Friday, June 28, 2013

Grey Area--Or Is It Gray?

I'm an American. I was born here, raised here, and, except for a week in Nova Scotia, a weekend at Niagara Falls, and two weeks in the Virgin Islands, I've never set foot outside the United States. I like some British television (Dr. Who; Monty Python, and yes, Downton Abbey, though I'm hopelessly behind), and a lot of British music, but I'm hardly an Anglophile. I'd love to cross the pond and visit Jolly Old, but, no offense intended, I have no desire to make it my permanent home.

So, why can't I get grey and gray right?

I was dimly aware of a problem with it when I was writing PARALLEL LIVES. Whenever that word came up (and it came up a fair amount), I would pause—grey, or gray? I knew both were technically right, but that one was more right. And so I went with grey, because that one looked more right. But sometimes I went with gray, because  that one just rolled off my fingers. And sat some point, I'm sure I looked it up in the dictionary and found that 'gray' is the American usage. All right. Gray it is. (I should point out, I have problems with other 'British' words. I don't take 'offence' at insults. When I played hockey, I played defense, not defence. A 'bum' is a guy who panhandles on the subway, my car has a trunk, not a boot. My problem seems to be exclusively with grey and gray. I don't know why.)

This week, in addition to finally pushing myself on a new WiP (I mean, really pushing it; the story isn't bursting out of my head at this point, but I've decided to force it a little bit, and things are moving), I decided to read through BARTON'S WOMEN. I'm trying very hard to give it an overview read, make sure I don't have any glaring iconsistencies, continuity errors, etc., etc. I'm making notes, but not getting into minutiae.

Except there's that grey/gray thing again. I came across the word, looked it up, realized I was again defaulting to grey, and made the switch. And then I did it again. And again. Yesterday, I did a 'find all' on my manuscript and found 19 instances of 'grey.' I will change them all.

And when the day comes for me to read over this new WiP, I will do it again.

Help me.

Do you have any words that consistently trip you up? What are they, and what do you do about them?

And, in celebration of this little word that gives me so much trouble, here's the only top-10 hit from the Grateful Dead, "Touch of Grey Gray." Have a great weekend, all!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Digital Footprints

I heard this story--Keeping Track of Your Digital Footprints--yesterday, courtesy of our local NPR station. It's about four minutes long, though the most important information comes in the first 3 or so. Check your settings, folks; pay attention to the information you're putting out there when you upload your photos, etc. That is all for today.

Friday, June 21, 2013

50 Ways....

Remember that old Paul Simon song, 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover? What's that, you don't? Oh, right, of course not, you're too young. Well, it was  a hit for Simon back in the mid-70s, which is why most of you DON'T remember it, but through the magic of the internet, you can see it here, if you so choose.

One person who probably does remember it is Hall of Fame broadcaster, Mike "Doc" Emrick, the current voice of the National Hockey League during the Stanley Cup Final. While he's not everyone's cup of tea, I've loved listening to Emrick since I first heard him calling games for ESPN back in the 90s. His love of the game is evident, and he's one of the most creative souls when it comes to describing the action.

Case in point: during Game 1 of the final between Chicago and Boston last week, Doc used no less than fifty (50!) words to describe a simple action that takes place hundreds of time during a game: the movement of the puck from one player to another, which is typically called "a pass." Someone kept a list, and here it is:

As outlandish as many of Doc's synonyms look on paper, they are frequently bang-on descriptions for the action. While I'm not entirely sure how you 'wand' a frozen disc of rubber, and 'spirits it' is a total head-scratcher, most of these really, really work in the course of the action. And this list is not inclusive; this is only what he used in game 1. Doc also has players 'shillelagh it' (knocking the puck out of the air), and one of my personal favorites is 'ladled it', which occurs when the puck is played softly down the ice.

I'm not sure what's more amazing, the fact that
a)      Doc has actually come up with so many words to describe a common action;
b)      Doc can actually remember to use these words appropriately while in the midst of describing what can be a ridiculously fast-paced game; or
c)      Someone actually sat down and made this list while the game was going on (I'm guessing the guy had no rooting interest in the game)

Point B is something all of us writers should take into consideration. We're always looking for new ways to say something, to set us apart from all the other writers out there. There are all kinds of interesting ways to say things, and it's our job to find them. BUT the key is to make the words sound natural, to fit them into the flow of our writing, to match them to the voices of our characters. 

