Monday, April 14, 2014

Well Begun is Half Done

Like most avid readers, I usually pick up the latest from my favorite author with hardly a glance at the blurb on the back, much less cracking it open and checking the opening lines. But I've picked up a few new authors this year, and part of the process of picking new books and authors involves reading the first few paragraphs. So I thought I'd analyze a couple of beginnings and try to figure out what made me decide to buy each book.

First is the opening paragraph from Jack Campbell's The Lost Fleet: Dauntless. I picked this one up initially because I liked the cover, and I was sort of in the mood for military sf. Without further ado, the opening: "The cold air blowing in through the vents still carried a faint tang of overheated metal and burned equipment. Faint echoes of a blast reached into his stateroom as the ship shuddered. Voices outside the hatch were raised in fright and feet rushed past. But he didn't move, knowing that if the enemy had resumed the attack there'd be alarms sounding and many more than just one blow struck to the ship. And, attack or not, he had no assignment to run to, no job to fulfill."

I think several things work for this opening. First, several sensory details are given to firmly place the reader in the story: cold air, the faint tang of overheated metal and burned equipment, voices raised in fright, etc. Second, there's a sense that things are happening, that the story is starting en media res, or in the middle of the action; people are running around doing things immediately following some sort of attack. Third, it aroused my curiosity about this one person who is sitting (presumably alone) in a room while all heck breaks out. And finally, there's something ominous about the line "…if the enemy had resumed the attack there'd be alarms sound and many more than just one blow struck to the ship." This opening conveys a ton of information in just a few lines.

Next is a completely different sort of book. Maureen Johnson's The Name of the Star is part ghost story, part police procedural, and a new twist on Jack the Ripper. That, and the fact that the main character grew up in Louisiana but is now going to boarding school in London, drew me initially to read the first few paragraphs. It opens with: "The eyes of London were watching Claire Jenkins. She didn't notice them, of course. It was an accepted fact that London has one of the most extensive CCTV systems in the world." There's more about the cameras, but I'll leave the rest out.

I like the first line. It's creepy, and it fits with both the ghost story aspect and the Jack the Ripper aspect of the novel. The bit about the cameras is not only a nice juxtaposition to the idea of Jack the Ripper, but the cameras are important throughout the story. It's a completely different sort of beginning when compared to Dauntless, but it works. It sets us in a time and place, and it gives us someone to focus on immediately. Unfortunately for poor Claire Jenkins, she doesn't last more than a couple of pages. It's a story about Jack the Ripper, after all.

What are some of your favorite beginnings?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Misunderstandings Lead to Some Funny Ideas

My recently turned four year old has become quite the conversationalist. I enjoy hearing his explanations for things, and I have a notebook where I write down the more memorable words and phrases. For example, he must have heard somebody say 'sugar buzz,' only he calls it 'sugar bugs.' Fair enough.

That got me to thinking about my own childhood and things I heard but didn't understand as a kid. I grew up in South Texas on the Gulf Coast, and I experienced a couple of hurricanes. I was a little kid when one came along. People talked about the eye of the hurricane, and I immediately pictured an enormous eyeball floating in the middle of the storm. Creepy, right? But wait, it gets better.

On the news, one of the meteorologists spoke about birds and how they get trapped in the eye of the hurricane. So then I was imagining a giant eyeball filled with grackles (because that constituted the majority of birds in the area) trapped and trying to peck their way out. Is it any wonder I have an aversion to all things eye-related?

So this hurricane hit. The windows were boarded up, so I couldn't see outside at all, but I could certainly hear the wind battering at the house. Then there was a lull in the storm, and one of my parents said the eye was passing over. Again, I picture a giant eyeball, only now it's floating in the resaca that marked the back boundary of our property, and it's filled with angry birds trying to peck their way out, and because the windows were boarded up, I couldn't see them at all, and that's actually worse than being able to see a giant eyeball filled with birds.

