Only in California

A little over five years ago, I experienced an incident that kind of defines how people from other states view Californians.  My house was fairly new, and I don’t remember if we had a security system yet.  I had just arrived home, my wife was running a few minutes late, and my sister was going to arrive anytime for a visit.  I sat down on my couch and had just turned on the television when I heard three loud, pounding noises from the upstairs – noises like someone who didn’t belong, madly running away when the homeowner arrives.

I slouched and thought, “Oh, no!”  Actually, I’m sure an expletive came to mind in place of “no.”  You see, I don’t own a gun, and at that time I didn’t even have pepper spray.  In fact, the only two items I own that could be used as weapons, a hunting knife and a baseball bat, were both upstairs.

Within a few seconds, about the time I expected someone to barrel down the stairs or leap out a window, the whole house started shaking.  “Whew,” what a relief, it was “only an earthquake.” 

Within a minute, while I was still shaking off the jitters from suspecting an intruder, both my wife and sister arrived.  Neither of them felt the quake while driving, which was apparently common.

So, why could this only happen in CA?

  • I am liberal enough to not believe in owning fatal weapons
  • Realizing it was “only an earthquake” was relieving – relaxing even
  • Most people who were driving couldn’t tell a quake from their own driving behavior

And if you are wondering, the three loud bangs were a structural feature.  My house was new and built to settle.  The early, unfelt waves of the earthquake had accelerated the setting process.

So, have you had any experiences that highlight the stereotypes of your region?

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FSFW Hits 100

Today I get to see a group of people, as a group, for the first time in over a year.  They are the Fresno Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers, and they are having their 100th meeting.  I could tell you so much about all of them but I want this post to come in under 75,000 words, so I will describe my first meeting with all its impressions, a meeting about two years ago.

My first day there is one I will never forget.  We were all crowded around a few tables pushed together at Denny’s – almost like dinner and a movie, well, story.  Either the air conditioner had stopped working, the collective bodies had overpowered the cooling effect of the AC, or I was nervous.  We spent the meeting critiquing previously submitted works.  I was the only one not prepared to critique both pieces. 

There were six people who made an impression that first meeting:

Elle was the first.  She was thin, but not the fragile thin – no, there was nothing fragile about her.  She had an in-your-face personality – very friendly and outspoken to the point of being a little scary.  And you could tell that she had a passion for what she wrote; that passion oozed out of her.

Toff was the second.  He was the person I had said “Hi” to first, but I didn’t get to actually talk to him until Elle gave me a chance.  Toff was the only person I had talked to (email) prior to the meeting, and he wasn’t what I expected.  I don’t think anyone could expect him, even if warned.  He was a great guy, he loved writing (both his own writing and other people’s writing), and the intellectual level of his conversations did not seem to be matched by the outward physical persona he presents (I wish I could have said that in a way that doesn’t seem insulting, because it isn’t meant that way – you will know what I mean if you are lucky enough to meet him).

Earl was the next one I met.  I’m not sure why I had a nightmare later that week where he was yelling at me, “Your writing is so immature!”  He was kind – not just naturally kind (which he is), but he also takes time to think about what he says before he opens his mouth.  I wish I knew more people like him.

Roh and Mellie were the next two.  I didn’t really meet them before the meeting, but observed them throughout the meeting.

Mellie was centered in the table and the conversation.  It wasn’t that she had to dominate, but she didn’t want to miss out on anything.  The group was important to her, the remarks were valuable.  She soaked up what she could and responded whenever she had something to contribute.

Roh was odd.  She had just traveled several hundred miles in three of the four previous nights, staying up until the not-so-early hours of the morning, to go see various Nine Inch Nails concerts.  Someone had said something about vampires, and they were apparently talking about her writing and not her (which is how I took it at first).  She didn’t open her mouth unless directly spoken to, and even then, she seemed unsure.  I couldn’t tell if she wrote and I wondered why she was there.

The last person to make an impression was Ian.  He came in late, announced his presence with a huge “Raaah,” and left 15 minutes later.  I asked Elle about him and she simply said, “That’s Ean,” as if that explained everything.

I knew there were others there; almost all of them had introduced themselves (in a blur).  I had to leave the group early, so I didn’t get to talk to anyone after the meeting.  I didn’t get a chance to know the people at the other end of the tables.  Those first impressions were almost right, the exception was Roh.  Roh has a beautiful way of writing; she is the blending of a poet and novelist.  She belongs to the group.

I can tell you more about that first meeting now in reflection than I could when I got home.  My wife asked me, “How were they?” to which I replied, “I have never seen so many nerdy and geeky people in one place.  I loved it.”  When my wife asked if I was going to go back, I explained that I had to – I had to pay back Toff for picking up my tab after I forgot to pay <blush in embarrassment>.

