Doggy Thursday

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As most everyone who reads this knows, I live with family. We also have two cats – Sammi, 16, and Stevie, 4 – and two dogs – Amy, 5 or 6, and Chewie, who we believe is about four or five years younger than Sammi. Sammi and Amy both came from the Wexford County Animal shelter when they hadn’t been there that long; they were both real young. Sam, I think, was about two months old when we got her, Amy was four months. Chewie came from another home that had a lot of other dogs, and Stevie came directly from another cat owner giving away free kittens.

Now the dogs are little characters unto themselves. And I do mean little. My mom wanted an ankle biter when we picked up Amy from the local animal shelter. Instead, we have little yip-yip lap dogs. Amy’s a Dachshund/Chihuahua mix, and Chewie’s Maltese/Yorkie.

These dogs crack me up. When I’m upstairs, trying to work or blog, and they want to go out, they’ll run out of the room the moment I stand up.

Chewie doesn’t bother to look and make sure I’m actually following them down the stairs. He’ll be in the living before I even reach the bedroom door.

Amy, on the other hand, will wait for me. She’ll stand at the top of the stairs, looking in my direction, and won’t go down until I’m heading down myself.  

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Here they are with my sister and her boyfriend at a family reunion last Saturday. This was their first trip to the lake ever. They had fun, they were spoiled a little (they got to eat some hot dog instead of doggy food). They just didn’t want to look at me long enough to get their faces. Amy will love you to death – she figures when people stop by our house, they’re there to visit her and no one else. Chewie is a little more reserved when meeting new people. He did exceptionally well on Saturday. 

And I do love how fast he can move when it’s time to go outside. 

They’re such cute little buggers.

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Evolution of an idea

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On March 24 of this year, I wrote about my writing journey – how old I was when I first started, what I wrote about – and the more I talk about my writing past with people, the more I start to remember other things. Like the attempts at writing a play in the fourth grade, movie manuscripts in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, and playing with some fanfiction ideas in high school, though unaware of the terminology at the time as well as copyright laws. I was always writing something, enjoying it, and cringing at some of my more horrible efforts. I’m also excited to get my stories out there for the rest of the world to read and to hopefully enjoy.

It’s also been in talking about this that I realize one of my original fanfiction ideas – a Lord of the Rings based series with a completely new setting and new cast except for Frodo; I was so in love with that hobbit in high school; I’m sure Tolkien’s estate would not be thrilled with what I’d do to that poor hobbit at the beginning of the story – has always stuck with me. The one character, the one setting, I plan on using for a novel. In fact, I’ve started the novel but currently have it shelved in favor of other works right now.

And I’m floored at this realization: This character, this idea, this story has been with me for twenty years. Changing, evolving, becoming more – and I’m still looking forward to writing it, completing that rough draft, and getting published, even though it’s been a weird work in progress for so long. Some might say that’s ridiculous, but I don’t see it that way. This is exciting for me and life-affirming.

This is what I hope for all writers, that you find an idea that you’re excited about, and can still be excited about it, no matter how long it takes you to work out the details. Because that story is going to evolve, it’s going to take on a life of its own, whether it’s through input from critiquers or from yourself. We writers are the life force of our stories. Let’s give them life, let’s watch them grow and change, and become something we can be very proud of at the end of the day.

Happy Wednesday, everyone.

Novella update, addendum, and some writing advice about revising

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Addendum to the last entry’s rant – I would also like to mention it’s very easy to make snap judgments based on cover and concept art. I’ve come across more romance novels where the women on the covers are about to lose their tops with sexy men right behind them than I have for science-fiction and fantasy novels.

