Friday, June 23, 2017

Tips To Reduce Word Count

I am wordy. Like, really wordy. And I know I'm not alone. Admit it. We love our word play a little too much sometimes. As a friend of mine loves to put it, we like to smell our own farts.

So what do you do when you've finished your masterpiece, and you come to your senses about making someone slog through 500 pages of your drivel that you would be forced to price at $20?

Lots of well meaning bloggers (says the well meaning blogger) will tell you to eliminate damn near everything extraneous. Like we all must be Elmore Leonard clones.

Not to dismiss the late Mr. Leonard by any means. I just dislike the use of absolutes in his personal rules. There are many other variations on "Never do x" advice that make me cringe. For me, there's something to be said about strategically slowing the pace, or setting the cadence of your word flow, so don't feel obligated to cut every last damn adjective.

That said, a lot of what you wrote is probably expendable.

Major Pruning

For when you’ve gone 15K over your allowed word count, or you feel your finished novel is just way too long (like mine was).

1. Examine side journeys and subplots 

This can be the toughest one. Most great books are more memorable for their character moments, not their plots. We LOVE our characters. We don't want to neglect them, right?

But if it doesn’t advance your plot, it’s probably not necessary. If it develops your setting and your characters, it MAY be worth keeping, but not if it ends up feeling like filler. This may require a bit of untangling if the subplot is referenced a lot or had indirect impact on the main plot. But it will by far reduce more pages than nitpicking individual words.

2. Lose anything self-serving

You know that part that you’re just SOOOO proud of? That witty banter, that hysterical zinger, that esoteric reference that the hipsters in your audience will love. That moment when your words danced and your brilliance leapt off the page for the critics to marvel at. 

Yeah it probably sucked.


One pitfall along these lines is a compulsion by some to make political commentary. Assuming we're talking about non-political fiction, no one wants to read that crap. Especially not in our current cultural climate.

Sometimes a character’s politics is a defining element worth mentioning, but more likely it comes across as preachy to 40% of your potential audience. Ask yourself, does it add value to the story, or is it virtue signaling? Is it really worth risking a 1 star review?

3. Shorten descriptions

This is one where I definitely agree Elmore Leonard. Did you really need all those lines to describe that woman’s hair? Does the reader need THAT much detail about your character’s car? Or that store window? Did the bad guy’s ensemble really warrant a whole paragraph in his introduction? Probably not.

4. Minimize Exposition

Here's another one where I'll quote from Leonard's rules: "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip." A beta reader once described one of my chapters as drinking from a fire hose of exposition. Handled badly, exposition can be a pacing killer, and a waste of words.

Lean toward having actions reveal the background of your story. If you took a whole paragraph to explain something that becomes obvious later by what your characters say and do, you can probably cut it out.

Edge Trimming

For when you’ve formatted your book for print and you end up with a bunch of widows, orphans, and hanging chads (paragraphs with one tiny word on a line by itself). Or the end of your chapter goes all the way to the end of the page. Or for when you just want to ratchet things up and/or quicken the pace.

1. Beware filler words

that
this
then
just
complete
completely
actually
suddenly
awkwardly
technically
definitely
basically
quickly
Pretty much any word ending in –ly.
pretty much
around or about (as adjectives)
any verb followed by have or not (contractions are your friends)
"Yeah."
"No."

2. Rework sentences that take the scenic route

Any time a character did this, then that:
... looked up and ...
... turned around and ...
Or
... felt something happen
... saw something happen
... heard something happen
(unless conveying a sense of detachment from the action is important to the scene)

On a smaller scale, keep an eye out for ways to use words more economically. For example, reduce "get a message to me" to "reach me" or "dropped me off at home" to "took me home."

3. Shorten dialogue

Read the lines out loud and imagine yourself watching the scene play out in a movie. Are you having trouble following it? Are you bored by the end? Your reader will be, too. 

One thing I did quite a bit was combine short one liners into a longer quote. It’s good for rounding up orphans, and it often makes the exchange flow more naturally.

4. Sidebar: Adding lines

Sometimes your solution to widow/orphan control is to add a line. Maybe you have a paragraph that is way too long (7 lines is a good max). A sentence at the end of a paragraph may deserve to be on its own line as a tension builder.

I guarantee there are more. What are the things you put on the chopping block in your final draft?


Saturday, May 6, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2 Spoiler Free Review

Short version: I enjoyed it. Can't say I loved it, but it was fun and worth the price of admission. The special effects are amazing and worth seeing on a big screen. Volume 2 was the perfect subtitle because it felt like the second TPB of a comic.

It lost points with me because...

1. The core plot was a little too paint by numbers. Though it was a well told story with lots of Easter eggs, cool themes and character moments, you knew where it was going by the end of the first act.

Recognizing the familiar plot formula was kind of a bummer. Like I didn't want to see it, but there it was. An otherwise awesome roller coaster ride kept coming to a screeching halt when they had to check the next box off the textbook plot point list.

2. Much of the humor felt forced, mostly due to weird timing. This is the gripe I usually have about the Thor movies. So many laugh lines were so out of place and dropped at such inappropriate times they were more distracting than funny.

