Out of the box thinking with attitude
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Weirding people out since 2006.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Bore Me With Talent

For anonymity's sake, I'll call him "Dave." Not because he was a bad guy, he wasn't (despite what my mother may think) but because what I'm about to say about him will be, shall we say, rather one-dimensional. It's a hyper-focused profile of a guy that I truly did not get to know very well and, I doubt, anyone ever did.

Dave and I dated for, I'd say less than a month. Our dating (if you could call it that) started as a series of what I believed to be at the time "kismet", but when I look back on it, was only a set of coincidences that meant nothing when taken either together or apart. Y'see, even though he and I were three years apart in age, we both shared three classes. We also had in common an insatiable love of the English language, never missed a Twilight Zone marathon and our favorite food in the world was Chipwiches.

Coincidences all, and certainly nothing to sustain a relationship over. Especially when it was doomed to end before it even began.

Problem is, Dave was talented. Or rather, Dave was talented and he knew it and lawdy did he like to tell the world, or at least me, just how talented he was. Sure I was impressed that he had completed an entire novel by the time he was fourteen, but did he have to brag about it? Constantly? And the fact that he was the youngest member to perform at a prestigious piano recital? Or what about the time he won this award or that?

Hs wall, his shelves, his entire room was plastered with plaques, trophies, ribbons what have you from everything and anything he had ever won. Good on him I say and I commend him for working so hard for each and every one of them. Problem was, that's all he'd ever done. He spent so much time winning awards and finishing a novel that he hadn't gone out and lived life.

Which is why I found him completely and utterly dull. Pity really, when you consider all that he had accomplished by the time he was fourteen.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Cavalry is Coming...or Not

Deus ex Machina is a literary device best to be avoided. The term comes from the days of Ancient Rome and Greece when God was literally a machine that appeared to come from the sky to save the day. Back in the days of film serials this was represented by the calvary rescuing the hero at the last moment. For the modern writer this device is best avoided as it cheapens the experience.

Then there are times seen most often in horror films when the one person (or even a small group of folks) come to the rescue and are offed in and of themselves, immediately and without fanfare. Granted, this moves the story forward, ups the tension for the protag and does every little thing a good plot device is supposed to do but I still hate it, and this is why.

In House of 1000 Corpses, the cavalry comes in the form of a couple of bumbling police officers who, nonetheless, are able to follow a string of clues to find the specific house in the title. Good for them, but their death is immediate and considering the modus operandi of the rest of the murders it simply doesn't make any sense. The family of killers could care less whether they were officers or simple shmucks off the street, their reason for existance is to torture and inflict as much pain as possible. A quick death is not what they would do.

This could have been better handled with a quick clonk to the head and an unseen perpetrator dragging the officer off scene until that inevitable "stumble across the masses of corpse artwork" that the heroine of the tale did. I feel this would have worked because it makes the scene of disabling the officer just as quick as it needed to be and yet still kept true to the homicidal maniacs of the tale.

Then there's The Shining. It doesn't matter whether you read the book or have seen either variations of the movie, the cavalry in this case was the black dude (sorry, I can't remember his name off the top of my head) who also had that unusual and unique gift that he calls "The Shining." Sensing that the boy is in trouble, he goes to the inn on some "grand mission" or "impulse," I've never been able to figure out quite which one and bonk with a hammer and he's dead as soon as he enters the hotel.

The instant death isn't the problem as I see it. The trouble is that while it increases the tension for the reader it does nothing to increase the tension for the characters. What if the black dude in question wasn't immediately killed, but was, in fact, dying and the little boy, in turn, knew his friend was in trouble and just beyond this corner or that corner?

Good kids are noble creatures who will think nothing of personal harm if they know a friend is in trouble. And despite all the weird crap this kid has gone through, he's still that kind of kid. Imagine how much better the movie would have been if the kid wasn't just trying to escape from Daddy but help his friend as well?

Then we have the current television fare of The Dead Zone (not to be confused with the movie). In one episode, Johnny has grounded his kid for a round of garage cleaning when there is a knock on the door. Poor Johnny can't just answer the door, he knows the teenager behind it is in a lot of trouble. Fast forward a bit, the teenager, Johnny and Johnny's kid are holed up in a basement trying to protect themselves from the bad guy. Well, Johnny's kid's stepdad is a police officer (well established from prior episodes, so we're not really surprised) who gets a call from the US Marshall. It turns out that the troubled teen is a key witness to a mafia hit and the bad guys aren't your run of the mill type.

Anyway, following a trail of bloody footprints and the like, this cop finds these bad guys over at Johnny's house and finds himself at the mercy of the bad guys vis a vis duct tape.

This works well because not only is the viewer's tension cranked up, but the character's as well since there's a PA system which connects to the basement. Y'see, Johnny's kid has been raised by his stepdad because of that whole coma thing. So we're talking about a relationship between stepkid and stepdad that goes beyond the ordinary parameters of this type of relationship.

In other words, Johnny's kid is seriously considering giving this teenager up for his stepdad's safety. Johnny, however, realizes there's only one of two ways that this thing is going to end: either they're going to win and get the heck out of this house or everyone is going to die. This isn't magic vision, this is the reality of the situation.

In the end, it's Johnny who saves the day via an underground tunnel which Johnny found via "visions from the past." And that's the way it should be.

In conclusion, go ahead, let your cavalry come and try to save the day, but put them in a peril which increases the tension not just for the reader but for the characters as well.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Charles Lee Ray

For as small as he was, Chucky was evil as an all get out.

I like that in a guy.

Granted he was the imitation-vodoun-posessed by a serial killer variation of the standard "talking doll" mythology...but still. The problem with the films though is that the only "person" that Chucky could find that was as smart as him was another doll. I mean really, if he scared 'em that much why didn't the folks at least insist on a refund?

Bunch of nitwits if you ask me. I would have made a deal with Chucky, something along the lines of "Consider me your transportation. I'm just gonna take you to a place so you can kill a LOT of people. Here? There's only 4 folks and after us, what'll you have? Days, heck, even weeks before you can get anyplace else." Once he was appeased and his little doll eyes sparkled, I'd give him a list of personal enemies.

