Monday, December 16, 2013

A Writing Geek Anecdote

Over the years I've realized that I write best when I'm well fed, well rested, and bored.  Normally this means that my ideal writing time is in the middle of Sunday afternoon, but there are some interesting exceptions.

Back in August of 1997 I took a week-long seminar on the configuration of the Materials Management module for the SAP/R3 database software.  No, it's actually a lot more interesting than it sounds.  Well ... OK, maybe not.  What it meant was that I spent a week in downtown Cleveland with someone else paying the dinner bill, and given my introvert nature my evenings' entertainment was sitting in my hotel room reading and ignoring the TV.  Exciting, I know.

Well fed?  Check!
Well rested?  Check!
Bored?  Oooh, look!  Another commercial for Sham-Wow!

Now that you have that background, I want you to imagine the following.  After a section of the course on adding products to the system, the instructor tells everyone to create an entry for a picture frame.  It has to have a search key, as well as a short, medium, and long description.  This is about 30 seconds of work.  Maybe 45 if you've never done it before and have to rely on a cheat-sheet.  Then she goes on to say that there will be a prize for the most creative entry.

She told the class to take a few minutes and then we'd have a 15 minute break.  Plenty of time considering that my mind started racing at 9000 miles an hour the moment she said the word "prize".

I wasted about 10 seconds brainstorming and the phrase "lead frame" popped into my head.  The result was a flash-fiction piece - probably around 500 words - written in the style of Raymond Chandler.  The title (as well as the product's short description) was "All Lead Frame", and it was a first person narrative of a detective looking down at a bullet-riddled corpse as he realized the blond in the red dress had set him up.

The words flowed like melted butter over lobster.  I took about twice the amount of time as anyone else in the class - I did get a couple of odd looks because I was typing so much.  I proofread it a couple of times, saved it, and went off to find some coffee (the break room at the Cleveland training center was fantastic at that time - fully stocked with an amazing variety of drinks and snacks ... which goes back to that whole "well fed" thing).

When I got back to the room at the end of the break, the prize was sitting at my workstation (I think it was a t-shirt or coffee mug or some such).  The instructor gave a funny smile and said, "You win.  No question about it."  From the facial expressions and shaking heads among the others in the class, I'm pretty sure she'd read it out loud while I was out of the room.

Sadly, that little story is probably lost.  There are a couple of places I might still have it, printed out and stuck in a folder somewhere, but I doubt I'll find it.  Too bad, too.  It was a fun bit to write.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Pain in the Neck

Just a quick note for anyone making movies, TV shows, novels, or other stories where there's a scene in which a character wants to use a hypodermic to administer a substance to another character.

You're doing it wrong.

The latest trope seems to be that the injector sneaks up behind the injectee, randomly sticks a foot-long needle into the injectee's neck, slams the plunger down, and then watches the injectee slide senseless to the floor.

Not only is this trope now way overused, it's also horribly unrealistic.

It probably started with some writer or director thinking it would be so "hard core" to have a drug shot right into the carotid artery so it would hit the brain right instantly.  Then everyone saw that and started using it themselves.  Peer pressure, ya know.

If you think a moment about the anatomy of the human neck, there's a hell of a lot of stuff going on in a very small space.  Major arteries, veins, tendons, nerves, vertebrae, trachea, muscles, and probably a bazillion other things all packed together.  So if you're going to jab a needle in there (or use a Star Trek hypo-spray for that matter), from behind, while the patient is struggling, just how well do you think you're going to do at hitting a 5mm carotid artery?

Let's say that you hit the jugular vein instead.  The drug would then need to go through the heart before getting to the brain, just like it would if it were injected into any other vein in the body.

But you might also hit the trachea instead (which seems more likely since it's about 250mm in diameter).  Either the needle is going to bounce off that and send the drug into a muscle or who knows where, or it will go into the trachea and send the drug into the lungs.

All of this is completely ignoring the fact that certain drugs must be administered differently.  Some need to be injected into muscle.  Others need to go into the layer of fat under the skin.  For either of those the neck is a terrible place to inject them (for intra-muscular injections the best site is a large muscle like the thigh or shoulder, and for sub-cutaneous the preferred site is the belly).

Yet in recent movies and TV programs I keep seeing scenes where a protagonist needs to be stopped by an ally by being being injected in the neck (presumably in the carotid artery) with an anesthetic, even though that would likely cause death or a stroke.

Look guys, let's just go back to the spray injection into the shoulder or the tranquilizer dart to the butt. That's still far-fetched (it usually takes a lot longer for that stuff to work) but it's not quite as silly and doesn't squick me out.

Monday, October 7, 2013

When Villains Go Bad

I've been trying to catch up on The Mentalist lately, and while I enjoy it, the show has lost some of the charm it used to have.  This got me thinking about how the new episodes differ from those in the first season.  It's not the writing or a change in the chemistry between the main characters.  No, the thing that isn't working so well is the villain.