I’m not advocating misogyny. I’m advocating for reserving judgment on characters who are “too sexy” (men included) in appearance until you’ve gotten to know that character, which is done by reading. I’m also advocating for writers to go with a variety of characters with a variety of personalities. I believe Kellie Sue DeConnick says it best:
http://www.upworthy.com/i-dont-know-about-you-but-i-prefer-my-strong-female-characters-to-pass-the-sexy-lamp-test?c=ufb1

So here it is, a new week, and I am scrambling, my friends. My novella is so close to reaching a final draft stage, and I’m a mix of happy and frustrated and excited. I will be posting an excerpt once I’m certain the section in question is polished. It’s undergone many types of revisions, some major, some minor. It’s all par for the course, really, and when I have a new title for this beastie.

I will not be querying any agents or publishing houses of any kind at this moment. As far as I’m concerned, I’m an untested when it comes to original material. I would have a harder time breaking into the market going the traditional route. I will be keeping the traditional route on the table. It is my dream to have Tor pick me up as an author. (I’m also going to be in the process of moving in the next month or so with the hope I can find a way to purchase an R.V. and travel for a while before finding a place to live in Philadelphia.) The self-publishing is going to be very interesting because I am the one responsible for picking the cover design as well as promoting myself and ensuring the quality of my story. I would also like to have a few stories published before I start the querying process.

One thing I have re-learned is that revising and editing are big pains in the butt, two of the most necessary evils to writing, but also worth every moment. This novella has given me a great deal of grief, but it has also become a better story for the revisions. Until I joined my current online workshop, I didn’t realize exactly how bad some of my writing habits were, and I’m not talking about scarfing down ice cream and Coca Cola while I work, either! Rather, it was over usage of certain writing tools, like passive voice and telling over showing.

My advice to new writers: Get used to the idea of revising and redrafting now. It’s a lot easier to develop the habit now than after ten years or more of writing and having stopped. Find some notebooks and some pens. Write by hand. A lot of my problems have stemmed from my way of thinking: Once it’s typed, it’s the completed version, and that is not true by any means.

So today is a “Let’s write” day! Write that rough draft, no matter how crappy that first sentence sounds. Set your daily goals. I will be (even though it’s now 1 pm for me).

Enjoy the day!

Genre: A Rant about the Depictions of Women in Writing

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Recently, a discussion came up about Marvel’s choice to do a gender swap with one of their main heroes. I’m sure all geeks by now know that Thor is losing his ability to wield Mjölnir and that a woman will be replacing him. It isn’t a relaunch or a reboot, and it isn’t temporary. Thor is now a woman.

This rant isn’t about Marvel’s decision to try and appeal to a wider demographic. This rant is about the bad rap that the science-fiction and fantasy genre still receives when it comes to women and their portrayal.

You see, what has sent some people into a tizzy over Thor is the la femme Thor’s concept art, how it shows her as busty and wearing a breast plate that conforms to her torso. Once again, Marvel was sexually objectifying women and pandering to a male audience with this move, so the complaints go. Readers of Thor may notice that Donald Blake (Thor’s alter ego) is losing his purity, is no longer acting like a good guy, but all everyone’s focusing on is the new Thor’s cleavage. I’ll let those people argue over the storyline and how it’s coming about; at least they have a better understanding of why Thor is changing and the other implications of what can follow.

The statements about the sexually objectifying and pandering are both correct and incorrect – Marvel’s artists have always drawn women who look like supermodels more often than not. However, many of the women are not as scantily clad as the complaints make them out to be. Last year, I bought a Characters of Marvel encyclopedia. I can peruse through this any time I wish. Most of the women are more than decently covered. Scantily clad seems to be the exception, not the rule.

It was in thinking about how Marvel has drawn women and the bad rap the science-fiction and fantasy genre receives in general (most comic books are part of the science-fiction genre) that I began to notice something of a fallacy with the statements. Women aren’t nearly depicted as sexual objects as often as many would like to believe.

Now, this isn’t to say that it hasn’t happened. I have not read all there is in terms of science-fiction and fantasy. I haven’t watched all sci-fi shows or bought all comic books so I know something is out there that has done exactly this and caused this kind of derision towards the genre. However, I can look back at almost fifty years with the major science-fiction and fantasy influences and note more often than not where women weren’t sexual objects for men. (The flip side to this? It’s okay for the character to be sexy and beautiful as long as the writer is being true to the character. But always, at first glance, it’s an automatic pandering to men and sexually objectifying women.)

