Friday, November 6, 2009

Who is Else and how did she get in my story?

What I'm reading right now: Your First Novel by Ann Rittenbert & Laura Whitcomb

Lately, I've been sharing some insight I gleened from Orson Scott Card, largely from his Literary Bootcamp. In a previous post I talked about elsing your way through a story. You can see that post here. Continuing that theme (of the cliché shelf and elsing your way through,) I have another list compiled from Richard Roeper's observations. He wrote a book called 10 Sure Signs a Movie Character is Doomed. As a movie critic, Roeper has seen thousands of movies. He compiled this book of observations he extracted from his endless hours of movie watching, things he’s seen over and over again.
This section refers to specifc scenes. He has endured these tired sequences so often he has reached the point of saying:  "I could go the rest of my life without seeing any more variations on the following scenes." You will recognize most of these because you’ve seen them too. If you’re writing characters or scenes similar to the ones on the list, stop and ask yourself, “What else could I do? How else could I achieve the same goal?” And my personal favorite, also coined by OSC, "There's a thousand ways to write it right and a million ways to write it wrong."

The following scenes are used again and again because they tend to work. They evoke a certain response in us: the underdog reflex, the hero complex, love everlasting and so on. As well, some of these events have happened to us, so we relate better to the character.

I'm sure if you've seen as many movies as Roeper has then these scenes get old quickly. I don't mind some of them, if a given scene is ensconced in a great story. But consider this, there are scenes that you don't mind, there are scenes you enjoy, then there are scenes that stay with you--they are indelibly imprinted on your mind and soul. Those are the scenes that evoke the underdog/hero/love reflex and do it every time we read or watch them; just like those listed below, but they do it in a unique way. Those scenes were written by someone who said: Yeah, but what else could he do? Don't you want to be like that guy? I do.

Here's the list:

1) After hailing a cab, getting caught in traffic, jumping out of the cab, running through the streets, hijacking a moped and racing through the airport, the guy catches up with the gal just as she’s about to board the plane, and he tells her that he loves her and he doesn’t want her to go away because she completes him or whatever. The smiling flight attendants close the door to the ramp and the plane takes off, as the young lovers make out in the terminal. (One of my favorite variations of this scene is in Love Actually.)

2) A seemingly defenseless little old lady defends herself by kicking the bad guy in the balls.

3) A seemingly defenseless young lady defends herself by kicking the bad guy in the balls.

4) A seemingly defenseless little kid defends himself by kicking the bad guy in the shins.

5) In a crowded public square, a couple gets into a nasty, loud fight, but then reconciles—and everyone around them breaks into applause.

6) During a practice run on the track, a group of cocky, macho race car drivers (or motorcyclists) are blown away by a mystery driver with reckless tendencies. Just when one of the macho guys is about to punch the new young punk, the mystery driver takes off “his” helmet—and a mane of beautiful hair falls free. It’s a girl!

7) Any and all musical montages showing the weakling getting whipped into shape.

8) A year after his wife has disappeared, a man sees a woman in a crowd who looks and dresses like his wife. He chases her through the streets, finally catches up to her, says, “Honey!” and taps her on the shoulder—and she turns around and looks at him as if he’s nuts. “Sorry,” he says. “I thought you were someone else.”

9) A rogue hero gets shot in the shoulder and it doesn’t even slow him down—but late, when his girlfriend pours alcohol on the wound, and sews him up, he winces and howls in pain, and she teases him about being a big baby.

10) Dogs who greet visitors by sniffing their crotches.

11) At the conclusion of a brutal rooftop duel, the good guy is hanging over the ledge and the bad guy is cackling about this turn of events. And that’s when the good guy makes a quick move and throws the bad guy over the ledge while somehow managing to maintain his balance just long enough for the girl to regain consciousness, race over, and pull him to safety.

12) Somebody points a gun, and everyone says, “Whoa, take it easy!” Then, to prove how serious h/she is, the gun-wielding character cocks the trigger. When this happens, we know the gun will not be fired and reason will prevail.

