October 28, 2011

Keith Mars on Flashpoint

Have you seen Veronica Mars? Let's assume you have. If you haven't, go watch it so my assumption will be correct. You can thank me later.

Okay, now that we're all up to speed, who is one of the best characters on the show? Keith, the dad, played by Enrico Colantoni. If I could rent a father, I would rent Keith Mars. He's that awesome.

Well, Veronica Mars ended, but Enrico Colantoni is an actor, so he went on to other things. (You also saw him as Mathesar, the head of the Thermians in Galaxy Quest--but that was before VM.) You may have seen him in Flashpoint.

You probably didn't though, not a lot of people saw it. It was a summer-released show to see if it would take in the regular CBS fall schedule. Premise? Toronto, Ontario, Quebec SWAT team is trained in negotiating tactics to attempt to settle volatile situations without unnecessary body count. Redubbed the SRU, they get to be all empathetic and polite while reserving the option to shoot you in the head.

I gave the show a try because it's Keith Mars and Keith Mars deserves a shot. Unfortunately, it wasn't that good a show. I stalled out by the third or fourth episode and that was that. It went for three seasons and got canned.

Well recently, we got our basement repaired and set the TV back up. I was looking for something to watch and was in the mood for some Enrico Colantoni. I decided to skip the first season and see if season 2 got any better. Sometimes shows do that.

Oh how I wish I hadn't stopped watching! About episode 7 or 8 of the first season, the show REALLY found its groove. My wife and I just watched the entire second season in the span of a couple weeks (and I watched half the first season as well).

Here's the standard breakdown of the show: start with out-of-context climax then flash back to a few hours before. Introduce situation, respond, try different methods, resolve the situation, make you cry.

That last part happens enough that it is part of the standard show outline. My wife says the show could feature a goat in a pudding factory and it would still make you cry. She is not wrong about this.

The thing is, it breaks a lot of stereotypes in the procedural drama realm. The big tough guy doesn't have to be closed off emotionally. The sniper doesn't have to want to kill everyone and everything. Shooting the bad guy isn't always the best solution (rarely is), and just become someone is a bad guy doesn't mean the cops will look the other way while a victimized citizen introduces him to Old West justice.

We like to say it's because they're Canadian, but really I think it's just snappy writing. I love taking an established genre and turning it on its ear without clubbing it over the head with a baseball bat. It's good to see characters portrayed as human and the hardships they endure having to be in a job where their decisions can cost people's lives. (Lewis! *tear*) I wish it had hit its stride sooner. I would have watched it while it was on rather than a few years later when it was too late to give it my support.

Anyway, if you have Netflix, it's available for streaming.

October 24, 2011

Real-Life Hobbit

When I was growing up, we didn't have a lot of money. "Attention K-Mart shoppers" was a frequent phrase uttered over the PA system, to give you a frame of reference. (Younger readers, K-Mart is like Wal-Mart before Wal-Mart was Wal-Mart.) Unfortunately, the quality of goods to be obtained there was not always the best. Do you know what foot stones are? Where some really shitty shoes sometime (like the kind you'd buy at K-Mart) and the sharp pains you feel beneath the soles of your feet are foot stones. That's what I got from a $10 pair of shoes from K-Mart.

My mother's response when I told her I couldn't walk any more and needed new shoes? Let's go back to K-Mart and get a new pair. Yeah, no. Let's go get some real shoes. Unfortunately real shoes back then cost pretty similar to what real shoes cost now. A pair of shoes for a ten year old would cost you $40 on the affordable side. And of course, this is the age of Air Jordans where everyone else was wearing $120 shoes. But we were poor and $40 usually got me yelled at plenty, thanks.

One year the search for shoes proved so difficult that I almost could not find any that we could afford. This meant that I spent a good portion of my time barefoot. That tradition continues today. The first thing I do when I get home is take off my shoes and socks. I don't like wearing them. They smother my feet and trap me in and really, what do I need shoes for? I'm not walking over hot coals or jagged rocks.

My wife likes to call me her hobbit, and there may be some truth to that. At work, me being in my own cube with high walls, if I'm really focused on an important project and I don't want any distractions, I'll take off my shoes. I leave my socks on because I'm at work and all, but if I could...oh, I would.

And in case you're curious, I'm at work on my lunch hour right now and I am not wearing my shoes. Wheeeeeeeeee!

October 17, 2011

Naming Characters

Suzanne Johnson posted today on Roni Loren's writing blog, Fiction Groupie1.

Suzanne is discussing picking names for your characters. This is a topic relevant to EVERYONE and a particular challenge to fantasy authors who so often create cultures from the ground up and can't name their protagonist Joe despite how awesome people named Joe are.

