Countdown Apocalypse


I have suffered through some horribly cheesy movies of late. This is mostly due to 3 things:
1) Free ‘Premium’ channels on Dish [I set the DVR to record anything that sounded vaguely interesting.]
2) Halloween [Yeah, apparently ‘scary’ and ‘stupid’ are supposed to go hand-in-hand?]
3) NaNoWriMo [Waiting for the 11/1 kickoff, I’ve been wasting time doing things other than writing.]

To be honest, there is a 4th cause to the cheesy-moviethon: I like them. Actually, it’s not that I like suckhole movies. I really do abhor the thin storylines, contrived plots, flat characters, and horrendous dialogue. What I ‘like’ about them, is picking apart all the wonky, god-awful elements.

Last night I watched some stupid flick titled Countdown Apocalypse or Apocalypse Countdown or some such. The supposed apocalypse was utterly, utterly lame. And I never did experience any sort of countdown. The bulk of the movie was some chick wandering around–always moving–in a plane, walking across the desert, navigating the streets of Old Jerusalem, in a car between cities, hiking up stairs in a building, wandering aimlessly down long hallways, etc. Seriously, laid end-to-end, the main character’s footprints would wrap around the equator seven times.

During all this slow walking and uneventful travel, there was no dialogue. Like, at all. Instead of meaningful words to let me in on the lady’s state-of-mind or how horribly distraught she was over her daughter being kidnapped and shipped off to some antichrist processing facility in Tel Aviv, I got to enjoy symphonic music which–I am reckoning–was supposed to cue my feelings. Or something. It just made me sleepy.

About 15 minutes in [translation: 10,987,789 footsteps already traveled], it struck me that only 10 lines of dialogue had been spoken. The main character, Allison, spoke very little. And when she did, 90% of the time it was in the form of a question. Seriously. Lame. Watching with a friend, of course, we started shredding the movie’s suckiness. My job was to simply announce “Question” each time Allison posed one. While the pace of my job was uber-leisurely since she hardly ever spoke, I soon grew tired of hearing my own mouth say the same word each and every time she delivered a worthless line.

My buddy’s job was pointing out every time a character said something one moment only to contradict it in the next breath. Not as some form of characterization, but as [idk the hell what!] perhaps a failed attempt on the part of the writer to infuse tension? Maybe?

So here is how I would write in the style of Countdown Apocalypse:

Allison wore her tanktop which plainly showed the backwards culture that she was a hot, blond American MILF. She walked to the foreign taxi. Although it should only have taken 3 seconds, the journey took days. Slow emotional music echoed in her head.

“Can you take me to Jerusalem?” she asked.

“No. I am on my break. Well, okay,” the cabbie answered.

She rode along over a barren landscape which stretched out for millions and billions and trillions of miles. She stared out the window looking neither sad, nor bored, nor scared, nor anxious. But the somber tune continued to echo all around her. After 40 days, she arrived at the hotel.

“Did my husband check-in?”

“No, he did not. Oh wait, yes he did. Yesterday.”

“Was my daughter with him?”

“Yes. I mean, no. He was alone.” The innkeeper paused as Allison grimaced with horribly acted, false sadness. “Here, have a tissue, you sad American lady. Oh, prophets! The box is empty.”

“Can I have the key to our room so I can put away my stuff even though I will never pay attention to it for the rest of this boring ass movie?”

The innkeeper searched the desk, his pockets, the empty Kleenex box. “I’m sorry, it seems I have lost the spare key. Wait! Here it is. It was waiting right here with this important envelope I was supposed to give you. Enjoy your stay!”

“This hotel has a staircase, right? Would you mind if I took it up to the 785th floor so I can stare at the unopened envelope for 45 minutes as I climb?”

“No, I’m sorry. We only have an elevator.”

“Then what is that door with the stairway symbol?”

“Oh, I guess we do have stairs after all.”

“So you mind if I take them? How are the acoustics in there? Will the sad music effectively emote for me since I don’t have the capacity to do it for myself?”

The innkeeper nodded his head in slow motion to indicate that the sound in the stairway was awesome. “No, the sound in there is horrible,” he said.

