Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Evolution of Species Through WalMart

So, I'm at the local Walmart not long ago and this lady walks in front of me with the strangest display of artwork I've ever seen -- painted onto the back of her head!

I kid you not. On the back of this woman's head was a perfect graphic representation of a bag of skittles.

I nearly broke out laughing at the sight, and thought, what kind of fool goes through the expense of creating this advertisement on her head ... or was she just smarter than the rest of us and somehow managed to secure sponsorship by the product? Did she rent the space on the back of her head to the Skittles corporation?

Then I thought, the only thing more foolish than painting an advertisement on the back of one's head is being that other fool chasing the person around Walmart trying to get a picture.

I think this might give a whole new meaning to the slogan
"Taste the Rainbow."

Monday, April 26, 2010

Plotting and Scheming

It has been said that in order to do well at Chess, one must always think at least three moves ahead.

I believe the same is true for fiction writing, especially in writing the mystery or suspense story.

In fact, it can be a very wise thing, indeed, to have a good idea what the last move will look like before putting pen to paper to write the first move. I’ve struggled with this concept for years, and I’m sure many others have as well.

I’ve heard of writers who just start writing with an interesting character in mind, letting the story unfold as the character develops. Others shun that practice and use elaborate systems of index cards, cork boards, file folders, or extensive notebooks.

Janet Evanovich, in her book How I Write puts character development in the first chapter. That is not to say that she feels that plot is not important – it is. She looks at plot and structure like a train. The characters are like the train cars and the engine that pulls them forward is the plot. She has great characters in Stephanie Plum, Lulu, Ranger, and all the others so she spends time before writing making a kind of storyboard using a big dry-erase board.

The good thing about a system like this is that one can put down their thoughts and ideas in a sequential, linear fashion. Of course, one can also easily erase an item if they change their mind. I think a negative to a system like this is first, one must buy and install a big dry-erase board permanently somewhere. Second, if you have little Grandchildren running around , it might prove difficult to keep your ideas from being erased and replaced with scribbles of flowers.

David Morrell sometimes refers back to the Hero’s journey according to his writings in his book, The Successful Novelist. An important key to remember here is that the quest must be noble and the hero must gain something from that which did not kill him/her.

I’ve read about plotting methods involving an uncountable number of index cards or sticky notes, color-coded or highlighted along with lengthy timelines and notebooks filled with plotting information. I’ve tried most every plotting method known. What I’ve learned is that plotting methods are as individual as writers.

Some general rules, tricks, or methods that I’ve found to work are these:

It is important to have some idea of the outcome of your story before you plow full-steam ahead into writing. I don’t mean that one must have and exact understanding of how the story will end – just an idea of what you want for an outcome. I know we’ve all grown up thinking that real writers just start writing and let their characters move the story. Truth is, most folks just can’t write that way and most of us don’t have the time. The people I’m talking about here are writers like me who work full-time (that includes stay-at-home Moms because that’s a full-time job) and writing on the side.

It is also a great idea to have some vehicle for recording this outcome and all the events that lead up to it. I read once, and I wish I could remember who wrote this so I could quote them, that, if you start at the end, just ask why or how to build the events leading to the ending. In other words, work backwards.

I know this seems counter-intuitive but it works because, in your mind, you’ve probably already found your character in a mind-blowing beginning. Now, you just have to connect the dots on the pathway to the story’s conclusion.

This is usually the stage where I like to consider the motivation of all characters involved in the story. Often times, I will even come up with new supporting characters to provide roadblocks, detours, red herrings, or parallel plots to the story adding depth or just allowing the reader a respite from the intensity I hope to provide.

I believe that all this can be written out in just a few pages. One can also develop a simple graph for the plot to distinguish the beginning, middle, and end of the story.

The plot line above is a simplified version using Cinderella as a guide. I think it does a fantastic job of pointing out how complex issues can be added or removed while still keeping the required ebb and flow of the plot.

Have you ever considered using a writing program for plotting (and writing) your project ideas? I’m not here to advertise but I do want to say that I use a program called YWriter. This program is free and can be found through a simple Google search. Simon Haynes developed this program as a functional method of pulling all characters, scenes, chapters, and plot lines together. He’s an author and software developer.

