Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Which action hero are you?

In days gone by if you asked me which action hero I wanted to be, I would have said John McClane. I'd have picked John McClane as a role model because in every episode of Die Hard, you know the following about his character:

    * He’s going to see a huge threat before the rest of us do
    * He’s going to jump into action
    * He’s going to get in way over his head
    * He’s going to get scared
    * He’s going to get hurt— hurt bad
    * He will nearly get killed.

But all the while, no matter what goes wrong in for him in the story, here’s what you also know about John McClane:

    * He will not give up. Not ever.
    * He’s will kick the sh*t out of the bad guy.
    * In the end, he will save the building/city/nation/planet.

Nowadays, however, I'm feeling much less ambitious. Less John McClane, perhaps, and more Crazy Cat Lady. I'm already well qualified, with three cats at last count.

Even literary types are getting in on the hero action. You can find action-hero figures of William Shakespeare (armed with quill), Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, and even a librarian figure. The wordsmith heroes will never take over John McClane's side of the street, but hey, at least they're getting their day in the action figure sun.

Which action hero are you, literary or non?

Monday, August 30, 2010

The joys of travel

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Well here I am at Tucson airport getting ready to fly to LAX and then on to Melbourne, Australia. After such a long time on the road my family and I are looking forward to being in the one spot for more than a few days but in many ways we all regret the end of such a fabulous journey. While I could blog for hours on the greatness of the national parks I will spare you that and resort instead to a top 5 list...at least for today.

Best family experience

Hands down our wagon train experience was the best. We all got to have a tiny taste of what it must have been like on the wagon trails moving west. My boys also got to ride horses, throw tomahawks and learn how to lasso...great skills for us urbanites don't you think!

Best camping site

The north rim of the Grand Canyon just created a new-tent only camping site loop, and we got to put up our tent less than a hundred yards away from the rim and one of the best views imaginable. Only downside, was the 'mum-fear' factor as twin five year olds were like "how cool is this"!

Best wildlife viewing experience

Now this is a tricky one...do we go for the bison who calmly strolled through our campground in Yellowstone or the view of the grizzly bear across the river in the Lamar Valley? Or do we go for the view of the two black bears strolling along just past our campsite in Sequoia national park (actually this one was really just another mum fear factor moment). I think I have to go for the unexpected view we had of the alpha male of the Phantom Springs wolf pack as he bounded across willow flat in Grand Teton national park. Shadowed by two lesser wolves he was huge and could easily be seen by the naked eye. It was such an awesome surprise and, for a wolf lover like me, a wonderful moment.

Best 'Jaw Dropping' View

The first glimpse of Yosemite valley still cannot be beat...though there were lots of close runners up...

Best Americana moment

Attending the Caribou County fair in Grace, Idaho and watching my sons' expressions as they watched their first rodeo. It was a classic, non-touristy event that made us all appreciate the real cowboys of the west.

So just an initial taste of some of our travels...apologies for no photos as yet but that is beyond my technical capacity at this time...and we are now onto our next adventure (though we have to endure a long haul flight before then!) I will hopefully be checking in once I arrive so post me a comment and let me know some of your top 5 camping experiences.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Home Stretch

So I'm entering the last month on my WIP. First drafting, deadline wire up ahead. I find this horserace to be a time of great exhilaration, desperation, excitement, consternation and frequent trips to Starbucks.

Even though I've done this dozens of times, it never feels like, "Hey, I've got this so nailed. No problem!"

I'm looking at all the story threads, balls in the air, knowing the ending I'm heading for but wondering how I'll get there. In my head, I know I will, because I always do, somehow.

But in the heat of battle, writing each day, I feel like a Spartan trying to hold off Xerxes at Thermopylae.  And I suppose I wouldn't have it any other way (especially if I was ripped like Gerard Butler).

Here's why I wouldn't: to be in this battle is to be alive. As Jack London once said, "I'd rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. 
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom 
of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. 
The function of man is to live, not to exist."

Writing well is about being alive, about being out on the wire over Niagara Falls, about jumping on the back of Bucephalus and grabbing some mane. Ray Bradbury once described his writing day as getting up each morning and exploding, then spending the rest of the day putting the pieces together.

It's about running a race ahead of a mob of angry, torch bearing townsfolk. It's about skiing down a mountain ahead of an avalanche.

It's about being open to all the fantastic things you can't control, then finding ways to form a pleasing shape out of them.

Being alive, truly alive, means a degree of uncertainty. It means risk. If there's no risk, there's not going to be any lasting reward. If your reach does not exceed your grasp, you'll just keep grabbing the same old leaves.

