Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Culture of Donating (Or Not)

Donations are cool but they don't need to be big
piles of cash to be effective. 
I've got work to do - writing - but this is on my mind so out it goes.

America is a donating culture nowadays, especially in the wake of a disaster. The folks in Joplin, Missouri, and the victims of Hurricane Sandy especially understand that. So do a lot of other people. We look at the news (or the weather or sports or whatever) and our hearts break when we see people in pain. Our instinct is to hug them and tell them it'll all be okay. Well the majority of people share that instinct, I'm generalizing to get the point across. We like to donate things.

On NPR recently there was a story about the unnecessary and often overwhelming things that become problematic in the wake of a tragedy. Too many teddy bears, not enough money. Piles and piles of clothes that create storage problems and not enough money to pay the folks or buy what's really needed. An enterprising group decided that encouraging those who want to help but don't want to send money per se ought to check out a web store and buy things there that will go to immediately filling desperate needs. This is a great idea.

But how often do we support things that enlighten us? I mean, back in the old days we used to subscribe to magazines and join book clubs and things like that to find material that informed or enlightened or entertained. Now there's the Internet and way too many options to choose from. If you're of a certain age you remember that packet of stickers from Publisher's Clearing House. I know some who loved those little stamps with a mighty desire to put them all over EVERYthing. (Not me. Nope.)

Last week I decided I was going to let a couple of magazine subscriptions go because I wasn't reading them as they came in. This made me a little sad because it meant that there were a few less items for the USPS to deliver to the house and I want the Postal Service to continue as it has, though that's a subject for another time. But now I have a few dollars that I'm not sending to a publisher to send magazines, so what am I going to do with it?

First, I'm going to support one website that I'm getting a lot of enlightenment from, lots of insights into what I want to do with my life. I've sent them the equivalent of a year's subscription to one of the magazines I just dropped.

This made me think: If everyone who reads a website 'subscribed' for only a dollar a month, the websites would likely be improved just a little bit. The authors could spend that much more time on their labor of love. It's a minimal investment on my part, but if 100 people did it, the author would be beholden to investors/readers, and might do better work out of some sense of obligation. Or not.

Second, I've still got that renewal money I wasn't going to give to another publisher so I'll decide which website deserves my support. If they have a tip jar or a PayPal link where I can send them a few bucks, I'll do it. It's nice to know that someone appreciates your work and is willing to pay something for it. In this day and age of the Internet, it's time for micropayments to really matter. It's up to us as readers to decide how much.

I would recommend that if every listener to every local NPR station just sent in $5 a year, the pledge weeks would probably be a lot shorter. Maybe $10. For an entire year, folks. They say every dollar counts and I believe that.

When it comes time and you think you want to send something to help someone out, think about all the things you take for granted and what you don't pay for on a daily basis. Think about the things you read for free that a dollar a month would be good for. You might help someone get health insurance or eat or be able to put gas in his car to get out of the way of a killer superstorm.

This argument is rambling and way all over the place. What I want you to take away is that a dollar a month for every person who reads a particular website isn't too much to ask.

Is it?

Monday, January 28, 2013

Characters and Plot in Parallel

How many lines do you see?
I'm always looking for ways to express what I'm thinking about how I write, why I write and why and how I think things work. Not having a degree in English or Writing or Creative Writing, my search is exclusively independent, wandering far afield from one thing to another. I rely on the advice of others (that's the subject of another blog post another time) and the experience of writing for any audience that'll pay attention. (And thank you for reading here. I very much appreciate it.)

Back in March of 2012 I took a stab at explaining why character wasn't more important than plot and vice versa. Rereading that post at the Confabulator Cafe, I realize that I've learned a little more since then and it may be time to update my thoughts. Not the roots of the thought, mind you, but maybe I've come up with an explanation that may make a little more sense.

I read Austin Kleon's book Steal Like An Artist (three times) and he illustrates something in the book that really, really resonated with me. An art school exercise where you draw two lines close together, pretty much as identically as possible. The student is then asked how many lines he sees.

The answer is supposed to be three: the two drawn and the one implied in between.

Now my idea is that the three lines symbolize the bits that readers care about: Character, Plot, and Story. Here:


It's not necessary for character to be on top or plot to be on the bottom but story has to be in the center. Nor should you pay attention to the sizes I've written any of the words in the drawing. The important bit is that Story is in the center. What I'm aiming at is that Character on the outside represents all the work an author puts into developing those people. Same thing with Plot. The implied line is, of course, Story. Because Character and Plot combine to make a Story.  A believable story has strong characters and a good plot that moves forward with purpose. I think we can pretty much agree on that, can't we?

So. I'm going make an amendment at this point that ties together all the things I've been exploring over the last little while here. When I say 'story' in this regard, I mean the throughline of my story. A then B then C, etc... What makes a story memorable is how the reader retains it.

Stay with me. Obviously they read it one page after another, sometimes skimming over the boring bits. Hopefully I've eliminated as many of those parts as possible but maybe not. We'll see. Anyway.