Hell, as long as I had a homicidal doll, I'd take advantage of the situation.

Once my enemies were dead? I'd zap his ass in the microwave. Can't have a talking doll that knows all my secrets hanging around now can I?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

At Any Moment

At any given moment in time, a multitude of things are possible. These are the things that have been running through my head lately about what could happen in these moments. Sometimes without even realizing it:

You could be stalked by a serial killer.

Someone could be plotting revenge against you.

The food you're eating could be poisoned.

You could have a terminal illness and not realize it.

You could make a decision that will alter the course of your life irreperably.

A lawyer is coming up with an idiotic warning label.

Someone is ignoring both common sense and the idiotic warning label and getting seriously injured.

Someone is well on their way to winning a lawsuit for ignoring said idiotic warning label.

Someone could be planning on robbing you.

You could be framed for a crime you didn't commit.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Shattered Glass

I've seen people that have died, hours or even moments after it had happened, but until today I had never been face to face with someone who died right in front of me.

My family and I were on our way to Wal-Mart and we heard that sound that is so common to automobile accidents, that unmistakable squeal of wheels that continued into this horrendous crunch and ended with a woman flying through her windshield. The sound of glass shattering and a person flying through it was like nothing I had ever heard before, nor do I want to hear it again.

I don't remember any screaming, I don't think there was time. It's cliche, but true as "it all happened so fast."

My husband is a rare breed in that he pulled over. He's also of the dense breed in that he tried to command me to stay in the car. Emphasis on tried. Smart enough, however, to know when I'm not going to listen when there are more important things to tend to.

He headed towards the car while I went towards the woman. The chances of her surviving were slim. I knew this, even as phrases like "spatter pattern" and "point of impact" crossed my mind, and yet, there was still this internal drive to see and yet, somehow, it was more than that. A desire to know. Know what, I wasn't quite sure at the time, but I do now.

At least I think I do, looking back on it. Because, against all odds, she was alive. Barely, and even then I knew she wouldn't last until the paramedics arrived. I took off my vest and put it over the top of her head. At least, I think I did. I don't really remember. It's strange, how in times like this I just automatically did what I'd been trained to do during my years as a Red Cross Volunteer.

I do remember, however, holding her hand. This too, was automatic, but at the same time different. One person reaching out to another, instinctively. I didn't squeeze, I just held. She tried to say something, I think it was "thank you." but it could have been something else altogether.

I wish I could say she died peacefully, but I can't, because before she did, her body declared a revolt and seized up on her. Arms and legs flailing, head jerking and then a loud SNAP. Her neck broke, her eyes glazed and all was still. I knew she was gone.

I didn't hear the ambulance arrive, though I'm sure they came to the scene with sirens blaring.

I answered their questions, the paramedics' and the police officer's. Yet, I still feel guilty, helpless, as if there was something more I could have done. My head knows it wasn't my fault, but my heart still aches for the woman I never knew.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

On Teachers: Part Four

Then there are the last two teachers whose classes I would never skip (well, maybe twice, but that was when I was ditching an entire day instead of a class or two).

Mr. Youngerman was, in many ways, the exact opposite of Mr. Collins. Where Mr. Collins was laid back, Mr. Y (as we kids called him) was energetic. Where Mr. Collins was just a danged good teacher, Mr. Y was brilliant.

Mr. Youngerman could turn a story-world inside out and upside down. He could take the bizarre and make it seem plausible. He taught me how to make a series of flashbacks just melt into the storyline and when to toss them out the door. He didn't just tell about stories, he showed them through actions in his class. Change of scene? Turn off the lights for apparently no reason to demonstrate how one simple thing can change the entire mood of a story. He threw chalkboard erasers up against the wall to demonstrate action and dragged a chair across the room to demonstrate sensory involvement. He'd get in your face and shout to explain POV and tone.

There was nothing to bizarre, to out there or too unreal for Mr. Youngerman. He reminded me of why I started writing in the first place, because it was fun. And, oh yeah, he was tough too. He, like Mr. Collins, wouldn't put up with my second best and just when I thought it was my best, he'd show me how to make it even better.

Mr. Smith taught math, specifically geometry. He had a way of explaining this, my last year of math, as if it were vital and real through, of all things, basketball. Which is odd, considering my love-hate thing with basketball.

Playing one on one games like horse or around the world was fine as long as it was just me and a friend or few, but as a PE class? Basketball was a nightmare filled with rules and (eek!) more of the type of physical activity than this body was made for.

Mr. Smith though, brought these two together with a seeming effortlessness that whenever I think of parallel lines I still see two Nerf basketballs flying across the room, and if I ever need to calculate an angle? I won't be able to do so without thinking of the hypoteneuse of the backboard.

For some odd reason, I can still remember the terms "postulate," "hypothesis" and "theorem" even though, almost 20 years later I really can't remember having used them.

So here's to every teacher who went above and beyond. I thank you, for each and every one of you made at least those classes, enjoyable for the times that I had with you.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Interlude: Detention and Suspension

And so, my journey into the final years of high school remained. The majority of educators during this time were, in my opinion, easily duped. Perhaps they were tired of teaching or they just didn't care. I ditched class with a frequency that makes me surprised I graduated at all. Frankly, I was bored to tears of the whole scene and just wanted to get out of that place even though I had very little idea of what I would do afterwards.

In school suspension should have been a constant in that final year, a concept that baffled me since I was in a classroom doing absolutely nothing and for what purpose? Disrupting class? No. Insulting the teachers or other authority figures? Hardly, I may not have respected them any more than the average teen, but nor did I respect them less. The reason I was originally placed into this mini prison called ISS was because of (get this) tardiness. Yeah, I'd frequently be late to class. Tell me the logic behind that.

In order to get the first ISS, a student would have to be late five times. On average, I was about five minutes late. Which means, theoretically, I missed a total of twenty-five minutes of mediocre education before I received my first ISS.

