Friday, December 27, 2013

Twelve Dorks a Dueling

Where will you be two years from now?

I know where I’ll be: in the theater watching Star Wars VII.  But if you’re like me, and need something to carry you over until then, might I suggest some good You-Tube light saber films?  I’ve sifted through hours and hours of the lame stuff, and brought forth the twelve best.  It’s hard to say which of these is my favorite, because each one has something unique that really makes it stand out from all the other stuff on the net. 

So, in honor of the twelve days of Christmas, I give you You-Tube’s twelve best light saber scenes.

This one is very short.  It’s got good energy, and the aircraft junkyard adds a desolate feel to the scene.  Something about this film makes me think of two cowboys squaring off, Jedi style.

Duel of the Dorks made a reference to this film at the very end, and it caught my attention.  This one is pretty good.  Lots of emotion, no acting, just two dudes trying to kill each other in a parking garage.  At the end is a cameo of Ryan Wieber, from Ryan vs Dorkman, and Ryan vs Brandon.

This one has a really interesting story idea.  The hero goes up against an evil sorcerous villain, who tests his strength in a series of trials.  The timing feels a little slow in some of the sequences, but the choreography is really good, and the camera work is solid.  This one is worth watching, just for the twist at the end.

This one starts out with a nice kick-boxing fight.  The two work each other over a little, then they break out the sabers and start slicing each other up.  Kind of reminds me of the Matrix.  Good energy, although the camera work could be improved in places.

This is exactly what it sounds like.  Two nerds battle it out in the theater / bowling alley where they work, in an effort to prove who is the biggest nerd.  The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, but the fighting is pretty intense and the camera work is right on.  It even has some scenes that made me laugh.

This one has got some great parkour stunts in it, and the hand-held camera work gives the video a more intense, up-close feel.  Two dudes trying to slice each other in half with deadly weapons.  Good stuff.

This is an awesome two on one fight, gang-land style.  The single guy wields a dual-bladed lightsaber.  It has some cheesy moments where the timing feels slow.  I like the Marilyn Manson soundtrack.  It adds a dark, sinister feel to the work.  Nicely done.

This one is very worthy of my list.  It takes place in a railway yard.  The video is ten minutes long.  It’s full of original stuff, and overflowing with intensity.  ¡Me gustó, mucho!

This one is a good follow-on to Ryan vs. Dorkman 2.  It takes place in a machine shop as well, and has some great camera work.  You-Tube also has a video where you can watch the making of Ryan vs. Brandon 2, which is well worth the watch just so you can see all the work behind the scenes that goes into making one of these videos.

This is definitely one of the best all-time pieces of fan-art.  Two dudes tear apart a machine shop.  It’s full of intense fighting and has spots of humor that still make me laugh.  It’s one of the longest videos, and its got loads of original moves.  This video earned Ryan Wieber a career as a professional CG artist.

This is probably my favorite film after Duality.  Two Chinese brothers go at each other Kung-Fu style.  The sunglasses and black jumpsuits add to the look.  I wish I had a link to a higher-quality video than this one.  It’s such a good fight scene.

Maybe I’m a sentimentalist, but this video is one of the most authentic-feeling pieces of fan-art I’ve ever come across.  I have yet to see a fight video that feels so completely immersive in the Star Wars universe.  This one shines above the others for its total appeal.  It’s got camera work, lots of CG effects.  Enjoy.

So, that’s my list.  Feel free to send me a link if you know of another video that ought to be on here.

Monday, December 23, 2013

My Reading List for 2013

Most of my time in 2013 was spent finishing up the third draft for my novel, Mage's Craft. In spite of it all, I managed to find time to enjoy some really good books. I'm a nerd, so I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy.  I'll pick up anything with a speculative element.  Here is a list of what I read (in no particular order):

The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling.  I wanted to see what kind of writer Rowling was when she wasn’t doing Harry Potter.  Rowling is good.  She’s Stephen King good.  That said, I didn’t finish the book.  The plot kind of goes all over the place.  This novel is more character-oriented.

The Strange Case of Oragami Yoda, by Tom Angleberger.  I’ve read all the books in this series now.  Angleberger is so creative the way he tells his story.

Dark Lord: The Early Years, by Jamie Thomson.  This is another middle grade book.  The main character is a dark lord who gets banished to our reality, and he takes on the body of an 8th grade boy.  Light reading, and very fun.

Spellbound, by Larry Correia.  I really like this series.  It’s kind of diesel-punk, kind of like Heroes the TV series, and a lot of fun.

The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson.  Brandon Sanderson can really write, and he is so endlessly creative.  I had no problem staying hooked on this till the end.

White Tiger, by Kylie Chan.  Didn’t finish this.  The plot was sooooooooo tedious, and so repetitive, and took so long, and nothing is happening.

Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett.  I really liked The Maltese Falcon, so I picked up an anthology of novels.  This one was pretty good.  Kind of like Yojimbo, set in prohibition-era United States.

The Dane Curse, by Dashiell Hammett.  Didn’t finish.  Hammett resolves the plot ¼ the way through the story, then leads the reader on a second plot, which he resolves completely half-way through the story.  I’ve still got 15 chapters to go…how many times is this story going to rise up again and again and again?

The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle.  I’m researching an idea for a sequel to Mage’s Craft, which is now finished.  I like Holmes, but he gets under my skin the way he plays his cards so close to his chest and then dumps everything on the reader in the last chapter.  And quite often it’s not anything as stupendous as you anticipated.  That said, Holmes and Watson have a lot of chemistry between them.  They are Batman and Robin, and even though Holmes can be infuriating at times, he is always praising Watson for how much assistance he provides.

The Dead Zone, by Stephen King.  A man wakes from a coma, and discovers that he has extremely powerful clairvoyant powers.  I like reading Stephen King just because he’s Stephen King.  His characters are so vivid, and so human.

The Death of Kings, by Bernard Cornwell.  Another Utred book.  I love Utred.  Cornwell does a supreme job of transporting you into Anglo Saxon England.

Cold Days, by Jim Butcher.  Butcher keeps cranking out Dresden Files books, one after the other.  This one is his 14th.  He’s got another due out at the end of May next year.

So, got any ideas for 2014?  Leave a comment below.  I'm always looking for something new to read.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Hero's Journey: Departure

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The Hero’s Journey is a basic outline for story development.  A writer who has a good understanding of this pattern can use it with great effect to enhance their story.  Your story doesn’t have to hit every plot point in the Hero’s journey, but  incorporating one or more of its elements can make your story resonate more powerfully with your audience.

In the basic pattern, the hero begins the story living in the every-day world, and has an experience of some sort that disrupts their life or alters the way they view the world.  This experience puts the hero upon a threshold where they must choose to stay in their safe little world or venture forth into the unknown. This stage of the Hero's Journey is known as Departure.

Let’s look at an example: Star Wars episode 4.  Everyone is familiar with the story.  Luke is living on Tattooine with his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.  One day the Jawas come to his farm and his Uncle buys two droids that happen to be part of the rebellion against the empire.  One of them has a message for Obi-wan Kenobi, an old hermit that Luke happens to know.  Luke pays Obi-wan a visit and soon finds himself facing a choice.  He may remain on Tattooine for the rest of his life with his uncle and aunt, or he can leave his home and venture forth among the stars.

This story pattern pops up all over science fiction and fantasy.  The Hunger Games, Avatar, Harry Potter, The Matrix, The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, etc., are all examples of the Hero’s Journey.  Writers use this pattern because it works; however, after the American public has watched this sort of thing for the hundredth time, they all start to sound a little formulaic.

Your job as a writer is to keep it fresh. 

Let’s go over some ways that you might not expect this pattern to appear.  Suppose you’re writing a romance.  Your main character has been dating the same kinds of men over and over, and one day (for whatever reason) she has to move or take a trip and meets a very different kind of man.  Somehow he’s made her see a side of life that she’s never experienced before, but if she wants to enter into a relationship with him there’s some kind of risk.  He’s the dangerous sort.  Entering into this relationship represents a departure into the unknown.  Naturally, she’s reluctant to do so.  Meanwhile, events in her life are changing and this chance that she has right now will pass away forever.  What is she going to do?

See the pattern?  Let’s look at another.

The hero doesn’t always have to be given a choice.  Mix it up.  Suppose our country is at war, and a young man receives a notice from the government that he is being drafted.  Suddenly his whole life, his dreams, his career is out the window.  He shows up for boot camp, makes friends, learns to shoot a gun, and gets shipped off to Vietnam.  The hero has to use his training to survive some horrible events, and by the end of the movie he’s proven himself a hero.  This is the basic plot of Full Metal Jacket. 

Maybe the hero is looking for temporary escape from his life.  Suppose he’s in the middle of a mid-life crisis, when he and all his friends decide to get away from the big city for a few weeks and participate in a real-life cattle drive.  They spend a little time training at a ranch where they learning to ride a horse and some basics of working with cattle.  Then they leave on the cattle drive and pass through all kinds of challenges.  Eventually they deliver the cattle to the ranch in Colorado and return to their normal lives.  This is the movie, City Slickers.

All of these stories feature a departure into the unknown.  The story has an event that compels the hero to leave their everyday life and venture into a new environment.  There is always risk involved.  The experiences in the new environment change the hero, and in many stories the hero returns home and lives happily ever after.