In the first film, the humor was a natural part of the action. James Gunn went for whimsical, and succeeded, but still delivered a real story you could immerse yourself in. It was surreal and alien, and still somehow grounded and believable.

In this one, a lot of the jokes feel more like gags, just not as natural. Though it does have the greatest Stan Lee cameo to date.

I am looking forward to Vol. 3, though. I'd happily watch the movie again because if nothing else, it really is a lot of fun.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

How to keep up with my work

Just a quick update on where I am at with my projects and where you can follow me for updates.

New Goodreads Author Page: https://www.goodreads.com/LRStahlberg

New Facebook Author Page: https://www.facebook.com/LRStahlberg/

And of course, to buy my current novellas... https://amazon.com/author/lrstahlberg

Remember, every time you post a review, an angel gets their wings.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Captain America 3 / Iron Man 4 / Avengers 3 Review

Whether you are looking for big epic fights, lots of fanboy geek-out moments, exciting action, a tense thriller, Marvel's trademark humor, or a more serious examination of superheroes in a real world setting, Captain America: Civil War delivers on all counts.

That might sound like the movie was trying to be too many things at once, but the Russo brothers pull it off. Every element gels. I was entertained from beginning to end.

I can't gush to the extreme of Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy, though. I can't call it my new favorite Marvel movie. I loved it. I'll see it again. I'll own the Blu-ray. But it lacked... something that I couldn't put my finger on for a couple days.

I finally realized the problem was that unlike those best of the best Marvel installments, this one felt structured. It suffered a bit from having most of the story beats that audiences have come to expect from lesser films. You could feel Act 1 ending and Act 2 beginning and trace how it all comes together.

It's biggest sin was that it gave away what was supposed to be the huge plot twist at the end of the movie with Tony Stark's opening scene. That plot twist was not delivered very well either. It essentially pinned the villain's entire master plan to a major plot contrivance that was hard for me to get past. Like with Age of Ultron, the How It Should Have Ended writes itself.

But with so many awesome fights and great scenes that run the spectrum from funny to touching to gripping, it was hard to care about its shortcomings.

Black Panther walked off the page and came to life on the screen. The scenes with Vision and Wanda were both a treat for old school fans and an intriguing element that newer fans who only know about the movies might not have seen coming. Ant-Man's part in the big airport fight was one awesome cheer worthy moment after another.

All of the focus is naturally on the heroes fighting each other, but even the opening scenes surrounding the Avengers chasing down Crossbones grabbed the audience right out of the gate, and set the tone beautifully.

Woven through all that escapism, the drama behind why the rift in the team forms is compelling. Unlike the pitiful comic of the same name, this story is an incredible look at what it would really mean to be a super powered vigilante in a real world with real politics and real consequences. Everyone's motivations make sense and makes the audience think.

Yet it doesn't sacrifice any of the fantasy or fun that makes the superhero genre great. The plot is not just an excuse of make the characters duke it out just to see who would win. At no point do you stop liking any of the characters or forget why you are rooting for... well everyone.

Spider-Man was the stand out star of the big airport battle. He and Ant-Man were there to lighten the tone and they succeeded.

Peter Parker was in some ways a departure from past films, and even the comics to a degree. Tom Holland's portrayal focuses a bit more on the awkward kid angle than his predecessors. But that's not a bad thing. The spirit of the character was a spot on modern take of a shy nerd with a sense of humor and a big heart who suddenly gets awesome super powers.

Seriously, they could have sold advance tickets to Spider-Man's next solo movie in the lobby on the way out and it would have broken box office records.

Bottom line: It doesn't dethrone my top favorite Marvel movies, but it makes a fine addition to the top 5. Go see it. Especially if you are a producer for Warner Brothers. THIS is how you make a superhero movie that normal people outside of hardcore comics fanboys want to see.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

My Take On Star Wars Ep VII

As the hype for Star Wars grew, I couldn't help but think back to the final line of Fanboys. After our heroes' hilarious journey surrounding the release of Episode I, they finally arrive in the theater opening night and one of them dares to ask, "What if it sucks?"

Experience has taught me to always keep my expectations low with any big anticipated movie. Letting your inner geek get too excited only makes the letdown that much harder.

With Force Awakens, though, I just couldn't help myself. The property was free of that hack Lucas. It was being done by a company that understands action adventure, directed by a man who clearly loved the Star Wars universe as much as we did. Despite my best attempts, my hopes were high.

And I was not disappointed. I can't gush over it like I have been prone to do with some films of recent years, but unlike the haters on social media, I have no problem enjoying a fun movie even if it has a few warts.

The short version: 4 out of 5 stars.

Well played action sequences, music and scenery that made you feel part of a galaxy far away, engaging characters... and despite following the exact same plot outline as the original movie, the story was delivered with enough of a unique spin and cool twists that I can forgive them. For the most part it was solidly written and well acted. I didn't feel the need to dumb myself down to enjoy the ride. I am really looking forward to seeing how this new saga develops.

The Force was with JJ Abrams and crew. From the bottom of my inner child's heart, thank you.

Now for the long version, as seen through the lens of a writer who can't help but dwell on story structure and characterization. And as a lifelong fan.