When you tell a story to someone (like a prank you pulled, for instance, or when you're gossiping or even lying or sharing a deep dark secret) you don't necessarily go with the throughline, do you? I bet not. I bet you digress here and there to explain some details - who was there and their relationship to you or the event, what was going on right before the story started or where it happened - sometimes as you go along and sometimes not. Here's a diagram of how I think that works:

Again, maybe I'm right maybe I'm not. This is how I'm thinking of it now. Which is why I'm sharing it. Anyway. You can flip the S-curve either way for the reader/listener to come in on the character side or the plot side and it still works. During every story, there are plot moments and character moments as the tale drives forward. I think a good story has equal amounts of both but you can modify the curve any way you like.

This is anecdotal evidence on my part, from listening to stories, reading them, and telling them. Your mileage probably varies. But this is how I write. I want characters interacting across a cool plot that makes for an entertaining story. When readers tell others about a story I've written I would bet that they'll share bits about the characters and bits about the plot that actually tell the story.

At least, that's the theory.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Things Left Unsaid

TMYS Bear will give your secrets the treatment
they deserve. Swiped from ThinkGeek
Who doesn't have a secret? There's a subject that's always verboten in regards to nearly every person I know. Things that just aren't spoken of. Things that further discussion will not solve.

Now not every secret is 'juicy'. Some are uncomfortable, subjects that have no bearing on the situation at hand. Some are tiresome, subjects that have been beaten to death by endless discussion over drinks, food, even while impaired on illicit substances.

But the secrets we keep are what make us interesting to others. The things we keep to ourselves are what intrigue others. The mystery is what tantalizes, don't you think? Come on. Admit it. Here, have another drink and I'll distract you with something I'm willing to let go of because I trust you. Oh, go on, you know you want to tell me. I'm making it okay for you to share. You can trust me.

So along with the other things we've been exploring over the last week, secrets are really about trust. The things we choose not to share also help to define us. Sometimes we choose not to share out of shame or self-disappointment, sometimes because what we know will hurt someone else. There are secrets that are difficult to keep to oneself but because you might have been trusted with them you cannot share. That's the burden of hearing things we don't want anyone else to know, isn't it?

Secrets, being about trust, are weighty things. Sometimes trust is misplaced when your confidante betrays your secret. We all know there's only one person who can absolutely be trusted with the Deep Dark Secrets: the person who owns the secret first. That weight is significant and can affect behaviors. Best friends can sense when a new weight has been added. That's when a conversation happens. Have some more wine.

Look, I'm thinking out loud here. There are things I don't tell you, that I don't tell others. If you know something about me I guarantee there are others in my circle who don't know what you do. They may know parts, but not the whole thing. I'm the only one who knows everything about me.

However, if you put a group of my friends and acquaintances together and you all shared what you knew (not that you have permission to do that - wait until I'm dead at least), there might come a clearer picture of who I am. But you won't know everything. There will be key details missing. There also won't be a 'Rosebud' clue. I also don't think I've shared anything with anyone who has had to take on the weight, that causes any conflict. I may be wrong but I'm not aware of having done that.

I'm not a therapist and I only know one person who is. Secrets can be destructive and damned heavy. You'll be better off if you can trust someone to help you put that weight on the ground and inspect it from another perspective.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Truth of the Lie

The truth can get in the way so that's when
it's appropriate to get an axe.
So over the last three posts I've been exploring the little stories that people tell in the real world. Stories of pranks, rumors, and lies. It's interesting to see how the three fit together because certainly one can lie about having pulled a prank, or being the victim of one. Rumors are almost certainly lies in the beginning, inventions of the creators, though they can easily be leaks from sources wanting to generate interest in whatever. Outright lies are just meant to hurt their victims or, at the minimum, cast the teller of the lie in the best possible light.

And so characters have to use these little stories in a writer's larger stories. It's easy to believe that a character (narrator or otherwise) is always truthful. And as a writer I'm intrigued with writing a book that contains a cast of liars. Not just points of view shifts but actual lies, rumors, anecdotes, stories, that lead the reader to wonder just who, if anyone, is telling the truth.

I don't know if I'll write this book and I'm sure it's been written a dozen times before but I have a take that I want to use in pursuit of that. Something about exploring the nature of truth. Truth, I guess. What is true and does the truth really hurt as badly as a lie? Sometimes our feelings are spared in service of The Greater Good. But is The Greater Good, itself, a lie?

Sometimes.

This is why I like being a storyteller. Being able to poke around and see what intrigues me, then go exploring with care and dedication to the story itself. The possibilities are truly endless. The open road beckons.

That's all I'll say about the possibility of writing this story. It's in a file on my desk and I'll let it simmer, add some bits and pieces here and there until it marinates enough. This one's big, though. It may never happen. I may not be the writer I want to be in order to write it.

Then again, given some time and some confidence I may be the guy to write this story. I've already been thinking about it for several months. That's why we've been thinking about lies and rumors and stuff.

Or maybe I'm pulling your leg with all of this. We'll have to wait and see, I suppose.

The truth will out.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Little Whites

He'll say what you want to hear in order to achieve his
goal of being a real boy. This is a story about lies. Or vice
versa.
Ever told a lie? Then you're a storyteller. It's that simple.

When I was very, very young I did a drawing on the wall of my parents' home and signed my brother's name. He was just getting sort of facile with crayons and I don't remember my motivation in doing the drawing in the first place but I'm told I did. I have no recollection of the event so I can't say but I can certainly infer that I wanted to get away with doing something that I knew was wrong.

