Friday, August 31, 2012

The Second Week Blues

This is not a post about writing, not exactly. But then again, it's about life, so I'm sure there's some practical applications in it, especially to you New Adult writers.

The Magpie officially entered her second week at college yesterday, though she was not quite through her first week of classes. We took her last Wednesday and she had five full days to get settled and meet people. The school sponsored a whole bunch of events, parties, mixers, meetings, on and on, all designed to help new students adjust to college life.

We talked to her three times that first weekend, then used the wonders of Skype to videochat on Monday. Everything was great. She was having fun (but not the wrong kind of fun), she had connected with a couple of people who look like they could be good friends, and she reports that she hasn't met anyone who's a jerk (despite some drunken shouting from the courtyard outside her dorm late one night). When my wife suggested we come out there for a day over the coming weekend (on the pretense of back-to-school shopping for the Catbird), the Magpie hemmed and hawed and gave a non-committal response. It looked like she was going to push us off until Parents' weekend in October.

She's a smart kid, the Magpie. She didn't want move-in day to be a protracted affair with her family hanging around. It wasn't quite here's-your-dorm-gotta-go-see-you-at-Thanksgiving, but it wasn't  long and drawn out, either. She was anxious to get on with things, and it's tough to start forging connections when your parents and sister are hanging around all day. That attitude--"I need to be independent"--continued to come through in Monday's Skype chat. It's not that she didn't want to see us, or that she doesn't miss us; she just knows that the cord needs to be cut, at least a little.

Fast forward to last night. She's gone through a full week minus one day of classes, things are still going well, but as soon as we saw her on the chat, you knew something was wrong. She looked and sounded tired, she poked at the corners of her eyes a lot, and I thought maybe there was a tear or two. But there was a good reason: her computer picked up a nasty trojan, one that's proving difficult to get rid of. It kept her up late the previous night and occupied much of her free time yesterday, and still wasn't solved. The Magpie can have a tough time with adversity; she lets things like this ruin her day (and who can blame her? It's amazing how much of our lives get tied to computers). The funny thing about it, though, was how her attitude about our visit changed in three days. All of a sudden, she wants us to visit this weekend. And once it was decided that we would go, and we were trying to choose a day, she asked what we were doing today. Seems her classes get out at 11:40. Miss us much?

It's all fun and games that first weekend.
Now, she's got a reason to be down. Computer problems are very hard to deal with. And she had an assignment that had to be e-mailed to her instructor by 8 AM this morning, and she couldn't access the internet, so it was on to plan B. Still, I think part of her problem stems from the Week 2 Blues. I have a theory on this. Week 1 is all full of excitement and stimulation, and emotions of every kind. You're in new surroundings, surrounded by new people, all of whom are in the same boat as you. You're trying not to get lost on campus, and trying to figure out which dining hall actually has good food, and you're on your own, away from your parents and siblings. Independence! When classes start, it's more of the same, and very different from the high school dynamic (I remember one of the big shockers for me was a professor cursing in class!). And then week 2 starts. You're getting into routine and finding holes in your day. Two hours until the next class, what to do with yourself? Those holes give you too much time to think about your family and friends, the old hangouts and good times. It gives you time to be homesick, and gives you time to look around at other people and see how comfortable and cool they look. The first night or two at school is tough, because you're very aware of not being home, but it's still fresh and adventurous enough to be fun. The second week, though, watch out.

Of course, I could be wrong. It's been a long time since I went away to college. I think a lot of you are much closer to it. What do you think? Did you experience the 2nd Week Blues? Have a great weekend, and thanks for stopping by.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Lessons From TV: Breaking Bad

I'm a terrible TV watcher.

By that I mean I never keep up. I hear about shows I'd like to watch from somewhere or other, make note of the night, time and station, and then forget all about it until the day after it airs. I'm always behind. Of course, Netflix and Amazon and On Demand means the actual schedule is largely meaningless; miss it, and you can easily see it almost any time, and sometimes even commercial free.

My wife would tell you I'm a terrible TV watcher because of what I like. Beginning way back with a show called Millennium, which aired on Fox right after The X-Files for a few years, I've developed a penchant for dark drama and dark comedy. Millennium, Oz, and then dark comedies like Weeds and Californication (while I'm not sure either of those exactly qualify as comedy, they're much more humorous than Oz or Millennium). And now I'm hooked on Breaking Bad.

