Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sequelitis for the Writer

Over the course of the past few months, I have read a number of books that were parts of a trilogy. Specifically, the first and second books. In both cases (I'm not going to name the series, but if you want to hunt around Goodreads and find the reviews, go ahead) the first book in the series blew me away. It was a great read, fantastic storytelling, original concepts, etc. Everything you could hope for in a book, particularly when in both cases these were the first books by those authors that I had read. In one case, it was the first book by that author (though the author was working in collaboration with another, more established author). Things were good.

Then I read the second book, and things became less good.

Some of this is simply a case of expectations. As a reader, if the first book is good, I expect the rest to be. After all, if the author did it once, they should be able to do it again. (Presumably. The writing profession has it's share of one-hit wonders, too.) I don't expect to always like every book an author puts out - though I hope to - but that's okay. Everyone has off moments. What I do expect is that if an author takes the time to plan a trilogy, then they've put the time in to think it through and carefully craft it. Such is not always the case, but such are my expectations.

Also, having started with such a phenomenal book, there is probably pressure on the author much the same as pressure is put on a successful film when it moves into sequel territory. The need to go bigger, or more complex, or to in some ways shake things up because the first one broke so much new ground that it's impossible to follow it otherwise. Or they go in the other direction, and the sequel is a formulaic copy of the first.

That happens, too, but for both of the series I read it was more the first trap. Nor did it work out well for either series. The first series introduced an essentially useless macguffin in the second book that opened up massive plot holes and seemed a sad throwaway device. The second series padded out the center section of the second novel by adding in police procedural details that were at worst wholly unnecessary to the plot and at best could have been dealt with in much shorter passages.

Nor is this the first year this has happened with books I've read. I really enjoyed the first volume of Dean Koontz's Frankenstein series. The second book was not only disappointing but downright silly. Enjoyable, but at nowhere near the level of the first one.

All of which is a roundabout way for me to make the following plea: Authors, if you're going to write a trilogy, and the first one gets really good reviews and press, please, please, PLEASE, do not f*** up the rest of them.

I don't think that's too much to ask.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

People You Should Already Be Reading

[Note: Last week(ish) in the blog I answered some questions about what I was working on, because I had been "tagged." Think "drive-by" but with less shooting. That was Part I. Which you have read. (And if you haven't, go do so, and I shall wait. Done? Good.)

This is the second part.

We're also going to pretend this is my Thanksgiving, "I am thankful for being able to read these people," post. Which it kind of is.]

Part the Second
Wherein, somewhat less accordingly to the rules, I shamelessly pimp other people's work. Not because I hope they shall do the same for me some day (though, *ahem*, that would be nice) but because they truly deserve it.

Question #10: Tag, you’re it!

This is the part where I am supposed to "tag" five more authors. Unfortunately, and oddly reminiscent of high school, I have a small social circle. Somewhat consequently, most of my writer friends have already been tagged, as it seems I was tagged last. Which is beyond oddly reminiscent and downright eerily similar to high school. I may start having bad flashbacks any moment.

But this is not high school, this is the internet, and unlike high school I can't burn the internet to the ground. (Not that I did that, I add. Nor can anyone prove otherwise.) So, instead, I'm going to cheat.

I'm not going to tag anyone, but I am going to point you toward five writers I know, all with stuff you not only can buy but that you should buy. Because these guys work hard, write great stuff, and with one exception don't get enough press. But the exception is worth buying anyway.

These are in absolutely no particular order, other than the order in which I thought of them and/or remembered I wanted to steer people to them.

 Reagan Summers - Also does vampires in Alaska, but honestly does them much better than I will. (I did have the idea long before I met her, I swear. I work slow.) And more importantly, she does her vampires much differently. And MOST importantly, you can buy - and read - both of her books now.

Tiffany Allee - Whom, in full disclosure, I have not read yet. BUT, other people I know have read her, and say nothing but good things, and she also has books you can read and buy.

Abner Senires - Sci-fi serial goodness. Much of which is online, but there is a book you can buy. Which you should. (You may notice a theme here with these descriptions.)

Damien Grintalis -  Debut novel Ink is out soon. Which I got to read it before any of you. So there. However, perks of being a beta aside, you should read this. Especially if you have tattoos. And then you'll never sleep again. You cannot buy this yet, but when you can, you should.

Diane Dooley - Sci-fi, romance, and sex. Yes, I said sex. Do I need to say more? She has two books out, and you should buy both of them.

Alice Loweecey - Ex-nun PIs and mysteries. What more do you need to know? These ones are even in your local bookstore. Might even be in the library. So no excuses like "but I don't have an e-reader." (Which, admittedly, I don't either, but you do know you can still read e-books anyway, right? RIGHT??)

Alex Adams - Whom, again, I have not yet read. (Check back in a week or so.) BUT - again - there have been many great things said about her book. End of the world stuff, getting absolutely fabulous reviews. Really, you should of heard of her by now.

Also, she's sort of kind of a neighbor, so the more books you buy, the richer she gets, and the more people I have to turn to when the crazy thoughts overtake me and I wind up muttering to myself and in need of a place to stay. (Just kidding, Alex. ... You can stop the emergency packing now, really, I'm kidding.)

.... and that's it. This is, I know, by no means a complete list of all the people I know with books out, I tried to constrain it to those whose authors I know personally, and, for the most part, people I've read, so that you can take these recommendations seriously.

And if, for some reason, you have *zero* book budget right now (though, I have to ask, do you really need to eat?) - Christmas is coming. They all make lovely gifts.

Er, their books do. Not them personally.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

More Graffitti-ish, Less Playground-like

I have been "tagged." And while this is meant to be something along the lines of a playground game of tag amongst writers, I can't help feeling I've been whitewashed in the dead of night and then covered in garish neon hues arranged in abstract forms.

I was tagged by this guy:  http://misfitmusing.blogspot.com/ who, amongst other things, has some of the most eclectic yet also coolest hobbies I know. Seriously. Old cars, singing groups, and bees. You should check him out. (Plus he is often funny and witty.)

There are two parts to this tagging business. I shall deal with Part 1 now, with Part 2 to follow a little later, because this was already getting pretty long.

Part the First
In which, according to the rules, I answer some questions about a current project.

1. What is the working title of your book?

Well, it had a working title centered on the name of the town where the action takes place. Only, as I started to work on it, I realized that I had named the town after the wrong yearly calendrical event. Which is somewhat embarrassing and I've not yet figured out how I want to fix it. Yes, I could use the right event, but sadly, it sounds much less cool than the wrong one. So for right now, it's got the awesome title of [Series Character] Book #3

Catchy, isn't it?

2. What genre does the book fall under?

In an effort to be trail-blazing and/or entirely unpublishable, I've discovered I write in that interstice between Sci-fi and Urban Fantasy. I had an idea once that boiled down to "What if you took the characters of a UF book and dropped them into a neo-noir near-future setting?" Then I wrote on it. Then I wrote another book on it. And now I'm working on another one.

It does lean more sci-fi than UF, for the most part, but there are elements.

As I said, trail-blazer or forever unpublishable.

3. Which actors would you choose to play your characters for the movie rendition?

Jeremy Irons. But a younger Irons. Not too young. Die Hard 3 Jeremy Irons. Maybe Daniel Craig, if he could summon up a little more inner villain/anti-hero. That's my lead.

For the female lead, I'm tempted to list actors I want to meet. Which is terribly unprofessional. But, that said, Eva Green, because a number of her characters have just enough edge to them.

4. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Insomnia (the Nolan version) but with one vampire, a pack of werewolves, a more twisted killer than Robin Williams can ever hope to be, and all set slightly further into the future than where we are now. So robots and cybernetics and the like.

No flying cars, though.

Yes, I know that was more than one sentence.

5. Will your book be self-pubbed, e-pubbed, or represented by an agent?

The day I decide to self-pub is the day I decide I'm done. (No offense to those for whom it works, but it's not my route.) While I think e-pubs play a valuable role in the market, I still want an agent. It means something to me, not least of which is, someday, I want to actually see my book in print, on paper.

And don't tell me print is dead, because they've been saying that for decades. Books will be around, trust me. (Even if you don't, that's a longer blog post.)

6. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I'm still working on it, so I'll let you know. Chronologically, this one has been in the works for a couple of years, but there were other projects and some personal stuff that snuck in front of it.

Also, I tend to work slow.

7. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Ideally? Cross William Gibson with Jim Butcher. If you don't know who either of those are, I don't want to talk to you.

8. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

It was honestly watching Al Pacino stagger around in the film Insomnia and thinking to myself, "What if I took my lead vampire and sent him there instead of Al?" I frequently borrow (or steal, if you want) ideas from other works. I think if we're all honest, a lot of us do this, usually under the hubris of "I could do that better/more interestingly."

Which is what's led to a couple of my projects.

9. What else about your book might pique a reader's interest?

Pique is a great word.

Seriously, though, if vampires, werewolves, and robots wrapped up in a psycho-killer mystery set in a neo-noir near-future (think Bladerunner but less rain, more daylight, and, again, no flying cars - or a slightly less cutting-edge technobabbly William Gibson, whom I adore but would never consciously strive to emulate because I'm just not quite that egocentric) - if none of that has piqued your interest, I'm not sure how else to sell it to you.

Though there is some sex, so maybe that?

Part two to follow shortly.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Art of Pretending

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. In fact, aside from Christmas, this is probably it. I should, in the grand tradition of thing, devote this to my top horror reads or something, but the truth is I don't read a whole lot of horror. Nor do I watch a whole lot of horror films, in part because so many of them are just so very, very bad or else very, very stupid. Sometimes both - looking at you, Saw franchise. I'd have a tough time coming up with a top ten list, and it would likely be derivative of somebody else's.

Instead, I thought I'd try and figure out why I like the holiday so much. After all, I don't eat a lot of candy anymore, and I've not been to a costume party since I stopped being home for the annual church party - which was back when I left for college. My daughter and I do make a big deal out of it, creating our own costumes and taking months to plan out what we'll be. (Don't hate me. My costuming skills rely largely on a hot glue gun, a minimalist approach, and heavy imagination.) So sure, some of that enthusiasm rubs off. But my love of Halloween goes deeper than that.

I think part of it can be explained by the same part of me that likes the creative part of the writing process. In writing stories, I get to imagine different people, different settings, and to some extent pretend to be them. I don't see myself living vicariously through my characters, nor are any of them extensions of myself beyond the usual psychological borrowing we all do when we write. But by the same token, when I put on a costume I don't really see myself suddenly getting to do everything that person or creature would do, either.

Which is good, because one year I was a fish, and really, who wants to be a fish? It's not like it was in Finding Nemo, folks.

But there is a bit of that vicarious aspect to it. We can, by putting on a costume, pretend to be something. We can play at being someone we're not, from a Star Trek redshirt (should that be capitalized?) to a shuffling zombie, from a mermaid to a rock star. And if we're not pretending to be something, we get to capitalize on our sense of humor, or irony, or whatever other trait we put on display via our costume. It's not perfect, it's not complete, but it is there.

Which makes Halloween the only holiday where as writers we can vent the kind of creativity we normally only get to display on the printed page. Unless you're the arts and crafty type that does all those homemade Martha Stewart-esque home deco things. In which case you probably don't write, because I have no idea how you'd manage to find the time to do both. Assuming that's not the case, though, Halloween is the one time of year our creativity gets turned into something tangible. Something that can be - is meant to be - displayed, in probably the most welcoming venue any of us will ever submit anything to. (Neighbors and friends tend to be far more forgiving than editors and critics.)

Plus, there's candy. Lots and lots of candy.

PS: I was sorely tempted to start this little missive with the opening credo from The Pretender, but I'm not sure how many people would have actually remembered that.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


It is better to be haunted by the dead than the living. The dead are, by far, more easily dealt with. The dead tend not to want much, just someone to listen to them. To observe and note that they are still around, still have something to say. Once so acknowledged, they move on or fade into the background. The dead are largely ambivalent to our existence beyond that need to have someone notice them.

On the rare occasion when the dead become more persistent, more pernicious, there are ways to deal with that. These ways are effective, and permanent, and guaranteed. Banish a ghost and it is gone. Destroy a spirit's link to our world and it remains forever sundered. Be gone and haunt no more.

I was visited by a spirit, once. Not a ghost. Ghosts are more permanent fixtures. This spirit was passing through. It did not shake me to my core. It did not alter my perceptions. I do not see dead people unless I visit a funeral home. The spirit had a message to convey, and that was all, and I have not heard from it since.

The living are different. They can be thousands of miles away, living out their lives, oblivious to the ways in which the ghostly memories of them constantly intrude upon another. Unlike ghosts, which can be ignored (you would be surprised at how quickly your mind relegates the ghost on the landing to just another personal landmark, like the table with the vase of flowers at the end of the hall), the phantasmic souvenirs of the living command your attention.

This is not about obsession. This is not about wanting to be reminded, about looking for signs and portents in the mundane minutiae of the cereal aisle or the particular path a leaf takes when falling. This is about trying to forget, then coming around a corner and finding yourself face to face with a reminder that is as specific to that person as it is out of place in its location. Not just one item, but half a dozen, each unique and specific, each undeniably linked to that person.

Like a bumper sticker in support of a college a thousand miles away, suddenly there on the car in front of you, when all you were thinking about was what to make for dinner. Or a news article about how hard it is to find this little spot, this little piece of something, that you found once before, and not by yourself. As out of place as a palm tree in Maine, as random as a star falling into your backyard.

The dead do not apologize for haunting. It is what they do. The living, if confronted, say that they are sorry, though rarely what they are sorry for. And what have they done that they should be sorry for? It is not on them, they are not doing anything but going about their lives, oblivious to what is inadvertently left in their wake.

The dead know they haunt.

The living do not.


The above is part of the October 2012 blog chain over at Absolute Write. There are a number of other great writers (and soon to be great writers), some you may know, some you may not, participating in this event, and I don't really have space to list them all. That said, you can find the two in front of me here:  http://hillaryjacques.blogspot.com and here: http://erlessard.wordpress.com and I encourage you to check them out. (Hillary Jacques also has a new book coming out, which you should preorder.)

And the full list can be found over at Absolute Write.

In case you're wondering, my entry is entirely fictional. Except for the parts that are not.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

C.S. Lewis, Heavy-Handed Bastard

I am coming to realize that, sometimes, an attempt to enjoy a classic work of literature can be marred by the attitudes of the author. This came about over the past week or so as I have begun reading the Chronicles of Narnia to my daughter. Now, I know all about the Christian overtones, though to be honest I never noticed those as a kid. When I first read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, I missed all the religious symbolism. It wasn't until much later that I read about the amount of allegory lurking in the Chronicles, and I didn't think much about it afterwards.

But, having seen the first movie one rainy Sunday, we thought we'd read the books. Aside from learning that TL,TW,&TW was not the first book, narratively speaking, I learned some other troubling facts while reading The Magician's Nephew.

