Thursday, February 27, 2014

Movie Review: Rush

I suppose if you play basketball at the "Y" you have some idea what it takes to be a professional basketball player: the physical stamina, the skills, the talent.  Of course, you know you'd never be able to compete at a pro level (running up and down that court kicks your ass) but at least you know the joy of a well-placed basket.

It's sort of the same way with me and racing.  Since I've driven on a racetrack I know something of the physical endurance (you'd be amazed), concentration, discipline, and skills that race car driving takes.  Oh, sure, I know I could never compete at the pro level (maybe the amateur level) but I have an inkling of what it takes to be a professional race driver.  I do know that after 20 minutes on a racetrack I am exhausted and that I gave the effort the greatest concentration I have ever given anything.  Anecdotally, a driving instructor told me that a surgeon said driving on a racetrack takes more concentration than doing surgery.

The common lament among racing fans is "When will there be a good movie about racing?"  Probably the best movie about racing is 1966's Grand Prix directed by John Frankenheimer.  The opening sequence is amazing.  But the film goes down hill from there turning into a bit of a soap opera and, like all racing movies, tends to concentrate on the sensational bits about racing: i.e., the crashes.

Last night I watch Rush, directed by Ron Howard.  This is a film about the true story of the rivalry between two Formula One (F1) drivers, James Hunt and Niki Lauda.  And I'm feeling conflicted about the movie.  It is, in total, a very good movie about two men who were completely different in style, personality, and motivation.  Lauda (as portrayed in the film) was very serious, saw racing as a business and driving was only a means to be successful in that business.  Hunt (as portrayed in the film) was a playboy, loved to drive, loved racing for the excitement of it, and had a joie de vivre that Lauda couldn't seem to understand.  There could hardly be two different men.

And Chris Hemsworth, who is best known for playing Thor in the Avengers movies, did an amazing job playing John Hunt, right down to the right accent (Hemsworth is Australian, Hunt was British).  When Hunt's wife leaves him for Richard Burton, you see Hunt's pain even though he is joking about it with the press.  I was very impressed and it showed that Hemsworth can actually act.

But, with the exception of one exciting race sequence where Hunt is trying to win the F1 World Championship and Lauda's horrible accident, the movie could have been about any sport or even business, acting, writing.  Racing was more of a background to the story.  Again, the movie did not capture what it takes to be a race car driver.  Maybe no movie can.

If you're not a racing fan, Rush is a very good movie about two men with completely different approaches to life.  If you are a race fan, Rush is a very good movie but don't expect it to be a great racing movie.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Lazy Writing

A while back I watched (on Blu-Ray) a movie called 2 Guns.  It was fairly entertaining and occasionally funny for a cop/buddy/action movie.  It starred Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington as (respectively) a Navy NCIS-type officer and a DEA Agent.

The biggest problem I had with the movie was not the stars, not the acting or direction, but the writing.  It was lazy.  The bad guy, played by Bill Paxton, was (wait for it) a CIA agent who was in cahoots with a drug dealer shipping drugs into the US to pay for CIA operations.

And I'm thinking "Come on, guys!" (I guess it was kind of sexist of me to assume the writers were men thinking women wouldn't write this tripe)(they were men).  Take some stupid and paranoid conspiracy theory about the CIA and use it as a basis for your plot?  I was almost waiting for the CIA to distribute crack in the 'hood.

This is just lazy writing.  Instead of coming up with an original idea, they rehash an old, desiccated conspiracy.  How often has the "CIA is evil" plot been used in movies and books and TV shows?

Don't be a lazy writer!  Don't use overused plots, ideas, tropes, and cliches.  Don't rehash decades-old ideas.  Be original!

That extends to other areas of writing, too.  Make sure your character development is strong.  I know, I'd rather be writing a shoot-out or a car chase or a love scene but then you're not writing good fiction, you're making comic books.  No, wait, that's an insult to comic books.  You're writing stuff like 2 Guns.

Writing is hard work.  You do it because you love it.  So you want to do the best possible job you can.  So, don't be lazy.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Firing Guns in Space

Saturday on "Mythbusters" (which I didn't watch until Sunday night having DVR'd it), they fired a gun in a vacuum.  This was to see if a gun could fire in space.  (I didn't blog about this until today because I had to think about it for a bit because I was sure something was wrong.)

Now, I'm keenly interested in this subject because in my science fiction novel Rock Killer there are many guns fired in space, specifically on the Moon, in the first chapter.  My research at the time of writing the novel led me to believe that guns would fire in space.  Primers and propellant are self-oxidizing (they don't need oxygen in the air to burn) so the lack of oxygen wasn't an issue.  The one thing I couldn't find a definite answer to was vacuum welding.  Would the tight-fitting metal parts in a gun and/or cartridge vacuum weld in vacuum?  Don't know.