During ISS, I was placed in a room with a handful of other students. We were not allowed to do anything. No talking, no reading, no writing and definitely no sleeping. All day, and this was it. The theory was that once we were sentenced to this extreme state of isolation we'd shape up because we'd feel sorry for ourselves for behaving so badly.

Yeah right.

My actual thought process was more along the lines of: "Let me get this straight, if I'm late to class five times, I get ISS, but I have to completely ditch a class three times in order to get ISS. Let's see, mathwise that means I get to skip a total of 45min per class x 3 classes-25 min MORE before I'd get in trouble again."

It only took a month before I was in ISS again. This time for flat out skipping classes that I knew I was going to be late to.

More time to think still didn't turn out the way the school board had hoped.

"Y'know, if I could figure out a way to get out of ditching classes all together, I wouldn't have to be in here again. 2+2=4 and my handwriting is very similar to my mother's."

Needless to say, even though I ditched a lot of classes during the remainder of my senior year I never spent another moment in ISS, and by the time my parents found out about it? I really didn't care what they had to say since I had already graduated anyway.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

On Teachers: Part Three

High School was hell. There isn't any other way to put it. I just wanted to get out of there, and fast. For the most part, I had middle of the road teachers. There was only one teacher from hell during those years. However, I guess the most aggravating thing had to do with the fact I went to five different schools during this period.

That, and only three teachers were ones that I could consider "above and beyond."

My first semester as a freshman was, undoubtedly, the worst. A two hour bus trip to and from the school only exacerbated the issue. It wasn't until April that things began to change for me. It was a new school, and not just new, but within walking distance from where I lived-- in fact, I could see it from my front yard.

Which probably has a lot to do with why Mr. Collins is considered at the tippy-top apex of my all time favorite teachers. From August of my sophomore year until November of my junior year, Mr. Collins was an English teacher beyond compare.

Not because he was brilliant in English, in fact, I knew things about grammar, character creation, story structure etc. that blew his skills out of the water. And I was only fifteen at the time compared to his 30-odd plus educational degrees.

Where he stood out was what he told me from the first paper I wrote...something along the lines of what I wanted to be when I grew up, and of course, I said I wanted to be a writer. Before he graded it, he asked to see some other stuff I wrote.

I agreed, and after school the next day he read a few of what I considered my "best" pieces at the time (looking back on them makes me shudder though...eek!) without saying a word as I fidgeted in the chair wondering what the hell he was thinking.

Still silent, he shuffled through the stack of ungraded papers pulled out mine and marked it with an "F" and dropped it on my desk. I was stunned, never before had I received an F on an English paper.

"But I did what you asked me to," I complained.

"And that's all you did. You can do better than that. I've seen it in what you've written here today. So, from now on, for you, it's either an F or an A. No in-betweens, it's time to see if you really have what it takes to be a writer."

It was then that I truly learned the value of rewrites and how to make the most of the editing process. Mr. Collins taught me how to look at a story objectively and rip it apart from bottom to top. He taught me the value of a critique and how to make the most of it. Not just on that day, but for several after school sessions he would help me tighten my prose until it sparkled.

Don't get me wrong, I certainly wasn't the perfect student. I cried. I screamed. I even threw a book across the room. Mr. Collins though, was patient throughout. He'd listen to me cry, scream, and pick up the book as needed and simply told me, "You can do this. You know you want to."

Eventually I did. I got it, and yeah, I got an A in that class. It was the first A (but not the last, as you'll see later) that I truly felt I earned.

If I had to repeat one year from high school, it would be my junior year. As to why, and the last two influential teachers on my list, I'll talk about that in my next entry.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

On Teachers: Part Two

Since my junior high was in the same school I had gone to since 4th grade, I continued with accelerated math in both 7th and 8th grade. The teacher of this course (if he could truly be called that since it was primarily focused on indepent study), Mr. Robinson was truly brilliant in both educational techniques and in math itself. He's the one who brought arithmetic out of the realm of abstract numbers and into practical application. He did this by getting to know me well enough that he knew where my interests lay and used this to help me understand certain concepts that may have otherwise made me go "huh?" Not only that, he made these abstract numbers stick in a way that no one else has been able to.

Of course English teachers will always have a special place in my heart, but Mrs. Sanders was much more than that as she taught me not only English but about the Renaissance, music appreciation and so much more. But, where she went really above and beyond was the day I re-started my period.

As luck would have it, I was wearing white that day (ain't that always the way?) and I did NOT want to move. Not when the bell was called. I'd probably still be sitting there if it wasn't for Mrs. Sanders. It's not what she said, it was what she did that made all the difference in the world. In fact, she didn't say anything, only handed me her sweater and a nurse's pass. She then went towards her desk as if nothing had happened and I was able to get out of there without saying a word. No big now, but at 13? Yeah, it was huge.

Then there was history class. What the heck did I care about things that happened so long ago? How did this information effect me. Well, Mr. Troll (who, ironically, did look like a troll-- short with angry looking eyebrows and a mouth, through no fault of its own, appeared to be in a perpetual frown) had a weird sense of humor. The type of humor that my grandmother taught me, subtle and if you weren't paying attention it would slip right past you.

The first class, for example, had Mr. Troll "quoting" things from history. Stuff each of us should have known by heart. Every once in a while he'd mess up the quote deliberately by saying something like "In 14 hundred and 92, Columbus walked the ocean blue." When I first heard them, I wasn't sure what he was doing, but it did get my attention. So I listened for more, and sure enough they came, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your pie." By the time he said the fifth one (which I can't remember precisely), I stopped trying to hide my laughter and he marched over to my desk as if I was in trouble. Lawdy, I thought I was doomed for the principal's office for the semester if this was the case.

Instead, this is what occurred: "Can you tell the class what you find so funny?"

"Columbus didn't walk the "ocean blue", he sailed it." Mr. Troll looked pleased, so I continued and I named off all of the "mis-quotes" that I could recall.

"Precisely." said Mr. Troll and continued with how important it was to pay attention to the details of the past so we could learn from it and move forward.

