Monday, September 28, 2009

Lost Data, Lost the TV Show, and Lost Characters

First of all, I just want to say my laptop is working again. Huzzah!!! According to HP the power adaptor hasn’t shipped yet. But we’ll just keep the fact that I got it the end of last week between you and me. Let me also at this point give a big, big, nudge to anyone who doesn’t have all of their important files backed up daily. Do it. Do it now! When my laptop bit the dust I was in the middle of revisions on two books. Both of those books were past deadline. There was no way to get the files off my laptop for over two weeks. But because I had my files backed up every day, I was able to keep right on working. Ask yourself what you would do if all of your files suddenly became inaccessible this very minute—for a day, a week, a month, or forever.

I highly recommend that whatever you use to back up your files be automatic and either cheap or better yet, free. It’s too easy to forget otherwise. There are lots of solutions out there. I use Mozy. You can get 2 gig for free or pay $5 per month for unlimited storage. The thing I like best about this solution is that it’s so easy. It takes about five minutes to set up and then it backs up when you computer is not in use. Easy! And if you use the link above, I get extra storage or something. Win win!

Okay, that’s my advertising pitch, (but really do back up with something starting now if you are not.) So, many of you know I have started watching Lost. Yeah, the series has been going for five years, and yeah I’m only on season one, but I hate watching a series and getting left hanging when the network cancels it halfway through the first year. So anyway, I just finished season one. My grade? B+. (Better than Rob, not as good as Kerry! Just kidding Rob. Kind of. ) In general, I am impressed with the series. I thought it was going to be X-files meets Survivor. While there is some of that, I am really impressed with how much characterization takes place. With as many “main” characters as there are, I feel like I know all of them well enough to care, without a lot of over lapping or “seen that” moments.

Of course, I still feel like there are too many moments that are made weird or left hanging (the numbers, the polar bears, the security system that seems like a monster, the magical healings) just to make the viewer go “Whoa!” But that’s part of network TV. There’s always a little too much soap opera for me. The thing about books and movies is that the is a clear beginning and end. A TV series can just keep milking it without giving the viewer any real closure. But the strength of the characters has definitely pulled me in.

Which brings me to my final point today. Don’t go with your first thought when you are making up characters. Ask yourself questions. Find the character behind the character. Give the minor characters a chance to grow. Often we focus on the “story” to the exclusion of the character. This is the story of a police detective who finds out that someone has stolen the Mona Lisa. Okay, so far so good. But then we concentrate on who stole the painting. We throw in red herrings. We offer clues. All the while, the detective is just a detective. The reporter is just a reporter. The housewife is just a housewife. And at the end of the day, the reader goes, “Meh. The story was okay, but I didn’t care about the characters.” It’s not that we can’t write good characters. It’s that we settle for stereotypes because we are focusing on the plot. Forgetting that if the story is the forest, the characters are the trees. If you create interesting and unusual trees, the forest will build itself.

For example, let’s say you have a main character who is a single. What are the typical reasons she might be single. Husband died. Never married. Divorced. Yeah, that about covers it. So we go with divorced. Why? Husband cheated. Husband was gone all the time. Husband was boring. Do any of these excite you? Do they sound new or original? Maybe you really stretch it and the husband, “mysteriously disappeared.” Wow, groundbreaking! Why do we settle for these, because we aren’t focusing on character. It’s simply a placeholder in the grander scheme of who-done-it.

But what if we took as much time with characters as we did with story? What if the heroine is divorced because she views men as weapons? Tools to be used to help her climb the corporate ladder and then tossed aside. What if she tried to do the same thing with the next man in line only he turns the tables on her? Now I am not suggesting this is the main storyline. I am suggesting that it is a single character in the rest of the story. It is the cumin in an already exciting main course. It is the twist that raises your story to a new level. Going back to Lost, I expected a story that was all plot. But what really made things hum, was the depth of each of the characters. That’s why probably half of the first season was showing us who everyone was.

In my second Farworld book, I knew Marcus and Kyja would meet a man who would send them on a variety of quests. I didn’t know much about the man—or even if he would be a man. But instead of making the character take a back seat to story, I let him reveal his true self before I started writing. Mr. Z, as he introduced himself to me, was not what I expected at all. As a result, he became an integral not only of this book, but I expect books to come. Here’s a little snippet to show you what I mean.