This is nowhere more pronounced than when I'm heading home on a novel. Now is that time. I'm shouting like Slim Pickens riding the atomic bomb at the end of Dr. Strangelove.

When I am at the keys and moving the fingers, I am kicking all doubts into the pit. "This is Sparta!"

What about you? How do you usually feel on the home stretch of a novel?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Dum da dum dum...

I am writing this while sitting in a hotel located in what is known as the Central Business District of the open-air insane asylum called New Orleans. I am here for a music law seminar, listening to people much brighter than myself (and yes, a couple who, well, aren’t) discuss how to build a bigger butterfly net to use when chasing the fewer and fewer dollars that are available in the music industry. My mind was starting to wander this afternoon when one of the seminar speakers brought me back on task by saying, “And here’s another revenue stream. You all have heard of e-books? And Kindle? There’s talk of adding music to e-books.”


Now, newer versions of Kindle have an application which will let the user upload (download? Sometimes it’s not clear in which direction the digital river flows) music to the unit to play while reading. You connect your precious up to your computer via a USB port and uplo…er…downl…uh, transfer the music from computer to Kindle. What the speaker was talking about, however, sounds like something else entirely. This is music that would come with the e-book. As contemplated, it would be 1) genre appropriate (romantic for romance books; spooky for horror novels; and heavy metal for John Gilstrap); and 2) instrumental, so as not to distract those of us who cannot walk across the room and hold a thought at the same time.

This raises a couple of questions: 1) where is the music going to come from? 2) who is going to pay for it? and 3) will the author have controlling, or at least some, input into whether they want their precious to have musical accompaniment? It is questions 2 and 3 which should concern the wordsmiths out there. If you have signed away control of how your e-books are marketed, the answer to #3 may be “no.” And as for the answer to question 2, it may or may not be the author who is passed the check directly or indirectly, depending on how things shake out on the whole thing. Music on television and in movies and video games is not free; someone paid a lot of money to put that catchy song you walk around humming into a commercial, or at the beginning of CSI: Miami. It won’t be free for e-books either.

It is not my intent to give you something else to worry about. But authors: keep your collective ear to the ground. And you eyes open.

My New Orleans sojourn is part of a ten day trip which began with three days in Franklin, Tennessee at Killer Nashville. A smaller conference which is very user friendly, Killer Nashville is aimed primarily at hopeful authors and is a wonderful way to network and learn writing tradecraft. P.J. Parrish was seemingly on every panel (that’s an exaggeration, but not by much) and showed us how a P.J. Parrish book created. Different color Post-It notes affixed to a cardboard backing are involved and it was truly a wonder to look at. It was an extremely interesting and marvelous over-the-shoulder glance at how the collective Parrish team gets the job done. Jeffrey Deaver was the guest of honor, and was extremely friendly and easily accessible to all, including his multitude on Number One Fans. He generously spent over an hour telling a jammed-to-capacity ballroom how he works his magic, from idea through completion. Jeffrey began his presentation with a basic premise that is sometimes forgotten: writing is a business. He spends eight months outlining and four months writing and when he is done and turns in the manuscript he sits down and does it all again. There is more to it than that of course but it was great to hear a strong and basic fundamental advocated so forcefully.


What I’m reading: THE THOUSAND by Kevin Guilfoile. Pythagoras meets a girl with a dragon tattoo who kicked a hornet’s nest while playing with fire. If I hadn’t been so busy these past ten days I would have read it in one night.

Next time: The coolest place in the world is in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Seriously.

Writing As Therapy?

By John Gilstrap

My goodness but it seems like a long time since I’ve played blogger. How’s everyone been? I’ve been typing my fingers bloody trying to meet my fast-approaching deadline for the next Jonathan Grave book. That book has a title now, by the way: Threat Warning. Look for it in 10 months.

A dear friend of mine who also happens to be a fan sent me an email a couple of weeks ago in which she wrote, “One day over some drinks, we’re going to talk about what happened to you when you were thirteen.”

She was mostly teasing, but only mostly. She was referring to the recurrent theme in my books of boys who are coping with significant danger and angst. Many of my books do in fact feature adolescent boys who find themselves in difficult circumstances. In my breakout book, Nathan’s Run, the title character is twelve. Subsequent to that, there have been 13-year-old Travis, 16-year-old Scott, and most recently, 13-year olds Evan and Jeremy in Hostage Zero.

