Monday, March 31, 2014

Prepare for the Madness!

March Madness is winding down in the college basketball world, but in the blogging world April Madness is about to begin.  I'm talking about the A to Z Blogging Challenge, in which for the month of April each day will feature a post corresponding to a letter in the alphabet--excluding Sundays.

The theme for Indie Writers Monthly is...indie books!  Each day you can learn about a great indie book.  So if you've been looking for something to read, we're going to have you covered.

Speaking of, my superhero thriller A Hero's Journey (Tales of the Scarlet Knight #1) is now FREE on Amazon! While you're there you can get the other 7 books in the series for 99 cents each!  That's eight great books for the price of one lousy Big Publisher book.  You don't need to be genius like Dr. Emma Earl to know that's a good deal.

(I promise the next month of A-Z indie books will be much less infomercially than that last paragraph.)

Friday, March 28, 2014

Reading, Writing, and Football

I saw this article on Yahoo! yesterday when I was checking my mail and it really annoyed me.  The idea behind this puff piece is what a great guy quarterback Peyton Manning is because he ONLY wanted $18 MILLION to play for the Denver Broncos, not the $26.7 million he was accustomed to from the Indianapolis Colts.  So we're all supposed to celebrate how wonderful he is for taking a "pay cut" and the great "sacrifice" he made so he could "help the team" stay under the salary cap.

The whole thing is completely ludicrous to me.  First it shows the sorry state of sports "journalism" these days that some bit of fluff likes this even gets posted on a mainstream site.  I could see if it were on the Broncos website or the Peyton Manning Fan Club or something, but for a mainstream site to act like this is a legitimate story is ridiculous.

People commenting on this demonstrated how a lot of people lack critical thinking skills.  Like the "journalists" (Manning's PR team apparently) who wrote this a lot of people say things like, "What a great guy!  What a class act!"  While ignoring a few key facts in the article.  First, they want to act like $18M is a pittance, like minimum wage.  I mean when you have McDonald's workers complaining about trying to live on $7.50 an hour you're going to laud a guy for making $18M?  Really?  Second, despite taking a "pay cut" Manning demanded $18M because that's what rival quarterback Tom Brady makes.  This doesn't sound like a great guy to me; this sounds like someone who's so petty and jealous of another player that he can't stand to make less than him, though making less certainly wouldn't diminish him in anyone's eyes.  Third, instead of $18M he actually took $19.4M because that's what his agent negotiated before talking with him and his wife suggested he take it--thereby throwing her under the bus in the article.  So basically he said, "Well I only want $18M but if you guys really want to pay me $19.4M I guess I'll take it."  Wow, what a great guy to bite the bullet and take that extra $1.4M.  Lastly they act like he was doing them this great favor by "taking less" to help them with the salary cap but their previous quarterback Tim Tebow made far less than $18M so they were in actuality taking a massive salary cap hit by signing him.

Now see this is the problem when a lot of people read.  They just look at the surface because they can't be bothered to think any deeper.  A good example of this is The Time Traveler's Wife where you can see it as a love story about a guy who randomly goes back in time and the girl he keeps running into.  Or you can think of it that a guy goes back in time and inadvertently befriends a six-year-old girl who develops a crush on him and then they have sex when she's 18 and he's like 42.  Which is pretty icky.  On one side you can say "they were destined to be together!" but on the other you can say, "Well if he never goes back in time they'd have never fallen in love."  And to me there was this whole creepy idea of how he sculpts her personality as she's growing up so that she likes punk music because he does and so on and so forth; sometimes it seemed like she had no free will at all.  I'm pretty sure the author didn't mean to convey that, but that was the impression it made anyway, just like the "writers" of that article intended for it to be a positive little puff piece, not anything controversial.  But not everyone will get the same meaning from something.

Another issue to get back to is Manning's concept--and he's not alone in this--that money=worth.  Ie, if he doesn't make at least as much as Tom Brady he's somehow lesser.  Now I understand an athlete's career can be relatively short and you want to make as much as you can in that time, but this petty notion of "This guy makes this much so I should get more!" doesn't sit right with me.  Because again it's based on the idea that the more money you make the better you're perceived to be.

Since most readers of this blog aren't probably huge football fans, think of this in terms of writing:  just because an author makes a lot of money doesn't mean they're the best writer.  I mean think of those awful 50 Shades of Grey books a couple years ago.  Or the Twilight books.  Or The da Vinci Code.  Those sold millions of copies and made a fortune for the authors, but are you really going to say those people are great writers?  If you do then I will smack you upside the head.  (I might mean that literally like I would drive to your house and smack you upside the head for thinking Stephanie Meyer is a great writer.  Be warned!)  I mean I'm sure Snooki's sold a lot more books than I have, but I'm pretty confident I'm a better writer than her.

In a way I suppose it's the old argument of quality versus quantity.  In this case, quality (or talent) does not always equal quantity of money made.  That's often the case in books, but it's less so in athletics because if someone is really good they will soon get a better contract.  Writing is far more subjective in that people often fork over a lot of money for crap--as do Detroit Lions fans.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Are You A Hedgehog, or a Fox?

My hedgehogosity, or lack thereof, has been on my mind for the last two weeks, since I learned of the existence of hedgehogs and foxes.

"The Hedgehog and The Fox" is an essay by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin.  Writing in 1953, Berlin drew on an apocryphal bit of Greek lore:

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

The idea being that to avoid being captured or killed, the fox has a whole bag of tricks, whereas the hedgehog's one defense (curling into a ball covered with spikes) is a doozy.

Berlin used that to divide writers into two categories: foxes and hedgehogs.

Foxes included James Joyce, Aristotle, Moliere, and Balzac.  Hedgehogs included Proust, Ibsen, and Dante.  Berlin's division was based on his view of their writing: Hedgehog writers, he said, view the world through a single defining idea that illuminates all of their works.  Fox writers, on the other hand, draw on a wider variety of experiences and their work cannot be boiled down to a single theme.

Berlin didn't judge one to be better than the other; he viewed the classification themselves as somewhat arbitrary and a game, but noted that "every classification throws light on something."

As I said, since I heard about the phrase, I've been wondering if I'm more fox-like or hedgehog-like in my writing.  At first glance, it would seem I'm a hedgehog.  I write in a variety of genres, voices, and styles, straightforward literary fiction to experimental almost-poetry (and poetry. I write poetry, too.)