For the first example, let’s start Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. Yes, the women wore short skirts, but that was also the fashion of the time. Many women took to wearing mini skirts (and pants) because they were sick of societal norms that dictated they must wear long skirts.

This show broke barriers of all kinds. To start, Nichelle Nichols was not only African-American (to be politically correct here) but a woman. She held an important job on the bridge as the communications officer. She wasn’t serving anyone coffee. Uhura was a woman of rank, a lieutenant. There was also Nurse Christine Chapel. Her role as a woman may have been typical, but she was hardly meek, if I recall. (I’d have to ask my uncle to loan me some copies of Star Trek to be sure.) This was a show where two women played characters at a time when most women who served in the military were nurses but never ranking officers.

Second example: George Lucas’s Star Wars released in 1977. Princess Leia was not only covered completely, but she wasn’t a pushover, either. Yes, she was faced with an impossible choice, but she never sold out her compatriots. She was strong-willed, believed in her cause. The only moment where she’s a sex object is in Return of the Jedi and as a prisoner of Jabba the Hut. Otherwise, she is fully clothed.Her daring and bravado are the reasons why Han loves her, and he’s not out to change her.

Some more examples include the Alien series with Sigourney Weaver, Lois Lane in Superman, and many of the women in the X-Men series.

This just covers movies (and some comic books). This isn’t covering the numerous books I’ve read over the last twenty years, books written as far back as the 1980s. In Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance Chronicles, sex kitten Kitiara is written as wearing full battle armor. Laurana is always decently covered. The same as Goldmoon and Tika, the latter becoming a swordswoman as much out of necessity as desire. Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, David Farland, and Tad Williams, to name a few, don’t write women as sexual objects, but individuals with flaws and complexities. For as much as I don’t like Jordan’s portrayal of his women (he tried too hard to make them strong), I give him credit for most of them not pandering and sexually objectifying themselves to men in anyway.

These are stories that span back as far as 1966. Other stories have been written that have done otherwise – offhand, I can name the Gor series but only based on conversations with friends; in the Star Ocean and Final Fantasy games, some of the female characters are scantily clad; there’s also Wonder Woman – but I have encountered more stories than not where women aren’t sexual objectified to men. Even the scantily clad characters in some of my video games don’t pander to the men of the stories. They’re strong, confident, beautiful, and they know it.

Now, if I were to go back just thirty years into the Romance genre, to the powerhouses of Harlequin and Silhouette, I would find many stories about intelligent, strong, career women who meet a man and find themselves needing him. The woman is willing to give up anything for him. (But of course, he’s a sweetheart by the end, and she sacrifices nothing.) The idea is that every woman needs a man and every man needs a woman, or so that has been my interpretation of the romance novels I’ve read. These are stories written for women, about women, by women, and they are pandering to a generality, have for over thirty years.

This is an eye-opener here, because there are many out there who have read more romance novels than I have, and who can say to me, “But that’s not true! Just read this author right here, and you’ll see that she’s different”.

You know what? I believe you, romance readers. I really do, and I don’t need to read the author you’re pointing out as an example.

Why?

Because you do know your genre. You do know the stories that are out there far better than I do. My exposure is admittedly quite limited. My best friend, whenever we discuss these things, tells me I need to read some Jude Deveraux because of how different she is. Others can give me more examples.

Just like I can give examples where my genre hasn’t been as exploitative of women as the complaints make them out to be.

The point is this: Don’t judge a genre by the poor examples out there. They are now the exceptions, not the rules.

And don’t judge a character by her looks. She may be sexy, but she’s often complex, flawed, and interesting, no matter what genre she’s in.