13) An attractive woman is alone in a bar when a handsome cad approaches and tries to hit on her, much to the amusement of several guys who have already been shut down. She explains to this new guy that she’s happily married, but he keeps hitting on her. Just when we figure she’s going to throw her drink in his face, she wraps her arms around him and gives him a sexy smooch. Surprise, surprise, they’re husband and wife!

Have you got a scene that just gets you every time you watch or read it? Share it, I'd love to experience it too! Here's one of mine, gets me everytime: Costner, For Love of the Game, final out of the ninth inning. Every time!

Monday, November 2, 2009

So What? Oh Yeah? Huh? Orson Scott Card Just Tell Me You Love Me

What I'm reading right now: Your First Novel by Ann Rittenbert & Laura Whitcomb

Today's logophilic post falls more on the side of loving the way words are grouped together than the characteristics of a given word. Taking seemingly random words and arranging them in an interesting order, it is this act that drives us, whether personal, hobbyist, or within a professional context it is what we do.

Recently I attended a reading by a local author, Sara Zarr. She writes YA Fiction, more or less aimed at teenage girls, so not a genre I'm familiar with. However, after hearing her talk and listening to a reading from her new book, Once Was Lost, it was clear that she knows something about putting seemingly random words into an interesting order. I now have two of her books.

While I sat in the audience, I was fortunate enough to share a space with her husband, Gordon. During the QnA, someone asked Sara how much Gordon gets involved in the writing process. Does he give critiques? Brainstorm? Sara said, "No. He does not get involved. All I want to hear from him is good job; I love you." 

If that works for her, then good on ya. This leads me to my question: Can our loved ones read our stuff and give us valuable feedback? It's possible, yes. Tracy Hickman and his wife Laura have written many novels together, but I find that for me, when family and friends read my stuff the feedback I get is, "I like it. It's good." Sometimes I get a bit of something, "I like your voice." Don't get me wrong, I love the fact that they are willing to read anything I write and I appreciate anything they have to say. But can they do more than that, if prompted? I think yes.

Back in August of 2007, I was selected to attend Orson Scott Card's Literary Bootcamp. It is a week long writer's workshop. The first two days are open to anyone who wants to attend. The remaining four days are for the selected Bootcamp participants, usually around 15 people. You spend one day writing a brand new short story and the subsequent three days reading and critiquing everyone else's short story, which includes OSC. Yes, Orson Scott Card reads and critiques your manuscript (that's way cool. Although he does not write one of his own. How cool would that be? As if any of us would dare to critique it if he did.)

One of the things he teaches in the two day course is how to have anyone critique your work, including family and friends. It is called Oh Yeah? Huh? and So What? You simple have whoever is reading your work make a mark on the page anytime he becomes bored, distracted, or confused. As a writer, you don't want your reader to experience any of those three while reading your work. Many readers don't know why a certain section doesn't work, they just know that something is not right.

Those three categories are lesser examples of Oh Yeah? Huh? and So What? I am fortunate enough to belong to a fantastic writer's group where we give each other salient feedback. To give valuable feedback, you want to look for any instance of these three:

Oh Yeah? Questioning or challenging believability
Huh? Confusion or misunderstanding
So What? Why should I care about this? How is this relevant?

If you can get your reader/critiquer to make that distinction over just a mark, then so much the better.

I felt compelled to bring this up because OSC just announced the dates of his 2010 Literary Boot Camp and this year he is doing something new: two sessions. One in Utah and one in Virginia. If he is coming to your town, I would make every effort to attend. Check it out: Uncle Orson's Writing Class and Literary Bootcamp.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Bless This House with Death: Uniforms, Patriots, & False Cognates

What I'm reading right now: Literary Journals Your Future Agent is Reading by Zachary Petit, Writer's Digest * November/December 2009

Stay with me on this one. It will start with baseball but end with logophilia.

Change of Venue

DISCLAIMER: I have no scientific data to support the following claim, but it's kinda fun.

All of my examples are anecdotal. I can't cite the numbers, but it's widely accepted in the sports universe that building a new stadium will generate revenue for your team and somehow imbue the players with talent. Let's take the New York Yankees for example. In 2008 the Yankees played their last season in the house that Ruth built and how did they fare? It was the first season since 1993 that the Yankees failed to make the post season.

