Archive for the ‘Rant’ Category

Review: The Dark Tower (2017 Film)

August 8, 2017

On Saturday, my wife and I went to see The Dark Tower, the long-awaited adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, specifically The Gunslinger.  I’d read a lot of negative things about the movie, and was worried that the movie would devolve into one of those characteristic “1/4 plot, 3/4 fight scene” movies that seem to have infiltrated all of my favorite genres and franchises.  The short run time had me doubly concerned.  Nevertheless, I didn’t come away from the movie feeling particularly cheated.  In fact, I think that the movie was good for what it was.  At least, it didn’t try and fail to remain faithful to any one book.  Instead, it was the spiritual successor to The Gunslinger with a little bit of everything else thrown in for good measure.

I may not be doing my job as a long-time Stephen King aficionado, as I am not absolutely gushing over the movie.  Still, I showed up in my favorite Megan Lara shirt — probably the only one in the theater to do so, and ignored everything I’d read to that point.  I would have expected a full house on this first weekend, and was amazed that our local screening still had plenty of empty space.  We sat next to a few stoner teens.  We didn’t need to ask those teens whether they were fans, as they were chattering about their confusion pretty much as soon as they sat down.  It didn’t matter to me.  This was the weekend that I’d circled on my calendar months ago, and nothing was going to stand in the way of me getting a sense for the overall film.

First thing’s first: I’d recommend going to the film, if only to see how thousands of pages can be condensed into 95 minutes.  At the same time, I’d warn any Dark Tower reader that there’s things that you’ll enjoy, and things that will bother you a bit.  I’ve come up with five positive aspects and six negative aspects to consider if you’re on the fence.

As some of these deal with the climax or end of the film, or deal with novels outside of The Gunslinger, I’ll have to slap one big SPOILER ALERT to everything that you read below.  If you’re the type of person who hates spoilers, then this is what I recommend: read the bold text and then go see the movie.  You can get back to this later.

Things The Dark Tower Did Right:

1.) Continuity Nods: Granted, I probably didn’t catch everything, as it might take a few stop frames to do so, but the production crew certainly put in a few details that are nods to other books in the series or other Stephen King books.  the number 19 comes up several times. As does 1408, a nod to a Stephen King short story.  We don’t hear about “the beam” in quite the same way, but we get to see a beam of light attack the tower.  They refer to “the shine” more than they do in the books, which is a nod to The Shining and Dr. Sleep.  Finally, there’s a small discussion in which Roland draws a wheel with the Dark Tower at its hub, evoking a favorite saying about “Ka,” his world’s answer to fate.

2.) Casting Idris Elba as Roland Deschain: I’ll get grilled for this one in certain circles.  Yes, Roland was supposed to be a skinny, tall dude with piercing blue eyes.  Elba is at least tall, scraping the skies at 6’3″.  He’s not exactly skeletal, and it looks like the man could handle himself at the weight bench.  I think that the thing that really makes Elba stand out is his gravitas.  Yes, you could get someone like Keanu Reeves out there to play the role of the solemn hero, but Elba lends power behind his solemnity.  The only thing that I didn’t like about his characterization is the implication that this would have for a future conflict between Roland and Detta Walker. My wife would also mention that Roland smiles too much (i.e., at all).

3.) Streamlined characterization: Considering that they’ve pulled five books into one film, they did a great deal to make the movie less complex.  There’s no Eddie, no Odetta or Detta or Susannah, and no Susan Delgado, either.  As far as Roland goes, there is no love interest — or any real interaction with women.  Jake makes eyes at a young girl, but the story relegates most characters, outside of Roland, Jake, and “Walter” to the third string.  The only “second stringers” are Jake’s mother and (maybe) Sayre.   Considering how much they’ve condensed, it’s surprising that none of Roland’s other ka-tet is even mentioned.

