At some point, I might apply this knowledge and build out my own site, but it’s fun to take a look at what I’ve seen.

Aesthetics (or Can You Judge a Website by its Cover?)

1) Orientation

How many of you have gotten frustrated with a website because you still can’t find what you’re looking for?  Worse yet, you’re scrolling through something that has so many graphics and individual pages that you get the feeling that you’re being sucked into a click-bait site.  The orientation of a website is important.  I won’t go into mobile sites, as I generally prefer full sites, and many website building tools allow you to have responsive design with the so-called hamburger menus off to one side.

2) Pull-down Menus / Hamburger Menus

Pull-down menus, or those buttons that appear below the banner, are important.  As far as I can tell, there is no sure-fire combination as to what should appear in a menu, and in what configuration, but there are three basics that I generally see within author websites: My Books, About Me, and Contact Me.  Some authors have much more, and having a few more items works, as long as the main items do not get lost in the clutter.  Pull-down menus are among those aspects of a website that fit into both the aesthetics category and the features category, as pull-down menus ultimately show you what yo need in a palatable format.

3) Banners

One of the main things that has held me back from building out my site is the lack of visual appeal.  Whether it’s the banner itself or just below the banner, I don’t have the right images to entice the reader.  This has a bit to do with a lack of Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator skills, and a bit to do with everything else being up in the air. However, I have observed a number of websites that work in this respect, and the items that work are typically the items that make the website itself unique.  Cover art, such as the full cover art that would fit on your dust jacket, sans writing, is one way of going about this, but some authors (or, presumably their design teams) tailor this even further.  I think what this art entails is very genre specific.  The stark and hard-boiled look might work for a mystery writer, but it won’t work for writers in other genres, or for the literary fiction crowd.

And then there’s the rest of the bunch…

Within an author website, there are generally seven items that I look for in terms of aesthetic or visuals.  I’ve already discussed a little about the orientation, the banner, and the pull-down menus.  The other four are what appears “above the fold,” the visuals that represent the books themselves, the author photo, and the text.  These aren’t nearly as appealing to discuss.  There’s definitely meat to them, and some people can fill up pages just talking about the physical appeal of fonts themselves.  I’m not one of them, but I do have my opinions on the matter.

Above the Fold

Many times, the only thing people will see about a new website, unless they’re very interested, is what occurs above the fold.  The term (sometimes called “above the crease”) comes from the newspaper industry, and refers to any item that you can see when you unroll the newspaper and see the stories that appear immediately above or below the banner.  Websites have this, too.  If people do not need to scroll up or down to see the content, it is considered “above the fold.”

When it comes to what appears above the fold, I think about this as an orientation consideration, a visual appeal consideration, and –most importantly — a content consideration.  Yes, it is great to have an appealing visual above the fold, but readers who base their book choice on beautiful visuals are bound to be disappointed.  You can judge a book by its cover, but only to a point.  If your site does not have much appeal except for a brilliant visual above the fold, then readers will not be as compelled to dig into the rest of the site.  Having buttons to show them other site features (book synopses, character charts, interviews, readings, or whatever you would like to offer) is essential to your site’s success as an informational vehicle.

5) Visual Representations for Books

Okay, so you’ve published your novel, what image do you use to represent this on your site, and how do you share that?  Amazon does one thing well in this regard, as they have a simple image of the book’s front cover on the left, and then a synopsis or blurb on the right.  If you click onto the cover, you usually get a few sample pages.  I prefer this physical orientation, and prefer the book cover rather than some other related image.  When it comes to what that visual representation does, the “button” format is fine, but I would recommend that you go a step further.  Use that book as a mouse-over button, if you can, and include a list of numerous features that supplement the book.  I’ve mentioned a few of these above, and I generally think that these forms of collateral are a good place to start.  You might also have essays that you’ve written about your book and what it means to you, and these would be perfect for your book site, but aren’t necessarily a top-level item.  Another item that comes to mind is information for book clubs or educators.  You might think it is presumptuous, but these items can pave the way for broader discussion of your novel, and help the readers approach your book with all of the right tools in hand.

6.) Author Photo

The author photo is an important consideration, but don’t think too long about it.  We’ve all seen the glamour shots at the back of popular trade paperbacks.  These are fine, and professional glamour shots are probably preferable if you want to be taken seriously as a writer.  However, if being good looking was the a prerequisite for selling books, then many of the great writers of our time wouldn’t be making much money at all.  Your professional photo should be subtle; even if you’re as arrogant as they come, you don’t want someone to look at the back of your book and think “wow, that guy probably never passes up a chance to look at his own reflection.”

7.) Font 

Finally, the last item I’ll talk about in terms of aesthetic is font.  Generally, font size doesn’t matter, as people can adjust as needed.  However, I wouldn’t venture too far off of the defaults that come with your given tool (unless you’re going straight from the CSS — if that’s the case, huzzah!  I generally don’t pay much attention to fonts.  My preference is for serif fonts in print media, however the prevailing wisdom is that sans-serif fonts are easily readable because they are less visually complex.  The fonts that I’ve heard bandied about most often are Verdana, Arial, and Helvetica.  Experts in visual design will wax poetic about the benefits of one over another.  I’m a writer, not a type-setter, so I don’t particularly care as long as I can read it.  Comic Sans might be the exception.

I’d love to hear your opinions on font, but I plan on leaving these considerations to typesetters and designers.

Content is King! (But I’ll Save This for Another Blog)

I initially didn’t think that I would have much to say about aesthetics in the more abstract sense, but I soon realized that this post is getting pretty lengthy.  This will cap out at over 1,500 words, and I don’t want to bury the topic of content under that volume of words.  I will say this, before I provide a few more updates: first, the most brilliant aesthetics will hide a lack of content, but they cannot entirely overcome a lack of content.  Content is at the heart of your author site, but even the most brilliant content will disappear if you’re mired in poor aesthetics.

