Living With Boys

When Anthdrawlogy challenged us to do a self-portrait, I admit I kind of cheated. Then again, this is what you're most likely to see if I'm playing with the boys, or if I lie down, or sit down, or step away from the computer for two seconds...


Why Starting With a Flash-forward is Cheating

First, definition. A flash-forward is when the story jumps forward from the present time (you know, like a flashback, but the other way around).

Second, clarification. Flash-forwards by themselves are not cheating. They're a perfectly valid literary device that goes in your toolbox with all the others. I'm specifically talking about starting a story with a flash-forward.

Third, disclaimer. Starting with a flash-forward can be done well. This post is about why it usually isn't.

Got all that? Let's move forward.


Here's what it looks like. You're reading an awesome action scene. The MC is hunting the villain, terrified that, if she doesn't find him in time, the villain will turn her little brother into one of his Zombie Ninja Minions. She must be on the right track because she is suddenly ambushed by three ZNMs. She beats one off in an awesome display of intelligence and martial arts, but the other two grab her, force her off the edge of a cliff...

The chapter ends. You turn the page, desperately wanting to know what happens only to discover the next chapter starts weeks before. The MC is with her little brother, both happy. Nothing is wrong. There are no Zombie Ninja Minions. The MC is not an awesome martial artist yet.

Writers will often do this to start with action or to hook the reader. They want the reader invested in some moment further in the story so they'll read through the whole beginning to get there. There are some problems though:
  1. The reader is forced to start the story twice. If your regular beginning isn't good enough, don't add a more exciting one. Fix the first one.
  2. A lot of tension and surprises are gone. We know about the ZNMs, and so feel nothing when the MC first discovers their existence. Likewise with when her brother is kidnapped. And we know that, no matter what horrible things happen to her between now and the flash-forward, nothing permanent will happen to her until then.
  3. Even though the opening is a flash-forward -- and the next chapter is the present -- the reader will feel like everything leading up to the flash-forward incident is backstory. Really, really long backstory.
Now if the reader keeps going, they'll eventually get over that feeling and get invested in this new present. But not all readers will keep going. The trick to hook the reader doesn't always work.

This doesn't mean you can't do it. As I said at the start, it can be done well. Not having done one myself, my tips to do so are rudimentary:
  1. Your second beginning (in the present) has to hook the reader just as much, if not more, than the flash-forward beginning (just like any other prologue).
  2. Be intentional about what you reveal in the flash-forward.
The Firefly episode "Out of Gas" is a great example of flash-forward (seriously, go watch it RIGHT NOW). Part of why it works is because we see so little. We only know that the ship is dead in space and everyone is gone except the captain (who's bleeding from a stomach wound). So not only do we want to know whether the captain will live, but we also want to know how things got so bad to get him in that state. Where is everyone else? Are they dead? Who did this to them?

Have you seen flash-forward done well? Where (and why, do you think)?

The Perfect Utensil

(Remix)

For some, the perfect eating utensil is the most elegant, the most practical, or simply whatever they're used to. But me? I want a utensil that allows me to eat the most amount of food with the least amount of trouble. Let's begin.

Like most Westerners, I grew up with the knife and fork. It's the perfect combination for a culture that eats primarily meat (although I'll never understand why manners dictate you switch hands for slicing and eating). Ideally suited for steak, the fork/knife can handle a wide variety of other foods. So it's good, but not the best. Let's look at some other options.

The chopsticks are the choice of the East. They are an elegant utensil, and you're super-cool if you can use them. But cool as they are, they just don't make any sense for countries whose primary dish is rice. I mean, seriously guys, how am I supposed to eat this?

Next up is the spork. The scooping action makes it an ideal choice for rice and small pastas, and the tongs give it the versatility to spear larger chunks of food. The spork is almost perfect, but used alone, it is difficult to get reluctant peas onto the shovel or to slice foods too big for one bite.

Enter Thailand. In Thailand, chopsticks are only used for noodle dishes (sometimes not even then). The preferred combination is a fork and spoon, but you'll have to throw out your Western mindset: the fork goes in your off hand. The spoon is your primary utensil.

The spoon allows you to carry much more food. And the fork allows you to fill the spoon to overflowing with a minimum of effort. You can also use them to cut anything except a tough steak.

But then why are you eating tough steak anyway?

The fork-and-spoon is the best combination I've found yet, to the point where I often ask for a spoon when I visit the States. But there is one eating utensil that tops even these.

The tortilla! This amazing invention serves as a plate, but you can eat it! Pile it with food, roll it up, and shove it all into your mouth. The best part is, when you're done, there's nothing left to wash but your hands.

Geez, I could go for some Mexican food right now.

How about you? What do you like to eat with?

Reasons to Quit Writing

A lot of people quit writing because they wrote one (1) novel and were told it was no good.

Now I don't care who told you that -- whether it was agents, editors, Gene Wolfe, or your mom -- that is a terrible reason to quit writing. Of course your first novel is no good.

Here are some real reasons to quit writing:
  1. You actually want to make money.
  2. You'd rather watch Downton Abbey.
  3. There is a contract out on your life, and you have to stay off the grid.
  4. Telling stories is against your religion and/or you have taken a vow of silence.
  5. You hate writing.
  6. Jesus has returned and/or the Mayans were right.
  7. You want to be a doctor, a teacher, or some other job that actually helps people.
  8. Writing would postpone the completion of your freeze ray.
  9. You are part of an alien race that shares a single hive consciousness and, therefore, does not tell stories.
  10. You are dead.
So next time one of you tells me you're not going to write anymore, don't tell me you don't have the talent or you're out of ideas or that Stephen King said you couldn't string two words together with a teleprompter. Those are not reasons, they're part of the game.* They are obstacles to overcome.