4.) Shift in Focus: Do you want to make a movie with mass appeal? Put a kid in it.  Yes, The Gunslinger included Jake.  However, Jake doesn’t appear until the waystation.  He becomes important to the story, and to Roland’s characterization, as Roland nears The Man in Black, but that’s it.  The Dark Tower movie focuses on Jake, and starts with Jake’s experience, wherein he sees things that are not of his world.  Jake’s quotation from the book “there are other worlds than these” does not appear in the film (except on the promotional poster), but it is reflected within the movie — just in the reverse of what one might expect.

Ultimately, this aids in making viewers relate to the movie.  By the time they’ve seen the film, viewers have either been a teenage boy or have met one.  They have not met an otherworldly gunslinger.  Some purists may hate this switch, but I understand it.  One stoned-off-his-gourd guy sitting near me quipped that the movie was like Harry Potter.  I can understand this; the tropisms are evocative of Harry Potter, for all of the right reasons.

5.) Left It Open Ended: If this is all that we get of The Dark Tower, then at least we’ve seen a little of everything.  However, this movie is like a new series Dr. Who episode in the sense that the story resolves the main plot, but leaves with the characters ready to go on another adventure.  In this way, the movie does something that we don’t always see in individual books within the series — it ties together everything that needs to be tied together.

Things The Dark Tower Movie Did Wrong:

1.) Run time: I like long books.  I also like long movies.  I’m not talking about Lawrence of Arabia long, but 90 minute run-times are usually reserved for comedies, not epic action-fantasies.  Heck, Superbad was 1h 53 minutes, that’s 18 minutes longer than The Dark Tower.  Eighteen minutes would have been just enough time to add some backstory about how Roland knows The Man in Black, or why Stephen Deschain and Walter were at odds.  Eighteen minutes could have been enough time to show The Man in Black hold greater dominion over his underlings, or create an extended fight scene between Roland and The Man in Black.  1 hour 35 minutes was just a bit too short for the genre.

2.) Fight Scene Rather than Palaver:  In The Gunslinger, Roland’s interactions with the Man in Black are less about the fight than they are about the testing of wits.  As much as Roland’s struggle is a physical journey, it is also a psychological challenge.  In the book, Roland kills everybody in Tull after The Man in Black has poisoned their minds, but he only has a brief physical fight with The Man in Black, everything else is verbal.   In the movie, Walter’s silver tongue is nothing compared to his telekinesis.  Yes, he uses the power of suggestion multiple times for some important scenes, but the last scene is only a fight of the mind in the sense that Walter’s telekinesis is moving things with his mind.

3.) Condensed Narrative: It was clear that the writers were trying to get as many nods in to the book series as they could before their run-time was over.  After all, if this is all that we, Dark Tower fans, get, then it might as well have a little bit of everything.  We didn’t get Shardik, the giant bear, but we did get some forest predator.  We didn’t get Roland slipping into the mind of Jack Mort, but we did get him raiding a gun store.  We didn’t get his reunion with Sheemie, but we did get a look at the psionic blasts directed at the Dark Tower.  With items spanning five books, The Dark Tower series may need to reshuffle some material, or bring in new material entirely, in order to help frame any future installments.

4.) Too Much New York: Yes, New York has a few vital scenes in the series, but there isn’t anything except a little backstory until The Drawing of the Three.  Before Roland meets Eddie, he doesn’t spend any time in New York.  During this iteration, much of the action takes place in New York.

5.) Too Little Backstory: Aside from the encounter in Tull, one of the major omissions from the movie is Roland sharing what life was like in Gilead before the fall.  There is no mention of Roland’s mother, nor of Roland’s ability to outsmart Cort.  We get much more about Jake’s background, something that we only briefly glimpsed in the novel, than we get of Roland.  This, in part, works to the movie’s great benefit, but I think it comes as a great detriment to Roland’s characterization.

6.) No Oy! For everything that The Dark Tower introduces out of sequence, the one thing that bothered me the most was not the inclusion of the house, or too much time spent outside of Mid-World, it was the ommission of a little billy-bumbler named Oy.  The creature, which is like a domesticated raccoon, is the mascot, if not an important character, for Roland and his cadre of travelers.