****

Writer’s Update: I don’t feel like I’m busy, but it seems like I always have something to do.  Right now, I have a checklist that’s about twenty items long, and many of these are time consuming projects. On top of it all, this doesn’t include work duties.  In recent weeks, my supervisor has been leaning on me to get a lot of writing projects done.  The hours spent agonizing over reports has made for a few late nights.  I have been better at getting home before dark lately, but that isn’t saying much as we approach the solstice.

Their Sharpest Thorns is still in early edits.  I’ve worked through about a quarter of the book already, but I’m primarily taking a postmortem of where my story deviates from my notes, and attempting to correct any inconsistencies.  There’s still a good month’s worth of work in editing, and it is likely that I will not have enough to call this a “complete” draft until late summer.

Thanks for tagging along for this doozy of a post.  In my next post, I’ll discuss the content of an author site, and hopefully have a few more updates along the way!

 

Pivot: Sounds

May 31, 2017

At the end of Inside the Actor’s Studio, James Lipton always asks his subject questions from the Bernard Pivot questionnaire before turning his subject over to the audience.  One of the questions is “what sound or noise do you love?” If my cats were on the stage, and could talk, you wouldn’t be surprised if they said “can opener.”  Sound is an important aspect of any writing process, from the writer’s environment to the words that appear on the paper.

I’m a bit of an audiophile. There are definitely genres that I don’t enjoy as much, but I can listen to quite a few musical pieces or songs that are a bit far afield from my usual fare.  I’d spent much of the early part of this year working on this project – a series of mix CDs for my friend, Kevin, and it has everything from singer-songwriter fare to electronica and industrial genres.  There’s not any rap or country in there, but there I could have easily put in a little bit of everything from my phase where I listened to rap/R&B or from memories I have from college.  This project also made me realize how much variety there is even within a genre, and how I sometimes grab inspiration from music in my writing.

Music is also a great escape. When I’m at work, I put on my headphones and plug in. My coworkers say that I remind them of an air traffic controller when I do this, but it helps me focus – and helps drown out some of the chit-chat that happens around the office.  But is music good for writing?  I’d venture to say yes.  When I write, I listen to music quite a bit.  In fact, Train’s “Ordinary” is playing as I write this.  However, I think deep, well-wrought writing takes a specific kind of music.  For NaNo novels and extended periods of writing, I focus on choral pieces (nothing in English), movie scores, and video game soundtracks.  One that has been particularly helpful in my writing has been the Final Fantasy 7 soundtrack due to the four-plus hours of play it provides.  If I write for four solid hours, I’m usually on track for a particularly high word count.  Those help when you’re trying to get from point A to point B.

But sound in general is helpful.  When thinking about your writing, don’t think that the only soundtrack to your writing needs to be dialogue.  In just the past few minutes, I’ve heard the jingle-jangle of my cat’s collar, the low resonance of a car’s bass as it rolls down the street, the sound of someone closing their car door, and the whoosh of the air intake for my heating system.  It’s important to remember that sound goes a long way toward establishing setting.

There are many ways in which a writer can incorporate literary devices surrounding sound into their work, including alliteration and assonance, but one of the most common users amongst prose writers is onomatopoeia.  These are the words that are suggestive of the sounds that they represent.  A siren lets out a whoop, a rooster crows, a wave crashes, and all three phrases have words that imitate those actions.  These are the sound effects of your novel, in the same way that a Wilhelm scream lets a movie viewer know that the goon isn’t getting up anytime soon, or how the sound of a snake hissing lets the viewer know that the ancient jungle temple isn’t as abandoned as it seems.

For the record: what sound or noise do I love?  The sound of an analog clock (like a grandfather clock or a wall clock) as it ticks. It reminds me of my grandmother, an avid clock lover.

I’m going to provide a brief update on my work in a subsequent post, due mid-afternoon on June 1st.  For now, I wanted to leave you with a few musical selections that have helped me write:

Final Fantasy VII soundtrack

Final Fantasy VIII soundtrack

Carl Orff – Carmina Burana

Pandora Journey – Epic Music 1a

Pandora Journey – Epic Music 1b

Pandora Journey – Epic Music 2

Death: An Evocative Tropism in Written Works

May 26, 2017

I’d intended to write something about the power of music and my preferred listening when I write, but I think that will have to wait for another time.  Last night, just a few hours before I began this, I was sitting on the couch, reading an excerpt from Helene Simkin Jara’s Because I Had To, because I will likely see her this weekend.  Jara is the featured speaker at a writers group that I have attended over the past several months.  She is a free-form poet, a short-story writer, an actor, and a director, so she knows the importance of evoking emotions.  She sure did.  One of her poems, as it turns out, is about someone I once knew — or, at least, knew of — in high school.  She’d grown up with my wife, and (unfortunately) has since left corporeal existence behind her.

Death is a sensitive subject for all of us, whether we care to admit it or not.  If we have been lucky enough to have never encountered death amongst our friends and family, we are either very young, very fortunate, or very isolated.  Everything dies (except for, perhaps, some forms of hydrozoa).  Considering the universality of death, it is an important, and poignant, concept to address in fiction.  No, you don’t need to include Hamlet’s soliloquy — and please don’t, that’s been done — but killing off characters is not something to be taken lightly (unless you’re writing a comedy).

