Know Your Audience

Lessons come from a variety of sources. Which goes back to the idea that no one is an island, and writers grow into their talent based on their experiences in life and in art. Primarily, we're a genre household. My influence, of course. The closest thing I've got to literary work is a collection of William Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. Even The Road by Cormac McCarthy, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, owes more than a nod to genre tropes.

And genre television offers a quick fix. You're able to test lots of different shows (some to most don't remain on the air for long, even though each cancellation only makes room for the next generation), and eventually find one that lasts more than a few episodes or one season.

Today's lesson is courtesy of the youngest daughter, who has the talent to become a good writer herself if I say so myself. It's not without some pride that I note she's written a few poems and penned a short story about the Revolutionary War for school a few years back that made tears well in my eyes. Said tears due as much to pacing/plotting as the story itself.

Currently, we're watching both the U.S. and U.K. versions of Being Human. For those unfamiliar with the show, the setup sounds like one of those bad jokes you hear on occasion, except it's not about three disparate characters walking into a bar as much as three disparate characters--a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost--attempting to create some normalcy in their lives. The U.K. version premiered its third season this weekend on BBC America, and this provides a nice contrast to the U.S. version, which started its run a little more than a month ago SyFy.

UKBH has everything you'd expect from a British production. At least, if you're an American. Quirky characters that are probably normal across the pond. Colloquialisms that sound more like a foreign language than English. And lots of tits and ass. Which I understand is a norm for European television. USBH is pretty much a straight retelling so far of season one of UKBH. Plot, characters, situations, but all with "American" actors and colloquialisms, because U.S. audiences are supposedly too dense to understand the source material.

Both have merits, though youngest daughter and I agree we like the American werewolf more than his British counterpart. American Josh comes across less shrill than British George. Not that Russell Tovey isn't as good an actor as Sam Huntington when it comes to portraying a werewolf who is uncomfortable in his new skin. It's just that Tovey, when presenting that he's offended by what's happened already to him and what continues to happen to him, goes into a higher decibel register. One that reminds me of the voices of the Monty Python guys whenever they played in drag.

Youngest daughter, however, summed up the differences by focusing on the language. There's so much slang and profanity in UKBH that often you're not sure what they're saying. And her opinion is that it seems dirtier because she doesn't understand it. She isn't able to filter whether something is appropriate or not. Understand that she's cut her teeth on Buffy, Angel, Supernatural, and Charmed, as well as Big Love, Criminal Minds and 24. She favors graphic novels, primarily season eight of Buffy and Angel's sojourn in Hell. She's dabbled in The Walking Dead in the wake of the television adaptation that recently ran on AMC. Sitting down Sunday night as a family to watch a zombie apocalypse or the soapy travails of Mormon polygamists is pretty much par for the course in our household. Our daughters weren't shielded from the world; they were exposed to it and taught right from wrong. So they're able to watch a show like How I Met Your Mother and recognize how the character of Barney Stinson, played by Neil Patrick Harris, is both a caricature and an accurate portrayal. They understand satire.

Cardio Considered as 36 Cubic Feet of Snow to Shovel

Frustrated call from spouse yesterday afternoon: "The township plowed over the driveway. It's two feet high. I can't get into the driveway."

She sent me a picture, and the drift of hard, chunky snow started four feet out into the street, peaked above knee height, and tapered off a good distance into the driveway. She called youngest daughter out of the house, so she could take her to volleyball practice. They shoveled as much as possible of one half so I could pull into the driveway when I got home before they left. "I pushed most of it into the street. Let someone drive over it."

She returned by the time I came home, and made it into the driveway and garage. I parked in the street and did my best over the next hour to knock down the pile. Didn't seem like an hour. Not sure whether it felt longer or shorter, though; my focus was on finishing, showering, and getting to Pioneer for the booster meeting. Shower worked its typical magic, letting the muse figure out how to progress with the short story and novel work at month's end. After the meeting, the evening went to reading Shakespeare with youngest daughter, answering questions about the validity of Romeo's motivations, and helping her study natural selection among the peppered moth population in England during the Industrial Revolution.