I was very curious to find out how Mythbusters was going to test this.  Because in space the vacuum is near absolute (interstellar medium has about one hydrogen atom per cubic centimeter) and that's very difficult and expensive to replicate that on Earth.

Way back when when Mythbusters set out to disprove the conspiracy theory that there was no Moon landing, NASA let them use one of their vacuum chambers that probably would come pretty close to space conditions.  But I sincerely doubted NASA was going to let them fire a gun in that gazillion-dollar vacuum chamber.  And I was correct.

The Mythbusters built a vacuum chamber out of bullet-resistant plastic (which meant long seams to leak air through).  And yes, they made a partial vacuum in that chamber.  The problem is there is an asymptotic relationship.  As you approach a perfect vacuum, the energy needed to extract those last few molecules reaches infinity.  So the lower vacuum you want, the more energy it will take to create and maintain it.  They didn't show the vacuum pump used but I doubt it was very big (it wasn't looming in the background).

According to Wikipedia, outer space has a gas pressure of 0.0001 Pascal (Pa) or one ten thousandth of a Pascal to less than 0.000000000000003 Pa.  That's three quadrillionths of a Pascal.  Since atmospheric pressure is about 101,300 Pa (or 14.7 pounds per square inch) the air around you is about one billion times higher than the highest gas pressure in space.  (The actually atmospheric pressure you experience depends on air temperature, your altitude, and the weather you are experiencing.)

And, according to Wikipedia, it is possible to get about as low as one millionth of a Pascal of vacuum on Earth which is below the upper range for space.  But that's using very specialized and expensive equipment.

The Mythbusters had a vacuum gauge on their vacuum chamber and when they fired the gun it read -90 kPa (or -90,000 Pa).  Atmospheric pressure is 101,300 Pa as stated above.  So they got the gas pressure in their chamber down to 11,300 Pa (101,300 - 90,000) which is a very, very poor vacuum.  In fact, 11.15% of atmospheric pressure remained and the pressure in the chamber was 1.64 pounds per square inch.  Hardly space-like conditions.

The gun fired, but this was nothing like the conditions in space.  Their vacuum had 113 million times more pressure than the highest pressure in space (0.0001 Pa).

Even if you use the Karman line (the point above the Earth, 100 kilometers above sea level where traditionally space is said to start) as your definition of "space" the gas pressure there is 0.032 Pa and the Mythbusters "space" had 353,125 times more pressure than that.

So it's still an open question if a gun will fire in space.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Characters Who Are Neurodiverse

Over the weekend of the 14, 15, and 16th I attended a science fiction and fantasy convention called RadCon in Pasco, WA.  And somehow I ended up on a panel called "Writing Neurodiversity" all about:
Creating neurodiverse characters with autism, Aspegers, ADHD, bipolar, OCD, and synesthesia, can give your writing new dimensions. Come learn the right way to represent these unique strengths and weaknesses.
And, it seemed, I was there as the bipolar representative (I was diagnosed Type II bipolar about five years ago).

It was a very interesting panel and I learned a great deal about autism, Aspergers, and synesthesia (there were two women on the panel with synesthesia, which is a very interesting phenomena in which letters and words and sounds manifest to them as colors or smells or some other sensation in addition to just the primary sensation).

The problem is, the panelists agreed, that portrayals of people with these conditions (I hesitate to use the term "mental illness" because it's often more like a "mental difference" than a negative thing) in popular culture are cliched and "flat" (my term).  The character is defined often by their condition. "Monk" is OCD, Sheldon Cooper is Aspergers, etc.  But the real-life experiences of these people is so much more than their condition.  I know this personally because I am more than my bipolar.  Yes, when I'm not on my meds I can have crippling depression mixed with manic episodes that would have probably destroyed my marriage if it weren't for the infinite patience of my wife.  But I am not just my bipolar.

As much as you wouldn't write a cliched character, you shouldn't write cliched persons with these conditions.  And that means research.  And the best place to research is in the writings (blogs, etc.) of people who have these conditions and talk about what it is like for them.  Yes, some scientific investigation is appropriate but if you want to know what it feels to have Aspergers, then find a blog by an Aspy.

I've never written about being bipolar on this blog before so this blog would not be a good source.  But I am sure there are many blogs written by people with one of the four times of bipolar (as I said, I'm type II).  Your character with a neurodiverse condition needs to be as layered, nuanced, and complex as your character who is does not have such a condition.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Fake Realistic Dialog

Have you ever watched a Robert Altman film?  Altman's most famous work is probably MASH (the movie, not the TV show, the TV show had asterisks between the letters).

