Tuesday, October 21, 2014

First Readings 3 - Choosing a Voice.. and Mick and Casey!

Finished up the third experimental podcast, in which I am teaching myself to read aloud and record.

In this week's episode, I finally read from my own work -- an excerpt from Chapter 7 of Have Gun, Will Play.

It's probably not the best excerpt in terms of reader interest, but it was perfect for this spot in the ongoing learning project, because it had a good deal of narration, and a little dialog with several different characters.  I'm getting comfortable with Mick's voice, but nobody else's voice comes out quite right. 

Still, I had a lot of fun, and it's a stepping off point for doing my first audiobook. I'll be recording The Curse of Scattershale Gulch this week, in hopes of having a free MP3 download for Halloween week.

The video is uploaded, and seems to have finished processing. 

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Story Game - Fortune Cards and Writing Prompts

I came up with a new game -- it's actually going to be part of the larger game later on, but for now it is a fun game for creating writing prompt.

I created a set of what I call "Fortune Cards." These are elements and turns of plots and catalysts that change the direction of the scene.  They might be a character's mood or goal, or something that happens.

My eventual use would be where I could pull out a card at random to throw spanner in the works of the scene.

But I find that I can pull three cards at random, and they make one of those writing challenges.  You know, where someone gives you a list of words or elements and you have to come up with a story that uses them all.

So here is the writing prompt for this week.  Three cards, drawn at random:

  • 1. A large angry dog
  • 2. A conversation overheard
  • 3. A magnetic personality

The challenge is to come up with either a complete microfiction, or a concept of a longer story, using these elements as major elements of the story.

In the meantime, I'll be posting a new audio podcast tomorrow -- this time with a selection from Have Gun, Will Play.

I'm also recording The Curse of Scattershale Gulch as a gift audiobook for those who have subscribed to my newsletter, or read the blog.  I hope I can get it properly done before Halloween.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Thoughts on innovation and Publishing from FutureChat

There are always interesting ideas that come up in #FutureChat (Porter Anderson's Friday morning Twitter chat - 11am eastern time).  But it's always a little frustrating because even with multi-part tweeting, it's hard to get complex ideas across.  (On the other hand, being forced to communicate 140 letters at a time, including hashtags and reply addresses, can focus the mind wonderfully.)

This week, there were a couple of issues I wanted to talk further about, even explain.  We were discussing innovation, and I tend hold a contrarian position from most publishing folks on just where the curve of innovation happens to be right now.

In particular, I think that publishing is so far behind the curve that they can't recognize it when they see it.  They're kind of like the line from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy about humans, who are so backwards we still think digital watches are a keen idea.

This week, we were discussing the fact that ebooks were still basically plain "vanilla" ebooks -- just linear text.  And yes, basically the same format as oral storytelling.  It was noted that attempts to innovate -- particularly with interactive books -- have failed to catch fire. 

Some people see this as a sign that the reading public is behind the curve. I see it as the opposite: technology has so far bypassed the publishing industry that even the general public, and laggards, are ahead of the publishing industry.  Publishing's most bleeding edge thinkers are, thus, coming up with ideas that suit the technology and world of decades ago.

It's like communications: When I was young, the idea of a video phone seemed like the coolest thing.  We were sure that in the future, everybody would have them.  And yes, we do.  We can indeed make video calls on the internet. It doesn't cost anything. And yet, we don't use it much.  It's something for special situations, where seeing someone is as important as what is said.  Given all the ways we have to interact now, how do people routinely interact?

Texting and old-fashioned voice phone.

The more advanced and bleeding edge we get, it seems, the more the more useful we find to the simplest forms of communication.

Why is this?

Most technological innovation amounts to reinventing the wheel. We don't need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to invent new ways to enable the wheel.  The wheel itself is fine.

We also live at a time when everything is integrating. We don't need to reinvent the wheel. We can make use of wheels that are already out there... as long as we create things that are actually compatible with the wheels that ARE already out there.

What modern, up-to-date consumers need from publishers is flexibility.  We need to be able to consume our content in whatever way we currently like best.  And more importantly, we need to be able to consume it in whatever way we will like best next week.  Because that will be different.

So when it comes to delivering content digitally, SIMPLE is better. No fancy formatting (don't define the fonts and layout -- let the reader choose their own defaults) interactivity via links only.  The idea is that content creators should focus on content, and let the delivery be handled by the forms people are using.

Yes, people will buy great proprietary products -- that is, products that are locked in and too complex to be very flexible --,but only because that one specific product is cool.  We also liked Pet Rocks and Chia Pets.

For a product, that's fine.  For something as wide ranging as publishing, universality will always win out.

The real innovation comes from realizing we are a part of a hive.  Content flows throughout the wildly changing open-sourced world out there.

You want to include extra materials? Just include a link.  And Google and Twitter provide even faster, richer and more enhanced supplemental information.  The internet itself IS the enhanced edition.  Interactivity? More information?  Discussion?  Games and the internet do it better.  No matter how much work we do, we'll never provide an enhanced product better than what's out there.

And no matter how well designed, it will not beat the accessibility and ease of use of the internet.

The real, world-changing innovation in publishing is happening out there in the world.  We don't need to do it.  As I mentioned on #FutureChat a couple of weeks ago:  Amazon created WhisperSync, which connects the audio and text versions of Kindle books.  It's not a sexy new thing.  It happened almost invisibly.  It doesn't require a different edition of the book or the audiobook.  It just connects them up.