He continued to use this subtle brand of humor, not only in his lectures, but in the tests as well. The past became a valid thing worth learning about because it was no longer dry and dusty, but alive and for the first time, real.

When Mr. Bickerton took over the yearbook in my eighth grade year, just about every girl applied for it, including me. When I found out that I was not only on the staff, but in a plum position as well, I was stunned. Especially since one of the qualifications was a B+ grade average or better, and I was skating by with a C (I really hated doing homework, therefore I avoided all but the "big" assignments).

In truth, I applied for yearbook on a lark. A joke of an alternate elective. Mr. Bickerton and I had not had any classes together before this, so I had naturally assumed he didn't notice me. And yet, here I was on the yearbook staff. Yeah, I ticked off a lot of girls who had the grades and a bigger desire to be on staff, but I felt I had a right to gloat about it anyway.

And apparently, with good reason. Because, despite what I had thought, Mr. Bickerton had noticed me, and not just in my eighth grade year, but as I discovered later, he and Mr. Rhine were best friends which means he was well aware of my potential even if I wasn't.

And that plum position? Co-Editor. This meant that my primary job was to make sure all of the yearbook flowed together as a whole, to assure that the theme of the book looked as if it was created by one person. In other words, I became boss of the kids who had spent so much time teasing me from the time I was in fourth grade.

I'm not the type of person to shove this in someone's face, but it sure wasn't above my nature either to go home and laugh about the irony of the whole thing either.

Mr. Bickerton helped me find that important balance between creative ideals and realistic expectations. He taught me how to lead those who had formerly not even liked me and ultimately, how to be a better person because of it.

At the end of the year, I asked Mr. Bickerton why he chose me for this position even though I didn't meet the qualifications he had listed. He just said, "You had, and still do have, qualities that can't be listed on a piece of paper. Qualities that I wanted as part of the yearbook staff." then, with a smile he said, "Yearbook didn't have any homework attached to it. So I knew you'd do fine."

High school was a time best forgotten out of the history of my life. However, there are two teachers in those years that stand above and beyond not just teachers, but above and beyond most people I've met in my life before or since. I'll talk about them and a few other favorite teachers in my next entry.

Friday, July 14, 2006

On Teachers: Part One

Anyone who has known me for a period of time is well aware of my thoughts on public education. I think it's an oxymoron and gives more credence to "experts" than "professionals." This is not to say that I haven't had teachers who weren't absolutely amazing. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I've had more than my fair share.

My elementry years until 4th grade are a pitiful blur of moving from one state to the next with very little time to get to know the teachers in-between. In 3rd grade alone, I moved three times. However, I truly wish I could remember the name of the first teacher I had that year because she was the first to encourage my writing talents.

It started simply enough, seperate stacks of cards, each pile denoting a different characterstic, animal, color or scenery. I was fascinated by these cards, entranced. It amazed me the different stories I could come up with by simply changing the color of a giraffe or by placing a dinosaur in a desert or in a suburban setting.

What made this teacher so amazing, is something I didn't recognize at the time, she created a set of these cards for me to take with me when I moved. It's a small gesture like that which can make all the difference in the world to a writer. While others who wish to write had to learn the 3x5 card technique, I was already using it instinctively.

The next teacher was Mr. Rhine in sixth grade, who, one day kept me after class and gave me a test which would be a considered nightmare for the average 12 year old but before he gave me that test he told me about a theory of his, and that was the reason I was doing so poorly in class and wasn't paying attention was because I was bored. When I found out it was a math test, I was stunned and just about had my first case of test jitters right then and there. Math was never what I'd call my "strong subject," still isn't but then he said something that calmed me, "You're not expected to pass this test. Just do the best you can."

Truthfully, I don't remember writing anything on that test except for my name. I don't even remember anything else from that day or the following until math time came again and Mr. Rhine told me that I was sitting in the wrong place and pointed to the area where the accelerated math students sat. If that wasn't enough to stun me, he then opened my math book to just about the middle, way past where the rest of the class was since it was the beginning of the year, and said, "You start here."

This wasn't the only thing Mr. Rhine did for me as far as his faith in me was concerned, but it is the most profound example of the simple faith that he showed in me throughout the year as well as the next two years since at my school, sixth grade was part of junior high (well, sort of, the sixth graders didn't change classes as often as the seventh and eighth graders, but we still did for the last two periods which were electives).

Junior high was the most highly condensed for amazing teachers, and I'll get to them in part two.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Writer's Trick: The Loop

One of my favorite tricks of writing is something I like to call "the loop." The reason it's my favorite is because it has the the triple-whammy effect of:

1) Getting me out of a major writing problem, specifically one that has to do with "How the hell do I end this thing now?"

2) Ties up loose ends that I may not have noticed were there before.

3) Makes me look like a writing genius.

So, just what is the "loop thing" you may be asking. It's really quite simple. If you take your character and put him or her up a tree and can't get said character back down again, loop yourself back to the beginning. I don't simply mean rewrite the beginning as your ending, but look for clues there that may help you finish the piece.

It's amazing what we, as writers put into our rough drafts without even realizing we've done it. Take for example, are there any details in the study that could become suddenly important? That candlestick that you placed on the wall during that party scene could become an effective offensive or defensive weapon later on. Even the way a character is dressed could become important if you need it to be. Scarves can be tied, as can belts, around things other than the original place that was intended. For female or TV MC's, perfume can be sprayed in someone's eyes and a nail file can be used quite effectively for things other than a weapon, but to whittle away at an otherwise impenatrable barrier.

Did you have a creaky floorboard that annoyed a character earlier? Could there possibly be a reason it's creaky? Maybe there's something underneath the floor that could be used as a hideaway or escape route. Granted, this technique can seem like deus ex machina if not handled well, but if you go back later and pepper your story with rumors of hidden treasure or underground railroads the ending may not only shock and surprise but will have readers saying "Wow! The writer planted clues about this all over the place!"