“Quiet, you two,” said a squeaky voice. “Things are about to begin.”

Two large piles of books slid aside on the desk, and Kyja found herself looking at a tiny man with a blob of a nose and enormous red ears. The man was wearing a pair of gold-framed glasses too big for his face, a long, black coat, and a battered felt hat that looked dangerously close to falling off his head. He perched at the top of a tower of books that wobbled every time he moved.

As she watched, the man reached into the pocket of his purple vest and pulled out a horn no bigger than his pinkie. He put it to his lips and blew a surprisingly loud trumpet.

“Isn’t this exciting?” the man said, putting the horn back into his vest and clapping his hands. “Ullr the challenger is a fine specimen, fleet and strong. But the champion, VĂ¡li, is a veteran of many battles, wily and trickilicious.” Resting his chin in his hands, he set his elbows on the desk and stared at its wooden surface.

Marcus looked to Kyja, but she had no more idea than he did what was going on. Stepping carefully around the books, she and Marcus approached the desk. “What are you talking about?” she asked timidly.

“Hmm?” the man replied without looking up. “Sport, of course. Man against man. Beast against beast. Strength versus speed. Mind over muscle.”

Marcus leaned across the desk to see two brown shapes no bigger than walnuts. “Are those snails?”

“Yes, yes.” the man chirped. “Look at them go!”

Kyja glanced from one snail to the other. “They don’t seem to be moving.”

“That’s what they want you to think,” the little man said, tapping the side of his head and nearly knocking off his hat. “They’re sizing each other up, probing for weaknesses. It’s a thinking man’s sport.”

“And what sport would that be?” Marcus asked. As far as Kyja could see, the snails hadn’t moved at all. In fact, she suspected at least one of them might be dead.

“Snail jousting, of course!” the man snapped. “The sport of kings and noblemen.”

“Seriously?” Marcus leaned across the desk until the tip of his nose was almost touching the snails. “I don’t see any lances.”

“Lances?” the man leaned backward so abruptly his pile of books swayed like a tall tree in a high wind. He rubbed his glasses furiously with the sleeve of his coat and glared at Marcus as though he were crazy. “Do you have any idea what a lance would do to these beautiful shells? What do you take me for, a barbarian?”

“I thought if they were jousting . . .”

“Lances.” The man said, giving Marcus a stern shake of his head before returning to his snails.

“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” Kyja said. “Could you tell us who you are? I’m not sure we’re in the right place.”

“Who am I?” the man said, as though asking himself. “When most people ask who you are, they really want to know what you are. Are you famous? Are you powerful? Are you wealthy? Are you someone who can help them get what they want, do you stand in their way, or can you be dismissed out of hand?”

He looked left and right from one snail to the other as though watching an especially exciting tennis match. “Titles are quite useful that way, aren’t they? How about Commander of the Fleet? No, too forceful. Master of All Things Inconsequential and General in Nature? Too stuffy. Merciful and Benevolent Ruler? Too self-serving. High Executioner? No.” He shivered. “That won’t do. How about Her Majesty the Queen? I’ve always favored that one.”

Marcus twirled a finger beside his head, but Kyja gave him a quick elbow in the ribs.

“Actually, I was just wondering what to call you,” she said. “I’m Kyja, and this is Marcus.”

“You want a name? How unusual.” The man scratched a thatch of sparse, gray hair. This time, he actually did knock off his hat. But as it rolled from his head, he caught it with the tip of his left shoe and kicked it into the air, landing the hat right where it had been. “How about Zithspithesbazith? It’s actually quite fun to say and allows you to spit freely on whoever you say it to.”

“I don’t think I could pronounce that,” Kyja said, unable to stifle a giggle.

“No? Why don’t we stick with Z then? It has a certain letter-like quality to it.”

Of course not all of your characters will be this odd, but if you take at least as much time with your characters as you do with your story, you will find the story becomes that much stronger.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Gotta Love HP

I really haven't disappeared off the face of the Earth. I am just waiting (not so) patiently for the power adaptor HP promised me over a week ago. The one under warranty. The one I paid for. Yeah, well thanks to the wonders of outsourcing, I am kept up to date with e-mails like this.

