Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Of Mice and Magic

Monday, September 28, 2009

I got to meet Dave Wolverton (who writes under the pseudonym, David Farland) at the Utah County fair (again). He does a lot for the writing community, and I learn from him every chance that I get. He has an email list called David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants. He also is a judge for the Writers of the Future contest, and I usually get to see him at the Life, the Universe, and Everything symposium every February at BYU.

So I picked up a copy of Of Mice and Magic, and decided to get it signed. It’s a beautiful book, with a nice illustration on the front, and excellent typography throughout. I hope someday a publisher will go all-out for me like that!

So, on to the five questions.

Did I finish reading it? Yes, but I’ll only give it half a star. More on why in the next question.

Am I interested in reading a sequel? No. My main problem with this book is that it was written for boys between the ages of 10 and 14. It has a lot of juvenile boy-humor (potty jokes, and gross stuff) that place it squarely in that market. If you liked Artimis Foul, you might like this book. Here’s a brief sample from chapter 1:

His mom’s eyes widened in surprise, and her face went as red as a pomegranate. She coughed up a McNugget. It arced over the table and plopped onto some bald guy’s neck. The fellow grabbed it, eyed it suspiciously, and then plopped it in his mouth as if it were manna from heaven.

Okaaay… I would have liked that when I was 12, but I’m 40, so no.

I have a theory that goes like this: You write to the audience that you pick, but if you want any chance of your book becoming “hotter than Potter,” as they say, then you have to appeal across a wide group of ages. I think this is one of the fundamental reasons Harry Potter was such a runaway success. Kids liked it, and parents could take it seriously. If at any point a parent feels like they’re reading a kid’s book, they’ll put it down.

Was the writing good? I’ve got to give full marks there. Farland really went all-out with the descriptive imagery. He’s really, really good at that, and his prose really pulls you in. I wish I could pick just one sample, but there are so many. Full star there.

Was the story idea interesting? Talk about originality! Okay, instead of having a human wizard and an animal familiar, what if the wizard was an animal and the familiar was the human?

This story is what I would call a beast-fantasy, where you have a fantasy tale told from an animal’s point of view. Animals can talk, and animals are the main characters. Also, Farland put together a really tight plot. It was suspenseful. It had lots of good epic twists that were nicely executed. He really put together a stellar tale.

Often in these tales you have animals making observations of human society, and it is a good opportunity for the author to make a commentary about human nature as posed by an outside observer. Farland pulls this off rather nicely.

Was the ending satisfying? I think a half star would be in order. The plot leads up to a nice dénouement, and the story comes to a nice tight finish, but I didn’t like the villain. When it was revealed who the villain really is (I won’t spoil it for you), I thought, hmmm, oh-kaaay.

Also, I thought that the ongoing quest by Amber and Ben of saving all the mice in the world was a little small-scale in the what’s-at-stake department. It’s difficult to make mice—feeder mice, at that—sympathetic characters.

Overall, I had really mixed feelings about this tale. I think the worst problem I had with it was that the story was written down to a juvenile level. In fairness, some people really like slapstick and lots of gross humor and stuff. I have a very low tolerance for cheap appeals.

Now for the nun rating! I am happy to report that the mother superior gives it her full recommendation, though she did grumble about the way Ben’s parents were caricaturized as being somewhat brainless and inept.

My verdict: three stars & five nuns.

And now for something completely different…

Tom’s list of top hates. I hate it when I watch a movie or read a book that has anything like this in the story.
1. Lots of gratuitous sex that’s put there because people like using sex to sell a story.
2. Innuendo and irreverent jokes about sex. I find such things callous tasteless. We are created in the image of God. I don’t think He likes it when we are disrespectful of his creations in this manner. He created sex, too—it’s not some necessary evil. It was intentional. It is private, and it is something that we ought to have more respect for. We’re created in the image of God. Treat our bodies with respect.
3. Toilet humor. I hate fart-jokes. I hate poop jokes. I kind of out-grew that a loooooong time ago, and when I see story-tellers using it to try and make me like their story I think, “man, are you so desperate for me to like your story that you have to use that?” I’m sorry…it just doesn’t work for me.
4. Slapstick. Again, this works if you’re a kid, but I’ve kind of out-grown it. I can tolerate a little, but less is more and a little goes a long way.
5. Bizzare stunts performed in a non-magical environment that flagrantly violate the laws of physics. I hate most James Bond movies for this reason. Can you say cheesy?
6. Characters falling down a mud-slide or a waterslide or any kind of slide. Damn, hasn’t this been so done to death, already? Seems like people have been putting this in movies since the 50s. Usually the characters will land in a pool of something at the end of the slide, like a puddle of mud or poop, or something gross.
7. Movies based on a book, where the story is so distorted from the original that it no longer resembles the plot. Sometimes Hollywood pulls it off nicely (Secret of NIMH, or Prince Caspian). But usually the result is HORRID! Best example is the movie Eragon, which had only the title in common with the movie (I doubt Paolini is complaining too much). IMO, the movie was sort of Eragon-themed, but that’s about the closest you can call it. Another example was A Wizard of Earthsea done on the Sci-Fi channel. Ugh! It was awful!
8. Movies based on a book where the screenwriter takes liberties and embellishes the story in ways that are not faithful to the book. Lord of the Rings was notorious for this. It’s like Peter Jackson said, hey, we gotta get a chick in there so let’s get Liv Tyler (hell, she’s hot) and totally embellish Arwin’s role. *Ugh* Sorry, Mr. Jackson. For Tolkien’s sake I’m glad the movie did as well as it did, but I just thought your movie adaptation was over-baked.
9. Excessive cussing. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I tried to watch the show, Dexter. I think the first three episodes used up my F-bomb quota for the rest of the year. The language was so over-used it was comical and cheesy. I know that some people like to cuss, but nobody cusses that much. C’mon.
10. Actors that simply can’t act. Man, nothing will make me stop watching a film faster. I start to feel stupid just sitting there.
11. Anything where they try to portray ghosts or witchcraft or the occult. That’s a little too close to not cool. Some of this stuff is very real, and it’s not anything you should flirt with.
12. Vampires. Blood and gratuitous sex. Ugh, what a mess. I watched the Underworld series because I thought vampires vs. werewolves would be an interesting story angle. But I couldn’t figure out who to root for. They’re both monsters. The world would be better off if a meteor fell on them and they all died. I had a hard time rooting for any of the characters.
13. Zombies. I did see night of the living dead (the original B&W version), and that was pretty cool. Zombie movies are usually about over-the-top violence and blood getting spattered everywhere. Nah, it just doesn’t work for me.
14. Rap. Just thought I’d throw that one in there. It really has nothing to do with books or movies.
15. Jar-Jar Binks. *shiver* *moan* Lucas...what have you DONE?

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Guitar Experiment

On a whim I brought a guitar to work. I wasn’t sure how people would react, and was a little nervous that they would find it distracting. I keep it on a stand in the corner of my cube, and I put out an open invitation for anyone to come and play any time they choose.