At some point I figured out what the eye of the hurricane actually was. Boy, I felt a little silly for thinking it was a giant eyeball, and I was simultaneously relieved that it wasn't. What are some things you misunderstood as a kid?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Special Guest Post with Andrea Janes

I'd like to welcome author Andrea Janes to the blog in a special guest post in which I interview her about her YA novel, Glamour. Read on to find out more about the book, ghost tours, and Andrea's dreams of being a sea captain.

What made you decide to set Glamour in Cape Cod?

I can’t remember! I started working on this story in 2004, based on a casual suggestion from a friend (“You should write a script about a girl who works in an ice cream shop and she’s an ambidextrous scooper”) that I thought was amusing. Scoops, as it was initially called, had a vastly different form then. It was a screenplay, for one thing. Reese was the main character, and it had no witchcraft in it. There was a lot of stuff about doppelgangers and doubling that I thought was very Hitchcockian at the time, but of course it was pretty dreadful. So I put it away for a while and wrote something else (The Flickers, a caper about slapstick comediennes who solve mysteries). Then, about four years later, I took out Scoops, looked at it again and realized it still had potential – it just needed a hook. Well, I figured, they live on Cape Cod, kind of near Salem, why not make them witches? A bit predictable, maybe, but once I replaced the ice cream making with magical spells, the story became much more interesting. Also, it was at this point that I realized Christina was a far more fascinating character than Reese, so I threw Reese into another dimension and let Christina take over. By this point in my life I’d realized my odds of selling a spec script were slim, especially one with two female leads and a lot of costly special effects, so I then rewrote it again, this time as a novel.

I understand that when you're not writing, you give ghost tours of New York City. What is one of the most unusual things has happened to you during a ghost tour?

Yes, when I’m not writing I run my own tour company called Boroughs of the Dead: Macabre New York City Walking Tours. I lead dark and haunted historical walking tours of the city, and I also sell my collection of short stories (also called Boroughs of the Dead) on the tours and on the website.

The strangest thing that ever happened to me on one of my tours was the time I had a guest who claimed to be psychic and she kept up a running narrative of all the ghosts she was seeing as we walked through Greenwich Village. At first I assumed she was a bit nutty, but then her comments became uncannily close to what I knew to be true about the places we were visiting. At one stop, she immediately said she smelled heavy perfume and cigar smoke; we were in front of a former speakeasy that is known for its olfactory ghosts. At another she said she felt an overwhelming feeling of sadness; we were in front of a house where a child had been murdered. By the end of the tour I was just letting her do all the talking.

Your main character, Christina works in an ice cream shop. What's her favorite ice cream? What's your favorite ice cream?

Fun fact: Christina despises ice cream and never eats it! I, however, would move into the Ben & Jerry’s factory if I could. There is almost no flavor they’ve put into a one-pint container that I have not enjoyed. One of my all favorites though is a Baskin Robbins flavor that I think has been discontinued (I haven’t been able to find it for years anyway). It was called Tiger Tail and it was orange sherbet with a black licorice swirl.

Christina is a very powerful witch. What made you decide to write about witches?

I’ve always been really interested in witches for some reason, I don’t know why. I just feel an overwhelming instinctual attraction to the idea of witches and witchcraft. The psychological answer probably has something to do with freedom and power. I like both those things. I even like the sound of the word “witch.” It’s so euphonious.

Your twitter handle says you wish you were a sea captain. What would you do if you had the chance to be one?

Catch that damn white whale! But seriously, a real sea captain? Like, nowadays? Well, first of all, I’d pull in a healthy salary of at least $150k/year. Did you know that maritime careers are really well compensated? It’s true! (Even longshoremen make about $135k/year.) I’m not sure if I’d be a commercial captain, or work on excursion boats or what. I do know that, either way, it would be significantly less romantic than I imagine it would be, and would involve lots of diesel fumes.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a horror novel about a haunted condo in Rockaway Beach, Queens.


Andrea Janes writes horror, dark comedy, thrillers, and historical slapstick. She is the author of Boroughs of the Dead: New York City Ghost Stories. She is also a licensed NYC tour guide, and offers a variety of ghostly tours around the city. Her many obsessions include New York City history, old photographs, Mabel Normand, all things nautical, and beer. She maintains a personal blog over at Spinster Aunt, where she discusses these obsessions in more detail than is probably healthy.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Research in a Cemetery

One of the things I love about writing is the excuse to do interesting things in the name of research. Recently I wrote a story about a necromancer who spends considerable time in cemeteries. As I was writing, I sort of used generic cemetery details with the idea that I'd research the setting later.