But Berlin's classification looks more at one's worldview and whether there's a unifying vision to it than at superficial features, and in that light, I think I might be more of a hedgehog. I spent some time considering first my novels, and realized that each could be said to feature a character who in some way or other is cut off from the world around him or her.

In Eclipse, Claudius spends the story drifting through space, or in an asylum/prison (depending on which viewpoint you adopt) and reflecting on a childhood where he had few friends, if any (again, depending on what you believe to be true.)

Temporary Anne, my latest horror story, features a woman so evil that even Hell can't hold her, and if ever there was someone who was isolated it would be her.

Up So Down is a literary novel, but the main characters, "Bumpy" and his sister Sarah, each are going through changes in their life which cause them to draw back from others or withhold part of themselves from new people.

And in the After, Saoirse rejects the very idea of Heaven and her perfect family around her, spending her time trying to get away from it.

the After also features
a tree, and William Howard Taft,
but that's only to be expected.

There are other similarities between all my works, but that was the first one that leapt up at me: all my protagonists tend to be loners through a mixture of choice and destiny.  You can see that in other characters of mine, too Rachel, the amnesiac lesbian zombie charged with saving the 73 dimensions is another notable one, and my latest short story, Sea (on Inky, click here to read it) features a kid who was washed out to sea and spends his entire life there.

It's not as though all things I write have that theme; I'm sure there are some stories where teh characters aren't loners.  Maybe Rafael the giraffe who tried to save the world by stealing Noah's Ark? And the stories themselves aren't always about the person being a loner: Andrew, when he reviewed Temporary Anne, noted that if you read my books you can usually see the questions I was mulling as I was writing the books, and that's true: whatever I happen to be thinking about at the time tends to work its way into my writing in one way or another (although if you read my blogs and then read my stories, it may be hard to sync one to the other, as I usually wait to post stories for a while.)  For the last year, for example, I've been writing stories about God and creations of the universe and related subjects.

But the smaller topics of your writing may not be the overarching theme of your writing, and if you take a moment to step back and consider what it is you really write about, it may surprise you. (Or not, perhaps you consciously choose your themes.)

As Berlin said, all classifications shed some light on things, and seeing how you would classify your own themes in your writing is instructive. I had never thought before about the similarities between what I thought of as different kinds of writing. Now that I know, I can both work on developing that theme, if I choose, or make a conscious effort to escape it and write about other things.

If I can, because what Berlin didn't say, and what is for us to decide, is whether a hedgehog can ever stop being a hedgehog.


The author, shown cutting out a paper elephant.
(The elephant has rejected his role in society and
decided to try to become a stockbroker, but the
guys on Wall Street don't want him to
be part of their club, and then one day
the elephant falls in love with the evening star and asks
her out, only later to be crushed when he learns she's not
a star at all, but the planet Venus.)*
*Now I might actually write this.
Prior to today, Briane Pagel would have thought himself more of a dugong.  You can find the aforementioned novels on sale on Amazon by clicking here.  Read a monthly short story from him on Inky magazine, and check out his short stories, essays, and poems on lit, a place for stories.

Oh, and if you want to read that giraffe story, which is really quite amazing, click here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"I Couldn't Put It Down"

Often, when we want to express how good a book is, we will say, "I just couldn't put it down!" Which, of course, is not actually the truth but makes me want to say, "No, really, I literally couldn't put the book down! It became fused to my hand and, once I finished reading it, I had to have it surgically removed." Come to think of it, maybe I've actually said that before. It's hard to tell with me. Anyway...

When I was younger, it was difficult to tell the difference between me not putting a book down because I always had a book with me and those books that I "just couldn't put down." I think it might have been difficult for me to tell the difference, too, because, when you always have a book with you and are reading all the time, if you don't have any point when you need to put the book down, it might be go unnoticed whether you'd have been okay with doing that.

Am I being confusing enough yet?

I bring all of this up, because I was talking to my creative writing students the other day about books you "can't put down," and, especially the sixth graders, claimed to have that happen all the time. When I asked, "Have you ever had a book you couldn't put down," they all had a list of half a dozen or so books that fit that category and, maybe, when I was their age, I would have felt the same way. I think in that way it must be sort of like love. Before you fall in love you think you fall in love all the time but, then, you do fall in love, like Romeo, and you realize that, really, you could have put all of those other books down; you just didn't have to.

As you might have guessed, back when I was in school, I read during class. A lot. All the time. Amazingly, I never got in trouble for it. Actually, it really wasn't amazing. Here's why:
During biology one day, I was reading. Completely absorbed in whatever it was, too, although I'm not sure what that was. Probably something by Piers Anthony, if I was guessing. Evidently, someone else was also reading, but she got in trouble for it and told to put her book away. I was only peripherally aware of what was going on until the girl said, "Why doesn't Andy have to put his book away?" Without pausing a beat, the teacher said, "Because he's going to make an "A" on the test."
That just to say that I was given a lot of latitude in regards to reading while class was happening. Any class. I suppose my teachers trusted me to pay attention when I needed to.

This was especially true in my geometry class my freshman year. On the occasions when my teacher didn't put bonus problems on the tests, it would bring my grade down. It would bring my grade down, because the 100% I would score was less than my grade. Nevertheless, I hated geometry. I was good at it, but I hated it. With that in mind, you might understand the shock of my teacher sometime in the 4th quarter when I scored a "C" on a test, my only non-A grade the entire year. And you might understand my shock at being held after class to discuss my grade, which I didn't yet know about. She was concerned, you see, that there was something wrong at home. Or something. In retrospect, I suppose she should be commended for calling me in. At the time, however, it was a bit embarrassing. When I told her there was nothing wrong, she handed me the test and asked me, then, to explain the grade. I had to explain how I didn't actually know what we'd been studying the week of that test. At all.
"And why not?" was her logical question.
"Because I was reading that week," I said.
"But you're always reading," she said.
"No, I was really reading," I said, "the whole time. All week."
"Oh... What were you reading?"
"The Three Musketeers!"

And that was the first book I read that I really just couldn't put down. I just needed to know what was going to happen next. And next. And next.

