Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Pairing, For Your Delectation…

Coffee snobs the world over, rejoice. Rejoice, I say. Because now the concept of pairing (putting two things together that were made for each other) has come to writing.

Yep. I knew it would be good, too, just like coffee and bacon, before I even tried it. Let me explain. I was trudging through a lengthy novel that was mildly interesting. I was into the triple digit pages and it still hadn’t bitten me. I decided on another trip to the library to find something good. When I found Stephen King’s 11/22/63 on the shelf, I walked straight to the checkout. King’s latest is a novel about the possibility of changing history; a book that asks the question, “What if Oswald had been stopped from assassinating Kennedy?” And it’s a ripping read so far. I’m less than halfway through it.

That much I expected. What I did not expect was a parallel inspiration in my own writing.

I used to fret that, if I wrote while reading another author’s work, I would subconsciously copy it. Not so, dear boy. Or girl, if you are one. No, reading King’s work has inspired me to think clearly in regard to my own, igniting the fires of my imagination in entirely different directions.

What I’m doing is alternating from King’s book to my own rough draft of The Wagner Diary. I’ve found a good pairing. Already it’s taking on new and previously unimagined traits. And I’m loving it. I thought I had written myself into a box a bit in Marsburg. Not so. For those who are truly creative, there is no box. If there seems to be, one can think one’s way out of it.

And I’m changing up the layout of things a little here. While Marsburg was built around the writings of a dead man, in Wagner things are shaping up to be a little more…contemporary. Of course there are plans to integrate the antiquarian bent of the Airel Saga Diary Series, and this book will have Teutonic overtones, but it should turn out to be cracking good.

If it’s half as good as King’s work, it will be. I’ll keep you posted on that.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Dangerous Expert

You know what I’m talking about already, don’t you: that guy. The guy who watches a documentary on Afghanistan and suddenly becomes a foreign policy expert. The housewife who hears from a friend of a neighbor that so-and-so only won X Factor because so-and-so is related to the ex-lover of one of the judges’ former roommates, and don’t you think they ought to sue. It’s called armchair quarterbacking, and it’s epidemic.

It even works on Amazon.

Not to pick on my personal gravy train, but I think there is a point where readers' remarks officially get out of hand. Aided and abetted by technology, the Dangerous Expert is out there…somewhere anonymous, usually…with corrective measures just a notch or two beyond pithy.

Certain people among us, usually those personality types who take it upon themselves to police the entire world, have been reading blogs and books on writing and have become expert literary critics. Well, I say. Their mission is nothing shy of forcing all writers into the same perfect box. That’ll be lovely, won’t it. And there shall be no room therein for criticism of any kind, because all books will be automatically excellent. By their definition, of course.

There shall be no personification. The moon cannot have its own agenda.

There shall be no short sentences. Fragments. Know what that is? Bad style. Not debatable. Green squiggly lines underneath. Crap, in other words, and the Self-Appointed Expert shan’t deign to read it.

There shall be no love at first sight. Such things are not realistic, and as such, they get the double strikethrough treatment, as they deserve.

There shall be no freedom of expression. All new authors are to study, refer to, and conform to the styles that have been laid out by “established authors,” i.e. those who are real professionals and have contracts with one of the Big Six. Any style that differs is invalid.

The indie houses are to be discouraged, punished, demoralized, scolded, talked down to, and ridiculed at every possible opportunity, usually with comments such as, “Get an editor you fool,” or “I can’t believe it’s not butter.” Okay, scratch that second one. It IS BUTTER. And that’s why you HATE IT. 

In short, what mankind has unleashed upon the earth is nothing new under the sun. They used to be called busybodies. Gossips. Ne’er-do-wells. Their rallying cry was their narrow vendetta, and it still is. Today their fuel is an ill-advised doctrine of the Correction of the Wrong, of which I am apparently one. Because I write in fragments. And because my characters don’t need all of Books Two and Three to fall in love because they’re conflicted or confused or one of them happens to be a werewolf. And because celestial bodies, in my world, are anthropomorphic and have their own agenda. It’s clearly ridiculous, but you know what? I liked it when I wrote it, and I still like it now. I think it’s frickin’ cool. And so do thousands of other people, who are buying the crap out of the crap I write. The world is made of magic and fairy dust and sentence fragments and that’s why I love it. And that’s why my evil agenda cannot be stopped. Cue evil laugh here.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

I just saw the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Subtitles and all. It took me a couple of weeks to muscle through it—there are some shocking scenes in there that have to do with rape, sodomy, bondage, grisly serial murder, and other horrifying aspects of life on earth. I’d argue that these potentialities have little to do with most of us, but the simple fact is, whether graphically rendered in the imagination or not, all of us have given safe harbor to these ideas before, in one intensity or another. For some of us it may be quite tame; an episode of road rage that provokes us to violent or murderous thoughts. For others it may be full-blown deviant sexual fantasy or worse. Whatever the case, Steig Larsson’s book tackles some of the worst of our potentials without fear. I find that striking, because we all play with fire from time to time, ignorant of its full potential or not.

I’d heard, of course, of the Girl books. I was curious about them, but was too busy to follow through. When the Swedish version of the film popped up on Netflix, it was easy to get at. I watched the film not for its entertainment value, but for its value as a kind of case study. I read fiction that way, too. I know I’m weird. Though I may be a couple of years behind the power curve, I finally got curious enough about the Girl stories to give this one a look.

I had to look away from the screen at several key points, because the scenes were just too intense for me. I got the point, though. I don’t know from experience what rape is—though I’m sure there are those who will read this who do—but it was real enough for me as acted out on screen. It was unspeakably awful. I couldn’t watch.

And I mention it because I’m conflicted about the inclusion of those elements in the story, in the movie.