The way I hear the story is that my Mom asked me what I'd done, why had I drawn on the wall? "I didn't," I said (again, this is what's been reported to me over the years), "[my brother] did. See? He signed his name." I pointed and was probably pretty proud of myself. I can imagine that even if I don't exactly remember.

"He couldn't have," Mom says. "He spells his name backwards."

Dammit, I was busted.

There have been other lies over the years, various things here and there. All of them are stories. All of them designed to make me look better to whomever I was talking to.

And I've been lied to, as well. By people near and dear to me, even. Hell, we all have if you think about it. Generally the lies we hear and the ones we tell are not meant to hurt someone else but sometimes they do. Sometimes you run into the one reprehensible person who creates a lie from a germ of truth that others are willing to believe. When the accused admits to the partial truth it only sinks her deeper. If that one part is true why not the rest?

That's the scary part of being the victim of a lie, when just enough truth is embellished with more than enough lie. It can change the course of the victim's life.

In some instances. Your mileage may vary.

The point I'm making here is that lies - that is, untrue stories - are meant to make one person look better than another for the gain of the person telling the lie. Simple lies are one thing, where saving face is what's important. I understand that. No one wants to look foolish when a mistake has been made and throwing someone else under the bus is easier than owning up to your mistake.

The big lies, the ones that ARE meant to hurt, are the worst. Anyone who's been the victim of one of those lies will understand.

How difficult is it to lie? Some people are very good at it, as if it comes naturally to them. Others are not, you can tell immediately that they don't know the tradecraft of lying.

But that makes all of them, all of US, storytellers. That means that - whether good or bad - we can invent something that could plausibly be the truth. Put two people together and you'll get different accounts of the meeting. That's point of view, isn't it? If you assume they're both telling the truth. However if one of the storytellers is unreliable - meaning you believe he could lie to you - then the stories not only get interesting, they become compelling.

And that's when people can get hurt, when lives can be changed. Sometimes those changes end up being the best thing that can happen. But it can be a long road to getting there, and that road is fraught with all sorts of dangers, not the least of which is depression.

Which is a lie you keep repeating until you believe it to be true. (I know this isn't the absolute truth, but it is a truth. One of many regarding the disease of depression. I'm making a point here, bear with me. I understand. Really. No, really.)

And what happens then? The axiom that the lie repeated becomes the truth is an axiom because it's TRUE.

So we're all lying liars. Care to share a lie you've told? The same rules apply: nothing that hurt anyone terribly. Change names, dates, places, but feel free to share.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Overheard By a Friend of a Friend Who Wasn't There

House can tell you're lying. House KNOWS. House
does not care to be your friend, either.
I miss a lot of what the general public sees as 'excellent' TV. I've never seen more than about five minutes of any episode of House but I love Hugh Laurie. Anyway. This is about the whispering that goes on, the gossiping about others and our fascination with inventing stories or repeating invented stories. We might even add in a dash of how those stories morph and take on lives of their own adding another degree of hurt to the subject of the rumor. Or rumors.

Do you gossip? Do you follow gossip on the internet or TV or even on old-fashioned radio? Do you?

Why?

For god's sake why?

Rumors about movies, movie stars personal lives, sports figures, politicians, etc... Jeez. I'm not sure now where to begin.

Remember the game Telephone? Where you whisper a phrase into someone's ear, they in turn whisper it to someone else, the process repeats until the last person says what she heard and it bares only a vague resemblance (if any at all) to what was originally said. That's a game that's supposed to teach the players about how to listen, not talk.

If you've ever been the subject of a rumor - and who hasn't? - or even multiple rumors you know how hurtful they can be. When people gossip about you (or anyone) it's indicative of how empty a person's life is, or how little one's time is occupied with anything of importance, or even how jealous someone might be of the subject of the rumor.

Did you ever think of that? I mean, why do people gossip in the first place? They're bored with some aspect of their lives and it's fun to tear down someone who is disliked for some theoretically obvious reason. What it indicates is a lack of security in one's own life, don't you think?

Rumors can often be started simply and unintentionally. It could be someone overhearing the end of a joke. "And so Walter ended up in jail for the weekend. Who thought he had it in him?" The two people involved in the joke (the teller and the listener) laugh but they're maybe unaware of the third person, Gladys, who's overheard the end of the joke and thinks that the two are like her, that they're gossiping.

Gladys repeats the joke as 'real' and then adds her own bits to make herself seem as though she's interesting and involved. Pretty soon it gets around the circle that Walter's killed someone and will not be returning any time soon. Does it matter what the facts were?

Rumors can also be placed. Politicians do it, celebrities do it. Well, their press agents do, anyway.

The point I'm getting at is that what other people do isn't necessarily news and can hurt. Be careful what you say in public. Be aware of who is around when you're saying something that can be misinterpreted. Be aware that you can say things for deliberate misinterpretation by the mouth of the ears embedded in the walls.

Feel free to use Gladys in your stories. She can be hella useful in advancing a plot by adding complications. Then you can show how strong your main character is by believing or disbelieving the rumors. Will your MC confront the object of the rumor? Will she confront Gladys? What happens then?

A rumor is a story, after all.