Heck the self-publishing platform -- for ebooks, print books and audiobooks -- is the real innovation.  Social media, podcasting. RSS. Blogging.

These are the real innovations that transform the book.

You could say that the things that really transform the book are not about transforming the book.  They're about taking advantage of other, already created resources.  It's about understanding the new paradigm -- which is about connection.  It's modular.

Publishing should be thinking about innovation in terms of content. About creating things that are worth connecting.  It's about creativity, not about technology.  Let tech innovators create the tech. Let the customers decide how they will use the tech. We make the content they consume through that tech.

And most importantly, remember that innovation isn't innovation unless is solves a problem of the user.  It's just novelty or niche products. Like video phones.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Excavating a Genre 3 - Picaresques, Road Movies and Quests

(This series starts with Part 1 - The Book List), and Part 2 - Looking at Theme with Understood Betsy.)

Many of the stories I listed at the beginning of this are very episodic.  This is true of a lot of children's fiction, and even of the early grown up fiction that influenced so much of children's publishing.

"Episodic" is a kind of plot structure, and I think it's important to this "genre" I'm trying to uncover.  But to identify it, I need to take a step sideways and look at similar genres with similar structures.

Anna and the Picaresque

In college, one of my professors, when he read the novel I was writing as my graduate school entry submission, got all excited and told me the story was a "picaresque."

Later on, I came to learn what a Picaresque really was -- it was a popular kind of story in Spain about a wandering "Picaro" -- basically a trickster/adventurer.  Often very loosely plotted.  And I've heard the term applied to all sorts of books from Don Quixote to Puss In Boots.

And yes, The Adventure of Anna The Great is that kind of story.  It's about a girl who dresses as a boy, takes her sword and her horse and sets out to find adventure.

But at the time, I didn't realize he was using the term to describe the swashbuckling side of the story, or the character.  What he talked about was more the structure of the story.

This was before it was finished -- and before the connecting plot was clear -- so what he saw was a series of episodes.  What I would describe as a "road movie."

On Roads and Buddies and Quests

A Road Movie is a popular genre in Hollywood. It actually has two kinds of story -- the journey story or the relationship story. (I.e. the Buddy Movie -- but one that takes place in a car.) 

The difference between the "journey" and "relationship" type stories is important, though: The relationship or Buddy story is usually about what happens inside the car.

That is, you stick two characters inside a car and trap them there for the distance of the plot, and things boil over and they become better friends or learn things about themselves.  Everything outside the car is really just a catalyst for this relationship.

The non-relationship Road Picture, though, is about what happens outside the car.  As with the story of the lone Picaro traveling from town to town, it usually has a single hero, or a team of characters whose relationship is reasonably settled.  Or just a relationship that develops, but not so excitingly as to overshadow what goes on outside the car.

And now that I think about it, there is a third type of story -- which is a hybrid of the two.  I think of it as the Wizard of Oz model, but I suppose it's really a variety of the classic Quest story.

This kind of road story begins with a lone hero who travels along and acquires companions, who each have a quest or two of their own.

I think, though, that Quest stories tend to lean in one direction or other when it comes to whether they are a relationship story or a journey story.  They are more often about the Quest -- which is "outside the car" -- but not always. Sometimes the quest is just a MacGuffin, and it's all about the bonding among the characters.  I would say a good example of this is many of the "Male Bonding" comedies about a bunch of friends who head out on the road.

(I want to pause to point out here that I'm not talking about character development here -- and I'm not talking about the difference between "character driven" and "plot driven."  A quest story can be totally character driven, and have amazing and deep character development. And, frankly, a buddy story can be strictly by the beats and still be totally plot driven.  What I'm talking about is the structure of the plot itself.  Regardless of characterization, what drives the plot?)

But to get back to "outside the car" stories: A lot of classic television drama fell into this model -- from Maverick to Route 66, to The Fugitive to Kung Fu.  An itinerant hero travelling from town to town, experiencing an episode at every town he meets.  Of course, the "episodic" nature of this kind of story is ideal for a TV show, but it shows up in movies and books as well.

The focus of these kinds of Road Stories is often a series of encounters in which we, and the hero, learn about something new and unknown.  And the hero may make a difference to that new and strange situation (in classic Wandering Hero style - slays the monster and moves on) OR the hero may learn and be changed by the wisdom or example of the strange folk he encounters.

And that takes us back to Understood Betsy and the whole concept of being faced with new and strange things and coping with them and learning from them.

And that, I think, is where the Picaresque and the Road Movie fit perfectly with the Orphan on a Train sort of children's story.  These are stories about life -- in all its variations -- outside the car.  Out in the real world.

Next time I'll talk more about a couple of these stories, which provide great examples of variations on this structure and this focus on the world out there.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

First Readings 2 - One Voice at a Time

The second episode of the "podcast" is up.

I didn't do the reading from a Mick and Casey story because I realized that excerpt wasn't right for the subject of the podcast -- which is about a preliminary step in learning to do voices, before going all out for dialog.

In this episode, I picked a poem from a pulp magazine I was studying ("New Love" March, 1943) and read it in four different voices.

The audio is a bit sloppier in this one because I had a lot of fun playing with the voices. (I only did four on the podcast, but I did a dozen or so in the privacy of my basement.  Editing is a wondrous thing.)

Unfortunately, YouTube seems to have screwed up the "thumbnail" in the preview -- so the video comes up with that blank, three dot icon of deleted images.  I am told that sometimes the thumbnail catches up.  Here's hoping. (The video plays just fine...)