In fiction, not all deaths need to be meaningful.  Nobody cares about that lackey that gets offed in the middle of a firefight, but when meaningful characters begin dying willy-nilly, there better be a darned good reason why the character has to go.  After all, the reason why Piggy died in The Lord of the Flies is not because Golding ran out of things to do with that character.

I’ve had to kill characters in my novels, and my latest effort, Their Sharpest Thorns has a significant death count.  However, only a few deaths are meaningful, and addressing those deaths properly has been one of the challenges in trying to cap off this book.  I will venture to guess that the second and third drafts will spend a great deal of time focused on improving the death scenes, and establishing the emotional connections leading up to the meaningful scenes. I also have the challenge of differentiating the deaths that really matter from the deaths that are just a point of fact.

If I succeed in writing a death scene, then I evoke an emotional response from myself as I am writing it, just as I would in writing a scene that is funny or a scene that is heartbreaking.  I seldom do that when I write poetry — not that I have written much poetry.   When I read from Helene Simkin Jara’s excerpt, I realize that Ms. Jara must have written the poem with a heavy heart, because I have a heavy heart when I read those words.  As I scan the words, I don’t see very many big words, and there’s not that many words in the poem, at all.  However, those words that are on the page are arranged in such a way that, when read or scanned, properly represent a tragic death.

To Two Teachers: Sra. Diego & Prof. Gorsch

May 9, 2017
At work this morning, a colleague reminded me that today is National Teacher Appreciation Day.  After reflecting a little on teachers, I decided to give you this bonus post.  I hope to finish my thoughts about my venture into podcasts later this week, until then – – here’s a tribute to two teachers who have influenced me for the better.

As a MAE student at UCSC, I worked on two projects that served as alternatives to a thesis.  The first, part of the New Teacher induction, was a BTSA binder that prompted me to write about certain experiences in my teacher training and to provide examples of my lesson planning and pedagogy. The second, referred to as my graduate capstone, was a lengthy personal essay that described my teaching philosophy and the elements of education that I had taken from mentor teachers, my own personal teachers, and what I’d observed in the broader education sphere.  A significant portion of this turned into a discussion of things that I enjoyed from my teachers.  Considering that this is National Teacher Appreciation Day, I thought that I would write a little about some of the teachers that influenced my life, namely Yolie Diego and Robert Gorsch.

I don’t know when I decided that I would be an English major.  I know it was some time in high school, and that it factored heavily into how I viewed schools as I whittled my list down from a dozen or so colleges, prior to actually applying.  I do know that Yolie Diego made the decision to be an English major complicated.  Yolie Diego was my Spanish teacher for three years, starting with Spanish 3 and going all of the way through AP Spanish. In that time, I learned a lot about her, from her taste in music (decidedly not a Barry Manilow fan) to her journey from Colombia to the United States.

Sra. Diego kept a tight, well organized class, and provided us with many multi-modal means of learning the language, from having us teach the rest of the class how to cook a Spanish or Mexican meal, to performing a Saturday Night Live style comedy sketch, to singing along with the class to Shakira, Sra. Diego had an array of tricks up her sleeve to make us conversant in the Spanish language.  One of these tricks was simple, let us talk about ourselves.  Every week, we would be paired up with a new conversational partner, and would take a walk around the block in the quiet neighborhood that surrounded our school.  During that short walk, we would ask our partner about their weekend — practicing Spanish the entire time, I swear!  By the time we returned to class, we were already processing things in Spanish, and were ready to continue on with the day’s lesson.

Our high school had a unique structure that allowed individuals to accelerate their learning across a variety of disciplines. Being more inclined to learn languages, I opted to accelerate my education in Spanish.  As a result, I completed AP Spanish in my junior year of high school.  This, of course, meant that I was a little rusty by the time I took my first Spanish class in college.  At the time, I was looking to add a minor, if not a second major, and Spanish was my first choice.  Unfortunately, due to the rigors of my major, and the breadth of the general ed courses that I needed to take, I couldn’t fit in any more Spanish beyond that, but I’d always hoped that I would continue to learn Spanish.  Now, nearly fifteen years later, I hardly ever use Spanish.  However, I will always think of Sra. Diego’s classes among the highlights of my time spent in the classroom.

When I arrived in college, I didn’t know much about individual members of the English Department’s faculty.  I happened across Robert Gorsch through St. Mary’s collegiate seminar program.  Professor Gorsch, like most other St. Mary’s professors, would cycle through the collegiate seminar courses.  One year, he would teach Roman and Early Christian Thought, and the next he’d teach Twentieth Century and Modern Thought.  He was the second literature professor I’d had in the seminar program, the first being my first advisor, Br. Ronald Gallagher.  Professor Gorsch, much like Br. Ronald before him, did a good job of holding students to the fire with respect to reading the material; even then, the fact that many seminar students are forced into the class as a requirement, and do not care to read the material, took away some of the luster from Professor Gorsch’s depth of knowledge.

I took multiple other classes with Professor Gorsch, ranging from Literary Theory to Early British Literature, and several things impressed me with Gorsch.  One was his ability to speak Middle English.  As I’ve mentioned in a past post, the language of the Chaucer era is hardly recognizable to our modern ears and eyes, and Professor Gorsch taught us why.  Not only did he teach us why, but he spent a class teaching us how to read in Middle English.  Aside from his depth of knowledge, one of the lasting items that has stuck with me about Professor Gorsch’s courses, now more than a decade in my past, is that Professor Gorsch is passionate about his subject, whether teaching about the Confessions of St. Augustine of Hippo or teaching about Aristotle’s three artistic proofs, Ben Jonson, Samuel Johnson, or Alexander Pope.  Recently, I noticed that Professor Gorsch taught a course in Science Fiction.  I would have greatly enjoyed that class, I’m sure… even though it would suffer from a pronounced lack of Stephen King!

