Tag, You're It

Thursday, April 29, 2010

I've been wrestling with dialogue tags lately, primarily because my WIP involves a number of characters (an infantry squad if you must know) who talk amongst themselves constantly.  Balancing the requirement to identify who says what against the need to avoid slowing my pace to a snail's crawl has been a challenge.

I may have mentioned at some point that I minored in Playwrighting, among my other claims to fame (we won't mention the dating a supermodel incident--primarily because it never happened).  While I was never a great playwright, I did learn a thing or two about dialogue, and I thought I might share a recent insight.

The general rule in fiction I've heard kicked around is that you should use "said" whenever possible to tag lines of dialogue.  No tag at all--so-called "naked dialogue"--is even better, as long as the "naked" doesn't go on too long.  The reason is that "said" isn't really heard by the reader (I can believe that), and so should be used in all cases where something stronger isn't needed (retorted, answered, mocked, etc.).

But how do we know when said is proper and when it is not?

To get to the answer, we need to take a short detour.  Let's look at a scrap of dialogue from a stage play (straight from my unhinged and lucid imagination of course).
(rubbing his belly)
Man, I could really go for some of that pie!

Here we have an action Gavin should be performing (rubbing his belly) as he says the line. Remember that stage plays have to rely almost exclusively on dialogue and character action.  Unlike fiction, description and internal monologue is kept to a bare minimum, so the tag is a way the playwright can tell the actor reading the script how to behave.

What often happens with beginning playwrights is that they misuse the action tag to describe how they imagine the line should be said, like so:

(hungrily, angrily, cornily, crazily, etc.)
Man, I could really go for some of that pie!

What the playwright is trying to do here is compensate for the fact that the line does not carry all the information required to express the needed idea.  Of course, sometimes this is unavoidable, but if you were to take a look at the best plays out there, you would see page upon page of dialogue where no tag is given at all (except in cases where a clear physical action is needed from one of the characters).  Good playwrights make the dialogue do all the work necessary to carry the story forward.

So what does this tell us about tag usage in fiction, you ask?  Well, I was getting to that.  As I said, sometimes dialogue needs the tag to put it in context for the reader.  Observe:

"Jimmy, come over here," Sharon crooned.
"Jimmy, come over here," Sharon barked.
"Jimmy, come over here," Sharon whispered.

In these three examples, the tag actually conveys the emotional context for the dialogue.  Without the tag (i.e., using only "said"), the emotion in the line/scene might not be clear.

As this shows, from time to time the right choice is substituting a more muscular verb for "said", to convey the meaning of the situation.  But another option available--and the preferred one in my opinion--is to think more like a playwright, and make your dialogue do as much work as possible.  For example:

"Jimmy, I want you to come over here," Sharon hissed angrily.  {good}

"If you don't come here this very minute, I swear I'm gonna tan your hide!" Sharon said.  {better}

So that's it in a nutshell.  Let your dialogue do more work, and you may find your job of tagging a little bit easier.  Thoughts?  What do you wrestle with the most when working on your dialogue?

Fail Up

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Not a single one of you reading this wants to fail at the writing game.  I don't either.

But statistics are against us.  After all, as the famous demotivational poster points out: it could be that the purpose of our lives is only to serve as warnings to others.

So I was blown away by this recent article about why some authors never succeed.  I tell ya, I wish I could report that there was much here I already knew, but my impression was exactly the opposite: there is a lot here I have barely given thought to or am only now beginning to wrap my head around.

A few quick thoughts after reading this article:

  • Learning about the industry is certainly key--but there is a lot to know.  Make sure you set time aside to do your homework.
  • Accepting feedback is critical, but equally important is finding good sources of feedback.  Not doing so can be a dealbreaker.  Classes and forums can only go so far--get out there and find other writers that are at your experience level and that share your interests who you can exchange work with.
  • I think right along with measuring success in book sales, measuring success in blog posts (for us greener writers who have not been published yet) can be equally misleading.  If the fiction isn't getting done but your blog is rocking, you may need to take a closer look at your priorities.

And I think the most important lesson is understanding that you are going to fail--that sooner or later you'll try and not succeed--but learning from your failures and pressing on.  "Fail up," as the author notes. 

So I ask you: how do you measure short and long-term success?  What are the measuring sticks you use to judge daily, monthly, and yearly progress?  What's your process when things don't go as planned?

The Watch

Friday, April 23, 2010

One of my best friends in the Navy retired today, after over twenty years in service.  I flew in from Texas to attend the ceremony at the Washington Navy Yard, on the Anocostia River in Washington, D.C. 

I have been proud to know the retiring gentleman for more than fourteen years, and during that time he has served this country in ways that many of us--even me--can hardly begin to understand.  I think many of you watch TV shows that portray the Navy, or read about the Navy in news articles or books, but there is much that is not visible to the average citizen.  I thought I might give you one small glimpse of how it really is. 

