Friday, September 24, 2010

Spain, Cartagena

This is the second part of a two part post.  You can read the first part here:

Friday, September 17, 2010
Madrid: Plaza Mayor, and Placio Real
Today’s adventure started with an excursion through the streets of Madrid. The first place we saw was El Plaza Mayor. My feet were killing me and we were pushed for time, so I didn’t take any pictures. We met a nice young Italian couple, who couldn’t speak anything but Italian. They wanted me to take their picture.

What we really wanted to see was El Placio Real, the royal palace, and that did not disappoint. There was a lot of stuff we weren’t allowed to take pictures of, and it would be hard to put it all into words. In short, it was opulent. The king of Spain doesn’t stay there; instead it is used for state occasions such as the signing of treaties, etc.

The best part of the Palacio Real for me was the armory, which had swords and suits of armor. People think of the era of knighthood and tournaments and jousting as iconic of the middle ages, but that all happened toward the latter end. Most of the stuff we saw was never used in war. We did see a breastplate that was riddled with dents from musket balls. That was at the very end of the exhibit, 1600s.

Madrid: Mission Reunion.
We met at the LDS temple. I got one picture of the outside of the temple, then my batteries went kaput. I’ll have to have others send me copies of all the group photos we took.

Anna and I got a ride back with a former companion and friend of mine, named Eduardo Saavedra. He and his wife gave us a whirlwind street tour of Madrid. We saw a bunch of places that were very pretty but I don’t remember the names of. It was nice to see the city above ground for a change. The metro is wonderful for getting you from A to B, but you don’t get to see anything but the inside of your train car.

Saturday, September 18, 2010
Madrid: Parque de Refugio
We were spent from all the running around. Wanted to go see Avila, because it was another walled medieval town like Segovia and Toledo, but we woke up way too late. Instead we went to Corte Ingles, then we went strolling through the Parque de Refugio (Park of Refuge). It was crowded with people going on paseo, and eclectic street performers.

We finished the evening with gofres (waffles) topped with Haagen-Dazs, and took another stroll through La Puerta del Sol and watched more performers. A human statue made himself look like a street cleaner. Put money in his cup and he springs to life for a moment, sweeping with his push broom, then goes still. It is utterly convincing. Guys on rollerblades did stunts. The crowd around them was thin and unimpressed. Another man sat beneath a covered table, his face and hair made up to look like an African native, and his head poking up through a hole so he looked like a severed head on a plate. “Guapa!” he called to the women. “Dame un beso!” and made kissing noises. His hands controlled two other head puppets. It gave everyone the creeps, but he always had a crowd.

Sunday, September 19, 2010
The Train to Cartagena
You don’t think of Spain as desert, but it is. The soil becomes more sandy, and dried grass grows more sparse between clumps the farther south you go. Occasional Acacias and prickly pears spring up in thorny patches. Palm trees sway in the heat.

We pass through rough country. Distant mountains jut toward the sky, their sides treacherous and rocky. Hills and crags are made of whitish chalky rock, or layered sandstone. The trees are all stunted pines and cypresses. No sage. It looks a lot like eastern Oregon, but missing are the dark-layered lava flows, and columns of basalt formations you might expect to see. This area is not volcanic.

Groves blanket the hills, mile after mile. It looks like Yakima Valley, but with Spanish architecture. You get the impression that Spain grows all of Europe’s fruit, or at least a good deal of it. Orange groves. Olive groves. Almond groves. Peach groves. Vineyards, with their climbing branches spread between poles. We see no herds of animals, no fields of corn or wheat.

And then there's a castle, right in the middle of nowhere.  This one is Chinchilla de Montearag├│n:

We pass through clumps of civilization. The houses huddle together, sharing the same walls in the back and on each side. There are no sidewalks and no yards. Doors open onto the street. There is absolutely no urban sprawl. Civilization begins and ends at an abrupt edge, with few (if any) outlying buildings. Free-standing structures are rare. Few people have a car, so they go on foot everywhere.

Houses are always made of brick or cement, with sagging roofs of tile or corrugated galvanized steel. Many have a flat roof that can be used as a terrace. Some houses are painted, or once were long ago. Others are covered with crumbling stucco, the red brick showing beneath. Others are bare brick, or grey cement, or cinder block. Everything has a run-down half-built look to it. Some buildings look new, but quite a few are old, or abandoned and falling apart. American-style gang graffiti is everywhere.

A few years ago Spain had a real-estate boom, just like in the US. Banks gave out loans to people who couldn’t pay, thinking that with the way prices kept rising no one could lose. Now there is a lot of unfinished construction. The buildings stand naked like hulking skeletons. Silent cranes loom motionless in their midst.

We spent the last three nights with Carmen and Jose, friends of Anna’s family. Carmen took us around to see the city. She knows everyone in her little neighborhood. She waves to friends and stops to talk. They kiss each other on the cheek. “Hola, guapa.” It impresses me how social the people of Spain are.

Two and three-story townhouses crowd the streets, built one right against the other. There’s a walled-off space between Carmen’s house and the next door down. Jose tells me it’s for one of his sons when he grows up and marries. “Family roots are very important here,” he explains. The area where they live is the closest thing to a suburb you’ll see anywhere in Spain. It’s has a small town feel in spite of it being a neighborhood in a city of 200,000.

Carmen and Jose have relatives going all the way back to the Visigoths, Moors, and probably even the Romans. Her family is somewhat influential. They have streets named after her relatives. Her father owns a large field only blocks away, surrounded by city buildings. Today it is the site of an enormous fair, with rides and booths. Carmen tells us that she has free tickets if we are interested, but we’re too beat for that kind of excitement.

We have tapas in the evening. I can’t name anything we ate. Some of it was very good. The worst was the salted, cured tuna. Very sharp! Carmen tells me that Spaniards won’t remember places they’ve been, but they’ll always remember the food.

Cartagena is in the middle of a ten-day celebration of the Roman’s victory over the Phoenicians. There are men and women everywhere dressed up in Roman and Carthaginian dress, historical re-enactors who perform mock-battles and plays of important historical events during that period. Everyone thinks it’s a strange thing to celebrate getting conquered, but they all get into the spirit. We find a stand selling churros and have something sweet after our dinner. The fair is packed with people.

Monday, September 20, 2010
Mar Menor
It is rainy and humid. My shirt sticks to my back, and even dry paper has a damp feel to it. Carmen takes us to see her family’s summer beach houses. “Down below us is the house of my aunt. Over there is the house of my brother.” She points to the balcony next door. The view is stunning, in spite of the overcast weather. Their property sits right on the waterfront, overlooking a vast lagoon with sweeping manicured beaches. A long sandbar lies across the horizon leaving only a small opening to the sea, its towering resort hotels like irregular teeth against the sky. The water is very shallow and extremely calm. The people call it “El Mar Menor,” because it is like a tiny version of the Mediterranean. The place has a very affluent feel. “In the summer, when you send your kids to live with us they can go swimming,” Carmen says.

Cabo de los Palos
A lighthouse sits on a high rock, jutting into the Mediterranean. It is raining just a bit. I smell the sea and breathe deep. Carmen likes the ocean. “It makes you feel very small.” She takes a couple pictures of me and Anna in front of the lighthouse.

Cenar (Supper)
We’re having empanadas, meat pies with a croissant crust. Some are very good. Others have a strong flavor. We try each one. Carmen won’t tell us what they are until we’ve taken a bite. I try one, it’s a little strange but not too bad. “That’s morcilla,” Jose informs me. Blood sausage.  I suddenly like it a whole lot less. I keep my mouth shut until Anna finishes hers. “You don’t have to eat it all,” Carmen says. I’m not a huge fan of anything made with blood.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010
The room we stay in has air-conditioning, the only one in the house. We keep it on constantly, but it never feels cold enough. I keep a 16oz bottle of water in my backpack, and it seems like I’m always filling it up.