What surprises me is how many people take me up on that offer. Quite often they will go out of their way just to stop by and “get a fix,” or “get it out of their system,” as they say. Some only know one song, and that’s all they can play. Some know a little blues, or jazz, or country. One guy is fairly proficient at bluegrass, and I find it enchanting to listen to. At times a crowd will form and they’ll pass the guitar around and talk music for ten minutes or so before drifting back to work.

I take the guitar with me just before its time to have a meeting. I only know chords, but I can sing and everyone likes to hear me play. They’ll ask me to play a song at random, and I’ll try and find the chords as I sing along. Quite often I’ll get it right—it takes a bit of practice, and some trial and error. I think I’ll look up some funny campfire songs on the Internet, and see what people think.

I served a mission for my church in Spain. I knew many kids that could play the guitar, and I was surprised at how often it drew a crowd. Friends would gather around, and everyone would sing together.

Today one guy asked me how hard it was to learn to play. I told him if you got a book and practiced two to three hours a week, you’d be proficient in about six months. Most of that time is required to build up coordination and finger strength, and good embrasure. He was very impressed with my advice, and told me he felt inspired to take up the hobby.

I get regulars, now, who wander into my cube throughout the day. They’re emphatic that playing helps open up their creativity. I’m learning that quite a few people are very passionate about music, and this has been a great way for me to meet others that I might never talk to, and make friends. Something about music draws people in. Even those who can’t play will stop and listen.

In ancient societies, members of the warrior class were expected to learn an instrument and be able to play a song or two. This was true of the samurai of Japan. They would practice calligraphy or write haiku or play an instrument to occupy their free time—which they had an abundance of when they weren’t fighting. The Vikings and the Saxons, and other Germanic tribes had similar customs. On long winter nights around the hearth in their mead-halls they would entertain each other. Someone would pass around an instrument, and everyone was expected to know something. It was especially important if you were a guest in the hall to be able to share some new song.

I take my guitar with me when I go on church camp-outs. When the sun goes down, I’ll walk from campfire to campfire. When people see me with my guitar they are always enthusiastic. They invite me to come and sit, so they can hear me play. They might never say a word to me, but they’re always friendly. Sometimes they’ll offer a drink or a snack. They’re always disappointed when I leave. I tell them that I have other campfires to visit.

Music brings people together in a very curious way. Even if you’re not that musical like me, it can be a powerful social enabler.

So get a guitar and take it to work. If you bring it, they will come.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Seven Habits of Highly Effective Writers

People are often impressed when I tell them that I spend a lot of my free time writing. I am surprised at how many people have come up with story ideas, and are excited to tell me about them. If you’re serious about writing, here are seven things you ought to be doing.

#1: Apply butt to chair
You will never get that story written unless you sit down and do it. This seems like it would go without saying, but you’d be surprised at how easy it is to make excuses not to write. Writing takes a lot of self-discipline. I used to think that great writers are born, not bred. This might be true in some cases, but more than anything else you’ll find that great writers are just persistent.

#2: Join a critique group
You need to be able to take criticism, and you need to be grown up about it. Everyone’s writing needs improvement, and a critique group can help you spot areas where your skill is weak. However, if you’re going to get defensive then you might as well take up another hobby. You’ll never make it past your first rejection slip. Criticism should be respectful, courteous, focused, and specific. If all they tell you is, “I loved it!” then you need to find a new group.

#3: Take courses in writing
Writing fiction is not quite the same as writing non-fiction. Find a course on creative writing. Make sure it teaches how to write dialog, how to craft effective characters, how to construct scenery, how to show and not tell, how to create a plot, and how to use all five senses. Make sure the course requires homework, and has brief critique sessions every time you meet.

#4: Attend writing conventions, symposiums, and workshops
Conventions usually last a day or two, and offer courses of literally every kind. Most symposiums focus on a particular genre: romance, fantasy and sci-fi, thrillers, mainstream, creative nonfiction, etc. Some symposiums are free, but most require a registration fee.

You will get to meet published authors, and hear their words of advice. You will get to meet with agents and editors. You will get to attend workshops where you can get one on one attention for your work. You will make friends with other writers; but most of all, conventions will get you pumped up about writing—and that is vital.

#5: Read books on writing
You will need to build up a personal library of reading material. Find books that cover these subjects:
1. Dialog
2. Characters and Viewpoint
3. Story, Plot and Structure
4. Revision and Self-editing
5. Style

My favorites are:
1. The Lie That Tells a Truth, by John Dufresne
2. Characters and Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card
3. Revision and Self Editing, by James Scott Bell
4. Plot & Structure, by James Scott Bell

#6: Join a professional association
Writer’s associations are designed to help you make friends and network with other professional writers in your local community and to help you stay excited about writing. They typically charge annual dues. Most associations hold symposiums during the year, and each month the local chapters will meet and have something different: critique sessions, short workshops, brief lectures, readings, etc.

#7: Learn about the industry
Writers love to write, but too often we forget that publishers have a business to run. In short, you are providing a commodity that they can turn around and sell. Learn how to put your writing in manuscript format. Learn what a query letter is, and when to use one. Learn how to write a cover letter. Learn how to write a summary for a novel.

There are probably a lot of other things I might add in this article, but these seven items will help you quickly pick up what you need to know. Above all else, remember that the best piece of advice is to stick with it. Every time I start writing something new I find it a little easier, and when I finish my work I find that I’ve gotten a little better. Good luck!

Sunday, August 2, 2009


How many nuns would recommend a book? Four out of five? One out of five? I’ve reviewed six books so far. Many of them I gave glowing reviews, but with some of those I’ve wanted to give a stern warning for language, sex, and violence. My rating system, however, didn’t really measure that.

This morning I was mulling things over when Anna, my wife, suggested I rate each story by nuns. Five nuns would be the mother-superior rating. One nun would be for the poor soul who was imprisoned in the abbey by her wicked father who didn’t want her marrying, and all day long she thinks of her lover and has very impure thoughts.

After a little more thought, I decided to make things less subjective by setting some criteria:
• Five nuns = G. No foul language. No sex, although there may be plenty of sexual tension.
• Four nuns = PG. No sex and only mild innuendo. No f-bombs and only mild profanity.
• Three nuns = PG-13. One or two f-bombs. One sex scene, and not too graphic.
• Two nuns = R. Constant swearing. Two or more sex scenes.
• One nun = NC-17. Anything with a rape scene, or anything with very graphic sex. Erotica.

I’m not going to pay much attention to violence unless it is excessive or pointless. Even G-rated movies have violence in them. My kids get stressed out watching Bambi. Go figure.

Steven Gould

It isn’t often that I can’t put down a book and read it straight through in less than a week. I saw the movie that this book is based on, and was thoroughly unimpressed. Don’t bother. After checking Wikipedia I learned that the movie was based on a book, and fans of the book were pretty upset. I checked the reviews on Amazon.com and learned that the book was very highly recommended.

Davey Rice discovers that he can teleport from place to place at will. After running away from home he spends his first few weeks just trying to keep out of danger. The plot is mostly character-driven as he works through the issues in his life trying to overcome a series of challenges of being a run-away child with no legal identification, and picking up the pieces of his life since his mother abandoned the family six years ago.