Allison ate up 20 minutes of screen time, eventually reaching the door. Pausing, with her hand on the knob, she spoke through the wood, “Isn’t there some kind of countdown I should be worried about? Shouldn’t I be racing to save my daughter before it’s too late?”

The door stood silent. But the music droned on.

I won’t even go into the contrivances, false tension, lack of real plot or resolution, or the stupid ending I waited 6,500 hours to discover. What I will share is that I don’t understand how ‘stories’ such as these become actual movies. It really baffles me.

Going into NaNo–the 4th cause of me watching this P.O.S. in the first place–I am extremely aware of the need to avoid dead scenes, empty space, and groan-worthy dialogue. Also: stereotypes, dangling elements, lack of emotion, a pretend ticking clock, and subplots which go nowhere. While I was already well aware of those pitfalls, this fustercluck of a movie drove all these points home. So, maybe it’s a work of genius after all? Ummm…

“Why, oh why, do I subject myself to this crap?”

:: Cue heartfelt, symphonic music as Lucas trudges ever-so-slowly towards November ::

Current countdown to NaNo at the time of this posting: 15 hours, 12 minutes, 58 seconds

My Guide to Not Sucking


You can invest your very soul in writing a whooole book. And, in the end, it can suck.

Writing is a talent which is innate to many of us, but like any other skill, it must be developed and honed. Phreak Show is either my 3rd or 4th novel–depends on which way the tally is done. I do not want it to suck. So, I have been reading the ‘competition’, as well as books on writing craft. To further polish my grasp of this seemingly simple [bullshit!] craft of writing, I constantly explore relevant blogs, and even dished out the dough and attended an SCBWI conference last month.

And I feel far more prepared, knowledgeable and humble this time around.

Along the way, I have collected bits and pieces of advice, tips, keys, and ‘secrets’ to crafting an amazing novel. Finally, I have them all typed up and congealed into a single, personal reference file. These have come from all the above mentioned sources, but I admit I have been lax in recording the attributions. I’m guessing a lot of these tidbits came from Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel. Most of them, I have paraphrased or rewritten in my own words so they make sense to my specific brainwaves. I can’t claim ownership of any of these nuggets, but I hope they offer you the same bit of guidance they offer me.

THE BIG PICTURE

–          The essence of story is conflict.
–          The mind doesn’t know the difference between an imagined thing and a real one.
–          Above and beyond setting, characters and plot, great novels alter our way of seeing the world. Amazing novels do not leave us feeling neutral; they rattle, confront and illuminate.
–          Throughout every scene and twist, steer away from the obvious.
–          The time-tested development tool of asking “What if [insert alternate option here]?” while creating, offers a way to escalate stakes, add layers to plot and character, and open new thematic dimensions.
–          We read fiction not to just see ourselves, but also to imagine ourselves as we might be.
–          The moment tension slacks off, so does a reader’s attention. Include tension on every page to keep the reader glued to your story.
–          A well-constructed scene has a mini-arc of its own: a beginning, rise, and climax [or reversal] at the end.

PREMISE

If you do not start with a strong premise, your story is doomed to be mediocre. A great premise should contain these key ingredients:
Plausibility: It should contain a grain of truth, come from someplace real. It should be surprising yet credible. Readers will be concerned about the outcome of the story if what is happening to the characters could happen to them.
Inherent Conflict: Where there is conflict, there is rich soil in which to plant a story. The world should have strong conflict woven into its very fabric. (e.g. Strong opposing forces—perhaps both in the ‘right’)
Originality: Steer away from the obvious. It is essential to find a fresh angle, an unusual perspective. This often involves tapping into a previously unexplored aspect of a familiar subject.
Gut Emotional Appeal: Create a premise with a strong emotion built in. It should feel personal, and touch emotions that are deep, real, and common to us all.

STAKES

–          High stakes yield high success. Make the stakes in your manuscript as high as they can possibly be. Escalate the stakes. Put more at risk—much more.
–          A combination of high public stakes and deep personal stakes is the most powerful engine a truly amazing novel can have.

