Unexpected Convergence

Something I noticed the other day when my daughter asked if she could listen to music on the way to school.

Firefly (and Other Murdered TV Shows)

Malcolm Reynolds and his crew live on the edge of the law, preferring to do jobs -- legal or not -- on the outer planets where Alliance influence is weak. Things get sketchy when they unknowingly take on two Alliance fugitives: a doctor and his genius little sister. The Alliance had been secretly experimenting on her, and they desperately want her back.

Half a season, 14 episodes. Fox killed this one partially by airing the episodes out of order. Fortunately Joss Whedon is the leader of an online cult with the motivation and power to finish the series. Though I think all of us would prefer if it never ended.

The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.
Brisco County, a Harvard-educated lawyer-turned-bounty hunter, is after the infamous bandit John Bly Gang that murdered his father, Marshal Brisco. It's a western, but with sci-fi and steampunk elements thrown in. Oh yeah, and Bruce Campbell.

Fox (once again) gave up on this one after 27 episodes. Fortunately the secret of John Bly had been revealed by then, but still.

Nowhere Man
On a date with his wife, photojournalist Thomas Veil returns from the bathroom to discover his life has been erased. Nobody knows who he is, not even his wife. Every trace of his identity is gone. He discovers it's somehow related to a picture he took years before, but he doesn't know why. He must keep the negatives safe from a mysterious organization out to get him, while at the same time trying to learn the truth about what happened to him.

The defunct UPN canceled it after the first season, 25 episodes. Long enough to find out some cool things about Thomas' past. Not long enough to find out what they meant, dang it.

Pirates of Dark Water
Ren, the exiled prince of a sunken kingdom, is charged with finding the 13 Treasures of Rule to stop the ever-hungry Dark Water from consuming the world of Mer. He has an "unlikely but loyal crew of misfits" on his side, but the Pirate Lord Bloth is after him, trying to take the treasures for himself.

This one died on ABC after 20 seasons (although it started on Fox Kids -- a trend?), after Ren had found only eight of the treasures.

All of these shows had hardcore fans and critical acclaim, but they didn't make it. If there's a lesson for writers here, it's that everything's subjective. Though at least in writing, if you have fans and acclaim, you can self publish.

What were your favorite murdered shows?

Books I Read: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Title: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Author: Mark Haddon
Genre: Mystery (sort of...more like literary)
Published: 2003
Content Rating: R for language

Chris Boone is an autistic 15-year-old living with his working class father. When the neighbor's dog is killed, Chris decides to find out who is responsible. In the process, he learns things about his parents he was never supposed to know.

I'm not normally a literary kind of guy (you may recall the literary genre loses points with me),* but I loved this book. I read it in like 5 days which is some kind of record. I loved the mystery, even though the book's not really about who killed the dog. I love the methodical, logical way Chris went about it.

For that matter, I love the methodical, logical way Chris thinks period. He has a near-perfect memory and likes order. If he sees 4 red cars in a row on the way to school, it's a Good Day. He can explain the Monty Hall problem with complex combinatorics and a diagram that's simple to understand. He reasons that if there are aliens, they would be totally different from us and might use something like rainclouds as a spaceship. Almost every other chapter is an exploration into one of these (mostly very interesting) digressions.

And craftwise, this book is genius. It does nothing normal. The chapters are prime numbers. Every few pages has some unimportant diagram (though it's important to Chris).

And not a single description is given of the other characters feelings. Chris doesn't understand tone of voice or body language--he doesn't even look at people's faces. He simply records what people say, word for word. And yet we are given enough context, and the occasional telling gesture, to feel what the other characters are feeling.

As a writer, I'm in awe.

* Then again I loved Life of Pi, so maybe I'm kidding myself?

Sketch: Phoenix Fan Art

If you haven't heard, Cindy Pon got a box of ARCs for Fury of the Phoenix, the sequel to her debut novel. Now she's holding a contest to giveaway at least one of those ARCs. I read Cindy's debut last year and really enjoyed it, so I had to do my best on this one.

