Dog Ear
Thanksgiving (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 22 November 2012 00:00

It's Thanksgiving, that day we all give thanks for what we have. As families, we can give thanks for those who can share our meals. As citizens of the Great Republic, we can be thankful that we still have peace and law and order and a working society. That the lights are still on and bullets aren't plinking off the gutters is something to be so very thankful for.

But as a writer, what can I be thankful for?

Well, for one, I'm thankful for my lunch setup, that our workplace cafe has a patio that looks over a lake, that most of the yuppies prefer to stay inside, and anything short of perfect weather drives in the rest. Usually I have the tables to myself, providing me with a quiet hour to work magic.

In that vein, I'm thankful for technology. I'd hate to have to do all this writing longhand, then transfer it to type. Worse, I'd hate to lug a typewriter around. I love my tinytop, that little PC with the 90% keyboard. It makes life so easy.

I'm thankful, in a way, for Mookie the writer's cat, even through she finds the worst times to jump up on my lap and lay across my arms (like just before this paragraph). I'm thankful that she's warm and soft and doesn't hold a grudge when I tip her out.

I'm not sure I'm thankful for self-publishing. Suddenly, the moribund publishing industry has become a chaotic, noisy place filled with stuff that, perhaps, should never have been published. But it got Early Retyrement into the sunlight as it deserved, and for that, I am thankful.

And in that, I'm thankful that I've had the honor of being traditionally published with Fire and Bronze. Sure, it ended in ruin, without a dime coming to me, my rights striped away, all that. But I was able to walk into a bookstore and see my book, there, on the new arrivals rack. When people refer to me as a writer, I know I've earned it. And I know what a close shave it was at every step of the process, so being thankful is the least I can be.

I'm thankful for all the writers who turn out novels so pure and perfect that I can only bask in their greatness. Their words I carry with me, to guide me in what storytelling should be.

Second from the top, I am thankful for my muse. She speaks to me. She twists my plots. She's with me when I don't know why I'm bothering. She shows up when I'm staring at a blank screen without an idea in my head and sets my fingers to dancing. Without her, I'm only a reader. With her, I'm a writer.

But mainly, I'm thankful for anyone who reads my blogs, my books, my short stories. I'm thankful for those who take the time and keep with my words, even over the slow spots, the tedious places, and the occasional typos. To anyone who comes up to me with a smile and a back-pat, I am thankful.

Writers should be thankful they are writers, every day.


Last Updated on Sunday, 18 November 2012 21:54
Unlikely Heroes (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 25 October 2012 00:00

The wife and I had ridden our bikes to dinner, then to yogurt over at the village center of Baldwin Park. Understand that Baldwin is a neo-community, one built on a perfectly good naval training center. It's smart and clever and cute and as plastic as, well, plastic. It's fake from end to end. But they have the only yogurt shop within wife-cycling range, so there you go.

While there, I saw a couple of Goths hanging out on the benches amid the manufactured quaintness, desperately seeking an identity. Like Illinois Nazis, it's hard to take Baldwin Park Goths seriously. But it did make me wonder (as most things do) - was there a book in it?

What sort of heroine would you have to write if she was a Goth in an influential area of town? The cred just isn't there. So what would a story be like with Moonbat the Goth? Could the story be made interesting so there was some sympathy and reader-backing for a character who's very existential protest is a sell-out?

Most heroes are flawed in perfection. Harry Potter has no weaknesses that I'm aware of. Most TV heroes are gently anti-hero, protesting their goodness while they perform acts of goodness. Even Mikael Blomkvist of the Dragon Tattoo series is a rumbled journalist who is hampered by his commonness (yet is seemingly a total chick magnet).

It's the heroes that are flawed, humanistically flawed (but not overly flawed) who are the gems. Some characters I could name:

Harry Flashman - Cowardly, dastardly, yet flatly honest with the reader.

Bruno Stachel - A German fighter pilot in The Blue Max, egotistical, a drunkard, yet can occasionally shine by doing the right thing.

D'Artagnan - a vainglorious, headstrong youth whos loyalty to king and friends is his virtue.

Horatio Hornblower - forget the swashbuckler you've seen on A&E. Horatio was a worried little man more concerned about his ragged stockings and pension then he was about a coming battle.

And so that's the trick. If your character is unflawed, you are writing somewhere prior to 1930. If your character is so flawed he's been booted out of heaven (or whatever) then you've written an adolescent video game character. The trick is to give your character just enough human flaws to make him interesting. Screw the entire 'overcoming of weakness' bit - that's trite. It goes deeper than that. Sherlock Holmes never overcame his opium habit or his obsessive traits. Your character can carry his faults all the way through your story - that's permitted. But he needs to have something that shows up from time to time to remind us that he's weak, perhaps a caustic personality trait that isn't funny, perhaps a minor medical problem, a quirk, a shyness, an ego. Give your character something we as readers can identify or sympathize with.

Perfection is boring and antiheroes are way overdone. Find something in the midpoint, something quirky and edgy and different. Like, say, a Goth girl without a drivers license, living in the rich part of town and loathing it.