"Thank you for contacting HP Total Care.
Reviewing the entire interaction I understand that we have created service order for your notebook AC adapter but still you have not receive AC adapter.
Due to lack of AC adapter we are unable to send you AC adapter but now we have got stock, so we will be able to send AC adapter of your notebook very soon. I apologies for the inconvenience cause to you. I hope that you understand our limitation and scope of support. If you need further assistance, please reply to this message and we will be happy to assist you further."

Of course that was after they sent me an e-mail addressed to Annie regarding a computer I'd never heard of. Followed by this e-mail.

"Thank you for contacting HP Total Care.

We apologize for the inconvenience caused to you from our end, as the e-mail which you received was sent to you due to some tool issue or by mistake. We regret for the inconvenience caused.

This should resolve the issue. If you need furtherassistance, please reply to this message and we will be happy to assist you further."

Yeah, so never mind that this is the laptop I use for my books, my school visits, my blog, my facebook. I'll just sit here with my friends and go quietly insane.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

What Are We Teaching Our Children?

I don’t discuss politics on this blog. There are two main reasons for that. One, I tend to be too liberal for my conservative friends and too conservative for my liberal friends, and I’d like to keep all of them as my friends. More importantly though, I’m a fiction author. Presumably you come to this blog expecting me to post something about writing, reading, or other authorly (is that a word?) type stuff. There are plenty of sites either promoting or criticizing whatever your political views are.

So I want to point out in advance, that while you may disagree with what I am about to say, don’t disagree based on your political views. This is not about whether you are right or left, democrat or republican, Greenpeace or NRA. This is about teaching our kids to use their brains.

Tuesday the President of the United States gave a speech to school children all across the nation. If you are a parent of school-age children, you don’t need me to tell you this. You don’t need me to tell you because, all across the nation, parents and schools chose whether or not to air the speech to their children. Of course the views for and against tended to tie to whether or not they were for or against this president. The exact same way people were for or against speeches made to school children by previous presidents.

My children’s school—in fact the whole school district—chose not to air the broadcast. I was incredibly disappointed by that. Not that I don’t believe children and parents should have a choice in what they watch. And not because I thought Obama’s speech was so vital, my children would be hurt by missing it. But by the fact that the school district decided for me that my children should not watch something they might disagree with.

Let me repeat that. I fully support the right of any parents to say, “My children aren’t going to watch that so-and-so.” Totally your right. But a school—a place that is supposed to promote free speech, free thought, decision making, and open-minded analysis—decided my children weren’t intelligent enough to watch the President of the United States talk about working hard at school, without becoming brain-washed. They told my children in essence, “Don’t listen to points of view that might differ from your point of view.”

Excuse me? Does that make sense to you? Are we so closed minded that we don’t want our children to ever listen to—or read—the thoughts of people who disagree with them? I get asked a lot by parents what I think about children reading certain books. Harry Potter supposedly promoted witchcraft. Twilight teaches girls to let guys spend the night in their beds. The best response I ever heard to that was from a man I respect a great deal, Orson Scott Card. At a conference where this was brought up, he said, “Read the books with your children so you can discuss the parts you agree and disagree with.”

What an idea! Teaching our children that it’s okay to read or listen to things that might go against their views or beliefs and then deciding for themselves what to make of it. Please don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying all movies or books, or speeches for that matter, are appropriate for all ages. Personally I don’t think Twilight was ever written for ten year old girls. I think some of the later Harry Potter books were very dark for younger children. You as a parent have the absolute right and responsibility to decide because of language, violence, themes or whatever, that a book is not appropriate for you or your children. But do we have so little trust in our children that we think the first time they come across a girl with a wand they are all going to run out and become wiccans? Do we believe that because our children listen to a fifteen minute speech by the president that they will all begin worshipping at the Obama shrine? And if we really do somehow believe all that, wouldn’t it be better to watch it with them and explain why we disagree with it?

As I said at the beginning of the post, I am not here to discuss politics. And if you really believe strongly that JK Rowling wants your kids to start performing pagan rituals, that is your right. But we are raising the next generation of leaders. There are hard decisions that are going to be made—decisions that will require study, thought, compromise, change. Your kids are going to grow up. They are going to go to college or join the work force or enlist in the military or travel to other countries. They WILL be exposed to beliefs different than their own. You can’t control that. What you can control is whether you have taught them to think. Whether you have taught them to respectfully listen to the views of others and not only consider those views but intelligently explain and defend their own views as well.