*ahem*

Despite tradition, I am not writing this to disagree with Suzanne. I agree with most everything she says2. No, I am writing this because I DO agree with (most of) her and there is a process I use for naming conventions that I thought I would share. I also have a warning, and we're going to start with that first.

We're in a current Live imitating Art imitating Life loop. We're moving away from the more classic Judeo-Christian names. Unfortunately the rediscovery of some Old World classics that were smothered by Biblical names has reintroduced some names that were lame even back then. So if you're naming your daughter Madison, KNOCK IT OFF! It means "Son of Maud" so think on that a little before you try to preemptively make your kid cool with an uncommon name.

Okay, now to the positivity. Names are a big deal. They can really draw a reader into your character, establish him/her in the same was as pages of prose, and add a degree of atmosphere to your setting. This last bit is what I find most important about names. They establish setting. I don't just pick names that sound cool. I pick names that communicate culture. You won't find a hodgepodge of names in my books, cherry picked from any resource that I find supder-kewl-dude-omg unless the country is a melting pot, a la the US. Instead, I will choose a regional theme and apply it to the entire setting. I find Behind the Name3 incredibly helpful in this regard.

So for example, I chose Scandinavia to be the cultural influence for the kingdom of Reliarach (in my novel, THE TRIAD SOCIETY and its sequels). Most names come from Sweden, but I'll look in Norway, Finland, and Denmark too. So lower class people and a number of places I took from Germany, and for the rural folks that migrated to the city looking for work, I used Polish and Russian names. Not casting aspersions on the Polish or Russian readers out there, just wanted something similar but clearly distinct to my originating Swedish names.

I also like using those names because they're foreign to US readers to make them sound fantastical, but still rooted in something recognizable so they don't struggled to identify them. Fantasy authors frequently violate this rule. They make names so complex and unpronounceable that the first thing the reader does is come up with a nickname. They read the first one or two syllables and skip the rest. You're wasting your time and theirs making the super big Bobomastidonaramanustra. They call him Bob from there on out.

So go! Be more consistent in your naming conventions. Remember, that you lay the first blocks of your setting with the name you pick.

And stop trying to make your kids cool with their names. You don't have to name them all Joe, but it works for boys and girls and peopled named Joe are awesome. Remember that.


1 If you are blogging and include a ton of links like I just did, be sure to add a "target" to your html code. A target dictates where a link opens. In this case we want links to open in a new tab/page so that the user can continue to read our blog without having to navigate back and forth. To accomplish this, we do the following: [a href="URL address" target="_blank">URL name[/a]. Replace [ ] with < > and you're good to go.

2 Despite its numerous Hs, Cthulhu is not hard to pronounce. It's also a dangerous point to make as taking such an iconic figure from fantasy/horror will bait the nerds to argue your nominal point rather than focusing on the larger point being made. And come on, Cthulhu? Really? Out of all the fantasy names out there, that's the one you pick as being hard to pronounce?

3 While I rarely use it, there's also a Behind the Name for surnames!

October 13, 2011

Targeting Your HTML

I thought I had blogged on this before but Blogger is being difficult, and I can't find the post. So I'm posting (reposting?) for reference, as there are some bloggers out there that still need to learn this lesson.

For all examples in this explanation, we are going to use [ and ] but when you write the actual code, you should replace them with < and >. Here is how you make a hyperlink in your blog post.

[a href="URL"]Site Name[/a]

Ta-da! Now users can link to a website from your site, and that's super nifty. There's only one problem. When they follow that link, they leave your site. You don't want readers to do that, especially if they're not done reading what you posted. The goal is to keep users at your site while providing them all the entertainment and information they need. You are an Oracle, a font of wisdom, but they'll never learn that if you're sending them elsewhere.

So what do we do? We target the hyperlink. There are various targets that have various applications, but in this situation, we only care about one of them. You want your hyperlinks to open in a new tab/window. (Whether it's a new tab or window is up to their browser settings so you don't worry about that.) How do you make the link open in a new tab/window? Like so:

[a href="URL" target="_blank"]Site Name[/a]

You don't need any punctuation to separate commands, so don't go adding a comma or anything. Write it just like I have it above and the next time someone follows one of your links, it'll open in a new tab, leaving your page still available to them so that when they're done reading what you linked to, they can easily return to your own content and continue to learn from your wisdom.

So let us practice:
[a href="http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/08/04" target="_blank"]Penny Arcade[/a] becomes Penny Arade once we replace the brackets with angle brackets.

Click on that link.

Welcome back! I assume that you read the comic and possibly a number of other archives but eventually you closed that tab and look, we're still here!

Wooo!

\m/(>.<)\m/

And there you go, kiddies. Now go forth and hyperlink correctly.

October 10, 2011

Shaking It Up

So my wife and I used the last of our groupons for the year. We're fortunate that she acquired so many earlier this year because with our current financial hardships, none of this would have been possible.