But if you finish that freeze ray, let me know. I might want to borrow it.

Can you think of any other good reasons to quit writing?


* Except maybe the Stephen King bit.

Describing Beauty

If you don't remember, I suck at description. But that means I learn obvious lessons all the time and can pass the savings on to you!

Today's lesson: describing someone that is beautiful.

My problem was I didn't want to just say she was beautiful (although I did that too). I wanted to show it. But how? What features are beautiful? Long hair? Sparkling eyes? Pink lips?

Turns out (and this will be obvious to most of you, but such are the depths of my sucking) that the specific features don't matter. Like that old cliche about the eyes of the beholder, what matters is how the narrator feels about the character.

And you show that the same way you show any emotion: through comparisons, thoughts, actions, etc. For example:

Sister Victoria was a dark-skinned woman in her forties. She sat cross-legged on her own cushion, wearing the same white robe all the monks wore. Her hair was black as the shadows, curled at her shoulders.

What Hagai noticed most was her eyes. They were alluring in a way that made Hagai uncomfortable, only because she was over twice his age. He shuddered.

"Ten years ago, men would dance naked in the streets just so I'd smile at them. Now," she smiled, "they shudder."
There are all kinds of features here, but we don't really know Victoria is beautiful until the 2nd paragraph.



A red-haired girl in a white robe stood over Hagai. She wasn't much older than Hagai, though she was far prettier. She watched him patiently, her hands clasped beneath large sleeves, a polite smile on pink lips.
 Hagai straightened, scratching his head. "Uh, hi."
This one comes right out and says she's pretty (which is fine too, sometimes), though it doesn't say much about how Hagai feels about her, except that he's a little uncomfortable. Either way, that has nothing to do with her features.


"You're a pirate?" Sam asked her.

"Oy, ain't you the nummer." Then before he could blink, she was in his face with a blade under his chin. "Aye, I'm a pirate. Now give me a reason to cut you."
 
Bottomless eyes were cents away from Sam's. The smell of garlic and vanilla filled his head. He didn't want her to cut him, didn't want her to back off either.
This one hardly has any features at all (seriously, what does "bottomless eyes" even mean?), but there's no question what Sam thinks of her.


Anyone got any more tips for me?

(And before you go saying, "How can you say you suck! Those are great!" Let me remind you that these passages are the result of gobs and scads of revisions. Whatever good you think you see in them is the result of many fabulous beta readers.)

(Maybe one of these days I'll show you what these scenes used to look like.)

What Are Your 5 Worst Movies?

Disclaimer the First, when I say worst movies, I don't mean B-movies or movies that are so bad they're good. For example: Army of Darkness, B-movie that revels in its B-ness. Surf Ninjas, so bad it's hilarious (my family still watches it). My "worst movies," on the other hand, are those I would rather didn't exist.

Disclaimer the Second, I can only talk about movies I've seen. There are a lot of movies I've heard are bad, but if I haven't seen them, I can't rank them. I guess my life is richer for that?

Disclaimer the Third, this is just my opinion. Get over it.


#5) Dungeons & Dragons

I don't remember much about this movie (which already says something), but I do remember thinking the story was confusing, the acting was weird, and Beholders -- one of the most terrifying creatures in the D&D world -- were leashed and used like watchdogs. Lame.


#4) On Deadly Ground

With the exception of Under Siege, I am not a fan of Steven Seagal. He's his own Mary Sue. In On Deadly Ground, in particular, he never takes a single hit or is in danger of losing at any time. He's awesome in a pretentious, cocky way (so: not awesome). Combine that with an Eskimo peyote trip, a super-preachy message, and the fact that he "saves" the environment by blowing up an oil rig, and you can see why this made my list.


#3) Battlefield: Earth

I like John Travolta, and I really wanted to like this. But the costumes were weird, the acting ridiculous, and the plot filled with more holes than my socks (the cavemen beat the world-dominating aliens with Harrier jets, that they found lying around in a base and learned to fly in a week).


#2) Avatar: The Last Airbender

It's really hard for me to judge this apart from the series. I know that's unfair to the movie, but then the movie was unfair to me, so I guess we're even. I've talked about what's wrong with this movie before. Now let's never speak of it again.


#1) Highlander II: The Quickening

This movie is so bad it actually makes its prequel (which I liked) worse by its very existence. It took a decent premise (there are immortals who wander the Earth trying to kill each other) and destroyed it (the immortals are alien exiles from another planet; the winner gets to choose whether to live their life out on Earth or return to "Zeist"). Then they punched holes in the plot they just revealed (the winner already chose to live out his life on Earth, but the ruler of Zeist was scared of him still so he sent people to kill him) and invalidated their already laughable premise (the winner kills those sent after him and . . . becomes immortal again?).

As if that weren't enough, they inexplicably brought back Sean Connery's character. That should be okay (it is Sean Connery), but they brought him back and then killed him again for no reason. (Which, by the way, is also something we've talked about).

All right, your turn. What are some of the worst movies you've ever seen?