In 2009, the NY Yankees moved into their new Yankee stadium

and as I write this, they have a 3-2 game lead on the Angels for the ALCS and the right to play the Phillies in the World Series. All this from a simple change of venue?

New Uniforms

How about football? Let's talk New England Patriots

A brief history, beginning with the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, the New England Patriots were largely unremarkable until 1985 when the Pats won the AFC and made it to their first Super Bowl, SB XX; then got smoked by Jim McMahon and the Chicago Bears 46 - 10. Following their loss, the Pats immediately settled into a decade of mediocrity.

After the first uniform/logo change in 1996, the Pats returned to the Super Bowl, SB XXXI, where they posted a better showing, but still lost to Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers 35 - 21.

The third, and current uniform/logo change, for the 2000-2001 season was only a slight change, but all that was necessary given that the Pats were so near greatness, to catapult Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to their run of Super Bowl titles: 2001, 2003, & 2004.

SIDE NOTE: Interesting that the first Super Bowl victory for the Patriots was the Super Bowl following 9/11 and coinciding with the most recent uniform change.

Notable interest: Which team won
The 2007-2008 season the Patriots flirted with a perfect season, returning to the Super Bowl and losing their one and only game, the Super Bowl, to the New York Giants.

Well, thanks for that stroll down sports lane, but how is this at all related to a love of words?  Cognates. (Admitedly, it's a bit of a stretch) In language we have cognates and false cognates. Again, I will turn to

cog nate: of the same or similar nature : generically alike

For example, let's talk France

Paiement par carte de crédit -- Facturation mensuelle automatique
Payment by credit card -- Monthly automatic billing
Paiement and Payment are cognates. I also find it interesting that monthly and mensuelle are not cognates but their meanings are similar.

As there are cognates there are also false cognates:

Bless and Blesser: The French verb blesser means harm or hurt, a far cry from a blessing. The French verb to bless is actually benir. There's nothing life or death about false cognates, however they can lead to humorous and awkward scenarios. Take the new English speaking missionary struggling to learn the language but wants to participate and connect with a family and offers a pray saying, 

"On te demande de blesser ce masion avec la mort." (We ask that ye hurt this house with death.) Instead of:

"On te demande de benir ce masion avec l'amour." (We ask that ye bless this house with love.)
A Final Thought

Is a logo/uniform change a cognate or a false cognate? Do clothes make the man? Does a new venue make that much of a difference?

I was thinking about how this might apply to writing. When you've got a piece that you've gone over again and again stick in the drawer for a few weeks, let it sit, then look at it with fresh eyes, like a new uniform on an old body of work. It just may do the trick.

What about a change of venue? Well, sometimes there's nothing better than a different set of eyes to give you a new perspective on a tired piece. Next time I'll talk about those new eyes and how they can effectively help us revise our work.

Monday, October 19, 2009

10 Sure Signs Your Character is Doomed

What I'm reading right now: Understand the difference between an idea, a concept, a premise, and a story. by Larry Brooks (

I find it difficult to read while folding laundry (yes, I do laundry--there's a confession for you.) Occasionally, I’ll listen to an audio book but they're all on my Nano and the headphone wires get in the way, so I put in a DVD to distract me from the monotony. I’m a little behind on the mainstream-vampire genre (aka Twilight or True Blood) so I rented a True Blood disc from Netflix (love the red envelope.)
I’ve been an Anna Paquin fan since I saw her signing in The Piano with Holly Hunter. You’ll recall I have a degree in American Sign Language. So I was eager to see how she would portray Sookie Stackhouse, the mindreading-on-again-off-again-girlfriend of a vampire named Bill.

In one scene, Anna walks into a room, crosses the threshold and says…

I don’t remember what she said. What I do remember is I said the exact same thing, verbatim. I hadn’t seen this episode (there are several on a disc) but somehow, in the given context, I knew exactly what the writer intended she say.