I’ve found that using this program allows me to quickly write down ideas and record them in a way that I can’t lose them. Of course, I also like that I can easily change my mind and re-shape my plot. The main point here is “changing” plot ideas. I’ve fallen into the trap before of setting up a plot line and then becoming too close to it, therefore, losing the ability to change it when needed.

Of all the advice one must hear on formulating plots in storytelling, I believe it is most important to keep your plotting flexible. Be willing to change it as needed to meet the needs of your developing story. Keep it recordable. Some folks can keep the entire plot of their four hundred page novel in their head … but I don’t know any of these people. Plots naturally get distorted or changed over time. Keep it written somewhere so you have an idea what you were thinking last year when you started this project.

Lastly, keep it simple. Your plotline does not have to be half as large as your project. Short notes should be enough to jog your memory about what you wanted to happen. Simply write down a simple phrase or word to describe what happens and possibly something about the motivation of the character.

Again, the standard disclaimer applies. My advice is derived from my own experience.

Happy writing!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Falling Through the Ugly Tree

You ever heard that expression used to explain some person’s ugliness? They fell through the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.

I’ve not only heard it – I’ve lived it. I may not have been the ugly tree, but I was, most certainly, the person falling through it.

I've been warned against posting this, and I'm suspecting these words will do nothing more than expose my stupidity ... But I don't care. So, here goes!

It was the Fourth of July weekend in 1976. I remember it so well because, not only was it our Nation’s bicentennial, it was the same year I crashed my sister’s bicycle racing my best friend around a soccer track before a game. That little incident, by the way, left me wearing a stupid kind of butterfly shaped contraption around my shoulders for months while my collar bone healed. The little bicycle racing stunt had broken my collar bone in three places and given me my second concussion. The first concussion was the result of the actions of the weekend I’m describing now.

It was a wonderful time in my life. I was at that precious age where I could enjoy all the great rock music of the day without the burden of really understanding any of it. It would be a year before the first Star Wars movie play in the theaters, bringing seriousness, direction and control into my life. It would be even longer before I was exposed to the movie “Heavy Metal” and “Lasarium” the laser rock show with Pink Floyd accompaniment shown at the Seattle Space Center, again changing my life and sending me into an ever-quickening downward spiral that ended a few short years later in a quick eviction from my apartment and enlistment into military service.

I’m sure the eviction from my apartment would have been even quicker if my landlord hadn’t made me clean the blood off the floor and the butter off the ceiling before I left.

But I digress. So, there I was, in the prime of my youth and enjoying the hottest summer in years and the biggest patriotic celebration I had ever seen. Everything in our family worth doing was worth doing while camping. My parents would have us all packed up by Friday night and we would spend the weekend living out of a trailer, sucking in smoke fumes from the fire and listening to my wonderful Uncle Bob’s crazy laugh. Sometimes his laugh would set off a chain reaction and set the whole campground into laughter. Although I’m not sure they were so much laughing with him as laughing at him.

My Uncle Bob’s laugh sounded like a goat caught in an electric fence or someone trying to imitate machine gun fire. He never held back and the sound of his laughter could probably be heard for at least twelve miles on a clear day – and the sky was very clear that weekend.

I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed camping as I was in my “Grizzly Adams” stage. This was the stage in my life when I actually thought I was Grizzly Adams. For those of you who don’t know, Grizzly Adams was a show on television about a man wrongly accused of some crime that’s never really mentioned, who escapes to live in the wilderness. He grows a beard and befriends a grizzly bear and has many wonderful adventures as a mountain man with a bear as his only companion. Hey, at least it was better than “Flipper!”

I do remember my sister not enjoying camping as much as myself or my brother – or anybody, for that matter. She was a couple years older than us and entering those teenage years where one can lose social status through such primitive living. I just don’t think it was very impressive for her friends when she would say, “Hey, wanna go camping this weekend?” I’m pretty sure the response was in the form of another question such as, “What? Are you crazy?”