See, I think Larsson was quite brave to plow directly into the issue of these manifest evils in our society, God rest his soul. Part of me asks, “Why would he write this into his story?” And another part of me knows already that authors and writers and other artists have a responsibility to address—and not ignore—those parts of our culture that shock and appall, and speak truth: that after all the evil that enshrouds every one of us has been cut through, we are still invaluable, we are still God’s image bearers. It’s a great mystery that these things that are in violent opposition to each other can exist in the same vessel.

Part of me felt some of these scenes were gratuitous. That was the part that questioned why a man should write—why a movie should be produced—about rape, about sexual torture, and so graphically. What would be the purpose? Do we not already have enough saturation in our culture, in our society, of these greasy and dishonorable things? Detestable, I should say. But as the movie played out, I realized the purpose, the design of the writer, the producer, the director.

Those elements of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo didn’t just occupy space in the narrative. The writer was trying to tell a story. As it happens, it unfolds slowly and we discover at the end just why all that bone-chillingly horrid stuff is in there. It’s a central part of Lisbeth’s character and identity. Though I can’t relate to what the Girl went through literally, I can relate to feeling used, abused, to having issues with authority, to feeling fragile, to having a need to be guarded.

I realized that there are universal aspects to things, even to pure evil like that. And while that may make for a bit of an awkward read on my blog, it makes good food for thought in regard to Story. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo isn’t what I’d term a recommended movie, especially the Swedish version (I have a feeling the American version was toned-down a bit; less graphic, but I don’t know for sure). But it had an effect on me. What’s interesting is that I had no idea what I was getting into with it. I didn’t know what the story was about, what it centered on. If I had, I wouldn’t have watched it. And though it was beyond shocking, I’m glad I did. I’m certain it will make me a better writer in the long run. That doesn’t mean I’ll be mindlessly copying ultra-graphic elements into my stories. No. It means I’ll be taking a more considered approach to my characters, my plots, my stories. It also means I’ll be reading Steig’s Girl series soon. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

On Criticism

With the release of Michael has come a storm of reviews, all this past week. Michael garnered two five-star reviews, Airel took down one of those plus a couple of one-star scorchers, and I’ve heard back from various people and fans through unofficial channels on some of my other works, like K: [phantasmagoria]. All of it has combined into a critical wave that has given cause for pause. I took a walk last night, reflecting on all of it.

I want to touch on the subject of Bad Reviews here. It’s something all published authors have to deal with, and it’s something arguably made worse by technology—anyone and everyone that wants to can leave poisonous black barbs in the creative part of the author’s heart, and at a whim. I’ve seen quite a lot of it. One of my favorites was a young lady’s one-star review that must have been ten paragraphs long, poorly written natch, at the end of which she basically said she was on her period in finals week so she probably shouldn’t be writing reviews while she’s in a bad mood and isn’t it funny, lol! Yeah well. Pardon me for not laughing. And perhaps I used the term “lady” too loosely. I’ll leave that to you to judge.

I’m not bitching. That’s first. I’m not. I can take the bad with the good. I have to. And while I wish there weren’t so much bad and so much eagerness on the part of readers (or jealous authors?) to launch it at me and others like me, I have a right to say something about those bad reviews. For my fellow author, I have a responsibility to address the elephant in the room, because nobody tells you how to deal with bad criticism when you’re setting out on your journey. Too often, we authors set out on that journey with rose-colored glasses anyway, only to have them ripped from our faces at various points as cold reality shoulders its way into our lives.

Here’s the thing: I know I still have a lot to learn about writing. Perhaps some of my one-star reviewers think I’m haughtily earning millions as I scourge the market with tepid mass market drivel. “Get an editor!” they say, not realizing that I devoted more than two years of my life to the project, not realizing that me and my family made sacrifices to be able to afford the $4k+ bill our incredible editor sent us. It was all worth it, by the way. My critics may not realize that I sat at book signings skimming the print version of the First Edition, finding errors, resolving to go back through and find them and fix them for the Second Edition, which is already on sale. Perhaps my more disaffected reviewers are just pissed that I’m able to make a living as a writer, full time. Maybe they’re jealous, though I can’t imagine why. Truthfully. I’ve seen my life. It’s not ready for prime time. I’m not going to be featured on MTV Cribs anytime soon.

Nevertheless, I’m in a bit of a storm here, and I’m trying to figure out what makes the one-star critic tick. Let’s play devil’s advocate for a sec: Usually, at least on Amazon, for some magical reason all the five-star reviews are some kind of conspiracy against True Art. In other words, they’re meaningless because obviously, the author has a huge network of minions who do his bidding in regard to reviews. This gang of indiscriminate five-star reviewing superfriends boasts perfect Tom Selleck moustaches, you can bet, and they are well supplied with three dollar bills by us rich author types, so that they can buy our eBooks again and again and again, thus sending our crummy unworthy books up the rankings undeservedly. Anyway, if all this were true, and the five-star review should be ignored because it’s so obviously skewed, then all one-star reviews ought to share the same fate. Hell, we learned about bell curves and means and medians in junior high, for crying out loud. Why not apply it here.

There’s been a lot of assumption in our culture, too, about what “Mainstream” is. On the conservative side, there has been name calling. Conservatives label the traditional powers in the press the MSM, or Main Stream Media, but that’s a misnomer. NBC and CNN aren’t mainstream. Hollywood tree huggers aren’t mainstream. Eco-terrorists aren’t mainstream, and “artists” who defecate into jars and then display it in galleries aren’t mainstream. What’s mainstream in America is by and large a Biblical sense of morality, a Christian outlook on how the world should work.

