Monday, September 30, 2013

Characters: Wealth and Glamor

Continuing the series on the currently popular character attributes - Wealth, Dominance and Jackassery. First Post Index of the Whole Series (scroll down to the bottom of the post).  This week we're talking about Wealth.

Last week I talked about how the incredible wealth of the billionaires in some popular fiction genres is really just a stand in for the magic power of earlier types of stories, such as Dracula.  (And how it all goes back, in a Freudian sort of way, to sex appeal.)

But even when I look at it on a more literal level, without going into the psychological symbolism, wealth is still a kind of magic.  And not just in fiction.  In the real world, wealth is glamorous.

Whether it's Nick and Nora Charles sipping martinis while casually solving crime, or Minnie the Moocher dreaming of diamond cars with platinum wheels, or the old world gilding of royal accoutrements, wealth has that magical sheen.

And that's what the word "glamor" actually means. It's the glowy sheen that flickers over the surface of magic.

The thing about glamor is 1.) wealth isn't the only source of it, and 2.) some people are more affected by it than others.

And that brings me to the first characters of my own that I want to talk about: Karla Marquette and George Starling, the lead characters from The Man Who Did Too Much, a cozy mystery set in Northern Lower Michigan.

George is the wealthiest character I've ever written.  Karla is pretty well nigh immune to glamor -- especially as it relates to wealth. 

Glamor vs. Content

When Karla first sees George, she notes three things.  He seems depressed, he stands like a cop or a fed or an IRS agent, and the trench coat he's wearing is much too expensive for any of those.

By this point it's pretty clear to the reader that Karla is a geeky small town spinster with no interest in fashion -- so one of my beta readers objected to the fact that she would know the trench coat was expensive.

To this reader, "expensive" meant "designer label."  Or, in other words, glamor.  And she was right, Karla's knowledge of designers and fashion is pretty much limited to what she sees on the red carpet at Oscar time.

So no, Karla wouldn't know if George's trench coat was from a high-profile designer, or whether it was this year's style, or years out of style.

What Karla sees is quality of materials and craftsmanship.  And because she's not interested in clothes, that's all she bothers to note: it's expensive.  But if you asked her, she would point out a million details that she simply took in unconsciously: The fabric, needlework, the way it fits, the way it looks broken in without looking worn.

The fact is, George's clothes are not fashionable.  They're as conservative, plain and unstylish as he can get them.  He likes to blend in.  He has them tailor made because A) his tailor knows what he wants, and B) his tailor knows exactly the sort of damage George is likely to do to his clothes, and adjusts for that, and C) it never occurred to George to get his clothes anywhere else.

That last is only half true: his tailor doesn't make "gear."  So George gets his winter boots and fatigues and workout clothes and stuff from sources of top notch professional gear -- not the stuff that's in fashion, but the stuff that will stand up to abuse and weather. But he's also a light traveler, because he has the money to buy what he needs wherever he goes.  If he needs something, he'll get it from the nearest vendor, even if it's Walmart.

George, in other words, is very wealthy but he's not in the least bit glamorous.  And that was one of the great problems of his youth, because his family is not only very wealthy, but also very glamorous.

In Chapter 17, when Karla points out to him that he has more grace than he thinks he does, he puts it this way:

"I was well brought up.  The Starlings are a very polished family.  But that's not the same thing.  The truth is, I'm not really a Starling."

"You were adopted?"

"No, no, I didn't mean that."  He laughed.  "Although there is much speculation about how I must have been switched at birth.  Somewhere there is a family of dockworkers or gangsters with a polished politician for a son they can't account for."

If Karla were Sherlock Holmes, she might have deduced all that from his clothes, but though she is incredibly intuitive, she withholds judgement, and only notes the clues to what he is like: he has the demeanor of a cop, but his clothes are too expensive, and he's driving a tacky rental car and he speaks with an unidentifiable not-British accent.  Not your average bear.  A puzzle, in fact.

Which is exactly what he's intended to be.

So I kinda want to just leave it there.  There's a heck of a lot to say about George and his relationship with wealth, and how other people view him because of it, but the fact is, he is a puzzle to himself and to others, and that's part of what the series is about.

All the same, I will talk about him when we get to the subject of Alpha Dogs next week, and I think I should use him to introduce three topics about wealth that I'm going to compare among a bunch of my other characters tomorrow.

1.) Wealth as a Super Power (at least to characters who have it).

George could be Batman.  He could be spending his money on cool tools to give himself great powers -- but he just doesn't think of that.  George is a very "in the moment" kind of guy.  He doesn't equip himself for contingencies.  He only carries a gun when he actually plans to use it.  If he even bothered to think about it (which he doesn't) he would say he doesn't carry a gun because he'll just take it away from the bad guy if he needs one.

2.) The Jelly Bean Factor.

Money tends to bring out a person's secret irrational longing.  So when they win the lottery, they go out and buy a million jelly beans, even though they couldn't possibly eat them or store them. George has had everything he wants all his life. He doesn't really want for anything like that.  But if he believes you need a million jelly beans, watch out for dump trucks full of multi-colored sweet things.  (So you've got to be careful what you say around him.)  George's secret irrational longing is for approval.

3.) What would happen if George were to lose his fortune?

He'd probably be happier. He'd rather make his own way, and he has great survival skills.  As it is he let his family put his money into trust for him because he has a problem with gold-diggers.  But if he had no money, he'd also have to face his demons more directly.  Right now, if he sees someone in minor distress he can often buy his way out of his compulsion to help them.  Not being able to do that would put him at risk of becoming an outlaw.

Tomorrow I'll talk about a pair who would seem the opposite of George: the wandering saddle-bum detectives, Mick and Casey McKee from the Mick and Casey Mysteries. Then Wednesday I'll talk about several characters from The Case of the Misplaced Hero, who cover a spectrum from the very rich, to the very socialist.

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Update: Time to Stop Worrying and Love the Blog

(NOTE: the index to the Characters - Wealth and Dominance series, has moved to it's own post.)

I told you my blogging plans would change within two weeks.

As much as I love writing, I also love commentary on writing, and also playing games with stories, and also teaching.  This week I finally figured out how to integrate a lot of these things I love to do.

That is, I think I've figured out how to take advantage of my irregular passions, without burning out and bouncing from thing to thing.  It involves going back to formal blogging, and a semi-formal blogging schedule.

It also involves publishing nonfiction.

I have often thought that I ought to collect some of the posts here into an ebook. And I have a number of nonfiction projects in folders around the hard disk.  But I could never get far with them. The first quick passion would fizzle out quickly.

I realize that the reason why was my motivation.

Me: Gee, this blog is a time sink. It doesn't pay. I should stop doing it....

Entrepreneurial Self: Don't you know there is GOLD in that content! Exploit it!

Me: Well, yeah, I guess I could do that.

Entrepreneurial Self:  Find a hook! Package it! Market it!

Me: It's not really "hook" sort of material.  I mean, I guess this post here has a hook, but there's nothing to go with it.

Entrepreneurial Self: Then write more blog posts to go with it!

Me: Well, I don't know....

Entrepreneurial Self: Sell sell sell!

Me: I think I'll go do this other thing.  You keep working on that.

That makes the blog feel like the red-headed step-child, who has to scrub the floor and sell matches in return for a bed in the cinders, but who isn't allowed in the family business (which seems to be nonprofit Performance Art).  But I love this freckle-faced urchin.  Why not give her a full place at the table?  Her Neo-Deconstructionist Street Busking couldn't be any less worthy than Cousin Gwenivere's Hiccuping Mime act....

(For those lucky few who haven't experienced such a thing, that last line was a Performance Art joke.)

So, I intend not only to give the blog its head, but I'm going to just start publishing collections of posts that reflect the character of the blog.  I will probably start with a collection of posts on Cozy Mysteries.

In the meantime: here is the new blog schedule (which might last the week):

Monday: Passion commentary series of the moment.
Tuesday: Passion commentary series of the moment, part 2.
Wednesday: Update, announcements, (or no post)
Thursday: Self-Interview of the Week (or no post)
Friday: The Writing Game
Saturday: (no post)
Sunday: Update, announcements, posting schedule.

This will, of course, evolve.  For instance, I do want to start up the serial again, but I'll jump that hurdle when I come to it.

In the meantime, I'll be continuing the series on the character traits of wealth, jackassery and dominance.  And this post will become the index to the series.

