Saturday, March 30, 2013

When it’s Time for a Writer to Take a Break

A break. A vacation. A hiatus.

Every writer needs one now and then, but there never seems to be a good time to take one.

There's always another author event or book signing to participate in, another social media avenue to explore, or (shudder) another book to write.

And yet writers who do not take a break even when the going is good run the risk of burn out or going full out psychotic.

"Danger! Danger! Stressed out writer kills 11 at coffee shop and chains self to espresso machine."

Okay, that wouldn't really happen . . . maybe.  But taking a break is crucial to creative success.

This post marks the second anniversary of this blog (yay, me!), which makes as good a time as any to announce a hiatus.

How long will this hiatus last?  Not sure. However, there are many things I have left to explore and many more to come now that I've published my first novel, The Power Club™.

Some of the things I have yet to do include printing and selling physical copies of the book and updating and promoting the Power Club's own website (you can take a look at it here).

Then there's the possibility of a sequel, as well as other creative projects.

2013 is gearing up to be a hectic year on both personal and professional levels, so it's probably a good idea to take a breather while I can.

And while I've enjoyed writing The Semi-Great Gildersleeve on a regular basis, the weekly grind does get to be a bit much. I must say, however, that this blog has been beneficial in so many ways, including:
  • being able to exercise the discipline of writing a blog every week.
  • exploring a range of topics related to writing fiction and particularly writing super-heroes
  • watching my list of followers (now at 20, not including me) and page views (now over 11,000) grow--thank you, everyone, for checking the site out!
  • and being able to promote my work while sharing what I've learned along the way.
It's been a little over two and a half years since I embarked on the journey which led to the creation of this blog and, ultimately, to the publication of my novel. I couldn't have done this without a very supportive network of talented writers.

Some are members of the Monday Night Writers Group, the critiquing group of which I'm still a part.

Others are part of the "umbrella" group, The Kansas City Writers Meetup, which is still a vibrant and expanding community of writers.

Still others include bookstore owners, fellow professors, and artists who have given me insights and encouragement.

Thank you, one and all, for making this one of the most exciting periods of my life.

This is not the end of The Semi-Great Gildersleeve . . . only the semi-end.    

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Mindful Violence? “Realistic” Super-hero Action in The Power Club

So, you’re writing a novel aimed at kids and you want to include some action or violence. You want to entertain your readers, but you don’t want to send a message that violence is “good” or an acceptable way of solving problems. 

Most of all, you don’t want parents writing you nasty letters.

What do you do?

This is one of the questions I grappled with while writing my recently published novel, The Power Club. While the answers I came up with may not satisfy everyone, I believe they accomplished what I set out to do: to show violence in a more-or-less realistic fashion from a kid’s point of view, even though the kids involved have super-powers.

To accomplish this, I had three over-arching themes I wanted to explore:

1. Even powered kids have to deal with bullies.

So, if you had a super-power, you think you’d never be bothered by bullies again?  Think again. What if those bullies also had powers?

Early in the novel, Damon, the main character, gets attacked in an alley by three other boys. Damon’s power to create darkness is no match for theirs.  One boy, Larry, can extend his fingers into metal-like poles, using them to attack from a distance. The second, Calvin, opens “holes” into other dimensions into which kids can disappear forever. The third, Rusty, is Damon’s natural antagonist: he draws power from the sun and emits a blinding flash of light which dispels darkness.

What can Damon do?

Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out. Let’s just say Damon taps deep into the well of his own abilities and discovers he can do things he didn’t think he could.

But there is a price.

Any ability which sets you apart from others must be used responsibly. Damon learns this the hard way, but, in so doing, he also learns the value of friendship and teamwork.

2. Going up against people who are weaker than you is a no-no.

Damon and his new friends in The Power Club go to the mall. While there, a gang of “ords” (people who have no powers) stage a demonstration which gets out of hand, threatening a young powered girl.

Damon intervenes to save the girl but places himself in danger—until the rest of the PC show up and fight the protesters. It's a lopsided battle: rocks and bottles prove no match for super-speed, teleportation, growing to giant size, and flight.

But instead of receiving medals for their actions, as Damon expects, he and the others receive a stern warning from the government: they must never fight with ords again, or they will be severely punished.