Article: Why I Like the Big Bang Theory

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I am an admitted geek. I have told people when they ask fellow writers why they’ve chosen their respective genres that I was raised that way. My parents liked Star Wars and Star Trek. We watched the Superman movies, Battlestar Galactica, Clash of the Titans, and the Never-Ending Story. I almost mustn’t forget Ghostbusters 1 and 2, Spaceballs, and the Alien series.

Those weren’t the only shows and movies we watched, but these are the ones to have the biggest impact on my childhood and teen years.

Also, admittedly, I didn’t know what a geek really was. I never identified myself as geek or nerd in high school. In addition to the above movies, we watched Revenge of the Nerds. I was particularly prone to loving science, which seemed to be a requisite for nerd status. I bought a few comic books, read a lot, but nothing that I deemed nerd-worthy.

Oh, how the times have changed.

Now there are movies out there where the creepy nerd dude chases after the hot chick and wears her down into saying yes. He ultimately becomes the love of her life. She realized she was wrong about him, blah blah blah. Or so the loud complaints go about romantic comedies and other such films. Again, most movies like that aren’t my thing. If you give me a choice between something like 50 First Dates or Alien vs. Predator, AVP will win every time. I may not be fond of the storytelling, what little bit there is of that, but it has everything I like in terms of science-fiction.

So why like The Big Bang Theory? It’s not really science-fiction nor is it really fantasy. It’s about four guys with the nerd/geek stereotype – socially awkward, inappropriate around women an awful lot – and an attractive young, blonde woman who moves across the hall from the two who are roommates. She’s the exact opposite of what they are, and three of them have the hots for her.

Based on that, one would think it’s a romantic comedy brought down to a comedy sitcom level, and it’s glamorizing the geek world, making it trendy.

One would be wrong on how everything is playing out.

While it’s true three of the characters – Leonard, Howard, and Raj – have the hots for the cute neighbor – Penny – they’re still too socially awkward to actually be noticeable for her as potential love interests. That isn’t to say Penny doesn’t notice them because she does. She thinks they’re very sweet guys, if sometimes annoying. Despite Howard’s initial perverted nature towards her – you know, the guy who tries way too hard to impress a girl and figures he’ll eventually get her the longer he keeps at it – Penny does consider him to be a friend. She’d be there for him when he’s in need of a friend. She’s also there for Raj, Leonard, and Sheldon, helping to bring them out of their social awkwardness and into the world.

This doesn’t mean she’s changing them into who they are not. If anything, for Penny, their geekiness and intelligence is a far cry from the types of people she knows and has associated with since high school. Of the four nerds, she’s attracted to Leonard the most. Howard has struck out in the department of winning Penny over. It isn’t because Howard isn’t a nice guy. It’s more because Leonard has always provided Penny a friendly ear, a voice of reason, and a source of encouragement for her dreams, even as he’s freaking out that she could be making some huge mistakes.

The nerdiness and geekiness aren’t restricted to the guys, either. While Penny is the odd person out in those terms, the show has brought on two women as love interests but also as very interesting characters in the forms of Bernadette, who is set up on a date with Howard and eventually signs on with a major pharmaceutical company due to her degree in micro biology, and Amy Farrah-Fowler, a dowdy-looking neurologist with personality traits similar to Sheldon.

At the same time Penny is smoothing away the social awkwardness of such people, they, too, are sharing their worlds and knowledge with her. And, to her surprise, she rather likes it. These are people who aren’t afraid to be themselves. They have lessons for each other, these wonderful and flawed characters of the Big Bang Theory. Though they rag each other mercilessly at times, they are friends, and there isn’t anything they wouldn’t do for one another, be it sneaking up to Stan Lee’s house at night or trade insults with Will Wheaton.

And, yes, the show is making it so geeky and nerdy are cool and trendy. That isn’t a bad thing so long as people remember what it is about the characters that does make them so cool.