Hey, I did read Danielle Steel for a non-Gorsch Literary Criticism course, so King wasn’t off limits!

I have had the great fortune of working with and knowing many great teachers, even outside of my former occupation.  I even have two educators in my extended family, including one who is back at our alma mater, teaching a subject that I once enjoyed nearly as much as English.  Teachers are people who capture the imagination and instill practical skills across the world’s population.  They leave an imprint that can last for the rest of your life, whether that’s 40 or 100 years spent out of the classroom.  Without educators sharing their knowledge, writers would be even fewer and farther between; there would be less of us able to appreciate them, and even fewer of us who would create a demand for writers!

So, with the time winding down in today’s National Teacher Appreciation Day, I implore you to reach out to teachers who have influenced you for the better (hopefully, at this hour, you’re doing so via social media or email). It’s your turn to return the favor.

Photo Credit (applies to links from other sites only): Pixabay via Pexels, CC0 License.

Some Suggestions for More Robust Characters

April 3, 2017

Author’s Note: this started like an excerpt from a memoir, but eventually turned back to some fair reminders for characterization.

There are two aspects that are powerful when writing about characters, as everybody can relate to them on some level: nostalgia and jobs.  Everybody has their moments when they think back fondly on some period of their life, or when some aspect of their life reminds them of the way things were. Everybody has worked, does work, or will work at some sort of job, even if the job isn’t exactly the paying kind.  In order to create richer characters, and in order to draw readers into your characters’ world, bring relevant aspects of the characters’ pasts, as well as their roles in society into your narrative.

I’ve been pretty nostalgic lately.  Today, we went on a hike that reminded me of when I was first dating my wife.  We discussed her grandmother and her childhood friend, who are both since deceased.  Those memories spurred more memories, and so on.  I was fortunately enough to know her grandmother before she passed, and discussion of her grandmother hiking that trail reminded me of seeing this woman, then over 80, cutting the rug with her granddaughter at our wedding.  Aside from that, some alfalfa sprouts in my sandwich reminded me of sandwiches that my father used to order when I was a kid; I don’t know why he stopped having them, but you never see alfalfa on the menu anymore.  After that, tortellini with pesto reminded me of my childhood friend.  The point is, memories can flare and smolder like a campfire, depending on the kindling.

When discussing a character, and having that character advance through that plot, nostalgia doesn’t need to play a prominent factor.  However, consider all of the times you’ve been rolling down Broadway and you remember that swing-set that was there when you were a kid, or how that old theater reminds you of your first kiss.  Your characters aren’t going to reminisce of times passed when they’re busy hunting a serial killer, nor will they necessarily reminisce of times passed when they’re waiting for the bus, but there should be something there that hints at a time before your story began.

I’m in my early 30s.  My tenth college reunion is in the rear view mirror, and I’ll be closing in on forty by the time my next reunion (high school) takes place.  What this means, of course, is that I am part of our nation’s workforce. Regardless of what adults do in the workforce, from custodian to CEO, work takes up a great deal of their time.  How they go about their work, and what they feel about their work, is an important part of their character, as well.  My father repeats this one-liner from a movie (I think it might be the barbershop scene in Gran Torino) that goes something like “real men complain about their jobs.” It’s funny, but we all have stories from our jobs, whether mild frustrations or flat out grievances, peppering a character’s conversations and thoughts with complaints, worries, or even successes in their jobs makes for a more believable characterization overall.

For all of my fellow writers who are out there trying to paint a picture, use these thoughts and experiences to shape your character.  Is your character a former high school footballer who is stuck in the kitchen at the local diner?  Put in a little something about him grumbling about the big game.  Does your character know she is paid less than the manager’s underqualified nephew?  Add an interaction between the two of them!

On Fandoms and Writing… and other stuff

January 21, 2017

I come from a Giants family.  From March onwards, you cheer for the Giants; in Fall, you cheer for the Niners; and the rest of the year belongs to the Warriors.  The Warriors are my contribution, as I’m not sure that anyone in the family was all that dedicated to the Warriors as their team until I found basketball.  Basketball was a part of our lives in many ways; however, for many years before that, we were a baseball family.  At least three generations of my family have cheered for San Francisco baseball, whether it was the Seals up until the 1950s, the DiMaggio brothers in the 1940s, or the Giants since 1958.  Giants baseball cards occupied a space alongside the photos I kept in my desk, and a Giants pennant had occupied a prominent space on my wall for many years.  Kruk and Kuip were always on TV from April until October, unless we were listening to Jon Miller and Ted Robinson.

When I was a teenager, one of the first Giants games that I attended in person in years was a game against the Chicago Cubs.  Some of my dad’s work connections had scored us tickets, and we were up in The City for a game.  We, unfortunately, had found a section that was occupied by Cubs fans.  These fans are like many fans in the sense that they identify the other team as the enemy.  Thus, of all of the places we could be in the ballpark, we were in the section that booed when Bonds and Kent got to the plate and cheered whenever the Cubs did anything positive.  For a Bay Area native, nothing could boil the blood in quite the same way.  From that point forward, the Cubs had been the subject of my scorn, and have been baseball annoyances that are only eclipsed by the Dodgers as the baseball enemy.  It wasn’t that I’d disliked anybody specific on the Cubs (aside from Sosa, but that was completely different), but rather that I couldn’t stand Cubs fans.

