Monday, December 31, 2012

National Novel Writing Month

November is National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo. I highly recommend it to anyone who is having trouble getting either the inspiration or the discipline to write. I've been feeling like an impostor since winning Writers of the Future (a feeling that seems to be fairly common among the winners) and needed to break out of it. NaNoWriMo proved just the thing. I took a new idea that had been rattling around in my head for only a couple of months and took off writing. Sixteen days later, I had a 40,000 word first draft. A month later, I'm working on a third draft and have the first chapters out to my highly tolerant and helpful associates in the two writing groups I participate in.

Which brings up writing groups and I can highly recommend them as well. The longer a writer stares at their prose, the less they see. It's the forest and trees metaphor. A fresh set of eyes will find the weaknesses in your story far faster than the author could. Too often we can't see our own assumptions within our writing and need a third party to honestly evaluate it. The group members should be supportive but not hold back on their critiques. I get some of the best comments on my writing from the people who hate it. It's difficult not to balk at criticism, but it is necessary to hone the work and it helps if the environment is supportive. If you write and are not part of a group, consider joining one.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Revolution review

I watched the new NBC Sci-Fi show Revolution until the logical anomalies became too much to handle. That took about 10 minutes. The show opened with a man dashing into his home and madly downloading something to a flash drive while trying to call a friend. The man accomplishes his task at the very last moment (of course) and installs the flash drive into an amulet. Never mind what he was trying to download or how he obtained the amulet - this is the mystery of our tale.

He contacts his friend who is driving along some freeway to warn him of the impending power failure but is cut off by the same failure. As the friend's car dies, he exits it and watches the lights of the cars behind him slowly die off. We pan to a shot of the world where the lights flicker off much faster than they did on that freeway. Finally, we go back to the home of the man with the amulet as he, his wife and two small children watch as a jet falls out of the sky to explode in a residential area. Interestingly, in spite of the fact that power is out, the landing lights of the jet are still working.

The next scene is 15 years later. The family lives in what looks like a suburban cul-de-sac whose yards have been converted to agriculture. A man is trying to teach the village children. A number of things about this post-apocalyptic village are of interest. First, the tiny fields would not be adequate to keep a couple supplied with food for a year much less a village. All of the houses seem to be in good repair. None has peeling paint after a decade and a half and none show signs of makeshift modifications necessary to accommodate fireplaces or wood stoves, the only possible source for heating and cooking. The men are freshly shaved - perhaps the beneficiaries of a cache of razor blades. One of the villagers must have been a hair stylist prior to the disaster since all are perfectly coifed. All of the clothes are manufactured, clean, well fitting and in good repair. One of the children whom the man is trying to teach is obese, not chubby, obese, as if children of a hunting and subsistence agriculture community would have the extra calories or lack of exercise to become obese. The man who is teaching wears glasses which seem to have the correct prescription, have not been repaired and show no signs of scratching.

The two children of the man from the first scene are now in their late teens. They are off on a hunting adventure. The boy, who was a brunette as a toddler, is now a blond. Tow heads often grow up to be brunettes, but not the other way around. The girl is carrying a crossbow that looks like it had only recently been taken off the display wall at Cabelas. On their trip, they encounter an RV that crashed during the blackout. This amazing 15-year-old vehicle shows no sign of rust or deterioration. I wanted to get the brand name so I could order one of these sturdy vehicles. The girl enters the vehicle through the driver's door window climbing down on the driver's seat which still has all of its upholstery and doesn't crack under the weight of two teenagers crawling over it. Inside, they search for useful items (as if any would still be there after this long). The boy opens a cabinet getting a face full of dust which triggers an asthma attack. His sister helps him run back to the village. For those of you who have never had an asthma attack, you don't have the breath to do any running.

By this time, I was starting to think of this little village in the larger context of the disaster. The village area is obviously close to a road or the RV wouldn't be within easy hiking distance. Judging by the number of houses and their close proximity to each other, it is in a suburban area. Yet there is no sign of conflict or defenses. Did all of the people in the town (and the town in the first scene looked like a major city) stay home and die without migrating out in search of food and safety?