For Kacie

August 4, 2017

Hello Faithful Readers:

I am sorry for the long delay.  Things have been very busy over here.  I have various projects, and my work time is starting to bleed into my home time.  Of course, what do I end up doing with all of these projects?  I end up procrastinating,   I end up researching dead-ends that go on forever, and I end up watching clips of the Simpsons on YouTube before I nod off.  Ironically, I was never as much of a Simpsons fan as my friends.  That’s not why I’m here this evening.  I’m here to gather my thoughts and write a fond farewell to a colleague of mine in the hopes that she will see this.  Sure, she’ll get a card, but this will be a bit more free-flowing.

No, no, she’s not dying or anything — heaven forbid.  My day-job editor of the past two years is retiring.  She is the first person to retire from my company in the six-plus years that I have been there.  We’ll replace her, sure, but we’ll never quite replace her.  I know I talk about my work life on here more than I should.  Ironically, I don’t like talking about work and I don’t intend to talk about work when I blog. If you’d like to learn a little about my colleague, read on.  If you’re looking for any of my regular features, on writer’s websites, my writing, or any writing, I’ll catch you next time!

With Kacie being such a film fan, and a benchmark film in my life on the horizon (Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, as if you couldn’t guess), I put two and two together and here I am.

Thank you, faithful readers.  Keep reading, and keep writing!

~Jim

For Kacie

In a past life, I was the editor at this company, my current employer.  Because of this, I was now on the interview committee whenever we needed a new editor.  I’d interviewed and recommended several people as my replacements. Some turned out good, and some were… well, let’s not dwell on that.  Kacie came into our office and breathed life into a place that some had (not so) jokingly called a morgue.  Her cheer was a salve that helped smooth over some rough patches and help get our motley collection of cogs working harmoniously once again.

I remember when Kacie first came into our lives.  It was a hot day, and our building had invoked Murphy’s Law; we’d gone without air conditioning for perhaps the first day that we’d ever actually needed such a thing.  I was out of practice with interviewing people, and had added perhaps a few too many questions to my standard repertoire.  She’d answered all of the questions that I had in great depth, and added levity to the interview that few will do in such a situation.  It was the perfect interview; not only was she not desperate for the job, she had another more pleasant alternative facing her if she didn’t get the job: retirement.  She interviewed because she wanted the job, not because she was in any great rush to jump back into work. After what must have been an hour of interviews that included our other team members, I gave her a test; this test was toward the end of a long day for us, as well, and it was something that I’d had to compose just a few hours earlier (as our old test had disappeared).  Thank you, Kacie, for your patience that day, and thank you for your candor!

It was remarkable!  Here was an editor candidate who not only admitted that spelling wasn’t a particular strength, but joked that what set her apart as a candidate was her age!  She did well on the editing test, but she’d already done so much to win us over.  Two years ago, we were happy to see her come aboard; now, two years later, we’re sorry to see her say goodbye.  Thank you, Kacie, for winning us over, and proving our gut feelings right!

One thing that is inherent in my position (as well as suited to my talents) is silence.  I often work for hours without any interaction with my colleagues — not because I don’t relish it, but because it’s what I need to do my job particularly well.  I go in, plug in, and stay quiet.  Every morning, and on many evenings, she would come into my office and chat about affairs of the World, music, books, and most of all… movies.  I couldn’t add much to the latter, as my taste in movies extends all of the way from Highlander to (hopefully) The Dark Tower. However, I’d hear something about a new movie about once per week.  It was interesting, because Kacie should have been a movie critic or a book critic, and probably would have been one of the two if our local paper still had such a thing. Every conversation would leave me thinking about something new about characterization, remind me about mood and tone, and about the way good fiction can raise your spirits.  For all of that and more, I want to thank Kacie for breaking the silence.