As that relates to our stories, that means we like the kinds of books and movies where the bad guy loses and the good guy gets the girl. Why do you think Princess Bride is a classic? Because that’s what most people want. The best criticism I got about Airel this year was this: “A good light read.” Why? Because it means I’m on target to reach the largest audience, giving me the best chance for success and giving my art the widest distribution. Some people resent that. Some people possess a morality that goads them on to fight against the actual mainstream; they resent most of us as backward, rednecks, gun-toters, religious nut jobs, evil conservatives, or just plain old intolerant and uneducated idiots. But I think it’s plain to see who’s really intolerant.

Their kind of morality demands that they fight in shrill tones against any mention of God, any writing about Biblical scripture without some kind of apology or prequalification. Their view of true art is exclusive, it must be edgy, it must be “realistic” (i.e. hopeless and self-serving), it must contain ever more gratuitous sex, foul language, denigration of women, attacks on traditional values, and it must be a crutch to ever more extreme splinter groups and radical factions of our society—in short, they don’t believe all of us were created equal, their morality insists that we be forced to be equal. My writing is decidedly outside that mold.

I think that could be one reason why I must suffer the attack of the one-star review from time to time.

But what else might have filled my one-star reviewers with such angst, God love them? Allow me to posit another theory, based on how most of these are composed, because probably about 80% of all one-star reviews are filled with spelling and grammar errors. I submit to you the idea that they’re not themselves authors, or even writers. How many critics of literature have historically been writers? How many food critics are chefs? How many motorjournalists, who eagerly criticize the iron they test drive, have ever worked the manufacturing lines, have ever set foot in a design studio, are able to engineer a car? I think it’s reasonable to say that it’s easy for a connoisseur of food to criticize the chef, especially when he doesn’t know how to cook the dish. I’m not trying to insult you, one-star critic, but I think it’s a fair question to ask: have you ever written and published a book? If not, do you think it’s intellectually honest for you to ask again and again, “Howe does this carp git pulbished?” I think it’s a question that begs an answer.

All my books have errors in them. I am trying to find them all, but it’s difficult to ferret them out from the hundreds of thousands of words in which they’re buried. For example, I just read Rainbow Six, by Tom Clancy this past week, and I found errors in it. I found turns of phrase that I would never use. I came across bits of writing that struck me as awkward, but I loved the book. I realized that it took Clancy probably a couple of years to put that one together. Lots of people had their hands on it, trying to make it all work right. It does. All that work, and I digested all 738 pages in a week, easily. It’s striking to the point of filling me with reverence for the man. And though my tastes as a writer are different than his, I won’t be blasting him with a one-star review on it. No way.

I have to admit something. If I’m hurt by one- and two-star reviews on my own work, I should be more careful criticizing others’ artistic expressions. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I should be more careful. If I’m standing before a work that doesn’t speak to me, that doesn’t mean the work is crap. It just means it doesn’t’ speak to me. I should move on. It may not be a case of bad art. It may be a case of bad taste. Or at the least, missed opportunity.

I humbly state here that I am not finished. I am still learning how to write. I love that I have loyal fans, I love that there are people out there who get what I’m trying to do, that I’m able to connect with somebody through my art. I know I won’t be able to connect with everyone. My art won’t speak to all to read it. Some won’t get it. Others will be repulsed by it. The reaction will be different every time. But what momma taught you, or should have taught you, about not saying anything if you can’t say something nice, holds true here. If you’ve got a negative reaction to the work, don’t hold the worker responsible for your reaction. A truly free society needs no police.

In the end, I write because I choose to, and I write about what I want to write about. And how. I take all the risks on publishing it, too, knowing full well that I will bear the wounds of the critic’s arrows. I could hide my work under a rock, but I don’t want to. I want to share it. I have to give some weight to the criticism I receive, but I also know what I’m trying to do here. If I were swayed by these breezes, I wouldn’t be worthy of the mantle God gave me. There’s probably nothing worse than a man who abdicates his life’s pursuits to the whims of popular sentiment. Bill Clinton was that kind of president. I’m not that kind of man.

So, to my fans: fear not. I will continue to write what you love. I will continue to learn my craft and hone excellence into all that I do. Thank you for your undying support.

And to my critics: I humbly thank you for your input. You’re entitled to your one-star opinions. All I ask of you is that you remember and consider, as you criticize me, that I’m an artist who takes my work seriously, who labors over it, who tries to make it as good as I can, not only for my fans, but also for little ol’ me. As such, please consider how you’d feel if someone said those things about your work. If you indeed have any work. If you do, please feel free to send me the links to it, so I can read it in turn, and give you my unsolicited opinion on it. I do believe that’s what would be considered “fair.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Stirrings on Storytelling

It used to be, not so long ago, that I lived a dull existence. I would read stories quite passively; I would watch TV and movies as a spectator. Not that it’s possible really to be anything other than a spectator while doing that, but I think it’s possible to sit on the forward portion of the seat a little, if you know what I mean.

In other words I was just along for the ride, never thinking ahead of the story in terms of plot. Now that I’ve had a little practice constructing such things myself, I find I take in stories differently, whether in print or on the screen. It’s not that the surprise and delight are both gone; far from it. It’s that I’m a more active and aware participant in the stories I digest. I can appreciate a good subplot.

I recently had two bits of feedback on my own writing that jumped out at me. One was for Airel, and it’s been a sort of ongoing criticism of that book for about a year; that it starts slowly. Aaron and I have always responded with the idea that, yeah, it starts slowly, it’s the beginning of a pretty big story and we needed to take our time setting it up a little. But I also recently heard back from a Twitter friend about K: [phantasmagoria] and that it, too, started slowly. I suppose I can see where he’s coming from on that score, because while chapter one in that book does have a bit of a shocker in it, it’s not as explosive as what happens, say, about a hundred pages later, on I-84, which was the original beginning of that book. I felt I needed more context when I was revising. What can I say.

