Saturday, July 27, 2013

A Power Club Dramatis Personae: Who’s Who in Damon’s World

Now that The Power Club is available, let’s review who the main characters are and what they can do.  

In The Power Club, kids who develop super-powers must live inside “the district,” a small, confined series of neighborhoods in which they are separated from “ords” (people who have no powers), other than their immediate families, and have limited freedom. Kids can gain more freedom if they join a special club—if the club accepts them.

The "code names" in parenthesis are not used in the story, and they may or may not be used in the sequels. Damon, who came up with the names, thinks they’re great. Danner thinks they’re dumb. You decide.

DAMON NEUMEYER (“Master of Darkness”)—Age 13, Damon has the ability to create darkness.  He can plunge a medium-sized room into total darkness by creating a “darkspace,” a mysterious environment that appears to be a part of him. Only Damon can see inside the darkspace—images appear black and white to him. No one can hear inside the darkspace unless he opens a “soundspace” for them to communicate. Neither Damon nor anyone else can see or hear what goes on outside the darkspace. Damon has lived in the district since age six and, because kids aren’t allowed to use their powers in public, he hasn’t had much chance to develop his power; hence, the reason he wants to join The Power Club.

KYLE POWELL (“Teleporter King”) – Age 15, Kyle can teleport himself, other people, and objects. The person or object being teleported appears to “scramble” as if its insides and outsides are being rearranged and reassembled somewhere else.  People who are teleported often feel a brief sense of nasuea afterwards. While the distance Kyle can teleport himself or others is uncertain, he refuses to “send” anything out of his line of sight to prevent it from merging with another person or object. Kyle can teleport two people at the same time, but doing so is very dangerous. 

DENISE EVANS (“Forture Teller”) – Age 14, Denise can see the future. Her power, so far, is very imprecise.  For example, she can predict an event which will occur but not exactly when it will occur. Or she may know the exact time of an event but not how it will turn out.  She may sense that others will need her help but not know the exact details.  On the other hand, Denise can predict with alarming accuracy how other people will behave or what they will say. Denise claims her visions are never wrong.

VEE EVANS (“V-Blur”) – Age 12, Vee—Denise’s younger brother—possesses super-speed. Vee does not know exactly how fast he can run because, being confined to the district, he has nowhere else to go. But he’s fast enough to avoid Damon’s darkspace and to zip around unseen by most people, who perceive him only as a fleeting blur. Because of his power, Vee sometimes talks fast and can be very impatient.

ALI REEVES (“Flyer”)—Age 14, Ali can fly—a power most kids in the district would love to have. But Ali, too, hasn’t had a chance to learn how to control her power. Being gravity-less and ground-less, she can easily float away. However, she is learning to have greater self-confidence and can swoop in and out of dangerous situations.

DANNER YOUNG (“Tower”) – Age 14, Danner can grow to enormous heights. As he grows, his strength and weight increase proportionately. His upper limit is 30 feet, but he rarely grows higher than 20 feet. His power gives him enormous self-confidence and an aggressive personality. He keeps his normal height at six feet just so he towers over other kids.

These six principal characters in The Power Club are not the only kids in the district with powers. Soon we’ll take a look at others, including the villains.

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Saturday, July 20, 2013

3 Steps to Boost Your Writing by Thinking Like a Kid

I haven’t been to a comics convention in about seven years.

There are reasons for this—lack of money, nothing in particular I want to buy, and little interest in current comics. 

But since comics formed the foundation of much of The Power Club , they remain close to my heart.

This weekend, the biggest comics convention, Comic-Con, is going on in San Diego, CA. Thanks to updates and even a live feed from friends who are there, I can keep up with all the excitement.

The con was also featured on this morning's news. The report spotlighted a middle-aged woman dressed as Ma Hunkel, the original Red Tornado, complete with a cooking pot with eye hole cutouts for a helmet.