You can learn more about the Hero’s Journey by reading the book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell.  It is fairly academic in places, and gets a little dry and esoteric from time to time.  If you’d like something a little more down to earth, you can read The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.  Vogler uses examples from modern-day stories to teach the same concepts.  What is most significant in Vogler’s book is how there are many different ways you can apply this story pattern, making your story resonate more powerfully with your audience yet still keep things fresh.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Mage's Craft, a Dark Ages Fantasy

Here’s a jacket cover blurb for Mage’s Craft, the novel that I’m working on.  Let me know what you think:

Osric has learned everything Master Sedric can teach him.  Well, just about everything.  One can never become too comfortable when studying to become a wizard.  The moment you think you know it all, the moment you feel too confident in your craft, that’s when you let down your guard and lose everything you have.

When a hostile band of goblins invades the river country to the west, Master Sedric decides it’s time for Osric’s lessons to include a bit of real world experience.  Osric isn’t sure he wants to go, but he gains confidence as he finds ways to explore his abilities and put his craft to use.  After surviving a surprise goblin ambush, Osric and his two remaining companions seek refuge in an outlaw stronghold ruled by a temperamental dwarf, whom the men affectionately call, “His Royal High Exellency, Snorri the fair.”

Snorri wakes Osric and his companions in the middle of the night and takes them deep into the heart of goblin country, where they steal a rare herb.  Osric suspects that Snorri has placed his friends under an enchantment, making them slaves to the dwarf’s will.  After fighting off a goblin war-band and falling behind, Osric returns home to find that Snorri has enslaved Master Sedric and nearly everyone else that Osric knows. 

Osric has seen and heard enough to believe that Snorri is a spy for Mordican, the goblin king.  Osric defies master Sedric, and runs away with a small group of friends in search of a cure for the enchantment.  Meanwhile, the goblins invade and begin pillaging the countryside.  Osric has a host of questions and very few answers.  Why is he immune to the enchantment’s power?  What are Snorri’s ultimate plans?  Will Osric ever put his life back together?

I’m pretty picky when it comes to fantasy.  I’ve read a lot, but it’s all starting to sound the same.  Lots of castles, princes and princesses, lords and ladies, knights and pageantry, courtly love, evil wizards, elves, and dragons—lots of dragons.  You can only go through so many of these stories before they start to feel like you've read them all.  I decided long ago that I wanted to write something different.  My hero wouldn’t be an orphan.  He wouldn’t be the lost heir to a lineage of ancient kings.  And wasn’t going to be the chosen one, destined to save humanity. 

I wanted an every-man’s hero, someone that anyone could identify with.  I wanted him to have friends who complimented his ability and contributed to the story in their own way.  I wanted my readers to feel what it was like to learn magic, and to have the hero continually experiment with his abilities, be creative and try new things.  I also wanted to put the reader into a culture that felt real and familiar, yet unique and full of surprises. 

I’m currently finishing up the third draft of my story.  I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from my critique group this time around.  When I’m done with this draft I’m going to go through with a final pass and incorporate all the suggestions that I’ve received along the way.

My current plan is to find an agent and have them shop around for a couple of years while I work on a sequel.  If that doesn’t pan out, then I’ll self-publish.  I expect to be fully completed with my story around Christmas time of this year.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Writer’s Ramble: Finding Your Muse

I’m stuck.  I’m re-doing the ending for my novel, and it’s been slow going for the last two months.  This is my third major draft.  There have been a lot of changes, and now the ending is completely different.  I have no idea how to finish it.

I’m sure I’ll figure something out, but getting there is like pulling teeth.

So I figure it’s a good time to blog about overcoming writer’s block, and finding your muse.

There is no single magic trick to filling up the blank page, but I have a handful of tools in my bag that get me past my rough patches:

  1. Apply butt to chair, and write.
  2. Work in 5 to 10 minute bursts.
  3. Brainstorm.
  4. Seek inspiration from others.

Apply Butt to Chair
So I think the first one is rather obvious, but I’m surprised at how many times I find myself doing something else and avoiding the blank page.  I want to watch a movie, I want to play video games, I want to browse Facebook, I want to go read something.  It’s especially hard for me because I have Attention Deficit Hey Look a Squirrel.  Writing is work, so the first thing my AD-HLAS brain wants to do is PLAY!

It takes discipline.  It takes ironclad determination.  I ran across a song a while back by AC/DC called, It’s a Long Way to the Top.  You can watch it here:

I especially like the part with bagpipes.  How many heavy metal bands have a friggin’ bagpipe solo? Awesome!

There's a lot of truth in this song.  Writing is a lot of work.  I love watching artists who are passionate about their work, and look like they’re having fun while they're at it.  They always inspire me, and get me going again.