 Tomorrow, the next written post about Excavating a Genre.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Update - Genres, Voices, and My Cat Thinks He's Star-Lord

One of the reasons I'm having a hard time moving forward on the Excavating a Genre series is because it fits in with this audio stuff I'm doing.

So every time I sat down to write, I would git distracted with an "oooooo, shiny!"

But eventually I figured out that I was also trying to move on to the wrong subject in that series: I've got to talk about genre structure, and a couple of similar genres next time -- in particular the 'Road Movie' and the quest, and hte "Buddy picture" (which is not actually a part of the genre I have in mind, but overlaps with it a lot).  But it also has something in common that a teacher in college told me that I was writing -- the Picaresque.

And that explains to me why this genre, or trope or pattern keeps making me think about The Serial, and it's world.  What I have in mind has a different tone, a different pace, and is likely for younger readers -- but the genre nails the same structure and themes.

So that's what I'm going to post about on Wednesday.

Tomorrow, I'll likely post the next audio/podcast experiment.  I have the rough cut all recorded, but it definitely needs editing, and I don't have visuals yet.

For those waiting for my promised reading of a Mick and Casey excerpt -- I decided not to go with that this week, because something more frivolous actually met the needs of the subject.  I read a short poem over several times in different voices.  It was fun.

In the meantime....

My Cat Thinks He's Star-Lord.  And Drax.

So Max likes to have disco music on in the background when we play "Mousie" (in which I throw the mouse and he catches/chases/wrestles it).  But I have to throw it just right for whatever game he's playing at the moment.

Lately, with the "Awesome Mix Tape" soundtrack from Guardians of the Galaxy playing in the background, he wants me to throw it so it lands inside the "Temple of Doom" (aka, the remains of the cat tree) and he makes a bunch of wild and awesome moves to retrieve it.  Just like Star-Lord in the opening of Guardians.

Then, at the end of the game, he plays Drax the Destroyer, where he parks himself somewhere, and NOTHING goes over his head.  His reflexes are too good.  He will catch it!

(This, for those of you who have not seen Guardians of the Galaxy, is a reference when Rocket points out that Drax is very literal, and that metaphors go over his head.  Drax says:  "Nothing goes over my head!  My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it!")

If you haven't seen Guardians of the Galaxy, btw, you've missed something that's a LOT of fun.  All Marvel movies seem to have more of a human touch than most comicbook/action pictures, but this one has an even sweeter, lighter touch.  Clever, funny, human -- especially in depicting the non-humans.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Post Delayed Due to Sleepiness

The next Excavating a Genre post is coming. Honest.  It will be about rebel orphans, and the "Picaresque" tales and maybe some related literary genres -- like road picture and buddy stories. (Although that may be saved for another post....)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

First Readings 1 - Getting Used To Your Voice

My first audio podcast is up on YouTube. (And also embedded below for your listening pleasure.)

I had a little fun with the images (which are presented in a boring slideshow over the sound track), and a little trouble with levels (I've got a cheap mic -- sorry if you have to turn it up and down).

This is a learning experience for me. I have a little audio learning from film school (waaaayyyyy back in the seventies).  Teaching for 25 years made me not all that shy, but I really don't feel comfortable reading fiction aloud.  So I've been practicing my reading aloud for awhile, and now I've got to move on to do something more formal.

I was going to do a written blog series on this ongoing project, but I realize that is silly!  I need to do audio, so why not do an audio blog!

The first four minutes is the "blog" part -- where I give some advice on the first step, Getting Used to the Sound of Your Voice.  The rest is a reading of the first few pages of a classic -- and out of print -- mystery novel.  Murder in a Hurry by Frances and Richard Lockridge.

If you can't find a used copy, you can read it on line at The Open Library. (Murder in a Hurry online.)

I picked that particular book because the opening pages have no dialog, and I wanted to start with something that didn't require voices.  It's also kind of difficult.  Richard Lockridge was prone to write convoluted sentences.  (But the advantage of recorded audio is...EDITING!)

Next time, I'm going to start on character voice -- but I'm also going to start with something easy, something that requires only one voice: Have Gun, Will Play.  I'm going to try to do Mick.

See you in the funny papers!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Finding a Blogging Schedule

The kerfuffle in my life seems to be relenting a little bit.  The plan I had, before things spiraled out of control, was a new schedule.  I never got a chance to try it.

Find Your Best Time To Work

That's what everybody says is the most important thing about writing productivity.

I find that, for me, the times closest to sleep are the best time for my writing. However, I have to be free of any kind of social interaction.  In the morning, I have only had good luck writing when I didn't actually have to interact with anybody before the writing session -- and I mean not even making eye contact.  Even the slightest interaction, and suddenly I am out of the dream-state and into reality.

Unfortunately, I'm a night person, so the world is always waiting to pounce on me when I get up.  So morning is right out, unless I'm on a roll.  Morning is a good time for kerfuffle.

Which leaves my other prime creative time as evening.

The problem with evening is... blogging.

Blogging has deadlines.  The natural time to finish up and post to a blog is last thing at night -- because you want it to post in the morning (for a number of reasons I won't go into here).  So unless you are an early riser (which I am not) your last chance to make those little tweaks and changes and such happen the night before.
And because it is my best working time, I tend to do a better job of writing a blog post at night as well.  (Actually, that is when I tend to finish a post. During the day, I write unfinished posts.  Then when the deadline comes up, my brain kicks into gear, and I finish it.)