The Index of Proposed Posts on Characters and Wealth and Power and Stuff

This series grew and I finally decided to give it it's own post, rather than send folks to scroll around and find it here.  That post is here: Index to the Characters, Money and Power series.

I'm making this up as I go along, folks.

See you in the funny papers.

If you read this blog, and find it useful or entertaining, buy a book once in a while, or make a donation. 

Here's a link to a list of my books.  And ... hey, look at that!  There's a donation link right below this sentence. (Donations via Paypal)

Friday, September 27, 2013

Billionaires, Vampires, Wolves and La Bete

Continuing the series on the currently popular character attributes - Wealth, Dominance and Jackassery (inspired by the fad for Billionaire Bad Boys, and a series of posts by Kyra Halland.)  Index of the Whole Series (scroll down to the bottom of the post).  This week we're talking about Wealth.

Kyra kicked this off just as a fun little riff on the current fad in romance fiction for Bullying BDSM Billionaires who seduce young innocent, virginal women.  She wryly decided to see how her own characters stack up against this super hot fad.

She did it for fun, but how she did it raised some very deep themes that really go far beyond a fad in one genre.  Wealth, power, dominance, asocial "acting out" behavior, redemption (deserved or not) -- these are all big issues in fiction.

But before I start talking about my own fiction, or about the wider themes, I thought I might take a deeper look at that Billionaire's theme itself.  Take it all the way back to the origin....

No, not Fifty Shades of Grey.  Further back that that.

Okay, we can pause ever so briefly here to acknowledge that.  I haven't read Twilight, but I understand that the romance in it wasn't bondage and dominance based. But that's only because it's a modern spin on something older that really is right in line with Dominant Billionaires.


What is a vampire, in terms of story and theme and symbol?

He's a powerful, seductive but somewhat frightening being who can mesmerize innocent young virgins, and transform them in an animalistic, ritualized, symbolicly sexual encounter, with which he refreshes and renews his own life essence, while awakening in them animal appetites like his own.  Thereafter they are his willing slaves.

These modern billionaire BDSM fetishists are Dracula with two differences: we don't have to cloak the sex in symbol any more, and instead of magic, they have money and power.

So in these billionaire stories wealth isn't money -- it's magic.  It's power.

But to really understand it, we have to go back further.

The modern Dracula story is really kind of screwed up by Victorian prudishness.  Not in the fact that it hides sex behind a symbol, but in the fact that women have to be saved from Dracula.  He's a monster, and these ladies have to be saved from liking what he does to them, because liking sex makes the ladies into monsters too.

So we go back somewhat further to versions that strip away those cultural mores altogether and dive straight into the unconscious human psyche.  Fairytales and folklore.

La Belle et La Bete -- Beauty and the Beast

There are many different versions of this psychological trope -- and nearly any fairytale with a lady in it, it's going back to the same sexual angst.  Little Red Riding Hood is a variant.  Sleeping Beauty is a variant.  But I think these are for the younger psyche.

Red Riding Hood, in particular, is about that first confused, pre-conscious awareness a child has about sex.  Sex is like a wolf -- it's weird, scary and invasive, and sometimes wears a mask, and in the small child's mind those first inklings don't really seem any different than other irrational fears.  Fear of the dark, fear of being consumed.  Fear that Grandma isn't really Grandma, because when she gets angry or is hiding something, her face changes. (That one is one that sticks with us. It's called The Uncanny Valley -- and it's a hard wired fear of things in disguise.  It's why clowns are so scary.)

And the Little Red Riding Hood type stories are about being brave and facing the fact that the wolf exists.  In other words, it's not about sexual awakening, just sexual awareness.

But that story stays with us.  It's in a primal part of our brain that will continue to respond to patterns for the rest of our lives, and it's why monster stories continue to haunt us throughout our lives.

Beauty and the Beast, on the other hand, is about the next step.  It's about that first irrational inkling that the scary, invasive uncomfortable thing we later know as sex is kind of a mesmerizing biological imperative.  You can't escape it.

But you can redeem it with love.

The beast is repellent.  He's a monster.  He is powerful and controlling and enchanting.  Belle has no choice but to face him, live with him.  But he's also a man, and if she can see beyond the beastlines, overcome her revulsion and actually make contact, she can make the beastliness go away.

In the meantime, for the dude, it's can be about feeling like an alien beast, and braving the rejection, and becoming human again.

This isn't about redeeming an abuser.  It's not that logical.  It's tapping into the remnants of a major existential crisis in our past -- when the child's brain is reconciling repulsion and attraction.  That's also a pattern that gets hard-wired into us and lasts a lifetime. (And yes, abusers do exploit this part of the brain too, but that's not the fault of fiction.)

This particular pattern isn't just about sex.  (That's just a particularly powerful part of its development.)  It's about overcoming our discomfort with anything unfamliar.  It's about overcoming prejudice.  It's a part of our journey to maturity.

But the romantic version are about sex. And the billionaire stories are just about facing the wolf, and getting past the fear and revulsion and reconciliing with the fact that we have sexual appetites.  Redeeming the wolf is about accepting our own sexuality.

And in those stories, wealth is just a symbol for magic and hormones.

You can find traces of those primal symbols in all stories, but for my fiction, the themes are up closer to the surface. They're more rational, more social and even political than psychological.

I suppose that with a fairytale and with erotica, it's a lot more about the psychology of the reader.  With less visceral stories -- definitely with my stories -- those kinds of elements are more about the psychology of the character.

Next time (Starting Monday) I'm going to be talking about Wealth.  It's not a subject that exactly interests me, in and of itself, but it does have a role, and it does actually say something about my characters.

That one may be a two parter, or even three parts.  Not sure yet. (Next Post: Wealth and Glamor.)

See you in the funny papers.

If you read this blog, and find it useful or entertaining, buy a book once in a while, or make a donation. 

Here's a link to a list of my books.  And ... hey, look at that!  There's a donation link right below this sentence. (Donations are via Paypal)

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Day 7 - Just An Update

I probably wrote over 3000 words today.  None of it fiction. (Well maybe a little.) It was mostly blogging.

I started noodling on the series about characters and their wealth and power, and suddenly I had the bit in my teeth. I decided to just keep going.  (I should have done more, actually, but I some errands and also someone on the internet didn't understand what I meant by a "Pro" font.)

I hope this will be as interesting to you as it is to me, but I have to pin more of it down before I know how the first post should go.

This subject actually hits close to home for me for two reasons.

One is creative: This gets into the meat of my subject matter, and why I write. (Which I'll talk about tomorrow.)

The other is my alternate life dream:
You know how little kids want to grow up to be cowboys and ballerinas?  At one time I wanted to grow up to be a professor of popular culture.

This was before I found out that it's not really about geeking out about movies, books and comic books and stuff -- most of it is studying and talking about Foucault and Derrida and Stanley Fish and New Criticism. (Although I actually kinda liked Fish, but only in popular theory, undergraduate kind of way.)

Literary scholars don't get to talk about the story at all.  You just get to talk about how other people talk about the story -- and even then, maybe not how they talk about a particular story, just how they talk about stories in general.

So maybe the truth is that I didn't want to grow up to be a literary scholar: I wanted to grow up to be a blogger!

Anyway, tomorrow I'll post about how writing about the character traits of wealth and power hit a kind of hot button with me.

After that, well, there could be 6-10 posts on the matter, talking about each of those qualities of Wealth, Jackassery, and Dominance, with different characters of mine, and with great characters in film and literature.  I don't know yet how I will organize them or take breaks between the posts.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Day 6 and the Billionaire Bad Boy Scale

Writing update: 887 Words -- lower than I wanted, especially since I didn't do much yesterday.  However, I also made some breakthroughs that caused me to tear out some words, so I think I might be doing better than I thought.

The Billionaire Bad-Boy Scale

In the meantime, about a month ago, Kyra Halland wrote a series of post on her blog about the current fad for Billionaire Bad-Boy Bully heroes in romance and related fiction.  She decided to examine her own heroes against a scale of the three major qualities she saw in such anti-heroes: wealth, inner torment and jackassery -- with an added commentary about the bondage factor.

I'm not really particularly interested in the Billionaire Bad-Boy trend itself -- positive or negative -- but I'm always interested in looking at archetypes and qualities across genres.  What I don't like about a particular trend is not nearly as interesting as looking at the more universal aspects of those elements that make them attractive across genres.  What makes them work.