The Mercado
There’s a huge market close to the port. Fishermen in the town bring in their catch early in the morning. The people eat anything that swims, and a good many things that don’t. The fish stare back with dead eyes. “If the eyes are clear then you know it’s still fresh,” Carmen explains. “That’s why they keep the head on. When you buy, they cut it and clean it for you.” She knows half the merchants by name, and moves among the booths like a veteran. The market smells fishy, but it doesn’t stink.

Boat Tour of la Puerta
Cartagena has been an extremely important Mediterranean port since it was discovered by Hannibal. It is one of the few deep-water ports in Europe, and the ship-yards there export new ocean-going vessles all over the world. Two small submarines lie in the water, sleek and black. They’re bound for South Korea. An enormous three-story yacht sits in the dry-dock. A massive oil rig from Italy awaits retrofitting before heading to the Gulf of Mexico.

When the Romans conquered Carthage they fortified the five hills surrounding the inlet, and called it Little Rome. The hills are ringed with layers of defensive walls, and each one is crowned with an artillery fortification. The mountains are honeycombed with bunkers and tunnels. There is a large naval facility.

The Romans built a huge amphitheater. It fell into disuse when the Byzantines conquered the area, and was burnt down by the Visigoths. The Moors pilfered stones for other buildings, and the people built houses on top of the rubble. Over time the amphitheater was forgotten. It was discovered in the 80s and dug up again in the 90s. It is a stunning find. Anna and I spent more than an hour there.

There is an old cathedral built on top of the amphitheater, which was destroyed by Franco during the Spanish Revolution.

In the middle of Cartagena lies a necropolis museum. It has a fascinating collection of Iberian Celtic, Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Gothic, Byzantine, and Moorish, artifacts. We spent another hour there.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Museum of Underwater Archeology
This museum was dedicated to researching shipwrecks and cities that were sunken underwater. I learned that amphorae have a pointy spike on the bottom because early merchants unloaded their cargo on the sandy shore. If your jug has a pointed base instead of a flat base you can wedge it into the sand and it will stay up better.

Train to Madrid
At 4:00pm we began the first leg of our complicated homeward journey. My train ticket had the same seat assignment as another passenger, so I had to sit somewhere else. This caused a commotion at every stop we made until the car was full. The last guy to come aboard was really ticked, and we had to get the conductor before he gave up and went grumbling off to the other end of the car. Thankfully no one else got on until we got to Madrid.

I slept and read. Anna watched a movie. The landscape was interesting on the first trip, but there is nothing new to see. The ride is long and boring.

Thursday, September 23, 2010
Homeward Bound
After a near disastrous wrong stop in the metro, we make it to the airport with no time to spare. They re-open the ticketing gate with no small amount of grumbling. Another woman had a flight that left in thirty minutes, but they wouldn’t let her on. After all the frowns and pointed comments, we make it to the gate and stand around for forty-five minutes before we begin boarding, wondering what all the commotion was about.

Anna and I pass the 8-hour flight watching Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood until the batteries on the netbook give out. That little computer saved our sanity. We have a layover in Atlanta, and I manage to charge it enough for another hour’s respite on the flight to Salt Lake City.

Finally home, and we’re ready to have our normal lives back. The kids are super happy to see us. The house smells unfamiliar, like we’re visiting a stranger. We dole out the presents that everyone got. My internal clock tells me that it’s 5:00am, and my brain is screaming for sleep. Grandma can put the kids to bed just one more night.

Things I’ll always remember from Spain
1. Spanish tortilla. I make this all the time for my family, but somehow the way they do it in Spain tastes better.
2. The bread with the hard crunchy crust on the outside and soft tender part inside. It leaves crumbs everywhere. You can NOT buy this anywhere in the US.
3. Carmen and her husband, Jose, who labored like campeones to make sure we had tried just about every piece of Spanish cuisine there was. Thank you guys, very much!
4. Lentejas with chorizo, which I had only once during our visit. I never knew how much I missed it. I ate a lot of that in the Canaries.
5. Will Beus, a friend from my mission and my years at BYU. We hadn’t seen each other in fifteen years. He’s living in Barcelona now with his family.
6. Eduardo Saavedra. We were only companions one month, and he was one of two native-speaking companions I ever had. Thanks for giving us a lift back to the hotel!
7. Segovia, with its graceful Roman arches and magnificent castle. Anna was least excited to go there, but found it by far the most impressive place we visited.
8. Toledo, where I ran $1000 over our savings to buy souvenirs. I’m still trying to figure out how we’re gong to pay for all that stuff. I hope Anna’s dad likes the sword we got him.
9. The metro and the trains that took us literally everywhere.
10. Puerta del Sol, with its vibrant crowds, and eclectic artists and performers.

It feels like I’ve been on vacation for a long time. My first night back I dream about trains. I wake up to use the bathroom and panic because I can’t remember what hotel room we’re in. It takes half a minute for the logical half of my brain to reboot and realize that we’re not in Spain anymore. “See? There’s carpet on the floor. You never saw that anywhere, did you?” Our trip is finally at an end.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Spain, Segovia and Toledo

Our first day in Spain was quite an adventure. I am feeling pretty jet-lagged right now. We didn’t sleep much the night before leaving, because we wanted to switch our biological clocks to Spanish time—but we ended up being too wired to sleep on the plane. Then we went straight to Segovia and spent the whole day there. In all, I think I got eight hours of sleep over a 36-hour period. Last night I crashed for about ten hours and didn’t wake up this morning until 9:50.

We spent our first day in Segovia. That’s the place with the huge Roman aqueduct, and the huge Disney-style castle. To say the town was picturesque really doesn’t do it justice. The place was simply extraordinary. The old part of the city is on the top of a very tall hill with steep rocky sides. The whole thing is surrounded by walls, originally built by the Romans.

The old Roman aqueduct dominates the skyline, and it cuts the town in half. You can’t tell from the post cards, but it’s right in the middle of the city. There’s a huge traffic circle on one side with a bus stop, and there’s a busy plaza on the other side, and all around are modern European style buildings. Anna was very, very impressed.

We also went to Segovia to see its iconic Alcazar. That’s the Spanish word for fortress. The castle looks like something straight out of Disneyland—but real. If you want to see an honest to goodness, fairy-tale, medieval-style castle where kings and queens actually slept, then the Alcazar de Segovia a definite must.

We went to Toledo to see a real medieval village. Like Segovia, Toledo also sits on top of a hill, surrounded by battlements and towers. You want to see what a fortified town from the middle-ages looks like? It has walls that are 30 to 80 feet high. It’s indescribable, and yes, people still live there—an honest to goodness city surrounded by fortress walls. How cool is that??? You just don’t see anything like that in the US.

We really should have planned that trip better. Unlike Segovia, everything in Toledo starts closing at 6:00. I was really disappointed we didn’t get to go see the cathedral. It’s supposed to be the oldest in Spain. We also wanted to see the monastery of San Juan de los Reyes.

Toledo has some incredible, incredible hand-made art. There are painted plates, which are exquisite. You can’t get them anywhere else in the world. There is this type of etched jewelry with gold and silver inlay, which is indescribable and beautiful. Then there are the swords. Toledo was once famous for its steel, and the Toledo swordsmiths were once the finest in Europe and the middle east. Most of today’s swords are replicas, somewhat cheap and touristy. You have to hunt, but if you’re persistent you can find some real quality blades.