Even when I went to cons, I didn't dress in costume—but not because I didn't want to. Costumes can be expensive, and I also couldn't decide which character to go as.  

(My ideal costume would have been Lightning Lad's 1960s outfit, complete with robot arm.  There's something inherently exciting about a blue cape and lightning bolts as a chest insignia.)

Going to cons and dressing in costume is something a lot of people do not understand—to them it looks silly (no sillier, I would argue, than dressing in costume or wearing war paint to go to a football game).  And yet such silliness—acting like a kid, if you will—can be a vital part of being a writer.

Last night, coincidentally, I watched a program on the National Geographic channel that encouraged adults to do just that: think like kids. The program, Brain Games, explores how our brains function and how we can boost memory—“use it or lose it,” as put by the program’s oft repeated mantra.

In one segment, both adults and children were shown a series of simple abstract drawings and asked to generate ideas for what the drawings could be. Guess what—the kids generated more answers than the adults. We’ll get to why later on.

Thinking like a kid, however, can also boost writing, which involves doing several kid-like activities: creating something out of nothing, combining ideas that at first don’t seem related, and thinking outside the box—the very processes Brain Games suggests can boost memory.

Here are three suggestions for how thinking like a kid can improve your writing:

1. Play, play, play.

Quick question: What’s the difference between work and play?

Both can involve the same types of activities, effort, and even rules (if one is playing certain games).

One difference is that, in play, there are no serious consequences if you fail. Sure, you may lose the game and whatever rewards go along with winning, but that’s all. Play, in its purest form, does not affect your income, social standing, or future prospects.

Kids usually don't worry about these things when they play; neither should you.

Playing is important to writing. If you’re not having a good time writing a piece, why would your audience have a good time reading it. (You always want your audience to enjoy your work, even if you’re writing about a serious subject.)

2. Don’t worry about whether it’s right or wrong.

Remember those kids who were more creative than the adults in the Brain Games segment?  Why was that?

Kids, according to the program, do not have the experience or context to know whether an answer is right or wrong. They do not self-edit or judge their answers.

Do not self-edit or judge your work, either. Save that for the revision process.

3. Change your writing routine.

While most writers find keeping a routine helpful—such as writing at the same time every day, writing in the same space, or even drinking the same type of tea while writing—it’s a good idea to shake things up once in awhile.

It doesn’t even have to be a major shake-up.  For example, I used to write these blog posts while sitting in a particular restaurant. But the last few, including this one, were written in a different restaurant.

A small change, yes, but a significant one. This particular restaurant reminds me of the places my family and I used to go to for breakfast while on family vacations. There’s even a view of traffic cruising along a busy street, as if I were next to a highway.

Mentally, being in this place puts me back in those childhood vacations. The result (after starting out with no idea what I was going to write about) is the post you are now reading.  (And if you don't like this post—well, maybe you're not thinking like a kid!)

Doing something new or something that reminds you of the best parts of your own childhood can put you back in the fame of mind to create, create, create.

If all else fails, put on your cape and fly.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Should You Research Your Novel Before, During, or After You've Written It?

Research—that word writers hate. 

One of the sobering facts of writing fiction is that all writers must research. Does your starship have an engineer?  Do you know how real engineers think, talk, and dress?  No?  Do research.  

Is your story set in an exotic locale?  Have you ever been there?  Do research.   

Does your story take place on a fantastic world of your own creation?  Does it resemble other fantastic worlds with which your readers might be familiar? Do research, my friend.

When In Rome . . .

The importance of doing research surfaced again while writing my latest work in progress. One of my central characters faces a choice that is rooted in overcoming obstacles in his past. 

Without giving away too much, let’s say the character is very long lived and that the incident in question occurred in First Century A.D. Rome.

The problem? I don’t know much about that era.

So, naturally, I will do research. But the question is, exactly when should a writer do research for a novel—before beginning to write, in the middle of writing, or after completing the first draft?