CONFLICT

–          What makes a novel memorable? Conflicts that are deep, credible, complex, and universal enough that a great number of readers can relate.
–          Having your protagonist face a moral choice is one of the most powerful conflicts any novel can present.
–          Push your central problem far beyond what any reader might anticipate or imagine.
–          Conflict must undergo complication. It must twist, turn, deepen, and grow. Make it deeper, richer, more layered, more unavoidable, and more inescapably true.
–          Use mystery. Between what we are supposed to know and what we do know—questions unanswered—there is tension.
–          When conflicting ideas, values, or morals are set against each other, it grips our imaginations because we ache to resolve that higher conflict.

CHARACTERS

–          Readers identify primarily with one strong, sympathetic character. It is this character’s destiny about which they most care.
–          All great characters are larger than life. They act, speak and think in ways we cannot. They say things we wish we had said and do things we dream about doing. They also express for us our greatest purposes and deepest desires. They are us. That is the reason we identify with them.
–          Great main characters are principled, opinionated, and passionate. They do not sit on the sidelines. They act.
–          The characters in your story will not engross readers unless they are out of the ordinary. Identify what is extraordinary in otherwise ordinary people.
–          Every protagonist needs a torturous need, a consuming fear, an aching regret, a visible dream, a passionate longing, an inescapable ambition, an exquisite lust, an inner lack, a fatal weakness, an unavoidable obligation, an iron instinct, an irresistible plan, an undying hope…Which of these defines your main character’s motivation, drive, and inner turmoil?
–          Depth is the secret to memorable characters. Fully rounded, 3-D characters have many sides, complex motives, and act in ways which surprise us.
–          Test your characters’ principles and strongly held beliefs to the uttermost. Push them to the extreme.
–          Push your characters to the edge. Be willing to make your protagonist suffer. Kill his/her ally. Take away his/her greatest asset. Undermine whatever s/he holds sacred. Shorten the amount of time in which s/he has to solve the main problem.
–          A character’s stakes will resonate with the reader only to the extent that the character is sympathetic. When characters are strong and appealing (better still, portrayed warmly and with intimate candor) the stakes feel high, and readers’ interest also runs high.
–          Self-sacrifice is the highest form of heroism. It is the ultimate expression of love and, as such, is about the most powerful action a character can perform.
–          The guiding principle of cast construction is contrast. Secondary characters are most useful when they disagree or produce friction with your main character. Or, even better, add unforeseen complications to the main problem.
–          Combine roles in the cast whenever possible. (e.g. A lifelong friend can also be the doctor, an ex-lover can be the antagonist, etc.)

PLOT

–          “Setup” is, by definition, not story. It always drags. Always. Leave it out.
–          A great story involves great events. In the course of the story, your characters must find themselves in unusual, dramatic and meaningful situations.
–          The central problem generally grows and grows until it seems to have no solution.
–          Ask: How can what is happening matter even more?
–          Ask: How could things get worse for the characters? When would be the worst moment in the narrative for them to get worse?
–          Striving to attain the impossible is a struggle from which we cannot take our eyes.
–          To lend an enlarged perspective—a sense that the universe is paying attention to what is happening—shatter or protagonist with a tragedy, or give him/her an unexpected gift. These things happen in real-life. Little miracles become our personal myths.
–          Consider motivating your main characters in complex ways. Put them in situations that are difficult, but in which the right path is not obvious.
–          The promise of transformation is what gives the journey of self-discovery its deep-rooted attraction.
–          Narrative momentum resides in the main plot; subplots put on the brakes. The scene following a high point is often a good place to introduce a subplot scene.
–          Subplots should only be included if they affect the outcome of the main plotline. If it complicates, bears upon, mirrors, or reverses the main plot, then it adds value. Otherwise, leave it out. It is dead weight.
–          Great plot twists stem from a sudden elevation—or fall—from one level to another.
–          Climaxes are both inner and outer, both plot-specific and emotionally charged. The payoff needs to fully plumb the depths in both ways if it is to satisfy.
–          The secret to a strong ending is allowing your protagonist the continuing possibility for failure.