But that brings up the subject of Explosive Beginnings, or the somewhat tired and a little well-worn Attention Getter at the front of our contemporary stories. I’m having trouble thinking of a single movie I’ve seen or book I’ve read lately that didn’t have something big and shouty at the beginning of it. While these are cool from a certain point of view, and they probably make for better sales and better reviews to boot, the artist in me resists. I don’t want to be required to write to a formula, and I think it could be true that the Big Bang Beginning we’re seeing in our storytelling of late is a passing fancy. Well. One can always hope.

Jane Austen didn’t seem to feel the need to write that way, and her stories are intensely satisfying to read. Sure, a guy could argue that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his Holmes adventures with some manner of an explosive attention getter at the off. Certainly Stoker’s Dracula starts off with a hair-raising first three chapters, so it’s not like grabbing the reader by the collar is a late phenomenon. But those stories have a certain kind of class to them. Most pop storytelling tends to follow a formula, and it’s so exciting that it’s boring. I’m not saying explosions up front are a bad thing. I’m saying that a slavish obedience to the Big Bang Beginning is, well, a little mindless, and I’d like to push both myself and my readers to something more.

So while it’s true that we authors have got to give the reader something to bite into right up front, I think it’s also true that we don’t need another end-of-the-world CGI tour de force kind of story. I’ve grown tired of that kind of thing. Much like the villain unseen is far scarier than the one described in exhaustive detail, the spare and trim beginning of a story, at least if well written, should entice the reader even more by the information it denies him. The trick is to make him want it. That, my friends, I’m still trying to figure out, and I can imagine I’ll still be trying to perfect it when I die.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Convenience Store Rage: A Fantasia

With a name like Gideon Ernest (the surname need not be mentioned here), he would either turn out to be a wimp or a ladies’ man. There could be no middle ground; that much we know and we’re sure of. That he was small of stature placed him firmly, by the hand of the all-powerful author, in the camp of the former, where all the kids prefer to stay inside on hot summer days, in the air conditioning. It’s safer. The big bad world outside occasionally jumps up to bite you, unlike the softly upholstered innards of the prototypical suburban house.
But appearances can be deceiving. Good authors know this; that’s why we put characters like Gideon Ernest into the word processor and hit frappe.
Gideon Ernest, for instance, may have looked like a dweeb, he may have tipped the scales at just over a hundred and twenty pounds wearing his birth control glasses and his trademark white button-down shirt and black polyester trousers…but he was a killer.
They say clothes make the man. But a real man makes his clothes do whatever the hell he tells them to do, even if it means broadcasting a certain image that doesn’t quite line up with the truth. In Gideon Ernest’s case, he had a reason for looking like a total nerd. And for working at the local Seven Eleven hawking Slurpees from noon to night. It is a reason no one will see coming.
Appearances can be deceiving. We’ve said that before. But that was precisely why he had been written into life: to confuse the crap out of the reader for as long as possible.
Because that’s what good writing means.
Take this, for instance: Gideon Ernest walks to work on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and sometimes Sundays. Why? Because he’s selling you something. You the reader may think he’s selling you pseudo-cute nerdiness and the occasional chilled beverage or Slim Jim. You may even snap into all that. But what he’s really selling as he walks innocently into the Seven Eleven for the millionth time is the idea that he’s just your average innocent pantywaist. Mister milquetoast is selling you the idea that his shirttails are connected to his white cotton sock tops by way of elasticated stocking garters that keep everything just so. It’s a uniform he wears. It’s always the same, day in and day out. Why? So that authors can deceive readers so thoroughly that eventually the readers are so taken with the ruse that they actually want to be deceived.
The change occurs. It begins skillfully, so that the reader does not perceive its germination. A customer, one of the regulars, is at the Slurpee kiosk, self-servicing sloppily, getting some Coca-Cola flavored slush all over the machine, and it drips onto the floor. This sort of thing has happened millions of times before. This selfsame customer has also, many a time, strolled right up to the register and then held up the line by ordering a different brand of cigarettes, preferably ones that Gideon Ernest has to search for, each and every time. But today, the customer suddenly remembers that he wanted to buy five different kinds of Lottery tickets, insisting on paying in cash—using all his loose change. Most of it is nickels and pennies.
And when that happens…
Gideon Ernest turns out to be Billy Badass. He appears to be a freak of modern science. His white button-down shirt begins to rip asunder, revealing mountainous slabs of tanned and bulging muscle. His polyester trousers were designed to have “a little give” in the seat and thighs, and God knows as Gideon Ernest his body never availed itself of such a textilic engineering marvel, but as Billy Badass the fabric begins to show signs of strain. Indeed, as the metamorphosis progresses, the trousers inexplicably shed their lower extremities, now appearing to be a sort of beachcomber gentleman’s capri, complete with jagged hems just at the top of his now bulging and shapely calves.
His glasses remove themselves from his face as his rapidly growing—and tanning—body rips his white shirt into miniscule shreds that fall away and disappear without a trace. The glasses, having barely escaped their own kind of doom, now transform into a shiny black male robot hawk. The hawk cock swoops around the room shrieking its fury at the various convenience store patrons, wide-eyed customers holding Twinkies, bad coffee, useless newspapers, and the odd half case of piss water domestic beer. The mechanized black bird returns to its master’s now prodigiously wide shoulders, spreads its wings, lowers its head, and shrieks once more.
Billy is now fully manifest, an awesome replica of the perfect Tom Selleck moustache now perched upon his upper lip. Billy Badass then reaches beneath the counter for what one can only assume will be the sawed-off 12-gauge. But ah, dear reader, thou dost assume too much. The author is still ahead of you by a mile, and this will be a cliché of an entirely different sort. From under the mild and unassuming Seven Eleven counter, Billy Badass, purveyor of fine low-cost dessert wines and certain smutty periodical publications, produces a gleaming custom made masterpiece of weaponry.
At least five feet long, as much for the visual effect as anything when this story goes to print as a graphic novel, his weapon is a Gatling gun with five barrels, already rotating with electric whir, ready to fire, fed with belted ammo. Only the ammo, naturally, isn’t ammo. No, to satisfy certain requirements for irony, the belts that feed this monster are linked to the change drawer in the cash register.
Billy Badass, who is now incidentally glistening with sweat and covered with grime from the pyrotechnic explosions that just went off in the cigarette case overhead, stands under a shower of sparks and winking fluorescent lights as he lowers the pentapotent muzzle of the weapon into the face of the regular customer.
Again, the reader expects Billy Badass to speak his lines a certain way by now, now that the author has established certain cliché criteria. But that’s where dear reader is wrong again.
You see, Billy Badass isn’t a man at all, and the robot cock isn’t what, certainly by now, you’ve assumed, is a sidekick. No, in fact, the ungainly eyeglasses-cum-transforming bird is the master, and Gideon Ernest-cum-Billy Badass is his wee little pet. Therefore, when he speaks, the language is garbled and unintelligible by all but the most rabid fan of Battlestar Galactica.
Yes: Billy Badass is a Cylon drone.
And all of it conspires to produce the Everest of accomplishment for any author: the moment when the reader says, “Whoa. Didn’t see that one coming.”
And then Billy, formerly Gideon Ernest of the Seven Eleven and now robo-puppet of the Cylon master race, speaks, his finger on the trigger of his Gatling money gun, his handy autotranslator dipping into the dank commonness of the English language of the Earthlings: His voice gnarled and metallic, his says with extreme prejudice, “Keep the change!”
We hear the ratatattat, we see the offending customer blasted by spare quarters and pennies, jerked up and back off his feet into the Hostess pies display case, everybody else dives to one side, Billy is standing there like Rambo blasting everything with his five foot long gun, holding it with one arm, screaming in rage. The robo hawk takes flight just as the ceiling gives way under a massive fireball caused by a supersonic dime slicing through an exposed gas main, and the whole place goes up in flames.
The robo hawk flies away to its mountain lair.
A new plan will soon be hatched.
And Book II will be out soon. This is how it’s done.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Capitalism and Ethics in the Web Age