Oh, and of course, someone did a "Doc Emrick 50 Words Mashup", which is a fun listen. Enjoy, have a great weekend!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Monday Musing: Print Only

© Jorge Royan /

Almost as soon as I announced my intention to take a short break from the blog, I saw/read/heard things that made me say, "Oh! I've got to blog about that!" Naturally. But I'd broken too many promises in the past, too often I'd written, "Hey, on Friday, I'm going to…" and never done it. This time, I was determined to keep my promise.

Anyway, one of the items that caught my eye was the news that Stephen King's newest novel, Joyland (and I swear, I'm not getting paid for plugging this book in any way, shape or form--I wish I was!), was going to be released only in print. No e-book. No digital download. Just paperback (oh, and a limited edition hardback). Charles Ardai, co-founder and editor of Hard Case Crime, the book's publisher, wrote aninteresting article explaining the decision. "Presentation matters," Ardai said. Part of his purpose in founding Hard Case was to "replicate a pleasure from the past – not just the type of stories told in those old books but the physical artifact itself." Indeed, the books published by Hard Case have quite the, uh, retro look, the sort of covers that caused me to break into a sweat when I came across them in the early stages of adolescence. Ahem, enough about that.

In addition to recapturing a bit of the past, Mr. Ardai said that another reason for not doing a digital version of Joyland was because of his and Mr. King's "desire to support traditional booksellers." He goes on to say, "it’s frightening to see the decline in the fortunes of bookstores over the last handful of years." Indeed, it is. Supporting and saving bookstores is a noble notion, and it's great to have a heavy hitter like Stephen King in on the fight. Sadly, it's also a pointless gesture, I feel, but not because I am convinced that bookstores are going the way of the dinosaur. They might, but not yet, anyway. No, the reason this gesture is pointless is because Joyland is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and as an audio book through iTunes. It's probably also sitting on the racks at Wal-mart and other non-bookstore booksellers. It seems to me that the only way to support traditional bookstores is to make the books available only through traditional bookstores, and that is just not going to happen (and I wonder--if King told Amazon, "Sorry, you can't sell this," what would happen? Lawsuit? Would Amazon break the "Buy now" links on all of King's books? Who knows?). Even a guy like Stephen King, who is playing with a huge pile of house money, isn't going to do that.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Selling Fun

"Never forget, we sell fun."

That quote comes from a character in Joyland, Stephen King's most recent book. Released earlier this month, the book is notable in part because King has decided not to release it as in print only, at least for now. That decision is actually the subject for another post, another day. No promises, though.

AT any rate, in an interview for Parade magazine, King had this to say: “The major job is still to entertain people. Joyland really took off for me when the old guy who owns the place says, ‘Never forget, we sell fun.’ That’s what we’re supposed to do—writers, filmmakers, all of us. That's why they let us stay in the playground."

'Fun' is such a strange word. The implication of 'fun' is…well, fun. Laughing. Smiling. Happy sounds and warm feelings. Tigger is fun. Clueless Pooh (or accidental genius Pooh) is fun. Fun can even be a book that is somewhat unpleasant but has that "Holy crap, I never saw that coming!" moment. Think Gone Girl (or most anything  by Gillian Flynn, come to think of it). As long as the twist doesn't feel like a cheat, it's usually pretty damn fun. But if there's no twist? If you're dealing with straight up tension? Is that fun?

Thinking of movies for a moment, I can't say that The Exorcist was 'fun.' I was about 7 or 8 when that movie came out; just seeing the commercials on TV scared me, and Tubular Bells still gives me the shivers. When I finally saw the film, it scared the hell out of me, and though I was past the age for movie-induced nightmares, I still got 'em. Fun? Maybe, maybe not, but it was one hell of a good movie.