So what do I love about Silver Phoenix? The action, yes, but mostly the Asian setting and mythos (I wanted to draw the gods or immortals, but this scene was hard enough as it was).

I don't know why, but rice fields make me happy.

I tried a lot of new things with this (I really want that ARC!), so I screwed up a lot of things too. But watercolor pencils? My new favorite. I found a pack (Disney brand?) with the stuff that came with our four newest kids. They don't know how to use them, so I figured I'd learn.

They're so cool. Like painting, but without the abject fear that I'll get it wrong (because I can pencil everything in first). If I keep fiddling, I'm going to have to get my own high quality pack.

Anyway, there you go, Cindy. Congratulations on getting not one, but two novels published, and thank you for writing them. If any of you guys want to get in on the contest, there's still time. It doesn't close until December 1st (and you don't have to draw to win).

James Patterson is an Evil Genius

FACT: For every 17 hardcovers sold in the US, one of them is a James Patterson novel.
FACT: James Patterson has published an average of 4.5 novels per year since 1995.
FACT: He is the second best-paid author in the world.

But have you read any of his books? The prose is awful. The villains cartoonish. If an unknown author tried to break into publishing with stories like these, they'd be kicked out on the street.

Or would they? It's true that a lot of the reason Patterson novels sell is because they're, well, Patterson novels. But a brand like that -- even a very big one -- can only carry a crappy product so far. I submit that if James Patterson wasn't doing something right, people would stop buying his books. As Nathan Bransford once said, "Every popular book is popular for a reason."

And I think I understand now. The last book of his I read suffered from everything above: lame villains, deus-ex-machina climaxes, prose that looked like he just wrote what he thought as he thought it. Bugged the heck out of me, and yet I read the whole thing. Why?

I wanted to know what happened next.

I don't understand all of how he did this, but here are some things I noticed that worked:
  • Short Chapters. Very short, like 2-3 pages. What this does is it makes the reader less afraid to read just one more (I can always put it down after the next one, after all). It's a cheap trick, but it works.
  • Effective Chapters. The chapters were short, but something happened or was revealed or was cliff-hanged in every single one.
  • Mystery. In spite of myself, I wanted to know who the villain really was and why they did what they did. Patterson sets up the mystery from the start and gives you little crumbs of information all along the way. Just enough to keep you interested.
  • Plot Twists. I haven't read a Patterson novel yet that didn't have some wacky, heart-wrenching plot twist at the end. Imagine if the Scooby-Doo gang solved the mystery and got Old Man Jenkins sent to jail, then Daphne kills Velma and reveals that she's been the mastermind behind everything. That's the kind of twist I'm talking about. And dangit if it doesn't make me want to read the next novel.

It's not cheating. It's the "What happens next?" factor. It's what makes the reader turn the page, perhaps even against their better judgment. I don't care if you write fantasy or romance or literary or academic textbooks -- you can learn from this. (Although textbooks may have a problem with the plot twists).

Fear of Failure and Revisions

I have a problem with a fear of failure. I guess most people do a little, but I feel like mine affects everything I do. I mean, I'm even afraid to talk on the phone or exercise because I might do something stupid.

It affects writing and drawing too, of course. I stare at the blank page until I convince myself to sketch something fast and light, reminding myself it doesn't have to perfect. Once I have something sketched, I'm afraid to darken or ink it because it already looks good -- what if I make a mistake? And once I ink it, too, I'm afraid to color it.

It's stupid, I know. My wife called me on it the other day. "At least you can always erase and redo a drawing. It's not like you only get one shot."

I know she's right, so why am I so afraid then to put my pencil (or ASCII characters) to the page?

In performance, like dancing or singing, you don't get to revise. Once the moves or notes are out there, they're permanent. But for some reason I'm not as afraid of performance. When I am afraid, I practice -- that, after all, is how you get your body to do the right thing when performance time comes. And I don't mind screwing up in practice because, hey, it's just practice.