Damon complains that it was the protesters who started the fight, not the PC. No matter, as far as the government is concerned. Attacking ords only makes ords more afraid of powered kids.

The distinction between right and wrong is often blurred, and knowing what to do in violent situations can be difficult. Did Damon and crew do the right thing? You decide.

However, even “doing the right thing” sometimes leads to unforeseen consequences. It also does not always result in the recognition we think we deserve.

3. Damon and the rest have the makings of adult heroes—but they’re not there yet.

The climax of the novel occurs when Damon and some of the other PC members attempt to foil a robbery. Things do not go as Damon expects.

Why? For one thing, he’s dealing with two cold and calculating criminals instead of a disorganized and angry mob. For another, these criminals came prepared to battle super-powered teens.

Let’s just say Damon learns that being hero sometimes involves sacrifice. 

In the real world, violence is to be avoided. One of the harsh contradictions of the world is that violence sometimes cannot be avoided, yet it does not solve problems—as any war can teach you.

In fiction, violence can serve as an escape valve, letting readers blow off steam by living vicariously through characters who have more power and a greater ability to act than they possess.

Fictional violence can also be used to show readers the consequences of real violence.

In The Power Club, I tried to strike a balance between both of the above intentions. Having a super-power can be fun and, in some ways, it makes Damon “better” than others. But having a power does not solve all of his problems; it often creates new and worse problems.

But it also gives him a chance to become the hero he knows he can be.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Mindless Violence? The Role of Action in Modern Super-hero Stories

Back in the 1980s, Comics Buyer’s Guide ran a cartoon depicting two stalwart Marvel heroes, Daredevil and Nightcrawler, in a wrestling match. The caption read, “Mindless violence as you like it!”

The cartoon poked fun at the tendency of some fans to prefer violence over any kind of plot, character development, or theme—the elements most of us think of as “story,” and which writers love to write.

The irony is that, in the three decades or so since that cartoon ran, mindless violence has escalated in comics, films and TV, and especially video games. One recent book goes so far as to pin the blame for the horrific trend of mass shootings on the rapes, murders, and carnage our children are exposed to in modern video games.

This is not the place to argue the pros and cons of that debate. However, for many fans of super-heroes, violence—or, to use a less inflammatory term, “action”—is a significant part of the genre’s appeal. 

Think of any Spider-Man, Avengers, or Batman film, or even non-super-hero blockbusters such as Mission: Impossible and The Matrix. What’s the first scene that comes to your mind? Chances are, it involves some kind of violence or action.

(For me, the first scene in Marvel’s The Avengers which springs to mind involves the Hulk—the green-skinned epitome of mindless violence—and his famous “Puny god!” line. Mindless violence?  Perhaps. But funny as all get out.)

Cut to the (Car) Chase?

A conversation with two friends today got me thinking about the role of action in super-hero stories.  One friend in his early 50s said he watches super-hero films and reads comics solely for the action. He has no interest in story lines. He wants car chases and explosions.

(This friend, by the way, has never to my knowledge gone on a mass shooting spree. He’s a devoted family man who recently won the employee of the year award at his job and who spends his free time teaching kids how to draw.) 

The other friend, same age, likes a balance between story and action. He took the Transformers movie to task because, once the characters transformed and started fighting each other, he couldn’t tell who was who.

Then there’s me. I’ve largely moved on from comics these days, though I still love a good super-hero story.  (Avengers was one of the truest comics-to-film adaptations I’ve ever seen and an enjoyable movie in its own right.) However, if given a choice, I’ll prefer story to action every time.   

My most recent favorite TV series, Downton Abbey, is about as far removed from super-hero action as you can get.

Without a good story, action does not satisfy me.
Heroes and the High Cost of Violence

Our conversation, in turn, got me thinking about the role of action in my own super-hero stories, especially the two available through the links at the top of this blog: the comic book GOLD DUST and the novel THE POWER CLUB.

If you’re looking for slam-bang, wall-to-wall action, pass on both of these. That isn’t to say there’s no action in either—there is—but the action supports the other elements I described above (plot, character, and theme); it does not take their place.