The Navy has a long tradition, and it shows in events like retirement ceremonies, today's being no exception.  During the retirement, it is traditional for the official party, including the retiree, to be piped aboard--meaning a Boatswain blows his pipe, and sideboys all in full dress uniform salute as each dignitary comes aboard; there is the tradition of the shadowbox; there are others, but the one that always gets me--and got me again today--is the last item in the ceremony: the reading of "The Watch."

I'll leave you to read it for yourself on this fine fine Friday evening, as I raise a glass to my friend, and wish him "Fair Winds and Following Seas!"  We're gonna miss you, man.

The Watch

For twenty years
This sailor has stood the watch.

While some of us were in our bunks at night
This sailor stood the watch.

While some of us were in school learning our trade
This shipmate stood the watch.

Yes...even before some of us were born into this world,
This shipmate stood the watch.

In those years when the storm clouds of war were seen brewing on the horizon of history,
This shipmate stood the watch.

Many times he would cast an eye ashore and see his family standing there,
Needing his guidance and help--
Needing that hand to hold during those hard times
But still he stood the watch.

He stood the watch for twenty years,
He stood the watch so that we, our families and
Our fellow countrymen could sleep soundly in safety,
Each and every night,
Knowing that a sailor stood the watch.

Today we are here to say,
"Shipmate, the watch stands relieved,
Relieved by those you have trained, guided, and lead.

"Shipmate, you stand relieved...we have the watch..."

Boatswain, standby to pipe the side...Shipmate going ashore.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

We're going a little off the beaten path today.  But before we do, I need to help get the word out about an upcoming blogfest that promises to be a blast.  Roni Griffen over at Fiction Groupie is hosting a Let's Talk Blogfest set to go up May 18th.  Go sign up here.  Woo hoo!  I think it'll be fun, and I'm planning to participate.

Now, back to the business at hand.  Recently, Donna Hole (who publishes some wonderful stuff over at her place) asked that I cover lessons learned during my recent custom template designing adventure, and I suspect there are others out there who might benefit from a few pointers also.

If this is not your thing, here are a couple of my favorite older posts you might enjoy: "KA-POW! Understanding Conflict In Your Fiction" and "Life In Six Words or Less".

Now, let's be clear: today we'll discuss tips on how to build a custom template; in other words we'll cover how to take an existing template and add features--bells and whistles and other goodies--to make it unique and your very own.  At the end, you'll be able to turn something like this (the original template I began with):

....into the blog you are currently reading.  It isn't all that harrd, once you get the hang of it (If choosing one of the pre-set blogger templates is beyond your skill level, hit me up in the comments and I'll point you in the right direction).

STEP 1--Setup Test Blogger Account.  If you are planning to do more than change the picture at the top or a few colors, I'd recommend setting up a test Blogger account.  Simply log in and create another blog.  Then you can do all your testing and try out different ideas and your readers won't throw things at you because the header keeps showing up in the middle of your posts.

Be aware that if you use the same email address as your current blog to set up your account, this test blog will be visible to your readership (when they click your profile).  There are ways to make it invisible, but it's complicated, and I found it easier to set up a second account under a different email address so I didn't get them confused.  Again, if the changes you want to make to your template are minor, you can skip this step.

STEP 2--Find and upload a new template.  There are dozens of blogs and websites out there that have free templates, so it's simply a matter of shopping around until you find one you like.  Google "blogger templates free" and you'll have plenty to choose from.

Another strategy--the one I used--is to look around at the blogs you read until you find one that has a template you like.  If you like a particular template, chances are you'll like others from the same designer.  Most templates, like the one I initially used, give credit to the designer at the bottom of the template (at the bottom of this one you can see I used TNB), so you can Google the designer or click the link and go to their website. 

Once you find the template you like, download it to you desktop.  It will probably come in a ZIP file, and you'll have to unZIP it (let me know if you need help doing this).

Next, upload the template to your test blog.  NOTE: if you are using your original blogger site or you want to keep any content from you test site, be sure to download your full template prior to uploading the new one.  This way the old template is saved prior to making any changes.  You can do both of those things by going here:

When you upload the new template, Blogger may ask you if you want to keep your old widgets.  Generally, you'll want to click yes.

STEP 3: Tweak the template.  Here's where you make your money.  Most of these tweaks involve going into your html file and making changes.  In case you'd like to know more about html, here's a quick post written by Eric Trant covering the basics.  Eric must have read my mind by putting up this post recently.  Thanks Eric!

Html is relatively simple to understand and manipulate.  To accomplish certain changes, it really amounts to locating that section of code on a tutorial website and posting it into the right section of your html template.

Don't get discouraged by the amount of code.  The best advice is to click into the html pane and typing "ctrl + f" which brings up the find function.  Type in the word you want and it will take you directly to the spot in question.  Saves you from looking through line after line of code.