I ended up getting a replica El Cid sword for my father-in-law. I also got a high-quality hand-and-a-half longsword made of beautiful Damascus steel. Anna got a bell, and for her mother (who has temporary command of our platoon while we’re away) we got a special surprise.

The architecture in both Toledo and Segovia is incredible. The Spaniards kicked out the Moors, but their artistic influence stayed. The train station looks like a Mosque.

Metro (Subway).
Anna and I have been discovering first-hand just how convenient a modern mass-transit system can be. Directly from the airport, we went all the way to Segovia, and set foot outside only once and that was when we got on the Ave (Spanish high-speed train). And we had a covered walkway just in case it happened to be raining.

The subway system in Madrid is extensive. It looks just like subway systems you see in movies that are set in Europe. It’s pretty noisy. It rolls and jounces along, screeching as it comes to a halt. It’s not too loud, except for when your train passes another, and there’s this appalling scream for a couple seconds. Getting on, I half expected to see little Japanese men with sticks, pushing people on, but there was none of that.

We took the trains everywhere. They’re high-speed. They’re electric. The ride is extremely smooth (smoother than a car ride, at least), and almost perfectly quiet (the air-conditioning coming through the vents is louder). There are no seat belts. Some of the tracks are so smooth you barely know that the train is in motion. Acceleration and deceleration is so gradual and the train is so quiet you hardly notice that you’ve started moving or come to a stop. Different trains move at different speeds. The slower ones move along at 140KPH, and the fastest go at a blistering 391KPH. The one that we took from Segovia back to Madrid clipped along at a smooth 245KPH (152 MPH). We got there in 30 minutes flat.

How’s that for mass transit?  I think it looks like a duck...

As you ride, trains coming in the opposite direction can be startling. You never see it coming until you feel a shock wave from the air as both trains meet and go hissing by. A 200ft train will pass in less than a second. Your ears pressurize when you go through a tunnel because it has to push the air through in front of it. The tunnels are narrow and you can see the wall sliding past barely two feet away.
People commute on these trains regularly. You’ll see cars parked at the station in Segovia for people who take the train into Madrid in the mornings and return in the evening.

A popular evening custom in Spain is “Ir de paseo,” or to go for a walk, but that translation really doesn’t describe what it means. The point is to go out and talk with your neighbors and spend time with your friends. People meet up after work when the weather cools off. Young and old alike go out in large groups, all dressed up nice, and sit in the plazas and street corners talking and laughing. There is a tremendous atmosphere. They hang out in sidewalk cafes, “comiendo tapas” (eating tapas), which are small portions of food.

Anna and I went out tonight. We had tortilla (which is like a thick omelet made with potatos), ensalidilla ruso (Russian salad, which is like potato salad, but with more vegetables and no pickle relish), a sampler of Spanish cured meats, and something that looked like pinto beans with ham in olive oil.

Our hotel is right on El Plaza del Sol, which is smack dab in the middle of Madrid. It has a very artsy feel to it. Tonight there was a band of Mexican mariachis (of all things) playing. Last night there was some dude that danced with fire. Artists and musicians hang out. It’s pretty vibrant.

Mexican Mariachis--en Spain.  Go figure:

Technology has yet to take over this people’s lives the way it has intruded upon ours. Don’t get me wrong, this place is modern as tomorrow, but you don’t see cell phones everywhere like you do in the US. You see large groups of teens and twenty-somethings strolling along, and few if any of them will be on the phone. I’ve only seen two or three people dig a laptop out of their backpack like you see all over the US.

Historical sites.
I’m continually impressed at the amount of heritage that these people have. We have heritage in the US, but it’s not seven hundred years old. In the US you don’t have apartment buildings abutting 400 year-old churches. You don’t have ancient Roman and Visigothic ruins surrounded by two or three story townhouses.

You have to wonder what it would be like to live somewhere like this, to grow up around it. Anna was telling me that all the Spanish exchange students that stayed at her house would comment that there wasn’t anything really old around where people lived. The “New World” as we call it is very aptly named. In the western US we have a few historical landmarks like the Alamo, or an old pioneer village, or maybe if you go back east you can see historical buildings from early colonial times—but we don’t have anything that is really, really old.

My brain kept doing back-flips. It looks like southern Idaho, or eastern Oregon/Washington, or Utah with flatter mountains. There is grass everywhere. Lots of groves of something, fruit and olives. There are trees, but there are no forests. People have lived here and used this land for thousands of years..
Add a smattering of acacias, Joshua trees, and sage, and this could be anywhere in southern Utah.

It’s been warm and muggy the entire time. I probably wouldn’t have noticed if I didn’t live in Utah where it is very dry year round.

I understand that there are a lot of differences between the language spoken in Spain versus what they speak in Mexico and South America. Aside from the obvious accent and the differences in vocabulary I’ve noticed also that word-use is very different. I can’t put my finger on it, but I see signs here and I think, “Oh, in the US it would have said something different.” I think that in a lot of ways the differences are much like what you’d expect between English spoken in Great Britain and English spoken in the US, but in the case of Spain versus the rest of the world, the difference is even more pronounced.

My Spanish is functional. I won’t describe it as perfect because I make far too many mistakes. That whole “el”, versus “la” thing, I could never quite get it down. The general rule that –o is masculine and –a is feminine only takes you so far. Then there’s words like “el agua,” or “la mano.” Also you have –e words like “el aciete,” all of which you simply have to memorize.

I have moments of coherence when I’m not babbling like an oaf. The people are rather kind. I ask them a question and get a confused look for a second, then their face lights up and they answer. I can almost see the wheels turning as their brain churns away, trying to interpolate, and then the light goes on—ding! “Ah, pues que si!”

More to come.
This is the first part of a two-part post.  To view more, click here:

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Law of the Harvest

Among Christians there is a principle called the Law of the Harvest (Galatians 6:7), which says basically, "you reap what you sow". It's a familiar proverb--one that's surprisingly easy to forget.

If a farmer wants to grow wheat, he has to prepare his field, plant the seed, then irrigate it throughout the season. After that, he has to trust in God that there will be a good growing season. Any number of bad things can happen: a hailstorm, pests, weeds, etc. At the end of the season, his work bears fruit. There is always an abundance. Part of it the farmer sells for profit, part of it he uses to feed his family, and part of it he lays aside for the next season.

This law applies to writing as well.

  1. Learn the craft. Take college courses, read books, attend lectures and conventions and workshops, etc.

  2. Join a writer’s group.

  3. Set goals as a writer. Vow to write a certain word-count within a certain amount of time, and to finish a certain amount of stories.

  4. Build a network of contacts within the industry. Attend conventions and become a contributor within the community.

  5. Build a following within a community of readers so that you can generate interest.

  6. Trust in God.

The whole process is pretty much an act of faith.

Something that keeps me motivated me are the words to The Climb, by Miley Cyrus. This is an awesome song, and it has a powerful lesson for anyone at any stage in life.

There’s always gonna be another mountain
I’m always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be an uphill battle
Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose

Ain’t about how fast I get there
Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side
It’s the climb

Friday, May 14, 2010

Servant of a Dark God

I was excited to get a copy of this book and read it. I met John D. Brown at the 2010 LTUE. He gave a two-hour seminar called How to Write a Story That Rocks, which he presented with Larry Correia. It was awesome.

I’m going to stop rating books on a scale of one to five. In my opinion, three stars is a good solid score, but I can’t give a good book a three out of five without sounding like I hated it. I will, however, continue my nun-rating—that’s just hilarious.

A monster named Hunger is wandering the countryside eating the souls of people. Hunger is like—well, he’s a soul-sucking golem…of sorts. Guess you’ll have to read the book for yourself. Brown borrows from Beowulf, and puts many parallels between Hunger and Grendel into his story.

