May 31, 2009

WRITING ADVICE: Reprise: PUTTING YOUR CHARACTERS DOWN

Was DEATHLY ill with a cold Friday and Saturday, no writing energy at all. So I'm doing a "reprise":

The toughest thing I've ever had to deal with in writing is making my characters seem to live.

NO -- I don't have trouble making lists, writing their life story, doing interviews with them, doing time lines or any of the other things the writing books talk about all the time.I have trouble writing down things that make my characters live on the page. I have trouble putting my character down. On paper. So that others experience them the way I do.

My most recent solution to the problem is to do the following:

1) I write down basic visual details, choosing one thing that makes them unique.

2) I put them in a situation where their uniqueness STICKS OUT LIKE A SORE THUMB.

3) I write out the character's response to a couple of pressures that have nothing to do with my story.

4) Write a scene I've witnessed and then replace someone I knew with that character and see how THEY react.

5) I dissect the characters in other books I love.

6) I have the character state somehow what they want and come up with a stupid plan to get it.

7) I also make them talk about their "owies" (external, internal, spiritual).

8) I write scenes using SPECIFIC details in all the senses.

9) I make sure the character has realistic FLAWS tied intimately to realistic STRENGTHS.

10) I add quirky flaws, a sense of humor, an exaggerated positive trait and self-doubt.

11) I sit down and think, "What the heck am I trying to do with the character?"

12) I quit worrying and write. Like a shark. (A majority of sharks must have oxygenated water moving over their gills. If they don't, they suffocate. They DIE!)There you go. Prescriptive writing (see my post "UGH: Prescriptive Writing"). My prescription to me.

If you like it, steal it. Oh, only one thing: tell me if it works for you!

May 28, 2009

THE RECONSTRUCTION OF MAI LI HASTINGS 3: Foundation

The phone in the corner of Mr. Bates’ math room rang.


CJ cringed. It was second hour and he was already getting called down to the office.


Mr. Bates was tall and skinny – the IB kids said he looked like a character from the black-and-white movie, “Psycho”. CJ pretty much agreed with them. “The Other Mr. B” was creepy – in a super smart sort of way. He crossed the room in four steps and answered the phone, listened then looked right at CJ.


“Christopher,” he said, hanging up, “Ms. Hester wants to see you in her office.”


Grabbing his notebook and textbook, he headed out the door, very much aware of the eyes boring holes in his back.


Mr. Bates snapped, “Back to work, class! You have a test tomorrow – and most of you have yet to get the quadratic formula down well enough to use it naturally.” The door closed and CJ headed for the office.

He passed through the sixth grade square of rooms, staring at his feet. “Boo!” someone shouted as they jumped out from behind the pillar in front of the girl’s bathroom. He dropped his books and staggered backward.


Job lunged forward and steadied him. “Hey man, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to really scare you.” He was an office aide during second period and spent time running all around the building.


CJ yanked his arm away. “You didn’t scare me.” He picked up his books and hurried down the hall. The worst thing about being a blond-haired, blue-eyed Minnesotan was that everyone knew when you were embarrassed. CJ could feel his ears and face burning. Job jogged up beside him.


“Where’re you going?”


CJ opened the office door and said, “Guess.”


Job sighed. “What happened this time?”


CJ sighed. It was impossible to stay mad at Job for long. He said, “I slugged Curt Jenjiss last Friday after school.”


“You slugged Jenjiss!” Job exclaimed. Everyone in the office looked up at them. “He’s the superintendent’s son!”


CJ hissed, “He’s still a jerk.”


“Yeah, but most people figure if they leave him alone, he’ll self destruct when he reaches puberty.”


CJ laughed as he sat down. Job stopped, waiting. CJ grinned and said, “Wish me luck.”


Job didn’t smile. “I’m gonna wish your mom ignores you getting suspended.”


CJ’s smiled vanished as well. He hung his head. “There’d have to be an earthquake in downtown Minneapolis for her to ignore this."


“That’s for sure,” Job said then hurried to one of the principal’s assistant’s desks.


Ms Hester leaned out her office door, caught his eye then hooked her finger slowly at him. He sighed. At least he wouldn’t have to deal with Mr. B. Ms. Hester was the best principal he’d ever had. She actually liked him. He trudged in and sat down.