I was always happy to put little factoids into my work, because I knew that she’d pick up on them and make comments.  I’d even put in a few quips or some flowery language because I knew that it would give her a laugh.  For reference, I almost never put such a thing in my business writing before, and may have to curb what little I do now that she’s on her way out.  As I look at my latest business writing, a task that I am also addressing as I draft this, I think back to the last little easter egg that I’ve written: “Defining success takes much more than a feeling.”  Yes, it’s subtle, but isn’t that what we strive for as writers?  Thank you, Kacie, for laughing at those intended references, and even those that I never intended in the first place.

SIDE NOTE: One of these days, someone should figuratively hit their audience over the head with the symbolism of… a brick.

Unfortunately, I am under the weather. I am running short on evening hours, and do not want this to be a prolonged illness.  I would like to write more, but my energy level is waning, and I want to wrap this up before I set it aside.  Thus, I must abruptly bid you adieu. I hope you have all enjoyed this small tribute to Kacie.

Thank you, Kacie. The team will miss you.

Mr. Owen Ventures into Podcasting

July 9, 2017

Author’s Note: Apologies for the delay.  The July 4th holiday (America’s Independence Day) has fouled up my schedule, and I am trying to get back on track.  This coming week is going to be very busy for me, but I hope to post another author website feature on Wednesday.

Jim “James” Owen’s podcast appeared on Wednesday, July 5, 2017.  To hear it, click here.

Four months ago, I answered a post on Nanowrimo about being part of a podcast.  A few missed connections later, I was moving forward with my first foray into voice media since I was broadcasting basketball games at my college’s radio station.  I was on my way toward being a guest on The Modern Meltdown (For more about the Modern Meltdown, click here), an entertainment website that has scores of podcasts about everything from books and movies to video games.

It was not necessarily an easy process, as The Modern Meltdown is Australian, and Holly Hunt, the host of the Beyond the Words (click here) podcast, resides in Canberra. Canberra is seventeen hours ahead of the Bay Area, my stomping grounds.  Thus, 12:05AM Thursday here is 5:05PM Friday there, and 7AM here is 2AM the next day there, and so on.  Due to this significant time difference, and the fact that we both work more or less regular hours, either a Skype call or a phone interview would be out of the question.  I had to get creative, as I was looking forward to this opportunity, and I wasn’t about to let a time difference get in the way.  Thus, I had to make my own recording studio.

My Makeshift Recording Studio

Over the years, I have also done some recording for my company’s webinars.  Through this process, I’ve grown accustomed to using Audacity.  Audacity (click here) is a free, open source digital audio recording software package that has editing capabilities.  Designed and released in 2000, this package may not have great aesthetics, but basic capabilities are easy to find and intuitive to use.  All I needed was a microphone.

One of the problems that I’ve noted is that a lot of computer microphones don’t pick up bass nearly as much as they pick up higher registers, which makes my voice sound nasally.  When I was working on the webinars, the best microphone I’d used was a lavalier microphone that we’d simply used as a computer microphone.  Somewhere, I also have a wand microphone, but I haven’t bothered to look for that in years.  The microphone on my laptop picks up too much sound from my fan, and my phone?  Ha ha ha, that’s a good one!  I had a few other workarounds that I couldn’t get working, so I was left with a few interesting alternatives.  By using the microphone on my camera (very good quality sound), and capturing myself on video, I was able to pick up a broader register of sound.  I used another program (Lightworks) to separate the audio from the video by converting an .MP4 file to an MP3, and then used Audacity to clean up the audio.

This still left me with the issue of where to get the optimal sound.  While working on the webinars, our recording studio is an office with paned-glass doors and windows.  No matter where I sat in the room, the audio would pick up the sound of my voice bouncing off of the glass, giving everything a slight echo (or, if not, then the sensation that I was recording in a tunnel or a bathroom stall).  Luckily, my home office has two small windows and a great deal of solid wall.  Thus, while recording, the only things I needed to worry about were my voice, the content, and my cadence.

I was tasked with addressing the very beginning of a story.  How do I construct an opening?  Well, that’s a long story for me, but Holly Hunt (click here), a fellow author, was kind enough to provide me with a few questions so that we could play off of each other.

For my podcast debut with the host, Holly Hunt, please click here.

