Tuesday, December 31, 2013

"They just want a good show, that's all they want."

A quick plug for the 5 minute fiction contest this week -- it's an "all day" prompt, you've got until midnight to post a 500 word story.  Go for it!

We watched "Hunger Games" this weekend.  Both my wife and I were very impressed.  I'll write more about that another time, today I want to focus on a comment that #4 made when we were watching it.  (He's seen it a couple of times.)

"That would be a really cool job."

Say what?  Both of his parents were very concerned.  He said it during a time when the games were in full swing and terrible things were happening.  But that isn't what he was talking about.  In the middle of the horrible chaos, the slaughter and greed and bloodlust, he saw something wonderful.

World building.  In the control center, engineers and operators created trees, rivers, fires, storms, and creatures.  What they designed with their virtual reality CAD systems came into very non-virtual being.  It was window dressing to me until he mentioned it, just part of the well-crafted world the story moved through, but it was a detail that captivated his imagination.  Beyond Legos, Minecraft, and even free-wheeling imagination in our backyard.

I wonder how much thought Ms. Collins put into that particular aspect of her tale.  I wonder how many other people were distracted from the carnage by the limitless technology.  When I was his age I had a game for the Commodore 64 called "Raid on Bungling Bay."  It remains one of my all-time favorite games ever.  I played it all the time -- flying my helicopter around the world of islands playing tag with the enemy.  Years later I read an article about the man who wrote it (remember those days?  A single designer/programmer?) and he was talking about his inspiration for the huge hit, "Sim City."

Apparently he wrote a utility to help him build the world of RoBB and it was so much fun to use that he made that utility into its own game - SC.  The world of Panem would be much better if the government turned the arena control center into its own game too.  Not as exciting to read about/watch, but a much better place to live.

Monday, December 30, 2013

"These go to eleven."

I'm commuting today.  The rest of the family gets to stay home and sleep in.  Except for the border collie.  He's up.  You probably saw that one coming.

We got unpacked and caught up on laundry yesterday but got sidetracked into cleaning a few out-of-the-way places.  My wife got far more done than I did, but I found an interesting bit of inspiration in my garage.

While trying to clear a spot to work, and walk, I came across an old stereo amp and receiver that a friend of mine gave me... let's call it three years ago.  About that same time, my wife was preparing the living room for the new rug she got for Christmas.  There were a pair of old Kenwood bookshelf speakers in there that I had set up for the surround system but they never really worked that well and every time I checked, someone had pulled the wires out.  (Border collie?)

In another [not so big] twist for today's entry, I took them outside and hooked them up to the stereo.  I had to dig into the box of cables and such to connect them, get an appropriate power source installed, and repair an outlet in the living room (it was family room in the fuse panel box) before I got it all together but then it worked.

25 years old this month

The old stereo.  The old speakers.  The old cables.  They were on a new shelf and playing new music and it sounded much better than Pandora on my iPad.

Writing for the screen is about showing instead of telling.  I've been told that people like the "same but different" and it's been articulated as "Familiar but fresh."  Great.  Going for that.  But what does it mean?

In my garage I can see it.  Clear as day.  I've been shown new from old, fresh from familiar, and it is inspiring.

Now that I'm facing the blank page, I know that I'll need to sift through my "garage" and find those "old components," then put them up on a "new shelf" for the "fresh sound."  It seems intimidating, but I know there's something great hiding in there someone.  After all, last night I came up with the amazing rock-and-roll song title of "Rock, Party, Scissors."

That's right.  I did it first.  Expect to hear it within 6 months -- but not from me.

Friday, December 27, 2013


I got to type "The End" last week and while the project is far from finished, it's into the next stage which means that I have to let it sit for a few weeks.  In the meantime, there's work on the short story collection (not as a project, but as individual stories) because several have been sent back rejected without comment and clearly aren't up to my current standard...

And there's also the new screenplay.  Which is to say, the old screenplay that I dropped because act 2-"however many acts you like to divide a screenplay into" were terrible.  I think I've found the proper voice for it.  We'll see in about six weeks.

Today, however, is not about editing or screenplays.  It's time for original fiction.

by Jon Stark; December, 2013

Anika moved quietly through the trees.  The snow muffled her footfalls and when she stopped, the white of her gloves, hat, and parka melted into the frozen crystals.  She listened intently.  To the Northwest.  Sounded like two but she knew there were three.

A Jay called nearby.  Sharp and harsh in the cold air, stabbing knifelike into her thoughts.  She hated Jays.  All birds.  They were vectors, unwitting agents of men with dark hearts.  Men who infected them with biotoxins and sent them into unsuspecting villages.  To kill indiscriminately -- men, women, children, soldiers, nuns.  Just because they could.  In places like Mali.  But not here.  Not again.

She moved forward, dark memory of a far warmer place heating her thoughts.  Adrenaline coursed through her system.  She could see movement ahead, two were pacing, their parkas like brightly colored christmas lights against the snow.  They watched the tree-line that surrounded their clearing, little eyes peeping over scarves and bouncing over Anika's hiding place.  The third was building up a snowbank for cover.  He was the smart one, the one she worried about.

The saplings around her had long ago given up their leaves but there were deadfalls and a few conifers that continued to hide her approach.  She moved like a dancer, or viper, across the remaining distance -- blending shape, color, and movement into her surroundings.

Anika's targets were laughing.  Like the children in Mali must have been.  Before they collapsed, before they bled out.  She would not forget what had happened there.  But this wasn't Mali, and just beyond the edge of the trees they were happy, enjoying the sunshine, the sharp bite of the cold.  But they weren't innocent like those children had been.  They knew someone was coming for them.

A final scan of the area.  Watching their pattern.  There, almost in a line.  Heartbeats -- three... two... one.  Anika exploded from the woods.  They screamed.  And scattered.  She pelted them as they ran, snow flying like grenades, exploding on impact.