Work in 5 to 10 minute bursts
I’ve learned to pace myself.  When I was working my way through college, my parents got me a bunch of motivational tapes called, Where There’s a Will There’s an A.  It had a bunch of study habits that would help you study smarter.  One of the best pieces of advice that I got was to study in five or ten minute bursts.

It works really well when I’m writing, too.  If I’m at a really tough spot, I’ll sit there and focus for five to ten minutes on a problem.  At the end of the time period, then I’ll play a game of cards (I like Spades, Hearts, or plain old Solitaire).  I’ll play a few hands to give my brain a rest, then I’ll come back to it again.

Every now and then I get a spurt of inspiration, and I can go for 40 minutes or longer.  But then when I get stuck again, it’s back to a simple game so I can let my brain cool off.  If you want to try this, you might want to get one of those cheap wind-up timers, to help force yourself to shift back and forth.

Time-boxing things is really helpful.  I do this at my job, too.  Work for a short stretch, then read email, then go back to work for another short stretch.

It’s important to keep in mind consistency, and pacing.  Think tortoise and the hair.  Slow and steady wins the race.

I work best with numbered, indented lists.  I keep a rough outline of my thoughts.  Whenever I get to a point where I’m stuck, I’ll make a new bullet-point and ask a question.  Then I indent a level and start brainstorming ideas.  Here’s an example:

  1. Hero is walking along
  2. Question: What is he going to do next?
    1. Go see the witch and ask for advice
    2. Round up his friends and go bash the antagonist!
      1. This never works.  Taking the bad guy head-on is too easy.
    3. He still hasn’t tried to find out about X.  Have him focus on that.
  3. Later on that night
    1. Arrives at the castle gate.

This is sort of a contrived example, but you can kind of see how it’s just a bunch of ideas thrown into a numbered list.  When I want to flesh out an idea I indent a level and start typing some more.

I have a friend that uses mind-mapping software.  He swears by it.  It’s pretty much the same thing as making a bulleted list.  You have your core ideas at the center, then you flesh out the ideas by making deeper and deeper branches.  I don’t like it because I prefer the linear feel of indented lists.

Whatever you do, the trick is to ask yourself a question, then start writing down answers.  There really isn’t much more to it than that.  In fact, when it comes right down to it, there really is no other way to get around writer’s block besides brainstorming.

Never pick your first idea.  That one always sucks, and I guarantee you that no one will ever find it original.  I feel good once I’ve come up with about 8 to 10 good ideas.  In fact, once I’m ready to move on I’ll end up taking about half of the good ideas and throwing them all together.


Seek inspiration from other works
Sometimes, my tank is on empty, and I need to find something that is completely fresh and original.  When I’m not writing, I spend a lot of time watching movies or reading.  I’m always looking for a new idea to try.

If I run across something that’s a real zinger, my next step is to ask myself, if you were to adapt this idea to your story, what elements would you need to have in place in order for it to work?

Try this sometime.  Take an idea or a plot element from your favorite book or movie, and try and adapt it for the setting in your novel.  Sometimes you’ll find that you have to change things around quite a bit.  Sometimes you’ll find that the ideas morph into something a lot more original than you’d have thought.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Writer’s Ramble: Using Voice to Enhance Point of View

You can find a lot of blog entries about point of view (POV), so I’m not going to spend time going through all that.  What I’m going to talk about here is how to use narrative voice to enhance the POV of your story.

Voice in First Person
Voice is easiest to see in first person stories.  Most good first person stories will capture a little bit of the POV character’s attitude, and convey it to the reader as they tell the story.  You get all kinds of things, like their philosophy on life, their opinions of people, what they think of politics, God—you name it.  That’s the whole point.  You want to make your character feel alive, and authentic.  Bring it down to the reader’s level, and make them feel like the point of view character is their best friend.

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
Jim Butcher

The first-person stories that really stand out for me are the ones where I can hear the main character tell the story inside my head.  When I’m done, I feel like I’ve sat and listened to him tell me the story.

So, here’s a short exercise for you.  Pick a paragraph or a page from the novel you’re working on.  Re-write the section in first person, then spice it up with what the POV character is thinking.  Make sure you capture the emotional reactions that they feel, bring out their inner dialogue so the reader knows what their thought processes are, then punctuate the character’s responses with attitude and a bit of emotion.

Voice in Third Person
There are two ways you can treat voice when writing third person.  The first way is do exactly what I described above in first person, but shift every instance of I, me, or we to he, she, or they.  And there you have it.  Here is a really good example from a book I thoroughly enjoyed:

“Okies.” The Portuguese farmer spat on the ground, giving the evil eye to the passing automobiles weighed down with baskets, bushels, and crates.  The cars just kept coming up the dusty San Joaquin Valley road like some kind of Okie wagon train.  He left to make sure all  his valuables were locked up and his Sears & Roebuck single-shot 12 gauge was loaded.