I mean, these guys are only one step away from the classic anti-hero.  If Batman and Iron Man were characters in romantic erotica, they'd be no different.

Today I'm just going to quickly mention the three qualities I see:

Wealth and Privilege

While billionaires of limitless, almost Super-Villain-like levels of power are in right now, that's not anything new.  And privilege even more so. Let's not forget that it wasn't that long ago that being phenomenally wealthy only got you a second-class ticket into the halls of power. 

Wealth and privilege -- separately or together -- have an emotional impact and have played a big part in literature, whether in something like The Great Gatsby, or in old melodrama movies like Foolish Wives (which featured "The Man You Love to Hate" Erich von Stroheim as a blue-blooded roue who went around ruining the wives of the nouveau riche).  It plays a part with heroes like The Scarlet Pimpernel, or even more interestingly, The Count of Monte Cristo.

In my own fiction (which is what I'll probably focus on) money plays a somewhat different role.  I have penniless heroes and I have very wealthy heroes, but they're all pretty blase about it.  For them, money is a tool.

Asocial Qualities

Yes, Jackassery is a great word for it, but I'm going to cast a somewhat wider net, including a range from a general prickilyness to dangerously defensive.

And I'm including the troubled past (inner torment) here because that's kinda the point of jackassery in a rounded character.  If a character is going to be interesting at all, then any jackass behavior has got to be there for a reason.  It's a weakness or a defense -- and occasionally it's a strength.

I'll give you to examples from recent TV shows:  Dr. House from the show House, M. D., and Dr. Lightman from the show Lie To Me.  These are two troubled and brilliant heroes who do great and wonderful things with their incredible jackass natures.  And Jackassery isn't just limited to male characters.  Some folks may remember Candace Bergen's iconic Murphy Brown character -- a female jackass if ever there was one.

I myself like to use this quality more in impact characters than in heroes.  (Though sometimes an impact character will be a romantic character, so I'll talk about it in that sense too.)  More often it's the villain-turned-impact character.  A jackass is always a great person to provide opposition and difficulties for the protagonist.

(And in that sense, very often those Billionaire Bullies are actually impact characters -- not a protagonist.


Drama is about characters in conflict -- about conflicting needs and goals.  And that means it's a struggle for control.  A worthy character is going to need some level of skill at control.  At the same time, the more power and control a character has, the more internal conflict exists over the ethics of the situation.  To be a good and ethical character, he has to be able to moderate his control and power too.

And dominance is not just a personal thing -- it's also cultural, political and social.  And it's also internal -- self-control is a factor. And that tends to be a major theme and issue for many of my characters.

Not sure of any schedule on these posts, but I'll try to be sure to interconnect them with links, top and bottom, as I post.  These are the sort of interesting discussions that could carry on longer -- talking about classic lit and old TV shows and more. (But I'm not promising or threatening anything.)

Next post in the series: a look back at the source of those Billionaire stories. And an index of the Whole Series.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Day 5 - Hostage Stories

I lost track of today's progress.  Probably a little short of the 1000 words I meant to do, but I did get some good work done, and discovered a new scene.

In the meantime, I mentioned yesterday that my dream stories often have themes and tropes that resonate with me.  Things that resonate -- things that strike a chord in your psyche -- are very often what we mean when we talk about "archetypes" and "tropes."  They are patterns that take on a deeper, almost unconscious meaning, beyond what we think about it intellectually.

Yesterday's dream story hit a particular trope, or archetype, that I call the "Hostage Story." (Actually, it's an "Occupation Story" sub-type that I'll talk about below.)

If you take the basic Hostage Story down to it's basic elements, you might find that a whole lot of stories really fit this pattern -- a lot of stories you'd never think of as a story about hostages or hostage taking.  But first let me mention a related trope:

Kidnapping As Plot Device

One thing I never noticed, until I started self-publishing, is that I apparently use kidnappings in my books a lot.  Some site did word-clouds of author's keywords and blurbs, and on mine, KIDNAPPING!! stood out loud and clear.

I never thought of any of my stories as kidnapping dramas.  That's not what they are about.  It's just that in any of my stories that feature adventure, somebody's inevitably gonna get kidnapped (or taken prisoner).

One of the reasons for this is because two of my other major resonant fixations are: Escapes and Rescues.

Bad guys really only have two important things they can do to a person in an adventure story.  They can kill people or they can capture them.  If they kill somebody, the hero can't save him.  All he can do is get revenge.  But if the bad guy captures somebody:  Escape!  Rescue! And revenge, too!

That's why it's a common trope in hard-boiled or spy stories, for the hero, the heroine, and the puppy to be taken prisoner.  ("I expect you to die, Mr. Bond," says Goldfinger.)

But this kind of kidnapping element is really more of a plot twist than a story type.  That's not a Hostage Story.  Hostage Stories are thematically and psychologically different from adventure stories that just happen to have captures and rescues and escapes. (Though there is certainly an overlap.)

The Hostage Story

To me, the hostage story is more about drama.  And by "drama" I don't mean serious or not comedy: I am referring to stage drama, it's actor-to-actor stuff.  It's very often an ensemble story.

It's about forcing characters together and limiting their options and turning up the heat.  At its root, it's a kind of pot-boiler.  And this pressure cooker element is not just a device, it's the central element of the story.

Now, we're all familiar with the classic hostage story.  Criminals or terrorists take someone hostage to use as a bargaining chip. And that turns up the heat not only between the hostage and the hostage taker, but with the outside people being negotiated with.

With a lot of great hostage stories, the hostages themselves are really just an audience, and it's the hostage taker vs. the cops. (The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Inside Job.)  Or it might be mainly between the hostages and the hostage taker. (Classic plays like Wait Until Dark.  Or Bogart's first real star turn: The Petrified Forest, or his last, The Desperate Hours.)  Or it might combine both. (Robert Crais' book, Hostage.)

However, from a theme and literary theory point of view, a Hostage Story really isn't limited to the classic "criminals take innocent people hostage" situation.  There are a lot of related situations which hit the same psychological and thematic points.

Non-Hostage Hostage Stories

Jury stories are about a bunch of people locked in a room who have to work together to get themselves free, and also to do the right thing. There are a lot of similarities to a hostage story.

Road stories and Buddy Stories are often variants of hostage stories too:

Sometimes you have one person as the prisoner of another.  An FBI agent and a fugitive crook (as with the wonderful comedy Flashback), or a runaway bride and the rugged mercenary hired to bring her home (a whole sub-genre of romances these days, and a common madcap comedy theme in Hollywood movies).

Sometimes you have two fugitives chained together, who must cooperate to escape.  That's a kind of hostage story too.  Especially those stories where one of them is a racist white guy and the other is an angry black man.  Or they're ex-husband and wife.  They don't want to be there, they don't want to be together.  They are forced into that situation by something outside themselves, and they have to put their differences aside to escape.

Or one of my favorites comedy tropes: the guest who will not leave.  Stories like The Man Who Came to Dinner. are definitely a kind of "hostage" story, as a family struggles to deal with this autocratic invader in their home.

And that brings me to a particular sub-category of hostage story I call The Occupation Story. 

The Occupation Story

The occupation story runs the gamut, from being a literal hostage story (like The Petrified Forest and The Desperate Hours) to barely fitting at all (stories about an event -- such as a wedding -- that disrupts a person's routine to the point that it's like being taken hostage).

Occupation stories are about invasions.  It might be an army occupying a town or whole country.  It might be about outlaws occupying a home or place of business.  (Or that comedy about a terrible guest who will not leave.)

The thing that makes this different from a classic hostage situation is that the point isn't about holding a hostage as a bargaining chip.  It's about holding a territory.  The "hostages" themselves might not even be the target of the occupier's attention.  The occupier may have some other goal, and the hostages are just people to be controlled in the meantime.  (For this reason, I think a lot of prison stories fall into this category -- while the guards may, as individuals, have something against the prisoners, the overt reason they are there is to get a paycheck.)

I like this kind of story because it leaves both sides of the drama more leeway to be human.  Like the prisoners shackled together, the story is really about them dealing with each other.  They might work together, they might outwit each other.  And they have to stuggle both with prejudices against each other and with Stockholm Syndrome -- because they have to work together to survive, are they really friends and allies?  Maybe they should hold on to their prejudices.