I don't really do that question at the end of the post thing but, this time, I want to know:
What was the first book you just couldn't put down? The one that let you know the others, all those books that had come before, had been the equivalent of grade school crushes.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Answer to a Dilemma

A dilemma has been plaguing me all TV season.  I had been watching "Marvel's Agents of SHIELD" on ABC but like a lot of people it just wasn't working for me.  That got me wondering why not and what I would have preferred they'd done with the show.  I didn't really have an answer until last Wednesday when I watched the "Suicide Squad" episode of CW's "Arrow."

In the comic book world the Suicide Squad is a group of DC villains who are captured by the government and forced into working for the side of law & order.  I'm sure over the years there's been a lot of incarnations of the group.  On "Arrow" it was the assassin Deadshot, the knife-wielding maniac Bronze Tiger, the Arrow's bodyguard/ex-soldier John Diggle, and his ex-wife/government agent Lila.  They have to go to Markova to find some kind of nerve gas before it can be used to kill a bunch of people.

The episode itself was probably only a 3/5 in my book.  It probably needed to be two parts an I would have liked to see more Bronze Tiger, but the potential was definitely there.  If (or when) they make a spin-off series I would definitely want to watch.

As I said, when I was watching it occurred to me this is what the SHIELD show should have been.  Agents who can kick a lot of ass going around doing secret spy stuff.  Not goofy hipsters flying around doing bullshit X-Files ripoffs.  There is no doubt that in a crossover the Suicide Squad would whoop the hell out of SHIELD because half the SHIELD team is absolutely useless in a fight.

That was the answer to the riddle of how to "fix" SHIELD, at least for me.  I mean I like Coulson but what they needed were characters more like Black Widow and Nick Fury--at least the comic book Nick Fury because the movie one hasn't done a lot so far except boss people around.  I want characters who can kick a lot of ass.  Or to put it another way, I'd prefer the A-Team to Scooby-Doo.  I don't think I'm alone on that score.

I remember an article said somewhat mockingly, "What do you want, a bunch of C-list heroes?"  Not really.  I don't really need people in capes and tights or with superpowers.  I think the Suicide Squad episode proved you don't need capes or superpowers; just regular badasses will do fine.

Because I can't resist a good shameless plug, I did a Suicide Squad thing of my own in the third Girl Power book, League of Evil.  Basically imagine if when the world was in a crisis Robin goes out and recruits Iron Man, Black Widow, and a dialed-down Hulk (only if they were all evil) and they fight other villains to save the day.  None of those characters had superpowers per se; the Hulk-ish character is more of a Missing Link.

Anyway, it's probably too late to save Agents of SHIELD, at least for me.  I'll just have to wait for a Suicide Squad show in the future.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Real-life writing inspirations: Horror!

Looking for something to help jump-start some ideas? Check out these five actually-existing horrors* that you could use in your writing.

*I am not 100% sure that "horror" counts for this blog, but it's a subset of speculative fiction, isn't it? So I'm counting it.

Goya called this "Saturn Devouring His Son".
I call it "Why I Can't Sleep Anymore."
1. The Black Paintings: Francisco Goya, at the end of his long life and after battling illnesses, bought himself a villa and spent four years decorating it with giant and terrifying murals, painted directly onto the walls of the house.  There were fifteen in all.  Goya didn't tell people he was doing the paintings; they were discovered after his death, most likely in a scene that went something like this:

Visitor: *knocking* Hey, Goya, you home? Oh, the door is open DEAR GOD NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! *throws self over nearby cliff*

That may seem like an overreaction, but look again at Saturn, to the left here.

The paintings, which Goya actually never named, were discovered after his death and eventually transferred to canvas via a process that had to be so tedious it makes my head numb just imagining it.  Which is preferable to sitting here imagining an old man night after night at his kitchen table staring at paintings like

The Witches' Sabbath.

But I'm only getting started.  How about

2. La Isla De Las Munecas.  Who doesn't love the tropics? Bright sunshine, white-sand beaches, clear blue warm water, hundreds of rotten disembodied dolls said to be haunted by spirits of dead children...

*throws self off nearest cliff, again*

THAT is an actual photo from La Isla de las Munecas, which in English means either "Island of the Dolls" or "Thanks a lot now that's burnt into my retina".  Located on a man-made island near Mexico City, the island is said to have come about after a gardener found a drowned little girl on its shore, and began to believe the girl's spirit was haunting the place, so he began hanging dolls around to protect himself from the ghost, which, considering how creepy every single doll is, is a bit like having a vampire problem and solving it by hiring zombies as security.

I have this great idea for a "28 Days Later/Cabbage Patch Kids crossover."
The caretaker died of a heart attack in 2001, not surprising when you consider that he used to say stuff like "At night they come alive. They will move their heads and whisper to each other."

The locals buried him on the island itself, which can only be interpreted as a hearty "thank you" for what this island did to their property values/sanity.

What's creepier than a bunch of fake little kids slowly mummifying? Probably nothing. Let's move on to

3. Catacombe dei Cappucino real little kids slowly mummifying!

That's a picture of Rosalia Lombardo, who, as the note says, died in 1920.  The picture was taken in 1995, probably by a tourist, because when you get tired of posing in front of arches and going to "Hard Rock Cafe: Rome" what's left but to take some macabre photos of dead girls from another century?

The Catacombe are in Palermo, which I previously only knew as the sort-of Italian name for cheap frozen pizzas, and were started when some monks ran out of cemetary space in the 16th century.  So they began digging crypts below their monastery, and put the bodies there to dry out.  Even though originally only friars were supposed to be allowed the honor (?) of having their dessicated bodies stared at by people wearing fannypacks a millenia later, it ultimately became a status symbol to get your body into the crypt, proving that rich people have always been willing to throw their money away on stupid stuff if you say it's a 'status symbol'. (Modern zoning laws being what they are, we now have to content ourselves with just selling the rich cat-poop coffee.)

There are 8000 mummies in the catacombe, divided into groups like Monks, Professionals, and Virgins.  A while back, iron grids had to be installed to stop people from posing. With the corpses.  They were posing with the corpses.