Anyway, we were all camping somewhere near Lake Chelan on the Eastern side of Washington State. This was not our normal camping spot. Our normal camping spot was at Lake Osbourne (which I found out later was not its real name) in the Hamma Hamma region of the Olympic Mountains. No, I didn’t type it twice; the name was actually Hamma Hamma. Just up the dirt mountain roadway from our lake was the Wicky Ticky, where we hunted Elk in the winter. I’m sure that by now, you can see where my weirdness stems from. And yes, I’ve even been to Forks. It’s just like Stephanie Meyers describes in the Twilight series. Although, the sunlight never “Shone greenly through the trees” for me while I was there.

By nine in the morning, my brother, and cousins and I had already scrounged up something to eat, played in the campfire until we were banished from the area, and had moved out into the wilderness to explore. We walked along one side of a dirt road trying to stay under the shadows of the tall pines along the sides. The morning coolness was giving way to the full blistering heat of summer. It was probably eighty degrees but we were already in our summer attire of cutoff shorts and tank tops – but we still wore our leather boots because we were, in fact, little hillbillies. Eighty degrees was plenty hot for the Northwest.

It was along this roadway that we spotted a tall stump standing alone and carved into the steep canyon. We could see Lake Chelan to our left and below us, but thought we could get a much better view if we were to climb to the top of the stump. So we shimmied up the stump and huddled together on a flat spot on top where it had been cut.

The view was beautiful. We could see nearly the entire waterway below us. Although the stump was only about five feet high on the roadside, the ground seemed to fall below the other side about thirty feet. It was ok; we weren’t smart enough yet to have developed any reasonable fear for our lives.

Now, we all noticed – nearly at the same time – a large pine tree growing about five feet away on the canyon side of the stump. The top of the pine tree was about level with us as we sat atop the stump. Of course, it took us about two seconds to start daring each other to jump from the top of the stump to the top of the tree. Remember, the ground was about thirty feet or so below on that side of the stump.

I must digress here once more to say that my brother was a little over a year older than me and about twice my size. He was bigger, braver, less emotional, and stronger than me and I hated it. He seemed to have a way of pushing me into things I was fearful of doing. He seemed to have no problem taking chances. I was more thoughtful in my actions. I know that now, but at the time it was known as being a … well, uh … some part of the female anatomy.

I did get my licks in once in awhile though. I once convinced a number of our neighborhood boys, along with my brother, that we could safely jump off the roof of a storage building we had somehow managed to climb, and use umbrellas as parachutes. Really, I just ended up convincing myself and went first to prove it would work. It didn’t work, and it was quite painful.

There was no way I was going to allow my big brother to jump into the top of that tree and take all the glory. There was no way I was going to suffer through the laughing and name-calling for the entire weekend because I was afraid to jump.

Without warning, I stood on the top of the stump and flung myself through the air toward the top of the pine tree. For that brief moment, I felt like I was flying. I was completely free, like a flying squirrel with the wind over my face and nothing but the glory and admiration of others in front of me. I would be a hero among boys. My actions would go down in the boyhood history books as the most daring and death-defying of all.

I landed perfectly into the very top of the large pine and grabbed hold of the thin branches for all I was worth. The treetop swayed against my weight and bent nearly ninety-degrees before snapping and sending me, once again, into the wind. But this flight was short-lived. I was still holding onto the top of the tree in bear-hug fashion as I made my quick descent. It felt like I was hitting every single branch on the way down and it was probably a good thing as it decreased the speed at which I fell to the ground thirty feet below. Unfortunately, it increased the pain of the fall. As each branch slapped into my body it felt like I was hitting the ground over and over.

When I came to, my brother and cousin had already gotten off the stump and climbed down the hill. They stood there looking at me, wide-eyed as I was surely unconscious long enough for them to think I was dead. I was still holding onto the top of the tree that I had broken off and rode all the way to the ground. The pain did not actually start until I tried to move.

The two boys somehow managed to get me back to camp where everyone gathered around me in a form of triage discussing what they should do with me. By then I was getting sick and losing the hotdogs I ate for breakfast, all over the campsite. The group came to the determination that I had suffered a concussion, treated me for shock by laying me on my sleeping bag and placing a pillow under my feet. My brother and cousin had to pull watch over me in shifts so I wouldn’t go to sleep.

