Throwback Thursdays – The Good Old Days

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Around the holidays, we often become nostalgic.  We look back longingly at the days of our youth.  We pine for the “good old days,” and we regale everyone around us with tales of the wonderful times.  It’s interesting what our memory does with time – everything becomes better with age, and the not so good parts are glossed over.

I loved my youth.  I had four sisters and one brother and we had some good great times together.  Those shared experiences are what I miss, though, not the time period.  Think about it – we had six kids and two adults riding around in an ancient Volkswagen beetle.  That is not an exaggeration, it is a memory.  Car seats were optional, so the three youngest kids rode on laps in either the back seat or the passenger seat of the beetle.  What else wasn’t good?  Well, nobody had cell phones or computers or microwave ovens, and the economy was in the tank.  Did I mention that there was a lingering fear over everyone that the Russians would nuke us every single day?

Everyone pines away for some time period without stopping to realize just how bad it truly was.  Think about it – medicine didn’t really exist until the early twentieth century and life expectancy was miserably short until the 1930s.  Laws differentiated based on gender and skin color and our understanding of the world around us was severely limited.  How long have we had indoor plumbing?

I guess what I am trying to say is that as writers, we provide escapism to our readers and attempt to transport them somewhere and somewhen else.  We often strive for realism in our settings, but if we want to provide a pleasant experience, we need to scale back our realism a notch or three and gloss over some of these harsh realities (unless you are writing actual history).  Do your readers really care about folks using and cleaning chamber pots or are they more attracted to a romanticized version of your world?  Do you want to kill off half of your hero’s siblings before they are ten and kill off one or both parents by age 40?  All of those are “realism” in many setting before 1900.  Keep that in mind when you sit down to write.

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Modern Mondays – Collaborative Creativity

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Often, we (that’s all of us) fear sharing our work.  Maybe we are afraid somebody will tell us it is terrible.  Maybe we are afraid someone will steal our idea.  The point is that we often let our ideas and creations languish in limbo when we could be honing and refining them (and working with others to improve them).  I have mentioned before that I have a buddy who is a far better artist than I am.  He draws great comics (and other stuff).  We collaborate in other ways as well.  Often, he will send me a rough strip and ask for my feedback (on the flow, the dialogue, or even just the humor).  Less often, I will say “Hey James, I think it would be funny if…”

The result of these collaborations can be quite humorous.  The other day, I was gluing an arm back on a scarecrow on a Wizard of Oz Christmas ornament.  As I set the ornament aside, I had a vision of myself or my wife (or kid) knocking it off the shelf when it dried.  I shared this with James, who combined it with his own experiences to draw this cartoon.

Much of what I have done in the Vergrinn War is collaborative.  Before I sat down to write the series, I ran the idea by a good friend of mine (my earliest beta reader and the loose basis for the character Saegrimr).  He liked the premise, and he liked the characters, and away I went.  (as an aside, I even occasionally find myself asking this guy what he thinks Saegrimr would do in a given situation, as he knows he is the general inspiration for that character).

Most of my improvements to the story and characters have come from suggestions from a small group of beta readers (I did add a map and a pronunciation guide to my books based on feedback from an Amazon customer).  I think that for anyone who wants to create a good work of writing, collaboration is the key.  We need to learn to reach out and take advantage of the resources available to us.  You might find that the more you collaborate with them, the more they collaborate with you (as my friend James and I do).

Throwback Thursdays – Holiday Special

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The concept of the holiday special always drew me in.  Maybe it was because it was a touch point that let me know that time was passing for my favorite TV characters just like it was passing for me.  Maybe it was because I was in the holiday mood and it was easier for the special to strike a chord with me.  Maybe I was just a sucker.  Any way you look at it, I loved the holiday specials.

Charlie Brown is great at Christmas, Halloween, and Thanksgiving.  Rudolph and Frosty and Kris Kringle can’t be beat in their respective shows.  Some TV shows had classic and unforgettable specials, too.  Who can forget Cindy Brady wanting her mom’s voice to return for Christmas?  Lucy and Desi and Fred and Ethel and the five Santas?  Mean old Ben WANTING Andy Griffith to arrest him so he could spend Christmas in jail with Andy and the gang?  The Simpsons and their recurring Treehouse of Horror?