I watched season 1 of Breaking Bad last spring but sort of dropped it over the summer, even though I really liked it. I started season 2 right after vacation. After reading over the AW thread on "Why movies?" I referenced last week, I was watching Breaking Bad and had that 'ah hah!' reaction, and I realized I was watching a writing clinic. Sure, TV and movies are vastly different media from books, yet you can still learn from the best, and Breaking Bad may be the best show on television. Here are two areas where Breaking Bad excels:

Characterization. We're always told to flesh out our characters, make them real, three-dimensional people, with hopes and dreams--and flaws. Our 'hero' of Breaking Bad, Walter White, is definitely three-dimensional. He's a 50-year old high school chemistry teacher who is already working 2 jobs to make ends meet when he finds out he's got inoperable lung cancer. He's also got a baby on the way, a 15-year old son with Cerebral Palsy, and a crappy insurance plan. While he expects to be alive when his daughter his born, he knows he'll likely never see her take her first steps, and will probably not see his son graduate high school. He's been dealt a shitty hand, so maybe, maybe we can forgive him for his decision to apply his knowledge of chemistry to cooking up the best, most pure methamphetamine the world has ever seen. After all, it's bad enough he's going to die; he's also likely to bankrupt his family in the process. Cooking meth is the avenue to taking care of his family. We may not condone it, but we can certainly feel for the guy.

But, to be honest, Walter is not a guy I like very much, even without the meth. If he were my teacher, I'd probably call him a prick. He's a stickler for detail. Worst of all, and what is really behind his plight is he's proud, almost to the point of arrogance. It takes him weeks to reveal his condition to his wife. When he's offered a high-paying job by an old friend who's a multi-millionaire, Walter turns it down once he finds out his wife told his friend about his cancer, and he compounds this by refusing to let his friend pay—no strings attached—for his treatment. Walter will not accept charity.

And when it comes to dealing with his partner, underachieving former student, Jesse Pinkman, we see even more of Walter's bad side. Walter is selfish: he demands that everything happen on his terms, at his convenience. He shows, initially, little concern for anything but himself, and he's pigheaded to boot. There's Walter's way of doing things, and then there's the wrong way. These things make Walter a complex character. Quite frankly, he's difficult to like, and difficult to root for, yet I sympathize with his plight, and I feel badly for him when his marriage starts to crumble, even though he's the architect of his own demise.

Breaking Bad also excels at showing, not telling. Now, this may seem odd, the notion of a TV show telling, as opposed to showing, but they do, on a regular basis. Whether it's a lab technician on CSI or Law & Order breaking in with an "As you know, Bob…" moment, or an ADA jumping in to explain a point of law that the characters might be expected to know, programs 'tell' like this on a regular basis. On shows with highly technical things happening, it is necessary so that viewers can understand what's happening, but it's sometimes used as a shortcut to characterization or to reveal backstory as well.

Breaking Bad does precious little of this. We learn about Walter and Jesse and the others in how they react to the other characters, and the situations they get themselves into. We see how Walter reacts to the job offer from his friend; we see him berating and insulting Jesse for mistakes that are at least partly Walter's fault, because Walter doesn't communicate very well. We see Walter bemoaning to his money-laundering lawyer the fact that he's got a half-million dollars in cash that he can't really spend, and we sense that half the problem for Walter is that his family doesn't know the lengths he's gone to to earn that money. SPOILER: when he finally tells Skyler what he's been doing, you know that he wants her to acknowledge that sacrifice he's made. It's brilliantly done, not because he says it outright, but because you pick up the subtext. 

Good characters, showing, not telling, these are things we know we need to do in writing, yet every once in a while those lessons just get reinforced somewhere, sometimes in unexpected places. Breaking Bad did it for me. How about you? Any TV or movies that you've found provide great lessons in writing?

I just want to add that I'm sending good thoughts out to all you folks on the Gulf Coast as Hurricane Isaac heads your way. I hope it passes quickly and uneventfully.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A Delay

Okay, I've totally bungled this one, folks, and I don't know why. On Monday I linked to an AW thread, promised I'd have more today about it, and I've been writing like a fiend since. And I've got? A whole lot of stuff, but nothing coherent, and my efforts to write it are making my head itch on the inside. Not a comfortable feeling.

So, the basic update is we moved the Magpie to college on Wednesday morning, and things went well. From her accounts so far, she's making some friends (and ran into someone from home who's also attending the school) and getting settled in. I give her a lot of credit: my wife had visions of a long day helping her move in and get settled, while I subtly advocated for a fairly-quick drop and depart (not quite that quick, but certainly not an all-day affair). The Magpie opted for the quick approach; she was anxious, I think, to get started on this next phase of her life, and who can blame her? She called us that night, and sounded a little shaky, but she's doing well. And so we move on and adjust to the new paradigm.

Aside from this irritating blog post, I'm going to have to find something new to write. Barton's Women is simmering on the back-burner for a few weeks, but I don't have anything fully-fleshed out in mind right now to start working on in earnest. Part of me thinks I should re-read Parallel Lives; maybe it will help me re-craft my query, or turn up things I've missed, I don't know. I'm also considering dusting off some short pieces I've written in the last year or so and seeing what I can do with them.

That's about it for me, for now. How about you? What are you all working on? Have a great weekend, and thanks, as always, for stopping by. One of these days I'll give you something to really chew on again.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Caught by Surprise

Well, not really. I actually started my post last night, but first drafts are rough. I also have not enough time this morning--the Catbird starts cross country at 7:15 and we're off to The Big City immediately afterward to pick up last-minute items for the Magpie this morning. She's off to college on Wednesday. So, I didn't quite get to where I want to be last night, and I can't get to where I'm going with this post this morning, so instead I'm going to pull a semi-cop out and suggest you read this thread in Absolute Write: Why Movies? Or at least part of it, because it starts to get a little repetitious after a bit.

On Friday, provided I've sufficiently-recovered from being one child short, I'll talk about at least one thing I'm learning from 'the silver screen' (or, more accurately, the boob tube) that can help with writing. But not today. Have a good day, see you on Friday.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Cheating Little Liebster

So I'm back from vacation, but I'm still in vacation mode, still catching up with everyone, still trying to get back in the 'groove' and figure out what's going on and all that jazz. We had a nice time seeing family, eating lobster (not me, though; I hate shellfish), fishing, hitting the ocean, catching up with some friends. Now we have less than a week before the Magpie heads off to college, and won't that be a strange thing? Anyway, I'm back in body and it's Friday, time for a post, but my brain still has sand in it and isn't firing on all cylinders, so I'm going to cheat for this post.

Back before I left, freezing-cold, soon-to-graduate high school student Bonnee Crawford, who has written one book already and has started another, hit me with the Liebster Award. Thanks, Bonnee! Now, here's a funny thing--I've been Liebstered in the past, but evolution seems to be taking place in the blogosphere. When Carrie Butler first tagged me with a Liebster back in September of last year, pretty much all I had to do was post the rules, link back and thank the tagger, then share the love with five more people. Now? Well, Liebster seems to have grown up. Now? Here are the rules as posted on Bonnee's site:

The Liebster Blog Award is given to up and coming bloggers who have less than 200 followers. The rules are:
1. Post a link to your nominator's blog with some information about him/her on your blog. 
2. Share 11 facts about yourself.
3. Nominate 11 bloggers with fewer than 200 followers. 
4. Follow your nominator. 
5. Notify the blogs you nominated.
That's a tall order for a lazy guy like me, who is still half in vacation mode. So, I'm going to cheat. I'm going to link back to one of my old posts, where I was asked to share ten things about myself. Pretty much nothing has changed, except now it's just about three years since I paddled the giant pumpkin in Otsego Lake. As for nominating, I'll cheat on that one, too: if you have a blog with less than 200 followers, consider yourself nominated! Yes, it's a cop-out; yes, it's a cheat, but I'm just too lazy to go through and find you.  
A couple of quick addendums (addenda?) to the 'ten things', and I'll add one to bring it up to eleven: regarding #9, we visited that old homestead this week. The Park that house is in is still gorgeous, and so is the Mansion, though it's locked up and not getting used by anyone, sadly. And, for #11, in honor of Bonnee, who is from Australia: my wife's cousin is from Sydney; with any luck, we'll get to see him and his wife this February when they come stateside.

There you have it. Have a great weekend, everyone.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Musical Monday: Drowned

All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea -- whether it is to sail or to watch it -- we are going back from whence we came. -- John F. Kennedy, September, 1962

Let me flow into the ocean
Let me get back to the sea
Let me be stormy, let me be calm
Let the tide in, and set me free -- Pete Townshend, Drowned
I love the ocean. It's good to be back in it. I love this song. No video to go with it, but  great music. Enjoy.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Kick Back Time

The desire to get away can be a powerful motivator.

I've seen a few of you in recent weeks report on making a big push to finish up a project so you could  go on vacation with a clean slate. I wasn't aware I was doing that until mid-week,  but that must have been what was behind my burst of activity.

I approached this part of the process with Barton's Women a little differently than I did with Parallel Lives. With PL, when I definitively hit 'The End', I printed it out and put it away for five or six weeks. With Barton's Women, for some reason I decided to do things differently. I powered through the end a few weeks back, then just went back to the beginning and started going over it again. I'm not sure why I did it this way, except that it felt like the right way to go about it, and as a writer, I'm all about feel and intuition.