The tool shed was locked and the shotgun was in his hands when the short little farmer returned to watch.

One of the Fort Model Ts rattled to a stop in front of the farmer’s fence.  The old farmer leaned on his shotgun and waited.  His son would talk to the visitors.  The boy spoke English.  So did he, but not as well, just good enough to take the Dodge truck into Merced to buy supplies, and it wasn’t like the mangled inbred garbage dialect the Okies spoke was English anyway.

Hard Magic
Larry Correia

Spunky little Portuguese farmer living in California during the dust bowl.  He’s got a 12 gauge shotgun and a 12-gaugage attitude.  He doesn’t like Oakies.

See how all that just kind of brings out the story more?  The author didn’t waste time telling how dry it was, or painting a picture of the San Joaquin Valley, or any of that.  The focus stayed on the short farmer with the shotgun, who was making sure the drifters moved on and didn’t trespass on his land.

Lots of attitude.  I may like the little guy or I may end up hating him.  One way or another, I feel like I am really getting to know him.

Narrator Voice
Now let’s talk about the other way to put Voice into third person.  Pretend that you’re sitting and listening a storyteller, who is not one of the characters in the story, but is perhaps someone who was a first-hand witness to everything that you’re about to hear.  In this technique, the narrator becomes another character within the story.  The emphasis is not so much character attitudes and inner dialogue (though you can definitely put that in there), but to give the reader a stronger feeling of time and place:

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

Rowling is really good at this.  You feel comfortable right away, and slip easily into the story.

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

The narrator can be omniscient and know everything that all the characters are thinking, or he can have no insight whatsoever and just comment on what the camera sees.  However, you have to be careful that the narrator doesn’t call too much attention to himself, or the reader will get pulled out of the story.

So essentially you have two techniques.  In the first technique, you focus on attitudes, personality, and inner thought processes. Your focus is to give your readers a strong overall impression of what your characters are like, with the ultimate goal of giving your reader a feeling that they know your characters.

The second technique emphasizes the narrator as an additional character.  The goal is to evoke the mood and the setting within your story, while your reader sits and watches the action.

Let me know what you think.  I’d love to examples from stories that you’ve run across.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Writer's Ramble: Hints and Tips for Winning Writers of the Future

This year at LTUE I attended a panel on the Writers of the Future contest. Speaking on the panel was David Farland / Wolverton, the coordinating judge for the contest. Also on the panel were former contest winners, Brad R. Torgersen and Eric James Stone. David Farland opened up the contest to questions after a short introduction, and we had about 45 minutes to thoroughly pick his brain.

It was probably the most revealing panel I attended, all three days.

The contest was created by L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction author who wrote Battlefield Earth (yes, this is the same guy who started the Church of Scientology—whoever said writers weren’t known for having huge egos). If you won, the contest would grant you three things:
  1. You win enough money to make an impact in your writing career. Not a substantial amount, but perhaps enough to buy a new computer or take some really good courses.
  2. You get training. You get to go to a workshop and you get to be trained by respected bestselling authors.
  3. Recognition. You get to put Writers of the Future on your resume, and it carries a good deal of weight. Publishers are lining up to hand out writing contracts.
Sound interesting?

Here is what are the judges looking for:
  1. Your story must be a work of speculative fiction: science fiction, fantasy, horror, paranormal, etc. Any kind of romance, biography, non-fiction essay, historical fiction, etc., that does not have an element of sci-fi or fantasy will be disqualified.
  2. Come up with an original story idea that hasn’t been done before, or take an older story idea and give it an original twist.
  3. Describe things. Describe your characters. If a scene is outside, describe things in the distance. If a scene is inside, paint a picture. Use as many senses as you can. Give your reader a sense of presence.
  4. The judges would like to see more really good humor. Don’t end your story with a punch line. Don’t start out funny and end serious.
  5. The judges don’t see enough good medieval fantasy. New ideas are rare. Most fantasy stories read like Dungeons and Dragons. The monsters are the same, and the magic systems are never original.
  6. Do not submit stories where the targeted audience is children. You can have a child protagonist, if the theme is adult or if the protagonist behaves in a mature way.
  7. Develop a theme in your story. Having a theme makes a bigger impression on the judges.
  8. As far as word count, your story should be “as long as the story needs to be, and not one syllable more.” That’s a Dave Wolverton quote. That said, longer stories tend to do better because you have more time to demonstrate your talent and you can work up to a more emotional ending. The contest has a limit of 17,000 words.
What are some of the pet peeves that will get your story thrown out?
  1. The POV character wakes up and doesn’t know who they are. The narrator then proceeds to describe the surroundings, then find a mirror and describe the main character.
  2. Trying to gross out the judge.
  3. Stories that start off with gratuitously violent imagery.
  4. Stories written about main characters who are stupid.
  5. Stories that are sexist or racist.
  6. Stories that have a lot of swearing. If you drop an f-bomb on page one, you’re likely rejected.
  7. No porn, no sex.
The best way to get a feel for what the judges like to see is to buy one of the anthologies and read it cover to cover. The judges try to pick an even mix of stories: one near-future sci-fi, one off-planet sci-fi, one medieval fantasy, one horror, etc. There is no preference toward male or female protagonists, although sometimes the list of finalists comes out skewed one way or the other.