So, a couple of months ago, I decided that what I should do is allow myself to blog all I want.... before 5pm. After 5pm, no blogging at all.  I can do anything else, but not blog.

I never got a chance to try that out.  Stuff happened.  The kind of stuff that has you scrambling to remember what day it is.  What I usually do to protect my sanity during those times is stop trying to do things that matter (so I haven't been writing fiction or doing art) and start screwing around with things I had on the back burner.

Which is mainly, for me, rough drafts of blog posts (unfinished, because I'm writing in the day), and .... audio.

Or more specifically, reading aloud, as a practice for creating podcasts and audio books.

Or even more specifically, writing unfinished blog posts about my experiences in reading aloud in preparation of creating podcast audiobooks.


For this week, to get back into the swing of everything, I'm going to break my rule about no blogging after 5pm, and finish up some blog posts to be posted later.  And....

I'm particularly going to finish up those posts about my Audio Project.  But I'm going to do something interesting: They're going to be audio blog posts.  I'll post them on YouTube and embed them here.  Each post will include a few minutes of blathering about the project, and I'll read aloud an excerpt of some fiction -- mostly other people's but sometimes my own. I expect to post them on Tuesdays.

I have finished the audio portion of the first post.  I need to put some images to it to turn it into video.  (This will be faux video: just some "slides" to accompany the audio.)  I think I'll have this up tomorrow.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Excavating A Genre 2 - Coping with Understood Betsy

(This series starts with Part 1 - The Book List)

When I was a kid, I had access to lots of dusty old books with no jacket copy, and no indication of what the book was about.  I also had access to lots of discarded paperbacks of all ages.  My dad was a book hoarder.  So were most of the other people I knew.  We were the sort of people to buy books from used books sales which offered "Fill a grocery bag for a dollar!"  My schools tended to have stacks of books just lying on counters for kids to pick up.

We also had a farm house far in the distant country where we went during the summers (and sometimes winters -- though I didn't really have central heat).  That farm house came full of books.  OLD books.  Weird books. But also fun books. It was there I discovered Trixie Belden, for instance.

Combing through the silt for nuggets of gold was a favorite pastime of mine in those long dull summers.

I honestly don't recall how I came across Understood Betsy.  I can't even call it one of my favorite books.  All I know is that it struck a tone that stayed with me.  It was a tone I found in other books that weren't necessarily my individual favorites, and looking back on it, I responded to those books the way one responds to a genre.

It was the archetype.  The pattern of the books over all, rather than the details of the individual books, that grabbed my imagination.  Some of them rose above.  Some did not.

So the experiment in this series of posts is an attempt to dig up the bones of that genre and study it.

Understood Betsy

Recently I rediscovered this book, and re-read it.  I found the first chapter to be a slog, but the rest more and more interesting -- partly because as a grown up, I could see why it got past my "wholesome" filter.

As a child I hated wholesome.   Well, I could abide a certain amount of it.  I could abide some quaint and out-of-date attitudes.  And when I stumbled across Understood Betsy I expected it to be one of those stories about the superiority of wholesome, clean-living country folk, vs. city sophisticates.

And in some sense, I was right.  That's kind of what it's about on the surface.  And yeah there is definitely a preachy agenda to this book. But it was kind of a subversive agenda.  It wasn't about the superiority of clean-living or country life.  It was about approach to life. In particular, the raising of children.

The author, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, was a radical education reformer.  She was a big proponent of the Montessori method, in particular.  So the book was really about how you should give kids things to DO, and not smother them with either protection or rules. Let 'em grow naturally.

The agenda is not what appeals about the plot, however.  Frankly, if that's all there was too it, it would not have become a classic, liked by people with all sorts of beliefs about child rearing and wholesomeness. (Including the very strict church-going mother of a friend of mine who loved that book, and was shocked when hippies said they'd liked it too.)

The agenda, though, did something for this book that made it ring true to a theme of lots of great children's books -- and books for adults too.  IMHO, that's what makes it kind of a model for the "genre" I'm digging up.

The Story

Betsy -- or at the beginning, Elizabeth Ann -- is an orphan who was raised by a pair of aunts who were the 1910s equivalent of modern "helicopter parents" -- smothering, anxiety-ridden, indulgent.  The aunts learned their parenting skills via the latest modern book on How To Raise A Child.  And went after raising Elizabeth "right" with an OCD fervor.  (One of the things they wanted more than anything was for Elizabeth Ann to feel "understood" -- something they simply never managed -- hence the title.)

So by the time Elizabeth Ann is nine years old, she is a sweet neurotic who is afraid of everything and unable to do anything.

And then disaster happens: one of the aunts becomes ill and the other has to take care of her, and Elizabeth Ann has to be sent, entirely on her own, off the horrible, crude, country cousin side of the family.  She has been raised all her life to believe these people to be ignorant and strict and mean.

Turns out they're relaxed, laissez-faire sorts of folks.  But still scary because... they expect Betsy (as they call her) to do things for herself -- and don't worry over it at all!  Like they think she can do things for herself.

My favorite scene is when Betsy is picked up at the train station by her "much feared Great-Uncle Henry" with a horse and wagon.  As soon as they get on the road, he turns the reins over to Betsy to drive, because he's got some "figurin'" to do and he needs to concentrate on his accounts book and pencil.  She is in a panic, but dutiful and obedient, so she throws her all into figuring out how to manage this plodding, relaxed horse, makes what she considers to be horrible mistakes and barely manages to fix them. All the while her cousin sits figuring and doesn't seem to notice at all.