Did I finish reading? There were no dull spots in this book. Unlike a lot of books I’ve read, the plot keeps going right through to the end, and the action builds steadily. I didn’t want to put it down.

Would I be interested in reading a sequel? I wanted the story to go on. Davey confronts his demons by the end of the novel and the author wraps up things nicely, but I want two things to happen. First, I want to see him find out if there are other jumpers out there, or maybe there are people with other abilities like telekinesis or pyrokinesis or the ability to become invisible. Kind of like the TV series, Heroes. The other plot angle that needs to be explored is, what will he do with his ability the rest of his life? Sooner or later he’s going to run out of money at the rate he’s spending it. He doesn’t want to work for the NSA, but he has the potential to be a super-hero or something. With great power comes great responsibility.

Was the writing good? Yes. It was skillful and well-executed. Scenes were well-researched, and the way the characters acted felt truthful. You really felt for Davey as he worked through the issues that he faced. Gould chose to write this story from a first-person point of view, and that was probably best. We know what’s going on inside Davey’s head, otherwise he would be just another crazy, emo, punk kid. Very nicely done.

Was the story idea interesting? Definitely. I wished he spent more time trying to figure out the limits of his ability, or I wish he had tried to learn more about his ability earlier on in the book. I noticed that by the middle of the book there was no villain, and that started to bug me a little. How long could Davey go on trying to come to terms with his past, but then he saved a woman from an abusive husband who happened to be a cop. When the cop started investigating Davey, the story got really interesting. Then when the NSA got wind of his ability the tension mounted even higher. I like a plot to have this kind of structure, with an even balance of internal and external conflict to work through.

Was the ending satisfying? Yes. The plot went right up to the end, and in the wind-down Davey faced his personal demons and came to terms with them. I really like the story pattern that the author used. I think I would really like to emulate this form.

Final verdict:
• Overall rating: This book is a solid five stars. Very impressive, and not many stories hook me so thoroughly. I would love to see Davey in a sequel.
• How many nuns would recommend this story? Maybe one or two. Make no mistake, even though this book is YA, it is definitely not a story for young teens. The swearing is non-stop. There are several sex scenes, but they are not graphic, and the author does portray Davey as having some morals. There is a male rape scene by a gang of pedophiles near the beginning of the book, which I found rather disturbing.

I found that the story really turned on my creative side. Several times I had to put the book down and free-write for about thirty minutes, just to get all the ideas out of my head. I like a good story like that, something that really turns on the inner muse.

Two and a half years ago when I started writing in earnest, I felt embarrassed when I was forced to admit that as a wannabe writer, I was notoriously under-read. Until then my list of books consisted of Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Earthsea, and of course, Harry Potter. I’m glad to say that I’m finding more to read these days. I’ve read all kinds of stories from all kinds of authors. Some of them I think are wonderful, and some of them I ask myself how they ever got published. Most important, however, I am learning what kinds of things make a story great, and what authors I would most like to emulate.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Art of Racing in the Rain

Garth Stein

I've been writing lately--or trying to (all I have are lots and lots of notes), so I haven't made any posts in a long time. I have, however, done a lot of reading.

I was recommended this book by the other members of my writer's group. It is a very astute commentary on the human experience. The story is told in first person, from the point of view of a dog named Enzo. The title of the book comes from one of the other main characters, Denny, who is Enzo's owner and is a race car driver.

Did I finish the book? It was a pretty fast read. There were times when I was so mad at Denny's in-laws (I won't spoil it for you) I literally refused to put the book down.

Would I read a sequel? Half-star. Books like this don't tend to do well in sequel form. I would only be marginally interested. Also I'm not really a dog person.

Was the writing good? What I liked most was the author's insights, although I could have done with a few less F-bombs, or the frank manner in which sex was described? BTW, who can stand to have their pet in the same room when they're--er, never mind. TMI! One star. I would love to be able to write like this. Very nicely done.

I also love the references to the Seattle area. I lived there for six years and loved it (wife hated it though, and so eventually we had to move).

Was the story idea interesting? You know, a concept like this (i.e., a story told from a dog's point of view) can either be very, very good, or very, very bad. One star.

Was the ending satisfying? Absolutely. You know, I gotta point out that Denny was a real hero in the story. He had faults and bouts of temper and lapses of judgement, but when faced with some of the overwhelming adversity he displayed an inner strength of character that was stunning and noble. Full star for that.

Final verdict: 4.5

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Fablehaven: Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary

by Brandon Mull

In fantasy literature, few things are as cool as dragons. It’s just one of those things. It’s universal, and it’s cross-culture.

I started reading Fablehaven about three years ago. I was waiting at the pharmacy at Smiths, and picked book one off the shelf. Five pages later it still hadn't lost my attention, so I went home and ordered it off of Amazon and have stuck with the series ever since. My favorite books in the series a toss-up between books two and three. My favorite artifact is the Quite Box (just the name gives me goosebumps). Don't know if I have a favorite villain, really. I didn't like Seth in book one. I thought he behaved unnaturally stupid; you would think being turned into a mutant walrus by a swarm angry pixies would teach him a lesson. In book two he was much-improved and in my mind more believable. I have to admit, though, I sort of like his devil-may-care attitude and his penchant for taking risks. Seth follows the trickster archetype to a T. I like Kendra, too. I like the way she is stable and careful about what she does, and I always root for her. Both characters are resourceful.

I’ll also point out, that by having two protagonists, a brother and a sister, Mull has managed to make a story with a very broad appeal.

Did I finish the book? I usually have no trouble getting distracted away from Mull's books. I remember reading book two and three inside a week. Full star.

Will I read the sequel? Oh, absolutely. I was a little worried at the end of book one. I picked up book two wondering if it would go anywhere, and if Seth was still an idiot I was resolved to quit the series. I was very much impressed, and have purchased all four books. I don't bother buying books when I can check them out at the library. These days, the only time I will add a book to my collection is when I think I'd like to refer back to it in the future.

Was the writing good? I didn't think it was very good. Either I've gotten more picky as my own writing has improved, or the author got sloppy on this one. For a good sample, here is the opening line:

Kendra Sorenson briskly scraped the head of a wooden match against the rough strip on the side of a rectangular matchbox. Cupping her hand to shield the new flame, she held the burning match against the blackened wick of a candle stub. Once the flame spread to the wick, she shook out the match, thin strands of smoke winding upward.

I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to pick out all the repeated words, extra adverbs, unnecessary adjectives, and all-around bad economy of words.

The dialog throughout the novel was unnatural and wooden, with characters using wordy language and stilted, formal phrases. I would have to say the writing felt rather amateurish in some ways, and in other ways it felt sloppy and hastily done.

In spite of it all, I've actually read far worse, so I'll give it a quarter star. Mull is such a good story-teller. I wish he would take his time and apply more attention to his prose, or hire an editor (or get a better one).