They are individuals. They are true to themselves. They’re not afraid to dress in costumes and head to conventions. They’re not afraid to argue over silly, trivial things like who can and can’t wield Mjölnir and not have it divide them irreparably. They’re multicultural. Yes, Leonard, Sheldon, and Howard are “white” guys, but Raj is from India. Howard is Jewish. Sheldon grew up in a very religious home in Eastern Texas (as he puts it). Leonard grew up as an atheist. Penny’s from Nebraska, Bernadette declares herself to be a “good Catholic” girl, and Amy is, well, Amy.

They’re not afraid to be smart and to think for themselves. They are proof that love, tolerance, and friendship are greater forces in this world.

That is why I love the Big Bang Theory.

A Writing Misconception – Start With Short Stories First

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For the new writer looking to start out, you will be bombarded with advice the moment you say, “I want to write a book”. Some of it will be from people who don’t know the first thing about story crafting. “Oh, you should do this, this, and this. That’ll make a great story.” Or “Why would you want to do that? Authors don’t earn enough to sustain themselves.” Some of it will be from other writers. “Don’t use adverbs. Adverbs are bad.” Or “Start with a short story first. Ease yourself into writing by starting out short then transition into something longer.” The idea behind starting out short is that shorter is an easier story format to manage.

What’s the misconception here?
Short stories are easy because they are short.

How is that a misconception?
Like novels, poetry, and flash fiction, Short stories have their own constraints. The story has to be told within a certain amount of words/pages. The goals of the characters are condensed. There can be no cliffhangers. The writer is limited to a certain number of characters.

It can also be harder to transition from writing a shorter story to a longer one without adding a bunch of information dumps – nothing wrong with those except for they’re often tedious to read – and page after page of useless action that doesn’t do much for the plot.

My high school had certain English requirements for all students. One class was called Short Stories, in which we learned about the characteristics unique to short stories, characteristics set forth by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, and Edgar Allen Poe. For that class, we were assigned to write a short story. We weren’t allowed to go over 3000 words.

I kept wanting to go over.

Short stories are not for every writer, just like novels are not for every writer.

My advice: If you want to start writing, find out what kind of story you want to tell. Not just in terms of genre but in terms of length. Learn the nuances, and always challenge yourself to learn more.

Coming Up: An excerpt from my soon-to-be published novella and Why I Like the Big Bang Theory.

Forget the Rules vs. Forget the “Rules”/The Frustration of “Just Write” Advice

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For the absolutely new, “I’ve never written anything before in my life” writer, congratulations! You’ve just made the first step towards writing! You’re probably thinking, “How hard can this really be?” Right? Right?

Only, you’re probably now starting see that beginning the first manuscript can be quite daunting, be it that first sentence or what to actually write. You’ve bought yourself some pens and some notebooks, or you have a word document open and . . . .!

Absolutely nothing.

What the hell, right? This is not what you envisioned when you decided to write a story. It’s supposed to be easy!

So what do you do? Join a writers forum? Attend a workshop? What do you do to find out how you need to start? Who do you ask for help to get you over this so you can start making some magic? What do you do when you’re bombarded with all kinds of helpful advice that still doesn’t help you to write that oh so important first sentence? What are these rules everyone talks about but doesn’t clarify? Why are you so confused by all of this?

I cannot even begin to fathom the confusion, fear, and confusion the complete beginner is facing. When I wrote my first fanfiction piece in 2000, it was a way to relieve boredom. I had pens and pencils and paper. I started writing. I used my mom’s computer to type everything up and start posting to possibly now defunct fanfiction website. While the above paragraph is rhetorical and a bit tongue-in-cheek, the truth is many first time writers face this, feel like this, and wonder how the more seasoned writers cope with this, if they even experience it at all. They turn to whoever they can to get the answers to such questions, be it teachers, family, friends, or professionals.

That’s when the advice, the rules start rolling in, doing one of two things: Adding to the confusion and overwhelming the new writer or giving some clarity and insight and some idea of how to start. Some advice might even be frustrating.