First, TL,TW,&TW is downright subtle when it comes to the religious stuff in the rest of the books. Chapter after chapter was "Hey, this is Genesis in Narnia! Look, there's a tree! With fruit you can't eat!" and other things where I found myself wanting to say "Yes, I get it, can we please move on with the story?" I did not say this, because I was reading to my daughter, and I try not to editorialize when I do so.

(I do stop, at the beginning of each new Lemony Snicket book, and ask my daughter if she wants to go on after we've read the part where the author advises us not to. It's become a thing now that we're halfway through the series, and it's in fun. But that's a different sort of narrative aside.)

I'm not sure how I feel about this heavy-handedness, not because it's religious - I go to church, and I drag my daughter with me, although Lewis' persistent proselytizing gets old - but simply because with the first book in the chronicles, it feels like the allegory got in the way of the story. I can foresee this becoming a bit of a problem later on in the series. (I am familiar with Neil Gaiman's short "The Problem of Susan" for example, in which he, too deals with some of this.)

Second, and by far the more troubling, is the sheer sexism in the book. Now, I know that books are a product of their times. Kipling was heavily influenced by the English Imperialism than ran rampant over everything at the time, and reading some of his works today leads to some cringing. Fenimore Cooper's portrayals of the Native Americans are nowhere near as balanced as that last movie made them out to be. But those were books for adults. Narnia is for kids. Lewis had to have known young girls.

And as far as I can tell, his message to them is "Know your place." He makes blunders in biology (it is the female elephants that are in charge, not the males- which may or may not have been know at that time) based solely on his own chauvinistic leanings. Of course the men are called to a meeting and the women left behind; that's the men's job. And the female character is not only shunted to the sidelines, but is physically cowed by the male character at one point, and it's all very casually dealt with. Too casually.

So, while we will continue to read the series, I foresee the need to have conversations with my daughter about what's going on. We've had similar conversations about the Disney Princesses, too, because as a general whole they are piss-poor role models for young girls.

Or maybe we won't have to. She may not be quite old enough to grasp some of the connotations lurking beneath the surface (which are not as direct as Ariel's whining or Cinderella's "I need a Prince") and I confess to editing some as I read. Where Lewis wrote "he-elephant" and "he-beaver" I left off the gendered pronouns, as it changed nothing in the narrative to do so. And I'm hoping that the rest of the chronicles, most of which were actually written before the first book, will not be as bad.

But if they are, then we'll deal with them, and have a talk about why they are the way they are, and how you go about separating the message from the story. Because this won't be the last thing she reads where that may become necessary.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Letdown

Let me start by saying I stuck with the X-Files from beginning to end, even after they'd clearly gone off the rails. (Then again, I also liked the last movie, though that took a couple of viewings. On first viewing it was kind of like watching one of those last seasons. It grew on me, though. And not like a mold.) So with that clear caveat and embarrassing reveal of just how long I will stick with something, there are times when you just kind of have to give up on things.

I say this in the wake of the new Fall TV season, and also in the aftermath of a couple of books I was disappointed in. However, this isn't about having just one bad book. Every author is entitled to at least one of those, if not two or three depending on how long their career lasts. These things happen, for various reasons, and an author can and should be forgiven so long as they don't continue to repeat the error.

Sometimes, though, they do. Sometimes the error seems to become the norm, and where once I looked forward to an author's latest output, I start to have that internal debate with myself. Is this one going to be better? Are they going to "snap out of it?" Will it be worth my time? Now, maybe someday when I am old and less active and return to the halcyon readership days of my youth where I could sit around for hours and hours with a book, maybe then that last question will be less pressing. But now? I've got things to do, or things I should be doing, and spending time on a bad book isn't one of them.

So how do you know? When do you quit? As I said at the start, I'm inclined to give authors a bit of leeway. I know many were disappointed in the last couple of Robert Parker's books, and perhaps had been for a while. I kept reading him, and while I might be generous in saying his last few outings he was maybe batting .500 (maybe only .300), there were still good reads in there. I was saddened when he died, and am sorry there will be no new tales of Spenser, Sunny Randall, or Jesse Stone. (Books penned by other authors using those characters do not count. I am always leery of such things, but that's for another post.)

On the other hand, I gave up on Tom Clancy over a decade ago, when after a hundred pages into his China vs Russia book, nothing interesting had happened. When his characters started making long, dull speeches instead of doing things, I quit. Though I add, it was not something that started with that book, but that had actually begun happening the moment Jack Ryan became President, if not before. If Tom Clancy is still writing (is Tom Clancy still writing?) I honestly neither know, nor care.

There are other authors I could beat up on (Laurell K Hamilton and Jack Higgins for instance), but the point wouldn't change. In most instances, the author got lazy, and stayed lazy, or wandered so far afield from the earlier style or tone or premise that made their early works good that it was impossible for them to come back. Sometimes they do. I think Dean Koontz cycles through unreadability every so often, but that also implies that I keep coming back to check. Which I do. I've not quite stricken him from the list just yet.

Quitting on television shows is easier; once they start feeling like a chore, it's easy enough to cancel that particular weekly appointment. Authors are harder. Each time they put out a new book, each time I see it in the store or on the bestseller list or Amazon or wherever, that little bit of hope rises. I pick it up, leaf through it, and cross my fingers. (Which makes it hard to turn the pages, let me tell you.)

It's not an endless cycle. Authors can crush that hope too often. The trick, as a reader, is knowing when to quit, even if the authors don't.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Review: 77 Shadow Street by Dean Koontz

I've been a fan of Dean Koontz since I started reading "adult" books. I remember his early works keeping me on the edge of my seat, and he remains one of only two authors who've written a book that unnerved me as I read it. Over the years, my enthusiasm has waned a little bit. Sometimes the old Koontz seems to be at the computer, other times it's the guy who often seems to be repeating himself in his choice of themes and characters. The Odd Thomas books, for example, have all been good reads so far. 77 Shadow Street, on the other hand, was not.

I wanted to like this one, and let me say right now that it's not a bad book. If this is the first Koontz book you've ever picked up, it's probably pretty good. The problem for me was, it wasn't even close to being the first. And page after page, character after character, I found myself thinking, "I've read these people before." Different setting, slightly different problem, but the characters were stock Koontz characters. The only thing missing was the dog. Without getting into spoilers, either, the fates of these characters unfold pretty much the way you expect them to. I could tell within two paragraphs of meeting a character, especially as the book progressed and more people were introduced, whether they would live or die.

It was a good premise. I like the idea of the apartment building over the space-time rip. But that, too, was problematic, because Koontz lets the readers know way too early on what's causing all the weird things. Worse, this is done through a first-person narrative that is the most cliched and over-the-top Lovecraftian-esque narration I've read in a long, long time. It was bad. Bad enough that I found myself skipping those chapters the moment I say the italicized text. I'd have much preferred not knowing the cause behind it all until much later, as that not knowing added to the suspense and intrigue. Once that was gone, I was left with nothing but the predictable characters.

There are books where character, not premise, drives the story, and this seemed like it wanted to be one of those and just had the wrong characters to do it with. There were also too many characters, and two sets of them were practically interchangeable. (Again, this is a result of Koontz dipping into his well of stock characters.) It became difficult sometimes after putting the book down to remember who was who when I picked it up again.

Unlike past Koontz works, this was one I found myself putting down a lot.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Muses and Estellas

Most of us know about muses, even if we can't name all nine of the original Greek muses, or what they were muses of. (Did you know there is a muse for astronomy? Or that there were five different muses in charge of the various aspects of poetry?) Modern muses come in different guises. Some constantly inspire, while others may drive us to attempt things we've never done before. Then there's the kind that mostly sits in the background and kicks ideas in our general direction every once in a while in a resigned effort to remind us that yes, we are creative people.

