Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Me & Star Wars: Guest Post by Ty Johnston

Last month Ty Johnston was gracious enough to let me guest post on his blog.  Now, he returns the favor with a great story on growing up with Star Wars, and how it impacted him as a writer:

I’m going to talk about Star Wars, but I want to say right here up front that I am not a Star Wars fanboy or geek or anything of the sort. I enjoyed the original trilogy, especially the first movie, and I found elements of the more modern trilogy which I enjoyed, though it just wasn’t the same experience for the most part (whether that was because I was older or because George Lucas had lost his mind is debatable).

I am 42 years old,and as an author of speculative fiction, I would by lying if I said Star Wars had never had an influence upon me and my chosen career. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am not sure those of older and younger generations can appreciate the effect Star Wars had upon my generation, commonly referred to as Generation X within the media and broader culture.

When the first Star Wars movie was released in 1977 (I refuse to call this film “A NewHope”), I was eight years old. Before seeing the movie, I had showed some interest in science fiction and fantasy literature. My first memories of reading are of comic books, after all, a graphic and literary medium filled with the speculative. I also remember being somewhat of a fan of the Star Trek re-runs on television,including owning a number of Star Trek action figures and even the USS Enterprise bridge play set with the twirling transporter. Also, in 1977, I discovered The Hobbit, at first through the Rankin-Bass animated television show, then through the actual novel.

So, I was no stranger to fantasy and science fiction, even at such a young age. But Star Wars was so much more. I repeat, Star Wars was so much more. Star Wars made speculative fiction more accessible, as before science fiction and the like had seemed only upon the fringes of society, and was difficult to find in movie theaters, book stores and even on television. Before Star Wars, most sci-fi television I remembered were re-runs of shows from the 1960s, most of them in black and white. They had titles like “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits,” and were obviously from a different time than the one I was steeped in during the 1970s. Men wore suits out on the streets. Cars were bigger, longer, sleeker. Women dressed up to cook dinner. Etc.

After the success of Star Wars, science fiction was everywhere. New TV shows abound, and it seemed every week there was some new (though usually awful) sci-fi movie at the theaters. Also, whereas before I could hardly find any science fiction or fantasy at local book stores, now their were names like Bradbury and Heinlein and Asimov popping up all over the place.

Monday, November 28, 2011


This post isn't about the new Lars Von Trier movie where Kristen Dunst gets married and ends the world (I didn't see that coming either).  This is about how writing seriously affects my mood.

If I am making a lot of progress, then I'm a pretty happy camper.  If I'm not, as usually the case, my frustration tends to show.  This week I made serious progress on my new novel.  I had been spinning my tires a bit before, but then I realized what had been the stumbling block.  The dam broke, but I wasn't feeling excited, or successful.  Somewhere around Friday, I got pretty blue. 

It took me by surprise.  It took a little introspection before I understood what was really bugging me.  In some ways, it was where I was in the book - a major character dies, leaving the story in shadow - but it was another passing that really became real as I worked through the pages this week.  Elements of this book date back 15 years.  Ideas I kept in my back pocket, concepts and characters I explored elsewhere in earlier attempts.  This isn't a drawer novel - if only I could get off that easy - but the truth is I have been working on a version on this story off and on for 10 years. 

This week, I realized, to my surprise and apparent dismay, the end was near.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Carnival of the Indies Issue #14

My post from last month Mirror, Mirror on character description is featured in this month's Carnival of the Indies at Joel Friedlander's fantastic resource for indie writers, The Book Designer.

This is a website I visit daily and it's become required reading for me as I continue on this journey into independent writing.  Please check out my post and all of the other great articles!

Friday, November 25, 2011

How Putting Up A Christmas Tree Is Like Writing A Novel

  1. You'll start off trying to follow the instructions, and then give up.
  2. Are you watching football, or you..?
  3. Keep pulling left and right long enough, and it will start to look like something.
  4. Remember the ornaments you hang on it will cover up the gaps.
  6. There's more of it on the floor.
  7. You cap it off with something over the top, or subtle and understated.  It ices the overall effect, or completely undoes it.
  8. At the end, your arms and hands hurt.
  9. You always find one you like better at someone else's house.
  10. Next year you swear you'll get a real one.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Must There Be A Definitive Version of a Novel?