Yeah, let them think that. It's our secret right? ;)

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Query Me This

I've been doing a lot of research on query letters lately, what works, what doesn't and there's so much information on the web alone on this topic that it seems like a difficult and confusing task. I've come to the conclusion that this is not necessarily so. The thing that makes it so daunting is not the query letter itself but the fact an entire writing career can hinge on whether or not you can actually write one of these things.

Which really shouldn't be that hard. Afterall, if you can write a 100,000 word novel, you should be able to write a couple hundred about the same thing. Right? Sure, if you follow these guidelines:

  1. Do you know what the novel is about? In other words, can you summarize it in a sentence or two? If not, then perhaps you're not ready to write the query letter. Sounds harsh, but it makes sense if you think about it. In other words, if you don't know what it's about in precise terms, how are you going to tell anyone what it's about?
  2. Can you write a good hook? If not, then perhaps you need to rethink how you started your story, forget about the query letter. Take some writing courses, participate in online editing sites such as Darklines, speak with a writing friend you trust, purchase a few books on Amazon or check them out from a library. Learn to write before you send off that query letter.
  3. Discover what the "sizzle" of the story is. Are you able to touch on the important points of the story? Do you know what the important points of the story are? Can you elaborate on this within 2-4 paragraphs without getting either too wordy or too sparse?
  4. What is your professional writing experience is (no one cares if you've written for your high school or college yearbook, nor do they care about what your Mom thought about your piece, or if you got an award that can't be Googled-- by this I mean if you can't find the award on the first page of a Google search, then don't list it {Stoker Award, good. Community Newsletter Award, bad. To give you some examples} ). If you don't have any worth mentioning, don't mention it.
  5. Do you have any unique experience that may be relevant to the novel at hand? For example, if you have 10 kids and the novel is about someone struggling to raise a large family this would be considered relevant experience. On the other hand if there's a minor character who shares your job, don't mention it. Ditto if you don't have any experience related to the novel. That's okay, we're taking fiction here and you don't have to prove that you've done the research until questions start coming up after it's been looked at by an agent or editor.
  6. How long is the novel? First novels should be between 80K-120K words. Any shorter than that and people won't want to pay full price for a book that looks too sparse (don't pad, expand if you need to) and publishers won't want to pay the extra costs involved with an extra thick book. If this is the case, either figure out if you can make two, seperate stand-alone books with what you've got or cut mercilessly until it's within range. Both options are difficult.
  7. Is the novel completed? If you're not previously published in novel format, don't waste your time querying agents and editors, because if they want to see the completed MS, you'll be up spit creek if it's not done. If it is done, let them know, and they'll be pleased.
  8. For snail-mail queries, print this out on 80% cotton bond paper, white (and nothing else but white) paper with a readable font (12-point Roman Times seems to be pretty much industry standard) and one-inch margins all the way around. Enclose nothing but an SASE.
  9. For e-mail queries, I'd suggest going to individual sites if you'd prefer to do this as an attachment. Otherwise, you'd be better off pasting the whole thing into the body of the mail.
  10. Don't forget to let them know how to contact you.

All of the above stuff is absolutely necessary for a query. However, there are some bonus touches that you can add on to make it go over the top.

  1. Did you read a book similar to the one that you have written that was agented/published by that person or company and you went the extra steps to find out who it was? Let 'em know, they'll be glad you did the research. If all you did to find them was to look up their name on the AAR website, take a look at their website (if it's available) to find out which books they have to their credit and mention any that you have read. If you haven't read any, simply letting them know that "according to the guidelines on your site, my book seems like a good fit for what you are looking for" still lets them know you've done your homework.
  2. Have you visualized how you want your book shelved at the stores? Don't fool yourself into thinking you'll get window displays at Barnes and Noble, but if this is just the type of read that would be great for an airline flight, say so. If, on the other hand, it's a more literary piece, perhaps libraries and colleges would be more interested in it. On the other hand, an anthology of horror tales would probably work best if displayed at or near the counters around Halloween.
  3. What else do you have in the works (or unpubbed) that's similar to what you're proposing? No need to go into details, but if you're proposing a horror tale and you're already well into another horror tale, a brief mention that you're doing so will indicate you're in it for the long haul. If, on the other hand, it's only a sketch of an idea that may happen or not, don't mention it. Note: This idea works best for a proposed series, just make sure the first book can stand on its own.

What not to include:

  1. A second page to your query. If your letter is longer than one page, cut, chop, slice and dice until it is.
  2. Difficult to read or fancy fonts. Sure, Edwardian Script may give your novel just that romantic flair that echoes your writing style, but your writing needs to work on its own and fancy fonts as well as 8-point Comic Sans will also be a surefire way to the "Not for us" trashbin.
  3. Any paper that is not white. Believe it or not, pink, gray or blue paper will not make you stand out from a crowd. It will only mark you as an amateur.
  4. Glitter, confetti, or anything else of that nature. See above for why not.
  5. Bribes. The only place a writer should sign a check is on the back. Remember that, and it will keep you from being scammed as well.
  6. Any discussion of payment. This comes after you've made an agreement to work with that specific agent or editor, not in the query letter.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Recommended Linkage

If it's good enough for the government, it's good enough for me. In other words, take a gander at these links (oooh...shiny links! Aren't they so pretty?) while blatantly ignoring the fact I couldn't think of anything to write about today.

Rotten.com -- Just think of it as rubbernecking at a traffic accident without pissing off the person in the car behind you.

Crimelibrary -- A comprehensive online resource for studying both the bad guys of society and the techniques used to catch them.

Wickedness.net-- A scientific study on all issues related to evil and human wickedness.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Satan and Superman: Thoughts on Character Development

Satan, as a character for a story, is a particularly noisome creature for the author trying to work within this legend to create the penultimate in evil. You're better off making up your own bad guy since Satan, like Superman, introduces the same types of problems for the writer.

While it may seem odd that I'm comparing the epitome with evil with the epitome of good (well, except for God, but if you think about it, this character usually only shows up in comedies or at the end of movies like Omen 3 to save the day. Deus ex machina and all that rot) but the two of them have a lot more in common as far as the writer is concerned than appears at first glance.

