H is for...

Monday, June 27, 2011

9 Chiming In
H is for Heroes -- those goodest of good guys (we've established I make my own words on this blog, yes? Good, then move along.) Hero Goodguy is the one who gets the glory, the one who has the exciting life, the one everyone wants to kill (at least if you write fantasy). He should be good, but not too good. Dirty him up, give a dark secret (toe fungus counts, in case you're wondering), and above all else, give him a weakness or two that can actually hinder him.

H is for Heroines -- your own brand or otherwise... oh wait, that's the other kind of heroin (I'll get to homophones in a minute). Heroines should be as dimensional as their male counterparts. They should have strengths and weakness and not be used as a convenient plot device (any more than a male character should be used as a plot device for the female one) If she starts going MarySue on you, you may need to kill her (or find a priest who deals with such things).

H is for Homophones --Dear, deer, know, no, there, their, two, too, to... and on and on (anon!). Did you really mean to say what you said? Are you sure?

H is for High Concept -- Here

H is for Hard -- the thing that writing is, but no one bothers to tell you when you're a starry-eyed youngster who thinks it's all book tours and signings or movie deals and getting your names on those things on shelves with pages in them.

H is for Happy, Hope, Hate, and History --

You will be happy when you finish your book, and each subsequent version of it. You will have hope that said book will net you an agent and a publishing deal, and then make readers smile. There will be times you will hate your book, or the process that goes into finishing it. (You may even hate your dog for jymping up onto your keyboard and plopping her fat belly down so that she presses the delete key and leaves you with 376 fewer pages than you had before her nap.) But hang in there, some day, when your book is sitting all shiny on a shelf or taking up memory in someone's e-reader, that roller coaster will be history. (Though, on the subject of history, if you're writing historical fiction, then please know what you're talking about. If you don't, someone will notice; I promise.)

Next time: I is for Idea, Ingenuity, and Ick-factors...

Flash Fiction Challenge

Friday, June 24, 2011

3 Chiming In
It's another Friday, so over on Chuck Wendig's blog there's another flash-fic challenge. I haven't tried one of these in a while, and I found the prompt interesting, so here goes my attempt at a noir/steampunk mash-up:

The dock-side markets used to smell of rotted fish no one had bothered to buy earlier in the day. They'd lump it all up in the back and let the birds take it or cut it for bait to make the night's haul. Maybe it still smells that way... it's not like I'd know the difference. Nah, my whole world carries the scent of copper and machine oil with a chaser of whatever sludge they use to tint the gaslines to let you know when there's a leak.

Maybe it was the morphine they pumped into me for the sake of comfort, or maybe I was the sucker born at the right minute, but a metal body to replace failing flesh sounded good at the time. And I guess in the long run it's better than taking the usual road for a guy who lost one fight too many, but how great can my life be when I spend my nights longing for the stink of a rotted haddock?

I turn down Water Street, into what the locals call the Chapels, but there's no church about them. Tiny shacks and pitched up tents around buildings that would fall without poles and posts to hold them up, and each one of them lit with a red lantern to show business is in session. Queen over the place, the Abbess stands outside the main hub, one hand clutching her shawl round her shoulders and the other wound into the shirt of some ponce who tried to run out without payin' his fee.

From the sound of it, he didn't like the look of his dolly once he got her up close... wasn't put off enough to leave elsewhere, mind, just enough not to pay.

"I want a nightmare, I can stay home with my own," he says. "Don't gotta pay there, won't make me do different here." He's trying to pull up his trousers as he goes, but the suspenders are tangled in his feet. "Call a cop if you want to make a deal of it. A'int no blue bottle gonna step into the wasp's nest on account of any of you hags. Chapel's no man's land, and this man's leaving."

He's not the first to call the Abbess a hag, and it's true - she's a fair bit of nightmare, all bones and scabby skin, barely any hair left on her head. But she takes care of her girls, and even if I still had heart to claim there'd be no pity in it for the berk still caught fast in her fingers.

"Don't need no blues," she says, smiling into the shadows where I stand across the street. I don't know how she knows where I am, but her eyes find mine no matter the distance between us. "We got one better."