I was willing to suspend disbelief and allow that all of the power in the world went out. I was even willing to overlook the fact that if the effect was so pervasive that even batteries didn't work then it should also affect the functioning of animal's nervous systems which are also electro-chemical in nature like a battery. What I couldn't overlook were all those well groomed, clean shaven, stylishly dressed and well armed people in a neat, tidy post-apocalyptic world. The illogic of the show was overwhelming before the first commercial. And the networks wonder why their shows don't get better ratings. The image of the plane spiraling down to crash and burn seems appropriate for Revolution.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Welcome to the next three winners.

One fun and unexpected part of winning the Writer of the Future contest is meeting the other winners and contestants. They've proven to be a great group of characters with the accent on character. The next three winners were announced this week and I've had a remote conversation with one and posted to the other two. Hopefully, we will all know each other and be anticipating meeting in person next April for our classes and award ceremony. It's always good to add to the collegial group of writers since it can be a lonely craft.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Joy of Punctuation

If words provide the meaning for writing, punctuation provides the cadence and nuance. Like words, if the meaning is not common, there is no understanding.

In a recent submission, the writer punctuated the entire ten pages using ellipsis ( ... ). She used ellipsis in place of commas, dashes, colons, semicolons, periods, etc. Every time I encountered one of her ellipsis, I was forced to stop reading to try to figure out what she meant by it. It was the equivalent of writing in English and occasionally throwing in a gratuitous word in Sanskrit. It breaks the flow of the story and pulls the reader out of the reality the writer is trying to create.

There is a purpose for standardized punctuation. It isn't just a foible of anal retentive people. Writer's need to learn the basic elements of grammar and punctuation if they want their work to flow. I don't do it correctly every time, but I am trying to learn the rules. In addition to style guides, Lynne Truss's funny and informative book Eats Shoots and Leaves is an excellent source for learning how to properly punctuate.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

What is the Redwood Curtain

I live in far northern California. I'm not talking about San Francisco, that's central California, check the maps. Eureka is five and a half hours drive north of SF and still nearly two hours drive from the Oregon border. I5 in CA which runs from the Oregon border to the Mexican border is 797 miles long. CA is huge and, despite the large urban areas, most of it is only lightly inhabited. That includes Humboldt county. The total population of the county is just under 135,000.

The main reason the population is low is the isolation. Coastal Humboldt is a plain stretching out from the coastal mountain range to surround Humboldt Bay. To exit the county, you have to cross the mountains on one of four winding highways all of which narrow to two lanes at one or more points. I'm not talking about four major roads, there are only four roads period. We lost our railroad decades ago. There are scheduled flights, but it costs more to take a flight from Humboldt to SF than from SF to New York.

The area including the surrounding mountains are home to the Coastal Redwoods, the tallest trees in the world. Hence, we live behind the Redwood Curtain.

Luckily, we are a self-reliant lot. This weekend alone, there is a major Reggae festival, a folklife festival, dozens of other musical venues, a dog show, at least two plays, a green living expo, a rodeo, a minor league baseball game, several farmer's markets, numerous nature walks and that just hits the highlights. Even if we do have the highest gasoline prices in the continental U.S. (they barge our gas in from the SF Bay area), it's still a wonderful place to live. Maybe that's why we have more artists per capita than anywhere else.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The presence and absence of rain

To all my friends suffering through a drought in Indiana, I know where your rain is — we've got it, or at least part of it. This time of year it's supposed to be partially overcast with temps in the mid to upper 60s. What we have is heavily overcast with temps in the upper 50s and rain. Perfect March day, only it's mid-July. The rain should have stopped in May.

Summer behind the Redwood Curtain is often foggy. The inland mountains and valleys heat up and draw in the cooler air from the ocean leaving the coast socked in with fog in the early morning and overcast after that. Most days, it clears in the afternoon. It hasn't been clearing this year. The effect is oppressive. I might even say the affect is oppressive. I'm hoping that both the Mid-western drought and the overcast behind the Redwood Curtain lift soon.