Honorable Mention
Well over 1000 stories get submitted each quarter. Fewer stories get submitted during the Christmas season, so the odds are a little more in your favor. Everything that gets submitted to the contest goes before a single coordinating judge (currently Dave Wolverton). Stories that don’t make semi-finalist are either rejected, or are awarded honorable mention. Roughly 10% of all submissions make honorable mention.
Here is what honorable mention means:
“Stories that received Honorable Mention status were good enough to merit acknowledgement for being well written. The selected stories for this category did not make the semi-finalist or finalist category. Out of the thousands of stories that get submitted to the contest, a very small percentage make it this far.” – K.D. Wentworth
So getting an HM is a solid indicator that you’re doing well with your writing.

If your story is rejected or if you get an honorable mention, you are welcome to work on your story some more and re-submit it.

All the stories that made this cut go before the full panel of judges. Stories in this category are publishable. Getting semi-finalist is something worth putting on your writer’s resume. These stories receive a special critique from the coordinating judge.

To get past this point, your story has to really stand out from the others.

These stories go before a panel of four finalist judges, who then pick the first, second, and third place winners for the quarter. As a finalist, you also have the option to include your story in the Writers of the Future Anthology.

Counting Crows, a medieval paranormal fantasy that I wrote, which took Honorable Mention in
Life, the Universe, & Everything

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Writer's Ramble: Seven Things to Get the Most From Your Writer's Group

Writing is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to learn.  I’ve gone through a lot of different talents.  Some of them I was good at, and others kind of fizzled out, but they all had one thing in common.  I could take a step back, I could look over my work, and I could tell right away if what I’d done was any good.
Writing is like trying to paint a mural while looking at your canvass through a cardboard paper towel tube.  You have to keep the entire picture in your head, and at any given time you can only see a small part of the scene.

I realized that if I wanted to get good, I needed people to read my work and tell me honestly what they thought.  Right away I ran into two problems.  The first was that unlike my other talents, writing requires people to spend time with my work.  It’s not like art or music, where I can make them take a look or sit and listen for a minute.  Reading can take hours.  So, asking my friends to read my story is a huge favor.  The second problem was that people get uncomfortable when they have to tell a friend that their writing stinks.
And everyone stinks when they’re starting out.

I needed people to spot for me.  I needed people who understand the craft, who can see my mistakes from a neutral perspective, and who know how to give advice.  I needed a writer’s group.

So here are a few things that I’ve learned, which help me get the most out of my writer’s group:

1: Submit your best work.  It’s easier to critique something that is polished and close to ready.  If you don’t proofread your work, people won’t know what to focus on.  Some members will go hog-wild with the edits, which can be grueling and discouraging.  Others won’t know where to begin, so they’ll give just a little feedback, which can lead to a false sense of confidence.

2: Let people know where you’re at.  When you submit, let your group know if this is an early draft or if you’ve gone over it several times.  Let them know if you’re struggling and need advice on something.  If this is something you just typed up, you won’t want them to focus on line edits and grammar errors.  You’ll want them to focus on the big picture, instead.  If this is a later draft, you can ask for them to proofread and look for spelling errors and punctuation mistakes.

3: Be specific about what you want.  Do you want your readers to focus on grammar?  Do you want detailed line-edits?  Or do you want them to focus on big-picture items?

4: Keep silent when people are critiquing you.  People are funny about giving advice.  It’s uncomfortable, and if they sense that you want to argue, they’ll clam up.  You don’t have to listen to everything they say, but you’ll get the most honest advice if you resist the urge to debate or explain your work.  If you do feel the need to argue, see if you can phrase it as a question.  Just remember, if your reader doesn’t get it, it’s not their fault.  Something is missing from your writing.  Ask questions and find out why.

5: Give a synopsis of previous chapters.  Unless you’re submitting your first chapter, people will not remember what you wrote in your previous chapters.  People skip meetings and they’ll miss one or two chapters at a time.  A synopsis is a good way to bring them up to speed again.  Something else that helps is a list of your main characters.  I can never remember character names from one chapter to the next.