In the early episodes, Red John was simply a plot device - something to motivate Patrick Jane to work as a consultant for the CBI.  Red John's crimes were horrific but distant things, significant only in the way they shaped Jane's personality.

In the later seasons however, Red John has been transformed into some kind of evil supervillain.  He has an army of loyal followers willing to sacrifice themselves without hesitation.  He has spies everywhere throughout all levels of law enforcement.  He even seems to be such a genius that he can predict Jane's actions and trick him into incredibly elaborate traps.

Originally The Mentalist was a show about Jane - the smartest and most irritating man in the room - solving crimes.  Jane's ego and self-centeredness balanced his cleverness and powers of perception.  The result was a likable protagonist who was often his own worst enemy.  That was precisely what made the program worth watching:  you want to see what he's going to do next.

The show's increased focus on Red John has altered that balance.  By having Jane trapped and tricked by Red John, the writers have detracted from his cleverness and powers of perception.  They've crushed his ego and made something else the center of his attention.  They've turned the show into a sort of police version of Moby Dick.

There are still flashes of the old Jane in the newer episodes, but there is less and less of that since they're now packing in double the story load.  Each episode must spend time moving the Red John plot forward, and that means the crime plot of the week must be chopped down to it's barest minimum.  The murders between mere mortals are now minor distractions from the eternal battle of the titans.

Sadly, the eternal battles of the titans are actually pretty dull to watch, and they go on forever because when one side wins the show is over.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Gen Con 2013 Schedule

Gen Con Indy 2012 – August 15-18

Gen Con is only two weeks away and I realized that I hadn't posted my schedule yet. So I figured I'd do it now before I start my mad scramble to get everything ready.

Once again I'm part of the Writer’s Symposium panels!  I'm on two Symposium panels and am also doing my first ever reading.
SEM1345244 – Realistic Writing: Ancient & Medieval Food
Learn to serve up a dose of reality at your fantasy table with medieval food expert, Daniel Myers.
08/15/2013, 10:00 AM, ICC : Rm 244
SEM1345253 – Reading: Wesley Chu & Daniel Myers
The talented Wesley Chu and story-weaver Daniel Myers read from their latest works.
08/15/2013, 3:00 PM, ICC : Rm 243
SEM1345267 – Worldbuilding: Fantastic Geography
Cartography tips for authors to help you build an incredible world for your fiction.
08/16/2013, 9:00 AM, ICC : Rm 244

Additionally, I’ve scheduled two events for Blackspoon Press and one for Medieval Cookery
SEM1341204 – Medieval Foodways  
Fantasy novels are commonly set in medieval Europe, except for the food which is usually wrong. Learn how medieval cuisine worked as a system, and how to create believable fictional foodways.
08/15/2013, 8:00 PM, ICC : Rm 242
SEM1341206 – Build Your Own Language  
Fictional worlds often include languages to make their setting more believable. This seminar will help you create your own language, suitable for adding color to a game or novel.
08/16/2013, 8:00 PM, ICC : Rm 242
SEM1341208 – Cook Like a Dwarf, Eat Like a Halfling  
How do you write a cookbook for a culture that never existed but everyone knows? The authors of "A Dwarven Cookbook" talk about the origins of the recipes in their cookbooks.
08/17/2013, 1:00 PM, Crowne Plaza : Victoria Stn A/B

The real surprise for me is the amount of interest in the Cookbook seminar.  There have been 96 people who already have tickets. (Yikes!)  Looks like it's going to be a busy con for me this year.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Time Traveled Tales and Publishing

I'm finally mostly recovered from Origins, and while I had a great time in the seminars and schmoozing and even playing the occasional game, the one thing that has really had me bouncing off the walls is the reprinting of last year's anthology.

On the surface it's all pretty simple. The anthology was a limited edition for the convention and the authors have all got together to reprint it.  Where it gets interesting - really interesting - is in the details.  I'm not talking about contract issues and fights between authors though.  There hasn't been any of that, and that kind of thing is pretty small in the grand scheme of things.  No, what I'm talking about is a potential change in publishing that may have a huge effect in the future.

No, I'm not exaggerating.

The Industry

It's no secret that the publishing industry has been in deep bantha poodoo for the past several years.  Newspapers and magazines have been collapsing left and right.  The big publishing houses have been firing their staff.  No one wants to take a chance on an untried author ... at least, no one with money, and the days of large advances on book sales are pretty much history.  It's enough to make me think I waited too long to start writing.

If publishers aren't going to be funding the print runs then who will?

Two of the most common options are self-publishing and print-on-demand.  Self-publishing still carries a stigma from earlier days when it was the last resort for amateurs, hacks, and the truly desperate.  It also has a high up-front cost and significant risk of losing money.  Print-on-demand takes the high costs and the risk out of the equation, but it adds the new wrinkle that the printer ends up getting a far bigger share of the proceeds than the author.  What's more, because of the low cost of entry there has been a flood of low quality books into the market.  That means an author taking this route will have to spend a lot of time and money marketing their work to keep it from being lost in the noise.