Briane Pagel is going to go watch some cartoons or something to clear his brain out.  He is the author of Temporary Anne, in which a woman proves too evil to go to Hell, and the short story collection The Scariest Things, You CAN'T Imagine, which, not coincidentally, features a story in which there are catacombs.  He also is a contributing writer at lit, a place for stories and Inky.

Click here to check out his books on Amazon.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Genre and the Medium

When it comes to exploring science fiction and fantasy, I have a pretty narrow focus: I read. I gamed a bit in undergrad and got a bit into X-Men comics around the same time. And yes, there was a time when I even watched movies and TV. But as I got older, gained more responsibilities, and lost a lot of my free time, I had to cut back some of my activities to free up time for writing. (Besides, it's a lot harder to game when your college friends are in another state. Sure, there are local stores where I could probably meet gamers if I had the time, but it might be more uncomfortable joining them, especially if there's a lack of other female gamers.) Since I read pretty quickly and can bring a Kindle with me everywhere, that's my medium of choice. That said, sometimes I wish I could make time for Dr. Who or go see some of the X-Men movies. I've never even gotten around to watching the Harry Potter movies, even though I've read all the books.

Other than reading/writing (which I assume is a large part of what draws people to this blog), what are your other favorite ways to enjoy science fiction/fantasy, and why? What are your favorite and least favorite translations of a story to a new medium?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Literarally Dystopian

Languages, unlike math, are not static. Languages are more like a garden and, even a well-tended garden, grows and changes. Arithmetic, for instance, will always be the stable path through the garden. Two plus two will always equal four. No matter what words we may happen to use for those terms.

I hate to say it, but I'm sure I contributed, back in the 80s and early 90s, to what has happened with the word "literally." [By the way, that word in the title is not or supposed to be "literally." It is what it's spelled as.] When I was teenager and in my early 20s, I loved to use the word ironically. For instance, after a visit to Niagara Falls in the middle of winter without proper protective gear (I had literally never been anywhere where I couldn't deal with the cold, which includes skiing in Colorado), my ears froze and, as I would say, literally fell off my head (You know, it was a take on "I froze my ass off," but I would say "I froze my ears off"). I would follow that up with, "No, seriously. I froze them off and had to super glue them back on." See, it was ironic because the followup was completely unexpected.

So, now, due to continued misuse, "literally" means both "literally" and "figuratively," its exact opposite on the color wheel. This is like how some people believe that "no" means "no" but, sometimes, it also means "yes." But we tell those people they're wrong, that "no" always means "no." Maybe, we need to launch a "literally" means "literally" campaign.

Which brings me to dystopians and why I hate the concept of them just like I hate the constant misuse of the word literally. Our current understanding of the word is that it means the opposite of utopian. In fact, the more common term used to be anti-utopian (that's what Brave New World was called when it was released back in the 1930s), which makes it sound like that's what it should be. By that logic (current logic), dystopian means something that is a horrible place to live (and, you know, we'd have to call so many places on Earth, right now, dystopias if that's really what it meant). But, if you look at books like Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451, you will see that those societies were not horrible places to live. So why do we call those books dystopians when they are nothing like the dystopian books of today? Because we no longer use the word as it was originally intended.

Let's take the apple as an example. Here is a nice apple that looks like an apple should:
We'll call this the Utopia Apple. The perfect apple. You want to eat it, right?

Our current understanding of dystopia is this:
This is not the apple you want to eat. It's rotten, and you can see that it's rotten. You don't want to live there.

However, the original understanding of dystopia was more like this:
From the outside, it looks fine. It looks good. It's only when you get into it that you can see that there's something wrong with it. The idea of a dystopia was that it looked like a utopia from the outside. Everyone seemed fine and happy, or at least content, and secure. It wasn't until you got inside that you could see that there was something inherently wrong with the society.

That's the power of a book like Brave New World. The people within the society are happy. Even the slaves. They like the way they live. There are only a few that even have an idea that there might be something wrong, and they don't know what it is, just that something doesn't seen quite right. It's bringing in outsider that the rottenness is brought to light at all.

Somehow, during the 80s (yeah, we're back there again) and the surge of post-apocalyptic literature, it became synonymous with dystopian literature and it just kinda stuck even though the two started out as two separate things, kind of like figuratively and literally. So, yeah, just as I don't like that we feel compelled use literally for something it shouldn't mean, I don't like that we feel compelled to use dystopian for something it shouldn't mean.

And, yes, it gives me an automatic negative bias against anything "dystopian" written after, probably, 1980. It may be that Fahrenheit 451 was the last true dystopian written for all I know.

What I do know is that I got tired of reading post-apocalyptic stories back in the 80s, and I have no interest in them now. I especially have no interest in reading post-apocalyptic stories being tossed around as dystopian, like Hunger Games. I mean, come on, that society looks rotten from the outside. The only case you can make for it as a true dystopian is if you only look at the Capitol, but that is a city, not the society.

Now that I've said all of that: None of that is to say that I just won't read dystopian or post-apocalyptic stories. It is to say that I'm starting out with a bias against them. If you want to write a dystopian story, make it a real dystopian story. If you just want to write about people living in horrible conditions, write about Afghanistan or Somalia. And if you want post-apocalyptic... well, I don't know. I suppose I feel like that's been done to death, so you're gonna have to convince me. Or at least ask nicely.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Another Chance for St. Pat's Day

Happy St. Me Day from Blue III!
Happy St. Me Day!  Not fair to have St. Paddy's Day on a Monday except those lucky enough to be able to take that day off.  If you really want to get into the spirit of the day, go buy the Indie Writers Monthly magazine for March, which talks about Luck and includes a shot story by me.

Anyway, ever since I finished the last Chances Are book in 2011 I've held off on any sequels.  I really had no idea how I would do one in any case.  A couple weeks ago I was listening to a series of Lawrence Block books, the first two of which are kind of soft-core erotica/coming-of-age books and the last two are soft-core erotic cozy mysteries and they all feature the same main character.  In the afterward Block explained the switch was because after the second book he didn't know what else to do with the 17-year-old narrator without having to grow him up, which would preclude doing more books like the first two.  So he  decided that in a series of cozy mysteries the character could remain the same forever--forever being two books apparently.