That's one of the reasons why The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is on my Top Ten movies list.  It's about characters struggling for survival, but also for integrity, learning when to trust and when not to.

In some ways, the Occupation Story is about politics and human society.  Who is in control?  Is it fair, is it just?  Is there an opportunity to change it?  Is it better to accept the status quo, or to violently overturn it?  Or is it possible to negotiate?

And that is where this kind of story can drift outside of the hostage story trope entirely.  Becuase it is related to the story of oppressive societies and regimes.  Where is that line that makes it not a hostage story any more?

I think that line comes from two related things:

1.) A hostage story is not about the status quo, it's about when a line gets crossed.  So a struggle against an established oppressive regime is not a hostage story, but the story of the secret police invading your house could be.

2.) A hostage story is about a power struggle of individuals.  The big power structure may be out there, putting pressure on everyone, but the key element of a hostage story is that it steps outside of that and becomes personal.

So, in my opinion, even though it involves imprisonment and the struggle against a totalitarian state, Star Wars is not a hostage story.  However, the opening scene -- of Princess Leia being taken prisoner -- could be: if that were the whole story, and the central conflict were between Vader and Leia, and his forces vs. the ship's crew.

And that takes us back to the concept of drama.  In a stage play, a story is limited in scope -- it is limited to the stage.  That is, in and of itself, and kind of pressure cooker.  The character, and the actors, can't escape each other.  There is no retreating back into your team.  There's no letting someone else handle it.  The screws on the pot have been tightened down, and the characters must deal with each other.

This is why I like every variety of pot-boiler (no just the hostage variants).  I like any trope that holds the characters to something they don't want to be held to.  I don't mind if it's benign and even silly. But I respond to that pressure.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Day 4 - Dream Stories

I think I figured out why I didn't write yesterday.  Nothing to do with anything I mentioned in yesterday's post.

My unconscious mind was hatching a dream story.

In some ways, I hate it when it does this, because dream stories are so irrational.  And often very non-verbal. (The dialog is like the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons -- "Wah wah-wah wah-wah-wah.") And they mix everything -- moods, locations, eras.  It might be a darkly serious high comedy, about a Victorian orphan and her iPhone who journey across the tundra with a band of cavemen, as they are chased by Ferrari-driving Vikings.

Okay, that's probably exaggerating a little, but not much.

And yes, the stories very often first show up as actual dreams, but sometimes they just start playing in my head during the day.  And they usually have themes and undercurrents that really resonate with me, so I want to make the story make sense so I can tell it.  And the only way to deal with it is to write it down -- but not in narrative form, because the dialog is all "wah wah-wah wah" -- but as a kind of descriptive synopsis.

And what comes out of it is usually not usable as a story (there is no explanation for the Victorian orphan having an iPhone, and tacking on an explanation doesn't fit the story), but it makes for a great starter and spare parts provider for other stories. 

I have actually written a few of these dream stories.  The Wife of Freedom is one of them.  It takes place in a world like the American Revolution, but really seriously not.  Other than the location, though, the story made sense, so I wrote it as a "pseudo-historical."  And I stuck it in a drawer because there was no market for it.  There was no way to actually describe it so people knew what it was. (After I self-published it, I had a reviewer write to me and ask how to describe it because she couldn't.  We both gave up.)

Anyway, self-publishing, imho, is made for that sort of story.  That was the first thing I published three and a half years ago.

And the web is also made for it. That's how The Case of the Misplaced Hero came about: as a blog serial which attempts to explain the weirdness of one of my more persistent universes.  Although even there, I narrowed it down quite a lot (1912-1927ish): that universe actually takes place simultaneously during the American Civil War, the French AND Russian Revolutions, WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and in Outer Space.  (There are M*A*S*H and Star Wars mash-ups that take place in it.)

That universe, btw is at fault for the story that burst out of my head today.  I have been editing and reformatting a second edition of The Misplaced Hero (if you're thinking of buying it, wait a week or so) -- which seems to have urged my brain to bring out some other Rozinshura story.  Something outside of the timeline of The Misplaced Hero or any other Perils of Plink story.

It feels like one of the children's World War II stories -- the ones that take place just before or just after the war, and involve brave children who hide downed pilots and uncover Nazi spies while keeping grave secrets and saving the world.

The tone is wrong to fit with the serials -- slower, more serious, more moody -- but it might either spawn a future story for Plink and friends, or it might be back story for Rozinshura.

However it ends up, I had to get it out of my head today. Maybe 3000 words of mad synopsis typing, and that looks like only the middle of the story.  One part of me is tempted to start a synopses serial of these stories which fly from one place to another.  It would be like recounting dreams. The problem would be that 1.) the stories peter out as suddenly as they come, sometimes, and 2.) if I use any material in a real story, they might be a kind of spoiler.

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Day 3 - I Have the Attention Span of a Newt

Planning is bad.  I told you planning is bad.  If you start with planning you never do anything else....

Well, okay, today is shopping and errand day.  But that didn't take all day.

And I made the cardinal mistake. My mind wouldn't settle, so rather than starting the timer and saying "go!" I let myself go over the to do list and plans and all that.  And as predicted, I didn't stop.

I did come to the invigorating conclusion that, if I were to write 10,000 words a week, and took three months of summer off (when I am too sleep-deprived to write), I'd still get 390,000 words done in a year, which would cover all the stuff in my immediate To Write list.  Really great plans for someone who didn't actually write any words today!

What happened instead is that by the time I got done shopping, I went all visual.  I've been playing with the idea of doing covers and then writing stories to go with them.  But mostly I'm just, like, "Oooo, that's a cool shape."  "Like that contrast."  "That's a really cool color palette."  (Okay, maybe not even that verbal.  More like "Oooooo, pretty!")

So my goal for right now is to write one sentence before bed....

Oh, wait... I had something to say about my attention span. What was it?

Something I've noticed that I want to build on.  I can't do routines.  I have never been able to do them.  Never could do things by rote: I have to actually think about them.  I suspect it is related to my issues with dyscalcula and dyslexia, but I don't know.  It could be related to the fact that I worked a job for 25 years that was irregular and reactive.

What I've discovered is that I can kinda sorta do a routine if I mix up the contents of the routine every three days or so.   I think this is why I tend to be more productive when I work on more than one thing at a time.

And I realize it's why that randomized list of tasks works for me.  If I set myself to the keyboard every day and pick a random task to do for 15 minutes, I can do that right off the bat, and then keep going for a productive day.  If I try to skip the randomization, and continue the task I was doing the day before, it might work for a day or two, but by the third day, my mind flies off into the ozone.  Instantly.

I am told that if you're like this (or even if you're not) this can get worse when you are menopausal.  (And that it can last for a year.  Or even longer.  Thanks Mother Nature!  You're a pal!)

So, back to the timer for me.  Gotta go write that one sentence before bed, though.

See you in the funny papers.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Day 2 - Another long post about Goals

Today's Progress: 1094 words on "Stone-Cold Dead at the Trading Post"

I was lazy today, but I did get over a thousand words, and they were words that actually, finally, got me on a roll.  I am now beyond the exploratory writing, I think, and ready to just tell the story, from beginning to end.  Basically... I know where Mick's head is now.

I think one of the most critical things in writing is to know the character's plans.  A character without a plan is a dead story.  Usually, you know what the character intends to do because you know what they want.  And because of that, it's easy for me to write stories out of sequence.  But now and then, a character is in a situation where there is no chance for him to get what he wants.  And then I have to poke and explore for a bit... and then when I have an idea of his options, I just ahve to write that in sequence -- because if his own internal desires don't rule him, his situation from moment to moment will.

I'm kind of impressed with Mick here.  He's got to take charge and he just does.  He's not being a goof at all -- because there is no opportunity to be a goof.  I like this side of him.  And I like that, when he doesn't have to take charge, he just goes back to being a goof.

Short and Long Goals

The bulk of the day, I admit, I spent in thinking about the direction I'm taking.  I have a weird relationship with goals.  I like to look ahead and make some long terms goals, but I also think the only goals that really matter are the short term ones.  I make a big goal, and then within a week or two it has changed.

But I like to make them anyway.  They're kind of like a distant guide post to sight on.


My short term goal right now is to try to get Stone-Cold done by the end of the month.  Actually, I'd like to do more than that. I'd like to get it done and uploaded.  Sometimes a story like this turns out longer or more complicated than I thought, in which case it might need a set aside time.  If so, I might start in on another project.