Snowballs flew everywhere.  One caught Anika in the shoulder but she continued on -- driven, on point.  She was among them now, committed to action, bringing them all to the ground.  The boy caught her in an arm bar, forcing her into the drift.  She shrugged him off and spun.  He backpedaled away from her, real fear in his eyes as--

Anika stopped.  This was not Mali.  What was she doing?  The boy's little sisters dove onto her and she caught them up in her arms.  Not Mali, she repeated over and over, struggling against her every instinct to break free from them, to advance.  To move forward.  To complete the mission.  The fog of memory cleared.  She was not too late.  These children were alive.  Safe.  As long as she had breath in her body.

Far above, a Tu-95 flew by.  It's distinctive sound, the thrumming of the four Kuznetsov turboprops, settling onto them.  Breaking up their game.  Four pairs of eyes looked up.  Anika pulled her children in tighter.  The girls buried their faces in her coat, but the boy watched the bomber as it crossed the sky.

As long as I have breath, she promised.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

What would Mike TV think?

Searching for Must See TV.  Not having much luck.  I sound like my parents.  What's really interesting today about the search is that, instead of using the online queue, #3 &4 are helping me and we're using the newspaper.

You remember them, right?  Big, flimsy sheets of dirty paper that coat your fingers with ink?  There's nearly a full page of TV listings.  The boys are trying to figure out how the grid works and were quite upset that coverage didn't start until 6pm.  I was hoping to convince them that meant that the TV wouldn't work until then but they knew better.

I expect that shortly they will discover several of the channels aren't available in our area/subscription package.  That will be interesting, considering how they already feel about certain shows not being on right now.

I will admit that I have now seen snippets totaling nearly 30 minutes of the infamous "Duck Dynasty."  I think I actually like the Alaska show better but still hold on to my "reality show" prejudice.  I just. don't. like. them.

I don't like them in a box, I don't like them with a fox.  I don't like them here or there.  I don't like them anywhere.  I do not like them on the train.  I do not like them on a plane.  I do not like them in the rain.  I think they belong in the drain.

Nascar looks complicated compared to most of what I've seen this week.  Even the football game was more interesting.  And then there's this whole "marathon" thing.  About watching TV.  Marathon?  As in, "an insanely long foot race that not very many people are capable of completing?"  And now that's applied to sitting on the couch eating Funions so that you can catch every. single. episode?  That's like sanitation enginer.  Nothing against the folks that pick up the garbage, but as my friend with an engineering degree might point out, words have meanings and a CDL does not an engineer make.

Maybe I'm just cranky with Castle withdrawal.  Maybe I can't believe that about the only thing on TV is "reality programming" or "The Chica Show."  It's not what you think -- unless you've seen it.

I could rage against TV as passionately as poor usage of our language, but why bother?  It's a mute point.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas

We interupt our regularly scheduled content to celebrate the hope of peace on earth and goodwill toward all men.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"Welcome to Pi's Ark."

We're the sort of people who celebrate a religious holiday by exchanging gifts.  Since we don't live where we're from, there is usually a lot of travel and shipping involved in our annual exchange which resulted, this year, in us opening a few gifts a couple of days ago.  A most wonderful thing happened.

#3 opened a package.  (It may as well have been a McGuffin, the item itself is meaningless to the story.)  He really gets into the opening packages bit.  It's a contagious excitement.  Anyway, he opened the package with the aforementioned excitement and turned to #4, practically jumping, and said, "Look what we got!"

It wasn't addressed to them both, just to him.  But he never gave that a thought.  My wife has done an amazing job with all of our children and I've grown used to that.  Seeing and hearing that, though, really struck me.  Wow.  It also made me feel a little guilty for hiding the apple pie.

But not much.

We all need to share -- appropriately -- to stay productive.  If you have knowledge I need to become a better writer then you need to share it with me or I won't get any better (thanks, Dad).  Find some friends that know a bit about what you're doing -- either topically or vocationally -- and get their feedback.  And make sure it isn't all just one way.  You may not be the greatest editor in the world, but you know what works in a story and, as an author, you can say, "This character was flat.  I never really got to know her or like her."  That's sooooo much more helpful than "I thought this was pretty good."

I've read a couple of books about writing.  Steven King's was the best, but they were all pretty good.  These authors have shared their experience with you.  Take advantage of that.  But then also remember, just because you haven't made millions of dollars with your words doesn't mean you can't offer something to those around you.  Just remember it's give and take, not just take, and that the give part comes first.

Sharing is a lifestyle, not a costume.  Nobody is fooled by Batman on October 31st.  But when #3 showed his little brother what they'd gotten?  That was real.  Real builds relationships.  And that's the bit of experience I wanted to share with you today.

BTW - I'm telling you where the pie is.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Rip Riding Away

My boys are now proficient with a device known as a "Rip-Stik."  It's like a skateboard only harder.  And it isn't for me.  They scoot up and down the driveway and around the inside of the house (we've got a great floor plan for skateboards and nerf dart guns).

I do not scoot anywhere.  I fall -- either flat on my face or flat on my tuckuss.  I believe I even said, "I can't do this."  But the boys, who also fell flat, kept at it and have some skillz now.  It occured to me that my issue wasn't that I couldn't do it, it was that I didn't want to do it.  Too much pain and not enough payoff.  There are other things I'd rather do with my time.

I was greeted this morning by a very sweet little girl who interupted herself when she saw me to yell, "Uncle Jon!  Uncle Jon!"  I expect that later today we'll get to dance.  To me, that sounds much more fun than a trip to the emergency room.