I wondered if maybe I could do the same with Stacey Chance.  I mean she was a police detective in her former life, so maybe she could go all Jessica Fletcher or something, though Nancy Drew might be more appropriate for her age.  I toyed with it but the idea of a singer who solves mysteries is probably better suited to the NBC schedule.  (Because they suck and will probably take any stupid idea thrown their way.)

Then my next thought was maybe I could do a spin-off.  Instead of Stacey it could be someone else who gets injected with the FY-1978 drug, someone who could do more exciting things.  I kicked the tires on that idea, but it wasn't really going anywhere.

Then I thought of the Darkman/Invisible Man crossover reboot (tentatively called The Pretender) posted in October.  That involved a guy who was burned by a fire and uses some kind of fake skin.  But what would work just as good as fake skin?  FY-1978.  Actually it would work better because it wouldn't turn to mush after 99 minutes.

So now I was off and running on that idea:

Another Chance

Vince Granato has been a conman for years under various aliases.  His latest venture is running a Madoff-type Ponzi scheme.  He’s meeting a rich old woman to sweet talk her out of millions, but he starts to get a bad feeling.  After the meeting he senses someone’s watching him and decides to get the hell out of Dodge.  So he heads back to his modest apartment, but it’s too late!  As he’s gathering some money, fake passports, and such to go on the run some Feds break in to arrest him.  Vince takes off down a fire escape and makes a decent showing, but in the end he’s shot in the gut and passes out.

When he wakes up he’s in a place with armed guards and no windows.  Before long Vince realizes that he is now a young Indian woman.  While a doctor and nurses are trying to calm her down, the guy who shot Vince shows up along with an older guy who’s his boss.  The guy who shot Vince is introduced as CIA agent Doug Standard while the old guy doesn’t give a name.  He’s just “the chief.”

Eventually she calms down enough that the chief can start to explain.  After Vince was shot he was certain to die.  But the government has need of his—now her—services.  So they had the doctor—Dr. Kalya Nath from Last Chance—inject him with a drug called FY-1978, which is the same thing that turned Steve Fischer into Stacey Chance.

Why make him a girl?  They need to do what in the biz is called a “honey pot.”  Basically they need her to seduce someone to get information.  Why not use someone else?  Besides that Vince was an excellent conman, they also want someone expendable since ostensibly the CIA isn’t supposed to operate on American soil.  Vincent Granato has already been declared dead and this new body has no ID, so there’s no paper trail.

The target of the honey pot is a military officer, though the chief won’t give her specifics yet.  It’s believed he’s slipping secrets to the Chinese or Russians or some other country.  The officer has a thing for “exotic” girls after many years overseas, so the idea is to plant her as his new assistant and then have her get the goods on him.  (This may include sleeping with him.)

The chief then offers her a great choice:  either do the mission or they’ll have her sent to one of those secret prisons to be tortured until she changes or mind or dies.  Presumably if she does the mission, Dr. Nath will give her another shot to make her a man again and then he can go on his merry way.  With those being the only options, she decides to avoid the secret prison.

Then they begin to drill her for the mission.  First she’s given the name of Vinaya Gupta and a history to memorize.  Dr. Nath gives her a little lecture about the drug and assures her that several other people—notably Stacey—have survived the process already.  She also hints she’s not exactly doing this for patriotism or even money; she’s about as much a prisoner as Vinaya.

Then Vinaya is turned over to an older lady to run her through “charm school” to learn about being a dignified young lady and such.  This is not much fun, but it gets even worse after she “graduates” and then is taken by Doug to an army base to go through basic training in part to establish her credentials for the mission and also it may become necessary for her to defend herself so it would be good if she had some training and built up some muscle.

Because she’s Indian and wimpy she’s not received with open arms by most of her unit.  But a girl named Claire befriends her and helps Vinaya make it through the first couple weeks, after which she’s better able to handle it. 

But then Claire is raped by an instructor and predictably no one is going to do anything about it.  So Vinaya uses some of her con artist skills to get some payback, though it’s too late to save Claire, who’s drummed out of the army.

Not long after this, Vinaya graduates to become a private in the army.  She’s surprised to find she’s assigned as the aide to Major General Arnie Dunn, who won medals in Vietnam and then later helped turn things around a bit in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Could someone like that really be a traitor?

After her first day she’s still not sure but she does know he’s a pig.  He not so subtly paws her several times.  She plays it cool, not wanting to seem too eager or he might suspect something.  This is a long con, not a grift and go.

Over the next few weeks she slowly pokes around to try to find some evidence.  That’s hard to come by.  It seems to her that Dunn is a jerk but not a traitor.  She tells this to Doug Standard, but he tells her to keep digging.

Eventually she and Dunn go on a date and then go back to his house for “dessert.”  Vinaya gets that feeling that someone is watching her like at the beginning.  There’s something more going on than they told her about.  Between that the lack of evidence of anything on Dunn, she decides to tell him the truth.

He’s needless to say not happy.  He’s promising to have her reassigned to Greenland or something when Doug bursts in along with some other guys.  Since Vinaya isn’t going to do the mission properly, they force her to pose for some naughty pictures with Dunn.  Then the goons drag her away so Doug and Dunn can talk things over.

It becomes clear to Vinaya that they’re going to take her to some secluded to put a couple bullets in her, though they might do a few other things to her first.  With a combination of her con artist skills and military training, she’s able to escape.

The next day her face is plastered all over papers with some trumped-up nonsense about her working for Al-Qaeda.  But Vinaya has spent most of her life dodging people trying to find her, so she’s able to stay in the clear.  The problem is she isn’t sure to go.  Finally she looks up Claire, who she figures is the only she can trust and that Doug and the chief won’t know about.

Vinaya and Claire manage to have a relatively good time for a few days.  Then Vinaya reads that Dunn along with some other higher ups will be at the testing of a new ballistic missile.  Warning bells go off in Vinaya’s mind.  Dunn is somehow going to sabotage the launch—unless she stops him.

Claire goes with her and Vinaya gets them onto the base.  Unfortunately Doug and some goons are there too.  Claire volunteers to draw them off while Vinaya stops Dunn from whatever he’s going to do.  In the chaos that follows, Vinaya finds the general, who reveals Doug is blackmailing him to change the coordinates of the missiles so it lands in the South China Sea, where a Chinese ship will be waiting to salvage it.