I miss them so much, and it is hard to stay in my seat now knowing that I will see them and all the other friends I made in the group within a few hours.

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The Write Stuff

I stumbled across a blog today (actually, just one entry) and I absolutely loved it. Thought I would share:

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Books, Movies, and Money

Three sure ways for a movie to make money right now: remake, sequel, and based off a popular book or comic.  There have been some standout movies and series based off novels.  Books give movies a built in audience.

Series based on Novels Movies based on Novels
  • Chronicles of Narnia
  • Harry Potter
  • Jack Ryan
  • James Bond
  • Jason Bourne
  • Jurassic Park
  • Robert Langdon
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Twilight
  • A Christmas Carol
  • Catch Me If You Can
  • Dances with Wolves
  • Forest Gump
  • I Am Legend
  • I Robot
  • Minority Report
  • Mrs. Doubtfire
  • Polar Express
  • Robin Hood
  • Schindler’s List
  • Tarzan
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Devil Wears Prada
  • The Green Mile
  • War of the Worlds

So, why does this matter?  Because the business practices in the movie industry need to stop just paying attention to what is happening in the book industry and jump in.  There is an opportunity here.  With several books going directly to eBook, without the publishing houses and agents, movie executives could directly contact authors using a new business model.  How can this work out?  Here is a rough (and perhaps impractical) brain storm idea…

Optioning of eBooks instead of scripts – but payment is in marketing instead of cash:

A movie studio creates a small team (partly consisting of people in the book industry) to work with new authors.  This team is given a budget (let’s say $4Mil a year).  With the budget, they (the production studio) will try to attach themselves with original books by new authors (let’s say 100 new books a year).  Instead of offering the writer any money directly, they will make a contract for marketing.  They will spend that money ($40,000 – I know this is probably high side, but the better a book does, the better then movie generally does) in a specific time span (say six months) marketing a book (they could have prepackaged marketing plans by genre).

At some point (say 30 months after the marketing ends) they will decide if they want to make a movie out of the book or not.  The contract will define how much the author gets paid based on book sales (under 200,000 books, amount A; 200,000 to 999,999, amount B; 1,000,000 to 4,999,999, percent of movie C; 5,000,000 or more, percent of movie D).  If the studio doesn’t buy the movie rights then, the authors get their rights back in full.  Even if the production studio only green lights a few contacts a year, they will probably still do well.

Summary of Plan:

  • Production studio creates team to read and option books
  • Book options are for marketing expenses/packages, not to pay authors directly
  • Movie industry chooses which books to turn into movies after a defined period of time
  • The cost of the movie rights are defined in the contract (by sales of the novel)


There are advantages for both the author and the movie execs.  The author becomes known – their book reaches the masses and they have the potential to make some money off of it.  Since the movie industry has no interest in the book royalties, the author will get to keep all of those.  The movie industry can lock in rates for acquiring movie rights for less than normal.  The upfront expenses for the movie agency are really small time for the potential reward, but upfront money for advertising is hard to come by for authors.  Once an author is famous, they won’t need to make this kind of deal again (although there is nothing stopping them), but it helps them get a foot in the door.  The movie industry gets much needed new material.

And here is the great part: this will help the smaller publishing houses and book agents.  The movie industry doesn’t really have the infrastructure to know what will make both a great book and a great movie – they only know what will make a great movie, but they need the books to succeed as novels first for this business model to work.  So that small team I was talking about would consist of movie experts combined with agents, editors, and/or publishing houses that they contract with.  The agents, editors, and publishers know the material that works as novels as well as some of the better methods for advertising.  The team members wouldn’t get royalties, but probably something more like regular salary combined with bonuses for when certain books/movies reach financial milestones.

Summary of Benefits

New Authors

Production Studios

Agents, Editors, Publishers

  • Get a start in the industry
  • Book will have opportunity to reach masses
  • No royalties to pay out on book sales
  • Meets agents, editors, publishers in process, so there are inroads to a traditional publishing deal
  • Lock in movie rights early and cheap
  • Get new material
  • Have a built-in audiences for new movies
  • Continue to play a role in the new eBook society
  • Get a salary plus bonuses
  • Meet authors and might work traditional publishing deals

So that’s a rough model for just one new business model in the entertainment industry.  Any thoughts?  I would love to hear what other author’s think of this plan, or any ideas they have.

NOTE: If any studio takes this seriously, I would love to work on it.

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The “F” Bomb

I think everyone knows what that title means: Drive Failure, the F’n Drive Bombed Out – everything is gone.  This is a courtesy reminder to all you writers out there, learned from a very recent, painful, deflating experience, back up your drives often.

I made a backup on February 17th.  I thought I also made a backup in April, but I can’t seem to find that one.  Luckily, since I haven’t worked on any of my novels since then, I have lost nothing there, but it still hurts to lose anything. 