Okay, that last one may just be mine.

Lots have been written on muses - you don't get to hang around for a few thousand years without people consistently talking about you - and I'm sure I've expounded on that subject once or twice  myself. This, however, is not about muses, but about their counterparts, the Estellas.

Before I get too far, while this is a post about metaphorical, literary-minded Estellas, the concept of an Estella can be applied to actual people as well. So if by the end of this you're wondering whether there is an actual, flesh and blood Estella that might have inspired this, well, isn't there always?

(The wanna-be noir writer in me was tempted to write, "There's always a woman," but it occurs to me that sounds somewhat sexist. Even if I can hear Bogie saying it while he puts on his fedora.)

If you don't know what an Estella is, then you aren't familiar with Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. In which case, go out and rent the 1998 film with Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. Do not read the book. Trust me on this. It is not a great film and I won't pretend it is. Good, yes; great, no. However, the film captures all you need to know about the book - for right now - without having to sit through the novel's wordy prose and somewhat absurd machinations and melodrama.

My feelings on Dickens are also a subject on which I have expounded before. Possibly even preached or heresied, depending on where you stand on Dickens.

(My spellchecker is insisting I can't turn heresy into a verb, but I am refusing to acknowledge this.)

By way of quick summary, Estella is the great love of our hero, Pip - Finn in the movie, because who the heck names their kid Pip in this day and age? - and the two of them meet through the manipulations of a cold, malicious spinster who does her best to encourage Pip to love Estella, and Estella to scorn Pip. There are other plot elements, including an escaped criminal and a mysterious fortune, but that's about the gist of it.

I like the movie version in part because it makes Estella's influence on Pip/Finn much more explicit than it is in the book. Pip/Finn is clearly smitten with Estella, and just as clearly knows it's a bad idea. He's an artist, and while she isn't directly his muse in the conventional sense, despite the "draw me like one of your French girls" Titanic-esque scene, I think it's safe to say she inspires him, both directly and indirectly, throughout the film.

Yet she is bad news, and he knows it. And still he chases her anyway. She floats into his life at various moments, wraps him up, discombobulates him, and sends him spinning before cruelly stepping out of reach. Multiple times. Each time she comes to him, he falls back into his enthrallment with her, knowing how it's going to end, and willingly playing it out anyway because he can't help himself. He is, after all, entirely in love with her.

Some ideas are like this. They come to us, we fall for them, we think we're onto something that could be really spectacular. Briefly, it is. There are sparks, there are longing glances and stolen caresses and for a moment, just a moment, we let ourselves ignore the obstacles. Muses do this, too, of course, but where the promise of the muse is ultimately fulfillment of the idea, the promise of the Estella is familiar heartbreak when, once again, it doesn't go anywhere.

And like Estella, these ideas are ones we just can't shake, just can't put down or relegate to that dusty bin where unworkable ideas go to fade away. They come back to us, we dance with them again, knowing deep inside it's not going to work any better this time, and ignoring that inner voice of caution because the idea itself has enough power over us to make us willfully forget. Part of us wants to dance again, after all, wants to cling to the hope that maybe, just maybe, this time it's going to work out, that we're going to figure out that missing element that will let it all come together.

So we go around the floor again, even though we ought to send it packing.

There are two endings to the original novel. The first, the original, was bleak and bitter because hey, it's Dickens, and especially it's late Dickens. He was asked to do a second, slightly more hopeful ending, which no surprise is the one I like much better. The movie uses the second one.

I like that ending better in part because it ends the story in the ruins of that old spinster's estate, and that seems far more poetic to me. I also like it better because, while not precisely hopeful (the movie is a bit vaguer on this than the book), there is the sense that the potential for a better ending is there this time. That this time, with Pip/Finn a little more worldly, a little wiser, and Estella a little less harsh around the edges, they might find a way to make it work.

Or they might not, because it is, after all, Estella.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Upstairs Book, Downstairs Book

I need to be reading more. Heck, you need to be reading more. You know you do. Unless you're this person. In which case you're one of the reasons the rest of us need to be reading more. Or at least most of us, as I probably shouldn't speak for everyone. Come to think on it, I probably shouldn't speak for anyone else but me, because having taken a moment to think on it, I'm sure you're all reading more than I am lately. Which brings me back to:

I need to be reading more.

This is not a new revelation on my part. I've been thinking this for a while. I used to read a lot. As in, A LOT. Remember those college applications that asked you to list the books you'd read in the past year? There was never enough space. I have always suspected they didn't really want to know the full extent of anyone's reading, and were skimming the lists looking for things by the likes of Faulkner or Joyce. Of the two, I have read one, and it isn't the reportedly indecipherable Irishman. (Of whom it may be said that Martin Sheen does an excellent impression, but if you don't listen to public radio on the weekend you probably don't know that.) But the likes of those two were not the kinds of books that filled my list and bled well beyond the confines of those few meager lines the application doled out.

I don't wish to give the impression I'm not reading, or that I haven't read quite a few books this year. I have. But in terms of just numbers, the bulk of those are the YA or MG books I read to my daughter via Skype each night. While entertaining, and remarkably sophisticated, it's not the same thing as sitting down with a novel of my own.

In an effort to fix this, and because I also have at least a dozen or so books on my shelves that I have been meaning to read - often for years - I am adopting a two-part strategy. It is a strategy that will also save me the trouble of having to go either upstairs or downstairs when I am in the opposite location from where I last left my book. Laziness in the pursuit of literacy. It's a gift, really.

I have put one book downstairs in the kitchen. I do not get a paper, and having a book to read serves much the same purpose. In this case, I'm opting to make my downstairs books the poetry, history, philosophy, politics, religion, or other various non-fiction books I own that I have not yet read. Not all of which I expect to be great, but when that turns out to be the case I'll simply reshelve it. I have long since worked past the compulsion to finish every book I pick up, no matter how good it is. Life's too short to waste on a poorly written book.

Then, in part two of this brilliant yet lazy scheme, I have a book upstairs in the bedroom. This is a library book, something light and fluffy, which I have found makes for better bedtime reading. Not that the other kinds don't work as well, but I usually don't need the help sleeping that large historical or philosophical tomes provide. Plus, they usually require a little more mental energy to properly take in anyway. Unlike something by King or Gibson or even Roth. (Although sometimes Roth provides a different kind of bedtime reading, but that's another post entirely.)

So far, it's working out pretty well. I've made more headway in my reading in the past couple of weeks than I have in a while. Which, I must admit, feels pretty darn good. For reasons that even I'm not fully sure I understand, I had let one of life's best pleasures slip away from me, and it's nice to get it back.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Starting from Scratch

I had the chance to go see The Avengers this weekend as it came back into theaters. I haven't, yet, for no real reason other than my annual quota of one summer movie was taken up with Pixar's Brave. I ended up not going to see The Avengers, still, in part because of where it was showing in my home town, and in part because today was really the only convenient day I had to go see it.

And instead I went to the library. Which is not quite as geeky as it sounds, given that I had books that were due, and where the library is versus where the theater is in relation to where I work. Also, the books were the ones I read to my eight-year-old, so this was much less of a contest than it may sound at first.

All of the superhero films coming out this summer got me thinking: is it really necessary to revisit the origin story of a superhero every time the franchise gets rebooted? I realize it's not a novel idea, yet as I am a bit of a comics geek I figure I ought to be able to throw my two cents in.