There are literally hundreds of tutorials out there, but the best I found were on this site: Blog Bulk.  These posts'll teach you how to add an icon to your post titles (like my little old fashioned microphone above), add a signature, customize block quotes, change the width or your blog--basically, the sky is the limit, and you can take it as far as you want.

Another trick is to design custom pictures and headers yourself.  In my case, I wanted my header picture and title words (the "Where Sky Meets Ground" block at the top) to be written in Coca Cola font, a font not supported by most browsers.  To get around this shortcoming,  I designed a custom picture in Powerpoint (any basic graphics editing program will do) and put the entire picture in as my header photo.  You can do that here:

Click the Edit link on the Header gadget, then upload your custom photo.  By clicking the radio button that says "instead of the title and description", Blogger will use your custom pic instead of the regular script.  Tweak size and color to blend it with the template background.

When looking for accents and other things that make your blog look more professional, there are many resources available, including this really awesome icon site, Iconfinder, where I found the little microphone and the compass on my sidebar headers (also a custom image I created myself)--they really do have an amazing variety.  Adding these images can set your blog apart from the rest, and also can make the experience more fun for the reader.

STEP FOUR--Move Your Template.  Once you've done all the tweaking you want on your test template, it's time to move it over.  Simply do the steps in reverse: 1) save the template on your current Blogger account to your desktop (so you have it as a backup in case you have a problem) 2) save your test template to your desktop 3) Open your actual Blogger account (not your test account) and 4) load up your new template.  If you're lucky, it will all go very smoothly--and you'll have a big beautiful new template for us to all wow over.

A few last notes.  A mistake I made was not checking out the flow and functionality of my new template completely, such as adding comments on the test blog and seeing how that worked, or clicking through posts and/or understanding how the sidebar behaves with longer content. 

I'd recommend trying all this out before you move the new template over.  A few unexpected fixes resulted in some late-night last-minute gymnastics--so take the time to check it out on the test blog first.

And don't be afraid to experiment!  If you save your template as you go, you can always reload it if you mess something up and don't know how to fix it.

That's about it.  Hit me up if you have questions, and as always, stay groovy and thanks for stopping by.

There Can Be Only One

Monday, April 19, 2010

This recent article about 50 famous authors and their all-time favorite books got me thinking: what is my all-time favorite book (and by extension, what are your favorite books)?

There are some interesting choices on this list.  Russian writers like Tolstoy, Nabokov and Dostoevsky were popular.  Since Ha Jin is a novelist from China, his choice of Tolstoy's "War & Peace" was fascinating to me (if you've not read Ha Jin's novel "Waiting" you should pick it up).  Stephen King's choice of "The Golden Argosy" was equally thought-provoking.

I think looking at this list leads inevitably to the idea that the books these authors favor is somehow reflected in their own writing.  Things that make you go "hmm" indeed.

My favorite is a tie between three books at the moment, although, like sands shifting across a desert scree, my favorites change from time to time.  Presently, in no particular order, my top three are:
I like these three for different reasons, but it mostly boils down to two fundamental elements: story, and the quality of the writing.  Looked at critically, I don't see a through line or theme in these three books; I can only conclude that they each scratch a different literary itch, so it's difficult for me to pick only one.

What about you?  What's your favorite book?  Why do you like it so much?  Any advice on how to narrow my three to one?

The Sophisticated Mr. Lampshade

Friday, April 16, 2010

Off the bat, I'd like to get something out of the way: I've been suspecting for quite sometime that I could eat a twenty-minute brownie in ten minutes. No really. I haven't put it to the test yet, but I really think I could do it.  I'm just saying.

Oh, and also, I feel as a service to the public I should make it clear that I had my poetic license revoked some years ago, as evidenced by this recent weak weak offering of mine.

And I heard somewhere that pages with the words "This page left blank." on them are not really blank.  Rumor, yes, but somehow believable.


At this point, I'm sure you can see how transparent I am, how I am simply trying to distract you from a disturbing fact: I don't have anything substantive to put up today.  No.  It's just not going to happen.

And, in breaking news, I've made the decision to start doing Friday Link Love every two weeks instead of once a week.  Beefier posts that way.  Fewer jokes needed.

Plus Furnace Girl and I are still knee deep--quite literally--with packing for our transfer to Sicily--getting passports and visas and figuring out how to ship two pets overseas and what-not.  So, much as I love you (and much as you love me--I know that goes without saying but there, I said it!), I don't have the time to give you a quality product.

So instead, I give you this (Really. For your own good, you must watch it all the way to the end WARNING: Contains a little profanity, but all for a good cause).

Have a great weekend!

P.S.  Any interest at all in my putting up a post sharing some of my template building experiences?  There are a ton of resources on the web, but I am happy to throw down some lessons learned if there's an appetite for it.  'Cuz that's how I roll!