The other day I spotted The Caine Mutiny on my Dish Network guide and thought, "Wow, the good ol' Caine Mutiny with Humphrey Bogart and all those other guys and I haven't seen that in years."  So I set up the DVR to record it.  But when I sat down to watch it, turns out it wasn't the old classic movie, but some made-for-TV movie called "The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial" and it was directed by Robert Altman.  I watched it for a bit then had to turn it off because, a) it wasn't what I wanted to watch and b) I don't like Robert Altman's style.  I believe MASH is the only movie of his I've actually sat through.

The problem is that Altman tries to be too realistic with dialog.  If you listen to people talk they talk like people in an Altman film.  They talk over each other, they repeat things, they don't speak in complete sentences.  It's very realistic dialog that Altman portrays.  And I can't watch it.  Probably because with many years of T.V. and movie watching, I'm used to how everyone else does dialog.  It's not as realistic as Altman but it's easy to understand.  I don't know if it's because I've been trained to expect dialog in movies and T.V. to sound a certain way, or because in the pursuit of realism, Altman leaves his audience behind.

As a writer you have a similar conundrum.  You want your dialog to sound authentic, but if you write as people actually talk, no one would be able to read it for long.

"Uh, whadday think about, uhm, going to Dairy Quee-"
"Naw, DQ sucks, les go to McDonalds and have a cheeseburger."
"-have a cheeseburger, yeah, cool.  Now?
"Uhm, yeah, what time is-"
"'Bout five or so."
"Yeah, les go McDonalds.  You wanna drive?"
"Yeah, I'll drive, you gonna chip in for gas?"

See what I mean?  How would you like to read 80,000 words of that?  Oh, you're saying, that's because the subject is mundane.  Well, yes.  So let's try some copyrighted material in the same style:

"He's here."
"Obi-Wan Kenobi? What makes you think-?"
"Tremor in the Force. The, uh, last time I felt it was in the presence of, you know, my old master."
"He's gotta be he's dead by now, I'd think, don't yo-?"
"Don't underestimate the Force."
"Oh, all the Jedi are extinct and their fire has left the, uhm, universe. You, my friend, are all that's left of their religion thing."
(Beep)
"Yeah, what is it?"
"We have an emergency alert in detention block AA-23."
"Damn, you mean the the Princess' block? Put all sections on alert-now!"
"Obi-wan's here and the Force is with-"
"Him, yes.  If you're right, he can't escape or-."
"He is not plannin' to escape.  I have to face him alon-"
"Alone? Okay.  Better you than me, pal."

(That was harder than I thought it would be).  But do you see what I'm saying.  You have to write dialog that is not realistic but reads as if it is.  Otherwise you'll jar your reader out of your story.

How do you do that?  By having the dialog clear yet sound real.  I learned to do it by reading and writing . . . a lot.  But please don't write like Robert Altman directs.

PS: Did you know that "dialog" can also be spelled "dialogue" and means the same exact thing?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Cover Reveal: The Glow by Helen Whapshott

Today on Writer's Thoughts we are happy to exclusively reveal the cover of The Glow by Helen Whapshott releasing March 1, 2014.

Helen was born in Aldershot (UK) in the year of 1980. She survived the infant, junior and senior schools of Cove. Helen started her working life in a bakery before deciding catering wasn’t really for her that she wanted to work in the care industry.

After attending Farnborough College of Technology, where she did her diploma in nursery nursing she took on a variety of roles that included being a Nursery Nurse, a Special Needs Teaching assistant, a support worker for people with special need and a care assistant in a nursing home.

She’s worked as a Health Care Assistant at a local hospital for eight years and also works as a bank carer at a children’s hospice in surrey.

She has five wonderful nephews, a lovely niece, two very understanding parents and extremely patient brother and sister.

Helen has always loved stories, ever since her Mum used to read Hans Christian Anderson and Roald Dahl to her at bedtime.  When she learnt to read by herself she couldn’t get enough of books becoming a big fan of authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s, Sherlock Holmes stories, as well as Neil Gaiman and Ben Aaronovitch.

With a love of reading came a love of creative writing. She recalls how her first hit was, “How The Kangaroo Got It’s Hop, at infant school when I was six, but I missed out on seeing my classmate’s enjoyment because I was off several weeks with the mumps; when I got back the hype had died down. A disappointment I’ve never really gotten over! Being able to share my creations this time and is a dream come true.”

And now . . . the cover of The Glow:


What would you do if you saw a ghost? Would you ignore it hoping it would fade away, or would you go up to it and see if it needed your help? 

When Thirteen year old Megan Webb discovers she has been gifted with The Glow, so called because it gives off a light, like a candle in a dimly lit room attracting ghosts, spirits, and others who belong to the supernatural and paranormal world, she has to learn to come to terms with seeing the world in a whole new way.  
And if this wasn’t enough to deal with during the delicate years between childhood and adolescence, her parents makes the shocking decision to move her away from everything and everyone she knows to live in a creepy hotel inherited by a late aunt. 