A year ago for my birthday, I drove up to the North Country. I had the day off and I wanted to go up to the mountains so that's what I did. I stopped at Canterbury, New Hampshire. There's a shaker village there. Don't know what the shakers are? They're like quakers but awesomer.

I didn't know they were awesomer at the time, but as our groupon (actually I think it was NH Daily Deals), we got a reduced admission and got to take the tour (which normally costs $17 per person). So that's what we did over the weekend. We headed up to Canterbury and took the guided tour, which is one of the better guided tours I've ever been on. And it was there that we learned about the shakers.

Dude! Dood! I've never experienced Christians like these. Truly, I was moved, and I'm not even Christian! Civil equality, feminism, hard work, scientific advancement, all in the 18th century! Don't think about all that being part of a religious sect back then, do you? They invented the clothes pin, the washing machine, the circular saw, the dorothy cloak, the rotating oven, and the flat broom. And most of those were invented by women! They boiled the sheets of the sick every day, changed clothes every day, and considered all labor equal and important in the eyes of god. So while they fell into typical gender roles in terms of work, that was more a matter of upper body strength and there was no difference between working in the laundry and plowing the fields. They were all fine work to be cherished.

The method invented for drying clothes in the winter was AWESOME! And really, the method for tracking everything in a proto-socialist society (you only owned your toothbrush and your comb) was super awesome. Everything (from a spoon to your short) had a demarcation. Each building had a letter and each room/drawer/cupboard had a number. So if someone found your missing shirt under a bench, you would return to your room and find your shirt laundered and pressed and in your shirt drawer because it had D.14.7 embroidered in it which means that shirt is stored in the 7th drawer of the 14th room in the Dwelling house.

DOOD!

It's actually pretty sad that there are only three shakers left in America (in Maine). The New Hampshire village has been turned into a museum, and I'm glad it was. I would have hated to miss out on learning about these people. I will absolutely use some of this stuff somewhere in a story.

(Also, Ken Burns did a documentary on them, if you want to learn more and can't make it out to one of the villages-turned-museum.)

October 7, 2011

An Excess of Riches

I'm learning something new about myself. When I have a full requested by an agent I like, I stop querying. It's not an intentional, "This is it. No need to send these things out any more!" It's more of a, "Damn, that's hard work. I'll get to it later." Later just happens to come after I hear back on my full request.

That's not entirely true. Later will come after a month or two before my common sense kicks me in the back of the head and says, "What are you waiting for? That's two months another agent might have been interested in your work!" My common sense wears cleats, so I don't like it when it kicks me in the back of the head.

But, here I've received a full request and here I'm not sending out queries even though I should be. Really, I should have been sending out queries for the past two months. I even had multiple rounds of feedback from Jennifer S. Wolf. So you'd think I'd be all over that.

Well, then I had a new idea for a novel, and I wrote that instead. Then I revised that novel. And the day before I finished revising that novel to send to beta readers, an agent asked me for a full of a third manuscript. So querying seems so out of place.

Oh woe is me! I sent a new novel to beta readers and received a full request for a separate novel so I don't feel up to querying a third novel. Gee, Joe, that must be a rough life you're leading there.

It's actually kind of awesome. It's also kind of confusing. My process has been: write a book, query a book, write a new book, get rejected, query new book, write a third book, get rejected, and so on. This whole revise a book, write a book, send off a full, query a book makes me all dizzy!

So all that self-aggrandizement is really meant to say, query. Don't sit back and wait. It is not in your best interest. At worse you garner multiple rejections (okay, at worse you garner someone telling you you have no talent and should stop breathing) and at best you garner multiple offers of representation and can declare a Thunderdome among agents to see who you will pick.

Either way, there isn't much reason for you to rest on your Laurels. Your Laurels are tired of you resting on them. They told me so. Get to work and give your Laurels a break. They work hard enough as it is without having to put up with your ass in their faces.

October 3, 2011

On Beta Reading

I have finished the second draft of my middle grade fantasy, PRINCE OF CATS. To make sure I'm reaching my target readership appropriately, I have enlisted many of my nieces and nephews (and a few friends who are of the appropriate age) to read the draft and give me feedback. Now, since most of them have never beta read for me (or anyone) before, I decided to write up some instructions and an explanation of what kind of feedback I really needed. While a few points are specific to what I tried to accomplish with the manuscript (specifically any words they might not have understood), I think this advice is good for beta readers of any genre, not just mg. So I thought I'd share it. I've seen some people on twitter going through their first beta and all they post about is "so and so liked it!" While yes, that's exciting, that's not what a beta is for. We always want people to like what we write. Beta review is to take what we've created and make it better. Focus less on what they like and focus more on what they don't like. You'l end up with a better novel in the end.

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