By keeping action to a minimum and using it only when necessary, I sought to achieve a particular effect: to make violence more significant, memorable, and (in a few cases) horrifying.

GOLD DUST, for example, is about a hero seeking redemption. Mangold, in a flashback sequence, seeks revenge for the murder of his teammate by trying to kill a super-villain. He misses and kills a bystander instead. 

From that moment on, Mangold tries to reclaim what he has lost: the sense of being a hero, of making a positive impact on the world, and to win back the trust of the people he protects.

The present-day action in GOLD DUST largely figures in two scenes, one involving a mugging and the other a burning building. Both end with our hero behaving in a somewhat less-than-heroic fashion.

My purpose was to show that the world is no longer as cut-and-dried as Mangold wants it to be and that sometimes even heroes need help.

My larger goal was to get readers to question the nature of heroism and to recognize that, while heroes are flawed, they remain heroes because they keep trying.  

If I had to sacrifice a car chase or a punch-‘em-out with a super-villain to achieve that effect, so be it.

Was I successful? I don’t know. However, no one has ever complained to me that the story needs more action.

Action Does Not Equal Conflict

Besides, physical action is not as fun to read, in my opinion, as interpersonal or internal conflict.  Mangold butts heads with his surviving teammates, who have also had to pay a heavy price for his mistake. He also wages war with his own demons while trying to come to terms with what he has done.

Do these ideas resonate with readers today, or should I have had Mangold and crew gang up on a group of super-villains instead?  What do you think?

(In a future blog post, I’ll discuss the action in THE POWER CLUB.)

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Damned Fine Writing: Book Review of "Priory of the Damned" by Kenneth Hursh

"Of several hundred nun's hospices coast to coast, Margaret had no doubt hers was the only one with a vampire on the payroll."

That sentence, coming on page 212 of Priory of the Damned: A Love Story pretty much sums up Kenneth Hursh's dry, quirky horror novel-with-a-sense-of-humor.

Full disclosure: Ken Hursh is a member of the Monday Night Writers Group, the august body of critique partners I've been privileged to facilitate  While reviewing a novel I've had a hand in critiquing may seem, in the words of a famous Vulcan, oddly self-serving, Priory of the Damned is worth reviewing because it shows how dedication, hard work, and feedback can help you bring your own goals to fruition.

 Of Nuns and Vampires

Margaret Georgescu, one of Priory's two protagonists, married young, but when her husband went off to war and was lost on a Romanian hillside, she turned her grief into a calling. She became a nun and spends her twilight years running a nun's hospice in Kansas.

But, two years ago, the husband she thought was dead re-entered her life. He didn't die, after all; he became undead. Vampires need fresh blood, and Margaret has all those dying nuns lying around . . .

If the premise alone doesn't strike your curiosity, check out the book for Hursh's quirky writing style, which somehow finds humor in the horrible and humanity in the sacred.

Take David, the vampire, for instance. Far from being an evil predator, he merely wants to satisfy his need for blood in the least harmful way possible. David has experienced his demonic side in the past, but he now keeps it in check, living out his existence as the groundskeeper of St. Anne's priory, just so he can be near the woman he still loves.

Then there's Margaret, now a prioress, who has aged while her husband remains eternally young. Torn between her vows to God and her love for the husband she once lost, she assists David in his nocturnal endeavors by leaving the windows open in the rooms where nuns are near death.

Margaret seesaws between rationalizing her choices and being convinced that God has a special punishment in store for her. Meanwhile, she conspires with David to keep his activities secret from the five other nuns who work at the hospice and from the meddling priest who comes by from time to time to deliver last rights and eat free food.

And when a world-famous "living saint" (a la Mother Teresa) is brought to St. Anne's to die, things get really complicated. Margaret must hide David's activities from her bishop and a private investigator and convince David to "go hungry" until the old woman dies.

The problem is, she refuses to die.

Seeing Is Believing?

This two-person story is told with an alternating point of view. It would be hard to imagine the story being as effective any other way, as David and Margaret's very different perspectives provide revealing insights into their relationship and how they perceive the crimes they are committing.

When David uses his special abilities to make one of the other nuns forget what she's seen, Margaret wonders how far he can go and how far is too far.