Oh yeah... SPOILER WARNING, for what it's worth. Though I figure anyone who wants to see the movie has by now.

Lets get the problems out of the way first. I want to talk about the good stuff, but bear with me while I vent a little.

Apparently there is such a thing as too much nostalgia. My biggest gripe was that they had to follow the plot of A New Hope point for point. I get that Disney wanted to wipe the prequels from our collective conscience. I get the appeal of filming a love letter to the originals. But I was tugged out of the story a few too many times when they beat you over the head with deja vu.

Some of the callbacks were well done. Calling the Falcon garbage at first glance. Dropping the line "I have a bad feeling about this." C3PO interrupting Han and Leia just as they are having a moment. Han asking if the base had a trash compactor. Those were well timed tension breakers.

But come ON. It opens with a spy giving the film's MacGuffin to a cute little droid. The droid then wanders a desert full of scavengers in search of a reluctant hero with a destiny to bring him to the good guys by way of the criminal underworld, with the help of a man of questionable morality but a heart of gold who turns out to really just be in it for the girl. Said anti-hero tries to bail, but returns to save the day. The conflict builds to a battle with a huge superweapon that they have to destroy by flying through a trench before it wipes them all out.

sigh.

I pray to the sci-fi entertainment gods that Disney got it out of their system with this film and run with a more original script in future installments.

Though not part of the carbon-copy plot syndrome, the biggest moment that I had trouble pushing myself past was when Finn and Rey were trying to escape Jakku, and the Millennium Falcon just happened to be right there.

Now, there was an underlying sense that Han knew exactly who Rey was, not the least of which was the fact that she knew everything about that antique ship like she'd grown up flying it.

So it's entirely possible that it will be revealed in the next movie that Han's whole claim about the Falcon being stolen was just a cover story, and that it was left there on purpose. I kind of hope that's the case because if not, it was just way too silly of a convenience. Or maybe it was Luke orchestrating events from afar. I'd buy that. Give me some attempt to justify it. The audience can only be expected to fall back on the Force as a plot device so much.

A few scenes later, another immersion breaking moment came when no one thought it might be a bad idea to bring the very distinctive BB-8 droid that the First Order was hellbent to capture into a literal den of thieves. Not very sound judgement coming from a career criminal. Granted, there was a throwaway line where Han figured they were being tracked anyway, but why increase your odds of the First Order finding you that much more? It was an awkward stretch of logic to buy.

Also during this part of the film, Finn suddenly changes his mind about wanting to not be one of the bad guys anymore and declares he's leaving. This was just one of the times that made me wonder if I liked Finn or not. He'd JUST given Rey a spiel about doing the right thing. But then much later in the story, he basically admits that he's only there because he has the hots for Rey. His motivations are too scattered at times, which I couldn't help but see as Hollywood Mentality mucking him up. I could just hear them in the writer's room. "No no no. He has to refuse the call of the hero's journey first!"

I am so damn torn on Kylo Ren.

First he freezes a blaster bolt in mid-air and casually waltzes around it. After several scenes establishing that Chewbacca's bowcaster packs the punch of a grenade launcher, Ren takes a shot to the chest and shrugs it off. He rips thoughts from people's minds with abandon. He's ruthless. He's savage. For 3/4 of the film, he's scary as hell.

Then he takes his mask off in front of Rey.

Instantly this insane mind crushingly powerful badass devolves into an emo kid. His whole monologue with Rey in the interrogation chamber came across way too weak. He had a lot of his grandfather in him, alright. Ugh.

Soon after, when he faced his father in the most pivotal moment of the film, I didn't know whether to hope for his redemption, root for him to complete his turn to the Dark Side, or push him off the damn bridge.

My opinion of him hinges on what they do with him in the rest of the trilogy. He BETTER NOT be turned back to the Light. If he does not develop into a full-on unabashed, unapologetic, unsympathetic evil villain, then he'll be remembered as nothing but a pussy.

And don't try to write him like Vader either. Kylo Ren needs to become the Joffrey Baratheon of the Star Wars universe.

If killing his father gives him permission to put on big boy pants, then even his whining and tantrums in this first movie has a chance to be remembered as solid characterization. So long as they don't ever try to sell him as stoic.

See, that was the biggest problem with the portrayal of Anakin Skywalker. I just could not see that whiny bitchface being seen as a war hero, or turning into this paragon of fear that we met in the original trilogy. It was way too inconsistent.

Captain Phasma was kind of disappointing, though that was more a failure of marketing than of the movie itself. She was billed as one of the big villains, but ended up being kind of a joke. I really hope they redeem her in the next movie. I demand a vibroblade throwdown between her and Finn at some point.

Anyway, that's it. Too much fan service, and a couple scenes of iffy writing. And Kylo Ren, but with a big asterisk on him because I still liked him. There were a few other moments of plot contrivance that were so easy to ignore I have trouble recalling them. It was not a perfect film. But neither were any of the original films.

And just like the original films, there was SO much to love.

Like Rey! If I am ever blessed with an opportunity to write a novel in the Star Wars universe, I am going to have so much fun with her. I loved the way they unfolded the mystery surrounding her origins. Her vision, the way she knew the Falcon inside and out, the way her powers and training slowly came back to her.