Vinaya quickly explains her plan.  She has Dunn give her a gun and pretends to take him hostage.  She claims to be an Al-Qaeda operative here to sabotage the launch.  Before anyone can stop her, she destroys the missile.  In the chaos, she and Claire escape.

In the epilogue, Vinaya learns the fallout from what happened.  Doug turns up in the river while the chief is stepping down from the CIA.  The photos of Vinaya and Dunn surface but everyone believes his story that she was a terrorist who forced him to take those pictures for blackmail purposes.

Meanwhile Vinaya and Claire are hanging out on a beach or something—at least some guy in a suit shows up and says Vinaya is needed on another mission.  When she protests, he says she can come quietly or be turned over to the FBI, who have her on the Most Wanted list.  Again, she doesn’t have much choice, so away she goes, promising Claire she’ll be back.

There are probably some holes yet, but it's a lot closer to a thing than it was a few days ago.  And you know I already have a Sim made up:

What's annoying about this is I had to do one picture with the glasses and one with the hat and then paste the hat onto the one with the glasses because they wouldn't both work at the same time.  I don't have a formal army uniform so I just recolored a cop costume.  But you get the gist of it.

Friday, March 14, 2014

It's Pi Day!

I couldn't resist a couple of videos to celebrate the date. At least this pi has no calories, but you still require a lot of patience to prepare the second one:

P.S. I was tempted to schedule this post for 3:14 A.M., but sadly, that wasn't an option.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Today's Poll

Recently I read an indie book from an author whose previous books I had generally enjoyed.  But this latest book was just awful.  It was slow and the writing so turgid that after a while I started to tune it out.  I couldn't even finish it, which is something that rarely happens.  I gave it a one-star review on Goodreads and now of course the author is incensed about it. 

So the question of the day:  When you read a bad indie book should you

  1. Give it an honest review
  2. Give it a falsely positive review anyway
  3. Say nothing
Cast your votes in the comments!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Communication Is Hard (a Followup)

Last week, I had a failure to communicate. That's actually a big issue for a lot of writers, although it's an issue I usually don't have a problem with. It's quite likely that the problem came out of trying to do a more visual post without much actual writing. In that, I overestimated the general ability that people would have at recognizing people. Of course, I also thought that people would not need to actually recognize the people to get the message. But more on the actual post in a moment.

One of the most common things I see writers saying in response to the responses they get to any given piece of work is, "You just don't understand." With that statement, they place the blame for the lack of understanding on the reader. Granted, there are occasions when that's true, but, usually, it's the fault of the author. Yeah, guess what, authors don't like to hear that, but, unfortunately, it's true. The weight of understanding is on the writer, not the reader.

Now, part of that is determining your audience. Different audiences won't understand the same things. Sometimes, it's a knowledge thing. Sometimes, it's a culture thing. Sometimes, it's an experience thing. I mean, you don't give War and Peace to 6th graders and tell 999 out of 1000 of them that it's their fault for not getting the book. I may be being generous with 999, there, too.

At any rate, when your audience doesn't understand, you can stubbornly stand your ground and blame your audience for just not getting it, or you can "man up" and go back to the page and figure out why you didn't get your message across. After all, it's your message, so it's your responsibility to present it in a way that people can understand.

With that being said, my post from last week, "Romanticizing Authors," failed to deliver its intended message, so let me explain. [But you'll need to go back and actually look at the post for the pictures, because I'm not including them in this post.]

I ran across a quote from the show Californication that went something like this:
"I like you; you're handsome. Most authors are these pasty, white things, but you're handsome."
Of course, I immediately thought of Nathan Fillion and Castle because of the whole dashing leading man who is a writer thing and George R. R. Martin because, well, I guess I associate him with a pasty, white thing. Then I checked on Californication, and that's also about a writer, one played by David Duchovny, so you have another inordinately handsome man playing a writer. That made me think of Stephen King who is, let's face, kind of weird looking.

All of which got me thinking: Male writers in movies (or on TV) are always played by very good looking leading men. So you take someone like Edgar Allan Poe, whose face is more than a bit rumpled looking, and you make a movie about him but have him played by John Cusack, basically an idealized version of Poe. Now, Poe's handsome. Why do we do this?

We don't do it with women playing writers. No, we get someone like Nicole Kidman, one of the most glamorous stars in Hollywood and let her play Virginia Woolf, but do we let her look like Nicole Kidman while she's doing it? No way! We make her look as much like Virginia Woolf as possible. We de-beautify her to play the female writer. We make her look plain. Or we have Lena Dunham on Girls, and she is the writer of that show! But she makes herself as unattractive as possible for her role as Hannah.

So... we make male writers look good for a viewing audience, but we make female writers look plain or normal for a viewing audience. And I have no real answer, or even thoughts, as to why that is (beyond the typical, I mean); it is just an observation, hence the post that relied on the visuals. It's something I find interesting from a cultural standpoint. Interesting and more than a little lopsided.

The truth is probably more along the lines of writers being pasty, white things. All of them. That's what comes of spending time in a cave with a notebook, whether the notebook is electronic or made of paper. And I think I would find a show about a writer that was actually about the writer doing writing rather than say, solving murders, to be very interesting. That may just be me, though.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Is your story a story?

Probably everyone knows that story, there, right? Supposedly written by Ernest Hemingway (but probably not, as shown by this Slate article) it is said to be the shortest story ever written, just six words long.

So: is it a story?

It's sad, to be sure, and it's just six words long, so it's short, but  is it a story?

I try not to get hung up on labels for what I write, especially as what I write has gotten more experimental over the past year, as part of an ongoing effort of mine to become more creative and stretch the boundaries of the stories I tell. So in one sense, if you say your ... thing... is a story, it's a story.

But in another sense, it matters a lot whether your story is a story or not. As I go about my merry rule-breaking and attempts to write different kinds of stories, from time to time I pause to consider whether something is a story, an essay, a poem, or something else entirely, and I think that the labels we apply to stories have some merit to them, that there is a benefit to some categorization, and the benefit is that by having rules you can determine exist, you can also decide not to apply those rules, which should only be done for a reason, and that reason should be because it serves the purposes you are intending with your work.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

What I Think About When I Think About The Movie "Monsters"

I watched "Monsters" on Netflix last night, and it was a good, enjoyable movie. Here's the stuff it made me think about.