In 2007, I attended Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp. As part of his course he talked about the cliché shelf. These are the ideas that first come to us as writers: what should our characters say? Or do? Or behave? He teaches that we instinctively pull from our cliché shelf—things we’ve seen and heard people or characters do in similar situations—and what we need to do is learn to reach past the cliché shelf. He uses the phrase, “Else your way through the story.”

When you pull from that cliché shelf say to yourself, “Okay, that could happen, but what else could happen? How else might she respond? What else might he say? This helps you come up with a fresh take on tired ideas.

Speaking of tired ideas, a friend of mine recently shared a list of 10 Sure Signs a Movie Character is Doomed. It’s from a book of the same name written by Richard Roeper, co-host of Ebert & Roeper. As a movie critic, Roeper has seen thousands of movies. He compiled this book of observations he extracted from his endless hours of movie watching, things he’s seen over and over again.

Some of his observations are less relevant than others, such as Bad Films Featuring Seinfeld Cast Members but the 10 Sure Signs a Movie Character is Doomed is a great example of the cliché shelf. These things have been done to death. You will recognize most of these because you’ve seen them too. If you’re writing characters or scenes similar to the ones on the list, stop and ask yourself, “What else could he do?”

1. The researcher who is working late in the police lab and calls up the lead cop and says, “I know who did it! Meet me at the crime scene at 11 tonight.” After hanging up the phone, the researcher will be greeted by a visitor who is not shown on camera and will say, “Hey, what are YOU doing here?” And then the researcher will get whacked.

2. The spunky little kid or the wizened old soul who befriends a main character in a hospital has no chance. We’ll find out the kid (or the old-timer) has died when the main character stops in to pay a visit, only to see a nurse’s aid stripping the bed. Nothing says death in a hospital scene like a nurse’s aide stripping the bed.

3. The fresh-faced soldier who talks endlessly about his girlfriend, looks longingly at her photo every night, and fells everyone, “We’re going to have a baby!” will be coming home in a body bag.

4. The pregnant young wife who looks at her husband with pure love and says, “I’ve never been happier in my entire life,” has no chance of making it out of the movie alive.

5. Another type who has no chance of surviving the movie: The anonymous henchman who exists only to fight the superhero and never realizes that it would be better to team up with his fellow anonymous henchmen for a group attack rather than waiting his turn to be defeated by the hero (well docu-mocked in the Austin Powers movies.)

6. Of course, all lusty teenagers in the Friday the 13th, Halloween, or Nightmare on Elm Street movies will be sliced and diced to pieces, usually after they’ve just made love or gone skinny-dipping.

7. The popular veteran cop who has travel brochures on his desk and is a week away from retirement—he’s never going to see that condo in Arizona, is he?

8. If a team of criminals or investigators has one black guy played by an actor who’s not as famous as anyone else, that guy has no chance. (As explained in Undercover Brother.)

9. The bad guy is locked in a life-and-death clinch with the good guy, when suddenly a gun goes off. We see the look of shock on the good guy’s face as he falls away—but of course it’s the bad guy who’s been shot n the gut.

10. Wise old-timers in the form of janitors, next-door neighbors, retired athletes, or inmates who have been locked up for 50 years—they’re bound to croak, usually in the arms of their young protégé, who says, “Don’t you die on me!” as if it’s up to the old guy.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive

What I'm reading right now: The Maze Runner by James Dashner

A word on The Maze Runner. I'm only in the first chapters, but I can already see influences from Lord of the Flies and Ender's Game--hey, as far as influences go, them ain't bad. I heard James speak at the book launch and he admits that the book has been spoken of in the same sentences as Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games. I've picked up that one too, but I'm only a couple of chapters into it. From what others have told me, she's pretty good company to be in. I've seen some reviews where people feel that The Maze Runner is in the same genre but not as good. Then I've heard reviews from people who I actually know who can't speak highly enough of The Maze Runner. I guess we'll all just have to read them both and then discuss. I don't think either author will object to that course of action.

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive

You know how there are grammar snobs out there? Those who claim to know all of the rules of structure and usage and syntax and could go on about it ad nauseam? Interestingly enough, even they will often trip up on "who" & "whom." Well, I'm not one of them. I do pursue accuracy with language but I try not to judge or preach to others and how they choose to manipulate les bon mots.