While you can find the method that works best for you, each strategy offers advantages and disadvantages.

Research Up Front

This is the ideal situation if you know in advance where your story is going, and what locations, customs, politics, science, etc., will play a role. 

But sometimes you don’t know exactly what you will need to know beforehand. Even the most meticulous outline can be derailed by an unexpected need to know something, such as how to ride a horse or what do they call that place where ministers sit during church services?  (The chancel.)

Doing a lot of unfocused research beforehand can also bog down your story with “Lecturer’s Syndrome”:  You now know so much about the topic that you have to share every piece of minutiae with the reader, whether it’s important to the story or not.

Research In the Middle

Doing research while writing your first draft is sometimes the only option available to writers who are on deadline. From my own experience, however, it's the least effective strategy.

Researching in the middle means you either continue writing while doing your research or you suspend writing until you’ve found what you need to know.

Researching while continuing to write can be fun. You get to shape your story as new information enters your brain. But the more you learn, the more you realize how earlier parts of your story are “wrong” and will need to be revised or rewritten later. Such a realization can inhibit writers from completing the draft.
Suspending your writing is usually the worst choice a writer can make. This means you have to start “cold” again at a later date. Writers, like anyone else, will look for any excuse to stop writing. Don’t give yourself that excuse.

Research After the Fact

The third option is to plow on through your draft and then do the research after you have completed it.

This is the method I am using for my WiP for four reasons:

  • You can be really creative when you don’t know much.  (Think of when you were a kid and "had to" tell a fib to your parents. Sure, they caught on, but it was fun while it lasted.)
  • The Story is King. The history, politics, culture, and science of a particular era serve the needs of the story, not the other way around. This isn’t to say you should completely ignore facts when writing fiction. However, the story comes first. The King has to have a vision before he knows how the various parts are going to fit.
  • Following Anne Lamott’s maxim to give yourself permission to write a crappy first draft, you can liberate yourself as a writer if you know your first draft is going to be bad and that it should be.
  • You may already know more than you think you do. There must be a reason why the King wanted me to write about First Century A.D. Rome. I must know something or can relate to something from that era. (And, in fact, as I’ve continued to write the story, details are starting to emerge which will focus the direction my research will take.)

If you don’t know anything about a particular subject, perhaps your King is telling you it’s time to explore.

There are drawbacks to doing Research After the Fact, as well. If you truly don’t know anything about the subject, you can find your character standing at a crossroads without any idea of where he will turn. 

Even if you know a little about the subject, indecision can bring your story to a standstill.

Follow the King

Whatever method you use, don't let research bog down your story. If you find yourself getting stuck, keep in mind that research is meant to get your story across to its audience in the most effective manner possible.

Trust your King and see where he leads you.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

How Fiction Helps Us Cope With Reality

I was all set to write a post about my novel, The Power Club—to begin a series of profiles of the main characters, their powers, and their conflicts—when I walked into a restaurant this morning for breakfast.

I often do my best writing in restaurants and coffee shops, so I had pen and notebook in hand. As such, I was poised to jot down the conversation of the couple next me (who were talking so loud I couldn’t ignore them).

Their conversation went something like this:

Woman: If someone was banging your head against concrete twenty times and you had a gun, what would you do?

Man: I’d shoot him. 
Woman: That’s right. And that’s exactly what he did. What people don’t understand is that kids are doing what they’re not supposed to be doing and going where they don’t belong. [Later:] George Zimmerman has been consistent in every one of his statements.

They were talking, of course, about Zimmerman's trial in the February 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL. The trial has dominated the news, and, thanks to certain fast food chains’ ubiquitous television screens, you can't avoid it even while eating a breakfast burrito.

Events in the news have a way of intruding into our fictional worlds, as well. Listening to the couple's conversation (no matter how much I tried not to) drove away any desire to write about kids with super-powers. How could it not? A real kid is dead, and a man is on trial for murder.