What's The Message, Here?

Did you ever get the feeling that a movie, or book, or whatever, is trying to make a point but you just don't get what that point is?

I'm not one of those people that insists that every story has to mean something or make a larger point about life.  Sometimes stories are just stories, there to be fun.  But as I watched the movie Monsters last night, I couldn't shake the feeling that it was trying to say something more than just "Hey, there's some monsters."

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Romanticizing Authors

Hmm... No... This post isn't about romance writers. Or writing romance into your stories. Or about any of that sort of romance at all. No, no. It's about the way we like to think about writers in contrast to the reality of writers. I'm not really even going to say much about it; I'm just going to show you.

We like to think
But the reality is
We like to think
But we really have
Or we think
But get
There's also
When it's really

Of course, that's just the men. It tends to go the other way with women, and we get
when she's really like
Or we have
Instead of
And even

No commentary, just thoughts.

Pub Tip of the Day

Now through Saturday my book of short stories The Carnival Papers is free for Kindle.  At the moment it's #2 in the Short Stories category (free, not paid of course).  In case you don't believe me:
And this brings up a point about publishing on Amazon:  being a "bestseller" can do wonders for your sales.  The first day the book was on sale it had been downloaded maybe 20 times.  I checked back the next day and it had quadrupled that number.  And since it's more than doubled that.  The simple reason is that when you get on one of Amazon's bestseller categories (and they have all sorts of weird ones) it helps more people see your book and then they download said book.

Another example is a book I published under a pseudonym.  It's done nothing in America but it's sold about 100 copies in the UK in the last few months.  The reason is it got on the bestseller list for horror short stories (paid this time!).  It's been in the 30s though at some points even higher.  Often it's beating out something by Stephen King, so that's something.

I think with that one it started again with a sale through KDP Select which led to some sales, which led to getting on the bestseller list, which has led to more people seeing it and buying it.

So the tip is if you're book is in KDP Select, it's good to use your free sale days when you can because that can drive sales.  It's like my marketing professor in college said:  People can't buy your product if they don't know it exists.  If you can get on a bestseller category then it helps people know your book exists.  It's been a lot more effective for me than Tweeting and blogging, I tell you what.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Recommended Indie Authors

I thought it might not be a bad idea to list a few indie authors I've read and enjoyed.  This list does not include any of the writers here at Indie Writers Monthly, but that doesn't mean you should ignore them either. (To the contrary.)

Lindsay Buroker--She's one of my favorite indie authors, to the point where her books are pretty much an automatic "buy" for me. I recommend her Emperor's Edge series, which combines action and humor in a fantasy setting.

A.E. Marling--Another fantasy author who writes about a narcoleptic sorceress in an Ancient-Egypt-like world.

Scott Meyer--His book Off to be the Wizard is a fun story similar to A Connecticut Yankee in King Author's Court.

S.A. Bolich--I don't always enjoy stories about the four elements, but Bolich has built a world I enjoy visiting and created characters worth rooting for.

This is just a short list of authors; who else would you add? 

Monday, March 3, 2014

I Saw This Coming

I'm not sure if you've followed the situation between Russia and the Ukraine much recently, but yesterday while you were watching the Oscar red carpet on E! Russia was invading its neighbor, taking advantage of the unstable political situation there to gobble up territory.  In one of those cosmic ironies I realized I'd written about a scenario very similar to this back in 2010.

In Change of Heart (Tales of the Scarlet Knight #4), Dr. Emma Earl is lured to Russia with a lucrative job offer.  She goes out to survey some possible oil/natural gas fields near the border of a made-up republic called Grakistan.  Later the camp comes under attack by some Grakistani rebels and Emma learns of a conspiracy to destabilize the country.  Basically a businessman named Sergei Bykov wants to create enough unrest in Grakistan so the Russians will invade to "restore order" and he can negotiate some favorable terms for snapping up the country's natural resources.  In a roundabout way Emma does stop him, though it comes at a great personal cost a couple years later.

Anyway, it's not the exact same situation but it's close enough.  Putin is taking advantage of the unstable government there so he can take some territory (if not all of it) that he's been hankering for.  Unfortunately there's no Scarlet Knight to stop him.

It's one of those situations where life imitates art.  Maybe you've had this happen to you with your writing.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Reading: Pushups for your mind!

As everyone knows, I'm sure, Rusty, Andrew, and I have been engaged in a duel to see who can do 2,014 pushups first this year, and I'm pretty sure that I am going to finish no worse than third.  Assuming I finish, because lately it seems like I'm getting worse at them.

I started that push-up duel after one day Rusty tweeted about how many push-ups he'd done, which prompted me to try doing some, myself, only to find that I have the upper-body strength of a sickly kangaroo.

I say 'kangaroo' because if there's an animal you imagine not having upper-body strength, that's the one, right? I wasn't trying to imply that I'm good at hopping. I could also have gone with T-Rex:

But that seems like bragging. "Hey, I'm like a T-Rex!"

The Great 2014 Push-Up Duel (which Andrew is going to win because he can do something like 150 at a shot) came to mind when I started thinking about what I learned from reading, and I think it's an apt comparison, because while I could go over the many actual facts I learned inadvertently by reading (like what a white dwarf star is, thank you very much, Atom comics) or advertently (huh?) learned from reading (like how nutmeg used to be supervaluable as a spice, prompting battles over it), and it's certainly true that I've learned lots of stuff from reading, I think the more important point of reading is what it does for your mind.

From when I was a kid until now, I have always preferred reading over every other form of entertainment.  I was one of those kids you never saw without a book in his hand.  I'd check out 10, 12, 14 books at once on our biweekly trip to the Hartland library, and I'd ask for books for presents and buy books with my allowance.  While my brothers were watching TV or listening to their Queen News Of The World albums, I'd be reading.

My reading tastes began, as you'd expect, with things like comic books and Cracked magazine (I always liked that one better than Mad, although I read both), something that gave my well-read Mom no end of troubling thoughts, as she assumed I'd spend my life reading trash.  And I read a lot of what Mom would consider trash -- Thor comics, for example.