What I’ve Learned

Through this process, I noticed a few things:

  1. Mapping this out allowed me to be much more succinct with my answers, and (hopefully) more informative.

2. It’s hard to sound like an authority when the item over which I have authority, my book, is not even published yet.

3. I had a bit of trouble anticipating my audience, as my only experience with Aussies has been discussing basketball video games (as well as a few web comics I’ve followed over the years).  Was I over-explaining a little by describing The Scarlet Letter as if they’d never heard of it? I don’t know.

4. I think there was some broken communication about the intent of the questions, and a few questions were not as I remembered them (funny thing, memory).

5. Ultimately, Holly Hunt was great to work with, and I feel like she did a great job of putting together the final product.  It was an experience that I’d definitely take on again.

I listen to a few podcasts, and one thing that I notice in those podcasts is sound quality, but another is the amount of energy that the participants bring to the table.  If they bring too little, it makes me feel a little bored, but if they bring too much, it’s like listening to monster truck commercials for half an hour.  I think that both Holly and I brought the appropriate amount of energy, and I’m fairly certain that our Audacity-augmented process helped.  What do you think?  Did we do well?  Is there anything else you’d like to know surrounding getting started with a novel?  Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Did you miss that link for my turn on Holly Hunt’s Beyond the Words?  Click here.

About Holly Hunt:

Ms. Hunt, host of Beyond the Words on The Modern Meltdown, is a Canberra, Australia, -based author.  She has published a dozen graphic and written word novels spanning the fantasy and horror genres.  In July 2017, Ms. Hunt published The Devil’s Wife (Click here), a print novel in which Lucifer is alive and roaming the streets of New York City.

About James (call me Jim) Owen:

Mr. Owen, a native of Santa Cruz, California, is an author who is looking to take flight.  Absconded by Sin, his first novel, is currently in closed beta.  A graduate of St. Mary’s College of California (with another stop at UCSC), Mr. Owen has spent the past 6+ years in market research.  Prior to that, he taught high school English… and lived to tell the tale.

Writing, Basketball, and Other Things

June 26, 2017

Author’s Note: For those of you looking for another website tour, don’t worry! One will come.  I will continue my website tour on Wednesday, as I evaluate the website of author Suzanne Collins, writer of the famed Hunger Games trilogy.

As writers, we are so fortunate.  We get to share our thoughts with the World.  The format doesn’t matter so much. Poetry, songs, prose; blogs, flash fiction, novels.  They’re all what we get to do.  Often times, they are what we must do.

On Saturday, poet Stephen Kessler (link here) shared his poetry with us at the Santa Cruz Community Writers monthly meeting.  He shared the circumstances of his poems (a nice glass of pinot noir, if you go for such a thing), the places that inspired his poems (the San Lorenzo River, the Kuumbwa Jazz Center) and the feelings that he had that inspired his poems.  He is one of those authors who likes to write in crowded places, and he would bring his notebook to Kuumbwa to write before, during, and after concerts.  He gets to write in the places that inspire him.

I’ve enjoyed blogging, as I get to share my thoughts with you.  I’ve also enjoyed sharing my work with the Santa Cruz Community Writers, a group that I am beginning to feel comfortable calling my own.  I am also learning, time and time again, that I need to work on my skills as an orator.  When I read my work, I often go too fast.  I just need to remember the lyrics to “Feelin’ Groovy.”  I need to record myself in order to better understand my pace and my diction.  It’s the easiest way of overcoming my chronic speed-speech.

At some point, I will share my fiction with you, dear readers, so please be on the lookout for when that time comes.  Right now, my work is in beta, with another work still months away from reaching my alpha reader.  I am glad that I get to share my fiction with friends, and greatly anticipate the day that I can share these with the wider world.

I don’t have a long, semi-connected diatribe to share with you today, but I thought I’d share a few thoughts about things going on in and around my life.

Editing

I’ve been editing my latest work, Their Sharpest Thorns.  It has not been as consistent as I’ve anticipated, and I might not finish this editing effort until the Fall.  Nevertheless, I have a few long weekends in front of me, so I might be able to carve out more than i think I can.