Perception is one of the underlying themes of the novel, and, through its lens, Hursh explores other themes such as sin and redemption, and love and evil.

Furthermore, he is a master at misdirection. Characters who at first seem important drop out of the story entirely. Other characters who are initially kept in the background become significant in surprising and inevitable ways.

Certain point of view shifts are jarring, but not to the point of throwing the reader out of the story. And while Hursh easily ramps up the tension throughout the novel, one scene goes unexplained and would be more in home in The Exorcist than here.
Priory of the Damned is about two people who face an impossible situation neither of them asked for, and who are caught between doing what their senses of decency tell them and survival.

The choices the characters make often lead to even worse situations, just like in real life. In real life, as in the novel, sometimes we have to take it one day at a time.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

“You Want It in How Many Words?!” Why Word Count Limits Can Help Writers

If you are a professional writer, or plan to be one, sooner or later you will have to deal with word count limits.

Word count limits are those sometimes unpleasant and restrictive limits imposed by editors, writing groups, or others for whom you may write. They usually come in the form of an editor telling you, “I want you to trim 10,000 words out of your story,” or your writing group offering to critique your novel 1,500 words at a time.

Writers often chafe against word count limits. Will your story be rejected if you can trim only 8,000 words? Will members of your writing group hate you if you submit 1,600 words for their perusal?  And what qualifies as a word anyway?  Is “son-in-law” one or three words?

Thanks to automatic word counts in modern word processing programs, the last two questions are mostly moot. And while policies differ among editors and writing groups (some hold strictly to word count limits; others don’t), every writer should make an effort to follow such limits.

After all, being a professional in any field means understanding conventions, respecting others who work in the same field, and following directions.

More importantly, word count limits can actually make you a better writer. They force you to ask yourself tough questions, such as:

  • Do you really need this scene and/or character?

When I was in grad school, I wrote a screenplay about a multi-generational rock band. I had carefully worked out the back story and chronology of this group, which included many personnel changes and extended family members to make the drama more realistic.

But in writing the screenplay, I came to realize (with some pointed questions from my professor) that certain characters were not necessary. In particular, I cut out a keyboard player and one of two grown sons of the lead singer.

Did eliminating those characters improve the screenplay? Surprisingly, yes. The story was much leaner and tighter without them. Their functions in the story were quite easily assumed by other characters.  

Did eliminating them hurt the back story and chronology?  In the end, it didn’t matter since those devices were meant to flesh out the story, not be the story.

Likewise, your story may contain characters, scenes, or even chapters that simply don’t need to be there. Word count limits can force you to justify every element of your story. If anything doesn’t demonstrate sufficient reason for being there, get rid of it.

  • Can you say the same thing in fewer words?

Most writers love words. We spend hours crafting the clever phrase, the incisive dialogue, the beautiful description—and then we are told to cut it?!

Well, yes.

That flowery passage you labored over can bog your story down and bore the reader. More common, but just as deadly, are sentences which contain more words than necessary. 

Both flowery passages and wordy sentences are normal pratfalls of the writing process: While getting the story down on paper (or on the screen), we become so involved in our characters' lives that we lose track of how our sentences actually read.

This is a perfectly normal part of the writing process, but it’s why pruning is necessary.  Pruning means you go over every sentence and make sure each word, like each character and scene, demonstrates good reason for being there.

If you have a word count limit, you will be surprised how many words you can cut from a passage without altering its meaning.

More, you will be amazed by how much better the passage reads.

But aren’t some word count limits arbitrary?

They can be—but every editor knows how much space she has to devote to your story, if you are submitting to a magazine, for example.  

Likewise, writing groups which handle multiple submissions on a regular basis want to make sure there’s time to read and critique each submission. Word count limits ensure everyone’s work gets an equal chance for review.

Word count limits force writers to recognize that we’re not composing our works for our own amusement. They remind us that our stories may go through several levels of gatekeepers before reaching their intended audience, and that gatekeepers such as editors and writing groups can help us achieve our ultimate goal: to write the best story we can.

Sneak Peak at My Answers for the Local Author Fair Panel

On Thursday, November 5, I will be one of four authors participating in the Local Authors Fair Panel through Woodneath Library Center, Kansa...