But it isn’t just the hotel that is creepy, the whole town seems a little odd until she makes friends with a strange boy, a Witch, and a chain-smoking spirit guide who help her adjust. Life couldn’t get any more complicated … could it? 

AVAILABLE FORMATS: e-Book on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com and Paperback available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. (It will be available for other retailers after October 2014)



Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Common Misconceptions

Today is "President's Day."  Everyone knows that.  Right?

Wrong.  Today is "Washington's Birthday" as an official government holiday as listed by the Office of Management and Budget.  As their website explains: "This holiday is designated as 'Washington’s Birthday' in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code."  In 1968 a law called the "Uniform Monday Holiday Act" changed Washington's Birthday from February 22nd (his actual birthday) to the third Monday in February so that government employees and bankers can have a three-day weekend (this is also when Memorial Day and Labor Day were moved to Monday; Martin Luther King Jr. Day was designated in 1983 and was always the third Monday of January which is near his actual birthday of January 15th).

So why does pretty much everyone call the holiday today (signified by the mail not coming) "President's Day"?

Well, first of all, some states and localities have declared it to be "President's Day."  But mostly I think it's because Lincoln's birthday (which was a holiday before 1968) was sort of consolidated into Washington's Birthday and people started thinking of the day as an agglomeration of presidents' birthdays.  Then came "Presidents' Day sales" and the whole gamut until now, probably 90% of Americans believe yesterday was Presidents' Day.  And they are wrong.

But this is, I think, indicative of many misconception held by most people.  One aspect of this is what do words mean.  For example, one of my pet peeves is "hopefully" which people use to mean "I hope."  That's not what it means and I expound on that a lot here.  But I think that one is beyond repair as even the AP style book accepts the incorrect usage.

The word "jealous" has been having a resurgence lately of usage such as:
Reader One: "I just won Hammer of Thor from S. Evan Townsend's website drawing"
Reader Two: "Jealous!"
No, Reader Two is "envious."  "Envious" is when you covet (to use the Biblical phrase) what someone else has.  "You've got Hammer of Thor, oh man, I wish I had one, too!" That's envious.  "Jealous" is when you are afraid of losing something.  You are jealous that your girlfriend is flirting with the handsome author at the book signing.  You jealously guard your stash of early DC comic books.  Your friends are envious of your stash of early DC comic books.

There are so many common misconceptions about, well, so many things: history, science, economics, language, etc. that to list just a few would mean making this a very long blog post.  But we, as writers, need to be accurate and not feed into those common misconceptions.  The problem is, most people, including writers, are not aware that they are wrong.  And that causes these misconceptions to live on.

UPDATE: Because I accidentally scheduled this for the wrong day, it posted on the wrong day and therefore any time reference (i.e., "today") maybe incorrect.

Mini Movie Reviews

I haven't reviewed any movies since Fast and Furious 6 back in early January.  Why?  It's not that I haven't watched any movies.  I have a Netflix subscription and I have to watch 3 discs every 2 weeks to make it financially viable.  I say "discs" because not all discs I watch contain movies (just finished up Season 4 of "Justified," for example).

The reason I haven't reviewed any is because none of them were bad enough or good enough that I felt I just had to blog my feelings.  So I'm going to do "mini reviews" of the movies I've watched since Fast and Furious 6.  Luckily, Netflix keeps a list of the movies I've rented, so here goes, in the order I watched them (there may be spoilers):

Lee Daniels' The Butler
I didn't like this movie much.  It seemed to be a gloss on actual history as viewed through a very distorted lens, that of Mr. Daniel's politics and prejudices.  The coincidences of this White House butler being present at the momentous decisions of various presidents stretched the credibility of this film.  I know I'm suppose to fawn over this movie but I did not like it as I thought it was not serious at all.

Captain Phillips
Tom Hanks did an amazing job in the role of Captain Phillips.  He is not your typical hero.  He is a common man thrown into extraordinary circumstances that does what he can to protect his crew.  And Hanks performance carries the movie.  But I found the movie boring once the pirates got onto the lifeboat.  I may even have drifted off because I never did figure out how the Americans captured the one pirate.  The movie was apparently very accurate about the events that happened in real life.  But that is not very exciting.  But it's worth watching just for Hank's performance.

Prisoners
In this intense and sometimes brutal movie, Hugh Jackman plays an American working-class father who's 6-year-old daughter and her friend disappear on Thanksgiving Day.  This is a movie with twists and turns and you're never, ever certain what the truth is until the end.  Not an easy movie to watch, especially if you have kids, it is very well done and very good.  But it's not a feel-good movie by any means.

Fight Club
Yes, this is the first time I've seen this iconic film that is nearly 15 years old.  And I figured out why I've avoided it.  It's just a bit too weird for my tastes.  It's well-made and the actors have fine performances, but it's just . . . bizarre.  Glad I watched it, can say that I've seen it, now I don't have to watch it again.