Hunger has a good deal of inner conflict, which makes him a fascinating villain. In spite of his being an indestructible abomination, you identify with him and you start rooting for him as he tries to break free of the Mother, who controls him.

Yes, Hunger has a Mother. He also gets his arm ripped off.

The dialog in this story had good tension, and I very much enjoyed the repartee. I’ll give full marks for that aspect.

Talen, the main character, was likeable. He is intelligent, and his sense of conscience keeps him from doing anything too stupid (he spends a good deal of the book working against the plot).

I very much enjoyed the scene where Talen and Sugar kiss. Talen’s father is hiding Sugar and her younger brother from the Shoka warriors. Talen thinks Sugar is an evil deceptive Sleth hatchling, and he is very much afraid of her. The Shoka are coming to search the farm and Sugar decides to pretend that she and Talen are lovers. Sugar is the first girl he’s ever kissed, and…well, go read it for yourself. Hilarious.

The other characters are very likeable, but it took me a while to warm up to them. I don’t mind two or three points of view, but this story has seven. It’s agonizing to get wrenched from one POV to the next.

I particularly liked the way the Shoka warriors weren’t just faceless thugs. Talen and his friends knew many of them by name. These people all grew up together, and they were familiar with each other’s personality quirks. I found a really good model to emulate in the way Brown pulled this off. I’m going to try and remember this trick in my own writing.

Another thing I liked about this story is that the characters were ordinary people. I’m really tired of reading about nobility, about lost heirs, about bored princesses—all that has been so done to death. Servant was fairly refreshing in that aspect.

Brown does a good job in this area. He spent a lot of time researching medieval life, and was familiar with the tools of the day and the names for the simple everyday objects the people used. There was a scene that took place at sea. I could tell that Brown did a lot of research to make sure he got all the language and terminology right.

I love a good opening hook, and Servant of a Dark God scores well:

Talen sat at the wooden table in nothing but his underwear because he had no pants. Somehow, during the middle of the night, they had walked off the peg where he’d hung them. And he’d searched high and low. The last of their cheese was missing as well.

The cheese he could explain: if you were hungry and a thief, then cheese would be a handy meal to take. But it was not the regular poverty-striken thief who roamed miles off the main roads, risked entering a house, and passed up many other fine and more expensive goods to steal a pair of boy’s dirty trousers hanging on a peg in the loft.

No, there wasn’t a thief in the world that would do that. But there was an older brother and sister.

I particularly enjoyed the scene in chapter 3 where Talen has to walk home alone through a forest. He’s just been beat up, and all he has to defend himself is a few rocks and a stick.

Talen tried to keep himself from running. But the farther he got into the dark, old wood, the more he felt like a fat worm sinking on a hook into the water.

A fat worm that had already been worked over…

…Only when he reached [his own farm] did he stop and turn, and, with much panting, search the woods.

Nothing. Nothing at all.

The Sleth children, if there had ever been any, must have been one-legged pigeons. No regular monsters would have let him escape alive.

I wish I had more of that during the scenes with the other characters. Granted, the voice in this scene was going for mild comic relief, but I’ve read other stories where the narrative was serious and the voice was just as entertaining.

I wish authors of high fantasy would try harder in this area. Good voice really livens up a narrative. Somehow everyone’s got the idea that high fantasy has to be dry and serious.

What if there were higher beings that fed off the life-force of humans, in the same way that humans feed off of cattle? Concept is where Servant is strongest. I think readers will find themselves hooked, and I think this series will sell well.

Brown does a good job developing the backstory and explaining just enough of how the present situation in the world came to be. At times I found it a bit much to take in, but I’ll give him credit for making a fire hose feel more like a really big glass of water.

Four out of five nuns give their approval, and agreed that the story was very much acceptable. The mother superior didn’t like the light cussing, which doesn’t surprise me—although the sisters confided with me that she stayed up all night to finish it.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Manifesto on Fantasy

Don’t get me wrong, I really do like fantasy. What I can’t stand is the way nearly all fantasy today is portrayed: long unpronounceable names of places that don’t exist, epic struggles between kings that never ruled, courtly intrigue with impossibly beautiful princesses, and the struggles of brooding exiled princes. Here’s a sample of what I’m saying:

Upon the plains of Xe’tatha, King Chertarand with his ten-thousand gleaming knights of Temtiniel met Gar-huul the Emperor of Darkeness and blah-blah, blah-blah, blah-blah…

The narration lurches on, flinging the reader into a pedantic history lesson that I’ll never remember a week or two after I’ve read the last page and put the book down. To make it all more palatable the novel comes with handsome cover-art and a nicely-drawn map.

Tolkien never wrote like that.

Let me be clear. He wrote plenty about places that don’t exist and people that never lived, but the difference was that he didn’t start out throwing a bunch of imaginary history at the reader. Also, his main characters weren’t kings, or socially repressed princesses, or orphaned princes destined to save the world. They were normal guys, like you and me.

Well, actually, they were hobbits—but that’s my point, exactly. Hobbits are a metaphor for ordinary people going face to face with a quest that was impossibly huge. Tolkien made Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and Sam likeable underdogs in one fell swoop. To invite his readers in, Tolkien doesn’t try to impress them or her with epic grandeur, either. He saves that for the end, and begins Lord of the Rings begins on a much more comfortable note:

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

The Fellowship of the Ring

J. R. R. Tolkien

See? No gleaming swords, no scaly dragons, no ravens fluttering over the rusting armor and whitened bones spread upon some forgotten battlefield. All that stuff is in Tolkien’s writing—don’t mistake what I’m saying. He just starts out on a much lighter voice.

Which brings me to my real point: voice in fantasy.

Why is it that fantasy authors have such a hard time with this? They have no problem emulating the rest of Tolkien’s shtick, but when it comes to voice, they just don’t get it. The world has enough history lessons, I don’t need to supplement my life with imaginary ones.

Here are some examples of what I’m looking for:

Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways. For one thing, he hated the summer holidays more than any other time of year. For another, he really wanted to do his homework but was forced to do it in secret, in the dead of night. And he also happened to be a wizard.

Harry Potter, and the Prisoner of Azkaban

J. K. Rowling

Here’s another:

Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.
If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now. Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life.

Percy Jackson and the Olypians, The Lightning thief

Rick Riordan

“But Tom, really!” you say. “These are all YA or middle-grade novels—kid’s books!”

Dude, do you think LotR was a kid’s book?

Let’s try something more mature, then:

My name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. I'm a wizard. I work out of an office in midtown Chicago. As far as I know, I'm the only openly practicing professional wizard in the country. You can find me in the yellow pages, under 'Wizards'. Believe it or not, I'm the only one there…

You'd be surprised how many people call just to ask me if I'm serious. But then, if you'd seen the things I'd seen, if you knew half of what I knew, you'd wonder how anyone could not think I was serious.

Storm Front, Book One of the Dresden Files

Jim Butcher

This isn’t about openings, and it’s not about first lines—it’s about voice. It’s about balancing the serious, epic side of fantasy with levity. Rowling was a master at this, which is why Harry Potter can be so dark and serious, yet have moments where you laugh your head off. Jim Butcher is an expert at pulling this off, as well.

Other writers are free to write whatever they want, and I hope they keep on doing it, too. As for me, I will take the path less-traveled.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Highlights of Life the Universe & Everything (Saturday)

Saturday, February 13
I got to the convention early so I could mill around the registration area in case any world-famous writers happened to be hanging out, and I got to meet Brandon Mull. We struck up a really nice conversation.