Given such a focus, I see how one might assume that I am using fiction to work through my own childhood issues. Honestly, I don’t think I am. Fiction is fiction, and that means it’s all made up. I’ve never killed anyone, and have only been shot at once, and that happened when I was nearly twenty. To my knowledge, I have no demons to exorcize.

I do, however, have nightmares just about every night, and not infrequently, my dream-screams wake my wife, who mercifully talks me back to the present. In one hundred percent of the dreams that invade my real world like that, I am a child and I am terrified, but I never know what the source of the terror is. It never materializes for me in the dream. Once the adrenaline rush subsides, I just fall back to sleep.

Should I consult a shrink to get to the bottom of the dreams? Probably, but it’s not going to happen. I think I bring these things on myself by writing stories about people in jeopardy. Call it an occupational hazard. Maybe romance writers are constantly ripping bodices in their dreams. If the dreams are more than that—if they are representative of some repressed violence from my youth—then I’ll gratefully listen to the subconscious brain that was courteous enough to blank it from my memory. If I’m a neurotic, at least I’m a functioning neurotic, so why rock the boat?

I write about children because families in peril are a recurring theme in my books. I write about boys because that’s what I was, and our only child is male. Write what you know. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Am I kidding myself here? Am I delusional? As a writer, does your made up world ever pay unwelcome visits to your real world?

After a certain amount of time and a certain number of books, does a novelist give attentive readers an accidental look into his subconscious? Or is it all just, you know, made up?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Summer Vacation Reading List

by Michelle Gagnon

This post is coming in a bit late thanks to United airlines and their travel delays- apologies for that.

In my last post, I asked for advice on what to read during my vacation- and got lots of great tips. Thanks to the abrupt failing of my first generation
Kindle the day before I left, what I ended up reading turned out a bit differently than planned. So below, find a brief description of each book (excerpted back cover copy), along with my impressions:

Lee Child

Jack Reacher was alone, the way he liked it, soaking up the hot, electric New York City night, watching a man cross the street to a parked Mercedes and drive it away. The car contained one million dollars in ransom money. And Edward Lane, th
e man who paid it, will pay even more to get his family back. Lane runs a highly illegal soldiers-for-hire operation. He will use any amount of money and any tool to find his beautiful wife and child. And then he'll turn Jack Reacher loose with a vengeance — because Reacher is the best manhunter in the world.

I enjoyed this one. Not my favorite Reacher book (which remains the one that follows, BAD LUCK AND TROUBLE), but solid. There were a few glitches, mainly in terms of the fact that yet again, Reacher takes longer than any reasonable human to figure out what's really going on. But THE HARD WAY was a perfect beach read.


Carl Hiaasen

An actr
ess secretly stands in for a derailed pop star and finds herself stalked on South Beach by a crazed paparazzo – and befriended by an unhinged hermit who was once the governor of Florida.

I've always been a big Hiaasen fan, and this book didn't disappoint. Our current tabloid culture is laid bare, in all it's ugliness, the main character a thinly-veiled stand in for all the Lindsay Lohans and Britney Spears of the world. To love Hiaasen requires being a lover of the absurd--his books always read like modern-day Moliere farces. As that, I enjoyed them. Some of his old standbys appear here, although I have to confess some of them appeared in earlier books that I barely remember, so it was hard at times to keep track of references to what they'd been/done in the past. The ending was a trifle flat, compared to other works like SKINNY DIP, which still stands as his best work IMHO.


by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

They have always been here. Vampires. In secret and in darkness. Waiting. Now their time has come.

In one week, Manhattan will be gone. In one month, the country. In two months--the world.

I don't generally partake in the vampire/zombie books that are so ubiquitous these days. But this was a standout (and, more importantly, the only non-bodice ripper on the shelf in the local drugstore). So I gave THE STRAIN a chance- and wow. This was a thriller of the first order. Apparently the first in a trilogy, it details in unnerving detail the extent to which a pandemic could rapidly seize hold if the powers that be are more concerned about containing public panic than stopping the virus. A co-written effort between director Del Toro (PAN'S LABYRINTH) and Hogan, it was tightly plotted, believable, and extremely unsettling. On a side note, the opening scene involves the stalling out of a jet on the taxiway immediately after landing. What happened to the passengers wasn't pretty, so I don't recommend reading it the way I did- on a plane endlessly circling SFO.

So now that we've reached the dog days, what have you all been reading lately? I just started WOLF HALL, which I confess I'm having a lukewarm reaction to- the writing and plot strikes me as extremely disjointed, and I'm having difficulty understanding what all the fuss is about.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

It was a dark and stormy night . . .