Ender's Game
The problem with this movie is that if you've read the book, you're going to long for all the nuance and layered motivations that Orson Scott Card put into the book that are missing from the movie.  Card was a producer so the movie was probably made to his specifications but it either had to be six hours long or a lot of the book had to be cut and/or simplified and, of course, they went with the latter.  If you haven't read the book, the movie is a good movie but it feels spread thin.  Ender's character is not very interesting as he his written and portrayed.  Harrison Ford's character is the most interesting (to me) but had little screen time.  This movie did have one of the more accurate portrayals of free fall movement I've seen in on film.  It still had problems but it was much better than most.  Again, perhaps because Card was a producer.  Worth seeing, but if you've read the book, expect to be disappointed.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Know Your Stuff

When you're writing fiction, you need to know about that which you write.  Not only the "human condition" and how people interact, but the setting, the time, the circumstances.  And unless you lived it, you can not do too much research.

What do I mean?  Let's say you were in the Army for 20 years before you retired and now you want to write a mystery set on an Army base.  You probably don't have to do much research.  You know the how people in the Army talk, think and interact.  You know the jargon and the social and work structure.  You lived it.  But unless you were an MP, you might have to research how MPs investigate crime.

Most of us writers have not lived the stories we are writing.  My current WIP (Work in Progress) is set in 1881 which is 79 years before I was born.  So I obviously haven't lived it.  However, since it is a western/fantasy mashup, there are some tropes of the western genre I can use.  But I also want the novel to be historically accurate (full disclosure: I made up a town called Plain Water that never existed for the first few scenes of this novel).  The first few chapters (so far) have been set in the Arizona Territory.  I had to find out where the train tracks had been built to (all the way across southern Arizona, the second trans-continental railroad, by the eay).  I needed to know where the mines were around Tombstone.  I needed to learn about the weapons of the period.  I needed to know how far one could reasonably travel by horse.  I needed to know if Tombstone had telegraph service in 1881 (it did).  You get the idea.

You can't do too much research.  Even then you'll probably miss something important that a person more knowledgeable about the subject will catch.  Even if you are writing an epic high fantasy that you are world building, you might have to research sword making, types of bows and arrows, types of buildings, horses, etc. (unless it's all going to be magic).  Yes, the internet is a wonderful place for research (although Wikipedia is not always accurate).  Other sources: books (nonfiction and fiction if you think the writer knew what they were talking about), documentary movies, fiction movies (if done well), talking to people who lived through it, visiting the place yourself (although this takes time and money; the only major setting in my novel Agent of Artifice I never visited was Havana, Cuba).  Even old encyclopedias because they might have a perspective that it's hard to capture today.  For example, my wife's family has a set of encyclopedias that refer to World War I as "The Great War" (World War II hadn't happened yet).

Sometimes multiple sources disagree on the facts (especially historical facts).  Then you have to decide which one you are going to use.

But there is a mistake you can do with research and that is to show off what you know.  Oh, you found out something really cool about sword making and you want to share it with your reader.  But unless it is germane to the plot, don't do it.  It'll stop your narrative dead and leave your readers wondering why.  Yes, I know it's interesting (to you) and you did all that work.  But your reader mostly likely won't care.  Just use the research that is essential to your story and moving it along.

Research everything you don't know 100% about.  And don't show off how much you researched.  But you can't do too much research.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Car Spotting

Ferrari 458 Italia
If you read this blog enough, you'll know that I like cars.  And I like driving them, the faster the better.

One problem with where I live is the lack of variety when it comes to cars.  Oh, sure, there's the rare interesting vehicle.  But if you watched cars go down the main street of this small, agricultural town you'd notice a profusion of pickup trucks, minivans, SUVs, and practical sedans.

No, it seems you have to get across Snoqualmie Pass and into the Seattle are to see more interesting cars.

One car you see a lot of in environmentally-conscious Seattle and environs is the Nissan Leaf.  This is a pure electric car that burns no gasoline.  It is, in fact, surprising how many you do see in the Seattle area.  They aren't very (or at all) practical for long-range driving but for commuting around the Puget Sound area I can see where they would work fine.  I've also seen a Tesla S and once saw a Tesla Roadster (a car you can no longer buy).  But I had to admit that Roadster could squirt through traffic with the amazing torque the electric motor supplies.  Both are also pure-electrics.  And of course, the Toyota Prius is as thick as Birkenstocks over there.

But the electric cars are a curiosity, not something that makes me sit up and take notice.  Yesterday I saw for the first time a Subaru BRZ.  Now while it seems those who drive under the speed limit in the left lane have migrated from Volvos to Subarus (mostly Legacys and the occasional Forester), the BRZ is one of the purest sports cars sold today even though I think it needs a bit more power than its 200 horsepower.  (Toyota sells essentially the same car with slight cosmetic changes as the Scion FR-S.)