SIDE NOTE: For an sensible take on who vs. whom, check out Orson Scott Card's essay here. It's about 2/3rds of the way down.

One of the charms of language is evolution. Language continues to change, grow, and adapt, lest it dies. How a language evolves can tell us a lot about a community, for instance a public forum used to be a place where people gathered to discuss a given topic--face to face. Now, you can chime in at a public forum completely anonymously and a chat room was the receiving room in a home where you could sit and entertain your guests.

First, let's give some definitions so we're all playing by the same rules. The first two I pulled from and the last

Prescriptive or Prescription:

serving to prescribe : laying down rules or directions : giving precise instructions

Descriptive or Description

referring to, constituting, or grounded in matters of observation or experience

Such as descriptive linguistics: the branch of linguistics which describes the structure of a language or languages as they exist, without reference to their histories or to comparison with other languages

What this all amounts to is prescriptive grammar is text book grammar. Grammar that follows the rules as laid out by Strunk and White, if you will.

Descriptive grammar is the way people actually use the language, which may be contrary to the prescriptive guidelines, but is far more interesting.

I tend to fall on the side of descriptive. I do have my pet peeves, which will be voiced on a later posts, but tend to keep them to myself and not berate the user directly. I will however vent my peeves in this forum. And just because you may commit a prescriptive error and I choose to vent about it, by all means, don't change your ways on my account. If that were the case, we'd all be stoned to death.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Greetings and Salutations

What I'm reading right now: How to Reboot Your Novel by Larry Brooks

A brief introduction.

In my a dolt life (read adult) I often tell my coworkers and particularly my training classes that nobody likes my jokes as much as I do. This may or may not be true, but as no man is an island, I have yet to find, think, compose, speak, or desire anything that somebody at some point in history hasn't already--you're unique, just like everybody else--so I concluded perhaps there are a handful of warped personalities out there who do like my jokes, perhaps even as much as I do.

Logo-what? Great question.
log-o-phile [law-guh-fahyl, log-uh-]

a lover of words.
Origin: logo- + -phile Unabridged

Etymology: New Latin -philia + Greek -akos, adjective suffix

1 : one having a tendency toward
2 : one having an abnormal appetite or liking for

There are few things I love in this world as much as language. Words words everywhere and I could drink them all. Twist them, turn them, taste them, I love how they feel on my tongue. I am so enthralled by language that it was the driving force behind my one piece of worldly validation on a tree carcass--I have a degree in American Sign Language, Interpreting.

Being spatial, ASL (or in this case Sign Language--as there are many, not just American) has a different twist than any other language family on the planet. Everything else is linear, and thus I had to know the grace and beauty that is American Sign Language. I also speak French and love that language for its own reasons. We can discuss that in a later post.

Is there a language that you love? Something unique about it that makes you love it? I'd love to know what it is.

My most favorite of all the languages is my mother tongue. I've heard that there's possible more words in the English language than any other language. I don't know if that's true, but I want to believe. Where else then would a logophile put down roots?

I've also heard it said that English is one of the hardest languages to learn. Having learned two other languages myself, and having taught English as a second language, I disagree with that statement. Learning the morphology of English, the sounds of the letters, and putting them into the correct order then arranging words as per the English directive does not appear to be as challenging in English as other languages.

I used to make a comparison at this point to Korean. From my limited interaction with those who have tried to learn the language, I had the impression that the level of difficulty was greatly increased. What I've come to learn from native speakers and those fluent in Korean (as a second language) is that linguistically it makes sense. That the sounds of the symbols seem to mimick the shape of the tongue required to produce the sound. What this leads me to believe is the greatest difficulty to learning any language is how it is used: the sarcasm, the nuances, the meanings behind what is said and English is right up there in that department, an insight that stepped up and slapped me in the face when I became an ASL interpreter. Which was the best job I ever had. I still look at them with the highest regard and admiration.

An additional facet to this learning curve, I believe, is whether the new language falls within the same language family as your native tongue: French to Spanish would be easier than English to Japanese. But I digress, when it comes to why I love English, well, with so many words at our disposal, we can have ever so much fun.

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