She clearly has her own issues with how to channel her powers, too. She radiated frustration that bordered on anger almost every time she showed her Jedi side. Big warning bell, and great material for her training arc in the sequel.

The reigning theory is that she'll turn out to be Luke's daughter. That's actually pretty likely, but I don't just assume it. If you look only at what was said and shown on screen, you don't know the full story. She is easily the most intriguing character.

While a little torn on Finn, I lean toward liking him, too. There's a lot of unfair hate out there on the interwebs surrounding him that I just don't get. Here's a kid who was taken from his family and psychologically reprogrammed to be a drone. But when faced with an order to kill innocent civilians, he breaks his programming and defects. How is that not compelling?

Despite being just a grunt, we see him pick up and wield a lightsaber, which is a bit mind blowing if you think about it. Sure he loses to Kylo Ren, but the fact that he could beat that other stormtrooper in melee combat with a weapon so dangerous that only Jedi dare to wield it was enough to establish the kid's battlefield cred.

The revelation that he was assigned to sanitation at one point in his career was kind of unfortunate. While it was funny, and set up the trash compactor joke, it also made haters go "OMG he was a janitor LOLZ." Well that janitor went toe to toe with a trained Dark Jedi so there's clearly more to him than comic relief.

And who can complain about a movie where Han Solo had such a HUGE part? Even after seeing it countless times in commercials, the line "Chewie, we're home" gave me chills. Harrison Ford slipped into that character as easily as if he'd just played him last year, not three decades ago. His presence on the screen was what really made fans feel nostalgic. And he finally got to give the character the ending he always wanted. Can't get more poetic than that.

Chewie's scenes were gold. Leia had some very poignant moments. Even Luke's thirty seconds with no dialogue made for an epic ending.

What I loved most was that Abrams presented a story about a very large and diverse galaxy. Jedi were just one aspect of it. The core aspect, but only a part of a larger story. One huge failing of the prequels was how much the Jedi dominated the plot to the point of suffocating it. In role playing terms, every archetype had a part to play in this adventure. It was a relatable story that focused on  regular people fighting for their place in a very real universe where the Force was the stuff of myth and legend. A true space opera fantasy.

Don't let the haters get you down. Go see it (again)!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

My Fall TV Season Recap

It's a little surreal to think about times where television really lived up to the name boob tube. No one understood genre entertainment. The idea of superheroes was laughable. Truly imaginative and entertaining writing was few and far between. Then reality TV saturated the airwaves.

Now I have more choices than I have time to watch, or space on my DVR to hold.

Legends

This hard boiled spy thriller on TNT is phenomenal. The premise: Sean Bean plays a deep cover agent who has been in the field so long under so many aliases he has trouble remembering who he is. The hook is insanely complex and intriguing, without falling into the usual trap of getting too complicated for it's own good. And of course, Bean delivers a top notch performance.

Agent X

An action adventure of a somewhat more lighthearted James Bond flavor. It reminds me of Human Target in its tone and style (GOD I miss that show). Probably because both are based on comic books.

I'm not sure what TNT is doing to attract so much top card movie talent to it's shows, but it's working. James Earl freakin Jones is in it. Sharon Stone is the Vice President of the United States, who finds herself in charge of an agent so covert that the President nor any of the 3 letter agencies know about him. Gerald McRaney plays Agent X's handler, my favorite character so far. Overall, surprisingly hip.


Agents of SHIELD

I hated this one when it first started. Like, a lot. They finally figured out what to do with it midway through the first season, and now it's become one of my favorites.

It's still not really the show that I wanted, but the stories are exciting and the characters are engaging.

Coulson lost some of that Dobie Gillis quality without losing what fans fell in love with about him. Fitz and Simmons aren't nearly so one-note. Ward is waaaay better as a villain than he was as Agent Roboto. Bobbie was an awesome addition from the start. May is... well she was the one gem from the beginning so she's still awesome.

I even like Skye now, err... Dais--- no I can't bring myself to say her new stupid name. What were they thinking when they named her that? She's cool now, though.

Blindspot

NBC snagged both of the leads from Strike Back and wisely put them in their prime time lineup. Unfortunately The Player didn't stay on my to-watch list for long, but Blindspot keeps me coming back.

I'm always leery of shows like this. The premise sounds gimmicky and formulaic at first blush. A woman (Jamie Alexander) shows up one day with a bunch of cryptic tattoos all over her body, and complete amnesia. In the hands of less talented writers, this would get real boring, real fast. But they've built it into a cool mystery with lots of political intrigue and interesting character dynamics.

The Blacklist

Speaking of shows that sounded gimmicky when I first heard the concept. I cannot gush about this series enough. How it's managed to stay fresh through 3 seasons is nothing short of brilliant. Raymond Redington is a shoe-in for the TV villain Hall of Fame right up there next to Boyd Crowder. And the evolution of Elizabeth Keen from lost babe in the woods (pun intended) to badass fugitive is a work of art.