The Abbess lets go, and the deadbeat tries to run, not realizing that the spider only lets go of the fly if it's sure the fly's not going anywhere.

And that's my cue.

There's a whoosh and whine as the pistons that pump my muscles respond a little slower than my own legs used to, but once they're going they're more than fast enough to make up for the gap. I hear the ground below my feet but don't feel it, hear the iron fingers riveted onto my hands cut the air with a whistle, but there's sense of cool on my skin. I don't have skin, not anymore.

I catch the man up as he runs, lifting him off the ground with one hand to hang by his collar, and he begins to choke from the pressure. I give him a little shake to loosen my grip and make it easier, but instead of curses or blubbering or anything else, I get a tiny snap before he goes rag-doll limp. It wasn't intentional, but I'm still not used to the strength.

"Not 'ow I'd've settled up, but done's done," the Abbess says. She reaches into his pocket for her girl's due, and takes the rest of his money along with it. "No sense lettin' it waste. Once you dump 'im someone's gonna lift it, so it might as well be me, eh?" She actually laughs, showing off surprisingly straight teeth. Then she dips back into the man's coat for his gold pocket watch. "Don' guess 'e'll be needin' to know the time where 'e's gone, either."

She hands the watch off to the red-faced dolly who'd been the man's company earlier in the night. The girl's older than she's painted up to look, with pancake white and baby-doll braids

"For your tears, dearie," the Abbess says, and the girl goes back to her tent, clutching the watch to her bare chest.

I sling the corpse across my shoulders and turn to take it back to the fish dump. The birds can have what they want, and whatever's left by morning won't be much to speak of. If the smell's still what I remember, no one's likely to notice him anyway.

"You shouldn't wait for trouble for an excuse to come to Chapel," the Abbess tells me. "Plen'y of the girls round here miss seein' what's left o'your face. You're good people, more or less."

As close to a compliment as anyone gets out of the Abbess, so I remind myself to chuckle.

She gives me a kiss on the cheek with her leathery lips, but I don't feel it.

I don't feel anything. I guess it's still better than dead.

High Concept

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

20 Chiming In
No, I haven't abandoned my alphabet posts, but as I was considering "H" words, I thought maybe one of those should get its own post. The dreaded, yet coveted "high concept".

It's something you'll hear over and over if you're trying to figure out how to pitch a particular story, but what does it mean?

If you've read this blog for a while, then you know that way back when I was a kidlet I had aspirations of being a screenwriter. Trying to figure out the ins and outs of that particular field was where I got my first taste of this idea called "high concept". And, like most people, I took the phrasing to mean that this was some big, complicated thing, because that's what it sounds like it should be, but the good news is -- it's not.

High concept means you can - clearly and concisely - explain your book/story/movie in one (maybe two) SHORT sentences. (And you thought boiling it down to a query summary was hard, ha!)

When you try and sell a screenplay, you develop a logline - the actual 1 or 2 sentence encapsulation of your entire story. And the "rules" aren't much different from those used to pitch a book.

Strip it down to the core premise - not plot, premise.

An orphaned boy learns magic so he can destroy the evil wizard who murdered his parents.

There are nearly 1,000,000 words in the Harry Potter series, and it takes less than 20 to give the premise.

A teenage girl discovers a family with a centuries old secret - they're vampires.

Twilight takes less than 15. (This would also work for Tuck Everlasting with "immortal" in place of "vampire")

A determined teen replaces her sister in a televised fight to the death.

Hunger Games.

The thing about a concept like The Hunger Games is that you can also get the concept across by putting it into the context of an existing idea.

It's Survivor, if getting voted off the island meant a spear through the heart.

There really isn't a sure fire way to do it "right", but basically, you want something like:

A [adjective] [noun - NOT the character's name. The name holds no meaning][strong verb, present tense, not state of being].

Preferably all of this will lead to a sense of the stakes for the story.

For Harry, avenging his parents is at stake.
For Twilight, discovering the secret is dangerous.
For Hunger Games, it's life or death.

Forget the plot, forget the subplots, forget the relationships and all the window dressing. High concept is only about the linchpin that holds the story together. It's that one, central something that would cause catastrophic failure if you removed it as an element of the story.