It's not done, but yesterday I reached the end of the work for the second time, turned my rough draft into something a little more polished, and now it's banished, for a little while, anyway. I made some mistakes, for sure, I'm going to need to pay particular attention to the last ten pages or so when I do come back to this project in a few weeks, because I definitely think I let me desire to get it done interfere with my judgment a little bit, but I feel pretty good about it overall.

And now I take a  break. The beach is calling. Have a great weekend, all.

Monday, August 6, 2012

An Award!

But first, apropos of Friday's post, here's a little musical bit from Counting Crows, their first big hit, Mr. Jones. I remember hearing a story at one point that the Crows had decided to stop performing this song in concert, partly because it was about the desire for fame and, having achieved said fame, their desires and motivations had changed. That was a second-hand story reported at the time, I don't know how true it is. Anyway, I always liked this song, and still do. Given our discussion about the changing nature of blogs, it seemed like a good fit for today.

And now, the award! 

Nancy Thompson conferred on me not one, but two awards, the Fabulous Blog Ribbon and the Be Inspired Bloghop Meme!  Thanks, Nancy, I do appreciate it. I will focus on the Be Inspired one for today, perhaps I'll get to the other somewhere down the line. This requires answering five questions and tagging five people. So, here goes.

1. What is the name of your book?

Oh, boy, which book? I'll go with the WiP, not the previously-completed one that's in queryland now. So, it is tentatively-titled Barton's Women.

2. Where did the idea for your book come from?

Hurricane Irene. We lost power. The Magpie had spent the night at a friend's house, Catbird had one of her friends at OUR house. I had to try to get everyone home through a brutal storm, with no way to communicate with anyone. Afterwards, I thought, what if I couldn't get my daughter home? That ultimately morphed into the situation in my book, where a family has an extra kid in the house when a World-Changing Event occurs.

3. In what genre would you classify your book?

Technically, it's probably dystopian. I would characterize it as Commercial fiction. With literary overtones.

4. If you had to pick actors to play your characters in a movie rendition, who would you choose?

 Don't ask me that question. I won't. I can't. 

5. Give us a one-sentence synopsis of your book.

Ick, I'm really bad at this, but here goes: 
In a world where (Holy crap, did I really just say that? Shoot me now!) our sustaining technology is suddenly stripped away, Kevin Barton risks his life and his marriage to protect his daughter's best friend from the predatory town boss.

Like I said, I'm really bad at this. It needs refinement. 

6. Is your book already published?

Six? Why did I think this was a Fab 5 thing? Oh, well. No. 

7. How long did it take you to write your book?

About five months for first draft, still working on revisions.

8. What other books within your genre would you compare it to? Or, readers of which books would enjoy yours?

Tough question. It's dystopic, but if focuses more on the dynamics within the family than the survival and brave new, miserable world stuff. The closest title I've seen to this recently is William R. Forstchen's One Second After, though, as I mentioned, the focus is quite a bit different.

I'll also add a couple of months ago I was dismayed to see advertisements for a new show on NBC this fall, called Revolution, which strikes a similar device. I suppose the good news is, IF I can get Barton's Women wrapped up really quickly, IF Barton's Women is actually any good, and IF Revolution turns out to be a hit....well, you get the idea. 

9. Which authors inspired you to write this book?

None, really. Every author is my inspiration in some way. Though I might add, there's a bit of Stephen King in here. Not the horror stuff, but where he says he looks at his characters and asks, "What's the worst thing that can happen?" 

10. Tell us anything that might pique our interest in your book.

There's a real 'yuck factor' in this book; it makes me very uncomfortable. On the other hand, I'm also trying to look at the definition of family and how far we're willing to extend it for others.

11. Tag five people!

Okay, that's not actually a question; this one doesn't go to eleven. But I'll do it, anyway. If you do not wish to participate, that's fine, I won't be insulted. If you do, have fun!

That was tiring. I'm off to collapse now.

Oh, and one other note, I may or may not be here on Friday. If I can get my act together and get a post done ahead of time, I will. If not, I won't. Off to the beach for a short time. Enjoy the week!


Friday, August 3, 2012

Will Success Change Your Blog?

About five years back the Magpie convinced us to get a trial account for World of Warcraft, a multi-player online game, which has Tolkien, King Arthur and obvious and subtle pop culture references all rolled into one. My wife jumped into it right away and was hooked. I held out for about a month before I 'rolled' my own character and got similarly hooked.