Fargo

Hands down the most bizarre crime drama I've ever seen. You will not find anything like it anywhere else. You have to love the Cohen style of storytelling, of course. It does get slow by some people's standards. But the plot and characters are so surreal you can't look away no matter how long the scene. You absolutely cannot predict where this story will go. But despite the insane quality of it all, it feels so damn real you can't help get hooked.

Sleepy Hollow

This show almost lost me last season. It was like the writers read all the wrong reviews and forgot what fans really liked about it. The  historical angles got ham handed and silly. The comedy got cheesy. This season definitely got back on track. I'm glad they found a way to keep it going without retreading the same material.

Supergirl

And now for something completely different, my first guilty pleasure of the season. The plot holes are glaring. The formula is frightening. The acting is fairly mediocre. Some of the characters are more caricatures than people. But dammit it's so charming I can't bring myself to delete it from the schedule. I watch it with the same approach as I did with Once Upon A Time (which I gave up on, but I heard got good again, so I might have to give it another shot).

Gotham

I feel compelled to file this one under guilty pleasure, too. The plot can get, well let's be polite and say thin. The writing suffers from a lot of unexplainable convenience and questionable leaps in logic. But it makes up for it with the characters, especially the villains. Penguin stole the show last season. "The Joker" just ate up the screen this season. Ed Nygma is getting his well deserved spotlight. And I can't believe they made me like Barbara Kean. She was worthless first season, but making her a villain was a very smart move. Not that the good guys are just background mannequins. The show is a case study in how good characters can make up for a lot.


Arrow and The Flash

I list them together because they more or two sides of pretty much the same show. Arrow may have started out trying to be a lot grittier, but it's not so much anymore. Flash remains more whimsical science fantasy. Both remind me of the comics of the Bronze Age. And they really REALLY have me looking forward to Legends of Tomorrow.


Saturday, May 30, 2015

What I've Been Up To Omnibus

Man I am terrible at self-marketing. My last post was in October. Lazy bums like me are why God created agents.

How bout I start with the current stuff and work my way backward.

Inkwash by Rudy Vasquez: http://rudyvasquez.deviantart.com/

Yo Joe!

When Amazon unveiled Kindleworlds, I was excited. Until I got a look at their initial offerings. They started with comics I was only vaguely familiar with and a few CW shows I had no interest in at all (because the good ones like Supernatural already had licensing deals). So I yawned and moved on.

Then they added G.I. Joe to the list!

I've talked a lot about my big creative influences: superhero comics, pulps, and urban fantasy and sci-fi, genre TV, and of course, Star Wars.

But a big one I have yet to mention is G.I. Joe. I was 11 years old when I saw my very first issue of the comic, back in the days when comics were on spinner racks in drug stores; G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #2. I somehow missed issue 1, but I didn't care. Larry Hama spun an awesome tale of a squad of four insanely unique soldiers on a mission in the arctic. I read that issue more times over than the rest of my collection combined. I would go on to collect the series up to around issue 50 or so, and the entire run of G.I. Joe: Special Missions.

I also collected most of the Hasbro action figures and a bunch of the vehicles. I even watched the cartoon even though I was like 7 years older than the intended audience. I can't hear the phrase "Now you know," without being compelled to finish it with, "And knowing is half the battle". I would draw stick figure panoramic comics of G.I. Joe vs Cobra in school. I followed the comic off and on when it kind of meandered toward the end of the Marvel run, and during the spotty DDP years (a few of those runs were really good), and Chuck Dixon's and Mike Costa's re-imagined take on the Joe universe when IDW rebooted the franchise.

While Costa's Cobra series was a lot grittier and hardcore -- and certainly has a lot to like -- Dixon's G.I. Joe run blended all of my favorite elements of Hama's original vision with a modern, more grounded military flavor. He even took stuff from the cartoon and made it work for mature readers. Now that's talent.

So needless to say, I was stoked at the idea of getting to play in that sandbox. I am pleased with the result, if I don't say so myself.

As regular readers of this blog might guess, my first installment, Bait & Switch, is heavily influenced by the Stony Man novels. It stands alone, but it is also meant to fit into a full length novel. The story follows a squad of Joes on what starts as an investigation into a smuggling operations in Barcelona, Spain, then on a raid on Extensive Enterprises in Paris, France. Lots of firefights, high tech hardware, espionage and intrigue. Oh and ninjas. Duh!

How soon I get part 2 done depends on how well this one does. It's only around a hundred Kindle pages for $1.99. So it'll be a quick, fun read if you're a fan of action adventures.

What's Old Is New Again

Those who already know me may remember a couple anthologies that came out a couple years ago. My first novellas appeared in Supernatural West and Modern Gods II from Metahuman Press. Since my contract allowed me to release those books as standalone works after a year with them, that's exactly what I did. As with Codename: Orchid, I would love to continue each of these into their own series.

First up is a historical fantasy, set in the post-Civil War New Mexico Territories. You know all those tiny little ghost towns scattered out in the desert? The ones that were set up by miners thinking they would strike it rich, then abandoned and left to rot like they never existed. The kind of town that was so remote that if zombies attacked, no one would ever know.

This is the story about what happened to one of those towns.

It's also the introduction of a man known as The Hunter. Imagine John Constantine meets Dean Winchester meets Josie Wales. And his partner/mentor, a half-blood Navajo shaman.