Phones are down this morning, I'm heading back to the gym after work this afternoon for a weight-run session, and then I've got a call to make to my mother to wish her a happy birthday. She's 79 tomorrow. I'll knock out a couple of pages on the short story while spouse and I watch The Biggest Loser and Parenthood if I'm lucky. I've Wednesday off, so I'll get my gym work completed early and knock out a few more pages before the family comes home from school and work.

Workouts aren't dropping the pounds as quickly as I'd like, but I know that's due to the cardio. Stairs aren't as daunting post-workout, either at the gym or at home. Two goals between now and the end of June: pounds and pages.

I don't have a firm number for the former, but I want to record four pages a day for the latter. Barring vacations and weekend volleyball tournaments in Grand Rapids and (hopefully) Chicago, I can either get the short finished and rewritten, and a good first draft on Sacrifices or rewrite on Only The Dead. And possibly join eldest daughter at the 5k in Kalamazoo in the spring. She wants to run it with her friend, and perhaps get youngest daughter to participate as well. Youngest daughter did the equivalent of one yesterday, walking the Pit under Pioneer for an hour.

One Step Forward

Finally got the first few words down on the short story I planned to work on at the end of last year. Went back and forth on setting (science fiction versus fantasy), which influenced how much information I would present about the main character's differences (autistic).

Came into work yesterday, taking the same direction round the cubicles that I follow so I can turn on the lights, and bumped into one of the people from accounting. I said "excuse me," as I stopped to let her pass, and she said I was OK because she knew my pattern in the morning. Which jibes with my character's viewpoint. After that it was a simple matter to jot down the opening paragraphs and set myself to flow into the action.

I toyed with different titles during the outlining process, and I've settled on one from a while back when I toyed with an idea about a colony ship, which was the science fiction setting I wanted. Call this one Rote. Even better, since this is a short story, there's an end in sight. The major selling point on short work.

First Week (Gym)

One week of workouts under my belt at the gym, but so far the scale doesn't want to reward my efforts. I'm not discouraged. Four weight sessions, each followed by one-mile to three-mile walks, are an improvement over my exercise regimen before the new year, and while the scale doesn't show much I dropped one pant size at the beginning of last week.

The week's highlight, however, was the response from my youngest daughter. We opted for a family membership at the Washtenaw rec center; my wife and I wanted to get into shape, and the daughter wanted to improve her running ability. Conditioning for the high school season last year had the players tackling runs that ranged from one mile to three miles. Club season just started, and she's at the gym on an elliptical when she's not at the new facility for practice. She loves the elliptical. Took to it like a duck takes to water. She even ran part of a mile on the suspended track that's over the basketball court.

It was one of those moments when you see life click into place. So much so that I know we're doing the right thing, which is one of the reasons I've decided to take a sabbatical from my writing group; I've spent more time editing that creating of late, and this is the right thing for me to do since I want to write. After work tonight, I'm heading to the gym to start my second week workouts, and then I'm heading home rather than my writing meeting to sit down and actually put new words down on paper.

Writing About Reading/Research

A while back I started to track how many books I read throughout the year. The goal was 52 books in a year, one a week. Beyond recording the numbers, I tracked reading patterns; sometimes I'm in the mood for lighter fare, and at others I'm interested in heavier works.

I've seen other challenges, where the bar was higher, but I've yet to reach 52, so setting up myself for failure before I've even begun the year never seemed a good idea. No matter the number, it's all research; when you're a writer, you're learning how others present ideas, handles sentence structure, dialogue, scenes and paragraphs. You're even gathering ideas, because you've got your own take on how a story should be told or you want to explore a plot thread. A good example of the latter is Gregory Maguire, whose most popular works, such as Wicked, approach classic stories from another direction.

My reading tastes favored the lighter side this year, if you can consider pulp novels from the 1930s because of their length. I recorded 44 books this year, and most of those were the Sanctum reprints of the Doc Savage and The Shadow novels written by Lester Dent, Walter B. Gibson, and others. They're certainly not "light" in subject matter, since death and destruction provide the meat and potatoes for those stories. Back in grade school, I had to give a speech as part of an English class, and I spoke about the various ways Dent eliminated villains in his books, which could range from drowning by pet octopus to poisoning by vampire bat. Gibson's bad guys usually fall to bullets fired from The Shadow's .45s, but there are gems throughout, this year's ironically coming in the freshman outing of Theodore Tinsley, Partners of Peril, rather than from Gibson.