So - ever started a rumor?  Ever (either on purpose or inadvertently) spread rumors or gossip? What about being the object of a rumor? Feel free to share your experience. Names, dates and locations aren't necessarily important.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Pranks

A good prank can be appreciated by those involved and
those who hear of the exploit. Doesn't always cost a dollar,
either.
As I learn more about stories, by writing and actively listening, I'm discovering things I should have been paying attention to all along. Like most of the populace, I read what I enjoyed and talked about those tales with friends. Comics, science fiction, mythology... all kinds of stories. I grew up in a family where my grandfather regaled us with a hundred stories of his childhood and his youth. I never paid attention to how he structured his stories or why they worked. Fortunately he wrote dozens of them down and I have them to study in that way.

But Gran'pa wasn't the only storyteller in my everyday life. I was surrounded by them, as are you. Everyone who has some sort of experience shares it with others. As the internet has grown more and more of us are exposed to storytellers from across the world but we've all heard stories. Some of the best comedians EVER were the best storytellers, right? Bill Cosby's early work (pre-1980 or so) is what I use as my touchstone there. (Go Carts is one of the best of the best of the best, sir!)

Gran'pa didn't always try to make us laugh but more often than not he did. My friends, (the guys I hung out with, played in bands with, made comics to share with, etc...) (I need to stop using the ellipses...) could all tell stories, too. They just didn't have as many as Gran'pa or the comedians we all loved.

And neither did I.

I would entertain friends by parroting Bill Cosby or a Monty Python sketch. I could do some voices and I had a talent for emulating a performer's timing. (Robin Williams' first record was played over and over and over when I was a teenager.) However, I didn't have the gift of timing for things I made up myself. That's taken a long time to develop.

But it started when we related tales of exploits, particularly pranks.

Now I don't condone anything that hurts anyone in any way, physically or emotionally, but a good prank is a good prank and everyone should be able to chortle about it afterwards. Like when a Snickers bar is opened and thrown into a pool. Yes, it looks like a turd and people will panic a little. Even in the days when swimming pools are closed because certain swimmers don't know how to keep themselves clean, this could still be fun. The only time I experienced it was when I was a teenager and it was funny then. (No, it wasn't me who did it.)

Another prank I'm aware of is a group of guys being bored one night (and apparently sober) and visiting one of the old neighborhoods. It was late and the block was quiet and everyone had some kind of plant on their porch. These guys thought it would be funny if they would take the planters and swap them one for the other from house to house. When they were done, they were very proud of themselves and visited the block - by driving through - every day for a week. It took that long for all the planters to find their ways home. It was the work of a couple of hours that lasted that long that caused them to tell the story over and over. (No, I won't tell you who it was or if I was involved.)

The best prank I ever played was on my brother. (He won't mind if I tell you. He's over it now, nearly 25 years later.) I had been out in the yard all day doing whatever and I was terribly sweaty. I got my shower first that night and while my brother was cleaning up I took my dirty, smelly, WET socks and stuffed them flat into the top of his pillow case. About an hour later we went to bed and because I knew him that well, he hit the pillow face first.

I had locked the door to my room and he came out screaming and pounded on the door until my parents came up to see what was wrong. I heard them laugh when he told them what I'd done. He was mad for years about that and I checked my pillowcase every night until I moved out of the house.

These stories are the ones that capture a moment in time and deserve a great deal of attention. They can almost always be turned into something later on. Once a friend and I told an elaborate story (that took nearly ten minutes to tell) that begged the listener to ask the question "what was in the bag?".

The answer was "Bullshit. The same as the rest of the story." I'm sure that a couple of folks who heard that story found someone else to pull it on. That's the mark of success isn't it?

So, what are the best pranks you've ever pulled? I don't want to know about anything that humiliated someone or hurt anyone physically. Just something funny. If it backfired, let me know that, too.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Widespread Panic

I hid under your porch because I love you.
I have so many projects in so many stages that I'm not sure what I should be working on. I could panic, do a Muppet flail, and run around the house but everything would still be in the state it's in now that that just isn't helpful. After a burst of creativity in November and December (not quite replicating what I accomplished last year but still...) I took about three weeks off and didn't do much. That hasn't really helped me get anything done, either.

And new ideas are popping up.

While it's true that about 98% of the web is about writing advice, I don't feel like I've dispensed too much 'advice' here. I'm published, yes, but so far only one book is out (and you can buy it here). (End of shameless plugging and whorebaggery.) Instead, like the header says above, this is my blog about writing stories. What I go through when I'm writing. It's about sharing, I guess, information that others might find helpful or entertaining. A lot of people over the last four or five months have stopped in to see what's going on, so maybe I've finally hit my stride here.

So this post is more about procrastination than about finishing. (I just clicked away to work on a post for another site. Jesus.)

Something that bothers me is that I'm always distracted by the new shines. New stories are always more attractive than trying to go back and edit old ones that could conceivably sell. A member of my writer's group has sold a bunch of old stories by going back and systematically editing and submitting. I've got a couple dozen short stories (and some that are longer, nearly novelettes) that if I put a month's worth of effort into editing and then sending out might find homes.

But I've got two unfinished novels I'm anxious to get back to. And a third that's nearly ready to go out onto the street, too.

And new ideas are popping up.

Good lord, what am I going to do?

Buckle down, man. I'm going to have to get the old stories working the streets. I'm going to have to schedule time to submit them after they've been edited and then track my progress. I can't let Jack and Sara have all the fun. I can't let Rachel be the only one with a novel out there.