When I first pitched it to Metahuman Press, I confess I wasn't as jazzed about it. I wasn't sure if I could pull off a Western. Honestly I was just hedging my bets on an open call trying to get a short story gig and figured, hey why not it's worth a shot.

But I ended up having more fun with it than I first thought. And I became fascinated with the idea of and Old West setting for a supernatural fantasy. It's a unique era that is far enough removed from the days of the Brothers Grimm and faerie folklore and the Salem trials that characters would have no frame of reference, but long before half the tropes that we are so used to seeing in urban fantasy today were even written. No one in that time would have any idea what a werewolf or a vampire or a zombie was. Magic was pure superstition and demons were abstract concepts they heard about in church.

Please spread the word so I can sell lots of copies of this one. I want to do more with it!

Next up is a crime drama that turns into a modern day fantasy rooted in Greek Mythology. It's primarily urban fantasy, but with a decidedly superhero flair.

On one side you've got the story of our hero, Jarett Reese; an art thief and con artist who was caught by the FBI and forced to take down his former boss, the feared matriarch of the Greek mob. If that wasn't enough for him to deal with, he's been targeted by a hitman and his sister got mixed up with the Serbian mob.

On the other side you've got a story about two immortal wizards trying to kill each other over an ancient spellbook.

The stories collide when a rampaging minotaur interrupts Reese's botched heist.

Read it. You'll thank me. And you'll motivate me to give you more Olympus Wars tales.

On A Personal Note

I'll be honest. I've spent the better part of the last five years or so in a pretty dark place. After Haven went under, I wasn't the same for a long time.

Around the time of my last post, I was in the midst of the process of returning to a sense of being myself. The first step was actually two years ago, when I got out of the Hillbilly Hilton and bought a condo. Then I was able to finally be rid of my junker car. Then I decided to try dating again.

In December I met Vanna Maria. I was not looking for anything serious. I never imagined that I would find the woman who I would want to spend the rest of my life with, but that's what happened. It's hard to explain that feeling when soulmates finally meet.

So I feel bad for not blogging in so long. It was neat seeing traffic start to build for awhile there. But I've been a little... distracted.

Monday, October 13, 2014

To Cuss or Not To Cuss

People who know me, or follow my Facebook or Twitter feeds know that I am a foul mouthed son of a bitch. I was raised in a working middle class blue collar neighborhood in the 1970's. I knew just about every racial epithet and swear word there was by age ten. I learned the rest when I went to college. Every job I have had in my adult life since has been shared with people who casually breathe out expletives roughly every third sentence without thinking about it or caring.

Profanity in books or movies does not throw or shock me in any way. The F-word is so deeply rooted in my vocabulary it's essentially filler. A synonym for "very". Like Smurf. It's an incredibly versatile word. It can be a verb or an adjective. Even a noun. It can be used to convey anger or humor.

One of the more memorable scenes in The Wire was when McNulty and Bunk were looking around a crime scene. The only word of dialogue for the whole scene was a single four letter word, uttered in a various tones to express surprise, suspicion, amusement, dismay, shock, worry, or even just "Hey look here." It was hysterical.

And so, in the crime novel I am working on, I'm up to 48 F bombs and 78 variations of feces. I even drop the dreaded N word. Twice. Two and a half if you count the time someone started to say it and was shot before he could finish it. Earlier drafts have an even higher curse per word count ratio.

I feel compelled to go on a sidebar here, which might put my opinion into context.

I despise political correctness. I loathe the compulsion that society has instilled in me to hesitate to speak freely with every fiber of my being. Especially in fiction, the words are being spoken by characters. When it's something a person would say... say it!

I just saw a great example. The TV series Spenser: Fore Hire finally came out on DVD. It was one of my favorite shows of all time, and a heavy influence on me creatively.

So anyway, there is a scene at the end of the pilot episode where a mob boss is threatening to kill Spenser. More accurately, order his enforcer kill him. At this point, Hawk betrays his employer and refuses to kill Spenser. So the big man turns to another guy in the room with them and orders him to do it. Hawk warns him not to.

Robert Urich (right) as Spenser, Avery Brooks ...At which point the mob boss blurts out, "You don't take orders from this ni**#r!"

I am sure the reaction to this in 1985 was "WOAH!!" If that happened on network TV today, the show and all its sponsors would be subject to death threats.

But... it's exactly what the guy would say. Take a small minded racist asshole, no matter how big time he thinks of himself, get him angry enough and that's what he'd say. To even call the line "unnecessary" is asinine. There is literally no other thing that that character in that situation would say. Not to mention the line was immediately followed by one of Robert Urich and Avery Brook's classic witty exchanges that managed to make a mockery out of said racism and move on with the story without going all social justice warrior on the audience. It reminded me why I loved that show so much.

I wonder if a publisher would allow a white author to write such a scene in 2014. I am braced for the possibility of having to rewrite my own scenes once I finish and get it into an editor or agent's hands, regardless of how accurate the context is, because it might be seen as too provocative. Even though it's not meant to be. It's just meant to be realistic.

It sucks.

But as I am wont to do, I digress...