Imagine my vitriol when the Giants faced the Cubs in the 2016 Divisional Series.  The Cubs fans were again in the stands at AT&T, proving they either come from everywhere or travel well, while many of us were watching the games on TV or listening on the radio.  With all of the posturing and youthful gamesmanship that came out of Chicago, the sting of watching that Giants-Cubs game in the thick of the Cubs fans once again felt fresh, and the Giants’ loss to the Cubs felt just as bad as if the Giants had just lost to their hated rivals on a Yasiel Puig walk-off.  It felt just as bad as having Madison Baumgarner pitch eight innings of shutout and watching the Giants lose it in the ninth.  It felt just as bad as watching Kobe Bryant get 60 points on 50 shots (and 10 free throws) and hearing people proclaim it a masterpiece.

Fandoms: Golden State vs. Cleveland Tirade

Let’s stay out of politics here, but 2016 was a difficult year for every cause I cheered for and every team with whom I’ve felt allegiance.  Aside from the Giants losing to the Cubs and the Niners flat-out losing their minds, the Warriors lost last year’s finals to LeBron James and the Cavaliers.  Many people that I knew in real life (primarily via Facebook, as I hardly see anyone interested in team sports on a day-today basis) and via the Internet (message boards, comments, and the like) were actively cheering against the Warriors because the Warriors had a super-team, and won more games in the regular season than the ’97 Bulls, breaking the NBA record for regular season win total.  Not all was bad for the Warriors; after all, they did pick up Kevin Durant in the offseason, but that was met with even more scorn than I knew how to handle.

One thing that irks me is that those same people who were actively cheering against the Warriors before the Durant deal because of the ‘superteam’ characteristic of the Warriors were cheering for the Cavs.  Last year’s Warriors squad had four starters that were drafted by the Warriors.  The fifth was Andrew Bogut, a first overall pick, but a player who has trouble staying healthy for an entire season.  Yes, they acquired Andre Iguodala, but Iggy is not the same player he was when he was 24.  He’s 32, and playing a position where 32 is only a few years from the expiration date.  He might be able to be a perennial sixth-man of the year candidate for another four years, but he isn’t a top tier starter anymore.  The Warriors also acquired Shawn Livingston prior to their 2015 title run; this same player was almost out of basketball entirely due to an absolutely horrific knee injury in 2007; YouTube that sucker if you don’t believe me (but do so on an empty stomach).  He’s 31 now.

The Cavs, meanwhile, have been lauded, and are what some people view as the only hope to stop the Warriors.  However, I wonder just how much people realize that Cleveland is very much a superteam that was built via less scrupulous means than what has happened to the Warriors, the Spurs, and other teams that have had three or more All-Stars in recent years.  Here’s how:

1) In just a few years prior to their rise, the Cavs had LeBron James return without giving up any players in return.  They already had Kyrie Irving  — and the only reason they had Irving, Tristan Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, and Anthony Bennett in recent years was because LeBron “took his talents to South Beach” to win his first two titles.

2) They acquired Kevin Love for (get this) an unproven rookie in Andrew Wiggins, an infamous lottery bust in Anthony Bennett (I still have hope for him), and a 2015 first round draft pick (which became Tyus Jones).  Over the first two-plus years, Cleveland has clearly won that trade, but Minnesota may have the long-term advantage here.

3) They traded malcontent Dion Waiters, energy guy Lou Amundsen, and Alex Kirk for Iman Shumpert, JR Smith, and a first round pick (which is lottery protected until 2018).  Cleveland has clearly won this trade as well, and I don’t think it’s ever going to be anywhere close.

4) They acquired center Timofey Mosgov for two first round picks that were owed to them from previous trades, and Channing Frye for former-NBAer Jared Cunningham and a future second round pick.  Neither of these trades were big risks for Cleveland, but those future picks may eventually turn out to be something – stranger things have happened; in the mean time, Mosgov and Frye have been solid contributors in this league since those trades.  Cleveland also acquired former All-Stars Maurice Williams and Richard Jefferson via free agency.

5) They recently traded Williams and Mike Dunleavy, a former top three pick, for Kyle Korver – that’s probably going to favor the Cavs in the short term.  To the non-basketball fan, these might not seem like a lot.

To put it into perspective, this would be like trading in your old bike with training wheels, some old clothes, some old helmets that you don’t use and maybe that Walkman that you had when you were fifteen and getting a $4,000 bike, a nice bike kit, and your groceries for a week.  The loss is sentimental, sure, but you’re getting far more things that you can use now, and more than the cash value of your goods on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

Even now, I see these people bashing the Warriors online and cheering for the Cavaliers, and it makes me mad.  I’m not mad at the fact that they’re cheering for the Cavaliers; as a long-suffering Warriors fan, I know what a championship means to a fan base, and the Cavs fans deserved a championship for their long wait. However, the fact that some of these fans, Cavs fans or otherwise, were only cheering for the Cavs as a way of cheering against the Warriors.  Some famous commentators are even in on this, even as others are unapologetic Warriors fans.  If you ever see Jeff Van Gundy and (particularly) Mark Jackson, broadcast a game for ESPN, it becomes clear that something is amiss.  Two similar plays will receive the comment “Stephen Curry clearly traveled there/he clearly pushed off to make space” versus “Kyrie Irving has amazing footwork, and he does a great job of creating space.”  Meanwhile, there are only subtle, nuanced differences between the two plays and the letter of the law remains the same.

Every fan thinks that their team gets the short end of the stick, and sometimes they have good reason.  Recently, the NBA has publicized its reports about plays occurring in the last two minutes of each game, and this transparency has worked against them, while some are saying it doesn’t go far enough.  A lot of Warriors fans would have liked to have some transparency surrounding the game four incident between Draymond Green and LeBron James. Did Draymond attempt to nail LeBron in the groin (which merited his suspension)?  Yes.  Did he deserve a suspension for that act? Yes, probably. However, the important question to ask is this: why was he doing it?  Hmm… I wonder.  Did LeBron receive any punishment for his role in that play, prior to stepping over Draymond?  If so, it wasn’t publicized.  And if you count a foul… well, a foul is not the same as a retroactive suspension.