Even if your favorite show’s holiday special stank, you remembered it.  Everybody from Family Ties to Quantum Leap to Mr. Magoo had a take on A Christmas Carol.  The crew at Wings dealt with grieving over the death of a loved one before dropping an urn out of an airplane and sinking a boat.  The whole Ingalls clan was trapped in their house and Pa had to walk to the barn in snowshoes to get Christmas presents (and in a different episode, Laura sold her horse to Nellie so she could buy Ma a stove)

Ultimately, not every holiday special can be as good as Peanuts, and not every holiday special can be as bad as the Star Wars Holiday Special.  As I write, I try to make sure that I touch on the things that will evoke thoughts and memories of the reader’s every day life, while inviting them to compare and contrast that to the world and characters I have created.  I just hope that nothing I do brings to mind Bea Arthur doing musical numbers in an alien cantina.

Throwback Thursdays – The Pretender

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I enjoy watching an entire television series from beginning to end.  I’ve done it with lots of them down through the years, and recently my wife and I have started re-watching the series The Pretender.  It originally aired on NBC from 1996 through 2000, and it was great.  Sure, there were a few episodes that left you scratching your head, but every show has one or two of those.

The Pretender was a show about a man named Jarod.  Jarod had been abducted as a boy and forced to use his great intellect to solve problems for an organization called the Centre.  The Centre had apparently started out as a benevolent (or at the very least, neutral) organization, but their means and goals gradually grew worse over time.

Jarod realizes his ideas are being used for evil – to harm and kill people – and he escapes.  The show focuses on three things: Jarod’s integration into an unfamiliar world, Jarod’s search for his long lost family, and the Centre’s search for Jarod.

The thing that makes this show so great is that it delves into the background and history of the searchers as often as it delves into Jarod’s history.  The show morphs into a tale about Jarod’s attempts to save his pursuers from the Centre and its lies while eluding them.

The first pursuer is Sydney, the scientist who raised Jarod and who guided him in his simulations.  Over the course of the series, it is revealed that Sydney has a twin brother who was permanently disabled after an “accident” which occurred shortly after he began questioning the ethics of the Centre’s practices.  We later learn that the twin boys had subjected to experiments in a concentration camp during WWII, which leaves Sydney conflicted about his treatment of Jarod, and we discover that Sydney views Jarod as the son he never had.  Jarod cherishes his relationship with Sydney and hopes to some day have a more “normal” friendship with him.

The second pursuer is Ms. Parker, whose first name is never revealed.  She is a ruthless and brutal woman with a bad temper and a crazy back story.  Over the course of the series, it is revealed that she was a sweet little girl until her mother’s death (was it suicide? murder? fake? all of the above?) in the Centre.  Jarod always remembers her as the sweet little girl who gave him his first kiss, and he constantly points her to the truth about the Centre, which is run in large part by her father.

The third pursuer is Broots.  Broots is technical support and comedy relief for the pursuers, and Jarod does several things to help him in his personal life.

The final pursuer Jarod works to redeem is Angelo.  Angelo actually needs no redemption, as he is actually Jarod’s friend inside the Centre, feeding him necessary information and throwing his pursuers off.  You later learn that Angelo was a young pretender named Timmy, but that the Centre performed horrific experiments that twisted his intellect and left him a shell of his former self.

Ultimately, The Pretender works because it involves a cast of complex characters and intriguing plots.  Neither of those components works without the other, as the characters are what makes the plot intriguing and the plots serve to expose the characters.  I sincerely hope that twenty years after I finish my current series of books, folks are still fascinated by them and talking about them.

Modern Mondays – The Amazon Jungle

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So, I clearly don’t mind Amazon.  They have a pretty good business model, and they have (through their Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace platforms) allowed me to get my books out there for folks to read.  I want to make perfectly clear at the beginning of this post that I LIKE Amazon.  This should not be construed as me saying I hate them.

Having said all of that, here are a few things that I have run into that bother me about the way Amazon is doing business.  If you are considering publishing books through them, be warned of these in advance:

1) Amazon Affiliate/Associate program – this is the program by which you can add links and get a percentage of all sales through those links.  The only thing I would use it for would be my own books (which I link to several places on my blog) so that I could make a little extra on each sale I drive through my blog, but residents of my state are not eligible for this program.  It’s more likely due to policies of my state government (and the governments of the other states whose residents are not eligible), but it still irks me.    This is from their operating agreement (which is a publicly available doc): “In addition, if at any time following your enrollment in the Program you become a resident of Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, or Rhode Island, you will become ineligible to participate in the Program, and this Operating Agreement will automatically terminate, on the date you establish residency in that state.”

2) Amazon advertising my own book to me – Yes, Amazon will send you emails saying “Buy these great books now” and your own book will be at the top of the list.  Seems great, until you start talking to other self-published authors and they are all getting sales emails with their own book at the top.  It makes you wonder if anybody is getting your book as a recommendation other than you.