Brandon is one of my heroes. I told him how I picked up a copy of Fablehaven in Smiths, looking for something to read because so much out there stinks. I opened it to page one and liked some of the imagery that he used, and after that I was hooked.

Brandon graduated BYU the same year I finished my master’s work. He got a degree in public relations and got a job doing pretty much that. I then pointed a finger and said, “Ah ha! That explains a lot. You know how to sell yourself, don’t you? You came up with a concept you could pitch, and went out and sold it.” And that was pretty much it.

I am a firm believer that success stories don’t happen by accident. All successful novel ideas start with a solid concept. What is Fablehaven’s concept? A nature preserve for fairies and magical beings. If you look around you, you can see concept in just about every story that is successful. The concept behind Twilight is a forbidden romance between a young girl and a vampire lover. The concept behind Spiderman is a young man who gets spider-powers, who learns that with great power comes great responsibility and it becomes his duty to be a hero and a protector. The concept behind Star Trek is a crew of space explorers whose five-year mission is to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and civilizations, and to boldly go where no Man has gone before. The concept behind the Dresden Files is a wizard living in Chicago who works as a private investigator solving paranormal crimes.


As readers, most people aren’t even aware of it, but as a writer you need to have it firmly fixed in your mind. Why is concept so important? Because having a clear concept in your mind means you can clearly pitch the idea behind your story in 25 words or less. Because when publishers and editors hear your concept they can create an image for your story and build a marketing campaign around it. Because when you go to sell your idea to the world and a reader picks up your book they have a clear idea what kind of story they can expect.

Fablehaven Presentation. This was a presentation by Brandon Mull. As a kid, he really wasn’t all that interested in reading, for him it was kind of lame until he got a hold of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Right around that time he went on vacation to his grandmother’s house and thought, “If there’s any place I’m going to find a magical closet or a wardrobe, this will be it.”

He went to BYU and majored in public relations. He became a writer for the divine comedy troupe, doing humorous sketches. I think that is significant because humor is so important in writing YA. Humor will make anything fun to read. You don’t have to use it in every story, but I believe it is one of the ingredients that made Harry Potter so addictive. People love reading something enjoyable that makes them laugh.

Using Fantasy and Science Fiction in the Classroom: Reaching Reluctant Readers. This was part of the educator’s conference. Most of the people in the panel discussion were teaching K-12.

It was golden.

I sat in there listening to their questions and reading between the lines.

I have a theory of success that goes like this. You publish a YA novel. You get it into the schools as part of their reading curriculum. Kids love it (I hope), then they take it home. Parents see it and say, “Hmmm, what is my kid reading?” They investigate and get hooked. Parents tell their friends. Friends tell their friends. In the end, kids learn to read, adults have a good time, and I make lots of money. Everybody’s happy.

I believe that this is the mechanism by which Harry Potter became the phenomenon that it is today.

There are a few critical pieces to success using this strategy:
you must be able to tell a story so that it knocks the reader’s socks off.
you must have interesting characters
you must have a comfortable inviting realistic and immersive milieu that the reader will crave spending time in.
you must make good use of humor and repartee
you must have a solid concept that you can pitch to the world
ABOVE ALL: When an adult picks up your book, they must not at any time feel like they are reading a “kids book.”

So, when I went to this discussion I was basically trying to figure out how I can make a book appealing to a teacher. That led to the question of, what is the purpose of using fiction in the classroom? Fiction creates a desire to read. Having a desire to read means that a student will develop greater comprehension and vocabulary. Having a good comprehension and vocabulary means a student can learn faster.

Every educator knows this.

In a nutshell, reading is a fundamental gateway to acquiring knowledge. You can teach a child knowledge, but that’s like giving a man a fish. You’ve fed him for the day but the next morning you’re back where you started. If you teach a child to read, it’s like teaching that same man to fish. The child can begin to learn on their own. Reading is the very lifeblood to vocational training and the foundation for any form of higher education.

And it all starts with a desire for story.

Well written F/SF stimulates the imagination and sparks wonder in the reader’s mind, causing them to ask questions and play with ideas in a creative way. It prompts them to imagine alternate realities that function according to different sets of rules. This in turn drives further curiosity to explore the ramifications and benefits of those rules. F/SF provides a medium where children can fully explore their imagination.

Why is all this make-believe stuff so important? Science and engineering is all about using the creative mind to solve problems. You must marry the logical left hemisphere of the brain with the artistic and creative right hemisphere. This is why so many scientists and engineers and researchers were Star Wars nerds or Dungeons and Dragons geeks as teenagers.

The world is filled with problems that as yet have no solution, and if we’re going to fix those problems we need the ability to think outside the established norm and investigate solutions in unorthodox ways.

Saturday Keynote Address by Brandon Sanderson. Brandon began by talking about false notions. To illustrate he told how we all grew up believing that the people in Columbus’s time thought that the earth was flat. We were taught that the people thought if you sailed far enough you would fall off the edge of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Since about 400BC, educated people throughout Europe not only knew that the earth was round, but they had a decent idea of how big it was, too.

Columbus was merely the first person to try and put that knowledge to good use.

In reality, the resistance he faced was in convincing people that it could be done. How far could they sail before they ran out of food? What dangers would they face? Up until this time, people never strayed more than a couple day’s distance from land.

So, with this example set before us and totally debunked, Brandon presented another false notion. A F/SF writer once stated, somewhat defensively, that F/SF wasn’t all crap. It was actually 90% crap. If you looked hard enough, there were some bits that were actually quite good. (I’m paraphrasing) Well, this notion caught on, and contributed to the idea that no one ought to take F/SF seriously. One author remarked tongue in cheek, 90% of all F/SF is crap and the rest goes to my agent.

Carrying this logic further, this means that publishers have been pushing to market stuff that they fundamentally believe is crap. This in turn means that 90% of all readers are inherently stupid and can be satisfied on a steady diet of crap.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Brandon Sanderson went on to rail against the literary establishment who thinks that commercial fiction is rubbish, and F/SF writers are a bunch of sell-outs and schlock jockeys.

It was really quite good. I wish I’d recorded it so I could capture his reasoning better.

He got an enthusiastic ovation at the end.

I have a theory that goes something like this. Don’t argue with success. You don’t have to like it, but you would do well to understand why it happens. If Dan Brown can sell millions and millions of books with writing quality that a sixth-grader could beat, there’s a reason. If Stephanie Meyer can virtually resurrect a laughable genre that was essentially doomed, and turn it into a multi billion-dollar pulp sensation, there’s a reason.

I got into writing because I picked up a book by L. E. Modesset Jr and after 175 pages said to myself, how did this guy get published? After learning that he successfully cranked out more than a dozen books in the Recluse series I realized that you can’t define success. You can’t put limits on what people will crave. If someone is making a killing somewhere, you don’t have to like it, you don’t have to copy it, but you ought to pay attention. People aren’t stupid, and they don’t flock to crap. When a new phenomenon becomes manifest, it means that there is an area in the market that is un-tapped. It means we don’t understand everything that the public likes. Unfortunately it is something we’re all reminded of again and again and again. Thanks, Lee. I owe you a debt of gratitude for a lesson well-learned.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Highlights of Life the Universe & Everything (Friday)

Friday, February 12
How to Become an Idea Factory. If writers get asked one question more than any other it is, “Where do you get all your ideas?”

One comment that I heard from panelists repeatedly was that they let their ideas stew around in their heads. The good ideas will eventually turn into stories, and the bad ones just kind of go away. I heard comments similar to this from two, maybe three different authors.

All good stories start with a question. What if… In the How to Write a Story That Rocks presentation last night, John Brown stated that you need to come up with a problem that the hero has to face.