This effectively means that for a new writer to publish their work, they have to shell out a bunch of money on editors, printing, and marketing ... and hope for the best.

Crowdsourcing and Shared Risk

One possible solution to this quandary is crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter.  This is where the Origins anthology comes into the picture.  Ron Garner of Silence in the Library Publishing has set up a Kickstarter Project for Time Traveled Tales that is truly inspired.

You can click through the image above to see (and support!) the project, but let me point out some of the benefits to this approach that may not be readily apparent.

The first is that there is little to no risk.  If such a project fails then the publisher/author is out some time and work, but they haven't spent a fortune on printing books that no one will ever buy.  This is kind of like the print-on-demand approach. In contrast, a successful project has all the money up front and can therefore get the kind of price break from the printers that you can only get by ordering large quantities like the big publishers do.

As they say in late-night television ads, "But wait, there's still more!"  Without the overhead of the big publishing houses, the authors end up getting much more of the proceeds - much more than in just about any other method of publishing.


Now here's the really cool part.  Almost since the invention of the printing press, publishers have decided what the reader can buy.  They choose which authors get published and what kind of stories get sold.  But in crowdsourced publishing the readers get to decide.  The authors and publishers present their projects and whichever ones the readers choose to support are the ones that actually go to print.

Now if all that isn't enough, go and take another look at the Time Traveled Tales project.  The book has great stories by some very talented authors, stunningly beautiful artwork, and other cool stuff like challenge coins and postcards.  Oh, and it also has a story by me.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Origins Game Fair - 2013

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be at Origins Game Fair this year as part of their program for writers, The Library.

June 12-16, 2013
Greater Columbus Convention Center
Columbus, Ohio, 43215, USA

Once again I’ll be taking part on a number of panels, and will have a table with the other authors where I can sell copies of books and do autographs and that sort of thing.

Here’s the schedule for the seminars I’m participating in:


Stealing History  (10:00 a.m.)Why recreate the wheel every time you create a world? Yes, you can build your knighthood or priesthood or religion or society from scratch, but taking what’s historically known and warping it might fit the proverbial bill and add depth and believability. Join our panelists for a discussion on how we can mine our own rich history for characters, backgrounds, worlds, cosmology, scenery, and more.
Principles of Medieval Cooking  (1:00 p.m.)Have you designed a richly detailed fantasy setting for your game or story, only to have a gaping hole show up the first time a character needs to eat? What do you serve at a hero's feast? What does it take to cook that? This seminar describes the cooking equipment, techniques and ingredients in England between the 13th and 17th centuries; lists resources for further research; and discusses ways to adapt medieval cooking to fit a fantasy world.


Food in Fiction  (Noon)In Fantasy and Science Fiction, any food is usually in the background.  Most often it's presented as setting or set decoration and ignored by the viewer.  Sometimes though, it seems to take on a life of its own and can even become the center of the plot.  This slideshow explores the fictional foods in television and film, highlighting both the good and the bad.

I had a great time last year, and expect this year to be even more fun!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Ten Questions

My friend and fellow writer, Paul Genesse, made a post to his blog answering ten questions about his current work in progress.  It sounded like a fun exercise so I thought I'd follow suit.

1) What is the working title of your next book?

Faint Souls

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

Gen Con - many years ago.  I was in the audience of a discussion panel about brainstorming (I think), and Richard Lee Byers made a comment musing about happy, well-adjusted zombies (he also stated that every story should have a character named "Wally").  That got me thinking about zombies as government employees (with benefits and a health plan), and how they'd make good spies for suicide missions.  The plot and background have mutated several time since then, but I'm finally starting to make decent progress.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

"Urban Fantasy" is the best bet, though I suppose it could be squeezed into "Horror", "Science Fiction" or "Fiction".

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I hadn't really thought much about this.  Since the main character keeps being put into new, fresher, bodies his appearance changes multiple times.   It would take an actor who has a good grasp of the physical side of performance to make it really work.  Given a choice, I would pick James Marsters just because I'd like to meet him.

There's also a secondary character that Billy Crystal could do really well.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Ugh!  I hate doing these.  Um ... let's see ...

"Raymond, a dead spy for over forty years, has been assigned to recruit or capture an amateur necromancer before an opposing agency gets to him, but there are others who have similar plans, including the reincarnated spirit of a long-dead sorcerer."

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I'll be shopping it around as soon as it's finished.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

It's still in progress, and seems to be taking forever.  It would go a lot faster if I stopped taking on other projects.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Jim Butcher's Dresden Files springs immediately to mind.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

A combination of the above-mentioned panel at Gen Con, years of Anthropology courses, and Johnny Depp's role in the movie "The Ninth Gate".

10) What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?

The approach I take to the occult in general and zombies in specific.  I needed a good way to have a main character that was dead but also durable and sympathetic.  In working that out I ended up creating an internally consistent background that allows for all sorts of fun occult stuff, without descending into the "anything goes" type of magic.

As long as I can keep it going then we'll see how it all turns out.