3) CreateSpace pricing model – I have been setting up my books and selling them through CreateSpace for over a year now.  The books look good and I like being able to sell through Amazon, but the pricing model is wonky.  My first book is a novella, about 130 pages, and it is priced at $4.99.  To go through any other channel, I have to raise the price to about $6.25 (and that earns me no royalties).  My second book is about 300 pages, and I have to raise its price from $7.99 to $11.00 to sell through other channels (and earn no royalties).

Other than these things, self-publishing through Amazon is great and I recommend it for anybody.

Throwback Thursday – Thanksgiving Thoughts

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Thanksgiving is a great holiday.  We all take the time to stop and appreciate the wonderful blessings we have in our lives.  Historically speaking, the nation I live in is blessed like no other nation in the modern history of the world.  We live in such a time of unprecedented wealth that not only do our wealthy citizens enjoy the highest standard of living in the world, but the poorest 10% of the people in our nation have a higher standard of living than the wealthiest 10% in many “civilized” countries according to many economists.

Some folks view Thanksgiving as a day for feasting, some see an opportunity for great bargains at stores, and others see an opportunity for a brief vacation from work.  For me, it has always been about family.  When I was young, we would celebrate Thanksgiving with my first cousins, second cousins, aunts, uncles, and great aunt.  My family has scattered during the ensuing years, but my appreciation of them has not.  The folks with whom I used to celebrate Thanksgiving live in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Arkansas, Kentucky, Kansas, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania (maybe more places that I am not aware of, too).  In spite of that, I have had the opportunity to see many of them throughout the years and reminisce about old times.

I won’t have the chance to see my side of the family at Thanksgiving this year, but I will get to see my wife’s side of the family.  My side of the family gets together at New Year’s, but there’s another blog post in that story.  I hope that as we pause to enjoy a home cooked meal with all the traditional fixings (at least, the traditional ones from my family and my wife’s family), we all appreciate how blessed we are.  I hope you get the chance to pause and appreciate that as well.

Modern Mondays – Colorful Characters

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A collage of colorful characters can make anything enjoyable.  My wife and I have recently started watching “Duck Dynasty” (beginning at the beginning – we are in the third season now).  Ultimately, it’s the story of Willie (as much as Jase would hate to read this).  Willie is surrounded by a cast of colorful supporting characters that includes his nemesis/brother Jase, his crazy uncle Si, his dad Phil (who has the right answer for every problem they run into) and several others including my wife’s personal favorite, the slow-talking “Mountain Man.”

I always wonder how “real” reality television is, but this seems a little too convenient.”  Maybe it is genuine, and the reason that the show is so popular is because of its genuineness.  I must admit, I would rather watch this reality television show than read or watch many works of fiction.

As I have written the Vergrinn War, I have attempted to weave a complete tapestry of characters.  You start off with Amundr, the focus of the series.  You add in his best friend Saegrimr, and then you layer in multiple rivals and mentors as you journey through Alarr.  The characters interact and grow in interesting ways, and then I added in womenfolk and monsters.  That takes the dynamic to a whole next level (especially the women).

What kind of things do you enjoy about your favorite books, shows, or movies?  What are some examples of great interplay between characters?

Throwback Thursdays – Fantastic Finishes and Flops

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I find the finale of things fascinating.  On television, some series finales are planned well in advance and some happen just because a show gets cancelled unceremoniously.  Whatever the reason, all series (books, movies, television) come to an end eventually.  The important thing is how well the creator planned for that eventuality and how well it flows together.

Take Star Trek: The Next Generation.  The finale of that series is handled in such a way that you find that the entirety of the series was a test that began in the very first episode.  Q, who appeared in that first episode, told the crew of the Enterprise that their trial was not over and he would be watching them.  He showed up in the blockbuster finale with one final test of the Enterprise crew’s worth.

Contrast that with Seinfeld.  In Seinfeld, the finale was turned into an opportunity for a meandering clip show that brought back popular characters from throughout the series.  Was it mildly entertaining?  Yes.  Could it have been better?  I think so.  Imagine what it would have been like if the plane they were on had crashed instead of landing safely for repairs.  You could have killed off all the characters in a tragic and memorable episode, and you could have irreverently poked fun of the afterlife or nostalgically recalled incidents from the past.  They could have been stranded on an island and become Gilligan and company, which would have allowed for even more comedic folly.