As you may have guessed from my post the other day, I am a pretty big Star Wars collector.  One of the biggest joys - and stresses - of collecting any toy line as old and broad as Star Wars is the question of variations.  The pic on the left shows that this started right away - Chewbacca went through six major card variations between 1978 and 1985, not counting the nearly infinite versions that feature this sticker or that back - and it continues to this day.  I avoid variations by and large.  What happens when you reach a certain point in collecting like I have is that, variations are all that's left, and variations are endless.

And expensive.

It got me to thinking though, about variation in fiction.  Typically, despite a fascination with looking into the creative process that makes us curious as to what might have been with any one of our most treasured classics, actual, planned variance in novels is pretty uncommon.  But must there be a 'definitive version' of a novel?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ralph Wiggum Has Nothing On Me

Slightly off topic, but...

Some of you may have seen this elsewhere on the web last week, but I am now the proud owner of a fantastic piece and a real treasure, really.  This is a 1978 12 back shelf display that is complete and virtually intact.  There is some minor wear, but considering its age and condition, it's hardly distracting.  The best part - maybe - was that it came with 6 original 12 backs, all of them the 'A' version (find out what all this geekspeak is here).  EDIT: Two of them, the Stormtrooper and R2, are UNPUNCHED.

This is the centerpiece of my collection now to say the least.

 The 6 figures include R2, Luke, Han, Leia, 3-PO and a Stormtrooper.   I had a Jawa previously, which means I'll probably have to get the other 5 now...

A Million Voices Cried Out All At Once

Voice is the hardest thing to capture in fiction.

Every short story or novel has a voice, even if it's told in the third person. Often the 'voice' of that narrator, omniscient or not, will have a rhythm or cadence particular to the storyteller. Sometimes this is called 'style,' but for me, someone is always talking.

Junot Diaz has an excellent article on voice over the Huff Post this week. Ignore the comments - wow, did some of these people spill their barely bottled resentment all over themselves - and take in what he's saying. I always start with voice; character is voice. Character is story, so they go hand in hand and the failure in one will be the failure of both. To distinguish the voices of your characters, you have to hear them. You need to listen. It's been said a lot of times before and by better writers, but one of the best tools in your toolbox is eavesdropping. Dialogue benefits from this as well, so don't have your earbuds in when you're on the bus or train or standing in line at Starbucks. Hear what other people are saying, and how they say it.

Hear what they aren't saying. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Community Rules

So NBC has elected to leave Community off its recently announced mid-season schedule.

Sign the petition if you'd like to see the show continue.    In the meantime, check out this excellent article over at Wired that provides insight into the creative process of Dan Harmon, creator of Community. In the article, Harmon talks about his 'narrative embryos,' a distillation of the story process by way of Joseph Campbell, and oh, Die Hard:

1. A character is in a zone of comfort
2. But they want something
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation
4. Adapt to it
5. Get what they wanted
6. Pay a heavy price for it
7. Then return to their familiar situation
8. Having changed

Essentially, it's Campbell's monomyth, boiled down to the extreme. Harmon uses this same process in breaking every single episode of Community.

Here, from Harmon's blog, is the extremely complex 'embryo' for the episode recently that explored six different possible timelines for the show:

I don't outline or break stories down this way, but often times I wonder if I should. My WIP right now (the #scifiJohnHughesbook) comes together and falls apart every day. Two days ago I was reaching the tipping point, now I'm questioning the purpose of the entire thing. I don't know what this book is. It doesn't feel like other books I have written. It feels strange and awkward. I know I have to just keep going. This novel has been waiting to be written for years.

How about the rest of you? Outline? Embryo?


Monday, November 14, 2011

Guest Starring...

Today I have a guest post over at author Ty Johnston's blog, on world building and the challenges involved when you're a fan of Hemingway, like me. 

Ty is currently doing a blog tour for his new novel Ghosts of the Asylum, available now!  I met Ty over at the Kindle boards, which is a good place to meet fellow authors and a good resource as well.  Blog tours and guest posts are very cool and different and I look to participate in more of them.

Look for a guest post from Ty here in December!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Frank Miller, You Are The Opposite of Batman

I'll try and be polite about this nonsense:
This little post isn't going to try and sort out the ways 9/11 impacted Frank Miller and all Americans, nor is it going to attack an artist who clearly has lost his perspective.