What I did lose:

  • my KeePass database (no big deal as there is only one password I don’t remember off the top of my head)
  • ideas for my blog that I hadn’t yet posted (no big deal)
  • four novel ideas that I had documented (slightly painful, but not the end of the world)
  • some story starters and writing exercises that I was going to use on my blog (I don’t have time to come up with some new ones, so my two monthly posts will probably go on hold until August – when I have a short vacation from school)
  • a finished frame for a future anthology (this hurts, a lot)
  • all of my homework from this semester and most from last semester (this hurts, a lot)
  • a short story I had just started writing and was about a third of the way through (since this story felt better than anything I had ever written before, and I’m not sure I could repeat it – this is devastating)

What hurts the most is that I debated printing out my short story just a few hours before the Drive Failure.  Could have, should have, would have, but didn’t.

So, please, learn from my experience and back up everything you value.

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20-Minute Writing Exercises for June

The following is a set of writing exercises involving touch/feeling.

Do these activities, and then write about how each of them felt for four minutes.  Compare it to nature.  Use strong verbs and metaphors.  Repeat the activity as necessary during 4 minutes to keep the flow of ideas coming.

  • Lay you arm down on the table, from your elbow to the tip of your finger, with your palm down.  Using one finger from your other hand, lightly caress your arm from your elbow down to the tip of your middle finger. 
  • Grab a hair or two from just behind your right ear and pull slowly and firmly
  • Take a breath as deep as you can.  Repeat 2 more times without breaks between.
  • Clap your hands together as hard as you can.

For the final 4 minutes: Analyze the descriptions to come up with the most powerful images and words.  Find the shortest way to get the general feeling across.  Create a list for future reference.  List where each these descriptions would be useful in writing.

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The End

Where should a writer end a book?  Should all loose-ends be tied up?  How about leaving a hook for another book?  Should a book end differently if it is part of a series versus a stand-alone novel?  Are there rules for this?

The last two novels I’ve read have left me a little unsatisfied at the end.  One book, the beginning of a trilogy, ended in the middle of a chase.  I chewed out the person who recommended the book to me (he can influence my job security, and I chewed him out anyway – that’s how mad I was).  Who ends a book during a chase?  The other book tied up every possible loose end to the point of absurdity.  This novel’s ending also had a few predictable elements (which isn’t always bad, but rubbed me a little wrong this time).  Not going to mention the books by name, or their authors.  I’m probably going to read the rest of the trilogy, and I love the author of the other novel.

A while back there was a book, second of a trilogy, which changed writing styles right at the end and summarized a lot of events instead of writing them out.  Based on that, and similar sections in the third book of that series, this author is off my “hot” list.  In my opinion, this particular series should have been four books, not three, with the extra book inserted between the second and third novels.  Perhaps this author was under a lot of pressure to put out books quickly, and chose expediency over quality of work.  It’s a shame, too, because her first novel of that series was one of the best that I have read.

I can name every book I’ve ever read that has had an unsatisfactory ending – the ending means that much.  We all (assumption here) would like to have good endings to our novels.  I’m no expert; I just know that some endings work and some don’t.  So, I’m going to ask a few questions.  You can contemplate on them, or answer them in the comments (I would love to learn from your experiences and thoughts).

As a writer:

  • How early do you start planning your ending?
  • Do you foreshadow the ending of your novel?
  • Do you purposefully make events in your novel lead up to the ending?
  • Do you tie off every loose-end or leave some as a hook?
  • Do you use any rules or metrics for how long your endings are?
  • Are your endings different for stand-alone novels than novels in a series?

As a reader:

  • What do you expect of endings when you are reading?
  • What do you dislike?
  • How many bad endings can you take from one author before you decide that’s enough?
  • Do you think a writer should ever rewrite and rerelease a book (like Lucas did with the original Star Wars movies)?
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Story Starters for May 2011

 A clap echoed down the corridor.

“The coast is clear,” translated a short man with bags under his eyes.  His khaki shorts and matching shirt were more wrinkled now than when we started.  He tried to act calm, but the perspiration gave away his anxiety.

Myself and three others refugees moved down the pristine hallway with the short man bringing up the rear.  We tried to act normal, just in case we came across someone or were spotted by a security camera, but it was difficult.

He tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “You want them to take a lead.  Trust me.”  We paused long enough for the others to put fifteen yards between us.  Just as we started to walk again…

The young couple sat opposite each other on the train, giggling often at their private jokes.  The jokes weren’t that private: she would sign to him and he would respond.  But most people couldn’t read sign language, at least not in the speeds in which they were signing.

Mr. Duffard watched them off and on for the first thirty minutes he was on the train.  Then the girl shrugged her shoulders and said, in a very clear voice, “I’m bored.”

Both the boy and girl then talked, in normal voices and not always while looking at each other.  Mr. Duffard bit back a smile, somehow glimpsing into part of their world, seeing part of their private joke.  His smile lasted until the train began to slow.