Stay groovy and thanks for stopping by.

The Heart Of The Matter

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A brief disclaimer: I'm still fiddling with my new template, so if you notice your comments showing up where my header should be or vice versa, please be patient.  With any luck I'll get this all straightened out in a day or two.  Next time I'll have better sense than to choose a template where some of the code is written in Italian!

As I mentioned recently, I'm just jumping into the first few chapters of my first-draft WIP.  Thus and expectedly, beside working hard to spell all the words properly and deploying my punctuation with both great accuracy and great verve (!?....:;), I am also devoting considerable brain power to the characterization process.

Part of our job as writers, in my opinion, is to put hearts in our characters. Each character's heart is made up of a plethora of details and behaviors, some of which make it to the page and some of which simply influence how the writer "hears" the character. Choosing the proper details can be one of the most critical steps in the writing process.

At the moment, I am still getting to know my WIP characters.  We're chatting, getting shot at together (the setting is a warzone), having a cup of coffee together (tried to include a Starbucks but it seemed out of place); we're just starting to settle into a warm mutually beneficial writer-character relationship.  They haven't yet figured out that it is I who sends them off to do all these dreadful things, so progress is good.

Back in college, one of my fav professors used to talk about the value of observing behavior in real life as a guide to getting your characters to act more believably on the page.  In one writing exercise, he sent us out into the world to write down snippets of conversation we heard or overheard (or underheard I suppose).  The whole process provided great fodder for learning to observe more closely how human beings interact, and also for beginning to frame in one's mind how best to convey those happenings--how to separate the wheat from the chaff (or chaff from chaff as the case may be).

As a result, as I get to know my WIP guys, I am considering my recent experience in Baghdad, but also looking at photos, reading about war experiences online and in books, and also observing the interactions of those around me.  So far, all of these have been fairly fertile ground, and I'm happy with where things are headed.

How 'bout you?  How do you go about putting hearts in your characters?  Other than observing "real life", what process(es) do you use to put the pieces of your characters together?  How do you ensure that the different characters in your story create conflict?  What is the most difficult part of characterization?

Pardon my dust--ahem!

Yeah, as you can see, I put up a new custom template--one I've been working hard on.  I know you know how these things go, so I hope you'll pardon the interruption as there are a few technical difficulties still left to attend to.  Nothing major, but a few unexpecteds.

Feedback on the new digs is appropriate and appreciated, and hopefully it won't be long before I've moved on from web design to my real assigned task: writing.

Hope your week is going well.  Cheers!

The Worst Poem Ever Written

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A funny little set of stanzas that a buddy and I "wrote" one summer when we were bored.  And we were really bored.  Can you tell?

By you know who

please please please
iron butterfly
cry not
for the torn metaphor

because meaning lays buried
like missiles
in the silos
of our souls







Would you like to take this opportunity to share your really bad writing/poetry/disasters with the group?  Hope you're having a rockin' Wednesday!


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Substitute "damn" every time you're inclined to write "very;" your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.

~~Mark Twain

If You Can't Say No, Your Yes Means Nothing

Monday, April 12, 2010

Before we get to the heart of today's post, I'd like to mention that I have a guest post up over at The Sharp Angle.

Lydia and Joe publish consistently great material week in, week out, so please take the opportunity to wander over and have a look around.  And thanks Lydia for letting me share my thoughts about good story structure!

Now on to the business of the day.  Perched on the dusty edge of desk in the far recesses of my mind, next to the rusted filing cabinet that contains the titles of Eighties hit songs, mental postcards of travels in Japan and Europe, and snippets of dialogue from old M*A*S*H episodes, sits a much-thumbed Rolodex chock full of sayings, euphemisms, one-liners and fragments of wisdom.  I keep it handy and pop it out from time to time to quote a blurb or two in conversation, or to share a shred of knowledge on this blog. 

In some cases, I recall with great clarity exactly when and where I picked up a specific insight; for others, I haven't the slightest clue about the details of that particular morsel's origin.

One saying that falls into the former category is the title of this post: "If you can't say no, your yes means nothing."  I first heard that gem on a bright July day in 1988.  Sitting on a blanket in the grass in Zilker Park in Austin, Texas, sipping cool lemonade and munching peanut-butter dipped cucumbers, the girl I was dating at the time read the line to me from a book of poetry.  The minute she uttered those words, they lodged themselves firmly in the sticky stuff in that Rolodex and there they firmly remain to this day.

I remember neither the name of the poet nor the title of the book of poetry.  Recent-year library searches have yielded negative results.  A Google query this morning delivered web pages on marketing prowess and teenage abstinence--not exactly what I was looking for.  The original source of the quote is still a mystery (if you can shed light on the matter, please let me know!).