But it wasn't really trash, not the way Mom thought of it, and it was doing something to me, something completely aside from teaching me that Asgard was an actual thing actual people believed in.  I don't know if the Norse believed Thor had long gold hair and I'm pretty sure they didn't think he had a secret identity as a doctor, but I do know that they believed in Thor and Loki and Odin and Ragnarok and all, because of comics.

Still, the bigger part of is that by reading, I was exercising my mind.  That's what reading does, and does so much better than movies or TV shows or songs or Plants vs. Zombies videogames (although I think videogames actually probably come the closest to being a reading-like experience. Don't get me sidetracked!)

When a person reads, he or she is forced to do all the work. Instead of having words and sounds and images crammed into that person's head by someone else, as movies do, the reader has to gather the information on his or her own and assemble it into something in their mind.  It's the difference between this:

And this


Even as a kid, I knew this without necessarily thinking about it.  When we'd go see movies, I'd almost always end up getting the novelization of the movie and reading that, and liking that better. I can remember seeing E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and then getting the book about the movie by William Kotzwinkle and marveling at how much better the book was than the movie.

That's true even if you've seen the movie, too, as I found out with that book, because books have to work harder to get you to the same place -- kind of like me versus Rusty and Andrew in pushups, right? -- since they don't have all the same tools.  Books don't have soundtracks with SURROUNDSOUND (TM) explosions, or Princess Leia in a metal bikini,

There is, literally, no topic
I can not shoehorn this picture into.

or any of the other things movies can do, something that may change someday (I used to post my novels in serial form with music for each part, and I know that some writers like Jessica Bell use soundtracks with their books, too, plus choose-your-own-adventure books have tried to add a third dimension, if you will, to books, and probably someone has tried a scratch-and-sniff novel.) (If they haven't, DIBS!)

(Sometimes, the effort to add a bit of movie-ishness to books fails miserably and ends up being annoying, as with the book Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs, which I assume is a pseudonym, a book that used creepy-looking old-time photos of kids to set up the story but which ends up using them in an awkward and intrusive way, almost as if I were to simply decide to now also put a picture of Xena into this post for no reason and then try to tie that back into what I was writing about.)

"Books are like Xena, in that when I post pictures of her on my other blogs, my wife gets upset."
As I was saying, Xena  books have to do a lot more work (and so writers have to do a lot more work) to convey the same amount of information that movies can just flop onto your lap like a dead fish.


In an exchange with Andrew on his blog, I pointed out that the movie Nebraska, according to his review, seemed to make effective use of film as a visual (and auditory) medium when it had the characters be silent for long periods of time, something that seems an odd choice for a movie, hat with all that SURROUNDSOUND, but I noted that there's a difference between a 5-minute silent stretch of a movie and this line:

"The two didn't talk for a long time."

Movies get those effects easily.  Books do not.

So when I'm reading, I've got to do all this heavy lifting and pushing and pulling.  I've got to come up with, in my mind, what a Hobbit looks like, what a boxcar full of prisoners of war and Billy Pilgrim sounds like, how Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell look standing next to each other, and so on.  The more detail an author provides, the easier that is, of course: I've got an easier time picturing Diagon Alley than I do Cair Paravel, because C.S. Lewis doled out details like a miser, but that may make Narnia all the richer for me in my mind because it's my Narnia, not someone else's.

One of the greatest achievements in filmmaking, I think, in my lifetime, was Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings, because it looked exactly like my Middle-Earth, or close enough to it that I didn't mind the slight differences.  I was nervous going into those films because I'd read Lord Of The Rings twice in my lifetime and had loved it since I was 12, and I was worried Jackson would make it look dumb, but he didn't, and I loved the movies for that: my imagination was up on the screen, right there, finally, with everything I could have wanted from the movie.

Maybe that'll happen with other books in the future, but it hasn't yet, and so all my life I've had to take the things I was given and build my own Mote system, Gap chasm, or Jubal Harshaw home. I've had to imagine what Valentine Michael Smith looks like, how it feels to see Neysa gallop up the side of a mountain, or how messy Dirk Gently's office is.

I'm certain that because of that, my Imagination Muscle is larger and stronger and has greater endurance than it would otherwise.  Reading has always led to more reading, for me and for probably everyone. But reading leads to more imagining, too, because it has to.  And so voracious readers, I believe, become more creative.  Maybe they don't always grow into loving to write, although I see a lot of people who like reading eventually try their hand at writing, but I bet anyone who reads a lot is a very creative person in whatever they do.

And I have what I think of as some proof of that, too.  Both of my two youngest sons, Mr F and Mr Bunches, are autistic, and one of the big goals with any person with autism is to get them to understand hard-to-grasp concepts, like imagination.  When they were younger, they didn't really pretend or play anything, not the way I had with my friends, playing guns in the yard or with my action figures.

But we started reading to them and with them, from as soon as they were born. (The first story I ever told them was in the middle of the night when they weren't even 24 hours old.)  We sit and read to them, even when we weren't sure they understood what it was they were hearing.  I'd read their books, my books, magazines, whatever I could to them, and show them pictures, and as they could grasp them, ask them questions.

And it's working.  They have accelerated, not just in their ability to communicate, but in their own reading and playing.  They now pretend and make up their own stories, not just acting out things in movies (the way I would use my Luke Skywalker action figure to rescue Princess Leia from the Death Star that was my dresser) but creating their own stories using them and their imaginations.

We still read, with them and separately from them, every day.  And aside from that, I read as much as I can as often as I can -- expanding out to magazines and websites and blogs, and oftentimes I forego television and movies to read.  I can get Netflix on my Kindle, but if you were to check my stats, I bet I spend 100 minutes reading for every minute I watch something.  Writers who have made it big will tell you if you want to be a good writer, read a lot, and I think like me they are on to the secret: reading exercises your mind the way push-ups exercise your body.  And while I do the latter grudgingly, I'm practically an Olympian at reading.


Briane Pagel thinks that scientists lost all credibility when they decided to pretend the brontosaurus actually existed, and credibly pointed out that velociraptors were simply made up in his groundbreaking essay, "Velociraptors, My Butt," which appears in his book "Do Pizza Samples, Really Exist (And 117*)(*Give Or Take) Other Ways Of Looking At Life".

Find his short stories and essays on Amazon, and at lit, a place for stories and Inky

He has so far this year done 509 pushups, which isn't bad.