For starters, I can think of at least two .... okay, one and a half superhero movies that did not feel the need to spend the bulk of two hours telling the story of how the hero came to be. One of those was a decidedly non-superhero film that only tangentially could be put into that genre, so it's probably out. The other featured a brief backstory flashback that lasted about fifteen minutes. And having typed this, I thought of one more that fits that description. So two and a half. Out of a lot over the past few years.

For the most part, these origin stories seem completely unnecessary. Batman Begins is perhaps the exception because it trod over mostly newish ground, in a way that hadn't been done before on film. but Spider-Man? I question not only the more recent version, but the former version from several years ago. Is there anyone out there, anyone at all, who would see this movie and not know Spider-man's basic backstory?

Or Superman's? Or, yes, Batman's? Does anyone out there at all not know the basic origin story?

Let's face it, these origin films are mainly about establishing character for "new" fans. But if you aren't into comics, what's the draw then? Star power? Possibly. But if that's the case, do you still need to retread familiar ground? Women are often cited as the demographic that is brought in by focusing on "character aspects" - i.e. the hero's tortured beginning and what not. I'm not a woman, but I have to say, if I wasn't a Green Lantern fan, then I'm probably going for Ryan Reynolds, and anything beyond that is just extra padding.

Green Lantern was an especially egregious example of an unnecessary origin story. It wasn't all that important, and slowed the film down. That is a cardinal sin, because amid all the tights and capes and powers, superheroes are supposed to be escapist fantasy and above all fun. Fail in that, and no one wants to read/watch them. (Look at all the failed titles from the "Dark Age" of comics in the 1990's.)

There is a long literary tradition of starting things in media res. (That's your Latin for the day.) Superhero movies could learn from this. Just jump in, in the middle of the car chase or some other action bit. Hook the audience, and then how he got the powers or what deep dark angst he's harboring inside won't really matter.

These are already established characters anyway, for the most part, so there really isn't a need to build the backstory. Look at James Bond. James Bond does not get an origin story; James Bond does not need an origin story. (Casino Royale does not count, and if you think it does, answer me this: what do we know about his personal life? Yeah, that's right: zilch. He just is Bond. After shooting that guy behind the desk, of course.)

Neither do established superheroes.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Review: The Fall

This is the second "part two of three" book I've read in the past couple of months, and, sadly, it fell into the well-established category where the follow-up book is not quite as spectacular as the first. I finished The Strain all in a rush, because it was that good. Sadly, The Fall, DelToro and Hogan's follow-up, was only finished quickly because it was short, and because I checked two books out at once and so needed to get through it to move onto the other one.

After the phenomenal pace and plot of The Strain, this one felt kind of rushed. There were scenes where it took me a bit to understand what was going on, and that kills any edge-of-your-seat momentum that might be building. I won't spoil any plot points, but there was a needless macguffin introduced early on - one that wasn't even hinted at in the first book. It felt too much like a "let's throw this in to move the plot along" kind of thing, and while done right that might have worked, here it was just cliche and rather ham-fisted. Not to mention that it put up not one but two major plot holes that weren't addressed by much more than a hand-wave.

It was also short, too short really for me to understand why this is a trilogy instead of just one big book (unless I want to be cynical). If this second volume had been fleshed out better, then perhaps having three separate books would make more sense. And if the authors had taken the time to flesh things out, it might have made for a better book.

Bottom line, while I liked The Fall, and liked it well enough to both finish this book and move on to the last one in the trilogy, it's raised the stakes a lot for that third book. I'm hoping that one will be more like the first, so I don't find myself wishing they'd just stuck to one book only.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Fill In the Blank

There's an entry here, half-started at the moment, that I began on the topic of the "Artist's Statement." Said statement is supposedly the answer to "Why do I [insert whatever it is you do here]?" While I do plan on answering that, eventually, if only because I don't like leaving things half-written - longer than a decade anyway - it did get me thinking. When I go to fill in the blank, it will be with "write" because, as far as artistic endeavors go, that's all I've got, despite ideas I had otherwise once upon a time and my parents' willingness to frame and hang those efforts.

But lately, I've had good cause to question that. Do I get to fill in the blank anymore?

Now, don't worry, this isn't going to turn into some morose rambling about writer's block or how I have no time or am out of ideas or some such. Especially not the latter. Ideas are still aplenty. I just haven't written much over the past year or so. Longer, if I'm being honest about things. The "last worked on" dates my laptop are downright discouraging.

Some of that is personal. I know some writers turn to the craft in times of struggle, and find solace in what they put on the page. Others don't. I am clearly in the latter category, and it's been a rough year. Rough couple of years, actually.

I won't bore you with the details. Suffice it to say I was not hit by a van.

At any rate, the only thing I've written in the past six months was a single short story. A couple of thousand words. I'd puttered around with other stories, and the current WIP, but that's the extent of things.

Which doesn't seem like enough.

And yet... and yet it was something new. Not something I had lying around that I fixed up. It was an idea that I'd had percolating for a long time. An idea that I finally found cause to do something with, prompted by a contest. (Which I did not win, but no matter.) So I wrote it, in a fairly short space, and though it needs a little bit more polishing, it was finished. Something new and complete.

Is one short story in six months a lot of output? No. Do I need to be writing more than I am? Definitely yes. I know I need to get back into the routine of things. I need to find a time that I can set aside and stick to it. Which is mostly a matter of deliberately doing so, because I do have the time in my schedule. Maybe not a lot each day, but that's not the point. (I also need to be doing the same thing with my exercise routine, but that seems a little bit easier to get back into somehow.)

But, it is output. And I still have the impulse to write. And I still have ideas. And until those things stop, I think I can still fill in the blank.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Review: The Strain

Let me first say that I don't read "end of the world" books. Prior to this first book in Guillermo DelToro and Chuck Hogan's trilogy, that category was largely comprised of The Stand and The Road. Actually, come to think of it, that might be the entirety of the category. Nor do I watch a whole lot of movies in that genre. I could count those using my fingers, and still have some left over. I might even get away with just one hand if I exclude movies based on books, because that would eliminate the television and film versions, respectively, of both books. Nor am I really sure the Mad Max trilogy counts in that genre. And while I do have two end of the world books on my "want to read" list, one of them is mostly on that list for the novelty of it. The other is on the list because I know the author - a little - and it is, by all accounts, really, really good. (That would be Alex Adams' White Horse.)

But I haven't read those yet.

I have read The Strain.

Technically, the book took me weeks to finish. I even had to renew it from the library. Ignore that. The sad truth is, I cracked it open, and then other things got in my way, and the book sat on my kitchen table for weeks through no fault of it's own. I take the blame for those first weeks. Whereas all credit is due to the book itself for the last four days. Because that's how long it took me to go through three quarters of the book. If there hadn't been pesky things like my having to work during the day, I probably would have finished it in half that time. It's that good.

I immediately went to the library and picked up books two and three of the trilogy.

It's that good.

To steal from a professional review blurbed on the inside cover: it's like crossing King with Stoker with Crichton. Two of whom are authors I like, and the other one wrote Dracula which pretty much set the tone for the entire vampire genre. Although you should know that already. Come to think on it, seeing as King wrote his own vampire book, I could probably take Stoker off the list. And it owes more to King and Crichton anyway in terms of it's scope and characters and pacing.

"Owes to" is not the same as "steals from," however, as this is it's own work and not simply a cut and paste from other books. Del Toro and Hogan make the genre - or genres, as it is end of the world by vampires - their own. There's just enough science in it to ground it in modern times. There's just enough supernatural to make you turn on all the lights. And while the book isn't perfect - the description of the vampires will seem very familiar to anyone who saw Del Toro's Blade II - it was enough of a ride to overlook the occasional jostle.

I won't give away any plot points, other than to say it ends on the kind of cliffhanger that makes me glad I can get books two and three from the library. It also sets things up so that if the series doesn't end happily for all involved, I'm not going to be surprised.

All involved excluding the reader, of course, as I have already started The Fall, and so far it is living up to the expectations set by The Strain.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Review: Girl Who Played With Fire

As the follow-up to GWTDT, there were parts of this one that surpassed the original. The pace toward the end was breakneck, and though the opening was a little slow, it provided interesting insight into Lisbeth. That said, she virtually disappeared from the middle of the novel, and that's where I honestly thought this was weakest. There were at times too many characters, and while some of the middle became relevant later on, I couldn't help feeling much of it could have been trimmed for a brisker, better story without sacrificing anything. That said, I intend to finish the trilogy, and not just because of the cliffhanger ending.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Childhood Fears

I have never outgrown my childhood fears. I am not afraid to admit this. (On the other hand, that was never  a childhood fear, either.) I suppose I should clarify this at the outset and say that this does not apply to all my childhood fears. I have conquered some, as anyone must do as they advance into adulthood where polite society frowns upon you taking Mr Cuddles with you everywhere. Openly, anyway. Even if the world would be a much better place if we all carried a teddy bear or stuffed tiger with us in our bags and briefcases and purses. Just a thought.

(No, none of my stuffed animals were ever called "Mr Cuddles." I swear. And no, I do not have a stuffed animal in my bag. Really I don't. ... There is one in the chair in the corner, here, but it's my daughter's. Really, it is.)

That aside, there are some fears from my childhood that, despite my best efforts, simply will not go away. I know they are irrational. I know they are silly. I know that, even if they aren't and are actually 100% justified, in real life if the monster jumps out at me I am likely toast.

So I still walk a little faster in strange dark places, or out in the woods, even though my rational mind knows there's really no difference between daylight and darkness in the upstairs attic. (There used to be bats, though, but that's a different thing.) On the other hand, I draw on my non-rational mind as a writer, and my imagination often goes to dark places, so a little creep into my rational waking world is to be expected. The only real difference between my childhood and now is that back then I was 100% sure there were things out there, and now it's down to about 50/50.

Okay, maybe 70/30.

Some things, however, I think are completely justified, and don't make me feel silly. Such as the pool that has long since given up any pretense to being a clean, clear, safe place to swim and has devolved into a black, foul-smelling, flotsam and jetsam-filled bog. Even if it's just a kiddie pool, no deeper than my ankles, these are frightening things. You have no idea what's lurking under the water, not to mention what might be in the water. There is also that sense of urban neglect and decay that triggers more reasonable, if no less irrational fears.

I bring this up because while I adore the monsters, and the sorts of horror things that rely on them, I find the horror of the everyday things just as frightening, if not more so. Haunted houses still remain scary precisely because we all know of at least one house that, even if it is not, looks like it should be haunted. Places that, like the pool, also trigger more grounded fears that are harder to dispel with the simple flick of a light switch.

Which may perhaps be an unconscious reason to hold onto childhood fears: these are the kind of fears I can vanquish easily. I can do little about my fear of not having enough money, or of being out of work, or half a dozen other adult fears I am forced to confront on what seems an almost weekly, if not daily basis. Holding onto the things that frightened me when I was small also gives me some hope that I have held onto some of the better aspects of my childhood, too. So that while I have nightmares, I still have dreams.

And persistent dreams are a fair trade for having to walk a little faster down the darkened steps.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Forays into Social Media

Well, the unthinkable has happened. I have ventured into social media. Although I should say I have ventured into social media, again. Because I had, years ago, opened both a Twitter account and a Facebook account. Yes, I said years. I made a foray onto Twitter back when it was first getting started, and found it useful for a time, but eventually abandoned it over what were essentially tech issues on their part. I have been dragged back, kicking and screaming, and so far I am finding it a better experience than it was before.

Facebook was another story. My reasons for having the account, and eventually abandoning the account, were solely personal. As are my reasons for not going back to them, at least not until they sort out the privacy concerns I have.

Also, and I am aware how this makes me sound, but that criticism that gets tossed around, about how it's all meaningless updates about mundane (i.e. boring) things from people you really don't care about? That about summed it up for me. Sure, there were lots of people from high school - okay, "lots" is probably an exaggeration - but I came to the realization that these were mostly people with whom, at best, I had been acquaintances in high school. Former homeroom classmates and such. I didn't really care about the nuances of their life then; I care even less now.

The few people I want to keep in touch with, ironically, don't use social media much. I guess we're all too old school.

But there are other avenues for social networking, and aside from Twitter I have also managed to embrace Goodreads. I am not yet as active there as I probably could be, and it is primarily helping me keep track of books I want to read, but a social media site that centers around books? This was something I could get behind. Even without my delusions of grandeur about being a writer - a claim that lately seems to be more and more tenuous on my part - I have always been a book geek. And I have always lacked enough people to discuss them with.

Of course, a fair amount of what I or anyone else does on most social media sites is not necessarily a back and forth discussion. A lot of it is fairly one-sided accountings of what I'm doing, or thinking, or such. But it can lead to discussions, and I think that, more than anything else, is what brought me back to it.

Besides, if all else fails, I can start using Twitter to work on my secret yearning to be a haiku poet.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Chasing a Symmetry of Feeling

I stumbled across a quote some time back. I bookmarked it, intending to write something on it, and finally came back to it. Only, now I no longer remember what I meant to say about it back in January.

The quote was: We wish for a symmetry of feeling, but we rarely get it. It is painful to be the one who loves more, and painful to be the one who loves less. I found it here which is a site that, among other things I think about it, I think could well someday save some modern English lit student's life when they fail to read the short story that was their homework assignment. (I also think if my English lit courses had been more like her blog, I'd have given my teachers less grief.)

As I said, I'm not sure what I meant to do with it, originally. If this were a different kind of blog, I could wax philosophical about my social life. Whereupon this would probably digress into a discussion of the wisdom of the Dread Pirate Roberts about life and pain, though it would end well enough because at heart I remain an incurable romantic, even if my head is committed to a life of cynicism.

However, this is not that kind of blog. And so, in pondering what I'd been pondering (I think so, Brain, but...) I came to the conclusion that as writers, especially genre writers, we have to often feel as if we're on either side of that equation, in a number of ways. There is that short story or novel that you, as the write, adore, but yet which does not seem able to find a home. Or conversely, that piece of work that all your betas rave about, but which you yourself are never quite happy with. I think we all fall along that spectrum, somewhere, with at least something we've written.

There is also the difficulty of the market itself. We can write what we love, and watch as the market passes us by in favor of whatever's trendy. (For the record, I was writing about vampires long before anyone other than Anne Rice was making big money off of them. Although I don't think vampires are ever going to be completely out of fashion.)  You can stick to your guns, knowing that these things tend to be cyclical - how long can zombies last, after all - or you can attempt to go with the flow, in which case by the time you have something written the moment may pass. These things, like love, can be fickle.

We are constantly chasing that symmetry, that moment when what we write lines up with what's in demand. A fellow writer was lamenting the lack of good werewolf stories (which, in no small irony, the good ones seem to be cropping up in the literary section), in particular because I think he has a story or two on werewolves sitting on his hard drive.

Which brings us to the inherent dichotomy here that, as genre writers, we are often in both positions at once. We cling to our vampires even as zombies shuffle into first place, knowing that zombies just don't quite do it for us even if they are selling. We love what we love, and sometimes that means we're left waiting for it to come around again, if it does so at all.

The bright spot in all this is that, unlike in relationships, as writers, if we are any good, we can sometimes pull ourselves out of this. There is little you can do in a relationship when she's moved on, even if you haven't (I say "she" solely because I am a "he"), but when it comes to writing, if you're good enough, sometimes the story sells anyway.

Sometimes you get to make your own symmetry.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Myth of Sisyphus Debunked

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. For the Greeks, this was the myth of Sisyphus. For reasons I don't remember and don't feel like looking up right now (my copy of Bullfinch's is downstairs), he was sentenced in the afterlife to forever roll a heavy rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down again. Whereupon he had to walk down and start all over again. Forever.

Lately, this feels like it has become my life. In multiple regards.

I need one of these for my life.

Today's particular bout of Sisyphusian futility comes via my taxes and my bank account, which happen to be diametrically opposed this tax season. Two years ago, in the way back that was 2010, things were looking up, I thought. I had work, I had started to amass actual savings, and my back account was further in the black than I had ever thought it would be. That was two years ago, and the weird economic entropy that is my life has reasserted itself.

It's not that my spending habits are bad. I do suffer from the occasional impulse buy. Show me someone who doesn't, and I'll show you someone who is never in a store. Or at Amazon. But I have gotten much better about putting things back on the shelf in recent years. No, my economic woes are for the most part external, and unavoidable. Last year was lawyer's fees; this year it's taxes. Next year it will probably also be taxes, even after I fix the issue that occurred this year.

There isn't a whole lot I can do about that. I've cut back where I can, but avoiding the occasional impulse buy or reducing my grocery bill only goes so far against the tax numbers I am looking at. I am somewhat resigned to this.

Camus, in the only book of his I have ever read, once posited that at the apex of the hill, when the rock has rolled all the way back down, just before Sisyphus starts his descent, there is a small moment of satisfaction there. I do not remember why Camus felt this way. I do know I thought it was a crap, pseudo-Zen argument even back when I read it. Living it, I rather assure you it in fact is a crap, pseudo-Zen argument. Being resigned to a fate is not the same as gladly embracing it.

And yet... and yet.

It is not just my budget. There are other things in my life to which this could apply, including my writing. (This is, after all, supposed to be a writing blog.) I have a somewhat Sisyphusian relationship with my writing as well. I write, in spates, often for months at a time. And just when it seems like it's going well, that this particular rock in my life will make it up and over the hill, finally, it comes right back down. And it's months before I write again in any way that counts.

I have come to realize that it doesn't have to be this way, though. I have not, to the best of my knowledge, been sentenced to an endless loop of almost-satisfaction followed by a return to drudgery. Not when it comes to my writing. That is entirely within my ability to do something about; it is a pattern I can break, if I so choose.

I have also come to realize that I am perhaps going about it wrong. It is not necessary to roll the whole thing up at once. I have other tools at my disposal. Hammers, for instance, that I can use to break the rock into pieces. Pieces which I can then take, bit by bit, up to the top and throw them over to the other side. It will still take many, many trips, but at least then I know each trip is accomplishing something, no matter how small.

How do I turn this metaphor into something rock-solid? (Pun intended, as always.) Small goals, small projects, that can be overcome, bit by bit, until the forward momentum becomes self-sustaining. With a little shove, now and again.

So, if you'll excuse me, I have a hammer to swing, things to write.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Adventures in Kidlit

I've been reading a lot more children's books these days. Only that's not the right term for them anymore, is it? Now they are all either Young Adult (YA) or Middle Grade (MG) - though I suppose the readers of YA would object to my referencing them as children's books, and they'd have a point. These are not the books I grew up with. In fact, looking back, I don't think there was much like this at all when I was growing up.

(For those of you in the younger generations, yes, this is going to be somewhat of a "back in my day" post. You've been warned.)

I'm reading a lot more of these books because I read to my daughter, who at 8 years old has still not yet outgrown wanting Dad to read her stories. She still enjoys picture books, but started reading chapter books a couple of years ago, so we started doing longer books when we read. I managed to get through all the traditional standards I could think of: Dorothy and Alice, Pooh and Rat and Mole, even some Dahl and Kipling. And then my ideas dried up.

I consulted some people (by which I mean the good folks over at the AbsoluteWrite forums), and was able to come up with a list of titles.

All of which have turned out to be a lot more sophisticated than the books written "for kids" back in my day. This does not include any of the above named books and authors, of course, as they were around back then, too. I'm not quite so old that Dahl hadn't written about Charlie yet, not quite so old at all. But, back then, that was pretty much the lot of it, as I remember.

Oh, there were all the Newbery medal winners, but they mostly tend to be more grounded, more realistic books, and as we all know they tend to end on a depressing note or else, for the most part, they don't seem to get a Newbery. (The good folks at TVTropes can back me up on this. They could be renamed the Newbury for as many of them which have ended in death.) In terms of fantasy or science fiction.... well, it was pretty limited. There was Lloyd Alexander's Taran series, and there were the Narnia books, which I confess I have never read, and Ursula Le Guin, and then... well then the pickings got thin.

By the time I hit sixth grade, I was out of books at my school and local library, and had begun moving on to Tolkien and Herbert and Clarke. There simply wasn't a choice. The middle ground between picture books and "adult" books was narrow ground, and you skipped over rather quickly. Now, when I go the library to pick out what I'm going to read to my daughter next, I'm almost overwhelmed with choices.

Good choices, too. A lot of these books are far more sophisticated and well-written than I would have ever given them credit for. They are exciting, and often funny, and best of all they don't condescend. Not all are great. My daughter wanted to try a particular series that seems mostly the product of a book mill while it pretends to be Watership Down with different animals, and despite it being aimed at her tastes, she couldn't get into it. After reading a bit of it myself, I understood why.

But most of them are good, and more importantly there is such a vast array of genres in the MG and YA that if my daughter gets momentarily tired of a certain genre - as she did with the "spooky" books we were reading, some of which were a lot creepier than I'd have thought kid's books would/should be - we can move on to other genres until she's in the mood again.

Most importantly, aside from giving me plenty of titles to choose from for as long as she continues to let me read to her, it has made her a more diverse reader than I ever was at her age. A diversity that I hope will serve her well in her appreciation for new things in other fields.

Now if I can just convince her there's more to music than Pop and Country....

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Shameless Call for Votes

I know I promised new and original thoughts.... and there shall be. After this.

A friend of mine, who also happens to be pretty good with the writing, is potentially up for an award over at Goodreads. (Which, if you haven't signed up for, you should. Books are good.)

You can go here to learn more about the awards.

And you can go here to vote for her.

She's doing a rather amazing project on short stories, with far more dedication and determination than I muster. From which I intend to steal an idea or two here shortly.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Wilder Writing

This is another entry inspired by someone else's entry. They didn't do much with it, though, so I feel a little more justified in stealing it.* I promise original thoughts, soon.

 Billy Wilder, and if you don't know who he is, look him up, and then if you've never seen one of his films, go rent one (I would recommend Sunset Boulevard, but I have a fondness for noir), once put together a list of tips for screenwriting. Given the number of awards he was nominated for, and won, I suspect he's a valid authority on the subject.