6: Do group activities together.  In order to be able to give advice in the proper spirit, you need to build trust in one and other.  The best way to do this is to spend time together doing things besides just tearing each other apart.
· Go out together.  Have a dinner night, where you meet at a restaurant.  Make sure you pick a place where you can talk.
· Meet up at conferences together and hang out.
· If you normally meet online, have an in-person meeting face to face.
· Have a book-night.  Pick a book as a group and read it.  Then instead of having a regular meeting, go out that night to a restaurant (one with a quiet atmosphere where you can talk), and critique the book.  Our group does this once every 3 or 4 months.  This is a really good way to get a feel for everyone’s tastes.
· Have a movie night.  Go and see a movie together, then have a group discussion afterwards and talk about the plot.
· Go on field trips.  One of the members of my last writer’s group had a horse.  One month, instead of doing our usual meeting, she offered to meet us at the stables where her horse was kept.  She told us all about horses.  We got to go riding around the yard.  This event was so popular that we had people show up who hadn’t attended in almost a year.

7 Start a group blog.  The members in my group were having a hard time blogging, so I suggested that we start a group blog.  We brainstormed names, and decided on "The Writers Ramble".  You can visit it at  Every month we pick a topic, and the last day of the week we get together and blog about it.  We put together a post on the main page, that has links to everyone's individual blog.  Each link has a blurb designed to catch your attention.  This week we're doing our first post.  The subject is, why I belong to a writer's group, and why should you, too.

In conclusion, a writer's group can carry you a lot farther in your career than you could get alone.  You need people who understand the profession, and have the skills to analyze and properly critique your work.  You can't do this on your own.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Medieval Gems for Writers: Did Medieval People Take Baths?

I recently submitted a chapter to my critique group, where the hero returned from a long quest to the hall of a lord.  Before feasting with the lord’s men, the hero asked for a bath.  The hero had been crawling through mud, slaying goblins, and getting filthy.

Going on a quest is dirty work.

I didn’t think anything of it, but the reaction from my writer’s group made me stop and take a second look.  The claim was that people in the middle ages thought baths were unhealthy, and that they only took a bath only once a year.  It was then that I remembered in the novel Shogun (which took place in the 1600s), that the main character didn’t take a bath because he thought he would get sick from it.

A medieval bath-house, where you could bet a square meal and a hot bath.

Fact or myth: people in the middle ages stank everywhere they went?

One of the oldest primary references to the use of soap comes from Pliny the Elder (who lived between 23 AD and 79 AD)—many hundreds of years BEFORE the middle ages.  He wrote about the Gauls (who were a Celtic people that lived in France), and about the Germanic tribes (who came down from Scandanavia).  The Gauls and Germans are the ancestors of nearly all northern European peoples.
Here is what he said:

Soap is the invention of the Gauls and this is used to redden the hair. It is made from fat and ashes -- the best is beech wood ash and goat fat, the two combined, thick and clear. Many among the Germans use it, the men more than the women.
Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis

So we know that they used soap to bleach their hair, but did they use it to wash themselves as well?  Many sources tell us that the Vikings bathed at least once a week; indeed, they had a special bath-day set aside.  The most direct reference comes from an abbot named John of Wallingford, who chronicled the events in England from 449 to 1036 (which spans virtually the entire Anglo Saxon period).  Of the Vikings he says:

The Danes, thanks to their habit of combing their hair every day, of bathing every Saturday and regularly changing their clothes, were able to undermine the virtue of married women and even seduce the daughters of nobles to be their mistresses.
John of Wallingford, Chronica Joannis Wallingford

John of Wallingford can’t be counted as a primary source, but he’s definitely a period source.  In modern Scanavian languages, the word for Saturday (i.e., laugardagur / laurdag / lørdag / lördag) means “washing day.”  The Vikings get a bad rap in modern times for being filthy, bloodthirsty heathens, but excavations of gravesites regularly uncover combs, tweezers, razors for shaving, and ear spoons (for cleaning out their ears).  We also know from an Arab Historian named Ibn Fadlan that the Vikings washed their faces and heads every day.

So the Vikings were quite fastidious, what about the rest of Europe?