Was the story idea interesting? Like I said before, Mull does a good job with story-telling, which is really what keeps me going, and why I buy his books instead of getting them from the library. He is very imaginative with the magical places that the characters have to go through. I really liked the shrine where the centuars hid the unicorn horn, and I really liked the secret dragon sanctuary, and I really liked the dragon temple. I'll have to add the knapsack with an extra-dimensional room inside that was large enough to store supplies, and for a bit of extra spice it is inhabited by a small troll. ROFL. Very, very nicely done!

Was the ending satisfying? There was a twist near the end, that I thought felt a little cheap. I won't spoil it for you. Also, there was an abrupt cliffhanger at the end, which I also found a little cheap. Half star.

Final verdict: 3.75 stars. The story was memorable, which is saying a lot. I continue to love the main characters. The book was well worth a read, and I had no trouble staying interested. However, I really felt that Mull (or Shadow Mountain Publishing) ought to have taken a little more time on this one. Enough said.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

C is for Conflict

Emotional conflict, that is. Stories have more resonance when the primary conflict is framed against an internal struggle that the main character is working through. The TV series, Lost, does this beautifully. Every episode focuses on one of the cast members and something from their past life. Some event from their back-story is playing a role in the way they act and the way they make their decisions. Personal conflict is the real driver in any story's tension. It doesn't have to be related to the overall plot, but it does have to be relevant to the character's role in the story. It is the reason why the character lends a hand to resolving the plot (as in the role of a hero), and it is also the reason the character opposes the resolution (as a villain would do).
  • It is the reason why the character behaves as the protagonist
  • It is the reason why the character chooses to become the villain
The real meat of the story isn't in what people do, but why they do it. As a writer using this technique, you can build up to three levels of conflict:
  1. Emotional struggle with some past issue
  2. Character's actions, either as a direct result of the internal emotional struggle, or in finding resolution to these emotions.
  3. The main conflict, which is the story's overall plot.
The emotional conflict can be any intense feeling. It doesn't have to be negative. The list can go on, and on, and on:
  • Curiousity
  • Jealousy
  • Envy
  • Pique
  • Hatred
  • Sexual tension
  • Unrequited love
  • Secret crush
  • Wants
  • Dreams
  • Vision
  • Fear
  • Mystery
  • Reversals
  • Sudden breakthroughs
In my recent short story, Counting Crows, each scene is laced with some kind of emotional tension. Here are some examples:
  1. Opening: Megan challenges Devan to show her something that will make her believe he can do real magic. Ethne comes in, reprimands Devan for neglecting his chores, creating an uncomfortable moment for Megan.
  2. The kitchen fire: Oma nearly burned down the house. Megan is in big trouble. Megan's life taking care of Oma is a huge burden.
  3. Devan comes around: Megan is too busy to pay him notice.
  4. Devan brings Megan a gift: Argument between Megan and her brother. She makes fun of Devan, who overhears.
  5. The priest: Lynet resents him, and she resents Beoden's refusal to let Ethne come and treat her mother.
  6. Megan goes to see Ethne: Ethne's not there, and she has to mend things with Devan, instead.
  7. Ethne and Devan come to look at Oma: Megan can't watch. She goes outside to be with Devan, and they talk about their belief in the afterlife.
I'll close with a little exercise. I'll use the TV show, Lost, because it illustrates my point so well. Here is a link to ABC's website. Click on "Watch Free Episodes," in the upper left. Pick a season, and then pick an episode. If you haven't seen the series, then start out at season 1. As you watch, take note from scene to scene, and pay particular attention to the type of emotional tension and how it drives what each character does.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Villain Makes the Hero

Entertainment Weekly recently did an article on the 20 best villains (April 3, 2009). It sparked my interest, so I decided to do a little research on my own. What I found was very surprising, and I'll share it here with you. My results are based more on gut feel than on actual scientific study. I didn't have access to any survey data, and I don't have any metrics other than how often a particular character appeared in a list, and how close to the top of the list the character appeared. Nevertheless, I think I can safely say who the top three movie villains of all time are.

The number one movie villain of all time has to be The Joker, from DC Comics. As a comic book villain he is absolutely unforgetable. As a character on the silver screen, whether played by Jack Nicholson or by Heath Ledger, he is epic. If the joker isn't numero uno on a list, he is always in the top ten.

Number two would be Hannibal Lecter. Can you say twisted? Anthony Hopkins had only 15 minutes of screen time in Silence of the Lambs, but his execution of that role was instantly seared into the public conciousness.

Number three would be Hans Gruber from Die Hard. You wouldn't believe how many lists he made it onto, and quite a few placed him at number one.

What are the other top villains? Here they are in order of precidence, as best as I could group them:

  • Michael or Vito Corleone, Godfather 1 and 2. I lump these together because one of the Godfather movies appears on most of the lists. "I'm going to make you an offer you can't refuse."
  • Norman Bates, from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. This was the seminal slasher horror movie. Even today, people who have never seen the film recognize references to the shower scene.
  • Jack Torrance, from Stephen King's, The Shining. He isn't number one by any account, but Jack Torrance is on literally every list out there.
  • Auric Goldfinger. I'll have to see this film again (since I don't even remember him). Nevertheless he ranked high on quite a few lists.
  • Count Dracula. Vampires have an enduring allure. Sex, gore, gothic wardrobe, sex, gore, gothic wardrobe.
  • Darth Vader. I really thought Darth Vader would have ranked higher than he did. There were quite a few lists where he didn't even rank.
  • Jaws. I remember the summer this movie came out. EVERYONE saw it. Don't go in the water. I know plenty of people who wouldn't go swimming in the ocean for years, afterwards.
  • HAL 9000. It's creepy way a computer, so trusted by the entire crew, turned on them and systematically began to wipe everyone out. Most people can't stand to watch 2001 a Space Odessy, but nearly everyone knows the quote, "I'm sorry Dave, I can't do that." The servant has risen against the master. The only thing missing is the wicked laugh, bwa-ha-ha-ha-haaaa!
  • The Wicked Witch of the West. I wouldn't have put this on my list in a million years. Her lines are corny, and her character so 1-dimensional, but you'd be surprised at how often she popps up. "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!"
  • Pazuzu, the demon that possessed the little girl in The Exorcist. There's something about the innocence of a little girl being so completely violated.
  • Katherine Trammell, from Basic Instinct.

Here are the comic book villains (minus The Joker) that most consistently ranked in the top ten:

  • Lex Luthor. He is always in the top 5. As a super-villain, he has no powers. He's the Godfather to the DC Comics universe.
    Venom. A symbiotic suit that makes you turn evil. There is something so cool about seeing Spidey decked out in black. It enhanced his powers considerably, then it made him slowly turn evil.
  • Magneto
  • Jeane Gray, the Dark Phoenix
  • The Green Goblin.

In my opinion, it's the villain that makes the hero. Without Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker would be just another whiny, angst-ridden teenager. Without The Joker, Batman would still be pretty cool, but he wouldn't be nearly as memorable. Serlock Holmes was fairly popular in his own right, but it was Professor Moriarty that made people clamor for more. Last but not least, without Voldemort, Harry Potter would be a mediocre wizard, destined for a life of peaceful anonymity--and J. K. Rowling would be nowhere near as rich as the Queen of England.