SETTING

–          Either relegate it to the backseat or make it the chassis on which everything rides. But DO NOT ignore it.
–          Create a fictional world that exists convincingly, wholly, and compellingly apart and unto itself. The best novels sweep you away, whisk you into their world, transport you to other times or places, and hold you captive there.
–          Include specific, unique emotional responses to places. This is the secret ingredient in making a setting breathe. Also, show the change in the character’s emotional response to a particular place over the course of the novel.
–          Bring your characters alive in a distinct place and time which is alive itself: period, culture, human outlook, historical moment, spiritual mood, etc.

So, there you have it. A list of truths I am using to try my damndest to keep Phreak Show from being a mediocre suckfest. There are lots of other pointers swimming in my head along with the ideas. And I am hanging the novel on the framework of 4-part story structure, infused with concepts of The Hero’s Journey. We’ll see how it goes, but early reports indicate that–so far–this 3rd [or 4th?] novel doesn’t suck.

Character Cabinet Cards


The basic outline for Phreak Show is done. The first chapter is complete and in the hands of betas & CPs for feedback. I am letting the characters & storyline bounce around in my subconscious until 11/1. On that illustrious date, I will kick the drafting into overdrive as part of NaNoWriMo.

What to do in the meantime?

I know! Create an ‘antique’ cabinet card for each of my characters:

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This was a fun process. And while it may seem like a waste of time, as it relates to writing, it is further reinforcement in my own mind that these characters are about to live. They are as real as they can be. They each have a story to tell. And Phreak Show is the vessel which is going to allow that to happen.

I do feel bad for Douggie, though. He doesn’t have a cabinet card yet. The source image I have for this character is perfect. It is Douggie. Unfortunately, it is cropped in such a way that it doesn’t lend itself well to the cab card construction. I’m still chewing on what to do about this.

In the meantime, I continue to live with the characters & pin more paper strips to the plotting wall. November is coming quick. Soon, these lovelies will begin to breathe. And presented in this uniform way, they really are beginning to feel like a team–a sideshow troupe ready to hit the road as The Last American Phreak Show.

ABNA Entry


My entry is in! With a mad scramble over the last month to hone my story to a presentable version, my first novel has been entered into the 2012 ABNA. There was a lot of excitement on the message boards as we awaited the starting gun on 1/23/12 at 12:01am EST.
With only a small issue with my “captcha” not showing up, the process went pretty smoothly. By 12:30am, I received my confirmation email.
Thank you for participating in the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest!

We’ve received your entry, “Capritare: The Cycles Begin.”

Your unique ABNA ID is: XHF4QUTB

On February 24, Amazon will announce the round two entries at http://www.amazon.com/abna.

Good luck in the contest!

Novel Word Cloud


Wordle is an online tool that provides a visual representation of the frequency of words in a given text. I performed the old cut-and-paste of my novel to see what its cloud would look like. Wordle perfomred its tabulating and formatting functions to spit out this visual version of Capritare.

It is interesting to see my novel in this format. I have already begun the process of checking on some of these words to see why they loom so large in the cloud. Alot of “just” iterations have been exorcised! 

Excerpt from CAPRITARE [Cycle 1]


Alright. I feel like this passage is polished enough to post. Enjoy!

*******
Narrowed eyes told me that others were already planning,strategizing. A six-pointer glared at me. I stared back.
Armidy lifted a large, white stone above his head. Hisarms bulged with the weight of it. The tips of his fifteen-point antlers stretchedhigher than his uplifted hands. I scanned for someone smaller than me–someone I could possibly force to touch the tree.

Armidy slammed down the stone. “Begin!”

Frenzy. There was the instant strain of muscle, bone,and roars. Scattering. My mind whirled. Run! My legs jerked. Catch. Don’t get caught. A tree. Hide. I slid, hit the ground. Lay low.
I could see struggles all around me: large groups wrestling, vying for one another, lone beasts skulking. Locked horns. Bucking hooves. Ferocious eyes. The rotting wetness of the mulch beneath me assaulted my nose. A pair of Yramidians thumped past me. An Esque, captive to their strength, struggled to break free. Her loud screeching echoed off the leaves.
Movement to my left—Neelid. Gasping. He hid with his back against a tree. I peeked out, then crawled to him.