Look-Ahead Goals

I really wanted to be done with the short stuff at the end of September.  I wanted to devote both October and November to The Man Who Stepped Up, the next Starling and Marquette novel (also known as MW2).

But I still have a bunch of short stuff I want to work on for the fall.  And a part of me wants to ramp up my concentration.  I want to see if I can do a large chunk of that book in a shorter amount of time.  So....

I've decided to do MW2 as though it were a NaNoWriMo project. 

I won't be doing it officially because I hate NaNo.  It's got rules designed for amateurs who don't write all the time.  This "no work done on the novel ahead of time" in particular is a stupid rule.  I also have no interest in uploading my book to their site.  So, as usual, I will try to do NaNoWrongMo. 

The first Man Who book is 95,000 words long.  I don't expect this book to be that long, but I didn't expect the first book to be that long either.  Also, when I write at that speed, I make false starts, so I expect to write stuff that doesn't go in the story.  I don't expect to get the book finished in one month, but I do hope to get it all pinned down in that time.

So October will be all about "training" -- getting my writing concentration up to speed.  I'm going to aim at 2000 words a day.  Since I'll be writing short stuff, that should be a challenge.  (It takes more time per word to write short fiction, imho.)  I'd like to be writing 3000 words a day when I turn to MW2 in November.

I plan to get Feral Princess up in October, but other than that, I'll be working on whatever comes to the brain -- and that includes working on MW2 if it wants to get started early.

Other Short Projects

The miscellaneous stuff fighting for space in my brain include those horse stories I mentioned on Wednesday, as well as more fables and fairy tales to follow up Fables and Enchantments.  I might give those some priority just because they would be follow ups to what I've got out there.

But I also want to write a Mick and Casey Christmas story, and I've got all of these Romantic Suspense novelettes crowding in my head.  (Those, I hope to put off until January.)

The other thing I've been thinking about -- the audience for my mysteries is likely to be the sort of people who read Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  I should probably thinking about short fiction to submit to those. (Which would also make a good follow up to my mystery short collections.)

And let us not forget The Misplaced Baroness and a few other things.

So I should have plenty of material to occupy me in October.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Day 1 of Who Knows How Many Days?

If I'm going to start doing this as a daily check in, I have no idea how I'm going to title my posts.  Am I going to have a different kind of title on the days I have something interesting to say, than I do on the days I'm just reporting?  Should I do it like Dean Wesley Smith is doing with his Writing In Public posts -- and simply post a separate post for updates and for other things, even if it means posting several times in a day?

I don't know.  I'm making this up as I go along.

Today - Resetting Timers

I finally started to get back to my routine.  Max and I walked.  I did some house and health related stuff, and then I settled down to my computer.

One problem I have when things get off balance is with decision making.  So I have a method for that. I have a list of ongoing current projects, and the items are numbered.  I use to choose a number and I work on that for 15 minutes. I have a timer on my computer.

And then I spend the next 15 minutes getting organized and working on that list and prioritizing.

Most people do the organizing their day first, I don't because it's easy to get caught up in that. If I do something useful first -- something that actually gets real work done -- then I am eager to get past the organizing.  I'm weird that way, but it works.  Any day I don't get much done, it's because I did the organizing stuff first.

The tasks I did today were:

*Brainstorming on the layers of the mystery for The Man Who Stepped Up.

I have a lot of backstory, etc. for this novel, but it's all kind of scattered and equal.  A mystery really needs to be structured around peeling back layers.  You don't have to have it all ahead of time, but you need certain key things, and I just don't have them yet.  I find that figuring out, generally, four layers of action -- four different directions for our detectives to investigate -- helps me nail those key questions.  Also, it helps me see if I'm getting stuck on an idea that goes no where.  Today's question is: is the person being shot at in the opening who I think it is?  It makes for a great first act revelation when we find out it's a certain person, but is that good for the whole story? Or is that just a cool end to the first act?


I've been missing doing artwork so much while my computer has been down.  I didn't do much today, because I had nothing in mind.  So all I did today was sketch about five or six silhouettes. Three of them were inspired by an old cover I found on Gutenberg, with three boy scouts sitting around a fire. However, my figures feel more mature and even sinister.  I paired them off in different ways, this is one of them.

It has a pulpy, conspiratorial look to it.  But the effectiveness will depend on the final colors and what is in the background.

*Stone-Cold Dead At The Trading Post

I only did about 500 words on that tonight, but I'm glad to get back into the swing on that story. I think the key to making it work is the relationship between Mick and Casey.  Casey is off-screen for most of the story, but her presence in Mick's awareness is important.

And, actually, tonight's bit was a little interaction between them, where she kind of sets him on the right course, both letting him know she is expecting a lot, but also making a gesture of confidence in hm.

*Reformatting The Misplaced Hero

I'm going, slowly, through all of my existing books and reformatting them in html.   In some cases, I'm actually doing a read-through and looking for typos.  I'm doing a little minor line editing on this one. Mostly for clarity and voice.  I figure this might inspire me to get more done on The Misplace Baroness.

Otherwise, I spent too much time blogging and on the internet.  Tomorrow I intend to focus more directly on Stone-Cold.  I won't be publishing it next week as I hoped, but I would like to get it done, by next Friday, and maybe even published by the end of the month.

See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Going back to daily blogging

I'm thinking of going back to my original concept for this blog.

That is, a daily, informal report on progress for the day.  No schedule.  If I have something interesting to say, say it, and if I don't, just report in.

I like ROW80 -- the quarterly, ongoing writing dare -- but to my mind, if writing is a daily thing, then the reporting needs to be daily.  And also, much as I like the social aspects, it really does get in the way of writing time.

I also like planning, but planning can get in the way of accomplishing, especially for me.  (It's one of those great OCD activities that you can do forever.)

And writing for me, right now, is kind of chaotic.  All these disruptions have slowed writing, but haven't stopped the idea machine.  My backlog of stories just gets bigger.  I'm thinking the blog has got to help with that.

From now on, I'll be posting sometime after midnight.  This, you could say, is last night's post.

This Week - Horse Stories

This week, while struggling with Smashwords over getting The Ride To Save King approved. (And it still isn't approved.  They blocked it because I mentioned a page count and not a word count in my book description -- which was an oversight on my part, but since word counts AREN'T required in the blurb, it shouldn't gum up the works for three weeks.  I'm really getting tired of a lot of the incompetent crap we get from Smashwords.  Books get held up for no reason at all -- I mean literally.  It'll say "No copyright line" when it has one -- and one that's identical to all the other books on their site.  You have to write them and wait a week for them to notice, oh, yeah, it DOES have a copyright line....)

Um, where was I?  Oh, yeah.  While I was waiting on Smashwords, I noticed that Ride had made it onto a best seller list on Kindle -- for Children's horse stories.  And I started to think about other horse stories I could publish.

I started brainstorming funny stories from when we boarded horses, or when we hung out at the saddle club.  Thought maybe I should do a series of little stories about a saddle club of kids and horses from the wrong side of the tracks.

Then I started coming up with stories that sounded familiar but weren't things that really happened, and I remembered a series of stories I had started back in 1990.  It was about a family riding academy, kind of a middle-readers horsey sitcom.  Maybe... I ought to revive that series.  Hmmm.

I went back and found most of what I'd written with those.  Great starts of four stories.  No finish.  I don't think I got stuck on them. I think that I just didn't have good markets for them, so I let them develop in the background while I worked on other things.

But I find I still really do like those characters.

Tess -- the narrator of the series is a 13-year-old girl who is kind of a misfit.  She's had a tough life and has a tough exterior.  But mostly she's kind of a likeable goof who would rather clown than excel.  Unlike every other horse-loving girl, she doesn't really have any interest in winning the blue ribbon or taming the wild horse that nobody else can tame.  She just likes hanging out with horses and riding them.  But inside of Tess there always seems to be a bud that wants to bloom. 

She has gone to stay with her aunt and uncle who own a stable while her father tries to rebuild a life after her mother's death.

Linda -- Tess' new step-sister who is an ambitious and talented horse woman.

Uncle George and Aunt Glad -- Easygoing, slightly fluff-headed horse-geeks who would run their farm into financial ruin if it weren't for....