So, deep breaths. Don't worry about the projects I haven't told the public about (and there are a couple that will be on the burner for a year or more) but keep plugging away. I've got to schedule my writing time like I do in November and into December. I have to remind myself AGAIN that this is a job and I have to put my time in. Nothing happens if I don't

SQUIRREL.

Dammit.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Where to Find Me - January 2013

Despite everything being connected on the web, I don't
feel the need to connect every aspect of my social media
to everything else. Each platform has different audiences
which is why I'm all over the web in various spaces.
I'm kind of all over the web in various social spaces. This is the year when it will matter, I suppose, so here we are with a list of the places you can connect with me if you choose.

Before we get to the list, a quick note about my theory of social media. It's supposed to be social. Say hello, tell me something, talk to me. That's the best way to get me to follow you back or mention you otherwise

www.jasonarnett.com - This is the blog you're reading from. Whether on a feed reader or you came here because of a tweet or something you saw on Facebook or somewhere else. This is the home base and I'm continuing to update MOST Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I recommend checking here first. If you're on a feed reader, you're missing the Tweet stream on the right.

Twitter - The social media I embraced most and where I'm sending out signals from more often than not. It always points back to the blog and often encompasses more interests than just writing. You're welcome to add me to lists and hang out. Ask me questions, whatever. I like Twitter for interacting with people I don't see all the time. If you engage with me, just even to say hello once in a while, I'll follow back. Otherwise if you're just looking for numbers don't waste anyone's time. It's "social" media, remember?

Facebook - I have a personal page that I'm going to trim down in favor of keeping people I know there and directing all others to the new professional page. If we've met in real life or corresponded in the aether somewhere, you'll be on my personal page. Otherwise, please like the professional page. I'm not sure yet how the content there will differ from my personal page but I can guarantee the blog will connect to it so you'll still get some personal stuff. Just not all of it.

I has a Tumblr but I'm not sure yet what I should do with it. I'll keep it somewhere in between the personal and professional. I promise no drunk pictures of me here. Mostly it'll be things that are engaging my interest and could possibly end up in a story or a book.

The Confabulator Cafe - I'm here every Friday expounding on the question of the week and once a month offering a flash fiction for your entertainment. You want to follow everyone who's there especially when the fictions come around. A great group of up-and-coming writers of various levels.

I'm on Google+ but I don't use it very often. Well, I don't hang out there very often, I should say. Mostly I'm busy writing.

My Amazon Author Page - where you can keep up with what's already come out. There should be a new book sooner than later and hopefully another following that before the end of the year.

Instagram - not that I take a lot of pictures and share them there, but if interesting things are happening there I'll be around.

About.me - the landing page for a basic biography of me. Includes my non-writing professional information.

LinkedIn - I have a couple of profiles there. One for being a writer, another for my day-life profession. I'm connected with folks there who I've met in real life.

Pheed - just a placeholder account. Not sure what I want to do with this yet.

I have a Formspring account, too, but it's been a while since i checked in there. I imagine since there's the Ask Me feature at Tumblr there's really no need for this. There's a WhoSay placeholder, too.  If you Google me you might stumble across a YouTube account and an ancient LiveJournal. They're essentially defunct but just in case you're looking around, yeah they are probably me.


Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Not For Publication

Items not for publication must be put in storage. Someday
they'll find homes but for now...
This isn't the post I was writing for today.

That post has been scuttled, filed, deep-sixed, spiked, trunked. Never gonna see the light of day. Ever. Well, maybe not EVER but certainly not here. It wasn't going to work for this blog and since I don't have any other blogs where it might fit, in the trunk it goes.

Every writer has articles, stories, ideas, STUFF they're never going to turn into paying copy. It's just part of being a writer. You have to produce in order to get to the good stuff and sometimes that production, while prodigious, isn't the cream of the crop.

You'll notice I haven't told you what the original post was about. I don't think I'm going to. I wrote it because I needed to work some stuff out, get some things off my chest. The kinds of things I might say to a group of confederates over drinks at a Writers Night Out after we've all had maybe just a little too much and the conversation has wandered far afield and we've talked about everything else...

Almost told you what it was about. Oh, you're good, interwebz. You're goooood.

Anyway, it was the kind of thing that doesn't belong here. It had to be written, had to get out of my head but it's inappropriate for this audience. Yeah, the blog is my soapbox but that doesn't mean I'm just  going to spout whatever's on my mind. Well, hold on, I DO do that but I try to keep it in terms of telling a story or at least being about storytelling. The post was constructed in the same fashion as I normally work here but beyond being just too --- well, not the kind of content I normally post, it was too long. About a thousand words too long, in fact. More like fifteen hundred words too long.

So. This story is about how writers write what they need to then decide what to do with it. It's not self-censorship, don't think that. Rather it's working out the stuff that gets into our brains, under our skins, and then finds its way through our fingers onto a digital page or perhaps elsewhere. It's preservation.

Good judgment must prevail. Never, and in this case I mean never EVER, post something that could be controversial without taking some time to reconsider what you're saying. If you don't use it at least you can tell the story about not using it. Those of us that write should know how to do that.

While this isn't the post I originally wrote for today, it's actually a better post. It's not about nothing. There's plenty for you to read between the lines if you choose to. AND there's even a clue as to what I was writing about originally.