I believe I would probably top the 52 mark if I included actual research reading. This year's efforts involved passages from Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark and other resources discussing autism, as well as hours browsing through books and articles about Ann Arbor and the U.S. Marshal service. So, I'm going to change the list for 2011, adding those into the total. Non-fiction is as instructive as much as the fiction.

Some of the books are repeats. Last year's first book was The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks, which I first read when I was back in high school. I didn't quite finish it by December 31st last year, so it kicks off 2010 rather than ending 2009. I'm in a similar spot starting 2011, which will see The Devil's Playground by Alan Hathaway and Lester Dent from January 1941 as the first book read.

Another selling point of the Sanctum reprints are the essays by Will Murray, Anthony Tollin and others, which provide insight into the pulp history surrounding the stories. I gained more respect for Dent's ghost writers when I learned both Hathaway and Harold A. Davis were managing editor's for Newsday, which started publication in 1940. Davis held the position first, succeeded by Hathaway in 1944. Murray notes that Hathaway was considered the "driving force" behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting of labor racketeering in 1954, which was the first of many earned by the tabloid.

1 - The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks
2 - The Stand: Captain Trips by Stephen King, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Mike Perkins & Laura Martin
3 - Die Trying by Lee Child
4 - The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton
5 - Tai-Pan by James Clavell
6 - Devils of the Deep by Harold A. Davis and Lester Dent
7 - Thunderhead by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
8 - The Polar Treasure by Lester Dent
9 - Tripwire by Lee Child
10 - Pirate of the Pacific by Lester Dent
11 - Blockade Billy by Stephen King
12 - The Living Shadow by Walter B. Gibson
13 - Nothing To Lose by Lee Child
14 - Lingo by Walter B. Gibson
15 - Partners of Peril by Theodore Tinsley
16 - Under The Dome by Stephen King
17 - The Lost Oasis by Lester Dent
18 - The Colorado Kid by Stephen King
19 - Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher
20 - Club Dead by Charlaine Harris
21 - The Sargasso Ogre by Lester Dent
22 - The Sea Magician by Lester Dent
23 - The Living-Fire Menace by Harold A. Davis and Lester Dent
34 - The City of Doom by Walter B. Gibson
35 - The Fifth Face by Walter B. Gibson
36 - The Awful Dynasty by William G. Bogart and Lester Dent
37 - The Passage by Justin Cronin
38 - Running Blind by Lee Child
39 - Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett
40 - Dean Koontz's Frankenstein: City of Night by Dean Koontz
41 - The Men Vanished by Lester Dent
42 - Frankenstein: Dead and Alive by Dean Koontz
43 - The Conspiracy Club by Jonathan Kellerman
44 - Quest of Qui by Lester Dent

I track movies and DVDs that I watched throughout the year, if only to remind myself to balance that activity against book reading. It's easier to sit down for an hour or two than it is to read a book. These vary more than my reading, though I would consider all genre efforts, even though it includes pieces such as W. by Oliver Stone, Hart's War, a World War II drama starring Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell, or the surreal Choke, which is based on one of the novels written by Chuck Palahniuk.