May 24, 2009

SLICE OF PIE: 52 Years Ago…

Look up into the sky, take your readings and if you’re good enough, you can easily determine that it’s May of 1957.

The first thing you notice is that none of the lights in the sky move – except maybe that one over there and it quickly reveals itself to be a Boeing 247 – a dual propellor plane. Higher in the sky, nothing else moves – because there are no satellites. Not for another four months. Without satellites, there are no dishes, no “global positioning” (aka GPS), no long-term weather reports and no Hubble Space Telescope.

Squinting, you notice that there are no pieces of Earth metal on the Moon, no footprints, no Stars and Stripes EVER, and no Bases. Nothing but Phobos and Deimos orbit Mars and there are no shapeless lumps of Soviet metal on the surface of Venus. Nothing from Earth orbits Jupiter or Saturn and nothing Human made lies dead on the surface of Titan. Four hurtling dishes embossed with messages from us straining to touch the Oort Cloud (postulated in 1932 and again in 1950) are only a dream, and no unidentified piece of American or Brazilian steel drifts deeper and deeper in the Jovian atmosphere. The nine planets of the Solar System are the only planets with observable curriculum vitae in the known Universe and there is only one asteroid belt.

There were no handheld calculators; no laptops; no electronics; Yen meant only ‘to long for’; and no one alive has ever had coronary bypass surgery. You share the planet and all its resources with less than 3 billion other people and few of those people realize how wealthy you and your countrymen are. DUNE was still five years in the future and nothing by Frank Herbert was published that year.

The Chevy Bel Air was the most popular car – it got about 12 mpg of leaded gasoline. Color TV was a hassle and wouldn’t become commercially successful for another four years. There would only be 5600 American cases of polio in 1957 – down from 58,000 in 1952.

This article would have taken me hours to write because I would have had to go to a library to find the resources from which to pull the statistics you just read. Instead, something that spiders spin allowed me to do this in a half an hour.

And 52 years later, I’m so glad that everything is better now. Right? Not. At. All.

Things are NOT better because we’ve progressed technologically. Plenty of scientismists would disagree with me violently. Some have in the past. Scientism? “Describes the view that natural science has authority over all other interpretations of life, such as philosophical, religious, mythical, spiritual, or humanistic explanations, and over other fields of inquiry, such as the social sciences…In its most extreme form, scientism is the faith that science has no boundaries, that in due time all human problems and all aspects of human endeavor will be dealt with and solved by science alone. This idea is also called the Myth of Progress.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientism)

I would tender to you that life is NOT better today than it was 52 years ago. In fact, with a little thought any honest scientismist would have to agree. If one of you scientismist folk wanted to start a list of ways you believe life’s better, I’d be happy to try and match item for item ways it’s WORSE. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m no bleeding pessimist and I have a hope that doesn’t depend on science. But for the sake of argument – and from what I frequently observe in my classroom – I throw down the gauntlet of challenge.

Besides, maybe you’ll convince me.

May 17, 2009

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS: Star Trek: III Generations


Age has always driven plots on STAR TREK.

The issue of age runs from THE ORIGINAL SERIES episode, “The Deadly Years”, to the captaincy of the Enterprise D falling to an obvious member of the AARP; to Kirk’s words in WRATH OF KHAN, “How do I feel? I feel old…and worn out”; to the aging of Jake and Benjamin Sisco in DS9’s “The Visitor”; to T’Pol’s foremother’s crewmate wandering and growing old on a 20th – 21st Century Earth as the first Vulcan to explore the planet; and culminating with an aged, 24th Century Spock in JJ Abram’s new movie STAR TREK.

While I didn’t make the 12:01 am showing on Friday, May 8, I did meet with a few people I dearly love later on Friday night.

My dad is in his late 70’s and started watching STAR TREK in 1966. I was only 9 years old. I don’t remember the earliest episodes, but by the time I turned 11, I had started reading science fiction (Louis Slobodkin’s SPACESHIP UNDER THE APPLE TREE) and watching STAR TREK with him. There wasn’t much else we shared and when the show was cancelled in 1969, we had to wait another 20 years until the first movie premiered in all its pastel blue and gray splendor.