The most important thing has to do with their weaknesses. Superman has multi-colored Kryptonite that he has to deal with and the only thing that seems to conquer Satan is a combination of ultra-faith and/or a willingness to sacrifice one's self in favor of another. Now, not many of us have the necessary breed of ultra-faith that is required to conquer the Devil any more than we've got some Kryptonite if we want to cross Supes. Humans, being humans, falter and waver in their faith and most people aren't willing to sacrifice themselves for anyone else but family and/or friends...even that's an iffy proposition. When you add in the fact that both Satan and Supes have superpowers beyond human capacity you're automatically stacking the deck in their favor.

While having a "stacked deck" may be fun to play with, for a while, it creates a lot more headaches than is necessary. Especially since it makes the battles between good and evil a lot less interesting.

There are several other ways to create ultimate good and ultimate evil without resorting to the "stacked deck" method of "dealing the cards" that can make your characters, and therefore, your story a lot more interesting.

  1. Create a more viable weakness. The most recent example I've seen of this was on the kid's cartoon Ben10. In one episode there was a character who had powers that were the equivelant of Superman's, however, his weakness was none other than chocolate. Granted, he's from a planet that doesn't have chocolate in large supply, so when the title character, Ben, inadvertantly gave him some, this hero didn't recognize it and he was turned into this weakened husk (rather mummy-like in appearance) who was unable to fight. In this example, you're almost looking at a Superman-like comparison when you consider the rarity of chocolate on the hero's home planet. This problem, however, is taken care of since the majority of the storylines focus not only on Earth, but on Ben as well who always has the peculiar (and yet admirable) quality of carrying said substance in his pocket for when he needs a quick energy boost.
  2. Counterpoint strengths. Brain vs. Brawn is by far the most popular one, in second place is street smarts vs. educated smarts. Give one to your villain and the other to your hero and watch the sparks fly to find out which one will win and which one will use.
  3. Give everyone the same powers. If the bad guy has magic, give it to the good guy as well. JK Rowling emphasizes this best with Voldemort and the Death Eaters. When this evil team goes after the Muggles (non-magic users for those 2 or 3 folks still unknowledgeable about this term) it's either for play (like they did at the beginning of Goblet of Fire) or to prove a point to the Ministry of Magic (Cornelius Fudge, in fact, got fired for being unable to deal with this abomination in Half-Blood Prince ). See, even they knew that Muggles weren't their equal. And then there's Harry, Voldemort has a wand, and so does Harry. Voldemort knows how to use the wand, and so does Harry. Sure, Voldie is more knowledgeable about spellcraft than Harry and is more capable of dealing out unforgiveable curses than Harry, but Harry has "something else." Ok, right now, I'm not sure what that "something else" is outside of his "mother's love" but it better be something otherwise Book 7 will be awfully disappointing.

So, go ahead and write about Satan if you want, but pit him against Superman and watch the sparks fly.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Rethinking Enviromentalism

Today's blog has to do with Gaia (Earth) as living organism. Nothing new there, just weird if you really think about it (Eeeeewwww...I'm stepping on an eyeball!) My point however has to do with the recycling movement, what if Gaia WANTS the leftover soda cans or, even as George Carlin postulated, she wants to be Earth plus styrofoam.

I mean, it's not like She's exactly the tiniest thing around. Heck, among planets, largesse is admired. Think about the awe that young children have for the gaseous planets, especially Jupiter. And if Gaia is like the rest of us, she wants to fit in. Not only that, she wants to be considered beautiful, and in her life, big is beautiful.

So, go ahead and toss away your McD's leftovers on those gorgeous mounds of garbage. Forget about recycling, feeding the Earth and Her desires is really what it's all about.

What? It makes a lot more sense than folks starving themselves in the name of beauty.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Counting My Curses

Counting blessings? That's for those other folks. Y'know, those who want to go on and live happy, normal, productive lives but are unable to do so unless they actually think about what makes them happy. Kinda backwards as far as I'm concerned, if you start off your day thinking about the most horrid things that have happened to you the rest of your life will be peachy in comparison.
  1. For my entire life I've wanted to be a writer. This is a dismal career path if there ever was one. Locked up in a room for Goddess knows how many hours, typing page after page of what may or may not be garbage and that's a good day for a writer. Bad days are when you don't have a room to lock yourself in, the kids are screaming that they're hungry (frequently no less than five minutes after you've fed them), the spouse is screaming that the dishes need done and the only damn thing you can think about is that blinking curser.
  2. The genre that has chosen me is horror. What kind of sick fuck am I that I'd rather write about killing someone then helping them fall in love or have them chase unicorns and dragons down while wielding a wand. Hell, a face off with aliens wouldn't keep me up at night half as often as my damn characters do.
  3. My children. Don't get me wrong, I love my minions, I mean kids, but sometimes they just don't know when to leave me alone. Specifically...when I'm writing. I swear, anytime I get near a keyboard they need something desperately as if it were a life and death matter. Most of the time it has to do with a food or PS2 related problem.
  4. The standard layout for keyboards, and the way I was taught how to type in school is QWERTY. Dvorak is better, and I should be practicing it now, but I can't think with Dvorak...not yet anyway.

Well, that's enough curse counting for the day. I feel much better already. Don't you?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Death by the Numbers

Ok, so there's "50 ways to leave your lover" but how many ways can you kill someone? Just for the heck of it, here's a list off the top of my head.