Hopefully, this will make it a little easier for you to determine.

You Know, Maybe We Should Want to Write Like Judy Blume

Monday, June 6, 2011

6 Chiming In
Yes, this is another @WSJ post.

Judy Blume is a name that anyone who writes for kids/teens (or anyone who was, at one time either a child or a teen) should be familiar with. Hers are some of the stories I grew up on, and they are some of the stories that inspired a love of reading, which led to a love of writing. She was cited in "that article" as the nostalgic "why don't they write like this anymore" writer from back in the day. The one, lamented the article writer, whose style of writing could no longer be found.

Maybe, in all the research that should have gone into the article, but somehow didn't quite make it onto the page, the writer could have popped over to Ms. Blume's website. Right at the top, there's a lovely tab with the word "CENSORSHIP" crossed through in red. Click it, then read the words there in light of the complaints issued in the WSJ article.

I'm going to quote a couple of things here and if, by some quirk of fate Ms. Blume should happen to stumble across this post, I hope she won't mind.

First, I give you this:

I felt only that I had to write the most honest books I could. It never occurred to me, at the time, that what I was writing was controversial. Much of it grew out of my own feelings and concerns when I was young.

Guess what? This feeling is the same one shared by those of us who write MG and YA lit today. We write because of the concerns and feelings experienced by the young. Those concerns have changed, so literature has changed to meet them.

Then there's this:

But in 1980, the censors crawled out of the woodwork, seemingly overnight, organized and determined. Not only would they decide what their children could read, but what all children could read. Challenges to books quadrupled within months,

Which means, that at the time her books were published, she was the one, not Andrew Smith or Jackie Morse Kessler, having that bewildered parent stare at her books with disgust for what they represented. The banner of wholesome, decent YA lit of a bygone era that the WSJ would like us to imitate was someone decried as warped and wrong and leading children into places children shouldn't go. She was the one parents wanted out of their kids' hands, and yet, she's the one, now that those parents are grown up, who they want their children to experience.

There's a pattern here that may be difficult to see from the perspective of someone staring up at that wall of books you don't recognize from your youth. The writers you cherished as children and teens are the ones who didn't toe the line and regurgitate the stories your parents read; they were the ones who stripped the paint off and let you see what was real and what was fake. They were the ones who were less interested in "writing for kids" than they were "telling stories".

Ms. Blume has this little note posted on her site, that says, succinctly, what every writer who participated in #YAsaves was trying to get across:

Dear Judy,
I don't know where I stand in the world. I don't know who I am.
That's why I read, to find myself.
Elizabeth, age 13

It's a human tradition. Stories are passed down and new ones are spun to hand off to the next generation so the chain keeps going. When you try and pull back on the chain, you snarl the line. That tradition of storytelling and communication is what shapes the next generation, and when you refuse to incorporate new experience into the tradition, then you condemn those who come after to a future of the mistakes you've already made. You deny them the chance to learn from those who came before so they can make things better for themselves and their own children.

Kids look for information, and they look for truth. You can't protect children from dark things by pretending they don't exist, and exchanging the windows in your house with mirrors won't make the world outside conform to whatever reality you create within your own walls.

If you visit Ms. Blume's page, and I hope you do, then pay attention to not only the links on the left side of her "censorship" page, but also take care to read her closing statements:

But it's not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.

Yep. When I grow up, I want to write like Judy Blume, and I hope the rest of you who stick your toes into the waters of YA lit do, too.

Darkness Too Visible

Saturday, June 4, 2011

30 Chiming In
If you're a writer who's been anywhere near Twitter tonight, you'll recognize this as the title of an article published in the Wall Street Journal. about how horribly dark YA literature has become.

It begins with a forty-six-year-old mother lamenting the lack of acceptable reading material for her thirteen-year-old daughter. It was all "too dark", according to this woman, who apparently made the cliche literary faux pas of judging an entire wall of books by their covers.

On one hand, I have to ask why, if this woman makes a habit of buying reading material for her kids, this came as such a shock. The darker / more realistic tone to even paranormal YA has been trending for quite a while now. It's certainly nothing new. On the other, I have to ask if the article's author intended her title as ironic.