But no matter, I still find this aphorism a useful idea to consider--and even more useful after a recent viewing of the 2008 Jim Carrey film Yes Man. The movie is an adaptation of Danny Wallace's memoir detailing his six months of "saying yes where one would have said no."

In case you haven't seen the film, Yes Man relates the tale of Carl, a man who, after attending a New Age-style seminar, must say yes to absolutely every question--and thus opportunity--presented to him.  As a result, he embarks on a series of new activities like bungee jumping, learning guitar, learning Korean, and learning to fly a plane, among a host of others.  Not surprisingly, Carl's behavior eventually gets him in trouble with the female lead and love interest, charmingly played by Zooey Deschanel, who questions his sincerity after she learns the details of the philosophy.

I'll not tell you how the movie ends, but I thought it was relatively well constructed.  In fact, despite my not being a huge fan of romantic comedies in this vein, I really enjoyed the film and found its message on the value of positive engagement with life inspiring in a funny, upbeat way.  Still, I think there is a troubling lesson to be learned from the film--particularly for folks like us who want to be successful writers.

In the story, Carl's troubles relate to the sincerity with which he makes his decisions, but as my wife the Furnace Girl so adroitly asked during the viewing: "How on Earth does Carl have time to accomplish every activity depicted?"

"How?" indeed.  The careful viewer will note that the screenwriters did not give Carl an over-arching passion or artistic Raison d'etre, probably because doing so would have wrecked the story.  If Carl had been given one true calling, one goal in life to which he had committed himself, then adoption of the "Say Yes!" philosophy would have seemed foolhardy.  For that reason, I submit to you that it is impossible for us to imagine a Hemingway or a Bach or a Picasso waking up one morning and deciding that they needed to embark on a multitude of new endeavors, primarily because doing so would undermine the great purposes of their lives.

After all, doesn't true commitment--the kind that builds pyramids and puts men on the moon and yes, even writes and publishes books--mean not only loudly and firmly saying "Yes!" to a specific set of tasks, but also learning to say "No!" to a bevy of other activities, some of which may be important to us?  My own feeling is that in order to succeed, we must sacrifice a lot, we must learn to set aside many desirable ventures if our dreams of real writing success are to be achieved.

So say it with me: If you can't say no, your yes means nothing.  To me, that saying rings truer with every passing day.

What about you?  What life activities do you have trouble saying no to?  What activities are "repeat offenders" when it comes to getting in the way of writing?


Sunday, April 11, 2010

I began my April Fool's Day post--the one where I put forward a faux novel idea--with the admonition that I am a "don't let the fizz out of the bottle" kind of guy when it comes to story ideas.  That statement was and still is true.

I also promised to reveal details of my recently commenced WIP before week's end.  My week starts on Monday. 

*shrugs shoulders*

So this is me letting the fizz out of the bottle.  I'm not sure why this makes me so nervous; maybe it's my suspicious nature; maybe I possess a heightened fear of oversharing.  Maybe my brain is mis-firing (wouldn't be the first time!).

Regardless, I think getting a few of these preliminary thoughts out is a good idea, even if it does feel like it goes against the grain.

My WIP is called "First Man (working title)" and takes place in a fictional district of Baghdad in 2005.  Here's my elevator pitch:
It's 2005.  Staff Sergeant James Carlson and his men are losing a vicious war in the streets of Baghdad.  As summer wears on, Carlson begins to wonder how to clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.  Then Michael Sedo, a young Private with the ability to ___________________, joins the fighting.  With Sedo onboard, can Carlson turn the tide of battle, or will Sedo's strange ability tear Carlson's unit apart?
On advice of counsel, I am not at this moment going to reveal Sedo's ability.  It's sort of the special sauce, and revealing that truly does feel like giving away the keys to the kingdom.

In the interest of full disclosure, here's the beginning of the text--still rough, mind you:

First Man (working title)
(c) 2010 Jon Paul


    RULE NUMBER ONE: If you're the first man through the door and you spot a chucklehead with a weapon: take 'em out. Shoot first, ask questions later. Literally. You may not like it, but that's the rule.

    Say you bust through that door and you find some Hajji standing there gawking at you, but there’s an assault rifle or nine-mil within reach: pull the trigger. It doesn't matter who they are--Grandma, Goldilocks, Mama Bear, or Papa Bear. The quicker you pull the trigger, the less chance they have to get a shot off and the less chance they have to take out you or your squadmate. Shoot first, ask questions later. Anything else and you're not doing your job.

Any thoughts on the pitch or the prologue?  Let's have some fun with this while we're at it: any guesses on what Sedo's ability is?


Saturday, April 10, 2010

"The best style is the style you don't notice."

~~Somerset Maugham

photo credit

[LATE EDIT]:  For those of you stopping by to see my Murder Scene from Anne Riley's Murder Scene Blogfest, I apologize.  It's age or lack of organization or something--but I am not prepared because I completely spaced it and thought it was next weekend.  :(

Ever have that feeling like you're sitting in math class wearing only skivvies?  