What I will try and do here is talk about art and agenda. Every work of art has one. Art is its own agenda; what it tries to convey through you, or about you, your circumstances or those circumstances you may find necessary to shine a light on, art communicates. Art is message. Art then must speak for itself. If you as the artist decide to be the messenger, or if you confuse the form - writing, in this case - with a bully pulpit, or worse, a weapon, then you are not an artist anymore. You are a propagandist.

Frank Miller rants against the Occupy movement in his blogpost. He's entitled to his opinion about the movement. As someone who visited the protesters in Zucotti Park last month, I have mixed emotions about the movement. I also have perspective. Frank Miller does not, it seems. His anger - real, visceral anger - over the protest quickly collapses into his real issue with them. These people hate America, because they aren't protesting the terrorists.

'This enemy of mine' he says, of al-Qaeda. Frank Miller is at war, and art is his weapon. His recent, um, piece - Holy Terror - makes it clear his art no longer speaks. He speaks for his art. He uses it as a means to exact a revenge for what happened to us ten years ago; he uses it as a means to ridicule and diminish Muslims in a way that is ignorant. 

The real enemy of America is ignorance.

Ignorance of our evaporating quality of life. Ignorance of those who do mean us harm. Ignorance of why.  So, I would say to Frank Miller, and to any writer, write about 9/11. Write about revenge. Write about an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan or a Muslim community in Michigan.  Shine a light on the things we don't want to think about. That we don't know about. Let your art speak for itself. Let your reader use their imagination to understand - or reject - what you confront them with. If you are only passing on your own personal judgement of a situation or people, then you are not a writer.

A writer cannot be a judge. A writer protests. A writer prosecutes. A writer defends. In the end, a writer doesn't decide. If they did, they wouldn't need readers.

Sent from my iPad

Friday, November 11, 2011

15 Things You Don't Know About Me

After Joel Friedlander at The Book Designer:

The Book of Elizabeth is the first novel I have published.

I did it all by myself.  Proudly.

It is not the first book I have written (it's the fifth).

None of the five novels (and the sixth one I'm working on now)feature a main character that is male.

I spent a summer in Dublin, Ireland, at Trinity College with the Irish Writing Program.  We talked a lot about male/female POV and a person's 'default setting.'  I think I said one time men are boring to me.  What more can you say about the male perspective that hasn't been said?  I overstated it, I think.  What might women say of the male perspective?

I get emails all the time from people who think I'm a woman. 

What is it about sexually ambiguous women?  This has nothing to do with writing.  Well.  Yes, it does.

Right now, I'm listening to the new Florence and the Machine record.  A pattern emerges.

The only patterns in your writing you should be conscious of are the ones that are improving.  I graduated from the University of Iowa with a first rate education and a first class confusion of the soul.  I spent years after college trying to reconcile the literary novelist with the Star Wars nerd.  Many of your peers will attempt to 'solve' or 'diagnose' you in workshops.  They're scientists, not writers.  You are person of faith - you yearn to communicate something to the world you can't quantify or explain - living in a world of science. 

There's always things like spaceships and aliens and time travel in my stories.  Not exactly hard science, but have faith.

I'm not particularly religious, but almost everything I write deals with faith to some degree.

My grandfathers, father, and uncle all served their country so I could sit here and ponder things better men asked as only as they died.

I'm only a veteran of bad decisions.

I didn't start watching Community until season 2.

Most everything I learned about writing growing up, I learned from TV.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Call of Duty: #amwriting

Up to 137 pages in the new novel.  Very close to the tipping point.  Haven't felt this way, in oh, four years?  You'd think I'd do it more often.

Slow Down - Icebergs Ahead!

A fair point in the Good Book Alert review of The Book of Elizabeth was the pace of the novel.  I knew this was an issue back to when I completed the first draft in 2008.  The primary reason the book reads as fast as it does is I was trying to cram all of this world bubbling over in my head under a hard page count given to me by the publisher.  Eventually, of course, that became irrelevant

When I took the rights back, I did consider expanding a little on the novel.  At that point though, the idea of spending more time on it made me sick.  I wanted to get past the book and four years of my life I felt had been wasted in waiting for it to arrive.  In retrospect, I should have taken a breath and expanded on some items.  The sequel will be more relaxed in pace, and won't be as hell bent on running through the world in an attempt to hit all the touristy spots before you leave town.