“Cap. This is crazy! I got punched!” He lifted his shirt to reveal a red mark in the shape of a fist burning on his ribs.

“What should we do?” I asked. “Team up and try to get someone?”

“Who? The little ones have already been nabbed.” Neelid hunched lower. “You and I are probably the smallest ones left.”

“So what? We just lay low and wa—?”

I was rising. Jerked. Pressure on my chest. Heat.Tightening. Treetops whizzed overhead. Kick! Kick! I arched my back. Squirmed. Kicked—hard.

Bamm! The hardness of ground. I slowed my racing eyes. The six-pointer was already back up on his knees. His red eyes glowing. His face contorted into every shape of rage.
I leapt up and stumbled to Neelid. “We’ve got to fight him together!”
We stood side-by-side with our backs against a tree.Six lowered his head, cut his eyes up at us, and lunged. Two steps, three. Too quick to dodge.

Pain exploded in my side.

Six pulled back, sliding his antlers out of side. Hot blood ran. He took aim again. I closed my eyes to brace against the pain.

Clash. Clacking of five points on six. Antlers intertwined. A snap like the breaking of a twig. Neelid threw punches with a force beyond his small frame. Searing in my gut. Six scooped Neelid up, slammed him to the ground. Neelid kicked out his legs, knocking Six’s out from under him.

Darkness crept in at the edge of my thoughts.

Booming from afar, “We have our winners! Stop thegame.”

What game? My sight dimmed as Neelid untangledhimself from the six-pointer. White heat shaded with redness blazed at my side.A red vividness streamed out of me. Darkness eclipsed my world with black. Oblivion.

*******

From Book Formatting to Metatron


On Friday night I participated in the second installment of The Book Loft Literati Prose & Poetry Extravaganza. This is a monthly open-mic of sorts dedicated to local authors, readers & listeners. The interesting thing about open forums such as this, is that they draw a very diverse group of people. There were over two dozen such characters at this last Extravaganza including: four authors who participated in NaNoWriMo, screenplay writers, poets, one fellow who read from a cheesy Elvis-merchandise mailer & an eccentric guy who shared with us the glories of Metatron.

It is always great to be surrounded by others who share your struggles, hope and dreams. These gatherings are perfect for inspiration, feedback and sheer entertainment value. I was inspired by a fellow NaNoWriMo participant to format my manuscript in a two-column rendition that mimics the actual printed page. Seeing the words in that manner helped me to visualize my random string of words as though they were an actual book. Then, once it was in that format, I discovered other structural changes I needed to make: section dividers, chapter headings, margin adjustments. I was quite surprised at how simply switching the look of the layout spurred me on to tweak other elements.

So, I delayed content editing to work on the structure. And that reworking has actually helped me to think of my manuscript from the reader’s point-of-view.

The editing continues. While the structural changes came as a welcomed distraction, I am resisting the urge to research and download photos of the all-powerful Metatron.

A New Year, A New Set of Eyes


Editing. The act of writing is actually nothing more than that. What ideas do I want to include? What details are needed? Which ones should I leave out? What’s the best way to word this passage?

After that initial sweep is laid down as actual words-on-page, there is another round of editing. Tighten the prose. Make sure it flows well. Incorporate smooth transitions & segues between ideas. Ditch any text that doesn’t add to the whole. Declutter.

But, my own eyes can only go so far in the process. I, like all writers, am too close to the story. So, after the first couple rounds of refinement, it is good for me to look away and let another set of eyes see what they can see.

I currently have two such sets of eyes making a go of it. One belongs to my best friend & confidant, Micah. He is not a writer himself but has had a lifelong love of reading & is currently blazing up Amazon Kindle with new finds. The other set belongs to a good friend who also happens to be amazingly adept at turning a phrase. Jason & I supported one another through the grueling task of NaNoWriMo. We both ended up with distinctly different novels and are now swapping for some much needed critique & feedback. Here is a portion of a texting conversion we had yesterday [texting typos, shorthand and all].

Jason: I cant wait till im done giving manbirth to this thing so i can send it off

Me: Hurts doesnt it? But, man, does it want to get out!