Also, you can fuse together two or more unrelated story ideas into a new story. For instance, James Dashner’s Mazerunner book is essentially Ender’s Game plus Lord of the Flies. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series is basically, what if the dark overlord won the epic war, plus Ocean’s Eleven.

Once you can do any of these things, the only difference between you and a bestselling author is learning to pick which ideas are good and which are not.

I heard Brandon Sanderson mention an anecdote from another bestselling author. A fan approached the man and said, I have a great idea. I’ll tell you, and we can publish a novel and split the profit. The author said, “Ideas for me are a dime a dozen, and I’ve already got way more than I can use. I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you learn how to write, then when you become a bestselling author come see me again. I’ll give you one of my ideas and then you go write the book and we’ll split the profits.

I thought that was a clever repost.

In summary, for an author that is well-published, it really isn’t about coming up with a good idea. Good ideas are everywhere, it’s really a matter of being able to recognize them and turn them into a story.

Brandon Sanderson said when he was in the 4th grade he learned to play the trumpet. When he got to high school he joined an ensemble band and tried to learn jazz. He was really good at trumpet, but he just couldn’t get jazz. His teacher said jazz was a different skill. It comes from the heart, not from notes on a page.

As a writer, coming up with ideas is much the same thing. Being able to write, even being able to write well is more of a skill than anything else. The real art in writing, then, is in learning to bring out the soul.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Highlights of Life the Universe & Everything

I was surprised at how well things went over this year at BYU’s XXVIII-th fantasy and science fiction symposium. Here are some of the highlights for me.

Thursday, February 11
I took the day off and got down to BYU early so I could find good parking. It was already packed.

Style in Speculative Fiction. I didn’t take much away from this and there really isn’t a lot to say. F/SF is really about story.

More important than style is voice. Voice, in my definition, is the attitude and the tone of the narrator. Think of the narrator of a story as sitting in front of you as he reads the story. Is the narrator up-beat or depressing? Is the narrator optimistic or pessimistic? Is the narrator preachy?

Voice, not style is more important in F/SF.

Fantasy without Magic. Can you have fantasy without magic? Yes. Anything with monsters in it can be considered fantasy. Anything where man is in an alien environment and you don’t have technology is fantasy. The best example would be the Anne McCaffrey dragon-rider novels. Two examples from classical fantasy are Conan and Tarzan.

Magic is anything that doesn’t follow the laws of physics in our universe.

Magic is also what the publisher says it is. There was a big discussion on who wins when a writer gets into a dispute on how to classify an author’s novel. Apparently the publisher is always right.

There was also a long discussion debating how much you try and explain magic in fantasy. Tolkien felt deeply that if you could explain magic it wouldn’t be magic, it would be science. I can see his point, and he strove to make Gandalf be the kind of character that made magic seem wonderful and awe-inspiring.

Brandon Sanderson took the complete opposite approach, and once he explained his position I found that I agreed more with him. You establish in your story the limits of what magic can and cannot do. You give enough info so that readers can catch on to how it works and what it can do, then you move on. Sanderson always puts an appendix at the end of his novels that provides more information if people want to dig in deeper.

Along this topic, Brandon Mull made an interesting comment in a discussion panel on Saturday (yeah, I’m jumping ahead a couple days). He said that you need to establish rules of how magic works. If magic can do anything characters’ choices become boring and your story sags. You need to explain the magic in your story just enough so that the reader understands its limits and is able to anticipate how the characters might solve a problem. This allows the reader to feel like they are participating more in the story.

Good panel discussion.

Creating a Wizard that isn’t another Gandalf, Merlin, Dumbledore, etc. In this panel they talked about Joseph Campbell’s mentor archetype within the hero’s journey. Older people had more life experience, which they could in turn impart to younger generations. In this way, a mentor character in a story is one who understands the world.

We also have two basic story types where a mentor appears. In the first type, the mentor teaches the pupil and then he dies. For an example, Star Wars. In the second type of tale the mentor remains around (usually) but the hero has to learn how to solve problems on their own. For an example, think Harry Potter.

Writing Realistic Military Fiction. I grew up an Air Force brat, and I’ve always had a lot of respect for the military. I would love to be able to write good military fiction, but I was never engrained with that culture.

This was a lecture by a Marine officer who yelled throughout the entire presentation. He went hoarse after about 20 minutes and needed to use the mic.

It was interesting.

The weapon says a lot about the soldier. The presenter started talking about the M-16, which requires a lot of training, but is very accurate and comes with tons of attachments. It is a very technical weapon. He compared it to the AK-47, which you can bury in the mud for a month, rinse it off, then take it to war. The Americans use technology and training as a force-multiplier in their tactics and strategy. The enemy’s strategy is overwhelming numbers. The presenter also mentioned the Samurai and the culture surrounding their sword (the sword being the soul of the warrior), and the Jedi who were patterned in many ways after the Samurai.

He also talked about the OODA-loop. Orient, Observe, Decide, Act. Whoever goes through this process the fastest will out-maneuver their enemy and win. Whoever comes in second place will always have out-dated information. He also said that you can’t spend all your time orienting and observing because it takes time and your enemy will have the advantage over you.

There is a lot of luck in war.

Putting Romance in your Fantasy. Clint Johnson, one of my writing friends, was moderator for this panel. I congratulated him afterwards on a job well-done, and for daring to even approach subject. At the start of the discussion he announced his qualifications as being the “token Y-chromosome.”

Fantasy stories are usually about saving the world. In contrast, romance stories are centered around a relationship, first and foremost. When you put the two together the fantasy element is there to provide a setting, or a vehicle for the plot. Fantasy elements can also be used to convey social metaphors, or be used as symbols for real-life elements.

Elements of romance stories:
1. Create sexual tension. Take a man and a woman and put a wall between them. Throw up every barrier you can imagine that would keep the two of them from hooking up. Your plot, then, is how the two manage to get together and make things work.
2. If readers fall in love with your characters, then they will believe that the two characters could in turn fall in love with each other.
3. Put the man and woman in a situation where they are forced to work together. They must have complimentary gifts, and both are required to resolve the conflict.
4. Give the man and woman opposing quests. Set one up to undermine the other. For the plot to be resolved, one must make a decision about who he/she is, and change.
5. Give both characters an internal conflict as well as an external conflict.

Writing Strong Female Characters. The panelists started by talking about what a strong woman is.
1. More than just a man with breasts. (I really ought to have gotten more of an explanation out of them for that one)
2. A woman who doesn’t have to act like a man to get what she wants in a man’s world.
3. Centered. Has a well-defined self-image, and is comfortable with who she is.
4. Know what she wants and is willing to make it happen.

In general, strong characters in fiction are the ones who make the decisions and are an active force. They are the movers and the shakers in your story.

There was a big discussion on how to balance historical accuracy, while still remaining sensitive to the values of modern readers. Specifically, women in the middle ages were often thought of as property. How do you write in such a way that you remain true to the period without offending modern readers?

The conclusion was that fiction is not about conveying factual truths of a given period. It is to convey truths about humanity. Its purpose is to portray human nature and explore the question, what does it mean to be human? If a period-specific detail from an ancient culture can be used to illustrate a situation and make a point, then it is relevant and deserves a place in your story.

A friend of mine from the audience quoted me during this panel, which I took as quite a compliment. That gave me the opportunity to add some input of my own to the discussion. The panel was talking about differences in the way men and women fight. Women snipe at each other and fight with words. Men fight by punching each other’s lights out.