So what do I, personally, look for in a villain? My favorites are the ones with good character development and back-story; but most of all, I like a villain that gets away, continually thwarting the hero time and time again. Here is my list of favorites:

  • Darth Vader
  • Voldemort
  • From Fullmetal Alchemist,

    • Scar the vigilante,
    • The seven Homunculi, and their masters, Dante and Hohenheim of Light.

  • The Goauld from Stargate Atlantis
  • From Heroes, the TV series:

    • Sylar from Heroes
    • Mr. Linderman from Heroes

  • Cloney the Sourge from the novel, Redwall. I haven't kept any of the other Redwall books, but Cloney the Scourge is just so awesome.

So that's it. I know, I know, you're probably going to think I missed one or two. Feel free to let me know what you think.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

His Majesty's Dragon

His Majesty's Dragon
Naomi Novik

Time magazing said, "Enthralling reading--like Jane Austen playing Dungeons & Dragons with Eragon's Christopher Paolini." I think the Jane Austin connection is very true to the mark. Austin's books were always about duty and one's place in society, and this book definitely fits that picture.

Did I finish the book? I had no trouble getting through the first two-thirds. Things dragged a bit from there, but picked up again quickly. In all, I had no trouble keeping with it. One star.

Will I read the sequel? Half-star. I do enjoy character-driven stories, but I also like the plot to have a strong focus. I want the hero to have a problem to work on. The story felt like all the action was happening elsewhere, and every now and again would involve the main character. My wife pointed out that this is how most of Austin's stories are. They focus more on the people and the period in history than they do on some cosmic struggle or epic quest. Also, this story had no real villain, unless you count Napoleon--unless you're French, in which case Napoleon is a national hero.

Was the writing good? Some books are satisfying to read even in their mundane parts, while other books bore me and I find myself scanning large sections and skipping page after page. Wish I knew what the difference was. I really like the rythm and the voice that Novik uses. It is very similar to what I try and do, and now that I have an example to follow I probably ought to pick up the sequel--if for no other reason than that alone. Yeah. The writing's good.

Was the story idea interesting? I'm mixed on this. Novik has a thorough knowledge of the British navy and the people of the early 1800's and what the cultured society was like--enough to create a very immersive milleu. That part was very well done. For me as an aspiring writer it really sets the bar. Novik even has names for all the dragon breeds, including names in French for the French breeds. Very imaginative. However, I wasn't convinced about dragons that can talk from the moment they hatch, or that something as large as a passenger jet can only fly at 35 miles per hour (a Cesna will stall at 55 MPH and in a dive tops out at well over 200 MPH). Still, there were never any parts where I found myself thinking that something was totally lame. Half-star.

Was the ending satisfying? Yes. The plot did slowly build up to a major battle, and the resolution was fairly interesting. Full marks on that.

Final verdict: 4 stars.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Diary of a Wimpy Kid
By Jeff Kenny

Five stars. This is a kid's book, but something about the title clicked with me, and I knew it had to be good. The humor has enough of a sophisticated edge that adults will thoroughly relate. My mother-in-law bought this for my son, who is well on his way to being a wimpy kid someday. Greg Heffley, the main character, isn't as hopeless as Napoleon Dynamyte. He's more of an average kid just trying to survive jr. high amid a string of setbacks and reversals. Everything he tries ends up going wrong and blowing up in his face.

Did I finish the book? Yes. I probably shouldn't admit it, but I did it in one afternoon, LMAO.

Will I read the sequel? I think I'll have to go out and buy my son the next one. ;)

Was the writing good? It was rather true to form. People like nerd stories. Everyone remembers how bad things could get in middle school. Everyone can relate. The story itself was kind of episodic, going from one little thing to the next. There wasn't a whole plot, like you'd expect. Thankfully, the story wasn't full of juvinile exaggerations or unrealistic hyperbole.

Was the story idea interesting? You really got into Greg, the main character. It was easy to imagine all the situations he went through. Each story sort of tied into the rest, forming a loose story arc. The cartoons were funny as heck, too.

Was the ending satisfying? A bit of drama evolves near the end when Greg gets his best friend in trouble. The way he works things out ends up being rather hilarious. Very cute.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Binary Fingers

There are 10 kinds of people. Those who understand binary, and those who don't.

Using both hands, most people can only count up to ten. They call it "base ten," but it's really base one--one finger for each numeric value until you run out of fingers at ten. This is the world of the mathemetically impaired. Straightforward, uncomplicated, and adequate for doing math up until you get to the first grade.

I, however, can count up to 1023.


Fingers, it turns out, naturally conform to one of two states: extended (that's a one) or not extended (that's a zero). So, my thumb can be 2^0, my index finger can be 2^1, my middle finger can be 2^2, my ring finger can be 2^4, etc.

Here's a pic where I count up to sixteen. (Note, in computers we use the letters A through F for the numbers 10 through 15--it's a geek thing). If I use all ten of my fingers, I can go up to 2^11 - 1, which is 1023.

When using this technique, I recommend holding your hand low so your fingers point down. That way when you get to 4, people aren't as likely to get offended. Just a little hint.

Converting from binary to decimal is a snap. You only need to remember your powers of two. Here's how you do it.

  • Thumb is 1
  • Index finger is 2
  • Middle finger is 4
  • Ring finger is 8
  • Pinky is 16

You get the idea.

So, to convert from binary to decimal, just add up the fingers that are extended. So, if I have my thumb, index, and middle finger extended, that's 7. If I have my middle finger and my ring finger extended, that's 12 (or A, if you're a geek). If I have all five extended, that's 31.

See how easy it is?

Now for the fun part.

Doing addition in binary is a snap. Here's the basics:

 0      0     1     1
0 + 1 + 0 + 1 +
----- ----- ----- -----
0 1 1 10


Most of this you should still remember from Kindergarten, right? It's 1 + 1 that throws most people. Since we've run out of digits (there being only two), we have to carry over to the next column, and that gives us 10--and no, we don't say "ten", we say "one, zero". This is base two, remember? "ten" doesn't exist. Just get it out of your head.

So if we wanted to add, say 0101 to 1001, we would do it like this (Remember to carry the 1 in the right-most column.)

1001 +


If you really want to get into it, you can use your left pinky as a sign bit, and do negative numbers. This cuts your positive range in half, but you can go from +511 to -512. I recommend using 2's compliment instead of 1's compliment. Addition and subtraction are the same (binary is so cool!). What's more, using Booth's Algorithm, you can do multiplication. Your range for the two operands is limited to -15 to +16 (that's five fingers for each number you want to multiply). Your result will be all ten fingers. For division, it will be in reverse. Your numerator will use all ten fingers, and the denominator will use five.

You will have to have 2's compliment down before Booth's algorithm makes any sense, but it is pretty straightforward. Google it, if you're interested.

Some would argue that memorizing the times tables up to 16 would be easier. That might be true for some people. In computers we make trade-offs like this all the time. We use memory when memory is abundant, and we use algorithms when memory scarce.

Some would argue that it would be faster to just use a calculator.

Calculators are for wusses.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Brandon Sanderson

An intriguing mystery of a paradise fallen.