New Projects

I’ve begun work on an untitled project that is classic horror, with particular emphasis on body horror.  I’m thinking of making it more comical.  My primary focus right now is world-building.

Podcast

I will be featured on an upcoming episode of The Modern Meltdown’s Beyond the Words, and would like to thank Holly Hunt for putting this all together!  I will provide a link in a bonus post this week, once it hits the Internet!

Camp NanoWrimo July 2017

I’ve toyed with the notion of completing another Camp Nanowrimo next month.  Given the season, and the fact that I have a lot of other projects going on, I don’t think that I will participate in July’s event, even if I can manage a sizable word count.

The NBA Draft

If you came here for the writing, then I’ll bid you farewell until next time, because the rest of this is all basketball!

Ever since I was young, the NBA Draft was like Christmas in June.  When I was at the height of my basketball fanaticism, I watched easily 60+ Warriors games per year (I’d say more, but let’s play it conservative).  I awaited the NBA season, wondering if Antawn Jamison would go for 50 again, wondering if Adonal Foyle would find a bigger role in the offense, and wondering if Donyell Marshall would put it all together.  I rejoiced when the Warriors added names like Tony Delk and Muggsy Bogues, and lamented the trade that sent Jamison, Fortson, Mills, and Welsch to Dallas for Van Exel, Popeye, and cap relief.  Whether the Warriors were rumored to draft Todd Fuller or take a flyer on Chris Porter, I was inspired by all of the potential that these young men held.

Many professional basketball players come from dire circumstances.  They do not come from the suburbs, or even those penthouse apartments overlooking the Embarcadero, they come from the projects, the rural country bunkhouses, and the oppressive city.  Regardless of race, religion, or national origin, these players often come from places where they have to live in fear of the bullet, the switchblade, or the needle.  They have friends, brothers, and neighbors that have succumbed to addiction, joined gangs, or been gunned down in a case of mistaken identity.  It’s not all bad for these players, as many come from loving families, with dedicated mothers and fathers, but it can get so much better for those who click in professional basketball, either in the NBA, or the many esteemed overseas leagues.  Players sometimes find their niche in places like Iran, where they use basketball to overcome prejudice and preconceptions, and live within a society that many of us might consider hostile to Americans.  Even if players do not “make it” in the NBA, they OFTEN get to make it somewhere else, and get to spend ten years out of their lives doing something that they love for a living.

I didn’t have much of a horse in this race for the 2017 NBA Draft.  My cheering interests didn’t have many NBA-bound players, and my teams didn’t have many (or any) picks.  There’s a few players that I really wanted to see go to certain teams, and certain teams that I really wanted to see do well.  Here’s a few quick hits:

  • I feel like both the Celtics and the Sixers got what they needed out of the trade of top picks, and that the Sixers have really hit a home run.  They’ll be exciting for years to come, provided they’re all healthy.  If the Sixers are healthy, they should be a playoff team this year.  If the Celtics are healthy, they might take down Cleveland this year.
  • I’m happy to see the Suns get a star.  I have a feeling that Josh Jackson will be the best player out of this draft.
  • De’Aaron Fox and Jonathan Isaac went to the exact two teams that I wanted them to go to.  I have a feeling they’ll be great fits, and I’m glad that the Kings got a high character guy.
  • Speaking of the Kings, I think that they have two immediate starters that come out of this draft, and two more that will eventually become major contributors in the NBA. I’m just not exactly sure who that second immediate starter will be.
  • Thank you, Philadelphia, for breaking the streak of players that I’ve heard about all year long. Anzejs Pasecniks, I hope to one day pronounce your name correctly.
  • Jordan Bell!!!! Jordan Bell!!! With the Warriors getting Bell and signing Chris Boucher, I think that they’ve come out as real winners in a draft where they didn’t even have a pick!
  • Nigel Williams-Goss and Jabari Bird were vastly underrated.

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!

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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.

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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.