I’ve become a regular customer at the local bicycle shop lately. I’m getting back into riding—I finally have enough free time to be able to budget an hour or so every other day so that I can take a good long ride. I originally stopped by the shop to see what new hardtail mountain bikes were going for—they had a few on special for five, six hundred bucks. Right in the wheelhouse, then, at least for my budget, and I thought seriously about buying one.

But then I got home and started surfing and Googling around, learning what was to learn. I wanted to replace my old banger; the fork was just done. I have a relatively late model Trek cruiser, too, the ones with the steel fenders and all that swoopyness going on, with a seven speed drivetrain. Being the ex-bicycle mechanic that I am, my gears were turning about swapping some of the good parts from my clapped out MTB onto the cruiser. A lot of that depended on the spacing of the rear dropouts, which, by the way, turned out to be identical. Long story short, I was able to swap everything I wanted to swap, and I only needed to buy new tires, tubes, and a saddle. I figured if I kept to the streets for now, I would ride more often if I didn’t have to drive half an hour to the trailhead every time.

I found some good deals for tires online, but you’ve gotta pay shipping, you can’t really look at the merchandise, and you’ve gotta wait for parcel post, especially if the item is bulky. So I walked on over to the bike shop. It’s only five blocks from my door to theirs anyway. I figured I’d see what they had.

Now here’s the thing: I shop online for plenty of stuff. I don’t think it’s bad to do that. Part of what makes capitalism work is the beauty of choice, and we have plenty of it in America. Coupled with that liberty, though, is the attendant responsibility to choose wisely, to inform one’s choices with some measure of propriety. I’ve been saying for quite a long time now that capitalism doesn’t work at all when it’s been divorced from Christian morality. If we don’t have an absolute right or wrong as a foundation under us, we can’t begin to allow the market loose; it would tear the world apart. I think we have plenty of evidence of that in current events right now, which I won’t belabor, but it’s in big biz and government aplenty.

I ended up buying my tires at my local shop, plunking down forty bucks a pop plus tax, which was a lot. But I was rewarded, and as it turns out, unexpectedly. First of all, I was “keeping it local,” something the granola-muncher North End hippies seem to be into, and something with which I agree. I was helping to keep the doors of my local shop open by doing business there. I was also sowing a kind of seed, because when I popped back in a week later with some stubborn axle bearings that needed adjustment, they comped me for the labor, happy to sell me a tool and some parts on top. They figured I’d be back, which I will. But I also got my stuff right now, which, fast as technology is these days, no online retailer can match (unless they’re selling downloads, natch). I got to look over the merch, make a good decision, and take what I wanted home without jacking around with shipping. Of course, there was the sales tax, but whatever. On top of all that, my local shop has a box of take-off parts—tires and tubes for like, two bucks each. They’re brand new, they just came installed as original equipment on some floor model and got swapped out for something different, spec’ed by the customer. Everybody wins.

Anyway, that’s all. Support your local biz every chance you get. The Web has enabled the illusion of more choice, more convenience, et cetera. But the trade-offs are real. Shipping can take forever, if there’s a screwup of some kind you’ll wish you’d never ordered the thing in the first place because returns are horrible online, and you don’t get to hold the widget in your hot little hands before you commit. Besides, one day you might wake up to discover the only choice you have left is MEGACORP OF CHINA and you’ll be completely screwed. So wake up to your Christian morality and ethics, America, and be proud of your heritage; do the right thing. Keep it local. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Michael is on SALE, YALL!

MAY 17th!

Michael, book two in the Airel Saga, is live on Amazon TODAY ONLY for a discounted price!!

To promote Michael I’m hosting a contest where you can win a FREE copy of Airel and win a free Kindle Fire.