I obviously got better and even remember watching the fireworks from my spot in camp. I recovered quickly, probably eating everything in sight within the next couple of days. The camping trip was a bust for me though, and the only thing I had to look forward to for the rest of the summer was playing soccer with my little league team with my best friend, Erik Carlson.

The moral of this story? The lesson? I don’t know. I just felt like rambling.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Believing in Magic

If you are a writer of fiction, you are likely familiar with the term "Suspension of Disbelief."

This is a process, skill, or whatever you might call it coined by poet and aesthetic philosopher, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Since it's first explanation, suspension of disbelief has been used and talked about by writers, poets, filmmakers, and politicians. Even Shakespeare included it in his works.

Basically, the key to this formula is to provide the reader with some semblance of truth they can use as a springboard into the truly fantastic. My observation is, the more fantastic the story, the more willing the reader is to suspend their disbelief for your story.

I find that readers of science fiction, fantasy and romance are more willing to believe a fantastic story even if it does not have any grounding in the real world. They are less likely to believe a fantastic story if the writer either does not follow the conventions and rules normally associated with the genre, or does not write with enough skill and imagination to get away with breaking those rules.

Suspension of disbelief seems to be more difficult to achieve when one writes across genres.

For instance, I am currently working on a project involving a relationship between a succubus and a werewolf. What the &*#, you say? To make it even more complicated, the succubus desires true love in spite of her inherent physical need to have sex with men and drain them of their life-force, and the werewolf is the police inspector investigating her for murder.

I hope to grab my readers and prompt them to suspend their disbelief of this fantastical, and completely unrealistic story by planting my characters in the real world and giving them real motives and actions. Sure my succubus can walk through walls and shapeshift, but I'm hoping that if I can write my character in such a way that it seems normal to her, it will seem normal enough for the reader.

So, some keys to getting readers to believe your magic are listed below. Keep in mind that these are my own observations and written under no specific authority or privileged knowledge.

1. Begin the story in a believable world with believable character actions, or open by building a believable world for the reader in the beginning.

2. Write your character so the fantastic world they live in seems real and normal to them. If the reader senses that the characters don't believe their own world, how can they believe it?

3. Return to some reasonable and believable grounding point often in your story. Even if your believable thread is nothing more than believable thought patterns of your characters, this process will allow the reader to identify with the characters even if they are in a foreign land, country, time, or universe.

4. End your story with the same elements of closure, character growth, or completion of the quest as with other stories. Even if your character is a seven-foot translucent squid-shaped creature, they should be able to embrace their significant other and express happiness (or happiness for now) in this new world.

Take it for what it's worth. Now, keep writing.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Character Emotions

I recently began to re-work a project I had previously put on the back shelf. One of the issues I had with the project is with my supporting character. I suppose one could call her the antagonist although her true antagonistic nature is not revealed until near the end of the story. You see, she is the best friend from high school of my main character. In this story she may or may not have poisoned her husband.

what does this have to do with character emotions, you might ask? I've that one of the issues that I've had with this project is how this character (best friend - antagonist) should show her emotions. She is secretly furious because she believes her husband is cheating on her and senses the person he is spending all his time with is setting him to rob his bank. I've pondered much about just how I can let this character show some of her anguish and hurt and still hide it from her best friend.

I finally decided (after the third re-write of the entire story) that I will emphasize the emotions that the antagonist does NOT show, rather than what she expresses outwardly.

Many authors feel the need to push their characters to show emotion in their actions and dialogue. Oftentimes though, this need to express the emotion, in an attempt to add depth to the story, ends up with more telling rather than showing.

I recently read a book by Ann Hood called Creating Character Emotions. Overall, it was a well-written book full of insightful thoughts on how to get your characters to express emotion through action (or during action; or action because of emotion). But, I believe there are instances when one might allow their characters to express emotions through what they do not say. Some folks have the ability to hide their emotions and do not need to slam their fist on the table and yell explicatives.

Some authors are great at this. I am a fan of Lee Child's Novels feature the Jack Reacher character. Throughout his stories, Jack Reacher will be depicted as "not answering" or "saying nothing." There is much emotion shown when Jack Reacher does not say anything because one knows that he is really "emotionally" saying very much.