I'll cover first the things I liked.

I liked the way this story isn't your typical, defeat-the-villain, twelve-volume, epic oddsey. There are no dragons or vampires (there's a bit too much of that these days). The story satisfies me quite a bit on that level--in fact, I remember reading reviews on Amazon.com, and the most common compliment about this story is its originality.

I liked the main character, Reoden. I liked the way he was resourceful. I liked the way he was clever. I liked the way he kept a positive outlook in spite of being damned for eternity. Not a whiner, he took it all in stride and made the most of his situation. I liked him for his intelligence, and I liked the way he developed during the story. Nicely done.

I like the setup for this story. Sanderson did a good job in the prologue, painting an idylic scene that would last for an eternity, then said, "eternity ended ten years ago." I love the opening line, "Prince Reoden awoke early that morning completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity." How can you put a book down with an opening like that??? Nicely done.

I thought the magic was nicely done. I like stuff that has runes or glyphs that symbolize things. Kind of hard to picture them being drawn in thin air, though.

I really, really like the mystery aspect to this tale. The Elantrians are fallen exalted mortals. What made them fall? Why is their city crumbling to ruins after only 10 years? Why is it covered in slime? Why does the magic no longer work? I love the way it is Reoden's quest to determine all these things, and he systematically works through his problems one by one. Nice.

I appreciate the amount of time the author spent on the back-story for all the various races and cultures and political manoverings, etc. However at times I felt like I was drinking from a fire hose. I would have gotten into it had it been introduced more gradually. Since I'm not a big fan of Earth history, why would I get into an imaginary history?

What could have been better?

The plot drags in places. The book is filled with scenes that could have been cut, making the whole story tighter and much more intense.

I didn't like how the POV rotated between the three main characters from one chapter to the next. I found myself scanning four or five pages at a time to get through less relevant scenes. There are much better techniques for keeping up the story lines when you have multiple main characters.

It also bothered me that the fix for AonDor was so easy. Why handn't any of the original Elantrians seen the solution and simply fixed it?

Okay. Now for the score.

Did I finish reading the book? 1/2 star. I scanned too much of the text to give it a full star. If you're going to keep my attention for 638 pages, you need to keep things moving along.

Am I interested in reading a sequel, assuming there was one? No. Raoden was the only character that held my interest throughout the story. Hrathen had his glory moments, but he isn't memorable and that's crucial for a villain. Serene was interesting sometimes but by the end of the story I'd had my fill of her.

Was the writing good? Yes. I can't fault Sanderson for that. He did a good job. I never girtted my teeth or felt like his prose lacked skill in any way. I would expect nothing less, since he teaches creative writing at BYU.

Was the story idea interesting? Yes. I loved the mystery of a fallen paradise, and one man's quest to restore its glory. Fresh and original.

Was the ending satisfying? Yes, more or less, although it could have come much, much sooner.

Final verdict: 3.5. I can give this book my solid recommendation. Very original, yet still faithful to the genere. If you've read this book and liked it, feel free to post your comments!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Veil of Lies: A Medieval Nior

Five stars. I measure a book by five simple criteria. A star is awarded for each question, and the total is my overall rating.

Did I finish reading it? You might think this is a trivial question, but I am ruthless with my time. I won't stick with a book if the writing is sub-par, or if the main character annoys me, or if the story is going nowhere.

Am I interested in reading a sequel, assuming there was one? I chose this question carefully, because it says quite a bit about how interested I was in the story, and how much I liked the characters. I've read quite a few books all the way through and at the end thought, "That's nice. And now, on to other things..."

Was the writing good? I am a stickler for the craft. We've all read novels where we gritted our teeth through all the bad cliches, violations of POV, abuses of passive voice, telling and not showing--you get the idea.

Was the story idea interesting? This measures a lot of things: originality, milieu, the beginning hook, development of the story, etc.

Was the ending satisfying? I think this one goes without explaining.

Veil of Lies by Jeri Westerson does not fail to impress. Think of a 50's era detective noir set in England during the reign of Richard II (Late 1300s). Add to that a holy relic which makes anyone in its presence unable to tell a lie, and you have an awesome story. Well steeped in the time period, the story is filled with vivid portrayals of common life in the middle ages Westerson took great pains to ensure historical accuracy. People who like reading stories from this time period won’t be disappointed.

I really liked Crispin Guest, the main character. A former knight who was stripped of his rank after being implicated in a plot against Richard II, he now makes his living as a private detective, or “tracker” as he calls himself. He finds stuff. Or he finds out stuff. Crispin Guest follows the anti-hero archetype rather well, and Westerson pulls it off nicely. Forced to live on the seedy side of town, Guest doesn’t always play by the rules. Law and brutality went hand in hand during this time. I especially like his servant, who is a street urchin that he rescued from being hung, who can pick locks and swipe things and spy for him—and he cleans up the room where he and Guest stay when the mood strikes him.

My rating: five stars.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fiction that Endures

I find the study of fiction fascinating. Why do we tell stories? This began a quest that has been both rewarding and enlightening.

On the surface one might say that people read stories because they want escape. They want to be entertained. That alone didn't satisfy me, because for me it wouldn't justify my wanting to become a writer. Why, then, does the world need another story about cat-eared aliens or tiny elves? I was looking for a contribution that would be more lasting.

I stumbled on an essay that was written in 1918. I found it very enlightening. You can find the entire article here.

Fiction is a means of telling truth. It is the human experience, distilled, and placed in a setting where those experiences can be lived vicariously. Have you ever read a story, and had an overwhelming feeling that the author was telling a true story, only to find out later that the whole thing was made up? For a perfect example, how many people have listened to (or read) the lyrics of "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins? (here is a Wikipedia link) I bring this up as an example because it is short, and it illustrates my point entirely. People ask Phil Collins all the time to tell them what was the story behind this tale? He says there is none. He made it up in a moment of creative passion.

If you hear a story and are compelled to wonder if it was true, and the answer matters to you somehow, then (in my opinion), fiction has done its job.

Along these lines, here are my favorite generes, and the way the human condition is explored. I don't think any one story encompasses all of these elements; merely, any given story that is well-written will explore at least one of these themes in depth.

Science Fiction:
  • A newsweek article I read stated, "Science fiction, by nature, comments on the time in which it's made, pustulating a future that is either better or worse depending on what we make of the present.

  • On the list of writer's guidelines for "Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine," we find this bit of advice: all fiction is written to examine or illuminate some aspect of huan existence...in science fiction the backdrop you work against is the size of the universe.

  • Man against the universe

  • Dealing with the moral and ethical delimas of scientific discovery

  • Man dealing with the speculative limitations of biology, physics, ocial science, mathematics, or logic

  • Considers one or more aspects of human nature when stretched (usually supernaturally) beyond the extreme.

  • Man against the supernatural

  • Man attempting to understand the nature of life, and the reason for existence.

  • Questions of morality, principle, and duty.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

counting crows

Counting Crows

This story was a study in writing from a female point of view. Women think very differently from men, and they see the world in a different way. Home and hearth are important, and they value relationships much more than men do. Anyway, I hope you’ll like this one.