Reality Vs. Fiction?
It’s hard not to watch news coverage of this story or to listen to discussions about it and not form an opinion. Judging by Facebook posts, viewers are already becoming polarized into one camp or another, just as they were during the OJ Simpson trial nearly 20 years ago.

In a way, polarization is understandable. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so, too, do our brains abhor lack of information. We hate suspending judgment and letting others (say, a jury) decide. We want answers. We want them now.

Everyone seems convinced they know what went down that night in Florida and who is responsible.


If the truth were that easy to uncover, Zimmerman would have been convicted or exonerated by now.

So, what are we supposed to do in the face of unspeakable, senseless tragedies (and Trayvon Martin’s death surely is one, regardless of who bears the blame)?

Turn to fiction.

Fiction: More than Escape

It may sound flip or clichéd, but fiction serves a more vital purpose than escapism. Fiction can actually help us make sense of reality and show us more positive ways of responding to tragedy. And insights from fiction can come from the most unexpected sources.

While reviewing classic stories for the Legion World message board this week, I re-read Adventure Comics # 332, May 1965. Adventure  # 332, written by Edmond Hamilton and drawn by John Forte, is notable for two reasons. It features a rather silly looking green monster called the Super-Moby Dick of Space, and it’s one of the first comic book stories ever, if not the first, in which a super-hero is crippled.

Summaries and reviews of the story can be found here, but what struck me the most while re-reading it is how timely this story remains today.

Cover for Adventure Comics #332
Copr. & TM DC Comics Inc.
Wounded war veterans, the treatment they have received (or, too often, the appalling lack thereof), and their difficulties in adjusting to civilian life have been much in the news lately, and deservedly so. Our culture continues its love affair with violence and war, judging by summer blockbusters, while the sacrifices of real heroes—soldiers, firefighters, police officers, or teachers shielding children from harm—are given cursory acknowledgement, if anything.

Mirroring what can happen to real-life heroes, Lightning Lad in this story loses an arm in the line of duty.

How Heroes Respond to Tragedy

At first, he responds the way you would expect. Bitterly, he vows to track down the creature responsible and kill it. His thirst for revenge is so great that his teammates question his mental stability. He recklessly endangers a spaceship while pursuing the creature.

The story borrows heavily from its literary source, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, in this regard, but, unlike Melville’s Captain Ahab, Lightning Lad comes to his senses and finds a way to render the creature harmless without killing it.

In other words, Lightning Lad shows that it is indeed possible to overcome passion and rise above the desire for revenge (which too often is confused with justice).

Spectators who argue so passionately for one side or the other in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case were not personally injured by the tragedy. Yet many react as though they were.

As I said, such reactions are understandable. A young man is dead. We want answers.

Yet reacting to events out of anger and rushing to judgment is not healthy, either for individuals or for society.

How Should the Rest of Us (Who are Not Heroes But Maybe Want to Be) Respond?

So, what is a healthy response to senseless tragedy?

Read a book.

Any book will usually do, but fiction works best.
Do not even look for answers. Answers—or, more accurately, insights—will come when least expected.

Most importantly, do not rely exclusively on the news for everything you need to know about the case. Our 24-hour news cycle has the paradoxical effect of giving us too much information and not enough context from which to draw meaningful conclusions. 

More, the editorial slants of certain news programs feed into our prejudices and past experiences. In the absence of more objective information, we draw on emotional sources to complete the picture.

It is not wrong to have an opinion or to express it. But opinions can be mistaken for facts, and even facts can be distorted to support whatever opinion is already held. (Did Martin really bang Zimmerman's head against concrete twenty times, as the woman in the restaurant implied? And if so, did he do so because he was afraid for his life—as anyone facing someone with a gun would be—or was he just a mean kid who went somewhere he didn't "belong"? How does she know?)

If you don't know all the answers, it's okay to know that you don't.

Read a book.

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...