Or maybe not. Sorry to be mysterious.

On Friday we'll return to more straightforward blogging.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Mr. Know-It-All Owns Up

If you don't get this reference
Mr. Know-It-All is very disappointed.
Every once in a while I'm reminded that I don't know everything.

Yes, yes, it's true and I accept it. If I knew everything I probably wouldn't be here trying to engage in a conversation with people who don't really know me.

A while back I pointed to this article as a reminder of things one should watch out for when editing a draft. Then I saw this article saying the first article is nice but writing is more than that and writers should be aware of these things, too.

Point taken.

Here's the summary for those of you who didn't click through on either article (and shame on you - you should read their stuff, I do):

Ask the big questions, show your characters' character, make the reader care, and then offer a big payoff. If you do this cleanly without annoyingly obvious grammar mistakes, you'll have a nice book in the end.

Sounds simple, dunnit?

In the grand discussion of writers' capabilities, it should be. The writer should have been taught (either formally or informally) that a clean manuscript is a must so that when one is being critiqued it can be read for structural problems. Again, that sounds easy and it should be.

But often it isn't. I think it has more to do with how people interact every day and tell stories to one another on the phone or via email than anything else. There's little respect for individuals in every day life and that's translating into some prose. There's a paradigm shift coming and it is slow moving, like beach erosion, rather than tsunami-like, washing away all the old stuff that "doesn't matter any more".

Formality is dying.

It's going away in schools and in job interviews and I see it and you see it in the deaths of little things every day. People don't use turn signals when they drive. After all, I know where I'm going why do you need to? People use the speakers on their phones to chat with their doctors in a crowded coffee shop. After all, I'm not ashamed of what's wrong with me, why should you be? The last seat on the bus is taken up by a backpack and an angry-looking person who doesn't want you to sit next to her. After all, it's her personal space, isn't it?

Why do we think that a space where the general public is allowed to occupy (like say a restaurant dining room) is the same thing as a public space? Parks are not the same as a business. Why do we behave as though we're entitled to be impolite to anyone we want?

There are levels of privacy that we are willing to give away with our rights as American citizens and it doesn't bother the vast majority. In fact, that vast majority tends to think of anyone who bristles at giving up something that "doesn't matter any more" as a trouble-maker or perhaps just an unhappy person who needs to get laid.

We tear one another down because we can, because it makes us feel better. Why don't we help each other more? Put on that turn signal. Take that conversation somewhere else. Let someone who's been on her feet all day sit down for the bus ride home. It's not that much to ask or even to give.

Both articles are helpful and insightful and neither is absolute. I link to them so that you can go read them and learn something I didn't know at some point and needed to learn again. I write this blog in the hopes that I'm reaching some form of intelligent life that wants to engage in a conversation. This isn't a marketing platform, folks. Well, it is, but that's not the point. It's as much me wanting to open a dialogue with other like-minds and maybe even some who aren't alike so that I can learn things.

It's a little more formal than me just setting up on a street corner and evangelizing away, but not by much. Here are my thoughts. What are yours?

Because I don't know it all. Not by a long shot. But I do want to learn as much as I can.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Vampires and Zombies Are Not For Me

I'm not saying that I will never write a vampire or zombie story, but they are so overdone at this point that there's no way I'll just toss one off because I feel like it.

Vampires are interminably installed in every bookstore around the world regardless of being brick and mortar or online. Two wildly popular series have sort of ruined it for anyone who was a fan of Anne Rice's vampires in the early days. Whether sparkling or trying to incorporate into society, the current batch of vampire stories have left me soured on the creatures.

Bram Stoker's Dracula was quite a different beast than these. Being European royalty and a warlord of some reputation on top of it, Dracula was a formidable foe with abilities that he used to remain hidden. He had to operate at a certain level in society but had no desire to do so. Not really. Fred Saberhagen's Dracula was lonely and honorable, a hero who defended those he loved with ferocity and fervor. The Dracula portrayed by Bela Lugosi and Gary Oldman is sexy, hypnotic, and beyond confident. When Marvel Comics produced The Tomb of Dracula in the 70s, that Dracula was evil incarnate, bad to the core.

As much as I am a fan of the original trilogy of Anne Rice's vampires, even she went to the well too often, starting with the last chapters of The Tale of the Body Thief. The part where Lestat says "The story should have ended there" is the exact point where it should have stopped. Rice's vampires are sexy and morose things. Sad creatures of power who want to remain hidden (all but Lestat) that have their own idea of society and propriety.

I'm not saying the vampires of now are different than those who came before but they're way more prevalent than ever before and - being honest - reflective of a society that's dispossessed and whiny. Yeah, they're sexy and hypnotic and all that they were previously but now they're infected with trashy habits and one wonders how they survived so long. Vampires need to have a sense of history but not like the vapidity of that mashup that was made into a film. That's a different post, though, so that will have to wait.

On to zombies. Not really a fan at all. Never really have been. I've seen the George Romero films and I have to say that slow zombies are fun. But then I can go back to Boris Karloff as The Mummy and say that slow zombies are the definitive ones. Until I read Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. Those zombies are terrifying. And fun. And they can talk.