     Devan was an odd fellow, that was true enough. “Uncanny” was the word some people used. Most said he liked to keep to himself, and that it was perfectly normal. Megan, of course, never gave much thought to hearsay, and when she came upon him while walking through the forest near their farm, she had to stop for a second look.
     She did not recognize him at first. The boy stood in a clearing with his back to her, staring heavenward and murmuring softly. His woolen tunic sagged over one shoulder, soiled and muddy; and he wore no belt. For shoes he had only a pair of sandals. Golden rays flitted through the branches, and patches of gleaming leaves danced and shifted with the spring breeze. Devan waved a short stick as he spoke, as if making a tally. A flock of crows played in the trees overhead, calling to each other with shrill voices.
     Megan followed his gaze, peering into the branches. “Whatever are you doing?”
     Devan jolted as if lightning struck, then wheeled to face her. His eyes darted about, but seeing only a girl he swallowed and appeared relieved. “I didn’t hear you. What do you want?”
     She stared for a moment. “You’re Ethne’s son--the wise woman.” Long and skinny like any boy of sixteen, wild reddish brown hair sprouted from Devan’s head, and light freckles spotted his face. Though they knew of each other, Devan and his mother lived quite a distance from Megan’s farm, and Megan’s family no longer followed the old traditions.
     Devan bobbed his head. “You’re Beoden’s daughter.” He let his gaze roam freely over her light blue dress and her long brown hair, stopping as their eyes met.
     Megan frowned. “You’re a right mess,” she said. “What have you been doing?”
     “You’re one to talk. There’s dirt all over your face.”
     “There is not.”
     “You’ve been crying.” Devan stared more intently, though his eyes were not unkind. “You’re not lost, are you?”
     “Hardly.” Megan pulled out a cloth and dabbed at her cheeks. In truth she had been crying. She often came to these woods so she could think and be alone, but that was none of his affair. “I was on my way back, and I heard you.”
     Devan made no response, but merely stared.
     “You were chanting something,” Megan pressed.
     “What of it?”
     “What were you saying?”
     “Just a rhyme. It’s nonsense, really.” He gave a smile--ever so quickly, Megan thought.
     She stared at the trees where he had been looking. A large crow cocked its head, then spread its wings and flew away. “You’re throwing things at the birds.”
     “I wasn’t.” Devan looked down at the stick in his hand, then tossed it into the bushes. “You wouldn’t understand such things.”
     Megan smirked. “Go on! You think that just because I’m a girl, I--”
     “I said nothing of the sort.” He stared at her then in a way Megan wasn’t sure she liked. She was ready to turn and leave when he spoke again.
One for joy
Two for pain,
Three for sun
Four for rain,
Five to grant a secret wish,
Six for first love’s tender kiss. . .

     Devan shrugged. “Anyway, that’s how it goes.”
     Megan wrinkled her brow.
     “Have you never heard that before?”
     Devan turned and gazed into the branches. “They say if you see a flock of crows you can tell the future by counting their number.”
     “That’s foolish.”
     “Is it?” He gave her a glance, then stared into the branches above them.
Seven for sickness
Eight for dying,
Nine for laughter,
Ten for crying. . .

     “It goes on like that for quite a bit.”
     “And how many did you count?” Megan asked.
     Devan gave her an arch look and grinned. “I shan’t say.”
     Megan smirked and rolled her eyes. “Such clever nonsense! The things you learn, being the son of a witch.”
     “Father tells me not to believe in any of it.”
     Devan folded his arms. “And do you believe everything your father tells you?”
     “Why shouldn’t I?”
     “He can’t know everything.” Devan gave her a sideways look.
     Megan scowled. She wasn’t sure she liked his tone; yet her curiosity continued to prevail and she did not leave. “Perhaps. Can you show me real power?”
     “If I chose.”
     “Well you’ll have to do better than counting crows.”
     Devan thought for a moment, then glanced toward a flowering currant bush and pointed. “Do you see that butterfly?”
     Megan followed his look, then nodded.
     Devan raised his finger and became still. After a moment of silence his lips parted and he spoke, barely a whisper. “Luatha, hemm!”
     The creature fluttered on command, bobbing as it circled to gain height against the breeze, then flew straight as an arrow’s shaft until it lighted on the tip of his finger.
     Megan knit a brow and gave him a narrow look. Not quite sure what to say, she could only stare. A breeze sighed in the trees.
     Devan grinned to himself and chuckled; yet as he caught her look his smile quickly melted. He shook his hand and looked down. “It’s nothing.” He stepped back. “More of a trick, really.”
     Megan’s eyes followed the butterfly as it flitted away. She stared after it for a moment, then turned to him with a mystified smile. “Do it again.”
     “There you are, worthless boy!” A shrill voice called.
     They turned as a woman approached. Short, with hair flaming red and piercing eyes, she stalked into the clearing carrying a large basket filled with tubers and herbs. A brace of hares hung from her belt.
     Like her son, the witch was soiled from head to foot. Her unkempt hair was tied back in a bushy pony tail. She frowned as she looked from Devan, then to Megan, then back at Devan. “Have you got any, or have you forgotten what I sent you to do?”
     “I found a whole bunch, right there.” Devan turned and pointed at a nearby log. Thick moss spread across its bark, and tiny brown mushrooms sprouted in small clusters.
     “Right. Well done, then. Where’s your basket?”
     Devan’s mouth fell open, and he shifted nervously. “I think I left it by the brook. I’ll have to go fetch it.”
     Ethne’s eyebrows contracted until she looked like a hawk. “Off mucking about, again. You’d forget your head if it wasn’t stuck to your shoulders.”
     Devan jumped as if burned, and began plucking handfuls of mushrooms while his mother glowered. “Gather as many as you can carry,” she said. “That lot’ll do.”
     Megan sidled away, but stopped as the woman turned toward her and smiled. She was missing several teeth, and her left eye had an inward cast. Freckles spangled her nose and cheeks. “How fares your grandmother?”
     Megan wasn’t sure what to say, but soon found her tongue. “Well enough, I suppose.”
     “Hmph! Beoden is stubborn as a goat. I could lend a hand but he won’t hear of it. I gave him his name when he was a babe. Did you know that?”
     Megan blinked, but said nothing.
     “No, I’ll wager you didn’t. I’ll come look after your grandmother if he sends word. Dumb as an ox, that priest of his.”
     “Yes ma’am.”
     Ethne stared for a moment, then shooed the girl away. “Off you go, then. Devan has work to do. No time for pretty faces.”

     Now that they had met face to face, Megan took notice whenever she saw Devan. One day he came down the road beside their farm, driving a small herd of goats. Busy with a cow she was milking, she barely took notice before returning to the task at hand.
     A few days later she spotted him fishing along the riverbank. She had gone after a goat that had gotten out of its pen, and chased it quite a way downstream before catching it.
     A week later she saw him again on the road that went past their farm. He led an ass, laden with two large bundles of firewood. She stopped her work then and took notice, remembering that afternoon in the woods, and wondering how he managed that little trick he showed her. Devan turned just then and caught her eye. He grinned and waved. She returned his smile, but at that moment her mother called her away and she thought no more of the boy, who it seemed, could summon creatures at will.

