As Long as They’re Skating

As the squabbling between millionaires and billionaires continues to threaten the hockey season, I’d like to share a little hockey anecdote from years gone by. Once upon a time, a long time ago, I was sitting at the bar at Callahan’s, across from Rose, the best bartender in the world. She’s a Pittsburgh girl. The Penguins were skating against… um… I don’t rightly recall. The game went into overtime. Some of the rest is a little fuzzy in my memory.

“Another beer?” Rose asked me as the teams took the ice.

“As long as they’re skating, I’m drinking,” I replied. During the second overtime period, I decided that out of solidarity I should drink one beer per period. Solidarity, brother! It brought down the commies in Poland, after all. Rose just shook her head and poured the next beer.

Ah, pride. I actually considered going home during the fourth overtime, but I had made a sacred pact with the hockey gods.

The game went into a sixth overtime. At this point, the guys had played nearly three entire hockey games. Things were getting sloppy, but there are no ties, and (thank God) no shootouts in playoff hockey. Puck hit net, we rejoiced with what little we had left, and I walked home.

fuego has his own story about that game, a different experience in a distant time zone. That morning he had arrived on the set of some movie or other in the Czech Republic or thereabouts. One of the other people on the crew said, “They’re still playing!”

2

A Global Force for Good

I cringe when politically-motivated folks use the words “good” and “evil”. But the United States Navy is calling themselves “a global force for good” and I’m inclined to side with them. There is no organization better-prepared to bring relief across the globe. Plus it’s odd that in this day and age that piracy would be a threat to trade but there you have it, and the United States Navy is the only force in the world prepared to do something about it.

Almost every country on the planet benefits from the security we provide for world trade.

Which makes me wonder, if, perhaps, some of those other countries might be interested in picking up part of the tab. Keeping the sea lanes safe is frightfully expensive, and up to now at least a prosperous United States has been ready to pick up the bill.

Thing is, with our tax money we’re making products manufactured in Korea cheaper. Korea, Japan, England, Germany, pretty much any country you can name, we are providing their defense budget, so they can focus all their energy on kick-ass products. Every Camry, every Mercedes, every Kia, is subsidized by US tax dollars (or, these days, federal debt).

We like to be the good guys. It’s almost unhealthy how badly we United Statesians want to be the global force for good. Global security is a good thing, and I’m happy to pitch in. But you know when you get to the end of a good night of drinking with your international pals and Japan says, “thanks, dude, that was great! Thanks for demanding that you always cover me!”, and pats you on the shoulder on the way out, and then Europe pulls out their wallet, looks in sadly, and says, “I’ll get the next one” and then your friends in Asia say, “I’ll be happy to loan you the money you need to pay my tab,” that maybe it’s time to even things out.

2

The Coroner Rides a Motorcycle

Riding the bus to work, top deck at the front. King of all I survey, which, from up there, is a lot. Ahead, brake lights. Even the carpool lane slows to a stop.

As we inch along, the driver moves the bus well over when motorcycles roll past in their unofficial lane between the carpool lane and the next lane over. Many bike drivers hold out their left hands in a horizontal peace sign as they roll by.

Another bike, much like the others, except the driver has CORONER written in yellow letters across the back of his dark-blue jacket. He weaves through traffic, rectangular white storage compartments flanking his rear wheel. Coroner stuff, no doubt.

This makes sense, I realize. Cars tangle, metal twists, bones break and people die. You can’t clear traffic lanes until the coroner gets there. That’s going to happen a lot sooner if the coroner rides a motorcycle. It’s efficient.

When we are judged as a people in the unimaginable future, I imagine folks will say of us, “Well, they got things done; gotta hand them that. They got things done.”

1

22 Rules of Storytelling According to Emma Coates

Emma Coates is a storyboard artist for Pixar. This is a list of storytelling rules and tips she has shared with the world via Twitter. Some of them may seem pretty obvious, but when you take the list as a whole, chances are you’re going to find ways to make your current creative project better.

Here we go!

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

I think the one that I have to watch for more than any other (that’s not to diminish any of them) is #18. I can fuss over a stretch of prose indefinitely. One of the reasons I created Jer’s Novel Writer was to easily mark places where I felt the need to fuss, so I could fuss over them later, and get on with writing. The confidence that I can fuss later allows me to move on.

I also like #9, about making a list of what would not happen next.

I came across this list via a commercial email that credited io9 for collecting the tweets. io9 doesn’t credit anyone else for doing it, so we’ll give them a hearty thumbs-up for the actual labor required to make this list happen.

1

Things My Sweetie has Cooked on the Barbecue (so far)

Having your kitchen torn out is stressful. What do you do when your haven from stress is the kitchen? You fire up the barbecue. The light of my life has made:

  • Chocolate chip banana bread
  • Ginger mixed berry coffee cake
  • Blueberry chocolate chip oatmeal cookies
  • Double-chocolate cherry cayenne brownies

and we’re not done yet. (And by ‘we’, I mean ‘she’.)