1 - Choke
2 - Splinter
3 - Yes Man
4 - House of Bones
5 - Stargate SG-1, Season 2
6 - Hart's War
7 - Lost, Season 5
8 - Ghosts of Girlfriends Past
9 - Stargate SG-1, Season 3
10 - Julie & Julia
11 - Stargate SG-1, Season 4
12 - Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
13 - Poseidon
14 - The 39 Steps
15 - Stargate SG-1, Season 5
16 - Monsters vs. Aliens
17 - Stargate SG-1, Season 6
18 - The Rock
19 - 2012
20 - Couples Retreat
21 - Up
22 - The Invention of Lying
23 - The Time Traveler's Wife
24 - Merlin, Season 1
25 - Angels & Demons
26 - Stargate SG-1, Season 7
27 - W.
28 - I Love You, Man
29 - The Kingdom
30 - Inglorious Basterds
31 - Stargate Atlantis, Season 1
32 - Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
33 - Stargate SG-1, Season 8
34 - Avatar
35 - Sherlock Holmes
36 - The Dresden Files
37 - Doctor Who and the Daleks
38 - Hostel II
39 - Stargate: Continuum
40 - Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
41 - Fever Pitch
42 - Reaper, Season 1
43 - Ginger Snaps
44 - Stargate SG-1, Season 9
45 - Stargate Atlantis, Season 2
46 - New Moon
47 - Role Models
38 - It! The Terror From Beyond Space
39 - Stonehenge Apocalypse
40 - True Blood, Season 1
41 - Stargate SG-1, Season 10
42 - Stargate: The Ark of Truth
43 - The LXD, Season 1
44 - True Blood, Season 2
45 - The Lake House
46 - Third Girl
47 - Appointment With Death
48 - Murder on the Orient Express
49 - Dexter, Season 1
50 - Quigley Down Under
51 - Supernatural, Season 1
52 - Hellboy: Sword of Storms
53 - Dexter, Season 2
54 - Cloverfield
55 - Hellboy: Blood and Iron
56 - Stargate Atlantis, Season 3
57 - L.A. Confidential
58 - Scooby-Doo! Curse of the Lake Monster
59 - Weeds, Season 1
60 - Weeds, Season 2
61 - Merry Madagascar
62 - Kung Fu Panda Special
63 - The Fly (1958)
64 - A Walk in Her Shoes
65 - Supernatural, Season 2
66 - The Ugly Truth
67 - Red: Werewolf Hunter
68 - Scrooge
69 - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1981)
70 - Stargate Atlantis, Season 4
71 - It's A Wonderful Life
72 - Knight and Day
73 - Valkyrie
74 - The Sound of Music
75 - Bad Santa
76 - Supernatural, Season 3

Writing and Moving Forward

It's a while since I posted here. More than month's passed since World Fantasy in Columbus. Thankfully, I didn't experience any con crud, and I'll credit the good meals I ate with friends in various restaurants around the convention center, as well as the copious amounts of Blue Moon that I consumed in the hotel bar. I think I've avoided posting because I didn't want to make any promises I couldn't keep. November is rife with tales of novel attempts, and I've traveled that path a time or two in the past.

I believe I need to change things up on this blog, adding in some personal reports to go along with the writing observations—though today's post falls into the latter category—because part of a writer's journey involves the people and experiences that make up their life. There aren't any demons I'm battling, such as the ones exposed by the contestants I watch on The Biggest Loser each season, but my daily schedule will become complicated with the new year when the family purchases a membership at the Washtenaw County recreation center, and I'd like to record how we're doing. I work only a couple of miles away, so making time for exercise amounts to the same as making time for writing.

Plus, I still feel inspired by my time at the convention. Several members of my writing group continue moving forward with their careers, and each bi-weekly submission presented for critique reminds me why I enjoy writing.

I successfully finished and edited my flash fiction piece for the New Scientist contest. I'm fairly certain I didn't win or even place, but I consider the story successful because (a) I finished it and (b) the writing group liked it for the most part. One critter called it a "prose poem" and that pretty much hit the mark for the effect I wanted.

I made several passes at an outline for the new story, which involved research into autism and genetics, as well as attempts at story starts to see whether I had the right tone/voice for the main character. Part of the problem I face is making the character an active protagonist when acting as an observer is his particular "area of expertise" as a savant. Current plan is to work on fleshing the story out in the next few weeks and submit it to the writing group at the next meeting. Then I can go back to the novel outline and tackle Sacrifices / Into Dust Descend once again. With my plans for exercise, working with the volleyball club as it moves into a new facility and youngest daughter plays in her 15s season, and dealing with possible sinus surgery again, I want to outline the book, and finish a good draft before the Fourth of July (which would give me a cause for celebration). That's about 180 days if I only take 4-5 days for the outline.