This is, of cours, only an exerpt of the whole story. That’s all I can post for free online. If you would like to read the rest and offer a critique, let me know. Email me at “gorion” at “email” dot com.

That’s all I can post for free online. From me to you, hot from the forge.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Legacy

I came across these lyrics while perusing old 70’s songs I remembered from the radio. As I listened to the words, this one sparked my imagination instantly, and I had to drop what I was doing and spend the next 20 minutes free writing.

The Leader of the Band
Dan Fogelberg

An only child, Alone and wild
A cabinet maker’s son
His hands were meant for different work
And his heart was known to none.
He left his home and went his lone
And solitary way
And he gave to me a gift I know
I never can repay

A quiet man of music
Denied a simpler fate
He tried to be a soldier once
But his music wouldn’t wait
He earned his love through discipline
A thundering, velvet hand
His gentle means of sculpting souls
Took me years to understand.

The leader of the band is tired
And his eyes are growing old,
But his blood runs through
My instrument
And his song is in my soul.
My life has been a poor attempt
To imitate the man
I’m just a living legacy
To the leader of the band.

My brothers lives were different
For they heard another call.
One went to chicago
And the other to St. Paul.
And I’m in Colorado
When I’m not in some hotel,
Living out this life I’ve chose
And come to know so well.

I thank you for the music
And your stories of the road.
I thank you for the freedom
When it came my time to go.
I thank you for the kindness
And the times when you got tough
And, papa, I don’t think I
Said I love you near enough.

The leader of the band is tired
And his eyes are growing old,
But his blood runs through
My instrument
And his song is in my soul.
My life has been a poor attempt
To imitate the man
I’m just a living legacy
To the leader of the band.

I am the living legacy
To the leader of the band.

The tale spoke to me of a wizard who lived a solitary life, and passed on what he knew to his only son, who went on to do great things. His father’s memory was a strength, and helped him through some of the more difficult decisions of his life.

So here’s your exercise of the day. Pick a song you remember from long ago, or one that’s popular on the radio today, and free-write for 20 minutes.

Post your comments here, and let me know what comes out of your forge.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Mexican Salsa (muy sabrosa)

This is my favorite recipie. I compiled it from several sources and tweaked it until it came out just right. This recipie is family-sized (My wife and I have five kids), so if you use my measurements, you'll need a very lage bowl.

6 tomatos
1 white onion
6 Jalapenos (with seeds)
2 chopped Anaheim peppers
1/3 cup of white wine vinegar
1½ tablespoon of lime juice
Two 6oz cans of tomato paste
½ cup of chopped cilantro
1 ½ tablespoons of salt

2 tablespoons of chili powder.
1 to 2 cloves of garlic (a little goes a LONG way)
1 chopped avocado
Black beans
Black olives

You can mix all this up in a blender, but the tomatos turn frothy, and the whole thing comes out like runny ketchup. I prefer my salsa chopped. I have one of those hand-crank food processors that does a perfect job.

Some recipes mention that you should peel your tomatoes, but I have noticed no difference in either taste or texture. To peel a tomato, cut a cross in the bottom with a very sharp knife, then submerge the tomato in boiling water for about 45 seconds. After you pull it out, the skin will come right off.

Some recipes also say that the tomatos should be seeded. You can do that if you like, but it will make the salsa very chunky (a real Mexican would call it pico de gallo). I leave the seeds in, that way I don't need to add water.

Two magical ingredients are lime juice and vinegar. Vinegar enhances flavor, and also acts as a natural preservative.  Lime juice adds a little zing.

A third magical ingredient is salt. Add it in a little at a time. Remember, once it's in there, there's no turning back. Salt also brings out the flavor.

The fourth magical ingredient is cilantro. It adds that special je ne sais quois (I'd render that in Spanish if there was one).

You can play with the heat by adding more jalapenos.  I find that this recipe is very hot when first made, but that the heat declines after the salsa has sat overnight.  Another option to add heat would be to throw in a couple of serranos, which are quite a bit hotter than jalapenos.

So give this a try, and let me know how it comes out!

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Beauty Queen and the Blogger

It's all right to offend conservatives. Whatever your reason is, they probably deserve it. Anyone else is off limits, though; or you're a hate-monger, you're a racist, you're un-american--and if you're Perez Hilton, you're a dumb b****.

Just about everyone's heard about the Miss America peagant scandal. How can you not? The latest to weigh in on this issue is the director of Miss California USA Pageant officials. They released the following statement: "We are deeply saddened Carrie Prejean has...[gone] beond the right to voice her beliefs and instead reveals her opportunistic agenda."

For a re-cap, here is her response, verbatim: "In my country--In my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that's how I was raised, and that's how I think it should be--between a man and a woman."

That doesn't sound to me like she's got an opportunistic agenda. She definitely has an opinion on the matter, but she's being respectful and we know where she stands on the issue, and she doesn't go into any details.

There are two things going on here. The first, and most obvious, is that the pageant officials are trying to distance themselves any way they can from Prejean's response. The subtext, however, is one of excoriating rebuke.

I have to wonder. Would the Miss California panel be equally outraged if Prejean had responded that she was for gay marriage? Most likely not. There is a double-standard out there. People talk about tolerance and acceptance, but in reality they mean tolerance and acceptance according to a specific point of view. To go contrary to an opinion that the media dubs as "approproiate" is considered hateful, narrow-minded, bigoted, and un-american. To illustrate my point, remember actor Tom Hanks' remarks, when he recently accused The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of being "un-american" for supporting California's Proposition 8. The LDS church's response was very short and to the point: there is nothing more American than being able to exercise your freedom of speech and stand up for what you believe in. I think the Miss America pageant is the perfect forum for Prejean's response, whatever her opinion was on the matter.

Power to you, girl! Well played.

But here's something else to consider, who vetted these questions? I hear people everywhere saying, "the Miss America pageant was not the proper forum for that sort of response." Well if that were true then why was that question approved to begin with? I'll ask again, would these same people think her response equally inappropriate if Miss Prejean said that she supported gay marriage?

That one, dear reader, I'll leave for you to decide.

There you have it. From me to you, straight from the forge.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

From the Forge

The creative fire burns in all of us, and tapping into that flame is the quest of every artistic soul. "From the forge" is a phrase that popps into my mind continually. For me it symbolizes anything that is born during a moment of intense creative passion. Ideas from the forge are striking in their beauty, astonishing in their uniqueness, and inspiring in their form. I live for the thrill of seeing something new, and the surprise of watching it unfold for the very first time.

My vow to you, the reader, is that this will never be a blog about the mundane things that Tom Abbott is doing. No one wants to read a minute by minute update of every moment of someone else's life. This will never be a blog about my five favorite kinds of soda pop (unless I have something relevant to say on the matter), life from the point of view of my cat (unless I have some striking new insight in the way they live their lives), or preachy diatribes and political rants (unless they're well thought-out, honest, and respectful).

I also promise to keep my posts short. :)

Short, and always, straight from the forge.