There's a day of possibilities ahead of us.  I'm sure we won't get to do everything we want to, but we'll do something, and for now that could be anything.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Old Friends

I had a new experience last evening while riding on the train.  As I was wrapping up my less than stellar writing session (I was really struggling with the ending of this silly novel) the gentleman sitting next to me -- a bit older and quite distinguished -- said, "Excuse me, but what is your book about?"  I told him.  Made a joke about it's a way to pass the time on the train.  He said, "It's a very good way."  I suggested that maybe someday it would pay for my ticket.  He looked me square in the eye and as serious as could be, said, "It will."  Then he added, "You've sat next to me before and I've watched you write."
Nothing like a sincere vote of confidence from a total stranger.  That, combined with another rejection letter accompanied by personal comments and "Please send more of your work to us in the future." made for quite an inspiring day.  I hammered out another 2k words last night.

But today is Friday, and you're here for a story.

Old Friends
by Jon Stark
December, 2013.

He watched for her everyday.  And she still came most of them, though now it was rarely for long.  She'd pop down early in the morning or late at night, spend a little time with him over a quick snack, and then she was off.  Some evenings, if it was especially cool, she'd make sure he was covered up in his blanket before leaving, but things were different.

She was busier now.  He understood that.  It had happened before -- dear friends who slowly filled their lives with so many distractions that he was crowded out.  Promises of always being there, always stopping in, faded into apologies for this or that emergency that kept them away.  It was the way of things and he accepted that.

He had long given up on the idea of permanence or any lasting relationship.  But that didn't keep him from enjoying the moments he had.  Today she had come smelling like flowers and he was reminded of the spring.  She'd stayed a bit longer too, telling him about a trip she was going to be taking but that he shouldn't worry, someone else would be checking in on him.

It was all just noise to him, he was only interested in her attention.  She stayed while he ate breakfast and then walked with him, down the drive and through the paddocks.

He didn't know all of the words she used, but he did know the tone and when she scratched him behind the ears he knew it would a long time before he saw her again.

It was sad, but he had fond memories to hold him over.  The common expression is that elephants never forget, but anyone who's ever been around them knows that horses don't either.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

"Should've done what four years ago?"

We watched the season 4 finale of Castle this week.  It was extremely well done television.

But it raised an interesting question.  Why keep going?  It was the end of the story.  Huge, satisfying, and resolved.  If we weren't watching from the queue I'd hope that it was the last episode, but I knew it wasn't and I became worried.

The engine had been changed.  What would it be like?

"A sequel?  Uh hunh."

I've watched two episodes of season 5 now and I can tell you exactly what it's like.  A sequel.  Not a spinoff -- no Trapper, MD or CSI Bismark here.  It is a sequel.  Same characters, different situation.

And like most sequels, it's not as good as the original.  Fun?  Sure.  But a lot more predictable and the subplots are all starting over from scratch.  And I don't like them.

Sort of like what happened to the Mentalist.  I didn't realize it then, but we were watching a sequel.  Life?  Same thing.  The main dramatic force behind the original story was resolved and the quality of part 2 was lacking – it was like watching a completely different show but with [mostly] the same characters and setting.

Can you think of any other shows that had a clear part 1 and part 2?  Are there any that actually got better?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

"Whoever did this... they're as good as dead."

Chuck Norris has been famous for a very long time.  "Walker Texas Ranger" did amazing things for both his career and Dodge pick-up trucks, but even more for the t-shirt and internet meme business.  Surely you've seen them?  "The Boogie Man looks under his bed for Chuck Norris." and "Chuck Norris has counted to Infinity.  Twice."

My youngest boys didn't realize that he actually existed.  "Yes, Virginia, there really is a Chuck Norris."  When I told them, and showed them the Netflix queue with "A Force of One" on it, they immediately wanted to see "the old Kung Fu movie, not the new spy movie about Russians and where the guy had a girl friend."  Clearly outnumbered, Mom agreed to let us watch it.

I have a confession to make.  Despite wanting to see such classics as "Delta Force" and "Delta Force 2" and "Invasion, U.S.A.", I have never watched a Chuck Norris film.  Strike that, I just remembered "Sidekicks."  But that wasn't a real Chuck Norris movie, that was a Mr. Miyagiorris movie.

I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, having caught bits and pieces of WTR over the years, but talk about time travel.  The opening scene of AFOO (1979) was a sensory assault of disco, flashy patterned clothes + torn gray sweats, and dialogue with cheese sauce.  The boys were not impressed by the skateboarding drug dealer but his moves were pretty slick B.T.H. (before Tony Hawk).

I actually ended up giving the movie a pretty good rating.  It didn't pretend to be anything more than it was and who Chuck is now makes who he was even better.  The Police Captain was done very well, I liked his dialogue and delivery.  The whole "karate meme" was a bit thick, but the kids ate it up.  They even played "A Force of One" the next day - one would swing a fake punch that missed by a mile and the other would turn his head in the opposite direction because that's what happened in the beginning of the film... They thought it was great, not dumb.  You've got to love that.  They loved that I worked for a guy who trained with Chuck for 20 years (the same guy that had the “I Love Me” wall).

The best part for me was the end credits because I suspected one of the actors to be Bill "Superfoot" Wallace.  And it was.  Who is Bill Wallace?  Don't ask, but acting isn't really his thing. I recognized him from years of reading Kung Fu magazines as a kid.  He and Chuck were in in every issue of every magazine,  Yee-Arr after Yee-Arr.

I'll leave you with this:  "Superman wears Chuck Norris pajamas."

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

"But, the thing is that you cannot improvise unless you know exactly what you're doing."

I've read quite a lot about how you have to learn the rules before you're allowed to break any of them (in writing).  The axiom is oft repeated but there is never a clear reason given.  I'm not sure if it is something that you have to discover for yourself or if the people who write it believe the truth to be obvious.