And that's kind of a mini-version of the whole story.

It's really a story of discovery -- which was my first instinct in naming this genre, but I think that's more of an umbrella category.

Throughout the story Betsy is faced with various situations in which she doesn't know what to do or what to think, and she has to figure it out.  She learns that she can deal with these; She can deal with life.  And as she develops into a fully autonomous human being, one of the things she is faced with is being lost while being responsible for others.  The climax of the story has her stranded far from home with a smaller child in her care.  But this time she has the inner resources to come up with a multi-step plan and get them both home safely.

And she has the confidence to do it.

The Great Theme of Childhood: Coping

The author of this book might have intended it to be the "Uncle Tom's Cabin" of childhood education -- which I don't think it did -- but the reason it became a classic because it reflected one of the great tropes of childhood: Coping.

In some sense, all fiction is about coping with things we are not prepared for.  But as adults, we're long past the stage where basic life is a series of crises. We don't even remember that for a baby, a game of peek-a-boo is a high tension suspense story.  If you can't see Mommy's face, she's GONE! You're alone! Who will feed you? Who will love you?

That level of life is pretty stable, and we have some control over it. So for adults, most fiction deals on a more sophisticated, and varied, smaller issues that we have to cope with.   Achieving, competing, loving, healing.  We only get back to that elemental "survival" aspect in a disaster story.  Which, of course deals with extraordinary circumstances.

But for children -- and somewhere deep in our psyche, all of us -- coping with simple existence is still new, and it's still an every day thing.  While most kids are allowed many choices by their parents, they really don't control where they sleep and what they eat and what they wear.  They know full well all their choices are subject to approval.

Now, we think of this as something limiting and bad. Something to strive against.  Wouldn't it be nice if we were older? sing the Beach Boys. 

At the same time, though, having a parent making decisions and taking responsibility is safety.  Even if you can choose for yourself, even if you fight to choose for yourself, you can still fall back on Mom and Dad and teacher and authority.  It's much more comfortable to have the right to choose if you have experienced back up who can give you guidance if you want it.

And what about all those decisions you never wanted to make?  The ones you didn't know you needed to make because they were made by others in the background?  One anxieties of growing up is that, you begin to realize how much more there is to the world than you thought, and your parents are out there managing it for you.  And one day, they're not going to do that any more.  You're going to have to do this on your own.

For children, there is a very thin veneer between real life and the fictional life of the lost orphan.

And that risk continues into adulthood: you might carve out a pretty steady and relatively comfortable existence for yourself. That is, not necessarily comfortable in form (because your house may be too small, and your bed used and lumpy) but it's still comfortable in understanding. You know when the rent is due. You know where the bed is, and where the lumps are.  You are familiar with most of the problems that will come up and have some idea of what to do to handle them.

And yet....  we're adults.  Most of us understand that there are things in this world we have no idea how to handle.  Most of us, even in the U.S., are one major illness or accident away from being homeless.  If you travel, you're one wrong turn from being lost in a bad neighborhood where you don't speak the language.

That's where the appeal of disaster and survival stories come from, but our anxieties are broader and also subtler than that.  Moving to a new house or taking a new job -- especially if it means moving across the country -- can make you feel a little like a lost orphan.  You're tearing loose of your resources, going into unknown territory. You don't know if it will turn out your have a psycho-boss or psycho-neighbor.  You don't know if you'll fit into the new local culture.  You're bound to make some faux pas.  You have no idea the consequences of a small mistake -- will it be smiled at and ignored, or will it cost you new friends?  Or worse?

And you have no idea if someone will hand you the reins and expect you to drive the wagon, when you have never seen a horse up close before.

All the same, we have learned, through the years, that we can survive unknown disasters. We have survived the emotional roller-coasters of adolescence. We've been lost, we've had near misses. We've had grief, we've mourned.  We've had to deal with unexpected bureaucracy, we've made mistakes and had to pay penalties.

Kids aren't sure of these things, so pure survival of these is a bigger theme in children's stories, but even as adults, the achievement of coping with the unexpected and mastering new skills is still an incredibly satisfying trope.

So my first thought about the models for this "genre" is that this is the overriding theme of the kind of story.  (As I pull apart other stories, there may be others, but I certainly think this is what tied the stories together to me.)

But theme does not a genre make.  It doesn't even make a trope.  It's just the meaning of a set of similar tropes.

I think I need to look at a few more titles before I get a sense for form.  Next time I will look at a couple of other stories that come to mind on the same model, and see if I can pull out a few more tropes that they have in common.  And I'm also going to talk about a related literary genre, the Picaresque story.  While it is different in theme, it is often similar in form.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Life Rolls and Irregularities

Just a note to say that I've got stuff going on in my life that keeps me from even knowing what day it is most of the time.  Some of which I will talk about later (like my uncle who passed away -- I want to do a tribute post). And some I won't because, even though it seems like I tell folks everything, I really don't.

Dean Wesley Smith calls these periods "Life Rolls."  Bad luck comes your way, nothing you can do but clean up.
They tend to sneak up on a person.

I want to post 2-3 times a week.  I actually have roughed in posts written -- lots of them -- just not finished.  One of those unfinsihed posts explains why I'm not finishing them (it's actually a strategy).  For now, I expect that on Wednesdays, I'll continue to post the Excavating a Genre, because I think it fits in my schedule.

I also have a couple of posts on how I'm teaching myself to read aloud.  Also some thoughts on building a generation of readers.  And a few other things I don't remember.....