Jason: Im pushing! i just want to get my first feedback of the completed work

Me: Yeah, i still need that. Micah is perusing it. he’s given minor feedback but not the the gut-wrenching kind i think it needs.

Jason: Can u email it to me? i can start digging in an hour or so in the evenings. im slow but careful.

Me: I emailed the first 4 cycles to you

Jason: K…ill print it out and get to reading. I could get you my first 4 chapters???

Me: Send what youve got ready & i’ll critique it with an editor’s eye

Jason: its on its way now…

Me: Yeehaw! ur so brave to put it within reach of my hands. Muahaahaaaa

Jason: 🙂 be gently critical

Me: I will guy. Editorial yet friendly. & 4 mine, u have 2 dumb urself down 2 a young adult reading level, but still be an editor.

Jason: Haha…i doubt that. Ill be critical, but will also be sure to suspend disbelief as to enter into the fabulous world youve created

So, we each took the chance. With swapped novels in one another’s hands, we have exposed them to scrutinizing eyes which do not possess the same love, commitment, blood, sweat & tears as their authors. It’s done now. We each are letting the other babysit for a few days. And we gave one another permission to nurture & punish as needed. I’m going to love on Jason’s man-baby and see if I can help it grow a little faster. And I’m hoping my baby returns to me stronger, more mature & potty-trained.

My New Trick-Bike


When I was 10 years old, there was one Christmas present I wanted above all others–a bike. But, not just any old Schwinn or Huffy. In fact, I didn’t really care what namebrand it was as long as it met my adolescent, stunt-double, daredevil requirements. It needed pegs on both the front & the back, ‘moondiscs’ covering the spokes and, of course, handbrakes. I needed all these ‘gnarly’ bells & whistles in order to pull off the amazing tricks I could already picture in my mind.

This year, there was a similar item on my list. And although it isn’t fluorescent purple like that childhood wish-fulfillment, I’m thinking it’s going to help me perform some pretty fantastic feats.

My copy of 2012 Writer’s Market – Deluxe Edition has already become my most valued & useful Christmas gift. I am currently sitting on my Mama’s backporch in my home state of NC. From the moment the car doors shut the snow out at the beginning of my trip, I have only spent a couple of waking hours without this book in my hand.

I am familiar with the resource from my foray into the publishing world back in 2000. It was my go-to resource back then for writing tips, submission guidelines & publisher leads. I am finding it as useful for marketing my novel as it was for magazine articles & poetry.

At this point, I have narrowed down the 70 listed Literary Agents to just 20 that might be a good fit for my YA Fantasy novel. Those have further been whittled down to a shortlist of 7 agencies that I believe possess the most potential for marketing my manuscript. I sent out my first query this morning. :::gulp:::

I have also scarred up the 174 pages of Book Publishers with highlighter & notes. Online research of the individual publishing houses quickly cut my handwritten HOT list of 35 down to a mere 9 that I would like to pursue. Just as it took me hours of falling, bruising & making trips to the ER while learning to ride that trick-bike of mine, so the research stage of submitting my novel has been time-intensive.

My purple bike is long gone. Although the physical Lucas was never able to hit all the tricks that my imagination’s Lucas could, he was able to accomplish a few of them. I like to believe that I could still perform an Endo on queue if required. Until some sadistic kid challenges me to prove it, I think I’ll keep on hacking away at learning a new round of tricks which will hopefully transform my first manuscript into a published novel.

Publishing Through a Contest?


Different writers have different goals for their completed manuscripts. My personal goal for my novel is to get it published. And I’m not willing to go the self-published route to do it. Depending on who you ask, I’m either a sucker, a dreamer or both.

The NaNoWriMo site doesn’t leave its participants hanging once November fades. They continue to provide resources, links and advice to those hoping to carry on into December and beyond. I learned of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award from their “Now What?” page. My next steps were to set up a CreateSpace account and read the official rules. My novel would fit. With the possibility of a $15,000 advance & a publishing contract, why not try it? Even if I don’t win, the process will be a good learning experience and there is an opportunity to get my manuscript looked at by multiple agents & publishers in a single whack.

It possibly moves me towards my goal to get published. I’m going for it.