Yeah, well that's where I am now.  At any rate, there are sure to be many other great scenes up today, so go have a look around!

Friday Link Love: Feeling Good

Friday, April 9, 2010

Somehow I missed fronting a Friday Link Love post last week.  I think it was the whole brouhaha over my corny but not humorous April Fool's Day stunt.  Or something else.  Who knows.  And to top it off, I'm not much in the humorous mood today.  Yes, I have jokes, but I'm in no mood to tell jokes.

Yet I'm not melancholy.  On the contrary, I'm in a fine mood.  This soul is feeling a groove that comes only after long days of reflection.  It's a vibe that has a certain earthy mahogany quality to it--no humor in the air, no room for innuendo or levity, but possessed of miles and miles of tranquility, and just a little sliver of sheik (for good good measure).

In that spirit, I give you first a little Link Love, then a taste of something special for your weekend.
Thank you everyone for making this a rockin' week.  Now, please enjoy one of my all time favs: Nina Simone singing "Feeling Good".

There! That should give your Friday a good kick in the pants and get your weekend off on the right foot!  Stay groovy, and thanks for stopping by.

A Clutter Of Dreams

Thursday, April 8, 2010

I am behind on my blogging as you, no doubt, have already discerned.  My only solace is that I have a good excuse: in June, the Navy is sending us to Sigonella, Sicily (and sending me back to flying aircraft instead of desks.  Woo Hoo!).

Thus, Furnace Girl and I are in the midst of sorting and organizing the contents of our household-- boxes everywhere!--in preparation for the move (Muffin, the two year-old, helps where she can).  Most rooms in the house are in a topsy-turvy state, and with boxes stacked to the ceiling, I've found it difficult to even find my laptop, let alone get up a post.

Today however, an idea struck me, one I felt I needed to share with you, dear reader.

You see Furnace Girl and I are members of a breed of the most terrible interminable kind of packrat (the sickness will be on the little one soon as well, I fear).  We keep everything.  Old pots.  Pictures.  Gardening equipment.  Motor oil.  Christmas decorations (OK, maybe this last one is allowable).

Every three years or so, each time we move, we pledge to winnow down our household menagerie, to commit to garage sale-ing the excess, to find a way to dig up willing foster parents for those items we can bear to part with.  Historically, we've had some success, but never as much success as we'd like.

In the field of Packrattery, I am undoubtedly the most skilled--uh, er, the worst offender, and I am positively incurable when it comes to keeping books.  Most of our furniture stands against walls in the form of bookshelves whose sole purpose it is to receive with open arms the many many dozens of texts purchased over the years.  How-To's.  Travel guides.  Reference books.  Poetry.  Fiction.  Non-fiction.  You name it and we probably have it.

But a decision has been made: No more!  Recently, Furnace Girl and I vowed to each other (and to whomever else will listen) to live more simply, to lighten our load, to decrease our footprint.  In plain language, that means owning less stuff.  For me--and here Furnace Girl gives me THE Skeptical Eye--less stuff equals fewer books.

That brings us to this morning.  As I dove into my assignment--beginning to sort through the various texts to choose the ones to give away--the literary equivalent of butterflies stewed in my stomach (OK.  Not really.  But I want to be a fiction writer, so bear with me).

Steadily, my discard pile grew--books like Vonnegut's "The Sirens of Titan" and "The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens" and a biography of Tesla by Margaret Cheney and "The Story of Sushi" by Trevor Corson.  I felt good.  I sipped coffee between rounds of purging.  All was going well.  When I stopped to survey my progress, I realized that the books chosen to be put up for adoption fall neatly into two categories:
1) Books I read long ago but now realize I will never read again ("Sirens" is one example, a book I truly love);

2) Books I purchased hoping to read, but now realize I will never read (at least not in the next twenty-years);
Sitting here typing this, I am looking at the pile of books in this second category with some amazement.  You see, dear reader, there's been a change.  I've discussed TBR management before, but gazing upon these volumes, I somehow feel a sense of relief.  I think I know why.

Let me explain.  In years past, when I bought a book, I felt certain at the time that I would read it--and soon.  However, after some intervening period, the unread book went on my shelf and became part of the tableau, part of the stock scenery in the house along with other volumes--some read, some simply eye-candy.  Even then, my intent to eventually devour the book's contents still existed.  For awhile.

But sooner or later, the book inevitably stopped having a mental or physical presence in my life; rather it became an idea, an aspiration, a "maybe someday."  That's when I should have gotten rid of the offending text.  But I didn't.  I couldn't.  Somehow doing so would have felt like giving up.