Well, the sauna was invented by the Finns.  It dates back to the beginning of their history (well before the middle ages):

The first examples of saunas were simple pits dug in the earth, with heated stones to generate the dry, hot atmosphere. Hot stones remain the hallmark of the sauna, radiating warmth into a small surrounding room, which today is typically built of wood. Dousing the stones with water creates a vapor called loyly by the Finns. Body brushes, called vihta or vahta, and birch branches, are used to stimulate the skin and a healthy sweat.
Von Furstenberg, Diane. The Bath, p. 93 (New York, Random House, 1993)

We also know that public bath-houses were very common throughout all of Europe.  Every large town had one.  Some were segregated by gender and some were not.  They were hugely popular.  In fact, in addition to getting a bath, you could also get a meal.  Here is a list of regulations in Paris, governing the Guild of Bathhouse Keepers (dated 1270):

1. Whoever wishes to be a bathhouse-keeper in the city of Paris may freely do so, provided he works according to the usage and customs of the trade, made by agreement of the commune, as follow.
2. Be it known that no man or woman may cry or have cried their baths until it is day, because of the dangers which can threaten those who rise at the cry to go to the baths.
3. No man or woman of the aforesaid trade may maintain in their houses or baths either prostitutes of the day or night, or lepers, or vagabonds, or other infamous people of the night.
4. No man or woman may heat up their baths on Sunday, or on a feast day which the commune of the city keeps.
5. And every person should pay, for a steam-bath, two deniers; and if he bathes, he should pay four deniers.
6. And because at some times wood and coal are more expensive than at others, if anyone suffers, a suitable price shall be set by the provost of Paris, through the discussion of the good people of the aforesaid trade, according to the situation of the times.
7. The male and female bathhouse-keepers have sworn and promised before us to uphold these things firmly and consistently, and not to go against them.
8. Anyone who infringes any of the above regulations of the aforesaid trade must make amends with ten Parisian sous, of which six go to the king, and the other four go to the masters who oversee the trade, for their pains.
9. The aforesaid trade shall have three good men of the trade, elected by us unanimously or by a majority, who shall swear before the provost of Paris or his representative that they will oversee the trade well and truly, and that they will make known to the provost of Paris or his representative all the infringements that they know of or discover, and the provost shall remove and change them as often as he wishes.
Etienne de Boileu, Livre des métiers, translated. Women's Lives in Medieval Europe, A Source Book.

What about the Anglo Saxons?  

There are few direct accounts that provide a contemporary point of view during the Anglo-Saxon period.  However, an analysis of Old English, itself, reveals that the Saxons had a wealth of words to describe personal cleanliness.  (for reference, the letter æ is a short-a as in “hat”.  The letter þ is the th sound in “thick”, and the letter ð is the th sound in “this”):

bæþ = bath
stánbæþ = “stone bath”, a vapor bath made by water poured onto heated stones. (i.e., a sauna).
Stofa = a bath-room, for a warm bath.
stofbæþ = vapor-bath, or hot-air bath (another word for a sauna).
þwéal = washing bath laver soap that is used in washing ointment
bæþsealf = “bath salve”, a salve to be used when taking a bath.
sápe = soap (this is the direct ancestor of the modern English word)
léaðor/leáþor = “lather”, an ingredient added to soap to make it bubbly.
héafodbæþ = “head-bath”, washing just your head.
swilung = swilling, or to wash the mouth by gargling
áfeormian = to cleanse clean thoroughly purge purify wash away

I should also mention the city of Bath, in Somerset, which was originally built by the Romans on a hot spring.  They called it Aquae Sulis, but when the Saxons invaded, they re-named it Bath (no one ever said the Saxons had a brilliant imagination).  The place was widely known as a resort where people went any time of the year.  Nennius, a ninth-century historian, describes it thus:

It is surrounded by a wall, made of brick and stone, and men may go there to bathe at any time, and every man can have the kind of bath he likes. If he wants, it will be a cold bath; and if he wants a hot bath, it will be hot.

And finally, excavations of Anglo-Saxon grave-sites reveal combs, ear-spoons, tweezers, etc., all of which are very similar to those found in Viking grave-sites   I think we can infer that the Saxons has similar habits of cleanliness.  Why?  Because before Christianity came along, the Saxons, Danes, Norse, and Swedes were all different tribes of the very same people.  They had the same religion, they spoke similar languages, they dressed the same, they made their living the same, they lived in the same kinds of buildings, etc. 

So what do we get from all this?

I find it hard to believe that if the ancestors of medieval Europeans knew what soap was good for, that the descendants would have lost that custom.  This doesn't make sense to me.  As I've studied history, time and time again I've been impressed how the basic features of human nature never change.  People laugh, love, work, and play.  Small children put everything in their mouth.  Lovers quarrel.  Teenagers go through a rebellious phase.  Husbands and wives sometimes get along, and sometimes they go after after each other like cats and dogs.  

And people don't like hanging around other people who stink.

There is ample evidence that medieval people were at least familiar with cleanliness.  The notion that they let themselves stink 364 days out of the year is absurd.  As for how often they actually did bathe, I think it varied from one region to the next, and from one time period to the next.  I could probably dig deeper, but that would require another blog.

Want to know more?  Go to your search engine of choice, and type in “medieval bathing”.  Enjoy!