Monday, July 16, 2012

7/10/2012 I'm number 3!

After three weeks of anxious waiting, I got the word today that my story is the third place winner in the Writers of the Future contest -- third out of a thousand or more. That's stupendous. I was bouncing off the ceiling when Joy came home. I immediately asked her if she wanted to go out to lunch with a prize winning author. We were both ecstatic. This is, without a doubt, the biggest thing that has happened in my writing career. I'm a paid author with one of my necessary publications toward joining the Science Fiction Writers of America and something for my cover letter that might catch the eye of an editor.

Lunch was great and then it was back home to reality. One of the bee hives needed inspection. It's having queen problems, so we had to do a shake-out to prepare it for requeening. The trash had to be put out, compost dug into the pile, and I had to get ready for one of my three critique groups which meets every Tuesday. I bring chocolate to tonight's group since I have good news. Life goes on.

I'll be polishing up some of my older stories in hopes that my change of status will result in a slightly longer look from editors. Good news is not an end in itself, it's the impetus to move forward.

6/22/2012 Cats

It is the first day of summer and, as seems normal in this neck of the tall woods, it is cold and raining. Technically, the rains should have stopped a month ago and we should be experiencing dry, if often foggy, weather. So I spent a good portion of the day with at home, with the cats. We have three. They are good trainers. That is not to say they are well trained, rather that they have trained us well. Each morning, Ben, our oldest and, at 16 pounds, our chunkiest, sits in my lap, disturbing me as I read the local paper (actually not much of a disturbance considering the woeful state of the Times-subStandard). He has managed to train me to do his grooming. I set aside the paper and take up a flea comb to prepare him for his day. He may deign to stay with me for a time after he has been groomed as a reward for my efforts.

Cats are much smarter than the average public believes. One of our former cats, Claudius (yes, I wanted to spell his name Clawdius, but Joy would not subject a cat to that indignity), learned how to open pocket doors. Since our bathrooms, at that time, had pocket doors, guests were told to lock the door if they did not wish to have visitors.

Ben has gone one step beyond Claudius — he can open regular doors. Our current doors have lever style handles and Ben stands on his back legs stretching his front paws until they surround the lever handle. Then he engages his considerable weight to pull the handle down and pushes the door open. This was a considerable feat, but he has even topped this, he has managed to open doors that must be pulled inward. He now accomplishes the feat regularly so we must keep all the outside doors locked at all times to keep the cats in. So if you think you know the intellectual capabilities of cats, think again.

6/21/2012 A Roller Coaster Week

It's been a week of extremes — a manic depressive kind of week. It started with confirmation that my wife, Joy, has a recurrence of her cancer. This is her fourth cancer. The oncologist used the term chronic disease for the first time. The realization that she had not whipped this disease and most likely never would was a blow to both of us. Over the years since the first occurrence we've always held that hope. And she seemed to be doing so well.

The manic portion of the week was the news that I'm a finalist in the Writers of the Future contest; one of eight people from a field of hundreds if not thousands internationally who submitted their work. The contest is probably the largest for unpublished SF and fantasy writers. The honor is amazing. This is the culmination of nine years of concerted effort since I retired and of writing part time since I was ten; a moment some 50 years in the making. Joy was happy for me and glad for some good news. Then we got back to the business of cancer.

Cancer consumes everything — time, money, energy and ultimately the life of the sufferer. I don't begrudge her any of the time, money or energy. I only wish we could still believe we had the luxury of time. Both victim and family become engulfed in the disease nearly to the exclusion of all else. It's hard to plan your life around treatments, side-effects and changes in the disease itself. Even a brief trip for our anniversary is on hold until we know when the latest round of treatments will take place and what the follow-ups will be. I get away from moment to moment with my writing. Within the worlds I've constructed, I have some control.