As the couple gathered their belongings, so did he.  He didn’t draw any attention of the other passengers, who all seemed to now see the transformation this couple underwent.  The passengers did not notice that Mr. Duffard left a bag behind, nor did they notice how closely he followed the couple off of the train.

When the couple approached a waiting…

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Writing 101

“Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.”

T.S. Elliot

This is my 101st blog post, and today I would like to talk about writing in general.  There is a huge disparity between how many people write a novel, and how many people make successful livings off of novels written. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of money in writing, it’s just not as evenly distributed as some of us would like.

So, how am I going to bring you up to date in my Writing 101 class?  How am I going to let you in on all that money?  Well, by talking about the rules of writing.

“There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

W. Somerset Maugham

This is absolutely true, well, maybe not the “three” part.  There are rules for writing a novel.  There are your own rules, agent rules, publishing house rules, and reader rules.  Everyone is going to have a different set of rules (TOR is going to have different rules than Disney Hyperion).  There are even different rules for the USA as there are for Europe.

Some sets of rules allow head-hopping, some don’t.  Some rules demand writing in past tense, others don’t.  Some rules despise the use of “ly” adverbs, others don’t.  In the end, there are so many different rule sets that it becomes obvious that even the experts can only tell you the rules that worked for them, not the actual rules of success.

I will give some rules I have heard over the years.  Pick the three you like – or maybe pick the ones you think will help you sell your book:

  • Don’t use “ly” adverbs
  • Have tension at the end of every chapter
  • The protagonist needs to have an arc
  • Don’t head-hop
  • Write in past tense
  • Don’t info dump
  • Only use “said” and “asked” for attributing quotations
  • All main characters have to be multidimensional
  • Strictly avoid semicolons
  • Show, don’t tell
  • Only have characters change when events change them (this is my favorite as a reader and writer)
  • Don’t overuse any specific word – watch out for “I” when doing first person
  • The climax must be inevitable based on the earlier events
  • Use (or don’t use) metaphors for sex scenes
  • Handle scenes in date/time order, never go back
  • Start with a meaningful moment and use flashbacks for background
  • Use (or don’t use) profanity/slang/accents/colloquials
  • Realism is important

Whatever rules you picked, make sure they don’t get in the way of the story.  In my mind, the most important rule is to have a compelling story – a story that is compelling to you, the writer.  You have to love the story enough to write it out.  You have to put the world, and all of its temptations, aside long enough to put the story on paper.  Everything else is trivial in comparison.

So, my three rules (as if my opinion matters to the majority of the writing world):

  • Love the story enough to get it on paper.
  • A far distant second rule, the story needs to be written in such a way that others can see it the same way you do (this is where most of those other rules come into play – the smaller rules we get hung up on).
  • And third, the storyline and characters must be compelling to others, something they would want to read, can’t put down until they are done, and can’t stop thinking or talking about until they have started into the next great story.
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Keeping characters in character

As you may know, I ride the train every day.  There is a conductor who I often come in contact with, let’s call him Jake Spinner.  The first time I saw him, he was chewing out a man who was smoking in the restroom.  He actually kicked the man off the train.  My first thought, “I don’t want to tick-off that guy.”  That was more than six months ago.

Jake has been nothing but nice in the last six months.  If he knows you use a monthly pass, then he can help you out on days you forgot it.  If you have forgotten your lunch money, he might offer some of his lunch or a loan of a few dollars.  Jake jokes with you.  Most importantly, he goes out of his way to let you know he remembers you.  Jake is an all-around great guy.  That was Jake until today.

Today, a senior citizen who was in good health (possibly better health than I am in) tried repeatedly to sit in the ‘senior seating.’  This particular train doesn’t have ‘senior seating,’ it has seating for the disabled and seating for everyone else – he wanted to sit in the disabled section.  Jake was having a hard time explaining that ‘the disabled section wasn’t a senior section’ to the elderly gentleman, and it quickly escalated.  The argument was classic – both scary and funny at the same time.

The elderly gentleman repeatedly said, “I understand way you are saying, but…” or “Your right, your right.  However…”

By the end of the argument, we were halfway to my stop.  For most of the second half of my trip, Jake was going up and down the aisle mumbling to himself – occasionally I could make out a word or two, like “senior seating.”  Jake never said “Hi” to me, he never checked my ticket, and he never even looked my way (at least not while I was watching).

If I had not witnessed the argument, then Jake’s behavior would have been out of character.  I would have wondered, “What happened?”  There would have been an information gap that would have nagged at me.  In real life, I can ask, “Hey Jake, something bothering you?”  In a book, I can’t.  I only see what the author presents to me.

To keep readers engaged in a story, an author has to keep characters in character.  A big part of that is making sure to include the events that shape the changes in their life.

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