I love my kids’ school. I love the teachers and the staff. I wouldn’t want them anywhere else. But I will be watching Obama’s education speech on-line with my children. I will be discussing the speech, the man, his views, my views, and what I think our country is doing right and wrong. When I found out my school wouldn’t be airing the speech, I asked my sons what they thought about that. My eleven-year-old said, “That’s stupid!” When I asked him why, he explained with a very earnest expression on his face, “Because he is the President of the United States.” I hope that in the future, my children’s school will not bow to parent pressure. I hope they will remember that I send my children there not to be indoctrinated, but to learn how to think.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Is There Really Any More to Say?

I mean really, is there anything more to say?

Okay, maybe this!

What, you were looking for something to do with writing? Come on didn't you know that sports relates to everything?

Okay, I've got you covered.

First quarter: McKay Jacobson is playing front of all his famiy and friends since he is from Texas, where the game is taking place. In front of a national audience, broadcast on a giant screen that goes from twenty yeard line to twenty yard line, he fumbles a punt reception. Not only does he fumble it, but he loses it. A couple of minutes later, his mistake turns into an Oaklahoma TD.

This lead holds up until thiree minutes to go in the game.

What is going through this young man's head? What would be going through your head? Imagine getting your work reviewed on the biggest stage possible and failing miserably. Would you give up writing? Would you decide you didn't have what it takes? Would you curl and in a ball and cry?

Or would you pull in the winning touchdown catch with those same people watching?

From the musical Seesaw

If you start at the top, you're certain to drop.
You've got to watch your timing;
Better begin by climbing up, up, up the ladder.
If you're going to last, you can't make it fast, man,
Nobody starts a winner, give me a slow beginner.
Easy does it my friend, conserve your fine endurance,
Easy does it my friend, for that's your life insurance.

It's not where you start, it's where you finish,
It's not how you go, it's how you land.
A hundred to one shot, they call him a klutz,
Can outrun the fav'rite, all he needs is the guts.
Your final return will not diminish,
And you can be cream of the crop.
It's not where you start, it's where you finish,
And you're gonna finish on top.

Hey it's labor day. So get to work writing!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

How Does the "Best Manuscript Ever" Get Rejected?

I know, blogging three days in a row! What’s up with that? It certainly isn’t that I don’t have enough other projects going on. Must have hit a hot button with the agent thing or something. After my last post, I received an e-mail asking about rejection. Basically her point was that if you tell yourself you are the best writer ever, how do you handle it when your manuscript is rejected by an agent or editor?

Good question! This is actually one of the biggest conundrums of being an author. You have to believe in yourself 100% to get the book done and have the confidence to send it out. But then you have to prepare yourself for the fact that most people will tell you your story isn’t good enough. The truth is that rejection is never, ever easy. It wasn’t easy when you got picked last in kickball. It wasn’t easy when no one wanted to sit next to you in class. It wasn’t easy when the girl you asked to prom said no. So why should it be easy when an agent or editor says they don’t want to represent your work? Lots has been written about handling rejection, so I’ll just give you a couple of bullet points to consider.

· Write your book as if it is the best thing that has ever been imagined. Put all your love, blood, sweat, and tears into it. But once you are done, realize that as much as you love it and as good as it is—no one but your mom will feel the same way initially. We all think our book is the greatest thing since Shakespeare put pen to paper. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “What do I do if I get twenty agents who all want to represent me?” The answer is, “Wake up and turn off the alarm.” Remember that even JK Rowling was rejected like fifty times before being accepted. Why should you be any different?

· Okay this one is going to be really, really hard, but separate yourself from your work. The agent isn’t rejecting you, he’s rejecting your story. I know, that’s like saying, “The girl didn’t reject you, she rejected your car, hair, clothes, laugh, etc.” But the truth is you can’t let someone not liking your work make you start feeling crappy about yourself. This business is too hard to take every no as a direct hit to your self-esteem.

· Remember that once your book is polished enough to be publishable, it is all a game of timing and luck. You can have the best bait in the world, but you still have to get it in front of a fish that is hungry for that thing at that moment. Keep putting it out there.

· Don’t fall into the self-pity trap of thinking the game is rigged or that everyone knows a secret you don’t. I know the feeling very well. It seems like everyone around you is selling a book and you aren’t. There must be a secret handshake. You have to know someone. The market is too full. The economy is down. Only published authors are getting deals. Going back to the fishing analogy, it’s like sitting in the middle of the lake not getting a nibble while all around you people are catching fish. None of it is true. The publishing industry is not any more rigged than any other industry.