Despite the fact that frequent use of foul language among, lets say, less refined segments of our population is the only way dialogue sounds natural to my ears... I am also aware that there are touchy feely pantywaists who feel compelled to brand books with 1-star reviews on account of what they feel is excessive language.

Okay, okay. Not everyone who takes exception to so-called "bad" language is that bad. I do not understand where they are coming from. Like at all. But I don't necessarily fault them. I take great exception to the kind of troll who 1-stars a book on those grounds, though. I hate the assumption made in such reviews that the writer is just trying to be provocative or shocking or pretending to be edgy. It's completely believable natural sounding dialogue in the setting of most crime dramas. It's how people speak.

Either way, enough people who pay to be entertained don't like it for whatever reason. Whether I agree with them or not, there are enough of them to make me care.

Thus I am torn.

On one hand, I want to sell books. I want as wide of an audience as I can get. Although it's violent crime fiction, I throw in a couple characters and a number of moments that I think will appeal to female readers, too. Though it seems women are the most sensitive to the language "issue".

And it's not like I feel compelled to force swear words in to seem authentic. Trust me. I am well enough versed in gutter speak that I don't need to fake it. I am always aware of who the speaker is, and the situation they are in. I recognize when swearing is just padding that real people would not actually use in daily conversation just to seem edgy (e.g. True Blood).

That said, I have met women who speak like Debra Morgan in real life (from Dexter, for the few of you might not get the reference -- and if you don't, rent it dammit!).

Example... One scene that made me stop and wonder if I'm going overboard was a greeting between two friends. They come from a world where busting each other's balls is just what good friends do. It's a sign of respect. It means that they like you enough to mess with you and have enough faith in you that you'll take the joke as the spirit it was given.

The response I wrote was: “Man, f*#& you,” he laughed and greeted me with a fist bump.

Sometimes when I hit lines like that, I get all hung up and wonder if I should edit it. I hear the outraged voices of the Oversensitive Class in my mind. I can see the comment threads already.

But ya know what... I'm sorry but if you are offended by lines like that, then I can't imagine you're a fan of crime fiction anyway. Writing any other response sounds completely unnatural to me. It feels fake. Wrong. That right there is a common greeting ritual among guys.

When it fits, it fits. The best argument in favor of profanity in crime fiction was from The Crime Factory blog. The takeaway quote: "Cuss words won’t make a crappy hardboiled story better, but removing them from a great story can destroy it."

But then there's this guy's point of view. No matter how justifiable the use of profanity, a lot of people have some oddly calibrated moral compasses. They won't blink at all the people getting shot in my story, but they'll freak out over allegedly inappropriate language. And those people have the power of 1-star reviews. Or even if they don't exercise such trollish behavior, they will be turned off by a story that they might otherwise like if they didn't have this hangup. I'm still losing audience members.

No-profanityYes, I still dismiss their deeply held personal feelings as a hangup. Because it's weird. I've never understood it and I never will. Sorry.

I guess maybe this is an example of what my buddy Sean Taylor meant by writing for the market vs writing for art. And the circle keeps spinning.

There are times when I will agree profanity is not "needed". In other genres especially, I commonly fall back on sentences like "She swore under her breath" or "He bit out a curse." Or I'll go with the euphemism if it doesn't sound corny. 

But when it is needed because the absence of it would make dialogue so watered down to the point that it sounds wrong... Screw it.

I am sincerely curious what y'all have to say on the subject, too.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Writer Says Knock You Out

Okay so... there's this trope of novels and film that's been the topic of discussion lately. Modern readers are getting increasingly savvy to myths of the knockout blow. I'm thinking its mostly due to the rising concern over concussions in boxing and American football, but honestly even before then, it was starting to bug me a little, too.

All of the focus on popular media is on the long term medical effects. But as a writer, I am more interested in the short term immediate effects, so I can create great scenes.

There's two aspects to the debate. One is that it isn't anywhere near as easy to knock someone out as it looks on television. The other is that if you hit a guy so hard that you cause him to lose consciousness, you could potentially kill him.

Well meaning know it alls who want to show the world how much they care about the issue of concussions are quick to glom onto the latter point especially. But they take it too far. To hear them talk, writers should stop knocking characters out entirely. It's akin to trying to kill them. Feh.

On one hand, both points are valid -- to an extent. It isn't as easy to knock a grown man unconscious as TV and movies make it look. And yes, it is potentially lethal, with a high likelihood of long terms effects without medical treatment.

On the other hand, I've seen enough MMA and boxing fights (and more recently researched the subject) to know that it's not really all that hard if you know what you are doing. As always, the truth of the matter is somewhere in the middle.

So as a writer who wants to appeal to modern audiences, you may want to check yourself before using the knockout as a plot device too frivolously. Assuming your goal is to present a believable scenario, you don't want to yank your  audience out of the story.

But it's a convention of action dramas. It's one of those things that most readers will still accept, so long as you make some effort to present it realistically. So don't be too afraid to use it either. I'm a nitpicker from way back, and I'll still do it when the story calls for it.

So amid all the misinformation I've come across from people trying to sound enlightened, here's my 2 cents on the subject.