I have learned, over the past months that knowing the rules and following them push the mechanics of storytelling to the background allowing the tale itself to come front and center.  The reason is quite simple -- mistakes are distracting and obfuscate the path of the narrative.  Bad grammar is bad style and terribly unprofessional in the workplace.

Consider my favorite sentence from 8th grade.  Teh bOY het an balle.  English teachers say, "What?"  You can figure it out, but it takes a lot of work and by the time you get to the end, you forgot where you started.  The boy hit a ball.  Much clearer.  Boring, perhaps, but clear.

Once you've got the rules down (I highly recommend this blog: Daily Writing Tips) so that every time you write anything it comes out grammatically perfect -- except the verbs, those can't all be perfect -- you can work on the depth of the story.  As you do that, a funny thing happens.  You get into a rhythm and realize that the only way to make a certain point or describe a feeling is by mashing up the usual writing a little bit.  But we're creatures of habit, so when we do that, it's consistent.  Whoah.

We learn to break (bend?) the rules in certain places and ways in a consistent manner to better tell our stories.  That's our voice.  Bad grammar isn't voice, that's just random distraction.  But applied to the right place at the right time... Elmore Leonard, Stieg Larsson, Dick Francis.

Today's title is a quote from this man.

Imagine your 8th grade English teacher reading that sentence.  “The boy hit a ball.”  Now imagine Christopher Walken reading it.  "The boy -- we don't know what boy, but he’s there -- wherever there is because apparently we don't know that either -- but anyways, that boy hit.  A ball.  Some kind of ball.  If he was in Brazil, it would probably be a -- a soccer ball.  But in Jersey, it could be anything.  That boy."

Monday, December 16, 2013

"Nobody thinks it will work, do they?"

One of my dogs decided to unwrap a present early last night.  She had about 5 minutes alone with the food put away and the trash cans hidden.  I guess the flashing lights on the tree weren't scary enough anymore.  The first, drastic course of action proposed in response to the violation of the accepted gift-unwrapping protocol, was to remove the rest of the presents from under the tree.  Then we decided to just put the shredder in front of everything.  She can't even be on the same floor of the house when that's running.

So far so good.

Speaking of SFSG, how’s this for inspiration?  I got a rejection letter this morning.  I know what you're thinking - how is that a good thing?  It wasn't a form letter.  It was a personal note.  From a market that actually pays real cash money.  Of a notable amount.  They didn't think I stunk, just that I wasn't good enough. Talk about improvement...

But seriously, a personal rejection note is a big step.  It means I'm getting there.  It means I've improved.  I have to be honest and say that it's a step I'd hoped to skip, but since I didn't, it's good to know I'm this far.  Of course, I don't think I'll be putting it on the "I Love Me" wall.  Or do you think I should?  (It’s a new page of the blog, live today.)

I was actually laughing this morning over my coffee.  Getting the rejection put me in a good mood.  I even considered waking up my wife to tell her I wasn't good enough yet.  And I know what you're thinking, but you're wrong.  Madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  Not rejoicing in being better than you used to be.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

So which is it? Early or fast?

We are having an interesting discussion at our house.  It centers around my alarm clock, but is probably not the sort of discussion you are thinking of.  But if you are, please tell me I'm not alone...

When every other clock in the house displays 9:30, the clock in my room shows 9:34.  When making note of this discrepancy I commented that our clock was early.  You would think I'd suggest that the Pope was Buddhist.

Apparently, the proper nomenclature is that the clock is fast.  But I don't think it is.  Day after day, week after week, when every other clock in the house displays 9:30, the one in my room shows 9:34.  If the clock was fast, it should say 9:42 by now.

Ergo, it is early.
No question, this is an 'early' clock

Think about it for just a minute.  The clock in my room reaches 9:30 four minutes early.  It doesn't get to  9:34 faster, just sooner.  To be fast, it would have to keep adding to its lead but since it keeps the same distance from normal time we know the clock works fine and does not run fast.

Now, the clock in the van shows 9:37 when the clock in my truck shows 9:30 but that's because my truck's clock is actually slow (I've lost three minutes this year) and may also be because the van goes faster than the truck.  But then, the speed of the van shouldn't impact the speed of the van's clock, and in thinking about it, I know that it actually doesn't since on numerous occasions, the van goes fast but arrives late while the clock remains early.

Am I being too precise?  I decided to ask Google.  Google was no help.  The only place I found that actually addressed the issue was Yahoo!Answers and they are notoriously untrustworthy and filled with profanity.  And disagreed with me.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Dweameh White Christmas

It definitely looks like Christmas around here.  In fact, about the only place that isn't decorated and festive, is the train station.  Not a single light, ornament, sign, or anything.  How ironic is that?

Today's original fiction is a glimpse at the world of my Nano project.  I'm not sure what led me to this story, setting, or genre.  None of them are what I usually write or read, but when #1 and I first started kicking around the idea of people who are crazy, but aren't, but don't know for sure if they are or not, we thought that the only way to make it the least bit fresh and interesting was to make it steampunk and in space.  Then one day Sonja and her Tree showed up and they've been pestering me to be written ever since.  When it was time to write nano, theirs was the story I had to tell.

This does not appear in the novel.

Dweamah White Christmas
by Jon Stark
December, 2013

Sonja stared out at the stars.  They looked different tonight.  She stood in the parlor, a decadent space for a private steamer, big enough room for all of the crew to assemble.  The pipes had been hidden behind paneling but the Tree's branches and roots were still clearly visible, crawling across the ceiling and down the walls between the shelves and cabinets, flawlessly crafted and lacquered.  Brass lamps floated in the air and rugs covered the steel decking.

"Come help me." said the Lady Hillary.

The girl turned from the window and went to Hillary's side.  The old woman stood near a chest that Vanderwall had brought to her from the hold.  Inside, a menagerie of sparkling glass, ribbons of silk, and carved figurines lay packed with care.