In the Seattle area you never know what you might seen running while.  High-end BMWs and Mercedes, lots of Audis, and I have seen a McClaren 12C recently (this was not far from Microsoft headquarters).  I have seen Ferraris but I don't think I've seen a Lamborghini in Seattle (saw one in Florida).

Why do I care?  It's not as if I'm driving these vehicles (oh man!).  Well, some people trainspot, some airplane spot, I car spot.  Seeing a piece of precision speed machinery is sort of like seeing a pretty girl (yes, I girl watch, too).  It's just fun.  And while you're stuck in Seattle traffic, it gives you something to do.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

RadCon Schedule

Swag
This weekend, Friday, Saturday and Sunday I will be at RadCon in Pasco, WA as a visiting professional.  I'll be wandering the halls passing out swag, I'll be in the Moses Lake Muses dealer room selling and signing my books, and I'll be doing a reading and appearing on panels.  My schedule looks like this:

Friday:
3:15 - 4:15 Language: Why Word Choice Matters Room 2205
4:30 - 5:30: Picture This! Fan Suite

Saturday:
1:30 - 2:30: Reading Room 2209 (A selection from Gods of Strife, the fourth novel in the Adept Series, coming soon)

Sunday:

12:30 - 1:30: Writing Neurodiversity Room 2203

When I'm not in these panels (or sleeping) I'll be around so look me up, I'd love to meet you.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Keep in Character

When I was in a writers' group in Seattle years and years ago, I had an argument with one of the other writers.  The normal practice was we'd read something we wrote and then the others would critique it verbally.  In the piece a character said, "Too cold to snow."  This woman said, "There's no such thing as 'too cold to snow.'"  I said, "Yes, I know that, but my character doesn't."  She then spent many minutes explaining how there is no such thing as "too cold to snow" because it snows in Antarctica where it is very very cold.  And I replied that I knew all that but my character did not.  And I tried to point out that people do say "too cold to snow."  Other writers in the group came to my defense be we had to, in the end, agree to disagree.

Earlier I wrote about my fear that a lot of my protagonists are near self-insertions (especially Michael Vaughan, the main character of Agent of Artifice).  But, in reality, I believe writers have to draw upon themselves and other people they know to develop characters.  So a little bit of self-insertion is inevitable.  It may not be the main character but there is often a character in the novel who represents the writer (I am convinced that is the role of Sancho Panza in Don Quixote.)

When I was in high school I acted in plays and took drama classes.  I wanted to be an actor.  And a writer.  And a fighter jet pilot (that last dream being destroyed by my coke-bottle thick glasses).  One thing they emphasize in drama class was "stay in character."  Even if the theater starts on fire, stay in character.  That means, of course, to keep acting like the character you are playing.

In writing, the author needs to keep his characters in character.  They shouldn't do things they wouldn't do.  This means you have to know a lot about them.  I write one to two page biographies, write a physical description, write their characteristics (e.g.: loner, coward, pathological liar).  I keep that handy (as a Word file) to reference as I write.

And still, my characters will break character if I'm not careful.  Then, of course, I have to re-write.  In my soon to be published urban fantasy Gods of Strife, for instance, a beta reader had to point out that I took a kick-ass female assassin and turned her into a sweet girl when she fell in love with my main character.  And my beta reader was right and that needed a re-write.

The aforementioned Michael Vaughan had no use for cars other than transportation (that other people are driving) and hated guns.  During the climax of the novel he needed to get away in a car.  But I couldn't have him suddenly start driving since he said more than once he didn't know how.  I had to come up with a minor character to drive the car (an "NPC" I call them, using a term from my role playing game days) named "Zack."  That also gave Vaughan someone to talk to about this situation resulting in this bit of dialogue that I really like:
"Do any good if I shoot it?" Zack asked, looking intently out the windshield as he gripped the steering wheel.
"Maybe get it mad."
"It's not mad now?" 
My point?  Keep your characters in character.  You may know it's too cold to snow but your character may not.  You may love cars (I do) but your character might have no use for them.  You're an introvert and hate parties.  Your character is a social butterfly and loves them.  Keep your characters in character.  It will make them believable and might lead to something unexpected in your writing (such as the above scene).

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Cutting Room Floor

Writing, at least the way I write, is an exercise in fits and starts (and an iterative process).  Until I get a firm grasp on my conflict, I will flail around for ideas.  Usually this is mostly in my head.  But sometimes I'll start to write something then realize it's no good or it doesn't fit into my story well.

With my current work in progress (WIP) I started out writing a scene but had very little idea of where I was going.  I needed a villain in order to have conflict.  I was playing with ideas and one I liked so I wrote a scene setting it up.