To take advantage of this awesome deal, head to Amazon and check out the eBook version of MICHAEL at its promotional price, then see below to enter the contest. Also, leave me a comment on this post. The blogger with the most comments will win the Kindle Fire! If I win, I’ll also get the chance to be part of a special giveaway in the next few months.

Praise for Michael

"Move over Twilight! Here comes Aaron Patterson!" --Joshua Graham, bestselling author of Beyond Justice and Darkroom

"I was surprised by how much I really, really liked this book. I have not jumped on the whole "fallen angel" bandwagon, just as I didn't jump on all of the vampire stories that came out after Twilight. This is not your typical fallen angel story. It is one that has left me breathlessly waiting for the next one in the series. Hurry up please!!!" --Sandra Stiles

Description of Michael

Michael did the unthinkable to save Airel from death, but now he must live with the choices he has made--both good and evil. Tortured by his past and haunted by what he believes might be his future, Michael seeks redemption--but will the past prove to be too strong? How can he break free of it and be the man he longs to be for Airel? If only he had never...

Airel. Michael's one true love. He had forced her to drink in new life only to find that old wounds and deep scars do not heal overnight. Can she truly forgive Michael, can she truly love him? And can he accept that forgiveness? Or is it all for nothing, and has he gone too far already? As the darkness of past choices closes in on them, chases them, intercepts them, coming at them from everywhere at once, how can their love possibly survive?

Aaron Patterson is the author of the best-selling WJA series, as well as two Digital Shorts: 19 and The Craigslist Killer. He was home-schooled and grew up in the west. Aaron loved to read as a small child and would often be found behind a book, reading one to three a day on average. This love drove him to want to write, but he never thought he had the talent. His wife Karissa prodded him to try it, and with this encouragement, he wrote Sweet Dreams, the first book in the WJA series, in 2008. Airel is his first teen series, and plans for more to come are already in the works. He lives in Boise, Idaho with his family, Soleil, Kale and Klayton. His daughter had an imaginary friend named She.

Chris White has an award for reading 750 books in one school year — from the 3rd grade. So yes, he’s more of a nerd than Aaron. Chris loves history, Sherlock Holmes, and anything that’s not virtual, like old motorcycles and mechanical typewriters. He also doesn’t get why we have these things called “smart phones” when all they do is make people dumber. Chris recently celebrated 10 years of marriage with his wife, April, and has two boys: Noah, age 8, and Jaden, age 3, who inspired the Great Jammy Adventure series; the OK-to-color-in picture books. Chris is working on a short story called The Marsburg Diary that will further explore the prologue to Airel, and he is finishing up his first novel, entitled K: phantasmagoria, due out in 2011. Chris has a major crush on Audrey Hepburn, who is now dead. His wife is okay with all of this.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Different is Good

I don’t mean that being different is good for the sake of being different. That would be like art for the sake of art; a ridiculous idea, ultimately, that, like lots of things these days, sounds okay on the surface but doesn’t stand up to any kind of analysis. Art for its own sake is emptiness and meaninglessness. It would be the same in regard to daring to be different for the sake of being different. In other words, what would the point be? If we don’t have a reason for doing something, we’re just flailing about.

Take a guy like Claudio Roditi, for example. A jazz trumpeter of Latin American descent (Brazil), he’s different. Dizzy Gillespie was different, too, but Roditi goes one further. Most guys play just regular old Bb trumpets. For Claudio, that’s not quite enough. He plays a German rotary valve trumpet; a design concocted by, you guessed it, zee Germans, and intended for Teutonic stuff written by Richard Wagner (pronounced Ree-khard Vog-ner), the operatic genius. No, Claudio decided to innovate and be different. Why? The rotary valve trumpet possesses a singular tone; it’s rich and powerful when you give it the beans, yet it’s dark and subtle in the hands of a skilled musician who knows how to use space as well as sound. Plus the rotors can contribute, with practice, to faster fingering, having a little shorter throw than comparative valves. In other words, Claudio Roditi dares to be different with a purpose, to bring to Latin combo jazz a little something unique, darker, more colored, more vibrant, more introspective, something that burns a little hotter.

Different is good.

I refuse to get on the hybrid car bandwagon, for instance. I don’t think driving a Prius is green at all. The batteries, the heavy metals, the massive amounts of copper and energy that go into producing a new Prius, considering its useable life span (tied to the battery pack, natch, which costs around $4k to replace), all of it adds up, tipping the balance against. It’s far greener to keep an old banger on the road. Hello, that’s recycling in action. Plus old cars are just cooler. That’s my opinion, but it’s based on my thinking on the subject. The Prius and electric cars have been really oversold in the mainstream areas of our culture. It’s not as if they are grown on the Magic Tree of Communal Love and delivered to your doorstep by friendly polar bears walked on leashes by naked hippies sipping on soy chai tea lattes. They’re manufactured by heavy global industries. I don’t see what all the fuss is about carbon dioxide anyway; I thought trees loved that stuff. I thought they kinda needed it to photosynthesize. Ah, but I ask too many questions.

And I dare to be different, not “just because,” but because of thoughtful consideration. There’s a reason I have my convictions. I’ve earned them. You might assume I am some backward pro-Nazi conservative elitist, reading what I’ve written so far. But no. I’m actually not. Believe me or no, especially given some of the commentary I’ve written about current events the past four years; I am not easily defined as a person. You can slap the label of conservative upon my chest if you wish, but all that will do is prove your own ignorance, your own rashness and eagerness to label people.