  1. Fire-- This is especially handy since you can take care of any evidentiary problems at the same time. Be warned though, that it is quite easy to trace the source of an accelerant, so do this in an open field if you must.
  2. Fisticuffs-- Granted, not the most efficient method, but when you win it, it sure as hell is satisfying that you were able to do it by hand.
  3. Stabbing-- Very messy, defensive wounds are always a plus. Just keep a good grip on the handle of the knife, sword, whatever sharp implement your using and you'll have yourself a nice wet kill.
  4. Poisoning--With a bit of research and intelligence, you can determine not just how much pain the vic will be in, but close to when they will die. Warning: may screw up the possibility of an alibi if you use a slow acting poison such as arsenic. Worse, it may stop the vic from being dead in the first place since the poison could be recognized in the system before it becomes deadly.
  5. Shooting-- Not as easy as it seems since if you're not familiar with the weapon of choice, it could be easily nabbed from you. Modern ballistics technologies make this an even less recommended choice.
  6. Strangling-- Whether you choose to use a beautiful scarf (a la Boston strangler) or a wire (a la garrote style) this is a method that is best done if you take your vic by surprise.
  7. Suffocation-- While this could be considered a "bastard child" of strangulation, it also offers a variety of weapons that make it merit its own category. For example, just dope the vic up and wait 'til he or she passes out and then just roll and push down. Plastic bags are good for this as well.
  8. Drowning-- Either choose a vic who can't swim or a spot in a lake or ocean that is quite a ways away from shore. Take 'em for a boat ride and then push 'em overboard and let the fun begin.
  9. Electrocution-- Drop a toaster in the bathtub, or better yet, a hairdryer if it's your vic's hairdryer (you can always say that the vic liked to dry his or her hair in the tub. Just make sure there's enough hair to make this feasible) and let the sizzling commence.
  10. Pushing-- While this alone isn't deadly, if you make sure the building the two of you happen to be on at the time is high enough, the fall should do 'em in. Just make sure there's nothing to pad their landing.
  11. Engorgement/Starvation-- I've put these two together because they're both related to food and they both take quite a bit of time and patience. Granted, the starvation technique requires only a room you can lock them in, but if you ever saw Seven you'll know the cost of gluttony can be quite high as well.
  12. Exploitating Allergies-- Know someone who goes into anaphalactic shock if they eat onions? Well, do what Bree of Desperate Housewives did and sprinkle them liberally on your vic's salad. Bees and wasps are common allergens, you could always take your chances with those as well.
  13. Non-traditional-- While the methods listed above are pretty much it, the difference is the weapon of choice. Bash 'em over the head with a vacuum cleaner! Spork 'em 'til they're bloody! The possibilities are endless, the only limits are your own imagination.

As a final note, I'd like to say that ultimately the best weapon to choose is one that fits your personality, so choose wisely and happy hunting.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Critique Groups: Part Three

The Universe is still breathing down my neck to join or start a critique group, and frankly, I don't wanna. Even if I did, my location that is closer to nowhere than that place called "the sticks" renders it meaningless. So, what's a gal to do?

Why, fire it right back at the Universe of course. One of the benefits of my personal belief system is that I can demand of the Universe just as much, if not more, than it demands of me. Convenient? Sure, but here are my demands none-the-less:

  • Offline group. In person, I'm a social outcast, online I'm a misunderstood genius. Whether this has to do with the persona I intentionally present or the way that folks perceive me through my writing or a combination of both, I'm not sure. Nor do I really care. The fact is, I'm more comfortable online than off.
  • A small group of writers. I'm thinking about 5 or 6 tops. Not just writers, but people who are serious about their craft. If someone dashed off a poem in sixth grade and sold it to their local newspaper, I don't care. And while it'd be nice to have one or two folks with a list of publication credits, that is not a top priority. What I'd like is a group of folks who are aware that to be a writer means to sit one's butt in the chair and write.
  • Fiction of course should be their specialty, and while it doesn't necessarily have to be horror, those who write with a darker tone in any genre would best be suited for the group I have in mind. No, this does not mean that all of the endings of their tales have to be sad, depressing, dark, gothic, what have you, but that they should have tales that have endings that make sense. Or, at least the desire to have the ending make sense.
  • Each member should have a basic sense of grammatical structure and what makes a good story differentiate from a bad story. Note: a basic sense of grammatical structure doesn't mean you have to know the difference between past perfect and past imperfect or even the definition of "gerund." It does, however mean that any member needs to know how to string sentences together in a coherent fashion. You'll also notice I didn't say that the stories would have to be "great" just "good." Afterall, if there isn't room for improvement, what's the point of a critique group?
  • Members would also have enough intelligence, skill, and heart to know the difference between the following: a slam (or personal attack), a critique and a gloss over.
  • Members must be willing to stick it out through the long haul. Yes, I'm aware that real life often interferes, but this is not what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is the willingness to accept that other writers will be depending on you and that this critique group needs to take a priority somewhere between your actual writing, and say, taking the cat to the vet for a check up. Does this mean "Whiskers" doesn't need to be taken care of? No, but being a member of this group would mean you take it seriously.
  • A willingness to trust and be trusted. Stories often lay open the deepest, darkest part of ourselves and if a member pussyfoots with either their tale or their critique, they should be called on it. In return, a member should be unafraid of laying "their baby," their tale on the line.
  • Each member should celebrate each other's victories no matter how big or small. In reverse, each member should support each other's writing ailments no matter how big or small.
  • Whether or not real friendships blossom out of this is anyone's guess. However, if each member treats the other members with respect and dignity, I wouldn't be surprised if such a thing were to happen as a natural course of events.

Anyone who has further suggestions as to what would make an ideal writer's group (or even a title for the group), let me know via these comments or e-mail. Also, please be aware that I already know of several online critique groups and for the most part have found them either too large and impersonal or too small and unprofessional. I feel that it is possible to have the best of both worlds.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Critique Groups: Part Two

Yesterday I covered my sole experience with a critique group. Or, at least the traditional type of critique group (as in off-line and in person) and why it was a disaster for me. Yet, the Universe is still hounding me to either join or create one. And here's the problem.

I don't trust people. No, it's not the normal paranoia among newer writers that "someone will steal my ideas" but something a bit less profound and at the same time a major stumbling block, for me at least.

I've noticed, after a while, when a bunch of folks start hanging around each other they start sharing personal stuff. Stuff that goes beyond writing and how the rest of their lives are doing. And when it comes right down to it, I'm socially inept in group situations. One on one I'm fine and dandy, but more than that and I'm a blubbering idiot. I talk too much, share too much and frankly, I just don't know when to shut the hell up. Within this "sharing" that I do, I have a tendency to be unable to know just when I'm making people nervous, or, worse, scared.