Now, if you're not familiar with the way the game works, your character starts out as a level 1 with few abilities, a crummy weapon, and ugly clothes. As you complete quests and kill 'bad guys' (and most quests come down to killing bad guys), you gain experience points. Gain enough experience points and you see a lovely shower of light around your character and you 'ding', as they say, that is, you gain a level. As you gain levels you get new abilities and powers, fancier clothes, and gain access to more difficult zones and quests, and you need more experience to get to the next level. At the time we started playing, the level cap was 70, and it was a slow process to get there.

I was a total newbie at the time, and the social aspects of the game concerned me. Fearing my own incompetence, I mostly steered clear of group play, until the day I took turns saving and being saved by a fellow Paladin while fighting ogres. Eventually, she invited me into a group with some of her friends to run a dungeons; I threw away my fears, joined and had a great time.

I hit it off extremely well with one of the guys in the party, and over the next few days we ran more dungeons and did quests together. But my wife and I shared the account and she wanted to play, too, so I did not have a lot of uninterrupted time. A few days later, I noticed my buddy was in a different zone and was a couple of levels above me, and running the next tier of dungeons. Within two weeks he was thirty levels or so above me. We still talked, we were still friends, but we couldn't play together. He had left me behind.

I thought of this as I read Nancy S. Thompson's Wednesdaypost this week. Nancy has observed—and published authors have told her—that achieving publication can have a funny effect on your blog: you get fewer visitors and fewer comments, and you may even lose followers and friends. Nancy considers two possibilities, both quite valid: first, there's less time for blogging and cruising around commenting on other blogs for an author who is revising/rewriting under a deadline, and we all know there's a great degree of 'reap what you sow' in blogland. Second is the jealousy angle, that some people can't handle their jealousy and disappear. I admit, I am jealous and envious of Nancy and Lisa and Carrie and Peggy andcetra and so forth—they have agents, they have publishing deals, they have books coming out, and I don't, so I'm jealous. There. I said it. In keeping with the World of Warcraft theme, they're off in a 25-man raid killing Magtheridon while I'm slogging around Desolace killing lizards for gizzards that have a 2% drop rate. I'm jealous, but I can handle it. I envy their success, but I'm happy for them, I don't begrudge them, I know how hard they've worked and I'm not going to stop visiting their blogs just because they're published and I'm not. Not everyone can handle it, however, and some of those people may well disappear. It's an unfortunate part of human nature, but there it is.

But I think there's a third reason for the change in readership, one that may have more to do with the blogger rather than the reader, and it's back to Warcraft for this one. The game at level 70 (actually it's 85 now, soon to be 90 or 95 with the next expansion) is very, very different from the game at 22 going on 23, or 48, or 63. And I suspect that being a published author is a very different game from being an aspiring one.

When I was leveling my character, I'd log in and get right into questing (and I got a lot better at using guild chat while killing stuff, so I could be social AND effective; it made the game a lot more  fun once I found some friends), heading out into the dangerous world, following the quests where they took me, working on getting to the next level. Sometimes I'd head back to a home city to train new abilities or to put acquired junk in my bank, or to go to the Auction house to sell or buy, but most time was spent out in the world aiming at the next level.

At level 70 the game changed. Welcome to a new world, the world of raiding. The entry level raid at the time required an extensive quest to get a key to get into the dungeon. You also needed to get gear to help you survive more than 3 seconds in the raid environment, which meant running the top-level 5-man dungeons on heroic difficulty (and some of these dungeons required keys, which required special quests, too). There were daily quests and daily heroic dungeons, and then raids. But there was also a lot more standing around in a city waiting for something to happen, trying to put together a good group to go into those dungeons. There was more time spent in the auction house buying certain gear, or materials to make some specialty item, or going out fishing for special foods or picking flowers for potions, etc.--completely different gameplay from the act of leveling up.
And that, I think, may be what happens in the blog world. Looking at my list of followers, looking at the blogs I follow, there are many at or around the same 'level' as me. Reading about your trials and travails helps me—I'm not alone in my struggles, we share many of the same experiences and feelings. It's encouraging to me, and I try to offer support and encouragement in turn (at least in my comments, if not always in these posts). But what happens when you reach 'level cap'? (and what IS level cap for an author, anyway? I sure don't know) When I publish, will my concerns shift into different areas, and will the nature of this blog change? And if it changes, will you have a reason to come back?

I can't answer these questions from my own experience. I am interested, though. For the published authors out there, has publication changed your style and focus of blogging, and what has that done to your readership? And for the non-published among us, have you seen changes in your favorite blogs once the owners reached 'level cap'?

Thanks for reading and commenting, and have a great weekend.