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Excavating A Genre 1 - The Book List

I am a cross-genre writer.  You could even say that I am a low-brow literary writer, in that I like popular/commercial storytelling -- I like movies, and TV and comic books and kids' stories and various kinds of pulp fiction from the past -- but I also like experimenting with it and mixing it up/  I like to take a literary writer's approach to it.

My goal as a writer is to be sui generis -- of my own type. I am my genre.  This upsets genre purists, but like Pop-eye, I yam what I yam. (Toot!)

And yeah, much to the detriment of my success as a writer: one of my favorite things is to take genres and tropes that I find boring or clichéed or dated or over-done and pull them apart and find something wonderful about them -- and put them back together in a way that I like.

That's why you'll see me talk about flawed, non-masterpieces here as often as great classics.  Mining for diamonds in the rough is something I enjoy.

And I write about it here because 1.) it interests me, and 2.) I do think that the methods I use can be useful to more conventional writers who may not want to invent their own genre, but do want to find their voice -- the unique thing in their own imagination that sets them apart from others in their genre.

Last year I created the Story Game (best place to start with that is probably the index post at the end of the Situation Game) to this end.

Orphans On Trains

The project I am wrapped up in now was spawned by a bout of nostalgia last fall, in which I noticed a certain pattern of many stand-alone books I read as a kid.  These weren't always the best books I'd ever read, but there was something about them that stuck with me, when some of my favorite books have faded.

Furthermore, I find that I use the the tropes from these stories within many of my own stories. (Just as I usually have some aspect of mystery in them too.)  And this particular batch of stories is old-fashioned and really suit the retro world of The Serial. (I.e. the silent movie era inspired world of The Misplaced Hero, and Misplaced Baroness.)  So I'm thinking developing a junior version of that world (which I'll tell you about later).

The first thing I noticed about what these stories had in common was that they started with a journey of someone; usually a child, bravely (though often fearfully) heading alone into an unknown situation. Often involuntarily.  The protagonists were often orphans or virtual orphans (i.e. parents suffering from a disease or misfortune that made them unable to care for the kid). 

There are a few variations, and I'm going to explore the books that interest me and figure out if they actually constitute more than a theme or trope -- if they rise to a formula or genre. (And in the meantime, I'll talk about several types of similar genre/tropes that overlap with this.)

Here is a list of some of those books.  Some are classics, but many of them are lost, out of print and hard to find, but those of you of a certain age may have read them too.  I'm going to talk about these off and on for a while here on the blog. For the lesser known books I have included a line about how the book fits into the theme. And also in some cases, links to where you can buy the books at Amazon or download from Gutenberg project.

Understood Betsy - An over-protected orphan city girl, who is sent to live with easy going country relatives in New England. (Don't buy any commercial ebooks of this -- most are rip-offs of the Gutenberg version.)

The Avion My Uncle Flew - a boy from Wyoming whose single father gets a job in France after the war. The kid unwillingly learns French and solves a mystery involving spies and the murder of a prize pig. (Out of print, but available used at Amazon.)

Emil and the Detectives - a boy traveling alone is robbed and must track the villain down with the help of people he meets. (Best version with original illustrations at Amazon.)

For Love of a Donkey - an orphan, her donkey, and the old man sent to take her to an orphanage, walk across post-war Germany in order to save the donkey. (Out of Print, available used at Amazon., and also available to read online only at The Internet Archive's Open Library.)

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase - a "poor relation" is sent to live with her rich cousin. Melodrama and adventure ensues. (In print and available at Amazon and other ebook and paper book retailers and your local library.)

Unknown Title/Author - Story about an orphan girl taking a buckboard and driving across the outback of Australia.

Unknown Title/Author - a girl sent out west to live with relatives in a fort. (Post Indian Wars)

The Railway Children - A family sent to live in the country after their father is disgraced and arrested. (Available everywhere, including free at Project Gutenberg.  Also a really nice free audiobook at Librivox.)

More famous and classic books with similar pattern:

Oliver Twist
King Of The Wind
Jane Eyre
Lemony Snicket

The first thing these books have in common is a theme, and that theme is most reflected in Understood Betsy -- the book that spawned these thoughts in me. It's a rather more quaint and wholesome book than I liked as a kid. (As a kid, I despised Bonanza in favor of the more gritty High Chaparral, for instance.) But I found that I actually liked it when I read it, and elements of it stuck with me.

So, as I mentioned above, I really do have to tear it apart and find out why that wholesome book was so memorable to me.

And that's where we'll start next time -- likely on Friday. (I'll be posting these on Wednesdays and/or Fridays.)

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Next Up - Excavating a Genre

This was a hell of a week.  Actually, when it come to medical, family, social, technical matters, it's been a hell of a year, but more than usual this month.

All the same, my brain is back in gear, and I have plenty to blog about and to write.  It's just taking me a little longer to get all the pieces in place.

I had this idea about a shift in my schedule that should make me oh, so much more productive, and the very next day, a series of disasters commenced that kept me from getting anywhere near having any kind of schedule at all.  I couldn't even predict when I would be sleeping.

All the same, I'm getting back on track, and I think I have the real next blog series for you: a series about exploring some familiar tropes and building a genre out of them.  Or at least a sub-genre and personal voice out of it.

The approach I'm taking is similar to the approach I did when I was doing the first work on the Situation Game and started with exploring the "character structure" of certain kinds of romantic suspense stories.

The point of that was to unearth not just the core of the actual genre, but also to identify my own personal sub-genre.  The points that appeal to me about the genre, and make it mine as a reader and a writer. 