So why the heck can't I do that with drafting and sketching? The delete key's only like two inches from my pinky!

Not sure I have a conclusion to this one, so I'll throw it out to you. How do you struggle with fear of failure? How do you overcome it?

Sketch: Hidden Pushers

Susan Quinn of Ink Spells won second place and a sketch in the Demotivational Contest we had last month. This is her prize, a scene from one of her works in progress:

Although everyone now reads minds, sixteen-year-old Kira Moore can't and never will. When she almost kills her best friend by accident, she discovers she can control the minds of others and is torn between passing for normal and exposing the hidden pushers of her world.

In this scene, Kira meets a young pusher named Laney, while on their way to deeper trouble.

I've only read the one scene, but already I want to read more of this. Thanks for letting me draw some fan art, Susan!

Nobody is Perfect, Not Even Me

Until a year or two ago, we homeschooled one of our kids. It was hard sometimes, especially when I had to tell them they got something wrong. They beat themselves up so much about it, I felt bad. But I told them, "Nobody, NOBODY, gets 100% the first time. Not even me."

When it comes to critiques of my own work, though, I'm just as messed up. Especially when I was first starting, I didn't send my work out for critique so much as I sent it out so people could tell me it was good.

It doesn't work. Cuz when they tell you something isn't working, it DEVASTATES you. "I suck at this!" you say. "I'll never be a good writer. I should just quit right now."

Maybe you don't say that, but I sure did. But really it was my fault. I mean, when I say, "Tell me how good it is," even subconsciously, the only room for deviation is down.

"But what if they do tell you it's good?" See, that's the other thing. If someone tells you your work is perfect and you shouldn't change a thing, they're either wrong or lying. Nobody is perfect, and no book is perfect. Or if there is a perfect book, I haven't read it. I certainly haven't written it. Nobody gets 100% the first time.

With our homeschool student, it wasn't that they got problems wrong. It's that they expected to get them all right. Same thing here: I can't send my work out to be told it's perfect, I send it out because it's NOT perfect, and I need to know where. When people tell me something's off, I need to thank them because that's exactly what I want to hear.

Hey! Writing's Actually Useful!

I love writing, but aside from crafting novels doomed to obscurity, it's a skill I rarely find useful. Knowing how to write a query letter doesn't keep my boys from killing each other. And being able to describe the smell of coming rain doesn't help when the toilet's clogged (that requires a different scent entirely).

But every once in a while...

So my wife teaches dance. You probably didn't know that. I love seeing her do something she loves, but of course I can do nothing to help her since all my dance knowledge comes from watching Center Stage.

But the other day she was trying something new. She wanted to choreograph something with sort of a story, about a girl with no self-confidence, who fails no matter how hard she tries. To me it felt a lot like Hagai's story (the song she's using was even part of my own inspiration).

She had a problem, though, because what she had so far made it look like the girl was just trying to fit in to the rest of the group, even succumbing to peer pressure. I suggested she do what I do when one of my good guys looks like a jerk: show them doing something nice. Make the group sympathetic by showing them trying to help the girl -- that it's the girl's choice to give up, not the group excluding her.

My wife loved it, and we started talking about other ideas for the dance. I got so excited I didn't realize I was trying to outline the whole thing for her. I completely forgot that anyone who's seen a single season of So You Think You Can Dance is more qualified to choreograph than I am.

Fortunately, she forgave me.

I don't know if she'll use everything we talked about, but for that moment I felt useful. Like I had exactly the skills needed to help her. Who knew fiction was good for something besides, well, fiction?

Have you ever used your writing skills for something other than writing?

Crash Bugs

Fresh out of college, and knowing very little about the Real World, I got a job making computer games. I learned a lot there: how to estimate schedules, why I should make smart goals, how taking a vacation during crunch time can get you fired.*

And I learned about the computer game equivalent of beta reading: playtesting. I remember one tester reported a bug that crashed the game, but none of us could reproduce it, meaning we couldn't fix it. So we let it go, until one day our manager asked us about it.