Regardless, Cleveland fans (and fans all over the NBA) have their right to dislike the Warriors, just as how I have my right to dislike the teams and players that I dislike.  The point, I suppose, is that those that feel the Warriors have wronged the league, and that Draymond Green or Zaza Pachulia or Steph Curry are detestable, have a short memory.  It was just five years ago that the Warriors had made the playoffs just once in eighteen seasons; it was just two years ago that the Warriors won their first NBA championship since 1975; and NBA players have been trying to form alliances with other superstars since at least the late 1990s (Barkley joining Hakeem and Clyde Drexler).  Oh, and LeBron did it first. 😉

Political Rant

This leads me to the one section of this where I will get into politics.  I promise this will be short.

This has been a long, long election cycle, seemingly gearing up right after the start of the second Obama administration.  Through it all there’s been mud-slinging.  Oh my god, has there been mudslinging. It got to the point where I don’t think many people, Democrat, Republican, Green, etc., were even paying attention to what any of the candidates said about their policies.  With Clinton, it was slogans about her email, or whispers that she was complicit in acts of rape or murder; with Trump, it was slogans about his similarity to a certain 20th Century German leader; with Johnson, it was jokes of his absolute naiveté about many things that had nothing to do with the election.  Whoever shouted their slogan the loudest seemed like they were going to win.  This activity reminded me of the cheers that we’d come up with in college, throwing shade at others, and what Kobe apologists would term as “haterade.”  To some degree, this needed to happen, as people cannot be blind to how it appears to the other side and people need to understand the many facets that go into any public official’s character.  At the same time, this shouldn’t happen, as this means that the only people that will want to enter political office are the people who are more unscrupulous in exposing their opponent’s flaws and have the thickest hides when it comes to having their own flaws exposed.  There’s probably many candidates of outstanding moral character, who are accepting, compassionate human beings, but wouldn’t dare run for the presidency due to the scrutiny that such an office holds.  That leaves us with characters that one side can tolerate, but the other cannot.

The World witnessed the inauguration of a US president yesterday.  At that same time, hundreds were arrested, protesting his policies, his words, and his attitudes.  It was well within their right, but people did vote for him, which is something the protesters needed to (and probably did) consider.  It could have been worse.  How worse, you might ask?  Check out news of the recent presidential inauguration in the Gambia, and realize that their democratically elected president couldn’t even enter his own country for fear of retaliation from the previous administration.  That’s a scary proposition, and it puts our own political unrest into perspective.  As bad as it has been for some, and as bad as it will get for others, I don’t think either side of the US political spectrum is capable of what we’re seeing on the other side of the world in 2017.

What Fandoms Mean to Writing

Let’s forget that nasty business about politics now.  Please do.  It’s like watching eighteen wheelers play chicken all day.  It may be entertaining to some, but it’s obnoxious and wasteful. Let’s talk about fiction.  Fandom and fiction go hand-in-hand.  Sonic vs. Mario?  X-Men vs. Justice League?  Twilight vs. Odd Thomas?  We make many assumptions about people based on their tastes.  I’m not sure what assumptions Mario fans made of Sonic fans back when the SNES and Genesis were the two biggest platforms on the market, but people clearly had affinities for one over the other.

I haven’t read or watched Twilight or any of its successors.  Nor have I read or watched 50 Shades of Grey.  With any luck, I won’t.  I know enough about the story to know that it doesn’t suit me.  I might deride Twilight because of its treatment of vampires, and how it is so far divorced from the legends, the Bram Stoker novel, or even the Bela Lugosi-Christopher Lee archetype of vampires as the archetype for how those bloodsuckers look and act.  Of course, it is clear that I am no more the target audience for Twilight than a teenaged girl is the target audience for Blade.  I could never understand the “Twi-hard” fandom, but the important thing is that Stephenie Meyer does.  To translate this over to my readers, and other writers: an understanding of your target audience is critical to success in writing, but even readers who fall outside of the target audience will be aware of your book, may pick up your book, and could actually read your book.

As any reader familiar with my blog or with me will know, if I have the choice between reading something from Stephen King or some other guy, I will choose Stephen King more than 90% of the time.  I don’t care if the other writer earned a Stoker award or a Hugo award or the Amazon Breakthrough Novel award, there’s something about the way King characterizes the players in his novels, the way that he world-builds, and the references that he makes, that makes Stephen King appeal to me as a reader.

I’d never really heard any Stephen King opponents, except for people that used broad strokes, “I don’t read horror,” “doesn’t he talk about devil worship,” and “that’s just too creepy for me.”  These comments may have been based on some former experience, but they didn’t resonate with me, because I always felt that this line of commentary came from people that really didn’t know Stephen King’s writing. However, I recently read some commentary about Stephen King that was very critical, and provided criticism that had most likely come from someone who was familiar with King’s work.  Among their comments, the writer, posting in a forum, stated that the everyman quality of King’s characters didn’t speak to her and bored her, and that his characters were clearly “self-insert” protagonists.  Thus, while King speaks to me because of the variety of characters that all have some glimmer of familiarity, other readers turn away from him for it.  I consider myself to be a member of his “constant reader” fanbase.