My wife and I snuggled up with the TV and each other when STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION premiered a bit over a month after we got married. My son Josh and daughter Mary were born during the reign of Picard, Riker, Troi, Data, Worf, LaForge and Crusher (on again, off again). Josh grew up watching STAR TREK and while he was a real child of STAR WARS, he and Mary humored me and joined us for the evening premier of STAR TREK: GENERATION. Josh and I even went to see STAR TREK: NEMESIS together and while he liked it just fine, he still prefers blasting droids and storm troopers over a phaser fight.

Jon Gjerde and I went to the STAR TREK movies for years following THE VOYAGE HOME. Once I was married, Jon continued to come to our house and watch the series through ENTERPRISE. Sadly, our regular meetings stopped when the Federation Empire crumbled with the final episode of ENTERPRISE. Not long after that, he got married and though we’ve both grown gray together, our meetings are few and far between.

So, on May 8, 2009, three days before my fifty-second birthday, three generations of Stewart men plus one old friend, met to watch Abram’s STAR TREK.

And it was all there: Leonard Nimoy as the ancient Spock for Dad and me; hints and references to the STAR TREK canon from the movies, for Jon and me; and actors from TV, movies and videogames Josh easily recognized. I am well aware that we’re being manipulated by Paramount executives out to milk a few more dollars from the 43-year-old cash cow – I know, I know, I was tempted by the $1.99 Collector’s Glasses at Burger King, too – but MAN, when all was said and done and we got out of the theater and talked for another fifteen minutes in cold sprinkling rain, we came to a simple consensus: it was a unique time and it was GREAT! No -- it was more than GREAT, it was like walking a bridge between three generations and meeting on the other side as deeper friends.

May 10, 2009

WRITING ADVICE: LIN OLIVER: Follow Your Weirdness

Lin Oliver has rubbed shoulders with some of the best-known writers of teen and children literature. Living on the West Coast, she and Steve Mooser initially planned and executed the first Society of Children’s Book Writers (and Illustrators who weren’t added until later) Conference 38 years ago.

Newbery Award winners like Richard Peck and Linda Sue Park; Caldecott medalists Eve Bunting and David Wiesner; New York Times bestsellers like Melinda Long and Kadir Nelson and senior agents and editors of the best-known agencies and publishers regularly appear alongside her name. She hobnobs and writes with well-known actors and directors like the creator of HAPPY DAYS’s legendary character The Fonz, Henry Winkler.

Some of these people are undeniably weird.

And she’s friends with them.

Lin Oliver has obviously followed her weirdness to great success. How can I do that? Did she follow her weirdness IN ORDER TO be famous, or was she famous BECAUSE she was truthful and followed her weirdness?

Having met her and heard her speak, I would venture to guess that it is the latter. She was simply being who she was…er…weird.

In order to tie myself into this, I should point out that I am a science teacher. Have been for 27 years. When people find out I’m a writer and a teacher, they automatically assume I’m an English teacher. The fact is that I am not even technically qualified to teach a semester-long class of Creative Writing in my school district because I don’t have an English degree. So, that’s weird, isn’t it?

I’m also a Christian and I try to work my world-view into my science fiction stories and novels. Definitely weird – and it may cost me sales. So I should stop that, shouldn’t I? Oh, I’m funny, too. Most people don’t feel that Christian and funny go together, either (they have images of the crazy monks in the old movie, MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, hitting their heads on boards while chanting).

While I don’t shake hands with medal winners or bestsellers or movie stars yet, I continue to write and get published. I continue to follow my weirdness, because my weirdness is, after all is said and done, what makes me unique. The rest is all a matter of persistence and time.

The other part of following my weirdness is that I continue to submit stories even though 90 percent of them are returned to me – and I’ve been doing this for nearly four decades. If I don’t miss my mark, Lin Oliver has done the same thing.

And if that ain’t following my weirdness, I don’t know what is!

May 9, 2009

My Deepest Apologies...

For the first time in almost two years, I have completely missed my deadline. I could give you the long excuse, instead I'll just say: please forgive me, I'll be blogging on Sunday and be back on the normal schedule!

I promise!

May 5, 2009

My Non-eulogy for JG Ballard @ Bruce Bethke's FRIDAY CHALLENGE

Just so ya know: I have a ^ (what I said up there) at ^ (what I said up there). May 5th, 2009 entry...