This time, though, I'm looking at something a little more nebulous. Something that is an identifiable trope, and yet doesn't really have it's own genre name.  You see it mostly in children's fiction, or stories about children, but sometimes you see the pattern in books for and about adults.

I think of it as the "Child Embarking on a New Life Alone" story.

Like the "Hostage Story" I wrote about last year, this pattern crosses over a whole lot of similar genres.  It fits with road stories and journey stories. It certainly crosses with heroic "quest" adventure.  It suits the "picaresque" type story I learned about in college. It even fits with the classic "issue" stories of the past.  It's also a kind of pioneer story -- which usually involves a whole family rather than a child alone.

So over the next few weeks I will, sporadically, write about those genres, and the various books which struck this specific chord with me over the years.  I'll also be talking about how these tropes have influenced various of my own books.

(Not the least of which is the book I hope to release next month: Moon Child, Ready or Not.  This is a long fantasy book -- kind of a meta-quest book -- that I think hits pretty much all of those types of stories.)

I don't know if I'll have a full post ready for you on Wednesday, but I will at least post a preliminary book/movie list of the stories that I'll be talking about.  Many of these books are out of print. There are a few that I don't even remember the title or author.  Some are famous and current.

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Recovering Habits: Basements and 8-Hour Challenges

I have recovered quite a bit since last week.  I have been dreaming and stories are coming back to me.  However, I have been significantly knocked out of my habits.  And.... as tends to happen when life throws you for a loop, bad habits storm in, while the good ones run for the hills.

This is not entirely a bad thing.  Being able to zone out when life is hitting you hard can be a great way to keep it together.  I happen to play puzzle games when this happens.  And I often come out of it with SERIOUS game addiction.  I am currently struggling with Bejeweled.

So the problem I cited last week -- having lost the ability to do certain things -- turned out to be temporary. The real problem is that I have such a terrible need to get certain little gems all in a row, that I sometimes wish that cars on the highway would just slide over into that open space rigth beside them and create a five-in-a-row lightening gem.

My brain, now that it has recovered most of its parts, needs puzzle diversion challenges, and I have two tried and true methods.  They both are ways to practice accomplishing things.

Method #1 - Clearing Junk

This is a particularly useful way to get back in the swing of things after major life issues, but it also works when you have just been too busy to think and a lot of junk has piled up that you didn't have time to take care of.  I also tend to call this "GTD" which stands for Dave Allen's "Getting Things Done" but you don't have to use any particular methodology.

Pick a closet, a junk drawer, the pantry cupboards, your desk, the garage -- anything you've been meaning to get done -- and start clearing it out or fixing it or doing whatever needs to be done with it.  If you really need to rebuild habits -- to the extent that you aren't writing anything -- pick a BIG project and do this in your writing time.  (This works extra well if it overlaps with your creative life in some way -- either involves the subject matter of something you're writing, or you are pulling out old creative work.)

And treat it like a writing project.  Brainstorm.  Plan, and organize, and even buy things for it.  Make seven trips to Staples to buy banker boxes and a quick document scanner.  Start taking notes on further projects this one will spawn. ("Oh, look at all those family photos. I really should scan those for posterity...." Don't stop to scan.  DO take notes on what you might need to do that project -- like a slide scanner, or a space to work in -- and put that list with the photos.)

You will find this job often reflects the sort of discipline you have for your writing, even those "blocked" moments -- just as you need to stop to beat out a detail, or do some research, so you MUST head to Staples for the aforementioned banker boxes.  Possibly to the point of dropping everything in order to do this.

I will likely talk more about this next week, as I have many amusing things to say about what I'm doing in my basement this week.  Right now I will just point out one thing:

In the course of creating an archive for my old photos, artwork, and ephemera/paper collectables, I came across a book of cartoons I did in high school.  They were all on the theme of "Sheep."  They involved these little straight-faced sheep -- fluffy cloud-like body, closed eyes, no mouth, stick legs -- who, in the course of ever more elaborate puns, did all sorts of funny and interesting things.  The captions were not actually clever, nor supposed to be, but were setups for the sheep themselves, who were strangely expressive for creatures with no facial expression.

There are 40-50 of these, and several more captionless sketches.  (My favorites are the little sheep playing a big cello, and the "sheep wreck.")  I will probably post some later on, because my scanner is in a drawer and there is no place to put it.  I don't know what I'm going to do with it, maybe a book, maybe a website.  Maybe t-shirts?

In the meantime the other method of getting back into gear.....

Method #2 - The 8-Hour Challenge

This started with Joe Konrath. Fueled by alcohol, I think, he sent out this challenge one day a year or so ago for people to conceive, write, edit, format, and upload a little book in the period of eight hours.  At the end of the day in question, people sent him their links, and he posted them somewhere.

This, of course, is insane.

Which means that a bunch of people on KBoards decided to make this a regular event.  Except they change the rules somewhat.  Not all on one day, the eight hours don't have to be consecutive. I think they actually expanded it to an outside limit of 24-hours (non-consecutive).

And that is actually a magical thing.  Because if you say "I'm going to do X in a week," you really are leaving yourself a lot of fuzzy time.  You might spend 60-80 hours in a week, or you might spend 8 minutes.  If you actualy give yourself a goal on accomplishing something in a specific number of working hours, though, that can really focus you on a task. 

For instance: This month, the KB folks are choosing finishing unfinished works in their 8-24 hour challenge.  It's all about getting 'er done.  And very often all we need is a few concentrated hours to actually finish something.