But then I had what I decided was a better (and more believable idea) then time-travelling Nazis.  And now 1,423 words are being discarded.  That's 1,423 heavily researched and painful to write words (anything dealing with the Nazis is not fun to write).  So I'm going to put them in this blog.  This would have be a prologue to my WIP (which is a western/urban fantasy mashup):

Berlin, Greater German Reich
April 23, 1945

Herr Leuchte strode into the Propaganda Ministry, prepared to show both his papers and his orders to the SS guards.  His clothes were clean and neat and he was dressed like the civilian he was. 
The structure had been bombed many times and was more of a shell than an actually building.  Leuchte wondered why there was such strong security for an obviously empty building.  Every few moments the ground would rumble with the sound of Russian guns shelling Heer positions east of Berlin.  Soon, Leuchte worried, the Kommunisten forces would be close enough to shell the city itself.
"Halt!" a soldier said, holding up a hand.  Leuchte recognized the Mauser K98 rifle slung over his shoulder but the soldier was not in a black SS uniform.  His uniform was shabby, seeming to match the bombed building.  But Leuchte was shocked by how young the man was.  Really a boy, he thought as he pulled out his papers and orders.
"I have been ordered to report to Minister Goebbels," Leuchte said with his usual disdain for lessers.
The boy looked over the papers, frowning.  Then he waved over an even younger-looking soldier.  "Take Mr. Leuchte to the Vorbunker, he is to meet with Minister Goebbels."
" Jawohl!" the younger soldier barked, throwing up a Nazi salute.
"Heil Hitler," the first soldier said, also saluting.
"Heil Hitler," Leuchte said, his own salute more than enthusiastic.
As he was led forward, Leuchte wondered where the soldier was taking him.  He was used to meeting the Propaganda Minister in his office, but he assumed that, like the rest of the building, was unusable.  But what was the Vorbunker (or "forward bunker")? he wondered.  Was Hitler displeased that Leuchte and his plans had failed to win the war for the Third Reich.  It would have been helpful if the Führer hadn't waited until the loss of the Hammer of Thor in August of '43 to allow Krupp and Leuchte to implement their plans.  Now Krupp was in Iceland but it was too late.  Had Hitler ordered Leuchte executed?  He smiled slightly at that thought.  He'd like to see someone try to kill him.  It would, at best, be very difficult.  Leuchte almost unconsciously touched his talisman, feeling its power course through him.
The soldier led him down stairs after stairs. They were obviously going lower than ground level, underground and into a bunker of some type.  Before a large steel door was an SS soldier, impeccable uniform, MP-40 sub machinegun slung over his shoulder and held across his chest.
"Halt!" the SS soldier demanded.
The young soldier stopped and held out Leuchte's orders.  "This man to see Minister Goebbels."  The soldier sounded nervous.
The SS guard examined the papers.
"You are dismissed," he said to the soldier, his disdain filling his voice.
The younger soldier seemed happy to leave and after a "Heil Hitler" salute, almost ran out of the corridor and back up the stairs.
"One moment," the SS guard said without regard to Leuchte's position.  He turned and knocked on the door.  A small bit at eye level opened and the soldier spoke to whoever was on the other side.  Leuchte's view was blocked by the helmet of the guard.
The guard stepped back and the door opened, another SS soldier in a neat black uniform standing inside.  "Come with me, sir," the man said.
Leuchte followed him into what he could only assume was the Vorbunker.  Except for the lack of windows and its small size, it could be an office anywhere in Germany.  There was a portrait of Hitler and a swastika on one wall.  Behind a desk was a sitting soldier who asked Leuchte so sign in on a sheet held by a clipboard.  A few more formalities, checking Leuchte for weapons and he was led down a corridor past barrels of water and gas masks hanging on a wall.  There was a kitchen and a dining area.  Finally the guard directed Leuchte into a room on the left.  It looked like a small, window-less hotel room.
Goebbels was seated in the room's one chair.  There was a bed and a chest of drawers.  A paperboard box was on the floor next to Goebbels' chair.
"Herr Leuchte," SS soldier announced.
Goebbels dismissed him with a languid wave of his hand.  "Close the door," the propaganda minister asked when Leuchte walked in.  He sat and watched as Leuchte pulled the heavy steel door closed.  Leuchte was shocked.  He'd never seen Goebbels act so listlessly.  The man was usually direct to a fault.
There was a moment of silence while the floor vibrated with the news of another Soviet shell landing.  Goebbels fixed his deep-set eyes on the adept.  "The war is lost.  Everyone knows this except Hitler who still thinks something will save us."  He almost snorted.  "Save him."
"Yes, Herr Minister," Leuchte said, surprised that Goebbels had given voice to what was forbidden to even think.
"Krupp has failed us," Goebbels stated simply.
"The location of the Æsir proved harder to learn than we anticipated," Leuchte said, noting a bit of nervousness woven in his voice.
Goebbels waved a dismissive hand.  "Relax, Herr Leuchte, I am not seeking to assign blame."
"Then what does the Minister wish?" Leuchte was a bit annoyed that Goebbels was not coming to the point of this meeting.
"I have a plan, a plan to save the Third Reich."
Leuchte nearly laughed, thinking this must be a joke.  But he'd never known Goebbels to joke about anything, and certainly not about the survival of Germany.
"It will require sacrifice on your part."
Leuchte frowned and nodded.  "How may I serve my Führer?"
"You may be aware that we have done extensive scientific study," Goebbels.
"Of course," Leuchte said.  Most of it was halted during the war except that which supported the war effort, such as the Vergeltungswaffen program.
"We believe we have found a method to travel through time," Goebbels said, his voice low as if afraid others may hear it.
"Surely, not?" Leuchte despite himself.  He knew, even with meta powers that time travel was impossible.
Goebbels nodded.  "It is a one-way trip and we only have the energy to send one person to the past."
Leuchte thought for a moment.  "And you wish to send me?"
"Yes."
"To what end?"
Goebbels was quiet for a moment, those deep eyes on Leuchte.  "To destroy America before the war even starts."
"Before?"
"We can send you back approximately seventy years."
Leuchte studied Goebbels' face for a moment.  "I do not believe one adept, even one as strong as I, could bring down the entire United States in the 1870s.  Maybe before its Revolutionary War."
"We can not send you that far back.  You shall attack it from within," Goebbels said.  He reached down and picked up the box, holding it out for Leuchte.  "Take it."
Leuchte reached out for it, pulled it open.  Inside was a very old book, hand bound he could tell, and hand-written in the Ancient Language.
"Our forces captured that on the island of Guernsey.  It was well hidden and protected by adepts who gave their life trying to stop us from taking it.  I had it translated.  You may find it useful."
Leuchte nodded.  There were other adepts aiding the war effort and they would, if ordered by Goebbels, translate the book.  The Ancient Language was not just a language, but a spell and it required a counter spell to translate it.
"May I ask what it is?"
"How to make an army out of stone, Herr Leuchte."
Leuchte's eyes grew wide.  "I have never heard of such a thing."
"It may not be possible," Goebbels said.  "But without the United States we would defeat the Russian menace and invade Britain and win this war.  It is a last gasp of a dying man, Leuchte.  You must do this thing."
"And if I refuse?"  Because he was an adept, Goebbels had very little power over him.
"Then you condemn Germany to utter annihilation."  Even Goebbels knew it was nearly impossible to force and adept to do anything they didn't wish.
As if to reinforce the minister's point, the ground shook with an extra strong rumble.
Leuchte nodded.  "I shall do this . . . for Germany."
Goebbels jerked his body to his feet and made the Nazi salute: "Heil Hitler."