I like to believe the latter happens more often than not, but I haven’t polled anyone completely new to fiction writing. I will err on the side of caution and offer this.

Know the difference between rules and “rules”.

Rules are hardcore. Rules are what you’ve been taught in every single English lesson you’ve had since your first day of school. These are rules that can be bent a little, but you need to understand when and where you can do this. If you don’t, all you’re going to have is mangled prose. Your idea is rendered ineffective, and you’ve established you’re not quite as credible as you want others to think.

“Rules” are not so hardcore. “Rules”, by design, are to keep authors from developing crutches and overusing certain things or techniques.

What a minute, someone might say. What do I mean by rules and “rules”? Surely if there are rules for writing fiction, they must be obeyed, yes?

Allow me to elaborate.

You see, there are rules – always end a sentence with a period, etc . . . Then are “rules”. Here is a small list.

Show, Don’t Tell
Avoid Adverbs
Avoid Passive Voice/Don’t Use Was
Don’t Use Purple Prose
Don’t Use Italics for Emphasis
You Must Always Use an Outline
Always Avoid Alliteration

These are not rules. These are “rules”. These are not set in stone by any English book. It’s advice. They’re guidelines designed to help strengthen a writer’s prose. Look through the books written by your favorite authors and see how many times they break these “rules”. It’s going to be hard for you to do, I know, because you’re in danger of losing yourself in the story. (This author is probably why you wanted to become an author in the first place.)

As I said in the Writing Vs. Storytelling entry, be your own advocate. Ask for clarity on such advice. Know that the rule “show, don’t tell” isn’t applicable, and it is up to you, the beginning author, to learn where it isn’t. I could tell you it’s about character and character type. I could tell you where it’s applicable in my work, but I can’t do the same for you, new author, because I haven’t read your work. I don’t know your characters or your intent. All I can do is say, “If someone tells you that, if they haven’t explained why . . . if all they’ve done is give you a demonstration of how to show instead tell when show may not work, ask them why”.

Be your own advocate. Ask questions. Learn and grow as you begin this journey. Don’t blindly accept such advice. Don’t remove tools from your toolbox just because someone else says you don’t need them. They don’t know that, and neither do you.

That now leads me to the other bits of advice that new authors receive: Just start writing, forget the rules. I’m rather guilty of saying this myself. Just start writing. That’s all you’ve got to do. Simple, right?

In light of thinking of advice dispensed to complete beginner authors who ask “What do I do? How do I start?”, maybe it’s not just encouragement that you’re seeking. Maybe it’s thinking that there’s some magical formula on how to form words on the paper, some trick to get the ideas out of your head and where they need to be. The ideas are there, but you’re worrying over how to actually phrase that first sentence just right. So you ask “How do I start?” only to receive “Just start writing, don’t worry about anything else”. That has got to be one of the most frustrating things for someone to hear who is looking for that magical, wonderful formula on how to write that key phrase. After all, you’re hearing, “Hook your readers with that first line!” It’s pounded into your head, and you want to make sure everything is perfect that first go round.

In all honesty, I can’t tell anyone how to properly phrase that first sentence that will get the ball rolling. I’m stuck in my head, and that’s where I want to remain. I can’t tell you based on vague ideas of what you want to write about the best way to actually start writing. I’m not in your head so I can’t tell you the exact way to proceed. Even if you do give more detailed things, how I would start such a story is not and should not be the way that you would start your story. I don’t want to write your story for you. I want you to write your story for you. This isn’t helpful, I’m sure, and I don’t mean it to be snotty or rude. If we could sell formulas on how to overcome the overwhelming fear of staring at the blank page, well, we’d be selling it mass bulk and snorting it up our noses as well.

New writers, you are not alone in facing the daunting, blank white page. A lot of writers face it so we say “Just write. Don’t worry about it being crappy”, we say it not only for you, but for ourselves as well. I know. I’m one of these writers as well.