In recent years, I’ve read a lot of free ebooks from Amazon.  One writer that I can enjoy with a critical eye is named Jason Halstead.  Halstead is probably writing with a target audience that is similar to him in mind: white, male, 30s, likes action/adventure.  He likes strong female characters, but his female characters tend to be physically strong with emotional flaws that cripple them in the long run, and one prime motivator for many of his female characters is sex.  Again, with a male action-adventure intended audience, this may be par for the course, or even progressive in the sense that the women are either kicking a** or grabbing it.  I’ve also seen the critiques of his work, and can understand where they’re coming from; a focus on the female as a sexual hunter does have the literary equivalent of the male gaze, and may come off as being male fantasy.  Such flaws don’t bother me as much as they should, because I am probably in his target demographic and I don’t “turn off” from a writer emotionally if I read such depictions; however, I can see where other readers would easily turn off, and would deride Halstead’s work.  It’s a shame; Halstead has spun many entertaining tales, and his sense of pacing is often spot on.  I hope that he does get a loyal fandom, but know that his fans will be pegged as men of certain (perhaps uncouth) tastes.

When writing with your audience (or fans) in mind, it doesn’t hurt to take into account what other readers might think about the characters that you hold dear.  Is a character too much of an archetype?  Are they a stereotype of someone who is African (or African-American, Afro-Canadian, etc.), LGBTQ, Muslim, disabled, female, etc.?  Are their motivations too transparent or too single-minded?  Readers, much like sports fans or voters, are complex individuals.  Including the right details may hook some readers, but can cause other readers to grow emotionally detached from your work.  As your base of your most loyal readers grows, and fandoms emerge from your invented worlds, so too will your base of readers who are just testing the waters.

If you learned anything from Polonius in junior year English, it’s this: “to thine own self be true.”  Be true to yourself in your fandoms and your writing, but be aware that there’s an other side.

Re-entering the Stream

April 2, 2016

Dear Friends and Fans,

After a long hiatus from creative endeavors, I’m back at it.  There’s nothing much to report right now, as I’m rereading old work in the hope that I can resuscitate it.  I still need some work on my outline, and then regain the momentum that I had in November for NaNoWriMo.

I’ve recently been buckling down on finding an agent, and hope to provide some insight into my journey as I hope to finally get the pearl of my manuscripts published.  Up until the past five months, it had been a long time — perhaps four years — since I’d made any serious efforts toward getting published.  Five months ago, I contacted a publisher.

Speaking of that publisher, I met with one of the partners today.  She’s a friend of a friend, so it’s nothing so formal, and I hoped to keep this meeting as “meeting a new friend.” I hope to count her as an ally for a long time, and hope that her label will have a lot of success for years to come.  As for publishing through her imprint, it’s too early in my journey for me to tell.  If I do not go with her imprint for this novel, that doesn’t mean that I won’t look for them in the future.Through meeting her today, my wife and I were introduced to Five Guys burgers, which  has a great burger. This publishing partner joked that she was happy to help us along our Five Guys journey, which reminded me of some of the conversations that we would have in Norrie Palmer’s Buddhism class — particularly about entering the stream.

I’m entering the stream with getting published — or thinking about it — but I’m also hoping to re-enter the stream of writing creatively and consistently.  Writing consistently is the only way that most writers get published, and the only way that a writer improves or performs at their best.  One of the many gems that I heard from my new friend today is that many people don’t understand the hard work that goes into writing, and the hard work that continues to go into getting published.  They expect that they’ll be discovered, but only the few very lucky ones get ‘discovered’ with any sort of rapidity in their ascent.  For the rest of us, it’s 5, 10, 20, countless rejection notices and time spent going back to the drawing board, again and again.

If you’re a writer, thanks for sticking with it; we need more writers in the world.  If you’re a reader, ditto, and thanks for sticking with me.  I look forward to making it worth your wait.

‘Til then,

Jim

Baba O’Reilly, Splendor in the Grass, 16 Candles, or Something…

June 26, 2013

Every year, among the last two Thursdays in June, I turn over the tube to good ol’ ESPN (wish it was better ol’ TNT) to spend the next three to four hours watching the NBA Draft.  It’s a holiday for me, of sorts; call it a day of remembrance for the naivete of youth and the trauma of early teenage years.  Since 2003, I’ve seen individuals enter the NBA who were younger than me (by the way, the first NBA player drafted who was younger than me? LeBron James, followed by the next three picks in that draft).  This marks the eleventh draft since players started being younger than me; by now, these players were born when I was in the fifth grade.

Every year, and I do mean every year, I hear the talking heads talk about players who are mature beyond their years or have maturity issues.  Perhaps because it’s bad marketing, the questions about maturity have become more subtle every year.  In 2003, they were statements; in 2005, they were questions; in 2010, they were subtle intimations; in 2013, they will be whispers that only get aired if they suddenly cut back from commercials. Every year, some players have unfortunate, well-publicized breakdowns; usually, these players are the same players that had the subtle intimation of maturity issues, but that’s not always the case.  This year, there will be a player – and I’m not sure who – who will inevitably become a headache for his teammates, coaches, general managers, ownerships, and probably even the people at the ticket booth.  They’ll chalk it up to the questionable maturity that was always there (but they only whispered about in between commercials).

These guys are 19.  Jenn, Steve, you could probably come up with a laundry list of immature things that I did when I was 19  — and I wasn’t even supposed to be one of those guys.  Sure, I didn’t stab anyone, deface anything, mysteriously cause a sliding glass door to shatter, or tell the greatest professor on campus that I was too hung-over to focus (and I wasn’t, thank you very much).  However, I was 19, and I did somewhat typical 19 year old things: midnight runs to whatever was open, making fun of my roommate and his booty calls, feeding the trolls, etc.  Now, you give a nineteen year old several million dollars and a bunch of unscrupulous businessmen who are trying to take their cut; not only are you creating a millionaire without the life experience to know how to handle wealth, you’re also creating a disdain for authority figures (they’re only in it for the money, anyhow.) 