Bruce Bethke is at: http://thefridaychallenge.blogspot.com/

May 3, 2009

MARTIAN HOLIDAY 2: Stepan -- Burroughs

He couldn’t sit any longer and stood up. A peacekeeper scowled at him from under her lifted facemask as she shifted the sybil’s muzzle slightly toward him.

Stepan Izmaylov smiled and took a deep breath. He’d been waiting for his audience with the Burrough’s Council of Districts for the past six hours. Since he’d arrived just after sunrise, he’d counted forty-three people who had been ushered in and out. From where he stood, he looked down two levels to the Council Chamber’s lobby. The far wall was made of polished Martian sandstone and glass bands. He could see the surface of the planet. He could see the sun was setting.

The Chamber door abruptly opened. A court aide gestured and he hurried after the young man. The District representatives sat at a simple, slightly curved table of wood imported from Earth. There were fifteen men, women and genneuts, seven on either side of a seat with a slightly higher back. Council Director Haman held the office currently. She wasn’t smiling. Tapping her pen, she waited until the doors closed behind Stepan to say, “You may approach the Council, Citizen Izmaylov.” When he reached a low railing, Haman said, “You must know that your request is denied.”

Stepan rocked back. “I can’t present my case?” he asked.

The Fifth District rep snapped, “Even you can’t be so na├»ve as to expect us to grant you license to reopen your filthy little Christian church after what happened to FirstDome!”

Haman shot the older man a dark look but let the remark pass. She continued, “While I don’t approve of Representative Denvik’s rudeness, I concur with his sentiment. We can no longer allow the religious to gather in groups larger than five.”

“FirstDome was an accident – and had more to do with gang warfare than religious worship,” Stepan said softly.

The Director scowled, picked up her gavel and banged it. “Good day, Citizen Izmaylov.”



By the time he made it back to his apartment, news had spread. He sighed – he didn’t realize that many people watched the Council proceedings. Mostly the people who identified him glared, nodding in his direction and whispering to others. More than a few flipped him off; two shouted obscenities and a teen girl spit at him. When his apartment door irised closed behind him, he leaned back against it.

He couldn’t let this go. Something in him – he felt it as the Holy Spirit – was driving him to press the issue. He took a deep breath, went to the kitchen to get something to eat, then to his computer station. He pulled up the Burrough’s Blog and went to the opinion page. He skimmed through a few entries. He’d never protested anything in his life. Not even mom and dad’s rules when he was a teenager. His bosses at the garage had always said he was a ‘real team player’ and ‘a steady, dependable worker’. He picked up enough Domeflyer repair work from friends, family and neighbors on the side to have tucked away a decent-sized savings account. He’d never rocked the boat in his life.

He was about to try and tip it now. Hunching over the virtual keyboard, he wrote.


The next morning he pulled the BBlog to see if anyone had responded to his letter. In headline font, it read: CITIZEN IZMAYLOV SENDS HATE MAIL TO ALL CITIZENS WHO DISAGREE WITH HIM!

Stepan blinked and read the text of the message purported to have been from him. The first two paragraphs were word-for-word what he’d written. Appended were two paragraphs of obscene, abusive, slanderous – and sometimes misspelled – rantings that he’d never seen before but appeared above his signature.

His apartment security system blipped. He went to the door. He wasn’t entirely surprised to see a peacekeeper. He was surprised to see four. And a dozen people jeering him up the hallway. This time the ‘keeper’s faceshield was down and the voice that came to him was filtered. “Citizen Izmaylov?”

Stepan nodded saying, “That’s me.”

“Council Director Haman requires and requests your immediate attendance at the emergency District Council session. Will you please come with us?”

“Sure, let me…”

The ‘keeper held out a hand. “Please take my hand, Citizen.”

Frowning, Stepan did. The air around them fuzzed and crackled for an instant, then he and the four ‘keepers were standing in the Council Chambers before the assembled Council. He breathed, “Instantaneous Matter Transmission?”

Director Haman nodded – smugly, Stepan thought – and said, “We use it only for emergencies.”

“What’s the emergency?”

Director Haman, along with most of the Council Representatives, frowned. Hama said, “You have become the emergency, Citizen Izmaylov.”

TO BE CONTINUED…
(Image from Jet Propulsion Laboratory "Ice Cold Sunrise on Mars" Phoenix Mars Lander)
The first "On Mars" flash fiction was here: