Monday, September 28, 2015

Stuttering Starburst

In first grade, I was special. Ms. Haugen would pick me up from class and lead me through the empty halls, through the cheesy bread smelling cafeteria, and into her tiny office. I didn't know what a speech pathologist was, but I thought she was cool. We would play games, talk, call up random businesses to ask questions, and all sorts of random things. At the end of every session, she would let me pick a Starburst from the jar on her desk (of course I nabbed the pink ones!)

At some point I was deemed cured and Ms, Haugen no longer would pull me from class. Some other lucky kid must have been eating those pink Starbursts, leaving the neglected yellow and orange to pool at the bottom of the jar. I now knew what they must have felt like.

As an adult I still have minor speech issues. Not so much the classic stuttering people think of, when a section of a word is repeated, like a skipping record. Instead it's more of a sporadic pause, where I want to say the word, but I can't force it out. It doesn't happen often, but it's there, a stalking ghost of an awkward kid.

Talking on the phone is when it strikes most. I think it's the extra attention on the sound of the voice. In person, you have expressions, and other stimuli to help deliver the message. On the phone, you only have your voice.

When I was envisioning a character for my new manuscript, The Alchemist (working title), I pictured him as a gifted academic, but struggling in the social world, oblivious to social cues. Also, I heard him stutter. I was able to tap into my own experience and add in the minor quirk to flesh him out further. It's the little things that help build a character beyond just the physical description, the clothes they wear, and the things they say. The small things purchase credibility with the reader as they experience the diversity in your imagined world.

There is a push in fantasy, and other genres to increase the amount of diversity represented in the books, and I'm all for that. I believe it should go beyond the obvious gender, race, and sexual preference checklist. Interesting worlds in my opinion, are teeming with various forms of life and sentient beings possess that much more potential for variation beyond coloring and who the like to have sexual relations with. The possibilities are endless. You can use our world as an example.

I'm working on a new story and pushing hard at three-dimensional characters and environment. I hope to create a living, breathing world. Maybe one where the orange and yellow Starburst are the sought after ones. You never know.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Dreaded Question

Whether it be family and friends, interviews, or fans, authors get asked a fair amount of questions. The infamous inquiry that has been identified by a number of writers as their least favorite is: where do you get your ideas?

Not that I have people beating down my door to seek my audience, but I don't mind that particular question. Personally, I don't think the actual method is usually interesting, but the details for a particular story can be.

The reason I don't think the method is all that fascinating, is it typically involves the same two components. Unhinging the mind, and metacognition. Don't worry, I'm not getting all new-age on you. Or stated in another way, you let your mind off the leash and follow it into the weeds.

It might be a full-blown plot that develops in the mind, or it could be a scene, a concept. One of the starting blocks for Rise of Raulet was a scene from a TV show where a young man is taking care of his publicly shunned sister. Both the sibling bond and the societal rejection were used to form Jasper and Margret.

Sometimes it's more directly derived from a reading experience. That's one of the freeing aspects of writing. Tired of seeing XYZ recycled again and again in a particular genre? Great! Write something in a different vein. Hence, why some people refer to the writing process as adding to the conversation. Granted it is a loud and disorganized conversation, but I will buy that for a dollar.

There is one question that makes me a little uneasy, though it is a fair question, and that is: is this character, you? The answer is always no with a small asterisk. Well sure, my thoughts went into building that character, and in that regard it's a part of me one could argue. With an unlimited world of imagination, why would I create a character that is me? Booooorrrring!

I want to feel unhindered in the creation process and I usually do. But, creating a violent character, or if I wrote a sexually deviant character, that would make me shift in my seat a little, as some people are going to assume those characteristics are mine too! Just because a character in my story likes to rub jelly doughnuts all over his body and then dance naked in the silvery moonlight, doesn't mean that I do that. What a waste of a good pastry.

I don't mind if people don't like me. Ok. That's a slight lie. It bothers me a little. What would make it worse, is if the person doesn't like or respect me based on a lie or a misconception. That idea drives me batty. That is why the question, if a character is me, is my dreaded question.

How about you? Do you have a dreaded question?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Only Two Fans in the World

Turn back the time machine to the late 1980's and think video game consoles. The glory of the Atari had mostly waned, and two competitors rose to fill the void. My family was fortunate enough to have some disposable income and snapped up one of these amazing boxes. You're probably picturing this:


Nope. While everyone else was jumping around with Mario and shooting ducks, my brother and I were taking precisely-timed 30 minute turns on this beasty:

This $200.00 investment came with Hang-On and Safari Hunt:

Kids around the neighborhood invited us over to experience Mario and Top Gun, but no one wanted to play Hang-On or Alex Kidd. That didn't stop my brother and I from spending many glorious summer days inside maintaining our pale and haunted appearances.

I still recall reading about a new game called, Phantasy Star. It was to be our introduction to the role playing game. Looking at this picture elicits a stream of nostalgia bound glory and also a little shame, as I begged my poor mother for the game endlessly:
Phantasy Star box.jpg
Now, I'm not a video game historian, but this thing was ground breaking. First of all, note the fact that we have a female protagonist. That's pretty awesome. The game had four heroes that you would explore the world, fight monsters, level up, buy/find better equipment, and actually had a mostly coherent story line:

You can see where I learned my colorful language with early influences like this. Both the SEGA master system and the next generation console, the SEGA Genesis, did poorly in sales compared to the NES and SNES. It fostered a defensive pride and SEGA loyalty in my brother and I. We were quick to point out the hardware superiority (we were born nerds from day 1) of the SEGA versus the NES, but it fell upon deaf ears.

When it wasn't my brother's turn or play (or my dad, as he sometimes played = waiting a full hour!!) I would watch whomever was at the controls, experiencing the game with them, and some games (Streets of Rage anyone??) would allow for 2 players, which could not have gotten better.

Almost thirty years later, and my brother and I are still avid gamers, a passion that we share. Occasionally discussions with friends and new acquaintances will turn to retro-gaming and I'm always hoping I will encounter another SEGA fan, but inevitably talk turns to Mario.

How about you? Ever had the joy of rocking a SEGA Master System or Genesis?

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Secrets and Letters

There are two ways to nab that elusive literary agent and obtain that big book deal born of dreams.

Method 1

First, you must obtain a mint condition, first edition Stephen King novel. I’m talking pristine. Which one? Doesn’t matter. The next step involves locating an abandoned crossroads. Preferably one with a lonely, flickering light that even the flies know to avoid. Bury that aforementioned book at the dead center and wait five or ten minutes for the next available agent. Try not to let your senses be dulled by the soothing music.

The agent will appear with a puff of smoke and a whirl of discarded query letters. The summoning was the easy part. She will demand you pass two tests. The first test is a brutal trial that eliminates nearly all. She places a vintage version of the board game, Operation, upon the dusty road. Time has only made the damn thing more sensitive (did I just switch tenses?). She points wordlessly to the wishbone.

If you somehow manage to skirt the buzzing sound and lit nose to obtain that pesky piece of plastic, your last Herculean task is the secret handshake. Every published author knows the handshake, but is sworn upon painful obscurity to never reveal it. Plied with enough bourbon, they will relent and admit the existence, but that is all you will manage to dredge. If you can master all of the intricate slaps, fist-bumps, and fist-plosions, she will bow her head and hand you the golden typewriter.

That damn thing is heavy. You didn’t walk to the crossroads did you? Good luck carting that behemoth home. Newb.

Method 2

For the rest of us, there is the query letter. For those of you that don’t know, the query letter is a one page attempt to introduce yourself and to convince the agent that it’s worth their time to read your newly minted manuscript.