Hillary handed the girl a small crystal globe with a bit of thread.  "Hang this on the Tree."

Sonja looked at her blankly.  Hillary frowned, then took another of the globes and, standing on a chair, attached it to an exposed root near the ceiling.

"Why?" said Sonja.

"Because it's Christmas." said Hillary as though everyone knew that.  "We're going to have a party and I need your help to get ready."

Most girls Sonja's age would have asked a million questions at that point, but Sonja wasn't like most girls and she wasn't as young as she looked.  She watched Hillary place another ornament then another. "Does it hurt the Tree?"

Hillary laughed lightly.  "Not at all, Dear."  She looked at where the decorations hung, arms crossed.  "I think they make it look quite nice, don't you?"

Sonja shrugged, but she dutifully began to hang ornaments on the exposed parts of the Tree.  She thought it was rather silly, but as the ship's Dew'all, it was her job to do all of the odd jobs that the rest of the crew was too busy for.  And she liked Hillary.

The old woman kept at it, providing a constant stream of decorations to the girl and singing quietly to herself.  After the globes were hung, they strung garlands and placed tinsel.  She had brought special perfumed candles and they put them around, with stands that looked like branches and needles.

"It’s pretty." said Sonja.

"Have you ever celebrated Christmas?" said Hillary.  Sonja shook her head.  "I'm sorry."

Sonja thought that was an odd thing to say.  "Are we done celebrating now?"

"No." laughed Hillary.  "We still have the party.  And one more decoration."  At the bottom of the chest was a small box.  Hillary lifted it out gently and placed it on one of the tables.  She opened it and Sonja saw a collection of statues.

"Who's that?" asked Sonja pointing to the baby.

"That's God." said Hillary.  "Christmas is about his birth."

"That should be God."  Sonja pointed to the figure of the woman.

"God made the mother." said Hillary.  Sonja made a face.  “Earth was the first thing he made.”

"But if he's her baby, that doesn't make any sense."

"I know." said Hillary.  "But when he came into our world, he needed a body."  Sonja thought about that.

"Sort of like when the Mother gave us trees.  She needed a way to provide for us."

Soyer, the Ships'ook, came in with a bowl of punch.  "Where do you want this, Ma'am?"

Hillary showed him.  He set down the bowl.  "Help me with the rest, Girl."  Sonja left with him.  Hillary fussed at the decorations.

"I don't believe we've ever celebrated Christmas on board."  She turned and saw the Captain of Dweameh standing in the doorway.  "And in light of our current situation I’m not sure this is the best time to start."

"How can you not celebrate?" she asked him.

“We will be fortunate to make port, Good Lady.” he said.  “Hardly a reason for celebration.”

“Dire circumstance is all the more reason to reflect on-“

"We aren't exactly religious." said Eben dismissively.  He was an older man, dressed sharply and, even at the end of middle age, was powerfully built.

"I've never met a sailor who wasn't religious." said Hillary with a smile.

"There's a difference between being superstitious and claiming God." he said.

"Captain, I've traveled all over the universe and there are two things that have been the same everywhere I've been."  He waited for her and she continued.  "People.  And their hunger to know God, whether they claim Him or not."

Soyer and the girl returned with trays of food.  It smelled wonderful and Hillary's face lit up.  Eben raised an eyebrow.  "Where did this come from?"

"The Lady Hillary arranged for it to be added to our stores, Captain." said Soyer.  "And I must say, it has been a pleasure preparing it."  He looked slyly at the old woman and then snatched a gingerbread cookie.

Sonja had crumbs on her coveralls and the corner of her mouth.  “Merry Christmas, Captain.”

Vanderwall and Donnelly stuck their heads in the parlor.  "Smells like real food." said Vanderwall.  "Is there enough for us?"

“It's for everyone." said Hillary

Donnelly looked at the Captain and he nodded.  "You may call the rest of the crew.  Tonight we'll celebrate with our guest."

Hillary enlisted Alexis, the Captain’s wife, as hostess and even Tabitha helped the old woman entertain the men, though she had not planned to come until Sonja had insisted.  "She's made the Tree look pretty." the girl said.  And the Tree was happy.

Alexis played the organ after they had eaten.  The hull of Dweameh vibrated with the sound of the pipes and their voices.  The stars watched as the small ship, battered and leaking, sailed through the void, staring in through the window at the small group of people, encased in a brass and wood cocoon.  Hope had come to them, and, whatever might happen, they were joyful that night.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

"She's the one."

Big night for us yesterday.  The dog ate a “bed buddy” then dumped the trash can it was in (along with some pencil sharpener shavings), #3 had to go to the doctor because of an ear infection (started medicine at once), #1 took #4 to basketball practice, and I won the 5 minute fiction contest.   Gosh, this parenting by numbers thing is pretty cool.
Today's Must See TV looks at a show I first encountered while riding on an airplane.  Since then, we've watched a handful of episodes here and there.  It's hit or miss and there was one entire season that was terrible, but "How I Met Your Mother" is clever enough to keep us coming back -- eventually.  Sort of a Sylvester Stallone "I'm so over the top you have to think this is a good movie, Adrian."

We are in the final season (?) and supposedly Ted is going to finally meet the woman of his dreams and we will too.   Ted is the character that is always trying to get married, always being left at the altar, always saying, "This is the one" and yet always ends up alone after a very brief and intense love affair.  Not like Barney.  He's just awful.  Lilly and Marshal have been together forever and it's been interesting to see how the characters have changed.  Robin is like Barney.   But not quite as bad.  But worse.  It's complicated.

I am not recommending the show.  If you've seen 5 minutes of it you know whether or not it's for you.  Instead, I want to look at the big reveal promised in the season I'm watching.  The mystery woman.  Ted has almost met her a few times, actually had a date with her roommate, and passed her on the street the month he made the cover of Architect Magazine.  We never see her face, just her umbrella (which Ted also possessed for a time).