Shank -- The bad-tempered city-boy farm manager who keeps the place running.  He has the demenor of a street thug, but somewhere under that crust is a human being. He seems like a background character, but I think he's actually the other main character.  He and Tess have a lot in common. They both have a tendency to hide in the shadows when possible.

I realize the theme of the series is "Taking in Strays," and that, even though Shank seemed to be a stray that was taken in by George and Glad, in reality, he's the one that keeps taking in strays.  Even at the start -- he moved in because he saw what a mess G and G were making of their business.  And one of the major stories is one where he and Tess rescue a severely neglected horse.

Then there is a cast of other guest characters, some of whom may stick around permanently, once they've entered. (For instance, another stray: the ditzy, runaway best-selling author who is on the lam from her gold-digging family and agent.)

At the moment, this is not an active project -- just one more thing on the pile. However, it might bump something from this fall's list.  We'll see.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Habits Are Strange Things

My computer is now back to fully functional.  It needed a hard drive replacement.  I did that today.  I feared the old drive had corrupted too much data and I would have to reinstall the system and all my software, etc. etc.  However, it restored everything from the back up and everything seems to be working just fine. 

It has been about a month now that my effort to create a nice productive routine has been increasingly disrupted.  And about a week ago I was finally derailed completely.

And not just my routine.  My cat's routine has apparently been so disrupted that he was taking it out on the other cats.  We didn't realize what was wrong...

Walking without Patsy?  What's the point?

See, every morning, after Cheerios, I go down to my basement office, which is a long thin room, I put on some music, and then do some exercising as I get ready to start the day.  Usually the last part of that routine is to walk up and down -- pace -- because that gets me into thinking.

This summer, I mostly just did walking.

And the cat joined me.  Seriously, he walks ahead of me and turns around at the end and walks the other way.  He looks forward to that every day.  He tries to lead me to the office if I dawdle over my breakfast.  So every day we walk, and do a lot of petting (which is a kind of  "Bend and Stretch" exercise in itself), then after a while he would curl up and take a bath and I would get to writing.

And because I have a quirky sense of humor, my playlist for this activity always starts with Patsy Cline's Walking After Midnight.

Well, two weeks ago, iTunes went kerflooey, and I couldn't access Patsy.  Furthermore, YouTube does not have the same version of the song, so when I set up a play list on the iPad instead, Max was a little freaked out.  He'd still walk, but he'd get puffy and be jumpy.  Less walking, more petting.

The other songs were mostly the same. You can find Bob Seger or CCR or Glenn Miller in pretty much any variety you want on YouTube.  (Heck I change those all the time anyway.) But the routine started with Patsy and so he could never get started right.  And it didn't help that, because my computer wasn't working, I didn't stay and work there in the basement when were were done.

Max never got settled down for the day, and he'd take it out on the other cats.

In the meantime....

I was getting kind of puffy and discombobulated myself.  And frustrated.  I wasn't getting much of anything done.  Except...

I actually did a very efficient job of acquiring some new habits.

Not useful habits, but, well, I now have fingerprints all over my computer screen.  Why?  Because the freaking iPad has a touch screen.  In the two weeks where I was using it, I acquired the habit of interacting with a computer by poking it in the face.

I wish I could acquire good habits that quickly.  I seem to have lost so many of them while the computing crisis was going on.

Max on the other hand...

As soon as I replaced the hard drive and restored the back up, I checked to see if iTunes was working. I clicked on Patsy Cline.  Max was sitting next to me taking a bath.  As soon as the music started, he rolled to his feet and started walking.

And now he and  Cookie (the feral cat he considers an enemy) have been coexisting peacefully all evening.

I guess he knows the habits he wants to keep.

I just gotta go back and re-acquire mine. 

(But it is SOOOoooooo nice having a working computer, with all my stuff on it and everything.  Whee!  I can draw pictures and everything!)

BTW: now that I have my computer back, I finally found Max's version of Walking After Midnight on YouTube.  Go figure.

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Update - Bestseller! (But Still No Computer)

The Good News Is...

Even though I haven't yet officially announced my new book, The Ride To Save King, a friend broke the ice on it and bought it for her daughter.  So, I decided that, in spite of the fact that Smashwords hasn't got around to distributing it to other vendors, I would go ahead and mention it a few places, because it doesn't take all that many sales to get a book onto certain "Best Seller" lists.  One of those lists is the Kindle list for children's horse stories.

So far, it has gotten up to #57 on that list, and I think there is still at least one sale outstanding on the bump in rankings.

The bad news is my computer is also still not functioning, so it's really hard to do links on the iPad (especially if I'm trying to do the kind of specialized links to each country and vendor, as I like to do with a book announcement.)  So I'll do a real, and more extended announcement when the computer is back online, and maybe by then I'll have some other vendor links too (such as Barnes and Noble -- Apple will take forever).

But for now, if you're in the US (or any country which uses the store) and are inclined to buy a little story about a girl, her mother, their horse and an impending hurricane, purchases within the next few days should help it stay on the best seller list, and move up the "new books" lists.

The Ride To Save King

(Even doing artwork is pain in the patoot with the iPad.  Blogger doesn't like scrolling or selecting or displaying or options -- so I finally managed to copy the code from when I put up the rough draft of the cover image a few weeks ago.  There are some slight changes in the finally, mainly with hair and mane.)

The Bad News

My computer has nearly one billion blocks on the hard drive.  I got me a spiffy new hard drive utility, Drive Genius.  It will scan all those blocks and mark the bad ones.  It's very fast...with scanning the good blocks.  However with each bad block it stops, thinks about it and marks it.  Now, out of a billion blocks, ten thousand or so bad blocks aren't very many.  But do you know how long it takes to pause and mark every single freaking one of them?  Five days.  Maybe more.

So I am computerless for a while longer.

Oh, and things keep getting more thrilling.  Spent last night in the ER with someone (all is okay now).  Got home and, once my shoes were off, I immediately stepped in a large, squishy mound of cat puke.  At which point, alpha cat decided it would be the ideal time to chase b\poor feral girl kitty all around the house, while I'm hopping on one foot swearing.  (Luckily he's not an evil top cat, just a frustrated one, because feral girl won't play.)

But. in spite of all this, I shall make a valiant attempt to post on Wednesday about how I came to write The Ride to Save King, back in the 1990's.  And maybe also a little about a person who inspired one of the secondary characters.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Agghhhh! (Computers... and Ideas)

I have mentioned that I have had computer problems.

These have got worse.  I have spent at least 16 hours today (after several last night) reinstalling the system.  I will not bore you with the technical details. If you deal with technical equipment, you know how it goes .  I will only say this: the main issue has been that the computer tends to slow down, and slow more, and more, and more, until the spinning lollipop is my constant companion.

(And no, please don't give me suggestions. Fixing weird stuff like this is one of the things I used to do for a living. I'm not giving you enough information for you to help.  Thanks anyway.)

Slow sales do not depress me.

Bad reviews do not depress me.

I laugh at rejection slips.

Being laid off my job did not depress me in the slightest.

But one thing really seriously depresses me, as a writer, and that is when I am persistently stymied in every single thing I do, over and over again.  At first it's an annoyance.  It breaks, you fix it, you pause to recall what you were doing and get on with things.  When it keeps happening, over and over again, as it has, my brain stops functioning.  It's like a migraine.  I lose the thread of what I'm doing completely.  

I don't see a good outcome to today's 16-hours-and-still-going fix. Soooooo, I spent most of the day today trying to recapture my brain.  I figure there is no end in sight an I have to drop all plans that involve my computer.  I need to start doing things that do not require my computer at any particular time. (I can get at my files if I plan ahead, but generally,  I have to consider the computer off limits for what I plan to do each day.)

Limitations Are Good For Creativity

So I've got an iPad, an ancient netbook, and a Kindle.  These devices don't actually talk to each other.  The iPad does internet just fine.  The netbook is a great typing device, but it saves the files to an SD card.  (Or thumb drive, but neither the Kindle nor the iPad read those either.)  And that means I can't do blog posts on it. I have to type this live online with the iPad -- not a good way to work.  Horrible for editing in particular.

So really, I've just got the netbook for doing work.  And no notes to refer to, no looks at what I've written so far.  It's sorta like being locked in a room with a pencil and a bunch of blank paper and nothing else.