"Heil Hitler," Leuchte answered with his own salute.  The gnawing in his stomach started then.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Just Keep Writing

Whenever anyone asks me how long I've been writing I say, "Since I was 12."

I'm now 53 . . .you do the math.

Now, I assume the stuff I wrote for the first 20 or so years of my writing career were not very good.  But the point is, I kept writing because I loved it.  And like any craft, the more you do it, the better you get at it.  Eventually, I got good enough to get published, nearly 40 years after I started writing.

When someone says to me "Oh, you're a writer?  I'd like to be a writer" I ask, "And what have you written?"  The usual answer is "Oh, I have some ideas but I've not really written them down."  And I smiled, nod, and say, "Nice weather we're having" or "How about those Seahawks?"  Because if they haven't bothered to write anything, they really don't want to be a writer.

People ask how to become a writer and I say, "You write."  You sit down at a computer / typewriter / legal pad and you just keep writing.  Will it be crap? Maybe.  Will it get better?  Yes.  If you read (you are reading?) and you write, you can not help become a better writer.

I am pretty much an autodidact when it comes to writing.  I wrote at least half a million words of crap before I wrote Rock Killer, my first novel (in terms of when I wrote it) that was published.  I wrote, off and on for almost 40 years.  And I read voraciously, especially writers I thought I could learn from.

I doubt that Russell Wilson was born a great quarterback who could get to the Super Bowl.  He probably threw millions of passes from the time he first picked up a football until yesterday's game.  So why do people think they have to write like F. Scott Fitzgerald the first time they sit at a computer?  Believe me, you won't.  But you never will if you don't start writing and keep writing.

Yes, get advice.  Yes, join a local writers' group.  Take constructive criticism.  But believe in your vision and yourself enough to just keep writing.  You will never ride a bike unless you keep pedaling.  You will never be a writer if you don't write and write a lot.  Write every day.  Just keep writing.

Let me say that again: just keep writing.