Later came along a couple of weeks ago. I went to one of the older cemeteries in town to walk around and take some pictures. While I was writing, I somehow had it in mind that the fence around the cemetery would be huge and imposing. Maybe I've read too many stories about grave robbing, I dunno. Anyhow, I was surprised to find that it was actually short enough that a person could easily prop their hands on top and hop over. Not that I did that, mind you, I went during regular hours and drove in like a respectable person, but my characters do odd things. Ahem.

Anyhow, one of the first things I noticed was that there was a separate section for the Greek Orthodox Church. When I got home, I did some googling and found that quite a few Greeks ended up in Albuquerque with the intention of making money and going back home. I'm sure some ended up doing that, but apparently quite a few stayed in the Land of Entrapment.

A Woodman of the World tombstone
Some headstones also told where people were from. Folk came from Missouri, Greece, Germany. I wondered what brought them here. Was it the railroad? Did they end up here because of tuberculosis? Around the turn of the century, a lot of physicians sent their patients here because the altitude and dry air helped with the symptoms. In fact, one of the founding physicians for a local hospital ended up here because he had TB.

I also discovered that there is such a thing as The Woodmen of the World. Initially I thought maybe these were people who belonged to some sort of wood carving group, but it's actually sort of a philanthropic organization (and they don't carve wood, alas). They provide life insurance, give away tons of flags, and for a while they erected these elaborate tombstones. According to Wikipedia, they stopped erecting the more elaborate stones in the 1920's.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A Solution for the Problem of Distant Characters

Sometimes revisions are a real pain. I wrote a novella at the end of last year, got some feedback, and revised it, heavily in some areas. But I felt like something was still fundamentally wrong.

I tend to write most often in third person with a tight point of view. In other words, I want the reader to really sink into the character's head and feel like he or she is along for the ride. But in the case of this novella, I ended up with what felt like a distant third person point of view, and it showed in comments from my beta readers. So after revisions at the end of last year, I put it aside to work on other projects and picked it up again recently. This time, I decided to rewrite the entire thing from first person.

Now the main character is coming more alive. I've cut a few lines as I've been going along, but mostly I've been adding more, and I think it's working. In the past, I've had trouble with getting readers to feel close to the point of view character. One of the ways I got around that was to rewrite the piece in first person, then switch it back to third. In this case, I think the story was just meant to be in first person all along.

I've got about three thousand more words on this story, then I'll set it aside for a bit and reread it before making final changes. If you've gotten some comments about readers feeling distant from your point of view character, try rewriting a scene or the entire story in first person and see if that changes things for you.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Reaching The End

Sunday afternoon, I wrote the two sweetest words in the world: The End. Why are these the two sweetest words? Because I have something to work with. I actually prefer revisions over rough drafts because that's when I get to pull things together, add foreshadowing, and all that other cool stuff. I finished the rough draft of an urban fantasy, new adult novel. It's the second in a series, the second sequel I've ever written and, as with any story, I learned from the process.

One thing I did different this time around was to write down my word count every day. I didn't track the words written that particular day, but the total, so I got to see the number creep up slowly, with jumps here and there. I also wrote down when I skipped a day, and what the reason was (i.e., sick day, or brainstorming). I can seen where I dashed through from about 10K to 30K, and then slowed to a more consistent pace after that. I'm not sure how it worked, exactly, but it kept me going. Maybe it was the fact that I was holding myself accountable in this notebook and I didn't want a bunch of days when I wrote "I slacked off."

Now, I'm not much of an outliner at all. I plan ahead a bit, and then I plunge through the rough draft. The rough draft ends up being more of a really, really detailed outline, and I often surprise myself along the way, which I think is a good thing since it will (hopefully) also surprise the reader. But, during my planning for this novel I wrote out a basic summary. It was nothing major, just a few lines. I had originally intended for this to be a four book series, so I wrote out a summary for books three and four, and I discovered something really interesting. Nothing much happened in book three. So I took the wee bit from that one and tacked it onto the fourth. Now I know my series will be three books long, and I figured it out with a minimum of grief. So from now on, I'm going to outline just a teensy bit.