From that, I'm doing writing exercises and brainstorming.  I played with a few things today, getting warmed up, figuring out what I can do without getting frustrated.  Tomorrow, I will start in on my Magic of 100 method and start piling up ideas until I can't not write on them.  I don't have access to the plotting game materials I created this summer so I'll be just generating ideas with other random objects and words.  I will probably use the Story Cubes and also a little app called The Brainstormer, both of which come up with random idea starters.

(NOTE: doing links on this blankety-blank iPad is hard, if you want to find my Magic of 100 posts, you'll have to search for them.  Also, Google Rory's Story Cubes and The Brainstormer.)

And this week's regular blog posts are off.  Maybe Friday if it isn't too frustrating, I'll post some story starters and games and such.  They're fun.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Random Snippet of What Happens In My Head

Okay, my computer is still throwing me for a loop, off and on.  And the temperature is getting HOT again. (Hot and humid.  And the overnight will be worse.)

So productivity went out the window.

Meanwhile a lot of scenes have been going on in my head. (As they are wont to do. I am a writer.)  They are not connected to anything.  Just my characters going about their lives.  Often such scenes lead to a story, but just as often they don't.  They're just there. Like real life.

So recently I decided that I really should just start getting some of these down.  Some of my series actually use scenes like that. Little bits of "business" that the characters go through as things are unfolding....

Even more recently, I have been doing two other things: I've been watching a lot of movies with Carole Lombard.  And I've been getting ready to do tomorrow's post on P.G. Wodehouse.

And then quite suddenly, I came to a realization.

P. G. Wodehouse really had a strong influence on me as a writer.

I'm not sure it's really that noticeable.  Now and then, sure, a particular character will have a Wodehousian feel. (As some people noticed with Plink.)  But most of the time, I suspect that a stronger influence is someone like Ben Hecht -- one of the great "fast and quirky dialog" writers of Golden Age Hollywood. (Who wrote a few of those Carol Lombard movies.)

I have no idea if Hecht was influenced by Wodehouse, but I am certain that a lot of the subsequent writers who influenced me were likely influenced by both Wodehouse and Hecht.

When I look at one of the odd little scenes I wrote of George and Karla (such as the one below), and then read some Wodehouse, I can't help but be struck by it.

(This is raw dialog.  Script-like, which is how they happen in my head.  For those who haven't read The Man Who Did Too Much, at this point, Karla is George's "life coach" because George doesn't know how to have fun and Karla doesn't know how not to.  She seems like a bit of a ditz, but she's the brains of the outfit.  George seems polished and reserved, but inside, he's an obsessive-compulsive action hero.)


"It was a dark and stormy night," mused Karla, out of the blue.  "Dead Cheerios littered the floor."

"Cheerios?" said George.

"Accidents happen."

"How can Cheerios be dead?"

"When they hit the floor they're dead.  No five second rule.  Because they've got milk on them."

"Are we speaking literally of real Cheerios, or fictionally?"


"Oh, good. I was worried."  Pause.  "Why are we speaking fictionally?"

"Do we need a reason?"

"No, I don't suppose we do.  But if we're going to make a habit of random fiction, I'm going to need a code word or something so I know it's not real."

"You were worried about my Cheerios?"

"I was worried about what killed them."

"Obviously the cat did."

"Not obviously at all.  It could have a home invasion or a mad slasher.  You are known," he added in a low voice, "to use foodstuffs as your weapon of choice in self-defense."

"If a mad slasher had spilled my Cheerios, I would not be telling you about the dark and stormy night."

"Of course you would.  That's what you always do.  Although I admit you would be likely talking a lot faster and making even less sense."



"You don't need to go all hyper-alert on me."


"I promise I'll let you know if there's a threat.  I'll say 'George! Help! A mad slasher killed my Cheerios!' and you'll know to get worried."  She paused.  "So I guess 'George! Help!' can be the code word.  Will that do?"

"Admirably.  Now, why are we talking about dead Cheerios, fictionally or not?"


In a story, this kind of conversation would have a definite purpose.  And likely I would first set it up by letting the audience know why Karla is making up spontaneous cereal-killer fiction (and no, she would not use that term -- Karla is not into puns).  Although, it can be fun to have Karla spring stuff like that on the audience and George at the same time, it can also be tiring.  It can be more fun for the audience to be in on the joke while the characters aren't.

This is something I learned from Wodehouse. He usually let the audience in on the joke ahead of the characters, and the built the humor up slowly.  (I learned this less so from Hollywood. Hollywood likes to overplay the unexplained nonsense trope.  They didn't always, but I think I learned to be tired of it there.)

Also, while Karla is not really a damsel in distress type, a scene like this might make me want to put her in a situation where she can use "A mad slasher killed my Cheerios!" as a code word, because Karla never quite sticks to the plan.

But this was not written for a story.  It's just the sort of thing that crops up in my head regularly.  It's like the ordinary conversations the characters have outside of the story.  When they're just chatting.

Tomorrow, I'm going to talk about my favorite out-of-print Wodehouse collection, and how it is kinda sort of available in a maybe piracy sort of way but maybe not, but the formatting is crap.

And maybe Friday I'll talk about Carol Lombard rather than Bruno Bettelheim.  Even though I should save her for when I have another George and Karla story.

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, September 8, 2013


I think I'll be publishing a little slower this fall than I thought.  I'll likely be publishing the same stories I said, but it will just take a little longer.  This is due to two problems:

1) Stone-Cold Dead at the Trading Post is turning out darker than I expected. (For all that it's based on a perky Calypso song about domestic abuse, it's still about domestic abuse.  In the ninetenth century.)  I realize that I have to take longer to write it, let it get as dark as it wants, and then maybe pull it back in a next draft.

2) My computer is going whacky.  It has been doing this for a while.  I haven't fixed it yet because I really don't want to reformat it.  Because even if you restore from a back up, sometimes it's the system and not the drive, and then you have to reuild from scratch, which means all sorts of hassles like re-registering software (and finding registration codes deep in your files) and redoing settings you forgot you did in the first place, etc. (UPDATE: running disk utilities have fixed it again.  We'll see how long this fix lasts.)

In the meantime, the weather is (mostly) letting up and I am having a creative burst.  When I get stuck on a story, I have other stories to leap to.  (And that's another problem: as I get older, I have the attention span of a newt.  Do newts even have attention spans? Do I?)

One thing I've been doing is getting back to variations on the plotting game.  Although right now I'm doing a different game.

Writing Game - Old Chapter Titles

In the old days, novels tended to make good use of chapter titles.  When I go through Project Gutenberg for interesting old illustrations, I also sometimes grab interesting chapter titles for my titles database.  (The titles database is really just a word and phrase list I use to generate ideas from.)

Well, the other day, I decided, sight unseen, to simpy grab a whole table of contents and come up with short story ideas for each of the chapter titles listed.

As it happened the book I grabbed had 25 titles -- so it will be a while before I complete this exercise.  But I have no deadline.  It's just a project.

The really interesting thing is that when I sit down and brainstorm on a title, I find myself with multiple ideas for each one.  I haven't started writing them yet.  I'm kind of keeping them for moments when I find myself stalled and I want to leap to something else for a while.

Even more interesting, a couple of the more generic titles may be spawning some interesting story _collections_.  It's kind of re-invigorating part of my Experiment in Mercenary Writing.  I want to get back to these short romantic suspense stories.  Possibly long novelettes or trilogies of short stories.  And as they would stick closer to genre lines, I might write them under a pen name (but an open one, you'll know about them).

New Publications - upcoming

Nothing new this week.  Next week I'll be publishing The Ride to Save King, a middle-readers story about riding a horse to shelter ahead of a hurricane.  I've actually already formatted and uploaded the ePub to Smashwords, because it takes so long to get through their vetting process.  On Monday, I'll be uploading more formats, and to Amazon.  I'm hoping it will be available more widely by next Sunday's update.

A Fistful of Divas is finally trickling into the other vendors.  Now available at Barnes and NobleKoboSmashwords as well as at (Apple, Diesel, Sony coming soon.)
(Amazon international stores: UK, DE, FR, IT, ES, IN, CA, JP, BR, MX.)

And as I said above, I am not sure when the book after that will come out.

On The Blog This Week

I haven't written it yet, so I'm not sure, but I think I'll be talking about two of the following five subjects:

1.) Bruno Bettelheim, a psychologist who beautifully defined the point of storytelling -- why we tell stories, how important it is to our psychological development -- in his seminal work on fables and fairy tales, The Uses Of Enchantment.