Some consider it a necessary evil, but It does makes sense. No agent has time to read 200 novel-length manuscripts. The challenge is to get past the auto-reject. Imagine if you had 200 letters to go through. Are you going to carefully examine each one, stroke your chin, and ponder the contents? No. You will be looking for any excuse to recycle and whittle that slush pile down to a few promising samples. So do they.

There are a few possible responses to your query letter ranked in order of awesomeness and scarcity:

1.       Silent rejection. Very common.

2.       Form letter rejection. Dear Author, thanks but no thanks.

3.       Helpful rejection. No thanks, but . . . they may tell you specifically why they passed on your manuscript, ask you to send your next work, or just offer some rare words of encouragement. Bless the agents who take the time to do this.

4.       Partial request. They ask for a few chapters to test the waters, partially intrigued by the query, but not completely sold yet.

5.       Full request. Bingo. They saw enough promise in your work that they want to read the whole thing! From here it could be a no thanks, a revise and resubmit, or an offer of representation (this is where you learn the handshake!)

In my first round of queries, I got partial requests, but nothing panned out. I did get a helpful rejection, which was, well, helpful. I also got a form rejection, after seven months. That was not very helpful J. One of the bits of advice I picked up was to set aside your favorite 5-10 agents and save them for last, instead sending out smaller batches of queries to see if they elicit responses. If not, rework and try the next batch. Rinse. Repeat.

It’s an odd system, but as flawed as it is, it does seem to largely work. How about you? Have any bits of advice or tales to share about the query process?

Saturday, September 5, 2015


Some books are devoured whole, the tension arc building and carrying us through the pages, defying the rest of our carefully planned schedule for the day. After these books are set aside, we may never step inside that particular universe again. It was a delightful ride, but it didn’t linger, it didn’t resonate.

A knee-jerk response would be to judge that rapid finish as the ultimate measure of enjoyment. But, these aren’t the books I seek the most. The works I revel in, are the ones that even after I refile the book, filling the gap on the shelf, I can’t help but think about it more, relive a particular scene, wonder what if . . .?

I have found that these resonating experiences come in three varieties:

1.       A particular passage
2.       The ending
3.       The entire breath of the book

I recently had the pleasure of reading Elizabeth Bear’s All the Windwracked Stars. I certainly found it an enjoyable read and would recommend it to a seasoned fantasy reader, but it wasn’t my favorite book of the year. However, there was one passage that I halted over and reread multiple times. Not because I didn’t understand it, but because I wanted to replicate the feeling of wonder and sharp inhale the first time my eyes touched it:

“And Cathoair found himself thinking that there should be a word for the way the hair sticks in curls to the neck of somebody you ought to have learned to love but didn’t, when you are walking with them at night, down the beach in the rain.”

Haunting. Occasionally these powerful segments can actually pull us from the story, sending us along an overgrown path, one we haven’t dared to traverse in years.

Endings get a lot of hype, as well they should. I’m not delving into the shocking endings, or the cliff hangers, I mean the perfect capsule that enriches what you just read and creates a life of it’s own beyond the text.

The example that sticks out most of me is Stephen King’s Christine :

“What if it’s started again?
What if it’s working its way east, finishing the job?
Saving me for last?

His single-minded purpose.
His unending fury”

Granted, you need the rest of the story to understand the character of Roland D. LeBay, and his constant anger, and those final two lines are sublimely perfect. It’s the only time I can recall actually feeling scared after finishing a book.

Finally, there are books where the fiber of it stretching from preface to epilogue refuses to leave. The first example I have of this is, The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum. That was such a powerful and disturbing book that I begged my friends for a light-hearted read to cleanse the palate.

A second example is Octavia Butler’s Kindred. What a marvelous job of transporting us into the antebellum south and into the mindset of the early 19th century. The relationship that is built between Dana and Rufus is as human as it is ugly. I agreed with Dana’s choice near the end, though I would have not predicted that conversion. The willingness to go along with her poked and prodded at me and I could only sigh in resignation.

That’s my story. What books resonate with you?