Now, after having been away for a year, after having lived for weeks at a time with only two or three books by the bedside, finding myself surrounded by several hundred "maybe somedays" feels all wrong.  It doesn't fit.

It's like all these books are someone else's "maybe somedays."  Giving them away feels like the right thing to do now.  Let them go out into the world and brighten someone else's days.

Rest assured, there are still plenty of volumes I have dubbed keepers: Joyce; Hemingway; a hundred others; a few unread books to inhabit my bookshelves and bedside and TBR; it is not as if I am giving my soul away.  But I can tell already that once these books are gone, the lack of clutter will breed focus, and I suppose that's what we were after all along.

What about you?  What steps do you take or have you taken to clear away the clutter and sharpen your focus, both in your writing life and in other areas?

Playing The Numbers

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

"An old racetrack joke reminds you that your program contains all the winners' names. I stare at my typewriter keys with the same thought."

~~Mignon McLaughlin

Naked Eggs

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Have you ever heard of a naked egg?  No?  Neither had I, until my daughter Muffin pointed out that the hard-boiled egg my wife unshelled for Easter  morning breakfast was indeed "naked".  I guess Muffin was right, as the egg definitely had a certain undressed quality about it sans blue eggshell.  Kids say the darndest things.

I hope you had a very nice holiday weekend and this post finds you well and ready for a new week.

I suppose I have some explaining to do after last Thursday's post.  You see the post was my idea of an April Fool's joke that, upon reflection, did not go as planned.  Yes, it was all a ruse--right down to my Uncle Frownie who does not in fact exist.  I tried hard not to be too over the top with the novel concept (to not give away that it was April Fool's) and I guess I succeeded.

Now I have long understood that my weird sense of humor is not for everyone, but I was unprepared for the care you dear reader took in commenting upon said idea.  Remarks were attentive, but careful not to offend, and I can now understand why.  It had not occurred to me what an awful faux pas it would be to say "Hah hah, very funny!  Happy April Fool's Day to you too!" only to find out that the idea put forward was indeed legitimate.  Talk about stepping in it!

So thank you for being so careful with your comments/praise, as I now have a renewed appreciation for the supportiveness of this writing community.  It really is pretty amazing.  And though I feel a little bit like a naked egg myself, I have to admit that I love and truly see value in these little social experiments, and the results of this particular foray into group psychology has been and still is extremely fascinating to me.

But I suppose some form of repayment for your kindness (or mental compensation on my part) is in order.  First, I'd like to mention that despite my erratic antics, I received a few awards recently.   Yvonne from The Organic Writer and Tricia from Talespinning were kind enough to give me the Prolific Blogger Award.  Both these writers do a very nice job producing quality content and so are most deserving of this award (read: go check them out right this instant!), and I feel quite honored to be an awardee.  Didn't know that naked eggs were prolific?  Now you know.

Thank you kindly ladies.  Much appreciated.  The rules for this award are fairly straightforward.  Every winner of the Prolific Blogger Award has to pass on this award to at least seven other deserving prolific bloggers, link to the blog from which he/she has received the award, and link back to this post, which explains the origins and motivation for the award.  Last but not least, recipients must visit this post and add his/her name in the Mr. Linky, so that we can get to know the other winners.

So without further ado, I present the Prolific Blogger Award to:

1. Mia's My Literary Jam and Toast
2. Roni's Fiction Groupie
3. Lola's Sharp Pen/Blunt Sword
4. Sarah's The Wit And Wisdom of Another Sarah
5. Talli's Talli Roland
6. Valerie's Something To Write About
7. Dawn's Plotting and Scheming

Also Postie over at The Sententious Vaunter (who's place you should also go check out!) passed on the Soulmates Award.  Dude, I don't know what to say, except, like, totally thanks!  As an aside, Postie and I have unearthed an unnerving number of weird coincidences in our two lives so this award seems strangely appropriate.

Here's da rules.  Pass it on to five recipients.  Make up something (preferably inoffensive) about the people you sent it to.  Link to the people you gave it to and link back to the original award post, which is right about here.

1. Karen over at Eternal Moonshine Of A Daydreaming Mind once was cast in a bit part in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End but her performance ended up on the cutting room floor, reportedly because Johnny Depp felt she was upstaging him.
2. At the age of fifteen, Lydia at The Sharp Angle made the decision to give away a sum of several millions of dollars, proceeds in a trust fund inherited from a great aunt, to charity--a decision she has never regretted, except when she doesn't have money to pay the parking meters outside the office where she works.
3. On a visit to Scotland, Claire Dawn at Points of Claire-ification snapped photos of a lake creature she believed at the time to be the Loch Ness Monster, but a friend accidentally erased the photos from her digital camera.
4. Liza from Middle Passages has an irrational fear of green jelly beans.  To keep her fear in check, every Easter and Christmas she makes a wonderful green jelly bean tart which all her friends rave about.
5.  Emily at The Chronicles of Emily Cross was once asked to participate in a world record-breaking hot air balloon trip, but she had to stay home to complete a project for one of her classes.  Luckily, she got an "A".