I'm going to do some non-fiction for this challenge.  I have been meaning to collect posts from this blog, for instance, into themed booklets.  I have gone so far as to comb through the 1300+ old posts and picked out a number of them, organized which ones might go together.... and proceeded to get stuck on the editing for publication.  Because it's really easy to say "You know, that one's practically ready right now, but this one that goes with it really needs work. I could write a new one from scratch...."

And then get lost in editing and super-ambitious rewrites.  Or just think it's too big of a job for now, and go off and do something else.

So I'm going to stop dithering and being ambitious and just say, "You have eight hours to get this booklet done -- and only six for editing. Save the other two for formatting and such."

I've done similar things -- without intending it -- on finishing a short story.  I'll find a draft that's 3/4 done, or done but for some tricky editing, and I'll just see how far I can get with it in a single session.  And often, if I did this because I had a specific idea in mind, I will get it done, and ready to do that one night.

So, anyway, I'm still not fully back in gear, but I am getting there.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Fog of the Change

This is a difficult blog post to write.

Oh, no,  not emotionally difficult.  It's just that words are failing me a lot lately, and ALL blog posts are difficult to write.  It's difficult to write a shopping list, actually.

It's a hormone thing.  The French refer to it as something that happens to ladies of "un certain age."  Also known as "The Change." The Big M: Menopause.

And I had been warned: Many if not most women experience a fogginess of brain at the time of the change.  It can last for months, a year, even forever.

What I hadn't been warned about was that this "fogginess" has a devastating affect on my creativity.  I have lost most of my narrative functions.  I don't even dream any more.

And that's downright scary, considering that I have always been a lucid dreamer.  That is, for as long as I can remember, I have been able to drop myself into a dream state at will, and when I sleep my dreams have always been vibrant, strange, entertaining narratives in which I play many parts.

My usual habit, on going to bed, is to drop myself into the skin of a character and let my unconscious run loose.  But for the past month or two I drop myself into a character and then... nothing.  The character sits there until I go to sleep.  On the few occasions where I think I remember a dream, it was purely abstract -- no characters, no language, no drama or emotion.  More like... math homework.

On the other hand, it is less scary, because it tells me that my issues with writing really are biological.  And it's also kind of familiar, because during peri-menopause -- the build up to The Change -- I had monthly migraines that were a mini version of this.

What To Do About This

With a migraine, the main strategy is waiting it out.  And that may be possible with this.  The fact that I am aware of it may be a sign it's letting up.  (Often I didn't know what was wrong during a migraine until late in the process.)

But those words "... it could last as long as a year, or maybe forever..." kinda hang over my head.  If this is a permanent change in brain function, then it will have to be dealt with.

Start with the usual health stuff.  Consulting doctor, etc.  (However, the "fog" issue is not something well studied, and most of the literature kinda shrugs at whether anything will actually work for it.  Or even why it happens.)

Lose weight ("There's estrogen in them there fat cells!")  Except one of the side effects of this is an insanely short attention span.  I mean, it's not just the Homer Simpson effect: "I should cut out donuts from my diet .... mmmmmmm, donuts."  It's more a matter that I am thinking about how easy it is to cut out pop from my diet because I'm not feeling any cravings for it at all while I'm sipping away at a Big Gulp, and then when I notice that I just finished it, I am thinking "No more refills" WHILE I REFILL THE DANG THING.

If the ability to hold two opposing thoughts in my head is a test of intelligence, I have become a genius.

Occupational Therapy

It seems to me, though, that if this is a long term thing, that the first step is to treat it like an injury or a stroke.  Figure out what you can and can't do, and retrain yourself.

What I can do: I can beat out a scene.  This is very strange, but I can take a scene that was stuck for years, and beat out the logic of "this happens, then that happens, then that happens" and make it flow emotionally, etc.  I think this is because fitting the pieces of a scene together can be like a puzzle, and I can do puzzles.

What I can't do: I can't go on and write that scene.  I can't do "voice" right now.  The best I can do is flounder around with false starts for a long time, until I get a sentence or two.

I can: Edit finished work that just needs corrections or pragmatic shortening. (This is good because I've got a novel for you.  More about that in another post.)

I can't: Edit things that require new passages.  (Can't do voice.)

I can't: do big plot arcs, or do much with brainstorming.

I can't: do those analytical blog posts I usually do. The ones where I break down a story or film, or go into depth on it.  That started last year: I can start it, but I hit a wall.  I find that right now, I'm hitting a within a paragraph of starting.

And that, I think, might have some fatigue issue.  Brainstorming is probably a fatigue issue too.  So I'm holding off on that for a while -- just testing the waters now and then.

The big issue, though, is voice.  If I can't drop into a character and have something happen, that's a problem.  But part of that problem is that I tend to do that on a very advanced level.  My existing projects require highly nuanced voices.  So here is where the occupational therapy kicks in: I need to go back and do some beginner things.  Classroom exercises.  Writing from a prompt, jut a paragraph or so, and see if I can remind my brain of what it used to do.

The New Book

I'm also doing final edits on a book I wrote way back in the 1990s.  It is mostly well polished, because I was sending it around to publishers back then.  Editors found it charming but hard to place in commercial terms.  (I will tell you more abou that later -- probably Friday.)  There is one chapter that rambles too much, but otherwise, it really does give me an idea of what I'm aiming at.

So, ironically, I hope to be publishing a "new" book in October, in spite of the brain fog.

See you in the funny papers.