That said, I do kind of like the hit and run pace of the book.  Read on for some thoughts on why.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Character Motivation Or Some More Thoughts On Buffy

Willow, by Phil Noto.
Character is my first concern in any story.

Character is the story, as far as I'm concerned.  Character locks you up into stories that otherwise have gaps in logic or weaknesses in craft.  Character will allow you to forgive the unforgivable.  Character opens a window on worlds both within yourself and beyond that you otherwise were unable to access.  As form follows function, so too your story should follow its characters.  Start with a good (or great) character and your story will emerge from them.  Many novels or movies you see today focus entirely on an idea - an alien invasion, for instance - and the characters are stand-ins.  Bland types inserted to scream or chuckle at as the world disintegrates (every character in the Transformers movies, I'm looking at you).

Character is why I love Joss Whedon so much.  All of his work, Buffy in particular, follows from explorations into his characters.  Buffy and her friends provided a lot of fascinating material to chew on for seven years on TV and for mostly one 'season' in comic books.  As I mentioned in my previous review of Buffy: Season 9 #1, the characters feel to me a little stalled out at this point. 

Sunday, November 06, 2011

4 Stars: The Book of Elizabeth

Artist Unknown?  I tried!
Good Book Alert posted a good and fair review of The Book of Elizabeth today - 4 out of 5 stars!  Some very good praise:

'The Book of Elizabeth is a fascinating take on alternative history speculative fiction.'

'One of the joys of this novel is the exploration of this alternate Earth and how the various strands of history and potential history mesh together.'

A pretty interesting discussion on the genre of alternate history and what is or isn't alt-history develops in the comment section.  The discussion specifically in the comments got me to thinking about that particular genre and its conventions.  I never thought of Elizabeth as specifically an alt-history book.  The point of divergence in the novel is very obscure - I never actually identify it, though there are clues - and it is a result of an event that goes unexplained.  It's not a traditional 'what if Queen Elizabeth I had lost to the Spanish Armada' kind of POD story.

For readers of alt-history, is an explanation necessary?  Is a definite POD?  For me, every work of fiction is in some way an alternate history; it imagines a world that either diverges or impinges on ours through the projection of stories and events that (often) have no real historical source.  Sometimes this is obvious; sometimes not.

The historical Elizabeth has been extracated from our history at age 32 and transplanted to one completely alien.  A terrible event has completely collapsed all of human history, violently, and chaotically.  Something new has been built in its place; unfortunately the new structure is a little drafty.  Our history remains, in the presence of Echoes, individuals who have survived the event, like Elizabeth, and been exiled in the new history.  The confrontation becomes inevitable; will our history - both public and personal - reassert itself?  Is it doomed to repeat, as it so often does?

I'd love to know what thoughts people who've read the book have about alt-history or my book in particular - feel free to leave comments!

Friday, November 04, 2011


Inevitably at some point during a Peanuts cartoon, Charlie Brown's teacher squawks at him in her unmistakable trombdrone and Charlie or one of the other kids simply affirms, or translates, whatever it is Mrs. Donovan says.

'You want me to pound the erasers?'

Charlie Brown is a lovable misfit, the butt of many jokes, and he lives in a world of adults who cannot be understood to us except by children. Unless you are specifically writing for children - or maybe particularly if you are - don't treat your reader like Charlie Brown.

The last thing you ever want to hear someone say as they look up out of your novel is 'Good Grief!

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Attack The Book

Right at the moment the characters of the movie ‘Cloverfield’ enter an electronics store that is being looted, I knew I was watching the wrong movie.  The movie I wanted to watch was about these kids, robbing stereos and TV’s as a gigantic monster tears down New York City.  Instead, we follow a group of young twentysomethings who are in the midst or on the verge of prosperous lives; their largest concerns are romantic (‘Does she love me?’).  The movie was a good time, and mostly exciting, but we had seen this before.

 ‘Attack The Block’ is a British movie that follows a group of teenage boys up to no good on what appears to be Guy Fawkes Day.  They live in a government housing project (‘The Block’) in south London and open the movie by mugging a nurse that lives in their building.  The mugging goes weird when a tiny monkey-like alien drops out of the sky and demolishes a car.  One of the boys, Moses, kills the creature after it scars him.  Things take a turn for the worse when more alien monkeys show up and focus their alien invasion it seems entirely on The Block (just why is a spoiler).

This is the best movie I’ve seen all year.  And it's a great example for fiction writers.