The only way to fight the darkness is to make it visible.

Sure, the girl who caught fire isn't the same as Buddhist monks or former soldiers who set themselves on fire to force attention onto the things and places the general public would rather forget exists, but books like The Hunger Games can make a social splash without the clinging stench of scorched flesh in the air.

Perhaps the person who penned this article, and the mother who objected to the books she's never read, are unaware of what drives YA writers to choose their content and audience.

Perhaps they're unaware that while Americans entertain themselves with shows like Survivor, real teens and children are fighting each other for scraps of food and garbage so that they can survive long enough to do it again the next day.

Perhaps they're unaware that while top teacher concerns in the day of Judy Blume, who they mention in the article as a comparison, were things like talking in class, chewing gum and skipping school, today's concerns are violence, rape, and gunfire.

Perhaps they're unaware that teens struggling with their sexual identity are at a higher risk of violence and suicide.

Perhaps they're unaware that Native Americans who still live in reservation communities have the highest suicide rates in the country, despite their small population.

Perhaps they're unaware that there are areas where hunger is a daily reality for kids in American public schools, and that the same kids beaten down by those in authority are often "difficult" because at home, they ARE the authority for their brothers and sisters because their parents are at work before they wake up and come home after they're asleep.

Perhaps they're unaware that there are families who "camp" for a living because a tent at national park gets them access to bathrooms and running water, and the weekly fee for their space is all they can afford.

Perhaps they're unaware that too many kids today feel like they're shouting into a hurricane without anyone on the other side to hear them and that they're being crushed by pressure from their parents, themselves, their friends and society to the point that if they don't make those tiny cuts in their arms and legs they'll be sliced to ribbons from the inside out.

Perhaps they're unaware that, statistically, someone that thirteen-year-old goes to school with will commit suicide or overdose or be raped or murdered or otherwise impacted by violence before graduation.

Perhaps they're unaware that girls the world over are victims of violence by family and friends. That they're sold and used until their AIDS and other STD riddled bodies are no longer profitable, at which point they're taken out with the trash. That they're kidnapped in areas where gender-bias has led families to destroy the girls born to them, in favor of sons, leaving an entire generation of men without enough women.

Perhaps they're unaware that a 140 degree, metal, semi-truck trailer can hold more than 100 people standing up as it rattles across borders, or that the people who choke to death on their own waste and body heat have paid out their life savings for a crap shoot that will end one of three places: freedom, death, or human bondage.

Perhaps they're unaware that most of the time, it isn't freedom.

Perhaps they're unaware that the electronics we use and the jewelry we wear often comes at the price of innocence on a scale most couldn't imagine, because it's the youngest who procure the raw materials under pain of death, until they die.

Perhaps they're unaware that in certain parts of the world, being larger than the gun you carry is the only qualification required for being a soldier.

I see an article lamenting that literature has lost its innocence and that the days of Judy Blume are past. But what I also see, that the article writer and the woman she featured don't, is a time when teens are no longer told they have to be quiet. They can speak and scream and share their pain before the burden of carrying breaks them. They can purge the poison that comes from hiding a canker until it festers beyond control and leads to something far worse than a fictional account of violence.

For the outsider, this is a time when they can find a sympathetic ear and someone willing to tell their story. This is a time when those forced to eat their sorrow can find others who are willing to stand up and scream the things their voices can't say. This is a time when it's no longer acceptable to pretend that things are nice and neat behind white picket fences where life is beautiful for everyone.

Is the darkness visible? Yes.

Should it be? Absolutely.

Grab a match and light it up. Burn the darkness until it has nowhere left to hide.

Making Covers

Friday, June 3, 2011

7 Chiming In
This is a post by request.

Authors, unless you're self-publishing, don't make their own cover art. There are many factors, including being able to design a full jacket image that can catch someone's attention, knowing how to make a mock-up, designing a bar code, etc. I know how to do exactly none of that.

If you are self-publishing, or just want to make a cover for fun, then maybe this will help you.