This is a huge setup in the show.  We know she's the one because the entire series is told as a flashback to a couple of teenagers by their father - Ted - and the name of the show is "How I met your mother."  Even the FBI could figure that out.  The problem is that Ted is a romantic.  He's had many memorable girlfriends and they were written well.  How can you possibly have a satisfying payoff?

Ted's been at the altar before, that won't mean anything.  He's looked into a girl's eyes and lost himself before.  Actually, many times.  In short, he's had every happy ending out there at least once.  When we do finally meet her, whoever this mystery girl with the yellow umbrella is, it will be a letdown.

Of course this is where my wife and I disagree (but fortunately this is my blog so I get to be right this time).  I think that the only way to end the story with any kind of satisfaction is to never, ever, ever show us her face.  He's spent years chasing an ideal, not a person.  We have to know that "she is the one" because Ted knows it.  I can relate to that, I know what it means to find the one, and I can be there with Ted.  But if you put a face to it?  Bam, the ideal is gone and it becomes about the actress and the audience (and she's not the one for us).  Suddenly we're watching just another girlfriend and that's a very unsatisfying payoff.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"Think ya used enough dynamite there, Butch?"

Somewhere, during yesterday's snowday, we crossed the 6k hit mark for this blog.  Thank you!

Tales From the Script comes to you today by way of Bolivia.  ??  As you may recall, I celebrated completing Nano by watching “The Croods.”  Later that evening I made it a double feature and, since my partner-in-crime was ready to fall asleep on the couch, I went to that section of the Netflix queue where the "study" films are.

Those are the movies that I haven't seen but are always referenced in articles about screenwriting, or have scenes used as examples.  You should have them in your queue too, if you want to be a screenwriter.

I still think Brad Pitt looks like Robert Redford.
"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" was one such movie.  I'd read some great things about it. I was pretty excited about watching it.  Paul Newman and Robert Redford.  And, interestingly enough, the woman who voiced the mother-in-law in “The Croods” was also in it! (Cloris Leachman, she played Agnes, the lady of the night that wouldn't stop talking.)

There were a few things that struck me about BCSK, but I think the first was that I should probably take a hit of something if I really wanted to appreciate it.  Man.

I hate to say it, but this is not a film that clicked with me.  I might even go so far as to say that I didn't get it.

It didn't bother me the way it did my [mostly] sleeping partner, but I failed to understand what all the fuss was about.  It was long, several bits and pieces seemed random, and it lacked a suitable antagonist.  I understand Butch was fighting himself, but he was also fighting the railroad, the bounty hunters, and the Bolivian authorities.  It wasn't bad, but... again, what was all the fuss about?

I did think that the two main characters were developed very well.  Especially Butch and I thought it was interesting that the #1 rule of horror films was demonstrated in this movie (you're safe until you do something immoral).  The montages done with still photos and cantina piano were interesting. Long, but a nice artistic touch.  Lastly, the climactic scene of the story was well played.  I think it may have been the original blaze of glory, I couldn't think of an older film example but I've seen that seen done a few different times since.

So what did I think?  I was disappointed, but westerns are not my genre and it had some great moments.  I doubt I'll watch it again but I am glad to have finally seen it.  I also suspect that, if I had seen it when it came out, I would feel a little differently about it.  Sort of like reading “A Catcher in the Rye.”

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Table-Read: Not just another day in the office

Another snow day today.  And this time I have one too.  Remarkable.  I celebrated this morning by pretending that my couch was a seat on the train and hammered out about 1k words on the novel.  I also did a little bit of laundry just so I wouldn't feel guilty.  That put me behind so no breakfast until I finish this post!

The kids are excited (the ones that are awake) but disappointed that the snow that caused all of this rescheduling is falling as rain.  They're taking it though.  #4 was intrigued by the fact that he's now had  a 5 day weekend.

Today's Tool of the Trade is a table reading.  I alluded to its importance yesterday but thought it deserved its own post.  Table readings are incredibly valuable to the writer of stories that will be performed (stage or screen).

First and foremost, the reading gives you another set of eyes on the script.  All those times you typed 'buy' instead of 'but' or 'you' instead of 'your' really stand out when someone else reads them.  I make it a practice to proof-read out loud, but I still miss things.  Prior to submitting "Princess Rose" to the Bluecat competition, I had read it aloud several times but still caught errors when I sat through a reading by Final Draft.  FYI - the final draft tool is helpful but if it had been a feature length script I'd have torn my hair out.  Table reading is much, much better.

The next great thing is that you get to hear how the dialogue actually sounds.  What looks great on the page might be terribly stiff when spoken.  You'll see just how well it all goes together and, if someone has a soliloquy -- or screed -- you'll see that at once.

Then there's getting to hear the interpretation of the actors.  Someone else, someone who doesn't know the story in your head, is speaking the words and the tone will be different.  You may find that more direction is necessary to preserve the feeling of the scene, or that you were going in the wrong direction and should change it because the actor's take was complete genius.    Or maybe everything is perfect.  Lucky dog.

Table readings are also a great opportunity to socialize with folks, to share your lonely occupation with comrades and, if you're wired into the right community, find other film or theater buffs that will remember your work, and you, and involve you in other projects.  Cheetos and leads?  What's better than that?

The last bit about the table read is that you get to see how other people respond to your story.  You see what they like, what makes them emotional, what resonates with them, what makes them yawn...  All very important things for your rewrite.

I've read several great articles online about arranging a table reading.  I didn't follow any of the advice but I didn't have to in this particular situation.  I will, however, be following it in the future.  You know, when I finish my next screenplay and want to know what needs to be fixed.

Monday, December 9, 2013

"Arthur! Christmas is not a time for emotion!"