One last thing. I tend to come in under my target word count. Every. Single. Time. I panic, then during revisions I end up adding a lot of stuff and pretty much meet the original target word count. This time, I almost hit my word count. I like to think it's a sign of improvement.

Monday, February 24, 2014

My Take on Robocop, Old and New

Hollywood seems quite fond of remakes and reboots and do-overs and anything else they can glean from the past. I'm not always fond of seeing my favorites made over again, so I wasn't sure I'd be seeing the new Robocop movie. However, I had a free movie ticket that was about to expire and some free time, so I put them to good use, grabbed some popcorn and a soda, and settled in to watch the new Robocop. My expectations were low as far as the storyline went, and high as far as the CGI went. I was somewhat pleasantly surprised at the story, although it could have been better, and I have an idea of where they went off track.

After watching the new movie, I tried to recall when I'd last seen the old one. It had been quite a few years. Curious, I went home and watched it that night so I could compare the two. When I first watched the original in theaters, I cried. That's probably not the intended emotional response the movie makers had, but my brother had either just joined the police academy or had just graduated. Regardless, he was a regular cop, like Murphy (in the original… in the reboot, he's a detective), and it brought to light a family's worst nightmare when someone's loved one is in the police force or the armed forces, and being an emotional teenager to begin with, it didn't take much to send me over the edge.

At any rate, I did not cry during the reboot. Just putting that out there.

I found three common themes between the two movies. First, corporations, and the people who run them, are greedy bastards. Even when a human (or bits of a human) are involved in their product, they still treat that human as a product, as an 'it.' Both movies tried to hammer this home.

Second, both movies poke fun at the media. In the original movie, the media is more of a joke, akin to silly commercials like the one advertising the new car, the 6000 SUX, with 8.6 miles per gallon. In the newer movie, the media is a little more dangerous, sly, tricksy. It's ironic that Samuel L. Jackson's character speaks about the 'biased media' when his show so clearly has an agenda.

Third, both movies touch on what it means to be posthuman, a common theme in science fiction stories, although the newer movie delves into the question a little more, questioning the impact of emotions on our humanity as well as a brief question about souls.

Three themes are more than enough for a movie, but the reboot touched on a couple of other issues that, in my opinion, made the movie feel a little disjointed and a little too long. First, it touches on the use of drones foreignly and domestically. Second, the mad scientist/doctor character touches on the question of medical ethics. As our technology advances, new questions arise about end-of-life, quality of life, etc. Both of these are fascinating topics and deserve further exploration, but they distracted from the other themes.

Another thing the original did very well and the reboot flunked was fitting in a ton of characterization with nuances. In the original, pre-robo Murphy takes the ramp out of the parking garage too fast, causing the patrol car's back bumper to hit the pavement and send sparks flying. He also twirls his gun like a gunman in an old west show because his son admires a character on TV who does the same. These are touching, humorous moments, and when Murphy is Robocop, he ends up doing both of those, showing that he's still in there, somewhere. Those moments tell a lot, and in an economical fashion. The new movie lacks moments like that.

One of the things I disliked about the new movie was a scene where Robocop took on some bad guys, and it looked like a video game. Some people like that, but for me, it took me right out of the story, and it cheapened the characters' deaths--and that moment--because it felt less real. Also, the bad guys put on night vision goggles and turn off the lights, as if Robocop doesn't have the most kickass, advanced technology in his visor. Dumb bad guys.

Of course, the special effects were far superior in the new version. The sound was better, the visuals were better, the robotic suit was better. Watching the original reminded me of how 80's villains were often ridiculous and over the top.

There were a couple of nods to the original in the new version, like "I'd buy that for a dollar" and "Dead or alive, you're coming with me." So all in all, I was glad to watch the new one, but I won't watch it repeatedly like I did the original.