I, however, do not write screenplays. Yet I couldn't help noticing that more than a few items on the list applied to writing, in general, and genre writing in particular. For example, the first two items:

1. The audience is fickle.
2. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go. 

Now, rule #1 might simply be an admonition that, just because vampires and werewolves are in at the moment, they may not be tomorrow (and I doubt that particular iteration ever crossed Wilder's mind), but I think when read with rule #2 it can also be read as saying you've got to put your best writing forward, every time. The only way to overcome fickle is by being good.

Likewise, I think #4 and #6 go together:

4. Know where you’re going.
6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.

I don't outline, but I don't ever sit down to write without knowing what story I want to tell. I may not know all the details, or how precisely I'm going to get there, but I do know where I am going, story-wise. Most of the time. And because the end story has to all fit together, if by the time I get to the end it's not working, it's usually because something has to be fixed earlier on. Not always, as like with most set of rules, I think Wilder's are the kind that usually hold true but still have exceptions. Sometimes a bad ending is just a bad ending.

Which leads to #9:

9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.

You know what else makes a bad ending? When it comes out of left field. When it feels tacked on, unconvincing, there for shock value and nothing more. An ending to a story should be organic to the story. It needs to belong, and not just belong but tie together as best as possible the threads that led there. More than that, a really good ending should build, so that by the time that final act is reached, the reader is on the edge of their seat. It should roll forward with a momentum of its own, creating that "can't put it down" need to finish.

There are 10 rules in all on Wilder's list, and to some degree I think they can all be applied to writing of all kinds. Even number eight, which is about voice-overs, but could just as easily apply to the first person narration of any good hard-boiled fiction detective or urban fantasy. (As a movie buff, I could probably speak directly on voice-overs, too. Specifically with an eye on my favorite science fiction film of all time and why I think cutting all the narration from Bladerunner in favor of that stupid unicorn dream lessens the film. But that's another entry.)

And then, of course, there is #10, which is about knowing when to leave:

10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then -- that’s it. Don’t hang around.

* Someone else happens to be a famous someone else this time. So I'm providing full documentation and disclosure. The list came to my attention from: http://www.theuncool.com/2012/03/28/billy-wilders-tips-for-writers/ and the list is taken from Cameron Crowe's book on Billy Wilder, Conversations With Wilder. Which I have not yet read, though it sounds like something that I would enjoy reading. The cynic in me suspects that the "didn't do much with it" part may have been an incentive to get people to buy the book, but it is just as likely an acknowledgement that there isn't much to improve on with the list itself. It is Billy Wilder, after all. Regardless, I happen to be a fan of Mr Crowe and his movies,** so if by some miracle you, Mr Crowe, happen to read this, please don't sue me.

** Yes, all of them. Even the one with Bloom and Dunst. May have helped that I watched it on an international flight, but even so.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Adventures in Poor Handwriting

I was reading another blog the other day when I was struck by an idea. Not immediately, mind you. There was no eureka moment. Just a thought that occurred to me the next day at work. (Yes, I think about non-work things at work. Doesn't everybody?) It's not the first time this has happened, and there's another idea from another blog lurking in the wings here, but this one first, because it occurred to me that perhaps it's part of the reason lately why I've been so bad at keeping up with this one.

... Though, in all honesty, while it would make a nifty excuse, the truth is I just haven't gotten around to it as often as I should have. There have been real-world distractions over the past year, some of which allowed me to come to the realization that while there are writers whose volume of productivity is increased in hard times, I am not one of them. I do not find solace on the page, or at least I wasn't able to distract myself enough to focus on writing. On the plus side, I don't find solace in drink, either, so there is that.

Now that I've digressed enough, the idea was that it can be difficult for some people to write on the computer because it creates a layer of separation between the writer and the ideas. That by writing longhand, ideas flow more freely, more naturally. And there isn't the distraction of the shiny internet.

Which is when it occurred to me that, back in the old, dark days before the internet and yes, children, before computers - er, personal computers, not computers in general as I am not that old quite just yet - whenever I would write down my general thoughts it would be by hand. My journal, which on some days was a writing journal, and on other days just a repository for personal ramblings and musings, was always done by hand. So perhaps one of the problems for me in trying to keep this, a blog, which on some days is a writing journal, and on other days etc, is that I'm having to process things through the interfering medium of the keyboard and computer.

At which point I laughed until I cried.

Ok, not quite so much, but it was good for a chuckle.

There were two immediate problems with such a thought: one, I stumbled across my old hand-written journal some years back. Let me tell you, if you want a good laugh, go back to whatever personal stuff you may have written as a teen. Wow. For an exercise in both self-deprecating amusement and sheer embarrassment, it doesn't get much better than that. Therefore, writing by hand does not guarantee an improvement in the process. If anything, I think knowing there wasn't an immediate audience would directly correlate to a lack of improvement.

Two, and this is perhaps the more important reason: I can't read my handwriting. Granted, lots of people say this, but I have actually taken notes I could not read later on. The only time my handwriting is even approaching neat is when I'm writing on the board for my students.

So unless I start keeping this blog via white board, it's going to have to be on the computer.

Although the Macbook does have a nice white surface. Wonder if it's dry erase friendly?

(In case you are curious, the blog I read was over here. I think you have to appreciate a blog that is run by someone calling herself Zombie Monkey. Which, come to think of it, would be a scary prospect. Monkeys are potentially ill-tempered and prone to violence enough as it is, without being the walking dead. Also, despite the title, I don't prefer writing longhand, for obvious reasons. I'm not terribly sure I'm a gentleman either, so it works out.)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Something Old, Something New

So, this is it. 2012. The end. At least according to people with a bad understanding of Mayan cosmology and a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that the modern Mayans don't share this idea of impending doom and gloom just because their ancestors ran the clock out and didn't bother to start a new one. Needless to say, I really don't think 2012 is going to be the last year for all of us.

It being the new year, it is of course traditional to talk about making resolutions and some such. I'm going to buck tradition this year. It's not that I don't have resolutions; it's just that they were the same things I resolved to do a couple of months ago. They are fresh and new for the new year, which is probably for the better seeing as how so few of those self-made promises we all utter at the start of the new year make it past the end of January. That's part of the illusion of this time of year - that we will, somehow, make good on the things we didn't make good on last year.

Of course, New Year's itself is a bit of an illusion. If you're Chinese, the New Year doesn't officially kick in for another month or so, on the traditional calendar. Not to mention that, simply because we've started a new calendar, it's not as if there were great changes from Dec 31 to Jan 1. I got snow here on the 2nd, but aside from that there wasn't much else to mark the transition once you discount the traditional things like champagne and the Rose Bowl parade. It's a month, like any other, and while people go back to work and students go back to school, these are rituals repeated at other times of the year, too.

About the only thing that is new is the attitude and the optimism. We are somehow inclined, despite all past experience to the contrary, to assign the goals we make at this time of year a certain hopefulness. We will accomplish the things we want, this year, no matter how far short we fell last year. Some of us will no doubt do this, though often by taking a different approach from the past years. Sometimes it isn't the resolution but the execution.

I'm not trying to be gloomy here, despite the surprisingly depressive tone I see as I glance back through what I've written so far. I think where I'm going with this is that it doesn't have to be just this time of year when we make the attempt to better ourselves, and that it doesn't have to be doomed to failure. I would suspect that if someone out there has done a study, and they likely have, that resolutions we make to improve ourselves at other times of the year might have a better chance of success. Those are the ones we come to after looking around and assessing what needs to change, rather than just off the cuff promises made over that first sip of the bubbly stuff.

So that's where I'm aiming this new year. Not with brand new things, but with old things, brought forward into the new year with, perhaps, new determination.

That should get me to March, I think.