By Joe Moore

If you were the first writer to have used that as an opening line, then it was brilliant. What a vivid way to create an immediate setting and mood. Congratulations on a fresh, original beginning. For everyone else, that line is a cliché. A language cliché to be exact. In addition to language clichés, there are character and plotting clichés. We all know not to use them, but sometimes they slip through when we’re not looking. So how do we avoid clichés like the plague and fix them in a snap?

First, let’s define the three types. As mentioned, language clichés are bits of speech that have been used so often they lose their original luster or charm. You’d have to be blind as a bat to not understand my crystal clear definition. It should hit you like a ton of bricks.

Character clichés are those we’ve seen too many times such as the prostitute with a heart of gold (includes a language cliché) or the disgraced, wrongly accused cop who winds up catching the killer.

Plotting clichés are well-worn storylines such as the farmer boy who turns out to be a king or the self-taught musician who eventually performs with the philharmonic. Two common plotting cliché examples that I’ve seen dozens of times are books and movies based on the “Bad News Bears” and “Death Wish” themes. The Bad News Bears theme usually deals with a group of outcasts or “losers” who reach the lowest point in their collective lives only to be pulled together by a strong, charismatic leader and wind up coming out winners. This theme does not have to deal with sports. Watch THE HOUSE BUNNY as a good example.

The Death Wish theme is usually the story of a common “every man” who experiences a tragic event in his or her life. Seeking justice but not getting help from the police or government (or any authority group), he/she steps out of a normal existence, takes matters into his/her own hands and finds justice and revenge by becoming judge, jury and executioner. THE BRAVE ONE is a great example of the Death Wish theme. It’s only through unique characters or settings that these cliché themes keep working. Try to avoid them if possible.

Language clichés are fairly easy to spot and fix. They often appear in your first or second draft when you’re writing fast to get the story onto the page and you don’t want to stop your momentum to think of an original description of a character or setting. There’s nothing wrong with that because you have every intention of going back and cleaning them up. First tip is to do your cliché hunting with a printed copy of your work, not on the computer screen. As you read along, use a color highlighter and mark everything that’s a cliché or even questionable. Then go back to the computer and take the time to consider each one and how you can improve them. In some cases, just substituting the real meaning in place of the cliché is enough. For instance, he’s as crazy as a loon could become he’s insane. Isn’t that what you really meant? How about, that kind of book is not my cup of tea could become I don’t enjoy that kind of book. Again, that’s the meaning you intended, so simply stating it could fix the problem better than relying on a cliché. Taken out of context, these might sound boring, but chances are that simplifying the meaning won’t stop the reader like a worn out phrase might. One caution though: it’s important to maintain and be true to your “voice” when using this simplifying technique.

One place where we can sometimes get away with clichés is in dialog. But that doesn’t mean we should. If a character uses a cliché, make sure it’s part of his or her “character” and not just an excuse for us to be lazy.

Character clichés are a little harder to fix, but the sooner you do, the better off you’ll be, and the more original your story becomes. Here’s an example: the disgraced cop is an anti-hero. He’s got deep dark issues but we still pull for him because he’s fighting for what’s right. Maybe he’s an alcoholic because he can’t get over the murder of his family. Try removing one of the main elements that drive the character; the disgraced career, the alcohol addiction or the dead family. Does his character change in your mind? Does he become more interesting? Can you still tell his story? If taking away or substituting an element suddenly creates a fresher character, you’ve probably avoided a character cliché. Another tip: If your character's action shows a serious lack of common sense, treat it as a cliché. You should always be considering what you would do in the same situation as your character. Would you react the same as what you just made your character do? If not, it’s probably a cliché.

Plot clichés need to be fixed from the start. The further you are into the story, the more work it takes to backtrack and change major elements. So before you begin, try this. Write out a short description of your story. Approach it as if you were writing the story blurb to go on the back cover of your book. Once you’re done, ask yourself if sounds familiar. Let someone else read it and ask the same question. If you can remember the same situation occurring in numerous movies, TV shows or books, it’s probably a cliché.

There’s nothing wrong with a cliché as long as you’re the first person to use it. After that, it loses its luster fast. Not only that, it’s a sign of lazy writing. As a good friend of mine once said, a cliché is the sign of a mind at rest.

How do you perform a “seek and destroy” on clichés? And how do you feel when you come across one in a book. If the story is really great, do you overlook clichés or do they cause you to think less of the writer?