2.) P. G. Wodehouse, and my very favoritest of all Wodehouse stories, and the problems of bad copyright law, public domain and piracy and lazy indie publishers.

3.) Cover art -- cool covers I've come across lately.

4.) More about my writing games: maybe I'll list that actual chapter list, and challenge others to write stories based on it or something similar.

5.) Some interesting math on prices, in relation to the work done. (May be informative, may just be a numbers exercise...)

I will most likely talk about Bettelheim on Wednesday and Wodehouse on Friday, and the others some time later on. But you never know.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Friday Favorites - Peter Gunn (sometimes style IS substance)

I've been watching a lot of Peter Gunn lately,s a very stylish series from the late 1950's, created by Blake Edwards (he of The Pink Panther).

It only lasted three seasons, but was a critical hit, and I think an Emmy winner (certainly a Grammy winner), and is currently available on Hulu for free watching: Peter Gunn on Hulu.

It starred Craig Stevens as an ultra-cool private detective, with Lola Albright as his ultra-cool jazz singer girlfriend.  The other major characters were Hope Emmerson who played "Mother" the owner of the little nightclub/cafe where Gunn met clients and listened his girlfriend sing, and Hershel Bernardi as Lt. Jacoby, his long suffering cop friend.

Oh, and there was another star of his show, though you never saw him: Henry Mancini.  Jazz was as much a part of this show as crime and cool banter. It was only a half hour show, but they made room for jazz in most episodes.

Every short episode of this also had quite a lot of cool banter -- between Gunn and his girlfriend, Gunn and his cop friend, and of course, all his quirky, cool and sometimes strange informants in the underworld. They even, usually, managed a plot somewhere in the episode.

Of course, with all that time for coolness, the stories had to be pretty simple and straight forward. Not much room for more than one twists.  Or maybe a twist and a half.

But the show was very efficient.  Almost distilled. They made great use of every moment.

One way they did this was by use of a "cold open" or teaser: the little scene before the credits.  This show, especially in the first two seasons, turned the cold open into an art form.  It always started with a jazz rhythm riff -- drums and bass -- which played under something that seemed kind of quiet and ordinary.  A car pulling into a driveway.  A pair of crooks efficiently breaking into a safe.  A woman coming home from shopping.  But the scene would quickly complicate, along with the music, until suddenly there would be a twist to set the story off.

And then BAM, loud and fast, we'd get the very very fast credit sequence.

This opening sequence was more than just a stylish way to tempt the audience.  It also set the story up -- took it to a deeper level so that we already know something of what's behind the case that will fall in Gunn's lap.

As a writer, I find this show really fascinating, because of this efficiency.  TV shows, especially of that time, often used a formula to make the stories work, and this one certainly did too.  But it was so short, that they often had to mix 'n match the elements -- move them around -- to keep it interesting.

There were two acts in a half hour show (aside from the cold open).  First act, Peter Gunn meets the client (usually at Mother's) listens to Lola Albright sing, and then has some clever, sexy banter with her.  Then he would visit Lt. Jacoby to find out what the police know, and have some clever banter with him.  Then he'd follow up the lead and something exciting would happen before the ad break.  (Often, Gunn would get hit over the head, or captured by the bad guys.)  In the second half, he might meet with one of his colorful underworld informants to get another lead, and end up in a confrontation (usually a fight scene) with the bad guy.  These elements would be re-blended -- sometimes happening in a different order, sometimes an element would be dropped altogether -- but we always got lots of jazz and lots of clever character banter, no matter what the story.

The other thing that fascinates me as a writer is, because the stories are SO short, they're great idea starters.  Whatever idea they are built on, they don't get to explore it very far.  They might take it in a weird direction, but not far.  I find, often, my mind is inspired to take the trope and twist it further and build something out of it.  (I usually keep a notepad at hand when I watch it.)

But what you really watch Peter Gunn for is the style.  Craig Stevens is an interesting actor.  He's appropriately reserved, and understated, but he has a lot of fun with subtle actions.  He reminds me a bit of an American version of Cary Grant (when Grant is being subtle).  While he often seemed to be a straight man to all the other characters, who also got to be more outrageous, nobody in this show ever really played a straight man.  The humor is dry and Gunn never lets himself be the butt of a joke.  He and everyone in these clever scripts, play humor like they're playing a game of tennis, lobbing lines back and forth at one another, keeping the ball in play, rather than landing a point.

I think, so often these days we forget that the tension in great dialog doesn't have to be in real conflict.  Playful banter can be extremely dynamic.  Give this show a look sometime.

(NOTE: I haven't actually started watching the third season yet.  I was familiar with the first two seasons, and the show did evolve over that time, so it is possible that the third season shifted in style.  But I doubt it.)

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Story Notes - Small Town Opera Houses

Most of my Mick and Casey mysteries start with a title.  "A Fistful of Divas" was an obvious one.  If you're doing silly western mysteries, you've got to do a fistful of something at some point.

But this particular story really started somewhere else: with an opera house.

Back in the seventies we moved into our second farm, in a tiny town in mid-Michigan.  It was a town with devastating tragedy in its history, and it was only just recovering about the time we moved there, and thus it was unusually sleepy.  Almost inert.

Main Street, in particular, seemed like a place you'd want to film a movie.  It was a broad straight street.  There was a gas station, a store, a little restaurant and a post office.  Hardly ever anybody around to keep these places in business.

But the street itself was full of buildings, waiting to wake up and be a town again.  The gas station owner was kind of a keeper of town history and told us a lot of things about it.  One of the things he pointed out to us caused me to do a double-take.

"That's the old Opera House," he said once, pointing at a house down the street.

It was just a house.

A large house, but you'd never have thought it was anything but a place where a family lived.  But as I looked at it, I could see that it, like many small churches of the time, was built so it could have a large open area inside.  And it was Victorian, so the ceilings would be high enough to accommodate a good sized meeting room, though I assumed that originally the theater would have taken two stories.

The gas-station historian told us that every little town used to have an opera house by the turn of the century.  I started reading up on them, and found that indeed, they were very common.

They also generally never hosted an opera.  It's just that "opera house" sounded more upright than "theater" which to many church-going types, sounded like burlesque.  (This wasn't a uncommon sort of split in the 19th century.  harness racing, for instance, was something decent people might engage in as a practical test of a horse's ability to do its job.  Saddle racing, on the other hand, was something engaged in by gamblers and drunkards.)

So these small opera houses were, in essence, entertainment halls.  A place to host speakers and revivals, and traveling shows and concerts.  Community theater.

That aspect of the old opera house reminded me of the old Community House in the little northern Michigan town my dad grew up in. I spent all of my summers up there as a child, and the Community House was a place to look forward to. And it looked like an opera house, dangit.  Big and broad, with grand steps.

It started as a progressive college, which welcomed students of both sexes and all races.  After it was taken over by the city, it continued to live up to that Congregationalist/Quakerish concept of serving the community.  It houses the library and function space.  Back in the 1940s, the top floor was the basketball court.  There were posts in the middle of the play area, which you could use to screen away the player guarding you.  And ceiling beams made shooting baskets a challenge.  My dad always said that in those days, a home court advantage was really an advantage, as you know how to work around all the architecture in your way.

By the sixties, when I knew it, that basketball court tended to host rummage sales every weekend.  And auctions in the back yard.  A great place for collectors and lovers of old things. And not just old things: I got a great Bob Dylan t-shirt there. And I think that may also be where I got that t-shirt of Spiro Agnew as a cartoon bug.

It pleases me to think that every town had a place kind of like the Community House, even if some were smaller, less obvious buildings.  And it makes me wonder about those gentrified houses in tiny towns; the ones that have become boutiques and flower shops.  How many of those weren't just houses?  How many started out as something more colorful? And when I see an old house which had been converted to apartments, now falling down after decades of abuse or neglect, I wonder... did it once house joy and music and ideas?

And that's why, when I hit on that cute little title, A Fistful of Divas, I knew that the story would center on a humble opera house, and the chance that it might, just once, house an actual opera.

See you in the funny papers.

You can find A Fistful of Divas at Amazon and Smashwords, and soon other ebook retailers. (The holiday weekend seems to have slowed the distribution process.) (Amazon international stores: UKDEFRITESINCAJPBRMX.) Barnes n Noble, Apple iBookstore, Kobo, Sony, Diesel, Smashwords