I guess zombies don't really scare me because - well, I don't know. I get the appeal of The Walking Dead and I hear from friends that World War Z is very, very cool. (I couldn't read it. It didn't speak to me at all.) I'm just not enamored with them like some are.

Mike Carey's Felix Castor series really appeals to me, and Richard Kadrey's take on zombies (high plains drifters) in the Sandman Slim series speaks to me, too. But only in context of the worlds they've built, not as the center of the world. In both cases there is no one creature that dominates the story, no one menace that is as oppressive as a zombie plague.

As part of a larger story I can read or watch vampires and zombies but I don't want to write them. At least not right now, since I shouldn't ever say 'never', right? Matheson, Romero, Stoker and Rice are the touchstones for me, the genre leaders who make it hard for me to feel like I have anything to contribute.  That's really the thing I'm getting at: if I were to write a vampire or zombie story, what would be my contribution to the genre? I can't see one yet.

Although, an idea has occurred to me about a vampire story that I could write. Maybe. Someday.

In the meantime I can think about writing other supernatural/paranormal creatures. I like ghosts - a lot. I've written a story about a fallen angel, too, but that's overdone now. In both cases they were stories of redemption for creatures that needed it. Vampires that want redemption are pitiful and zombies don't have the capacity to need salvation.

I'm not writing this to be negative, I'm just saying that I'm not looking to write any of the famous monsters for the time being. I'm quite comfortable writing some Lovecraftian-styled horror and space opera science fiction. Where those two cross over might be interesting but for now I'm keeping my genres fairly well separated.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Thoughts on Amazing Spider-Man #700

I like this cover but it's not quite what
a "death of Spider-Man" cover should
convey. I want more out of it.
All right, if you haven't read the issue by now and don't know the ultimate outcome, stop reading now. This is the only SPOILER WARNING you're going to get. If you fail to heed it, don't blame me. I tried.

It's been a week since the release of the final adventure of The Amazing Spider-Man. He's also been known as Spectacular, Ultimate and by several other phrases throughout the fifty year history of the character. He's been the main character in the two titles mentioned above along with reprints in Marvel Tales, a long run in Marvel Team-Up, his own eponymously-titled book launched by fan-favorite Todd McFarlane and had a title called The Web Of Spider-Man, too. Various mini-series and graphic novels have floated in and out of the comic shops over the years and he's guest-starred across the entire Marvel universe.

Finally he got Hollywood treatment in the last decade and a reboot already with a sequel to that reboot in the works. There have been multiple cartoon shows beginning in the 80s (yeah there were some awful things in the 70s, too, but let's not talk about those) and Spider-Man has been in the American consciousness for most of his publishing history. I grew up tuning in to the live action TV show, too, that featured Nicholas Hammond. At one point he even had an epic battle with another famous comic book news reporter cum superhero and the Spider-Man vs. Superman event pretty much launched the Big Event Era in comics.

Spidey's been run through the mill by having an inordinate amount of death in his life. His uncle. His girlfriend, her father. Lots of others. His parents, too.

As a child I loved Spider-Man. I loved Peter Parker. I identified with him. I understood him. He graduated high school, went to college and got a degree. He got a job and had money problems, girl problems. And - oh yeah - he fought some really bad, bad people while being perhaps the most misunderstood hero in the Marvel universe. He would get into fights at the drop of a hat. He had issues but he also knew how to have a good time (at least early on in his history). When he got too serious he'd have to go web-slinging to 'clear his head'. All this endeared him to me. Peter is not that different from me.

His marriage to Mary Jane Watson was right and good and should have lasted. Peter and MJ genuinely loved one another and she accepted the idea of Peter's superhero obligations.

And for reasons I don't believe, Marvel's editorial decree to tear him down came along. They said that Marveldom Assembled didn't want a married Peter Parker. I had stopped reading any of the still-multiple titles not long after Brian Bendis and Mark Bagley rebooted the Ultimate universe but I read some of their run before abandoning the wall-crawler completely. Editorial's handling of the breakup of Peter and MJ's marriage ensured that I'd never come back on anything like a regular basis.,

That was so long ago I can't even tell you. I would occasionally check in with Peter's world and see what was going on, follow the news on the websites devoted to comic books and every so often flip through an issue I found in the grocery store or at one of those all-in-one entertainment houses where I could buy or rent a DVD and check out new music while browsing magazines and books.

I wasn't the target audience any more and haven't been for a long time. No longer part of 'Marveldom Assembled' I found the stories derivative and tedious on the surface. (This attitude is not exclusive to Spider-Man, by the way. I feel like this about MOST superhero comics and I've made no bones about it.) Spider Island was referenced in this issue and there are a lot of characters that were new to me when I picked up both issues #699 and #700. I'll get to that in a moment, but that is part of what's wrong with comics in general and has been for some time. Hang on, though.

But the headlines surrounding the leak of issue #700 drew me back to the title one last time. I should note that if there hadn't been 'events' in the 90s that had artificially inflated the issue count, Amazing Spider-Man had another 8 or so years before it would naturally have hit #700. At 50 years, issue #600 would have been the pinnacle. I digress.

So I picked up the final adventure of the webhead, locked in mortal combat with his arch-enemy Doctor Octopus. Ock has swapped his mind for Parker's and now the old man (whose body is dying). It's one for the ages and a brilliant scheme that's been played out for quite a while in the book, I'm told.