Now compare the two of those to The Greatest American Hero or the original Star Trek.  Both of those series ended abruptly after several seasons with no warning and no fanfare.  Viewers of Star Trek were left with the unpleasantness that is Turnabout Intruder for their final taste of Trek.  Viewers of the Greatest American Hero have to swallow the bitter pill that is Ralph and Bill being told they are a special team and being sent back for more work just before the series is cancelled.

All of these have convinced me that I should never start a project such as a book series until I know what the end will be.  When I sat down to write The Vergrinn War, I knew what the climax of the fifth and final installment would be.  I knew what the beginning and end of each book would be.  I knew who will live and who will die (and yes, folks will die).  I have even arranged with a good friend (who is one of my beta readers) to have the series finished should I die before I can finish it (how’s that for morbid?).  He has a copy of my outlines for the fourth and fifth books and has promised me that if I kick the bucket, he will make sure that they get written.

While the beginning of a book or series draws folks in, the conclusion is the reader’s reward for their efforts.  Can you shock them one last time?  Can you make them laugh or cry?  Can you make them want to stand up and cheer?  Will you make them curse your name?  I imagine my conclusion will cover all of those bases with some readers.  What’s the best or worst finale you’ve ever encountered?

Modern Mondays – Bonus post

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I am a big fan of Pearls Before Swine.  Stephan Pastis is a funny guy who doesn’t mind pointing out his own flaws either in his comic strips or in his commentaries on his comic strips contained in his anthologies.  It is one of the three comics I always want to read in our Sunday paper (it used to be four, but the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette dropped Get Fuzzy, so I am left with Baby Blues, Dilbert, and Pearls Before Swine).

Anyway, this past Sunday there was a great Pearls strip and as soon as I read it, I knew I had to share it here in case any of my fellow writers missed it.

Anybody who has ever had a book out there for sale on Amazon will appreciate this.

Modern Mondays – Splitting the Party

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Yes, I have been away from my blog for a while.  Actually, I have visited occasionally and started a post, but I kept finding myself unable to come up with a decent post, and abandoning it mid-stream.  This is in keeping with my philosophy that I don’t put junk out there for the sake of having put something out there.  After several abortive attempts, though, I am fairly certain that this one will be seen through to fruition (but if it isn’t, you’ll never know).

I am working on Book Four of the Vergrinn War series, and I am in the process of splitting the party.  Book One followed Amundr and Saegrimr almost exclusively, while Book Two had brief flashes of what was going on elsewhere.  Book Three split our main characters into three different groups operating in two theaters of the war.  Book Four will break our main cast of characters (Amundr, Saegrimr, Aoalbert, Gisl, Stigr, Bjarni, Aesa, and the rest) into at least four groups and follow them through their adventures in the war.

When I first realized I was splitting the party so thoroughly, I hesitated.  After all, if I look at the Chronicles of Prydain, they only rarely follow the exploits of more than one group at a time.  Eilonwy is sent off to learn about her heritage, but that action happens off screen.  Similar things happen with Gwydion and Fflewdur, as the action stays centered on Taran.  Occasionally, the action is split temporarily, but the characters come back together quickly.  I looked to the Chronicles of Narnia and the Harry Potter stories and noticed that they didn’t make a habit of splitting the party and following the action of multiple characters simultaneously.  They do split the party, but action once again happens off screen and is simply referred to by characters when they rejoin.  Thinking about the Hobbit, I realized it followed a similar pattern.

This had me really worried, but then I started thinking about Star Wars.  In Star Wars, you end up splitting the party almost constantly.  In the first (real) movie, you have Leia split off from Luke and the rest, then you have Luke and Leia, Han and Chewbacca, the droids, and Obi Wan in the meat of the movie.  In the second movie, it is Luke off with Yoda while the rest of the crew flees from Vader.  The lion share of the final movie has Lando (and Ackbar and the rest), Luke fighting Vader, and Han and Leia on the moon trying to drop the shields.  This helped ease my mind.

Finally, I thought about the Lord of the Rings (the real one by Tolkien, not the Peter Jackson farce).  By the end of the first book, we had three groups:

  1. Samwise and Frodo
  2. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli
  3. Merry and Pippin
  4. (technically, you have Gandalf, but you think he’s dead and all his action is taking place off screen).

For the remainder of the trilogy, the groups of heroes are briefly reduced to two in front of Isengard and again after the battle on the plains of Pelennor, but mostly they are broken into three or even four groups until the conclusion of the war.  This left me feeling much more comfortable with my decision to split the party.  I think it will have the same adventurous feel of LOTR and Star Wars, but ultimately the readers will have to judge that for themselves.  Next week I’ll update you on where Book Four stands.