After that, maturity doesn’t seem all that important when the bankroll is guaranteed.  However, don’t hate them because they net more in a week than you do in a year; at 19, these guys (kids really) become more than just working professionals, but also expensive commodities.  Yes, they may make $10 million dollars by the time their college graduating class walks (admittedly, not all of that is from their base salary), but they’re also raking in more than that for their ownership, particularly if the player is a huge draw from day one (such as LeBron).   Between guaranteed money coming their way and the pressure that comes with being in the limelight, these guys are more likely to blow their money on diamonds than they are to shine like diamonds.  Darko Milicic, who just turned 28 on the 20th, left the NBA after a ten year career; according to basketball-reference.com, Milicic purportedly made at least $52 million, despite being widely classified as a bust (or “draft mistake).  In that time, Milicic burned a lot of bridges, and many questioned his work ethic and ridiculed his inability to make good on what at first seemed like a heaping helping of potential greatness.  However, if you believe basketball-reference.com, he made at least $3.6 million by the time he turned 19.  What would you do if you were a millionaire at 19?

                What does this have to do with writing?  Well, a lot and a little.  We all have shortcomings that we acknowledge, and those that we don’t.  For me, the issue always has been writing children, but particularly teens.  Sure, there’s a lot of writers that aren’t particularly good at doing this; Nathaniel Hawthorne is among the most literary of examples. I’d like to think that it’s because I (or we, as writers) had a different way of looking at things when we were ten than the other 89.4% (or whatever) of the world.  By sayin g that, I start thinking of the NBA general manager who thought “oh, he was such a pain in the butt that Denny Krum couldn’t reel him in; oh, well, we’re special – we’ve got this!”  I do think I was different; I was driven, obsessed in some things, but not in others.  How many fifteen year olds are there out there that take pride in the fact that they walk funny (because their feet are sore from the previous day’s workout)?  How many sixteen year olds are given a four page creative writing project, and stay up late into the night to churn out a fifteen page short story?  Probably about the same amount of teenagers that stay up late into the night, throwing a tattered leather ball through a hoop, hoping that they will someday make the NBA.

                Even when I was nineteen, I had trouble creating an average nineteen year old in my stories.  Instead, my nineteen year olds became a pastiche of James Dean, Corey Feldman, and John Carter of Mars.  Okay, perhaps not that odd, but these were nineteen year olds who were already driving cherry collector cars and were already well versed in hand to hand combat, metallurgy, and whatever it took to catch killer aliens, burglars, and other miscreants.  I seem to recall one character who could step onto a track, three years removed from any training, and churn out sub-five minute miles, all the while so stoned that he could barely drive from the Capitola Mall to the Soquel High track.  By the way, being a druggie was this guy’s big flaw.  Yes, because even 19-year-old, ne’er-do-well druggies try to go out there and totally kill it at an All-Comer’s Meet.  Aside from it all, the guy was a rabid skirt-chaser.  Hmm, I wonder why I never really pushed forward with that story.

                I’m getting close to 30.  Not quite there yet, but it’s coming up. Fortunately, not all of my characters are 19-year-old druggies with wings on their shoes.  However, it becomes harder and harder to write about individuals in their teens.  When I do, it comes from a space in time when I was a teenager.  Cell phones? MySpace? Facebook?  Well, those hadn’t quite hit yet.  Texting?  I had no idea what that was until I was already in my early twenties.  When I was your age…  Oh wait, I’m likely not ranting at teens.  Seriously, though, I managed to avoid American Idol, sbarro, The Gap, American Eagle, and the red “no, I swear, it’s root beer” cups throughout my teen years, and I (thankfully) have no idea how I’d update that list today.

                When writing this, I can’t help but think of the fictional writer Melvin Udall, when asked how he wrote women so well, and his answer “I take a man, and I take away reason and accountability.”  Replace women with teens, and I wonder if that works.  I know it doesn’t, but I also think that the kind of teens that populate books are quite a bit different than the kind of teens that populate real life.  They’re always an exaggeration. 

When they’re angsty, they’re especially angsty:

“Do I want a chocolate cookie?  Go f### yourself, of course I want a goddamned chocolate cookie, but I’m not going to take one because I’m so f###ing pissed off!”

When they’re opinionated, they’re especially opinionated:
“Like, there should be some sort of law where old women have to wear their hair short or something.”

And when they’re intelligent, well, they’re off the charts:
“There’s ten places where the Linux kernel could improve itself, and let me illustrate why, in Latin.”

Two comics that I never hesitate to read are Zits and Luann.  They draw me in.  Ironically enough, I think that they get teenagers better than I ever could.  Then again, Jeremy Duncan, the protagonist of Zits, does things and gets away with things that would’ve put me on restriction for months.  He gets rewarded in ways that I’d never imagined for miniscule stuff.  Luann Degroot, the protagonist of Luann, is kind of the opposite.  Not only does it not seem like she’s doing anything, nobody seems to mind that she’s not doing anything.  Her friends are all interesting, but she just seems to complain about how boring her life is.  In recent arcs, I’ve wondered if they’re going to stop calling it Luann and instead start calling it Life with the Degroots.  Again, not that I’m complaining about either strip; I’ll continue reading them until I burn them so that my future children don’t get any distorted ideas of reality.

That still doesn’t solve my problem, in my inability to understand teenagers to the point that I can actually write about them convincingly.  It also doesn’t solve the NBA’s problem, to the point that one of those young men will end up completely imploding and be out of the league and out of their fortune by the time they’re my age.  At the same time, guess who’s watching a tape of the NBA Draft on Saturday night.

How would you write about teens?