I countered that men also fight with words--that’s what “talking smack” is all about. In a well-written story, a clever male hero will diffuse a tense situation using humor. Men are more cautious about letting things come to blows because instinctively, they know that in the next thirty seconds someone could wind up maimed or dead.

No More Dead Dogs (or Mothers). This panel was about avoiding literary clich├ęs, specifically, why are so many heroes orphans (Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Spiderman, Batman, Superman). The feeling was that authors were becoming lazy in an attempt to garner the reader’s sympathy for their character.

I totally agree.

I didn’t find much value in this discussion, so I slipped out and got a quesadilla. 20 minutes later I came back and they’d gone through all the questions and were taking comments from the audience. They still had a half hour to go.

How to Write a Story That Rocks. Presented by John Brown and Larry Correa. This two-hour workshop was one of the highlights for me. It was basically a structured way of brainstorming ideas for plot. It reinforced everything I already knew, and added a handful of key elements that I was missing.

I think I know enough now to write a story that can get published. I think all I lack at this point is the will to follow through and finish. I can’t put it any plainer than that.

During the first panel this morning, of the panelists stood up and asked the room for a show of hands, how many people present had finished writing their first novel. It didn’t have to be published, just completed. I estimated about eight to nine out of ten hands went up. Wow. I’m not so certain as to the quality of all these novels, but that’s at least 130 people in the state of Utah who write F/SF who are ahead of me in the game. I really need to get on the ball.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Do's and Don'ts of Networking

The following is a transcription of notes I took during a presentation by Clint Johnson at the Oquirrh Hills chapter meeting for the League of Utah Writers, on January 21st.

Do’s of Networking.
  1. Do make use of every opportunity to network, no matter how unlikely you think the chance might turn into something significant later on down the road.

  2. Do be professional. Most professions require a degree, such as an AA, BA, MS, MBA, etc. There is no such thing for creative writers. A BFA or an MFA is not mean you’re a good creative writer. Agents and other professionals have nothing to go on other than your behavior and your manner of dress. Professionalism is extremely important.

  3. Do be nice. Be kind and genuine. Don’t over-do the charm. Don’t be overbearing. Don’t corner people to get their attention.

  4. Do be polite.

  5. Do be honest. Especially on your list of publications. This is a small world. Everyone is connected to everyone. Everyone is a beginner at some point. Editors and agents realize this.

  6. Do be confident. Go with your strengths. Don’t be too witty.

  7. Do be humble. Don’t put other authors down. Again, this is a very small world. Someday somewhere down the road, someone in this profession is going to be asked to do a favor on your behalf. Be humble.

  8. Do take opportunities when they come, even if they scare you. If you get asked to write something that is out of your genere, or something you know very little about, take it anyway. Opportunities are few and they are far between.

  9. Always follow up on a contact. If you meet with someone, always re-connect with them, just to keep open the lines of communication. Don’t let your contacts go stale.
Concerning #7, I was reminded of a couple experiences I’ve had professionally. The first happened in graduate school. I needed three members on my graduate panel. One would be my advisor, the second was anyone else I wanted, and the third was someone chosen for me by the department. My advisor suggested I go see a certain professor that I didn’t like at all. I thought he was an arrogant snob, and I got a C in his class—but I had been careful to not share my opinion to anyone else and I was very very very glad. I sucked it up, and when it came time to defend my thesis he gave me his shining approval.

Just sort of the way life works out. Go figure.

The second example I have seen over and over and over at work. I live by the maxim of be nice to everyone you work with. You never ever know who could be your boss. At the last place I worked, one of our testers wanted to transition into development. I was kind of doubtful at first, but I kept my opinion to myself. Again, I was glad I did because he ended up being my team lead.

Don’ts of Networking.

  1. Don’t be a fan-boy or a fan-girl when you meet an author. Don’t dress up in costume. In this world, there is a difference between fans and collegues. You want to be perceived as a potential collegue.

  2. Don’t monopolize someone’s time.

  3. Do not expect your heroes to be as interested in you as you are interested in them.

  4. Do not be scared to approach people in the right time or the right place.

Networking Avenues
Now that we’ve discussed the do’s and don’ts, let’s talk about some avenues appropriate for networking.


  1. If you’re just starting out writing, attend panels and workshops and breakout sessions that teach the craft.
  2. Keep a copy of the schedule, and mark the panels you attend.
  3. Keep a record of anything interesting that an author said, and who said it. Keep track of who you talked to, and what questions you asked, and the responses you gathered.

  4. After a while in your panels and workshops, you will start to hear the same things over and over and will get little value out of the lessons themselves. At that point, start attending your panels based on who’s speaking.

  5. Participate when you go to the panels and workshops. Get to know people. Ask good, relevant questions and offer any relevant input of your own. Again, write down anything interesting that other people say, and who said that.

  6. Be educated about the work that an author does. Be able to say what you like about it. If you don’t like it, at least demonstrate that you understand it, but you don’t need to share anything negative.

  7. Be outgoing. Talk to the other attendees. Don’t assume that the other attendees are nobodys. They could be just like you or they could be someone who is very well-connected.

  8. As you mature in your writing, and especially as you publish, you ought to have a goal of being a presenter at a conference. If you aren’t comfortable talking in front of other people, practice in smaller groups.
Book Signings

  1. You can go to the big authors, but they won’t have a whole lot of time to chat with you, and you can’t expect them to remember you at all.

  2. Go to book signings by local authors. It is always good if you have read something by them beforehand, especially their most recently-published work. Have a copy of their book of your own and ask to have it signed, and spend time chating. Local authors are a lot easier to talk to and they have contacts that are much more easy to get into than a big-name nationally famous author.

  3. When you meet with people and chat, ask if they have a business card. Find out if they have a blog. If they do, go and read it. Comment on it, and link back to your own blog.
Look for readings that have a meet-and-greet. You want face-time with the author. Other than that, readings are a rather poor source of networking.

Lectures or Workshops
This is a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate your writing ability. Do participate. Look for opportunities to contribute and give back.

Your goal in networking
Your objective in all this is to become a part of the “discourse community,” part of the “in crowd”. You want to get in touch with the themes and ideas that authors are currently exploring. What do they currently care about? You are trying to become connected to the community.

Read these peoples’ blogs. Post comments on their blogs. Then when you go and see them in person, make reference to the article you commented on. What you are trying to do is match your face to your name.

Over time, you will find that your network matures. You will gain credibility among established professionals, and your opportunities will increase.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

It's Just so Freakin' A

I was talking with friends at work about how 20% of the American public doesn’t believe that we actually went to the moon.

Yeah, I’m serious, there’s people out there that actually believe the whole thing was a conspiracy by NASA and the US govt. Another friend said he met a guy once who swore that aliens have taken over every level of our government. My friend asked, “Is there any data to back that up?” The guy responded, “It’s out there, man,” and left it at that. Not to be out-done, I recounted a time I hired a friend of a friend to paint my house. I mentioned The Da Vinci Code, because it had just come out in the stores, and I and asked him what he thought. Big mistake. He spent the next three hours lecturing me about how the new world order had taken over the planet and the Illuminati were the real ones running the show.

That got my friends and me wondering. When someone comes up to you blurting something totally asinine, what do you say?

You can try to argue and convince the person that they’re wrong, but have you ever gotten anywhere that way? I haven’t. You can’t win an argument with people who can’t think critically. Personally, I live by the maxim that you can’t waste your life educating fools—there’s too many of them. So, what’s the best response? I think I have the perfect one.

Freakin’ A!

Rarely in life are the answers so simple. Freakin’ A! What does it mean? Well, it really depends on what the listener wants to hear—and that’s the sheer beauty of it. It can mean anything. I got one of my friends to try it out. He went home, and for the past two days he evaded every question he didn’t want to answer by spouting, “freakin’ A!” It worked pretty well.