· Which leads me to my last point. Be patient. We all hear the story of the author who writes their first book, gets a huge deal, a movie, sells more books, and is on every magazine. Yep and every week someone wins a lottery somewhere and makes millions. Does that mean you stink if you didn’t win a million bucks? We all here about the rock star, because they are the exception. It’s not that there work is so much better, it’s that the stars all aligned for them. The far more common story is that after submitting ten books, an author finally gets a small deal. Works her behind off, and gets another deal, and after ten years of writing, might be able to make a career out of it. If you need to have a career that promises overnight success and boatloads of money, you really should consider something other than writing.

So that’s it. No magic answer. No silver bullet. Write a lot. Keep submitting. Polish your craft. Meet other authors, agents, editors. And remember, in the words of author JA Konrath, “There’s a word for a writer who never gives up . . . published.”

And if that’s not enough to keep you going, remember that I am probably the most ordinary guy in the world. I barely graduated from high school, didn’t graduate from college, tell really stupid jokes, completely screw up the words to songs, and always got picked last for kickball. I’ve actually got quite a few of my Santa Teresa High School friends on facebook who can testify I was a total dweeb. If I can get published, you definitely can.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Follow up to Yesterday's Post

I know, I know. I just posted yesterday. But a friend of mine sent me a message about the article that made me have to write again.

Here is her message:

I read the interview with those four child-like agents, and now I'm so depressed I can barely look at my keyboard. What were you thinking? What was I thinking in believing I could compete in a world where a single grain of sand on an endless southern California beach needs to stand out so significantly just to be published ... or at least know somebody in the mainstream literary business to have a chance of being noticed? Those young agents are getting referrals from friends or family, or prestigious university professors, and getting very few, if any, clients from the only way that I can try to reach them—with a query letter. “I’d buy a shopping list if it was written by Steven King,” said one of the elite youngsters. If they are a cross-cut example of contemporary literary agents then I need to moth-ball my computer and concentrate on another talent, something visual, something that doesn’t require a commitment to reading.

This comment made me wish I had gone ahead and written my own post yesterday anyway. What I was going to write was something to the effect of, “It’s not about who you know. It’s not about how famous you are. It’s not even really about how good your query is. It’s about the writing. It’s about the art. It’s about capturing a story so well that when you let others read it, it feels like showing them a fairy you caught in a jar.”

YOU are a writer. YOU are a great writer. YOU have a story inside you that the world wants to hear. Every day when you get up in the morning you say to yourself, “Today I will create something so cool that when other people read it, they will wish they had written it.” And you will. Maybe not on your first try. Maybe not even on your second or third. But eventually you will write something that shines. And when you do, you will want to know that agents are looking for your work.

So here are four of the biggest names in New York. These are agents most writers would kill to have selling their manuscripts. And what do they have to say? Read these quotes.

“I think everybody's looking for a book that you can't put down, that you lose yourself in so completely that you forget everything else that's going on in your life and you just want to stay up and you don't care if you're going to be tired in the morning.”

“But a really gifted writer will make me see things I've never seen even though I may have walked down the street a thousand times.”

“I generally find myself liking books that are not set in New York. Give me a weird little small town any day of the week.”

“I get most of my fiction through slush.”

“I found The Heretic's Daughter in the slush pile. The author had never written a novel before. She had never been in a writing class or an MFA program. She came out of nowhere.”

“The Squaw Valley writers conference.”

“I got a query through Friendster once. It was a good query, so I asked to read the book, and I went on and sold it.”

“That's exactly right. Clients come from everywhere and anywhere. And I think that's one of the biggest misconceptions about agents that some writers have. They think we're off in our ivory towers and our fancy offices in New York City. But the truth is that we're looking for them. We're waiting for them to come knock on our doors.”

WE ARE WAITING FOR THEM TO COME KNOCK ON OUR DOORS! Who is it they are waiting for?

In the words of Bill Murray, “Me. Me. Me. Also me.” Or in this case, “You, you, you, you!” You are a great writer. You have a story to tell. If you don’t believe that, you need to look in the mirror and repeat this mantra over and over. “I am a great writer. I have a great story to tell. The world is waiting for me.” Keep saying in until you remember why you started writing in the first place. Then get out there and sell your story.