People, as a whole, are a jittery group and with my macabre sense of humor tied along with my fringe beliefs as well as my "not so happy" background, the majority of folks don't know what to make of me. This isn't anything new, so I should be used to it, right? Wrong.

My entire life I've been told to be "less blunt" which I've interpreted to mean "less honest" considering the situations I've been told this (after someone has asked me their opinion in other words), "not so loud" (it's a party, how the hell else am I supposed to be heard for Goddess's sake?), and, worst of all to "calm down" (why the hell should I calm down? I'm pissed!).

I'm not saying these folks don't have a point. Sometimes they do, but for the most part it's overboard. In the guise of "politeness" strangers go out of their way to tell someone else how to act. In the guise of "normalcy" folks are afraid of anything that doesn't fit into whatever their idea of it is. In the guise of "peace" people try to tell others to "calm down" when the person who isn't "calm" has every damn right in the world to be pissed.

So yeah, I don't trust people, do you blame me?

Monday, July 03, 2006

Critique Groups: Part One

Sometimes the Universe has to smack me upside the head with a 2x4 so I get the point. Other times, it doesn't have to. This, however, is one of those times that it most certainly has, but alright, I'm listening now. The question is, will the Universe listen to me? Hmmmm...maybe, but only if I know what I want from it and I've got some mojo going.

In this case, the Universe has been sending me messages all over the gamut that I need to join a critique group. Why the hell it would do this since I have no verifiable proof of having written anything other than my blog, a handful of pages in basic character outlining for my current project, and a pile of ashes is beyond me. But there it is. The Universe has deemed it so, therefore I must either form or join a critique group.

A little history on my prior experience with a critique group. As is traditional, this group met in a library on a monthly basis. So far so good. Also the fact that they were an honest bunch of folks that neither sugar-coated nor slammed anyone's work worked in their favor. Bonus points for having members who were willing to read novel partials in their own time without any sense of dishonesty as well as a group with a solid core. I'm saying all this because despite the fact it was, in all senses of the word a Writer's Digest template for what a critique group should be, it most certainly was not for me.

Why? It was a matter of genre. The handful of writers there wrote mostly fluff pieces with a handful bordering on angst-ish, heartbreaks and "Oh whoa is me, my goldfish died" analogous poetry (apparently this piece had deeper meaning which, I, not truly being a poet, totally missed). Making matters worse by a ten-fold was that this was a time in my life when I was experimenting with mythological symbology as well as a variety of religious archetypes that made my stuff, at best, complex reading.

In other words, I was completely vulnerable to any kind of input because I knew I was breaking the mold of "what I knew" and venturing into that territory of "what I wish I knew." Add in the fact that these were blood-soaked mind-fucks of the most gruesomely horrific sort and the majority of my critiques (once they got past the "landed fish" gaping stare) were tentative at best, somewhere between "I don't get it" and "Are you sure it's not too scary?"

It didn't take me long to realize that this group was not for me. Nor did it take to long for me to realize that my writing experiments as a whole had left me a void, but not a voice. I felt horrible, as if somehow I had failed my writing. I didn't feel that the writing was bad, but that I couldn't be true to both it and myself at the same time.

So, I did what anyone trying to regain their sanity would do. I set fire to the whole shebang. And what a glorious campfire it was complete with marshmallows and hotdogs. The irony being that it was the ghost stories going up in the flames as opposed to being told around them.

And for a year, I didn't write a word outside of a thank you note.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Bad Taste

I grew up in an age when cough syrup was unsweetened and the only varieties were NyQuil and Vics 44, both of which tasted vile. Then, along came Robutussin and Triaminic which had a variety of flavors for a variety of coughs. Unfortunately, I'd always get the kind of cold or flu that would require I receive the medicine with the most horrid flavor.

Or was this such a bad thing? One way that my parents could tell for sure that I was good and truly sick would be that I was willing to drink this stuff.

My kids, on the other hand, have an explosion of flavor when it comes to medicinal choices: strawberry, bubble gum, fruit punch and grape seem to be the current choices. There's even vitamins that come in bubble gum form. Bubble gum vitamins? I mean, really, do we even need that. Vitamins have always tasted good, heck, as far back as I can recall, vitamins not only tasted good, their shapes were kid-friendly as well. How can you improve on comic characters? Who was the "genius" that came up with this ploy?

It gets worse though, because, as has been for a while, even adults are getting suckered into this scheme. Well, except for a few varieties like "honey lemon" and the multiple flavors of cough drops that do little more than "mentholate" a sore throat (sounds fancy, but when it comes right down to it, a peppermint will soothe a sore throat just as well as these overpriced cough drops), medicine still tastes just as nasty for adults as it ever has.

No, what I'm talking about here has to do with the substitues for carbs, fats, calories, etc. Low-fat cookies? I'm there! Say the masses (pitchfork-wielding for the most part), without realizing that one group of "bad for you" stuff will often compensate for the other, currently trendy "bad for you" stuff.

Take for example, a current frozen dinner fare that I found in the supermarket: turkey with stuffing and potatoes that claims to be low carb. How in the world do they even do that? Frankly, I don't know and I don't care. However, I purchased it, not because of the low-carb claim (I'm not one to believe front package labelling anyway), but because the side dish consisted of green beans with cranberries. Yes, it tasted delicious (especially the aforementioned green beans), but at what cost?

Out of curiousity, I compared the labels of this item with another of the same weight and comparable foods (couldn't find one with the cranberries in the green beans though...bummer) and this is what I discovered. Yes, the carb count was considerably lower, especially when you took into consideration the proportion of stuffing and potatoes in each package: the low-carb meal was even higher in what would ordinarily be high-carb ingredients. So, where'd all that flavor come from? Fat, sugar, and salt of course. Even taking into account the sugar needed to make cranberries palatable plus the natural sugar involved, I'm guessing the other main ingredient in this low-carb plate was butter, and a lot of it.

Butter can cover up a multitude of sins (flavor wise), but don't be surprised if a low-carb dish doesn't give you the weight loss you were depending on.