Fun or fright? Kind of hard to tell
And that's the odd thing about it, isn't it? 'Fun' is different for everybody. Some love roller coasters, some don't. Some find fun in collecting stamps, some in skydiving. There's no real right or wrong to it, it's just the way we are. I don't know that I'd say what I've written so far is 'fun.' Some of my short pieces, yes, but the novels, not so much. In fact, if you read one of my novels and said to me, "Hey, thanks, that was a lot of fun," I'd probably wonder where I went wrong (or what was wrong with you, hah hah). I think that there's fun in them, amusing lines, segments that make you chuckle, but not necessarily fun. I don't feel like the sort of person who rights 'good time stories.' Though I don't think I write ultra dark and depressing stuff, either.

The good thing is, there's room for all of it.

 Have a great weekend, all.

Photo from Fellowship of the Rich.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Monday Musing: Nibbling Away at Yog's Law

I think I'll be leaving now, thank you.
You know about Yog's Law, don't you? Sure you do. Yog's Law, coined by James D. MacDonald, is the principle that states, "Money flows toward the author." We are told, time and again, that if an agent asks for a 'reading fee', run. If a publisher asks for you to split or absorb the costs of publication, run. If the publisher tells you they'll print your book, but you have to buy a crap ton of copies and sell them yourself, run. Run as if Yog himself was reaching out his slimy tentacles for you, and don't stop until you find an agent that works on commission, a publisher that pays YOU for your work.

There are legitimate exceptions to Yog's Law. Contests for short stories, novels, poetry, often require an entry fee. Ten, fifteen, twenty-five dollar entry fees are often asked for, and we are wise to pause and wonder if the contest is legitimate. Fortunately, there are sites like Writer Beware, and the Warning thread over at Absolute Write (registration required) that can help sort out real contests from scams. Indeed, most contests are legitimate, and entry money helps fund the Fabulous Prizes! offered for winning the contest. Just read the guidelines cautiously, and ask questions if you have any doubts at all, and you'll be fine.

The other legitimate exception to Yog's Law is with self-publishing. Since there is no editor buying your book for a publisher, there's no one to pay you for the work you've done, and the work you have yet to do. There is no one to shoulder the costs for editing, or cover design, or layout, etc., etc. It's on the writer. To make that book good, to make it stand out in the crowd, the writer has to violate Yog's Law and pay for one or more edits, and all the rest. The writer has to assume the up front financial risk normally taken on by publishers. (Or, I suppose, you could not. You could trust to your own skills in all departments and do it all yourself, but you probably really don't want to take that chance. But I digress).

Nibbles are being taken at the toes of Yog's Law by literary magazines, of all places. Once in a while I come up with a short story that I think can actually be published, and I scour the markets and look for places I can submit. Most markets now allow you to either e-mail or submit electronically, using a submissions manager interface, such as Submittable. If you've worked with them, they're pretty handy. Anyway, at least one journal I've sent to has this statement in the author guidelines:

Please note there is a fee of $3 to submit electronically. This is used to cover costs such as printing.
I have to admit, this leaves me scratching my head, because other journals that use the same program do not charge for submissions, and other journals don't charge for electronic submissions, but DO charge for snail mail/hard copy submissions, and for the same stated reasons. Huh?

As far as things go, it's not much. Two, three dollars for a submission, sure, it helps cover the cost of the software--but it seems to me this sort of thing is a cost of doing business, and should be covered the way office supplies, rent and salaries are. Still, it's a tiny little nibble, a mere annoyance, but it makes me wonder if we're going to see this spread more widely across the industry.

Eh. I'm sure I'm just worrying over nothing, right? Have a great week!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Aberrant? Oh, You Betcha

Congratulations to Lisa L. Regan on the arrival of her second book, Aberration, born yesterday to already strong reviews! I'm looking forward to getting hold of this one, it promises to be an enjoyable read, in that strange way that suspense is enjoyable.

Rather than do any sort of blog tour, Lisa decided to do something different: a blog hop. And so we have The Aberration Blog Hop: Finding The Most Aberrant Characters

How does it work? Easy. Sign up (Hurry! Today is the last day!), list your top five choices for most aberrant character from literature, television, or movies, and Bob's your uncle. You can also add a blurb on a favorite aberrant character from your own work, if you're one of them writer types (and let's face it, if you're reading this, you probably are).