I like Christmas.  And I celebrate it.  I know there are plenty of people who don't and that's okay with me, as long as they don't mind that I do.  Today's post uses a Christmas celebration as an example, but is not, itself, about Christmas.

This year I worked with a group of teens to put on a Christmas play and yesterday they performed it.  It was a remarkable experience for me and I learned a few things about inspiration.  First and foremost, when I originally agreed to help, I said I would write the play.  I was excited, and inspired to participate.  It didn't matter that I had never written a play and didn't know what I was going to write about.  I was coasting on the high of finishing two screenplays.  How hard could a 15 minute pageant be?  That "part of the vision" inspiration is very important, you should seek it and ride it and live.  Nano is sort of like that in the first week.  That sort of inspiration is what gets you involved in the world outside of you.

The second bit of inspiration was when I wrote it.  I had a couple of false starts.  I also had a little bit of accountability -- as in, "Jon, where's the script?"  Enter Delta Airlines.  I had to sit still.  For hours.  Might as well write.  And I did.  And it was neat.  The inspiration that comes from being trapped is real.  Stuck at the blank page?  Trap yourself and write.  (Or call it discipline...)

I brought my words to some beta readers.  Made a couple of changes.  Presented the script to the group.  Have you ever tried to get a teenager to be excited about anything?  Imagine trying to get a whole group of them excited.  But they did get excited.  And that first time they read through the script, and I heard the words I'd written being spoken by actors, with their own interpretation and personality... I get chills thinking about it now.  That was some serious inspiration.  I made that.  And it was alive.  And the teens... laughed.  At the jokes.  They liked it.  The inspiration of validation.  You can't survive on this alone, but learn to recognize its many forms and take it.  You are, after all, writing for other people's enjoyments, right?

Then there's the last bit of inspiration for the writer that I received from this project.  The performance.  The teens told the story.  They were amazing.  The audience heard and understood the story.  They laughed, they reflected, and they applauded.  Other people, people who had not had a word of the story explained or analysed, got the story.  We missed two lines.  Lines that I agonized over writing trying to get the message and the cadence perfect, lines that were distillations of many lines painfully chopped to a more appropriate length.  Lines that cut to the heart of the protagonist's character and journey.  Lines that showed the conceit of the author because you know what?  They weren't needed.  Everybody got the story without them.  And when I was watching I knew they weren't needed.

I was really proud of the kids.  They did an amazing job, something in the project inspired them too -- they went from lukewarm about the whole thing to knocking it out of the park.  I'm not a playwright.  The script is not formatted correctly and I didn't get any of the cues put in.  But that's okay.  I saw it as a movie in my head and that's what I wrote.  The cast saw the movie too.  And they translated to the stage wonderfully.

And what more could any author ever want?

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Vanity, all my spam these days is vanity

Basketball season has started for our county league.  That means #3 and 4 will think, and speak, of little else for the next couple of months.  It's okay, they spend a lot of time outside shooting and dribbling and we enjoy the games.  It's also a focus that I understand.  After all, last month I was hammering away for Nano.

And, much like basketball season, now that the contest is over I am still writing but the urgency has subsided somewhat.  (I just started a paragraph with 'and', must be still a bit undertheweather.)  Nano offers a "chest full of prizes" for winners and some of them are pretty good -- you could get storist for 50% off -- but there's nothing I need, or even especially want on the list.  What I want is more time, and the shiny new packages on offer promise just the opposite -- less time writing, more time poking around.

There are also several self-publishers that are offering "prize packs" and I'm not interested in those either.  I have nothing against self-publishing (okay, Vanity Press) but it isn't for me.  I do suspect, however, that they get a lot of business following Nano, after all, people put in a lot of work and the story always seems great when you are writing it.

I get a lot email these days from Vanity Press representatives.  Most of them remind me of the old "drawing contest" ads in the back of Car and Driver.  I got a new one today -- an outfit in Pennsylvania spotted my copyrighted piece and thought it might be the perfeect fit, I just needed to submit it and they'd get back to me.  There were a few things wrong with the email, and after a brief internet search to confirm my gut reaction, I deleted it, but it got me thinking about the power of playing to ego.  By suggesting that there was a submission approval process, that particular company was implying they were selective and better than the folks that offer 75% off deals.  But really, it's a vanity press, does anyone think they would actually turn down any customer?  It would be like a diner turning away a customer because he wanted a turkey salad sandwich on toast but could only pay in cash.  Nonesense.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


Big writing day in my house yesterday.  #1 entered the 5 minute fiction contest with me this week and, not only eked me out of a finalist spot, actually won the contest.  First time out.  Totally awesome, as they said back when my Z. Cavaricci's were still in style.  I'm thinking we need to dust off our "You write a chapter and then I'll write a chapter" project.

Of course that would require more time for writing or another project mixed into the limited writing time of the day.  I took a Myer-Briggs test yesterday and now I'm over analyzing everything!  It's like I'm an alien studying life on earth.  Speaking of which, today is Must See TV and in honor of the Nano theme, I'm going with "Mork and Mindy."

Mork and Mindy
Don't miss the "Video Recorder"

I was pretty young when it was on and remember the show, but not what it was about -- until Jonathan Winters popped out of Mork as his backwards aging son.  And I mean popped, he hatched from an egg.  The rest of the show?  Apparently it was about the alien and the girl and was funny.  I remember the funny suit (looked sort of like Ralph Hinckley’s suit) and a big voice.  Oh, and "nano-nano."

What do you remember about the sitcom set in Boulder, CO?  I think the jeep was brown, but I'm color blind.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

"Never don't be afraid."

Welcome to Wednesday and "Tales From the Script."  In the spirit of our Nano theme this week we'll look at "The Croods."  What's the tie in?  When I finished Nano, I watched it.