Truth be told, the facts are more…nuanced, to use a leftist’s politically expedient catch word. I don’t run with Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity. While I do agree with the conservative outlook mostly, I’m not fool enough to believe those guys are news outlets. They’re biased, just as sure as Chris Matthews and his lot are biased in the other direction. Media lives and dies at some point by sensationalism, and I’m not buying it anymore. I confess I did at one time, but I’ve grown past my Chicken Little stage. I’m all growed up nah. If I had to pick a box from all the political ideologies out there, it’d most likely be the one marked Libertarian. But it doesn’t magically fit every situation; that decision is revocable when things start to get ropy and fail to fit properly. I fall outside of the mainstream by choice. I reserve my final decisions until after most of the lemmings have passed by. Which, by extension, makes me extremely conservative, I suppose. At any rate, I’m different and proud of it.

And now that I’m on the topic of ideology, I might as well hammer it home by asking you a question: Will you be voting in November? Perhaps a few more questions: Are you going to abstain for the sake of total frustration? I’ve considered that myself. How about this: Will you be voting on the basis of some slogan? G.K. Chesterton said it best: “As an ideal, change itself becomes unchangeable.” In other words, slogans are just propaganda; they’re dead as soon as they’re minted. At any rate, I think it’s clear to anyone with a cogent stream of thought inside their head that the kind of change we’ve had to endure for the past four years is not the sort most of us wanted. I think most of us just wanted someone at the switchboard who had half a clue what to do to stop the hurting out here in the real world. Clearly, we’ve not yet found the right men and women for the job. This November, the search continues in America.

I still have faith in America, in us. Ours is the only nation on the face of the earth constituted as we are. We’re filled with individuals who love being different, who have deep conviction of principle, who have mountains of fortitude to draw upon as we go forward into the breach. We come together not under the coercion of some megalomaniacal wannabe dictator, but united by and under the duress a man like that has produced, and we unite so as to extract that poisonous barb from the fabric of our homes. And when that business has been tended to, we return to our many and various different enterprises. We go about our own business. Different, and we’re okay with all of it, because a body made entirely of heads would be really gross. A body needs a good thinking head, a neck to swivel on, a body to hold it, arms to help it, and legs to move it.

I don’t expect you to “celebrate diversity” by trying to fit inside some dictatorial state-mandated mold that looks like me. Neither then, should you try to force me to surrender anything rightfully mine under the auspices of fairness. This is America. We’re not even supposed to be the same. We’re supposed to be different. That’s part of what liberty is. I know what reasons I have for striving for my convictions. I don’t desire to force anyone to be just like me. Why would I want that? Then we wouldn’t be different anymore. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Sunday Drive

Take a walk in the woods every once in a while. Feel the sunlight filtered through towering ponderosas, two hundred feet tall or more. Hear the rushing roar of rivers cresting rock strewn banks, swollen with snowmelt, pale green torrents of liquid ice. Walk paths overcast with whole trees crossing over, wend through the underbrush, see the ants scurrying, their body segments much larger here than in the city; here they look to be made of bits of juicy wild mountain blackberry.

Smell the earth. Breathe in the scent of freshness; clean, airy, light, woody, peppered with the spice of drying needles that crunch underfoot. Feel the river roaring nearby; shaking the boulders that stand on the sloping banks.

Be reminded of how we're quite small at the wrestling rapid riverside; under precipitous tree bough stabbing high at the winds in the air, where the eagles soar. And be reminded of how we’re also quite large as we stand high, stooping over the black ant, our head cocked to one side in curiosity as he goes about his business. Take time to stop along the way and see.

Drive your car on two lane roads. And slow it down, roll with all the windows open so you can smell the fragrances, feel the cool breezes, see the sheer sides of the canyon walls on which you ride. Don’t rush. The Sunday drive is an American tradition that’s older than cars. Imagine what it might have been like to ride in a horse drawn buggy. Take it slow. And when you see something amazing, pull off and stop. Get closer. Pause. Soak. Dip a toe in. You packed a picnic lunch, right? Good. And you brought the kids, too. Show them why their jaw should drop in awe, even now, even in this age of terminal boredom, when they behold the work of the Creator. Get up close and personal. See what’s to see.

Thank God for today, and trust Him for tomorrow. Live apart from regret by seizing the now; drink in deep, empty the cup today, for it is all we have. Life will keep happening to you until you begin to happen to it. Don’t sit at home. Get out and about. Take a drive in the mountains. Get right up alongside their roots, drive right up through the crevices, ride up their ramps into the heights, and behold the view from the summit. Feel the intensity of the sun up there and let it burn its warmth into your skin, and carry that into your next Monday. It will better you.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Michael, Book II in the Airel Saga

I’ve been privileged to work with Aaron Patterson for a couple of years now, co-writing and brainstorming with him on a few ideas that have proven to be more than worthwhile. I can state now for the record that we work well together.

And I hope when Michael releases on May 17th that you agree.

Fans of the Airel Saga won’t be disappointed. Book I, Airel, ended with a big bang and our intent all along was to follow that up with more of the same. Michael opens with the long-awaited explanation of just what the heck happened up there at the top of the cliff, though of course we take our time revealing all the consequences of that as the story unfolds. I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who have yet to read Book I, but you can bet you’ll find plenty of drama in these e-pages.

You’ll also find new characters. We introduce a go-getter FBI agent and her rookie assistant, Harry, to the story. Naturally, in a missing persons case the authorities would nose their way into the situation. What they find at the bottom of their investigation is quite a shock. We also decided that we had to give Airel’s parents a little of the stage, so they make a cameo or two. But two of my new favorites are Ellie, a brass knuckles badass kind of girl who carries a mysterious accent and an even more mysterious past, and Mr. Emmanuel, who wears a white fedora when first we meet him and who has… let’s just say… a way about him. Whatever the case may be, and I’m not making any specific statements about any of these characters (you’ll just have to read the book), but I just adore a good villain. Let’s just say that chameleons can give a guy lots of character ideas. Plus it was really cool to dip into African mythology. Beyond that, I cannot go here.