Finding the most aberrant character from books, TV and movies is no easy task; there are just so many of them. Those listed below have struck me as particularly aberrant for one reason or another, though I note that, as I've been reading other entries, I repeatedly find myself smacking my forehead, saying, "How could I have missed that one?" Like I said, there are a lot of them. And, by the way, it's funny how we focus so much on the negative side of 'Aberrant'. There's a shading of the word as defined that implies 'aberrant=bad', though you could make the argument that aberrant is just different, which is why Dana Mason had Forrest Gump on her list. That certainly made me think differently, though I was already committed. Who are they? Here we go (in no particular order):

Annie Wilkes, Misery, by Stephen King. The good news for writer Paul Sheldon—he's dragged from his wrecked car by a registered nurse who adores his books and is his "number one fan." The bad news? He's been dragged from his wrecked car by a registered nurse who adores his books and is his "number one fan." Annie Wilkes makes all those Goodreads/Amazon review trolls look like Gandhi. Annie is horribly disappointed when she finds Paul kills off her favorite romance heroine in the final installment of his Misery Chastain adventures, and him write a new one, just for her. Along the way, she gets him hooked on painkillers, makes him drink rinsewater, and has lots of fun with sharp objects. What's most frightening about this book is that, unlike King's tales of vampires and extraterrestrial spiders disguising themselves as killer clowns, there is nothing paranormal about it. Annie Wilkes could—and probably does—exist.

By the way, if you're a writer you should read this book, even if you aren't a King fan. There are loads of interesting 'writer stuff' in here, specifically about playing fair and not 'cheating the reader'. Writers writing about writers often feel self-indulgent. Not this one.

Hannibal Lecter, Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, etc., by Thomas Harris. The good doctor is turning up on a lot of these lists, and with good reason. When you watch Anthony Hopkins' riveting take on Lecter in the film version of Silence of the Lambs, it's hard to remember that Dr. Lecter was a bit player in terms of 'page time' in Red Dragon, Harris's first book to feature the cannibalistic doctor. Lecter is a terrifying villain because of his intellect and mastery of psychology. He's also witty, tasteful, classy, and charming in his way, to the point where you can almost forget he eats people. In Red Dragon, he goes out of his way to try to kill Will Graham from behind bars, using the classified ads of a sleazy tabloid to communicate with the serial killer known as The Tooth Fairy.

Roger, Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. Roger is a cruel and sadistic boy, whose impulses to tease, torture, and bully have been kept in check by society. On the island, free of the rules and policing adults, Roger gets his jollies by bullying the 'littluns', killing a pig with a very sharp stick, and, eventually, torturing other boys, like Samneric. One of the beautiful things about this book is how so much of the violence is implied. We know what he did to the pig, and where he put that stick. We're never sure what he does to the other boys, and that's brilliant storytelling. He is a frightening character, because he makes us wonder about ourselves in the same situation.

Jumping over to movies, we're going to go with Mr. Blonde, of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Michael Madsen's portrayal of Mr. Blonde, aka Vic Vega, is one of the highlights of Tarantino's directorial debut. The guy is so cool and collected as he antagonizes his fellow robbers, keeping a "We're just joking here" gleam in his eyes, yet you know he won't hesitate to do something awful. And that he does. I'm hearing Stuck in the Middle With You as I write this, and it's creeping me out. Time to move on.

The Joker, Batman. Sure, it's easy to point to Heath Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight as the be-all and end-all performance take on this character, but look at this (listen, too) and tell me this isn't somehow worse:

Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. The guy builds people out of spare parts. 'nuff said.

(Dis)Honorable mentions: Tyler Durden, Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk, George Stark, The Dark Half by Stephen King. Figments of the imagination come to life, these two wreak havoc on their 'creators' in often brutal, ways.

Gaear Grimsrud, Fargo. The 'Big Fella' knows how to use a wood chipper.

About 80% of the adults in Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens, but I'll single out Bill Sikes, the housebreaker. Fagin is nasty and manipulative; Sikes is an out-and-out brute who beats women and children alike.