First let's talk about the mechanics of what's actually happening. If you are simply punching a guy, or clubbing them with a tire iron or a blackjack or something, what you are actually doing is hitting them hard enough to jar their head so suddenly that their brain slams against the inside of their skull. In other words yes, you are giving them a concussion.

So there's a moral component. Kinda. I say kinda because typically the kind of person who would do such a thing isn't thinking in those terms. They are either dumbass criminals who just want to get away, or take someone out without making a lot of noise. Or they just want to stop the bad guy from doing whatever life threatening thing he's doing, but they are either unarmed or not capable of killing.

Still, it's something to consider. IF your character knew that that's what they were doing to their opponent, would they care? Would it cause them to hesitate? Would it cause them to go for a "less violent" approach, if they even have the time or the wherewithal to think of one.

One increasingly popular method is the chokehold. No violent striking, so no chance of a concussion. Depriving the brain of oxygen would definitely do it. But again, if the character is not trained in how to apply it properly, it either will not work... or they could kill the person in the attempt. People HAVE died from attempted chokeholds. It's why the police don't allow them to subdue suspects.

But regardless of the approach, and disregarding long term effects and moral implications, how long will they lose consciousness?

One huge gaff in this era of savvy reading audiences is to have your character remain unconscious for the remainder of any given scene, usually as a way to remove them from some key plot point.

Don't do this. Seriously.

The scientific answer to how long a victim would remain unconscious from a concussion or blood loss is: It depends. There is no hard and fast rule, and no studies have been done for obvious reasons. I can only go by anecdotal evidence from watching fights and what fighters claim.

Most get up within just a few seconds. The average seems to be more like 20-30 seconds. I've heard enough claims of up to a full minute to believe it.

But from what I can tell, if a guy is still out after sixty seconds, he is in need of serious and immediate medical treatment or he could die. There are stories of waking up hours to days later, but every one of them wakes up in a hospital room.

I could not find any reliable reports, but I am pretty sure that the odds are FAR greater of waking up within a minute of getting knocked out than of death. Have that happen to you enough times over the course of many years and you may have trouble speaking clearly or recalling your name on demand, but you'll be alive.

And fighters know this. In real world self defense, free of police regulations, it is a completely valid tactic to try to end a fight quickly by rendering your opponent unconscious. If you are unsure of your odds of winning a stand up fight, and you are in legitimate fear of your life, or driven by whatever fill-in-the-blank life or death dilemma that fuels good pulp dramas, then by all means knock the bastard out.

But how easy is that to accomplish?

Well ironically, hitting someone on the back of the head is the least likely way to knock someone out. At least in the way it's normally portrayed. There's a lot of bone back there. You would have to hit a guy REALLY hard. Hard enough that you'd probably cave in their skull and kill them instead. Chances are you'll just really piss them off.

Where you want to hit is at the base of the skull, where the occipital lobe of the brain is most exposed. Trained fighters are very familiar with that spot. It does not matter how big you are. One solid hit there is lights out. The same ideas above about the length of unconsciousness and risk of long term injury still applies, thus MMA's strict rules against strikes to the back of the head. But it is the preferred method in urban self defense when possible.

The neck is another funny overused trope. The "judo chop" made famous by Captain Kirk and Austin Powers. Beyond the fact that Judo is a grappling and throwing art, hence no "chopping", it looks too silly to be believable because it is. Granted, cutting off the flow of the carotid artery is a completely valid way of rendering someone unconscious. It's been done many times. Accidentally more often than not. You've got to have fairly mad ninja skills to hit that spot with the right force at the right angle on purpose.

The neck muscles are usually too thick when striking the neck from behind or the side, too. It'd hurt like all hell, but it probably won't put them to sleep. You'd have better luck with a strike like that from the front. But that may require more focus than your average street brawler can muster.

Same with the well known "sweet spot" of the jaw. What technically happens there is similar to what I described above. The head whipsaws, but what gets actually gets hit in that scenario is a cluster of nerves below the ear which destroys your equilibrium. You never actually lose consciousness. You are messed up and wish you were pleasantly asleep, but you are aware of your surroundings beyond the deafening throb of blood in your ears. You will very likely stand up inside of ten seconds if determined enough.

Until you take one or two more shots like that.

But a well placed uppercut under the jaw... much more effective if the goal is unconsciousness.

Sidebar: It's always amazed me how infrequently the loser of a fight is described as simply unable to keep his wits about him to get up. A lot of times an opponent could legitimately lose the desire to keep fighting. They are knocked for a loop, but not out. In the famous words of Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.

You can accomplish taking an opponent out long enough to escape any number of ways. Knock the wind out of them, gut punches, blows to the kidney or liver. Repeated kicks to the legs work, too, outside of a boxing ring. The ankle can only take so much. Hamstring shots are especially painful.

Another sidebar: The reason fighters often have thick necks is because they work on those muscles specifically to be able to take a punch to the head.

Of course you can always kick 'em in the junk. Again, they probably won't fall unconscious. But you won the fight.

So there you go. Just be aware that a growing portion of today's readers have grown vigilant of this particular trope.

It can still be done, but try not to overdo it. And do your best to avoid judo chops.