I suppose I should have written on "Water for Elephants" but I haven't read the book, seen the movie, or even read the script.  Why "Water for Elephants?"  The novel began as a Nano entry.

Enough about would've, could've, and pachyderms.  On with “The Croods.”  (A DreamWorks Animation production about a family of Cavemen who make a road trip with cute animals.)  (Nicholas Cage voices the lead and was very(!) good.)

The Croods

First off, let me say that I was surprised by this film.  It was not what I was expecting (do NOT read unpredictable).  There were a lot of things they did right and the script still made me laugh out loud even though I had just watched the movie and was late because the trains were all messed up.  I actually decided, as I finished the last page while pulling into my station, that universe conspired to make the entire rail system of Northern Virginia malfunction just to give me time to finish it.  Sorry everyone.

If you watch animated films or have children/grandchildren, you will most likely enjoy “The Croods.”  Spoilers follow so if you don't want to know the ending before you've watched the first five minutes of the movie, see you tomorrow for Must See TV Thursdays.

Problems first, because there were only two and I don't want to end on a negative.  The first problem was the introduction.  It took far too long to get to the story because they introduced the family twice.  Once in an extended voice over title sequence, and then again when the Croods actually come out of their cave for breakfast.  One or the other, please, but not both.  By the time Eep (teenage daughter) is sneaking out, we're sick of setup.  I was, anyway.  The other issue was how predictable the story was.  There was never any suspense, or question about what was going to happen.  But it was a kid’s movie so they haven't seen the formula a hundred billion times and I'm sure that the Macawnavore is plenty suspenseful for younger tykes.

The good?  I'll start with the obvious.  The Crood family is not crude.  They love each other very much and it shows.  There's lots of familial bantering but it isn't offensive and they never took the low, easy road for a quick laugh.  The characters are distinct and consistent, but stereotyped too. Again, however, I think it plays to the younger audience and in one scene they actually poke fun at the typecasting when the jock says to the nerd, "Ideas are for weaklings."

The humor is steady throughout the entire 91 pages of the script.  It establishes early on that the story is more "Flintstones" than "Clan of the Cave Bear."  Boulders crash, animals eat people and spit them out, grannies are tossed in the air, and silly things just sort of happen -- but it's all funny and doesn't get old 45 minutes in.  It also doesn't dry up for the last 5 minutes.  It’s probably the most impressive feat of the authors.

The script was an easy read but again I was struck by the double introduction of the family.  Everything of importance happens after "The... End" - da daah daaaaaahhhh.  Let's get there faster.  This script was the closest to the actual finished movie that I've read.

The script is clear.  I've been told to focus on “clarity over poetry” in my screenwriting and The Croods nailed that.  There are paragraphs that are on-the-nose clear about who is doing exactly what, hardly a single pronoun.  But it didn't matter, the story was... clear.

This was not the best movie ever.  It was not my favorite animated film.  But it was better than “Monsters University” and I certainly won't mind seeing it again.  Or listening to the stellar voice acting and witty dialogue in the car, stuck in traffic, refusing to quit driving just because it's taking forever, while my children watch it in the back.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

"It is by will alone I set my mind in motion."

I ate too much pie.  Or drank too much eggnog.  Or something.  It had only been a week since I last put on a suit but for some reason, yesterday, it was way, way too tight.  I swung some kettle bells last night, didn’t eat a bag of chips before bed, and today I’m a bit more comfortable.  It looks like I’ll have to plan my cookie binges carefully this month.
Speaking of plans, you should have one.  (Smooth transition there.  Kenny G. better watch out.)  A plan is different from a goal in the same way that a map is different from a destination.  I’ve just finished Nano and had a plan to get that done, but that’s not the whole plan.

In the movie “Dune” there is a scene in which they talk about “plans within plans.”  That was a weird part of the film, but the concept is really very good.  You have a plan to get a specific task done, but that task is part of a larger plan.  The task (or goal) is not the end.  It may seem that you’re setting yourself up to never be done, but that’s not the case.  You’re setting yourself up to never be lost, without course or purpose.
I had a plan to get the job I have now.  Once I reached that I began working on where I wanted to be assigned, and then what sort of work I wanted to do.  I’m still working on “that next step” because I’m still employed, but now I’m also looking at what I want to do when I retire.  That’s why I blog.  It’s why I am writing so seriously.  I plan to write.  The closer I get to retiring, the more detail I have to have in that plan.  Sure I want to write, but what does that mean and how do I get there?
One of the tasks I have in that plan is to publish a novel before retirement.  That task requires its own plan.  A plan that included Nano but goes far beyond simply writing that many words in a month.  Nano was just a task in the plan to publish.
Looking at it this way helped me through Nano because even if I didn’t win, I was still working toward my publishing goal and I knew exactly where that fit in my vocational goal.  Recognizing that each page I wrote was a step closer to achieving the big, pie in the sky, goal helped me resist the urge to “take a break from the silly contest and play Plants v. Zombies.”
Now that Nano is done I can appreciate the accomplishment, and I am personally proud of making it – I had to overcome a few challenges to get there – but my work is only half finished on this story.  I need another 50k words before I can start the 2nd draft.  That doesn’t seem insurmountable.  I just hammered out 50k in a month.  (See yesterday’s post about proving to yourself you can do something…)
After the 2nd draft I’ll need readers that will give me high quality feedback – the sort of feedback that hurts.  As I write now, I know that some of what I’m wracking my brain over will be cast aside.  It can seem depressing, but in the overall scheme, it’s about making the work the best it can be.  With that as the plan, slogging along the path to get there isn’t so bad.
It’s sort of like driving in traffic.  Sometimes you want to just pull over and quit.  But you don’t.  If you did that you’d never get where you were going.  Are you playing Frisbee at the rest stop or staying in your lane ticking the miles off one by one?