Marketing — A Huge Fail and an Interesting Idea

I’m hardly an expert on the subject of marketing, but sometimes you don’t have to be one to notice when someone does a terrible job. In addition, I came across an interesting marketing idea that I may well end up using.

Let’s start with the bad. When I first saw the trailers for Cabin in the Woods, it looked like a fairly standard horror/slasher type of flick, and not a terribly interesting one at that. Perhaps there were hints that there was something deeper going on, but nothing that came anywhere close to telling what the movie was about. Nothing to hint that there is a lot of humor inside that scary package.

Had the preview shown the guy in the white shirt and tie shouting “We have a winner! Redneck zombie torture family!” I would have given the flick more than a second glance. Bare-bones slasher movies don’t do much for me — even the ones friends and family helped make — but Cabin is much more.

Note: There are redneck zombies, and there is blood. A lot of blood. You can’t dissect the genre without dissecting a few people. If you’re OK with that, and, like me, weren’t excited by the trailers to Cabin in the Woods, go back and give it a second look. One of the worst-marketed films I’ve ever been aware of deserves a bump.

While we’re talking about marketing, I read the first two chapters of a novel today that I had no intention of reading. How did the writer accomplish this trick? With cleverness! You see, I have one of those electronic reading devices you’ve heard so much about. I’ve been catching up on my classics, because I should and because they’re free. Recently I downloaded H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and cracked it open the other day on the bus to work.

Before the beginning of the public-domain text was a brief foreword by one Félix J. Palma, saying (roughly) “This is one of my favorite stories ever, and I hope you enjoy it. I have included the first chapters of my novel at the end; if you feel so inclined I would be delighted if you would give them a read.”

At the end of Wells’ classic Mr. Palma returns, saying how much he loved The Time Machine when he was a kid, but how it failed to delight as thoroughly when he read it as an adult (an experience that echoes my own). Without denigrating the master, he talked about his time-travel story for a couple of paragraphs. With a turn of the next ePage, we come to the title page of Palma’s work, which proclaims beneath the title The Map of Time, and after some Victorian-era histrionics:

YOUR EMOTION AND ASTONISHMENT ARE GUARANTEED.

To which I said, “Hell, yeah, Félix.” Chances are, I’m buying the book. The first two chapters haven’t blown me away, but they’re solid and have a distinctive style. I have one more free chapter to go, and there’s a collision coming. He gets that right and I’m in. And heck, it’s guaranteed.

So now I’m wondering: What public-domain work would most attract readers who would enjoy Munchies?

The Black Tower

I don’t go looking for historical fiction to read, but I’m starting to wonder why not. Exhibit A: The Black Tower: A Novel by Louis Bayard. France has had a bloody revolution in which they killed off much of the aristocracy. That was followed by a purge of the intellectuals who had fomented the first revolution, the rise of Napoleon and his failed attempt at empire-building, and finally an exhausted public deciding to invite the remains of royalty back to rule them.

In Paris there’s a lot of “let’s pretend the last couple of ugly decades never happened.” But questions linger. Particularly, the death of a young boy who would now be king. Documentation is sparse, and rumors abound, as they are wont to do. What if that boy, now a man, showed up again? Quite possibly, another civil war.

But here’s where the true magic of The Black Tower takes hold. Our narrator, a doctor (more or less), is sucked into the investigation of a grisly murder. He is bullied and tormented by Vidoq, an infamous policeman who is the terror of the bandits and low-lifes of Paris. And also, maybe, one of them. The actions of people trying to hide the (possibly) true king bring our earnest doctor and ruthless investigator to the very man. Much cleverness is required.

And the possible heir is… not what you might expect.

But it’s not just blind chance that sucks our unassuming doctor into the intrigue. Over the story his father looms, an accomplished physician, who was, long ago, charged with watching over a prince as he wasted away in the tower. After the prince died, Father was never the same.

Unless maybe the prince didn’t die after all. And that’s the big question. False claimants are periodically executed, along with those who backed them. Vidoq is a crafty SOB and is not going to stick his neck out (in this case not a metaphor, but the source of the metaphor) for a pretender.

Murders continue apace. Someone way up in the newly-reestabliched aristocracy does not want the prince to come to light. The doctor and the cop may not like each other, but Vidoq gradually makes the doctor an ally, rather than just his bitch. Eventually, arguably, they become friends. The sort of friends who don’t really want to see each other again.

There’s a lot of uncertainty at the end of the narrative, but it’s a satisfying sort of unknown. Our good doctor has played his role in a much larger story, but there is much that remains unseen.

I contend that all historical fiction should have a list of sources at the end. We’ve had our romp, but a short discussion of what parts of the story were based on documented fact would be awesome. How much did I learn about the French revolution from this book? I have no idea. I’ll be hitting the Interwebs to fill in the gaps, but any article I read out there may be based on this novel. The writer of this story clearly invested a lot of time in research; I’d just like to get the executive summary at the end.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Christian Dior Handbag), I get a kickback.