And one more: Walter White, Breaking Bad. We can sympathize with him early on, but the man shows no remorse, no regard, no thought to the lives he's likely ruining by making meth. And he's full of himself. Check out this brilliant clip:

As for my own work, sadly, I don't deal (so far) with characters like these, for the most part. However, there is a character, Roger Fields, in BARTON'S WOMEN. He's a bit player who doesn't figure prominently in the book, but every time I wrote a scene with him in it, I had the creeping feeling that there was something really sleazy about the guy, just waiting to be discovered. And yes, the name choice was deliberate (see entry #3).

Wow, that's about it for me. What about you? Who's on YOUR list? Thanks for stopping and reading, thanks to Lisa for coming up with this great idea. Have a great weekend, and congratulations to Lisa for book #2!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Sports Narratives

Hey, a guy could get used to this.

Sitting back, cool, salt-tinged breeze, cold drink at hand—yeah, it would be easy to just send a postcard back that says, "You know, I've decided to stay. So long, and thanks for all the fish."

Of course, that ignores the fact that, within about three minutes of posting my, "I'm going to take a short break" message, I had an idea for a post. And then another, and another. It would ignore the fact that I came *this close* to posting on that first Monday of my little vacation, and that I almost posted on Friday of last week, too. Then I decided to make good on a promise made on this blog (for once), and stay out for the rest of the weekend.

This week, Lisa Regan's second novel, Aberration, is being released. To celebrate, Lisa is running The Aberration Blog Hop: Finding theMost Aberrant Characters on Thursday and Friday. Follow that link above to sign up. It's quite a tall task, winnowing the list down, as there are so many memorable, aberrant characters. I'm looking forward to it, and to reading Aberration.

Now, on to the business at hand. This post almost got put up on Friday, but like I said above, I decided to sacrifice timeliness for sanity. It's still timely, I guess. I just have to make a few changes.

If you're ever feeling insecure about the future of fiction, stop worrying. Worry about whether you can make a living as an author of novels, sure. Worry over whether you should seek publication via traditional means, or if you should join the growing ranks of self-publishers. Worry over how much the next wave of technology is going to change how we present our stories, if at all. Worry over whether or not your style is current enough, or whether readers will like you, but don't worry about fiction. Styles and tastes change, packaging and delivery change, but what doesn't change is our need for stories. People need stories, and as long as that's the case, we need people to write 'em.

For proof, look no further than the world of sports. Last week, while the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins were waiting for their semifinal series to start, Puck Daddy, a Yahoo hockey blog, ran this story: Penguins Vs.Bruins: 10 must-watch storylines for the Eastern Conference Final. 

It's a typical sort of story that comes out at this time of year. As a Bruins fan who spends far too much time scanning online editions of Boston newspapers, I see this sort of thing all the time. Between all the sportswriters who have to fill column space and sell papers, bloggers trying to generate click-throughs, and TV talking heads who have to fill three-minute blocks between commercial breaks every night, there are stories about everything. And while it's a bit different than pure fiction, it doesn't feel that far off. Whether it's rehashing the details of how new-Bruin, Jaromir Jagr played on the Boston-beating Penguins in 1991 and 92 (yeah, he's that old, and yeah, it shows on the ice), or wondering if the Bruins are angry with Jarome Iginla for rejecting them at the trade deadline in favor of the Penguins, or if they're going to 'go after' Matt Cooke for his dirty hit of three years ago, or…or…or.

It's funny, isn't it? At this stage of the playoffs, we have the four best teams (and hey, the four remaining teams are the last four Stanley Cup winners—what a story!) playing great hockey. They're going at each other at least four times, every other day. The action is intense, the stakes are high. There may be more drama in the 'one-and-done' style of the NFL or the NCAA tournament, but for a physical, high speed sport like hockey, the series format ratchets everything up another notch. Hockey goes to eleven, to borrow a phrase. The biggest story should be what happens on the ice each night, not how player X was almost traded to team B. It should be enough. And yet, here we are, manufacturing stories, magnifying the importance of this, that and the other thing. I think it says a lot about us, and the future of writing. Writers will always be needed. Storytellers will always be needed. Let the sociologists, anthropologists, and whateverotherologists who study this sort of thing tell us why, because I sure don't know; I'm going to settle down and watch a hell of a story unfold.