First, open your photo-editing software. (I use PhotoImpact.) Your screen will look something like this:

Now, select the base image you want to use. (Note, if you're going to be making a commercial cover, for purposes of publishing / advertisement, then make sure you own the images you're using. Just because they're on the Internet doesn't make them free. There are royalty free clip art and photography sites you can find with Google. The image below is not the one I used in my original cover (under the "Wolf-killer" tab). I found it online, and it's not mine, so no using it for anything other than fair use kthxbai)

Your image will likely be the wrong size, so you will have to alter it. The specific resolution should be listed on whichever site you're using, so go by those guidelines. For the purposes of this, I went with "sort of book shaped" as the official size :-P

Open a crop-box and highlight what you want to use.

Hit "Crop" and adjust the final size according to your needed resolution specifications. It should look something like this:

Now you decide what you want for the main image, be it a person, thing, or whatever. This is a re-telling of Red Riding Hood, so I took a photo of a Ren Fest Cape and altered its color to what I needed, then cut out the image:

Drag the image over and combine the overlay with the base image:

Go around the edges with an eraser to make sure the image is cleanly cut, or else it will look strange in the final product.

Now, to create an appropriately creepy atmosphere, I used the "particle" toolbar and the "cloud" brush to create a blue haze on the background before merging the images, then used it again on the foreground image in a lighter color to give the impression of rolling fog.

Merge the images into one with the "merge" command.

Type out your title with the default font to make sure it's spelled correctly. (Do not laugh; it happens.)

Select the appropriate font from your list and adjust its size and position according to how you want the final image to look. Titles are more than words on paper, they're a matter of composition. Make sure the color and shape fit the rest of the cover's space and tone.

Add your name and a "tagline" to catch a browser's attention.

Save the image as a JPG (or whatever format's required)

Keep in mind that your image should not only look good in color and at normal size, but it should also be attention getting at thumbnail size, as that's what most will see in the e-book store. For Kindle users, it should also be legible in black and white

Any questions? I'll answer them if I can.

Ideas and Where to Find Them

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

2 Chiming In
It's an oft-asked question by those who want to write or who are simply curious about the process. "Where do your ideas come from?"

Well, that's both difficult and easy to answer. Ideas don't "come" from anywhere; they simply exist. At the same time, they're built from everything. Every sight, sound, smell, memory and experience filtered through your unique personality and perspective is an idea. A minute detail that 761 people have overlooked may fire off a creativity explosion in your head.

One of the hardest things for non-writers to understand is that YOU CANNOT TURN IT OFF. Ideas keep coming. They form unions and picket your brain. They fight turf wars over your attention. They butt in on each other when it’s not their turn to be written.Your mind is the primordial soup of the universes of your own creation, and it's just waiting for you to drop a line and catch something.

A writer will come to a point of choice and pick a direction, but the possibility of that other choice will spawn an entirely new idea. Then your tenth grade English teacher’s voice pops into your head, reciting “The Road Less Traveled” and suddenly that other idea now stars a guy named Frost because there’s no other possible name for him. (Fanfiction thrives on this sort of thing.)

Schrodinger and his cyanide-huffing cat had nothing on the infinite possibilities that live inside a writer’s mind. To a writer, there’s no question that multiple universes exist because we see them all, simultaneously, running side-by-side with their infinite branches splitting each possible storyline.


Which brings me, finally, to this:

I have finally tracked down the definitive answer to "Where did this idea come from?" concerning Arclight. I went data mining through all the junk I've saved from way back when and found it. So are you ready for the reveal? Ready? Ready?

The answer is... ANTS!

Not the creepy CGI version with a "z" at the end, but actual ants. Army ants to be precise. That which became Arclight came from a nugget of an idea after learning about a troop of army ants that swept through a village in South America. There was a description of a person glancing at their wall, at night, and saying that it appeared the wall was moving. Then they realized it was ant season, freaked out and ran away because the swarm was unstoppable.

So there you go.

Tolkein watched a Shakespearean play as a boy, and in his disappointment that the "moving trees" were nothing but an army with heavy horse, he created the Ents.

I see a story about army ants, and in my disappointment that the "moving walls" were nothing but said creepy crawlies, I created "The Fade"