I suppose that one cannot write this way all the time but, once you give the reader a chance to get to know the character, this may be a good method of allowing a character to physically suppress emotion while while still allowing the reader to sense some deep emotional conflict.

I am trying to use this approach with my character hiding her true emotions. The one thing that one must be aware of is this: while a person may be able to suppress emotion in their dialogue or action, there should remain some telling feature. I like to allow my character to hide emotion but try to write in something that betrays their attempt.

For instance, the character may be telling her best friend that she is surely overreacting about her husband cheating, maybe even laughing about it, but she may be ringing her hands or holding onto her purse or the table with a white-knuckled grip.

This method is, of course, merely a suggestion - something I am learning. But I do believe that just as much can be said or conveyed through this type of telling action as through normal character actions and dialogue.

Tell me, what are your thoughts on this?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Very Taxing, Indeed

Well, today is the day we all participate in that great personal fund distribution exercise known as tax filing day. This in one day of the year where some lose, and some, truly, win.

This year I think I'm losing. We've done everything humanly possible short of claiming our dog as a dependant in order to lower our amount owed to Uncle Sam, but to little avail. We still owe.

I absolutely cannot believe the way the math has changed this year. I actually buckled down this year and invested in an IRA and found that investment (supposed to be tax deferred) actually increased my state income tax burden! I had to remove it from my paperwork to avoid the penalty.

It all works out in the end though (that's what I keep telling myself, anyway) and maybe in future years some of the money I give away this year will find it's way back into my pocket.

So, for those of you seeing a refund this year, enjoy. But don't hold on to the funds too tight because, if my taxes keeping increasing, I might find it more financially beneficial to just quit my job, go on welfare, and collect my free healthcare plan. Then, all you folks that previously found themselves getting refunds might just be passing their funds on to me.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Politics of Pageants

I recently attended a local "all natural" beauty pageant for children. I went in support of my one year old Granddaughter. Now, let me pull out the soapbox cause I got something to say.

First of all, I must open with a statement proclaiming knowledge that, according to Southern Tradition, I will be sought out, hog-tied, and hung by my family jewels with barbed hooks for daring to speak my mind like this. My retort to the threat is "Bring it on". I'm a proponent and believer in the second amendment.

Now, on with the rant.

I will admit to watching the Miss America Pageant on occasion. I did this for my own personal pleasure and not once did I believe that these women were not being manipulated or exploited in some way. When my daughter announced that her daughter was going to attend such an event as a contestant, I was saddened.

But, this was an "all natural" beauty pageant just for young girls, and it was for charity. In fact, there was to be a special award called the "Heart of Gold" for the family that brought in the most canned goods for charity. The dress for this event was to be jeans and simple t-shirt.

About a day before the event, on rabid protest by some of the contestants mothers, I assume; the event coordinator decided it would be Ok for the young girls to wear whatever they wanted.

When we arrived at the event, I was not at all surprised to see the very sight I imagined, in all my prejudicial, assuming knowledge of this, or any other kind of pageant. These young girls, none over the age of eight, wore more makeup than a drag-queen in candlelight. Apparently, all their outfits came from a special store dedicated to selling clothing for little girls participating in beauty pageants. Let me just say this, some of these girls wore outfits that, I believe, would embarrass the professionals working the largest red-light district in the world in Frankfurt, Germany.

We were instantly aware at how under-dressed and under-painted our little one year old girl was for this event -- even in the youngest division of the pageant!

We watched the whole horror fest unfold, embarrassed for what our two and a half year old Grandson was witnessing. One mother even had her young girl stop in front of the judges, turn around and shake her ass before walking to another mark on the stage.

We left the event feeling like we were the uninvited guests at a Southern belle, blond-haired, blue-eyed, white-girl, debutante, I love me meeting. All the judges, sponsors, and contestants seemed to know each other. It was nice though that my little Granddaughter did not leave empty-handed. She was given chocolates for her attendance, and won a nice stainless-steel Mary Kay Cosmetics thermos. My wife and daughter plan to use the thermos for coffee since it didn't come with a nipple or sippy attachment for use by my Granddaughter.

Oh, and by the way, the winner of the pageant? The little girl who shook her ass for the judges.

I do not believe that beauty pageants do anything to improve self-confidence, acceptance, or poise of girls or women. I now believe the polar opposite.