I had lots of fun writing this one. If Airel bore more of Aaron’s imprimatur, Michael bears more of my own. Aaron and I tried changing up the nuts and bolts of our creative process for this one, and it shows in the final product. When we decided to collaborate on Airel, the rough draft had already been completed and edited by the time I had a crack at it, so I didn’t intrude much. But Michael was rather formless and void, a book with which the creative process was far more open-handed between us. Aaron delivered it to me in four sections over the space of many months, so when I made certain tweaks I wasn’t sure necessarily where he was going with some ideas. By the time we got down to the fourth section (Part Eight in the Saga), I found that I had a lot of catching up to do in order to reconcile our work. In the final analysis though, it just flat works. And well, I think.

We’ve pulled out all the stops on this one. When Aaron and I first started talking about Michael, we decided that we had to really go for broke on the setting. From the beginning we’ve been thinking about the Airel Saga in terms of high production value in regard to what the “camera” sees; we look at the storyline as if it’s a storyboard for a movie in a lot of ways. We want to write something that might translate well to the silver screen, in other words. We therefore decided to incorporate dynamic and sweeping visuals into the story, utilizing all the imaginative tools in our kit. The action scenes in Michael go beyond what you’ve seen in Airel. Where the first book had plenty of awesome Old World epic battle scenes that were a total blast to write, the second is a study in contrasts, not only to the first book but also in comparison to each other right inside Michael. There’s a high speed car chase in the rain at night, the blending of high tech weapons with swordplay, and two gorgeous places: Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, and Cape Town, South Africa (I actually spent six months there in 2002, so I was itching to write a bit of that into the story line from the get-go).

If you’re craving romance, Michael delivers on that front as well. As I said earlier, I don’t want to spoil anything, but there’s a scene with Airel and Michael in a torrential downpour that ought to spark something in you, at least if you’re not dead inside.

But that doesn’t compare to the scene near the end where one major plot twist comes finally unraveled with Airel and Kreios. That one is my favorite.

As always, the intent with the Airel Saga has been to provide a little something for everyone: drama, romance, action, adventure, intrigue, suspense, even some light humor. Michael delivers all of these and more. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

To all our fans: thank you so very much. We couldn’t do this without you.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Darrin’s Coffee Signature Blend Coffee

Full disclosure: I went to school with Darrin Marion, now the craft roaster of fine coffees in my old adopted hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana. I’ve been chatting off and on with him via social media for the last year or more, talking about all things entrepreneurial and coffeeish. I finally pulled the trigger on a pound of his whole bean Signature Blend last week after he shared a video with me, in which he appeared on local TV in Indy talking about his small coffee roasting biz.

I was more than excited to receive my coffee in the mail. It arrived parcel post, taking about three days to get from Indiana to Idaho, in an air locked gold foil bag; very high zoot. I was therefore assured that my coffee would be as fresh as possible.

The first thing I did was coarse grind a goodly dose of his Signature Blend (I used ten tablespoons for a standard large sized French press, typically called a four cup press) and got the water on the boil. You’ll want to use filtered water, natch.

The first thing I noticed was that he roasts his coffee quite light; it’s nothing like what you get from “Big Coffee,” as he says, which tastes burnt to some of us. Now that the green mermaid has mostly stopped taking over every other street corner, I believe it might be safer for some of us to express our true feelings about over-roasted coffee. Darrin’s is decidedly unique.

I brewed for five minutes, which is pretty standard for French press coffees. When I took my first sip, I was blown away. Darrin’s Coffee is like nothing else I have ever experienced. Somehow he has managed to engineer a roast and a blend that brings the totality of coffee’s flavors to the fore. His Signature Blend is very full bodied; it explodes on the palate with an intense cocoa flavor that is balanced with fruity suggestions of berry and orange. I tried it black first, and for my second cup I added cream and sugar. It was just as good that way.

The next day I tried using a little less coffee and brewing his Signature Blend in my Bunn drip coffee maker. This machine brews a full pot of coffee in three minutes; ideal for drip (you don’t want it stewing for like, ten minutes or anything). While it was good, with Darrin’s, I personally felt that it was better as a French press coffee.

And that brings me round to the final verdict. Darrin’s isn’t an everyday coffee for me. Here’s why: One, it’s best in a French Press (though my wife preferred it brewed as drip coffee—to each their own, and you’ve gotta experiment). Two, that implies some attendant ideas about how to best use it; i.e. making the enjoyment of Darrin’s an event in and of itself. Three, a pound of Signature Blend costs $15, which is reasonable, but shipping for me was $7.50. If we’re rounding up, that means I threw down nearly $25 for a pound of coffee, and that’s probably too much for most of us.

But that’s what makes Darrin’s Signature Blend a coffee for occasions, as far as I’m concerned. In other words, I think it’s best to brew a French press of Darrin’s and pair it with a snack. Darrin recommends apples and almonds for his Signature Blend, but I daresay it’s great with orange slices or even chocolate and berries. It’s such an intense explosion of flavor, and it’s so unique—I mean, like nothing you have ever tasted—that it needs to be paired with something equally as intense that can stand up to it.

Darrin’s Signature Blend is a powerful coffee. Contrary to what the green mermaid, peace be upon her, might tell us about real flavor requiring longer roasts, Darrin has managed to extract huge flavor from his craft roasted blend with a light roast. You'll probably want to try his other varieties as well, including his organic Yirgacheffe, his Sumatra, and of course Kona. He even has Jamaican Blue Mountain, the rarest of the rare. When you open a bag of Signature Blend for the first time, you’ll know what I'm talking about here. You’ll be greeted with the intense scent of cocoa intermingled with the slightest berry tartness. It’s a revelation. And while, for me, the cost makes his coffees a little prohibitive, it’s worth paying more for quality on occasion. ‘Nuff said, and all the best to Darrin in his endeavors.

Check out his Web site and his Facebook page. Thanks, Darrin for sharing your work with me.