Now I like that Ock (who has eight limbs, four of them mechanical) is taking on Spider-Man here at the end because a spider also has eight limbs. There's a synchronicity at work that makes me happy. In addition, Ock is Spidey's oldest enemy and has gotten the closest to Spider-Man on any number of occasions. Even as a lapsed member of Marveldom Assembled I am pleased that they're battling each other to the death. That's why this now-casual fan came to pick up the last issue of a favorite title.

Here are my critiques of the book itself:

Price - Jeez, $8? Yeah, the main story is extra-sized but the additional material is weak. Remember, I'm a casual fan now so I'm not affected by teasers or other things. In fact, reprinting all 700 covers on a 10x10 grid over seven pages is clearly a plea for Marvel to have me grab my FREE digital copy that's included inside. Right. $8 for a FREE digital download. I suspect that just ending the main story and running the extra-long letters page would have dropped the price to $6 or maybe even $5. When the book normally costs $4 doubling it and including a bunch of 'special features' makes sense in an office at the corporate compound but very little sense when asking retailers and fans to shell out the extra. Still, I paid it so who's the idiot?

The Alternate Covers - Hey, did Steve Ditko get paid again for that 'previously unused' art finally being published 50 years later? I like the one with Spidey swinging over the city where all the creators' names  are embedded in the buildings.

There's something wrong with Peter/Ock's arms here. There
just isn't enough action in them. And Ock/Spidey's punch
is weak, too, as though the artist posed in front of a mirror
with his arm straight out and used that for reference. Boring.
The Art - yeah, not so much. It's too severe, too spindly to convey (to me, a casual fan) what a superhero is. It's at once cartoony (which I like) and off-putting, even grotesque, as though Ramos and Olazaba are going for a Paul Pope kind of feel. It just seems wrong for this kind of big Marvel hero tale. Peter/Ock is drawn so hideously and with such tepid-looking lines (and LOTS of them) that it's hard to feel any empathy for Pete being stuck in the old man's bod. I suspect that this is an evolution in Ramos' style that is made more jarring by Olazaba's inking. I have like Ramos in the past, quite a bit in fact, but here in these two issues I wouldn't necessarily buy another book with this team in place. Especially not if it's a superhero story. Just doesn't fit with what I expected. Again, casual fan.

The Story - I guess this is what some modern superhero fans like, but it didn't do much for me. Peter giving in like he did is hard to swallow. I think that Editorial should have allowed that Peter isn't really dead, that he's lurking inside his own head behind Ock's consciousness and biding his time. I'll be surprised if this isn't the case when the next Spider-Man movie comes out in 2014. Some points of order for comic book storytellers: when there's an even this big and you're anticipating selling hundreds of thousands of copies to people who haven't read your book in a long time - or, indeed, EVER - you need to be nicer about bringing us ALL up to speed. I see that Aunt May is married to Jonah Jameson's father? Glory Grant is Jonah's assistant now that he's mayor of NYC? Robbie Robertson is there but gets only one panel of emphasis? Ben Caxton is also there but also impotent like everyone else. Plus there are 'new' characters who are shown but not really introduced.

There were all these extra pages, didn't anyone think that perhaps a two-page 'What Has Come Before' would be a good idea? Somehow introducing everyone to the cast of characters present in the story should have been there. Then the storytellers might have had a better chance to pull on our heartstrings. It seems Marvel, once again, had an opportunity to score big with all their fans and chose not to.

Look, every issue is someone's first. If this was my first issue of Spider-Man, I'd be CONFUSED.

As for a critique of the ending - my feeling is 'meh'. I know Peter's not dead and so do the vast majority of readers. He's coming back, it's just a question of how. We know when because Marvel Studios won't let anyone else but Peter Parker be Spider-Man in the movies. It seems obvious to me that Peter's in there somewhere and he's always been smart enough to find ways to get out of jams before. The real question in my mind is what he'll have to do to take control of his body again. Will he have to kill Ock? Is he capable of doing that? What does that herald for the character when he does return?

Writer Dan Slott got death threats on Twitter and Facebook for this ending. Setting aside the sheer lunacy of the threats themselves, is it really worth the legal headache to say something stupid over a story? And one that's middling at best?

No. No, it isn't. This story is okay. But just okay.

MY FINAL ANALYSIS of the end of The Amazing Spider-Man is that it's a non-event Big Event. It's meant to stir up the fanbase and generate some interest in the character before the next movie comes out. How does it compare, say, to The Death of Superman? Not favorably, in my book. There was little emotional investment, even within the story, that pulled me in. All it accomplished was to pull this lapsed fan, a former member of 'Marveldom Assembled', to spend twelve hard-earned dollars on two-issues. Comparing that to the height of my weekly comic book-buying habit in the 90s, that's a year's worth of books and about half a book's worth of story. I'm very disappointed in Marvel Editorial.

The creators deserve kudos for doing their jobs well, if not spectacularly. I didn't care if Peter died or not, because I knew he wouldn't be dying in the end.

Then again, I'm not the target audience.

By the way, I remember Spider-Man 2099. I think that book and Batman Beyond are possibly the futures of the characters. I dunno.

In the end I don't necessarily regret the expenditure but I might have spent the money on a couple of paperbacks that would take longer to read and likely have much more character development and a bigger impact as a whole.