My understanding of an "all natural" beauty pageant would involve no makeup, hair pieces, or fancy clothes. Unfortunately, this is not true. The picture on the right is an advertisement for an all natural event in Alabama.

These poor little girls are made up to look, well, bad. I believe the makeup and the clothes and the suggestive movements and dances become what these children equate to beauty. By way of example, walk through a Walmart in the South any day of the week and I think you will have no trouble finding some young (or older) woman wearing makeup so thick that the color difference between her natural skin and the spackling is clearly evident. Sad thing is that these women truly believe they are beautiful --and know how to put on makeup.

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't know how to put on makeup but, as a guy, I do have some experience looking at it. It's like the paint job on a car. I may not know exactly how to do it but I have a good idea about what looks good and what looks, uh, bad.

These girls grow up looking for acceptance from their mothers by attending these things. When they are older, they find themselves brainwashed into thinking that the kind of dress, makeup and actions that won them titles is what will be acceptable for society. Vulnerable is a more accurate description.

It's just amazing, and disheartening, to me when I find out what these things are really about -- acceptance for the few and privileged, and disparity and exclusion for others.

And that's all I got to say about that ... for now.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Why Didn't I Think of That?

Have you ever looked at a new product, or even another author's writing and thought; why didn't I think of that?

Ok, maybe I'm weird but I've done this often.

Not long ago, I was parusing one of those "Skymall" gift catalogs while on a flight. I was surprised to discover a product that I had invented long ago. Well, maybe I should clarify and say "my daughter invented it with my help for an elementary school project."

I even remember mentioning to my wife that we should patent the product. She laughed and told me that it would be silly to spend the money to patent such an absurd device. Of course, she was right.

You see, the device we invented was an automatic marshmallow turner. I had even created a support that would allow the roasting of a hotdog. The device was battery operated and turned marshmallows or a hotdog at the push of a button.

One could imagine my surprise when, years later, I'm looking at something very similiar to the device my daughter and I had created ... and it was selling for $14.99

When I was just a young boy, I would spend great effort on inventions and all kinds of money-making ventures such as selling Christmas cards, Flowers, Grit Newspapers, mowing lawns, or doing basic yardwork. That spirit stayed with me through the years (although I no longer sell Christmas cards door-to-door). I did continue in college through a Master Degree, in business, no less. I now have an MBA with a concentration in Human Resource Management. Believe it or not, it helps me in writing

I think I'm trying to say that it's best to follow your dreams. One never knows. Even the silliest of ideas could become something someday.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Daleville Dan Fights for the Cause

For those of you who read the first Daleville Dan entry, you can rest assured that he finally managed to rid himself of those pesky cats. But it didn't take long for Dan to find his way into another hornet's nest full of political injustice and social disparity.

You see, Daleville Dan discovered a wonderful new hobby and possible job source - electronic bingo.

Oh, yes. A new electronic bingo hall, or entertainment complex as some might say, opened in his local area. Daleville dan had a blast and spent loads of his hard-earned money at the new place for more than two weeks ... until the Po Po came and shut it down.

It seemed that some folks in the state government considered this form of entertainment gambling.

"Heck, it's just bingo," Dan thought. "What harm could possibly come from putting money into a machine, pulling a lever, and waiting to see if the tumblers fell just right giving the player a jackpot, uh, er, I mean bingo! So Daleville Dan, for the first time in his life, decided to join the cause.

Daleville Dan packed up some food, locked up his single-wide, and gassed up the truck before high-tailing it all the way to Montgomery, the state capitol, to protest these polititians who were so asinine as to think his beloved electronic bingo devices were simply slot machines.

"How can they possibly be slot machines," Dan thought. "Anyone can plainly see the bingo card shown on the machine."

Unfortunately Dan is still fighting the good fight and, now, his plight has become even more serious.

"They just got to get some sense and get those machines back," Dan now tells everyone who will listen. "I need to win me some money so I can pay my new health insurance premiums."

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Technical Difficulties

Please stand by as I am experiencing technical difficulties, ie. I think my modem is dead. I will be ready to post further adventures of Daleville Dan, more truths and more fiction as soon as I can get a reliable Internet connection.