KEN:** What's with this crash bug? Tester reported it like three months ago.
DEVELOPER 1: It's a random bug. Nobody can reproduce it, but it doesn't seem to happen very often.
KEN: You guys need to track it down, top priority.
DEVELOPER 1: Even Tester doesn't know what causes it. You want us to work nights on a bug we might never fix?
DEVELOPER 2: It's not a big deal, Ken. There are like ten playtesters who've never had the bug, and nobody can reproduce it. It probably won't be a big deal when the game goes live.
KEN: Then think of it this way. If the game crashes for one out of ten playtesters, then when we sell 100,000 copies that's ten thousand people who will get mad and return our buggy game.

Long story short, we fixed the bug, and I learned a valuable lesson about percentages.

This is why it's important to listen to your beta readers too. If only one of them says your villain is a cardboard cliche, it's possible they just don't get it, but it's also possible they represent a significant percentage of your future readers. (And anything two betas agree on is a virtual certainty).

So in general, unless you KNOW why you wrote something a certain way and you KNOW the commenter is wrong, listen to your betas. Chances are they're not alone.

* Not me. Another guy. And it wasn't so much the vacation that got him fired as the fact that his code never worked, no matter how much he insisted it did.

** We had 2 or 3 managers over the course of the project. They were all named Ken. Not joking.

The Creative Process

From Virus Comix. Click to enlarge. Find yourself.

I'm in the editing loop, trying to ignore the short cut.

Spoiler Camps

There are two extremes when it comes to thinking about spoilers. On one side, there is the ALL SPOILERS ARE BAD camp. These folks seem to believe that once a story is spoiled, it's not worth experiencing. I once saw a Facebook comment that said, "Any Ender's Game film will be a disappointment--imagine watching The Sixth Sense if you'd read the book first!"

I can't agree with that extreme. I'd love to see an Ender's Game movie, even knowing how it ends.

The other camp says THERE ARE NO SPOILERS. In Stephen King's words, "You might as well say 'I'm never gonna watch Wizard of Oz again because I know how it turns out.'"

It's a good point, after all we re-watch movies and re-read books all the time. But the first time you saw Wizard of Oz you didn't know how it would turn out. And I think a lot of the reason we revisit stories we love is to re-feel what we felt that first time.

Obviously I fall in between these camps. I think experiencing a story spoiler-free increases the emotional impact. The second and third viewings not only remind us of that impact, but also free us to see more in the story than we saw the first time -- clues we didn't catch, subtle hints that show the author knew what they were doing the whole time.

Spoiling a movie essentially skips that first viewing. We are half experiencing it for the first time and half watching for the clues that hint at the twist. But the emotional impact is gone because we know it's coming. At least that's what I think.

So I believe there are spoilers, but just because you've seen a movie before (or read the book) does not "spoil" it the second time.

I suspect most of us fall in between the camps, but I don't know. So where do you stand on spoilers? Have you ever had a book or movie ruined by spoilers (or the opposite: heard spoilers but still loved the story)?

Screw the Muse

The muse. Writers depend on her for inspiration. They wait for her, seek her, even honor her, all in the hopes she'll give them that spark they need to write something really great. But you know what?

I'm tired of waiting.

I put my butt in that chair everyday. Where is she? Not at work, I'll tell you that. The muse comes and goes as she pleases, striking me whenever the heck she feels like it.

Screw that.

I'm the one plotting and planning, drafting and revising. I'm the one getting critiques and rejections. Yeah, I get cool ideas out of nowhere sometimes, but they're just as likely to be contemporary YA or a freaking board game as they are to be something I can actually use. Something I can get paid for.

So here's the deal, muse: you work for me, not the other way around. I'll be at work Monday through Thursday starting at 8:30. If you want credit for this job, you'll be there too.

And if you're not, screw you. I'll do it myself.