Last Updated on Sunday, 21 October 2012 20:10
Straw men (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 18 October 2012 00:00

You’ve carefully considered your hero, his background, driving factors and idiosyncrasies.

You’ve come up with your world, be it an isolated Turkish village on a volatile border, the hold of a star-bound colony ship, or perhaps a Brooklyn slum of 1923. You’ve given it life, made it real.

You’ve developed your plot, the twists, surprises and mysteries.

And with all that, suddenly you decide that your antagonist can be cut out of cardboard and propped up. After all, what more do you need than some frothing villain shouting “Seize them!” or “Throw every resource into their downfall” or whatever?

You’ve made a Straw Man, a two-dimensional bad guy for your hero to be heroic against. Straw men are easy to put together – just find an overused aspect of that character-type and use it in place of imagination. In this, religious leaders are fat, southern hypocrites. Military leaders are buzz-cut red-baiters. Super-spy villains are gloatingly urbane. And worse, they all share the trait of being incredibly stupid.

At their worst, they don’t seem to have any primary goal (other than to obstruct the hero from his heroics). They will scream, lose their tempers and even sacrifice mooks in pointless displays of their evilness. They have no dimension, not reason, and no background.

Employing them in your story does nothing but cheapen that story, making it juvenile and immature. Sure, you might have researched 12thcentury Constantinople, but if your ruler is going to scream, “I want their heads!” instead of focusing on matters of state and trade, congratulations, you’ve just turned your historical fiction into a cartoon.

If I had to give a good example of a non-straw villain, I’d have to point to an old favorite, the Cardinal Richelieu from the Three Musketeers. He wasn’t focused on four low ranking musketeers; he was trying to disgrace the queen by the purloining of her jeweled studs owned by her lover to maintain the king’s standing. That the musketeers got in his way did not turn him into a beard-tugging maniac. No, he just kept doing his cardinial chores, maneuvering his spies and dealing with church business. He gave his minions (Lady de Winter and Comte de Rochefort) assignments that made logical sense, which they did to the best of their abilities). And finally, in the end, once the musketeers had won, he didn’t go into a vengeance-seeking tizzy. He actually gave a commission to D'Artagnan in droll reward for besting him.

He felt powerful, strong and in control. He made logical sense. And in beating him, the musketeers felt all the more powerful and realistic.

Don’t make us hate your villains. Make us understand and respect them. Your story will be better for it.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 09 October 2012 14:58
Digging a Ditch (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 11 October 2012 00:00

I'm reading The Merry Men by Robert Louis Stephenson. In it, a bible-thumping Christian stands on a high Scottish ledge in a gale, baying laughter as a poor schooner tries to tack out of a bay surrounded by murderous rocky reefs (the "Merry Men" of the title). And why is he doing this? Pride? Nationalism? Personal animosity?


When you think about it, it comes down to the fact that this weasel wants the ship's cargo on the beach, where he can pick through it and make it his (he might even loot the bodies of the dead sailors should they be fortunate enough to wash up). And the reason this is all so is because he wants money for nothing. He wants stuff to be his, magically. He could get this same gain by labor, such as digging a ditch. But no, Scottish soil is rocky, not good ditch-digging there. He'd rather gain it at the expense of the misery, terror, and extinction of others (and yes, it is a horrible scene).

But when you think back at the wars nations have fought, of slavery and thievery and pimping and murder and most horrors inflicted by a human on a human, it's because someone doesn't want to dig a ditch. They would rather steal credit card numbers, knock over old ladies, and drop napalm on refugees rather than ditch digging.

Writers are no different. Oh, I'd love to get the recognition I crave. Occasionally someone comes up to me and tells me they liked a book of mine. I'm referred to, at work, as "that writer guy". I even once had a person out of the blue recognize my name and tell me how much he loved Fire and Bronze. Yes, it's a nice ego boost. But it doesn't keep me out of any ditches.

So there is that fantasy, the J. K. Rowling one, where you become one of the richest humans in the world because of five simple books. Somehow your words catch the morlock population of the world (who wouldn't know true literature if you snapped a copy of Lord Jim on their nose) and suddenly the printers can't keep up with demand. Money is flowing in. You can watch zeros stack up behind your wealth on a daily basis. And from your Malibu beachfront, you look out at the setting sun and marvel in your wealth. And out by the road out front, a bunch of work trolls set out their cones, quarter their ground, and raise their picks. Better them than you.

I'm not sure what this says about us as writers, if we set out to tell a story, not because we believe in it but because we want to avoid nasty work with it. Does this mean in our effort to stay out of that narrow trench (with the flies and heat and heavy tools) we'll not give the audience a true story with the telling it should have, but rather a pandering tale that appeals to them and doesn't challenge (or shock or cause reflection) on them. If we are all pushing for that big sale, that ding-ding-ding success, are all we producing popularistic bullshit?

This is the sort of thing writers think about. Kill a character and anger the crowds? Or have the same vampires and wizards and secret agents going through their poorly-written motions?

What can I suggest here? Keep your day job, keep digging that ditch, and write your tale unhampered by commercial desperation.


Last Updated on Sunday, 07 October 2012 19:17

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