“Hey, babe. Let’s go visit the art gallery this weekend. There’s a new exhibit of post neo-modern expressionistic bi-cubism. Supposed to be out of this world!”

“Freakin’ A!”


Another very long pause.

(a couple days later, that weekend)

“So, are you ready to go?”

“Go where?”

“To the art gallery, like you promised.”

“Man, you heard it all wrong. I never said that.”

I did a Google search to see if anyone knows exactly what this phrase is supposed to mean. No one’s got a clue. It appears in print as early as the 1930s, but it’s probably a lot older than that. What people do agree upon is that it can mean literally anything, depending on the emotion you put into it. Let’s have a few examples to illustrate. Pretend a friend says something to you, and you want to make some kind of sympathetic response:
  1. Anger: Dude, that mechanic charged me $450 for a stupid break-job. Freakin’ A!

  2. Surprise: Check it out, I just won $20 playing power-ball. Freakin’ A!

  3. Elation: Man, the Wildcats just won the eastern division playoffs! (high five) Freakin’ A!

  4. Disappointment: Sorry, sweety, I had to cancel our tickets to the opera tonight. Boss says I gotta work late. Freakin’ A!

  5. Acknowledgement: Hey, I’m gonna bail and catch an early weekend. Freakin’ A!

  6. Swearing: $@$#-ing %$#@!-er!!! $#^ #@*$ it!!! Freakin’ A!

The politicians could sure use this. Picture Bill Clinton having to get up and address the nation over the Monica Lewinski scandal. He’s standing there, he looks straight into the camera and shakes his finger. “Freakin’ A!” The public would love it. They’d be saying to themselves. “Man, we’ve all been there. I know where he’s coming from!”

Bush, widely known for sticking his foot in his mouth, could have gotten out of so many tight spots. All he had to do was toss his hands in the air and say, “Freakin’ A!” The reporters would be in heaven. “The president, when asked today in a Whitehouse press conference about the missing WMDs replied, quote, freakin’ A, un-quote. And you know what, he’s right. Those Iraqis had it coming!”

So let’s role-play for a bit. Pretend I’m anyone. I come to you with something you feel needs a response because you’re trying to be polite, or I’m trying to back you into a corner and you want to remain non-commital. At the end of each sentence, just say to yourself, “Freakin’ A!”

  1. Dude, I swear aliens have taken over our government.

  2. Hey, can you come over this weekend and help me hang sheet-rock?

  3. Bush lied to us, man. He, Bin-laden, and the Saudis were all in it together when 9/11 went down.

  4. Son, did you mow the lawn like I asked you to?

  5. Obama can’t be our president, he’s not even American.

  6. Honey, does this dress make me look fat?

  7. Don’t buy anything from China. They’ve taken over the new world order.

  8. Honey, how do you like my new vegan recipe? It’s tofu artichoke eggplant surprise.

  9. The earth is really flat. All that stuff about the space shuttle and satellites in outer space is just Hollywood bullcrap.

  10. Gibbons, I need you to come in this Sunday and work on those TPS reports.

As a man, how often have I craved the perfect response when words failed me? How often have I been accused of not being communicative? What’s to communicate? What do I need to say? Just two simple words.

Freakin’ A.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Reading for Your Writing

I once attended a class where a fellow student asked, “Should I read the classics?” She was referring to Dickens, Alcott, Shakespeare, Austin, Steinbeck, Hemmingway, etc, etc.

And I think I found the answer: not necessarily.

There’s a better question that ought to be asked, which is, “As a writer, should I read?” The answer to that is an emphatic yes! And you really, really ought to read from a wide range of genres. The follow-up question, then, is, “What should I read?”

And the answer to that is, “Only you can decide.” But, keep in mind this: you need to follow your passion. Find out what you like to read and learn what’s different about it that you think is flat and insipid or just plain doesn’t spark your interest.

You see, as a writer you ought to be reading not solely for entertainment value. You ought to be looking for two things:
Writing style.

Understanding Story
As far as story is concerned, you need to learn how to start looking at stories from an analytical point of view. There’s a whole host of things you need to ask yourself.

Theme: is there a “Big Question” in this story, or a “Big Statement” of some sort related to the human experience? Some books have a theme and some do not. Pay attention to how it is presented. A good author will take his characters through a series of experiences that will cause them to consider the Big Question from multiple angles, and leave the reader to ponder the solution on their own—or at least the author won’t ram the theme down the reader’s throat. As an example, the theme behind most Westerns is rule of law, and exploring the limits of law, and what to do in scenarios where the law is corrupt or broken down, and having the courage to stand up for your own convictions when everyone tells you you’re wrong.

Voice: this refers to the tone of the narrator. Voice is very prevalent in first-person stories, but it is also present in stories with a third-person or omniscient point of view. Think of the narrator as a character. Is the narrator’s voice happy or sad? Is the narrator’s tone cynical or hopeful? In a good story the voice will never, ever be neutral. The voice of a story sets the groove and the mood of the story throughout.

Concept: what is the pitch behind this story? What is the story’s angle that makes it unique? Look at plot devices and plot vehicles. Star Wars, for instance was about a young boy coming of age in the middle of a galactic war, and learning to use the Force as a power for good. The concept behind Treasure Island was the sea adventure and hunting for pirate treasure. The concept behind Star Trek is to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Structure: learn to break a story up into scenes. Look at the tension in a scene, is it rising or falling? Look at the emotional mood in the scene? Look at the scene from the plot perspective: are the stakes rising, broadening, or deepening? Or do we have breakthrough? Well-written scenes will have emotional tension balanced with a bit of the positive. Tension and rising stakes will be balanced with some kind of breakthrough

Character archetpes: archetypes are important to understand, because they create resonance with the reader, and they convey who each character is and their role in the plot. There are scores of archetype systems. None of them are the gospel truth, but they all have value in that they attempt to categorize characters from different stories into similar groups.

These are all very abstract concepts, but the better you understand them, the more vivid your writing will be. All of these things are very, very important, and each in its own way plays a role in the commercial success or failure of a story.

Writing Style
And as far as writing goes, there is a whole different set of things you need to be looking at, but the list is more specific:

Descriptive scenery: pay attention to the way authors describe scenery. What is the weather like? Is there a smell in the air? How do they describe physical things? Good authors will use language that conveys atmosphere, and describes what people are doing. Every scene has a vibe, an ambience. How is that mood conveyed?

Character descriptions: A good author will skip the police line-up facts (hair color, eyes, height, build), and will present details in a way that convey the character’s personality. Also, a good author won’t just paint a picture of a character, they will have the character make an entrance. What is their mood, as a character enters the scene, are they happy or sad? Do they glide in or stomp? Again, a good author will pick an action that conveys personality.

Gestures and body language. These will be sprinkled throughout dialog and action. Specifically, pay attention to how each of these conveys a character’s mood or emotional reaction within a scene. Pay attention to how it contributes to the emotional tension within each scene.

Internal emotions: This is related to the POV character within the scene (unless you’re in omniscient mode). Describe the emotions that the main character feels. As things happen within a scene there is always an emotional reaction (or there ought to be). How does the author describe it? Her heart sunk to the floor. My hopes rose like a balloon. My heart stopped, then picked up a double pace.

You see, as you read you are trying to build your own writing style. If you like a book or dislike it, or have some kind of strong reaction to it you need to ask yourself why. It is very important that you learn how to find this out, so that you can produce the same effect, or avoid it.

There are no right answers to the question of what you ought to read to improve your writing. The best answer is that you ought to read, and read a lot—but what you read only you can decide.