To make amends for what heretofore shall be referred to as the Great April Fool's Day Fiasco of 2010, I promise to do a proper post on my novel idea by week's end.  Also, I leave you with this fun video of Flight of the Conchords singing their tune "The Most Beautiful Girl In The Room", which seemed the right thing to do, by virtue of it actually being funny.  Enjoy!

Off And Running--The Baghdad Five-Hundred

Thursday, April 1, 2010

I'm one of those "don't-let-the-fizz-out-of-the-bottle" types when it comes to talking about my story--or in this case novel--ideas.  I'm not sure if my reluctance is because I'm afraid someone will steal my idea or whether I just don't want to get the that funny look that says "WTF?" so early in the fiction development process, but either way I've always tended to keep my cards pretty close to my chest.

All that changes today.  I told you guys I'd share some information about the novel idea I'm working on and here it is.  I started my first draft this morning, and I'm happy as a clam--to finally be writing on it and to finally be done with the research stage (uh!) and onto something more productive.

I'll tell you all about the concept, but you have to promise you won't tell another soul.  Truly.  No, not even your bestest bestest buddy.  OK.  Alright.

I'm a big World War II buff.  That's probably because my Great Uncle Frownie (my mother's brother's dad) was a mailclerk in a Post Office in Dublin (Ohio), and not only did they watch Saving Private Ryan on the VCR three times a week in the offiice, but he painted world-class U.S. Army paratrooper figurines.  It was almost like the guy had been in combat himself.

One night over beers and leftover blowfish a la King (my Aunt Charmin cooks a mean blowfish a la King), he got to telling me that it's a little known fact that back in WWII, the Germans actually used to stage a road rally in the Moroccan Desert in 1942-1945.  At first it was some cockamamie idea Erwin Rommel (better known as the Desert Fox) came up with to raise morale, but soon the Fuhrer himself Adolf Hitler got behind the effort, and the event turned into a full blown extravaganza.  By the third year, crews were bringing souped up cars and Kubelwagens in from as far away as Cairo to race in the event, and First Prize was a seven day, seven night all-expenses paid trip to Disneyland.  Talk about cool!

Anyway, I got to thinking about this whole idea--having a road race in the middle of a combat zone--and also thinking about how I just came back from a combat zone and so could probably write responsibly about a story in that setting.  I knew I'd have to tread carefully--I mean the whole thing sounds pretty unbelievable, doesn't it?--but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that if I updated it to today and changed a few things--like a modern-day Saving Private Ryan meets Fast and Furious, set in Baghdad--then this might be the kind of high concept, blockbuster fiction that all the agents are looking for.

To make it work, I was gonna need two things.  First, a really strong MC.  I brainstormed, and finally decided my MC would be an amalgam of Indiana Jones, Han Solo, Jack Ryan, Henry (or Regarding Henry fame), and Pee Wee Herman (gotta have a humorous element in there somewhere).  Some good possibilities for leading ladies are Princess Leia and...well that's pretty much it right now.

Second, I was gonna need something supernatural.  I knew vampires were out--since after "Twilight" and Lost Boys and Bram Stoker's "Dracula", they're so overdone.  I mean after 110 years or so of these guys, readers can only take so much.  So I hit upon a solution: gargoyles.  I mean nobody has thought of using gargoyles yet, and they're so action packed and visual and they look so scary on all those European churches, so I mean they're like perfect.  I am trying to think of some way of working them into the storyline (hood ornaments?) but when I do, I know that they're really going to take this story idea to Warp Ten.

Also, when I do my world building, I think lifting some elements from a few recent sci-fi movies like Avatar will give the prose that marketable quality I think is so elusive, but desirable right now.

I'm still coming up with the plotline--maybe something like Death Race 2000 meets Driving Miss Daisy meets Koyaanisqatsi meets Eraserhead meets Revenge of the Nerds--and I certainly haven't made any firm decisions about style and voice, although I always really enjoyed the tranquil easy quality of the prose in "Thus Spoke Zarathustra".  Basically, I'm still figuring it out.

Working title: "The Baghdad Five-Hundred".  As I said, I am finally excited to have an idea I think worthy of some real effort, and I will of course keep you all in the know as I work on it further.  I would love to get some feedback from you guys on what you think so far.

In other news, Google officially changed their company name to Topeka, so many cool things happening on this first day of April.

So, what are you working on now?  Take a second to tell me about your current WIP (or make something up?!?!).  What really really really makes you laugh--or cry--or carry on like a chimpanzee on amphetamines?

LATE EDIT: Also, it appears there's been a decision to do away with "Z" as a letter in the alphabet.  And just when I finally learned to spell zygodactylic!

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