Monday, February 28, 2011

Deniz Bevan

Morning all. I've got an important correspondence I have to work on today, so I don't have time to write a real blog post.

Instead I'm going to ask you to check out Deniz Bevan. She's a blogger I recently met who had some excellent analysis of Tolkien's Eagles during the Deus ex Machina post the other day. You can see her comment here. Once you've done that you should really visit her well named blog, The Girdle of Melian (which happens to be an awesome reference to Thingol's kingdom of Doriath, from the Silmarillion), and follow her.

She's awesome.

Friday, February 25, 2011


So, continuing in my series of tropes, today we are going to cover the MacGuffin, or MacGuffins, I can never remember if it's supposed to be plural.

A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or Maguffin) is "a plot element that catches the viewers' attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction." MacGuffins can also sometimes be referred to as plot coupons, or plot tickets, because it is often said that this thing is something a character can cash in for a plot resolution. The main point of the MacGuffin, especially in the beginning of the tale it is involved in, is that the major players in the story, whether they be protags or antags, will sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, assuming it is an obtainable object. In order to determine whether an item is a MacGuffin, try to decide whether it is interchangeable. From

For example, in a caper story the MacGuffin could be either the Mona Lisa or the Hope diamond, it makes no difference which. The rest of the story (i.e. it being stolen) would be exactly the same. It doesn't matter which it is, it is only necessary for the characters to want it.

Another common MacGuffin story setup can be summarized as "Quickly! We must find X before they do!"

There is a relatively famous quote from Alfred Hitchcok regarding this plot device:

"In crook stories it is almost always the necklace,
and in spy stories it is most always the papers."

Here are some well known examples from film and literature:

  • The Wonka Golden Ticket (somewhat more literal than most cases)
  • The briefcase which supposedly contains Marsellus Wallace's soul in Pulp Fiction
  • The gold watch that belonged to Butch Coolidge's father in Pulp Fiction
  • The Golden Fleece from Jason and the Argonauts (not all MacGuffins are gold)
  • The travel visas from Casablanca
  • The Green Destiny sword in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • The microprocessors in The Departed
  • Avatar is pretty shameless in it's use of the MacGuffin, going so cheesily far as to call it "unobtanium"
  • The One Ring in The Lord of The Rings
  • The Silmarilli from The Silmarillion
  • The mysterious sugar bowl in A Series of Unfortunate events
  • The apocalyptic disaster at the beginning of Cormac McCarthy's The Road (a MacGuffin because we never find out exactly what happened, and because it doesn't matter)
  • The Hallows in Harry Potter (the horcruxes would seem like they count, but they don't, because they're actually used in a way which affects the plot outcome)
  • The Maltese Falcon, from the film and novel of the same name, is probably the quintessential MacGuffin (see what I did there)

We could go on practically forever with these, and believe me, I would love to, because it's super fun, but eventually you have to move on to the next blog.

Thanks for visiting! Feel free to share some other examples in the comments. I love examples.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Red Herring

Okay, so continuing in my series on plot devices that are also known as tropes, today we will be covering the Red Herring. Hopefully this post won't be quite as long as yesterday's.

A Red Herring is pretty simple. It's a term for a clue that leads entirely in the wrong direction, and is almost always placed there intentionally by the writer. Not to mislead the reader, necessarily, but certainly to misdirect them from the truth a little, in order to keep the suspense alive. A Red Herring is a common plot device in mysteries and crime thrillers, but is not necessarily exclusive to those genres.

The term Red Herring comes from a metaphor about hunting: the originator of the metaphor wrote about how hounds chasing after a hare might be distracted from the hunt by the smell of a red herring that had been dragged across the trail.

Mother Goose also has an unrelated, but fun rhyme which uses the term:

A man in the wilderness asked this of me,
"How many strawberries grow in the sea?"
I answered him, as I thought good,
"As many red herrings as swim in the wood."

Two of the most common examples of Red Herrings are when an innocent character is purposely cast into a guilty light by the author, in order to distract from the real perpetrator, or when a false protagonist is used. A false, or decoy, protagonist is usually carried out by clever point of view usage and or narrative distance.

Probably the best example of an innocent character cast into a guilty light is The Butler from Hound of the Baskervilles. Creeping about the mansion at night, and a beard that matches the suspect's perfectly, force the reader to wonder about him very early on.

Two well known examples of false protagonists are Lord Eddard Stark in George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, and Bernard Marx, from Aldous Huxley's A Brave New World.

Just like Deus Ex Machina, it should be pointed out that a Red Herring is not necessarily a bad thing. If handled properly, it can be quite a thrilling element to storytelling. J.K. Rowling was an absolute master with this device, creating probably the most well crafted Red Herring ever written in Severus Snape.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Deus ex Machina

Okay. So I'm back from training, at least temporarily. I should hopefully be able to blog and to read blogs every day for the rest of the week. Hopefully.

Anyway, this week I want to talk about what the film and television industries refer to as tropes. My friend Adam Heine from Author's Echo introduced me to a few weeks ago. I've been fascinated by the immeasurable amount of info there ever since.

Today I want to go over the concept of Deus ex Machina. This plot device, or trope, comes from a Latin phrase that means literally, "god out of the machine." It has its origins in Greek Theatre, when apparently a primitive crane was sometimes used to lower characters playing gods onto the stage. Either way, in plots of fiction, it refers to a sudden and unexpected solution to a problem that had previously seemed unsolvable. As they put it on TVTropes:

If the secret documents are in Russian, one of the spies suddenly reveals that they learned the language. If the writers have just lost funding, a millionaire suddenly arrives, announces an interest in their movie, and offers all the finances they need to make it. If The Hero is dangling at the edge of a cliff with a villain stepping on his fingers, a flying robot suddenly appears to save him.

In other words, the writer has decided to resort to bullshit, and has pulled a solution to the problem out of his ass. This is a particularly grievous offense when it comes to the pact of trust that should exist between reader and author. If a writer uses this kind of trick, and does not do it subtly, it can completely interrupt that oh so important suspension of disbelief.

According to TVTropes there are four main types of Deus Ex Machina:
  • Total Deus Ex Machina — A plot element that didn't previously exist and has no logical explanation behind it. Let's say the hero has been pummeled to an inch of his life and the villain has regained control of his gun. The hero then finds a magical remote control under a nearby couch that allows him to pause the scene, take the gun away, and shoot the villain.
  • Illogical placement and timing Deus Ex Machina — When something is established and explained in the work, but its use in that situation is jarring and impossible to believe. Building from the example above, let's say that instead of a magical remote, the local militia bursts in and shoots the villain. Maybe it was established earlier that the militia protects the countryside, but for them to somehow divine that there is a fight going on at this isolated farm and to burst in just in time to save the day is a Deus Ex Machina.
  • Cut and paste Deus Ex Machina — When Chekhov's Gun is quick-drawn, but it's done in a clumsy way that makes one realize that the author obviously just couldn't write them out of the situation with what they have, so they went back to some earlier point and put in one or two throwaway lines to set up a victory down the road. From the example above, perhaps the hero randomly decided to put a tiny pistol in one of his pockets and just happened to forget that he had it until now.
  • Fridge Brilliance — When something seems to be a Deus Ex Machina, but really isn't. The writers were just a bit too clever for their own good. To build from the above, let's say that in some early scene the hero intentionally rigged his gun to blow up should it ever be fired and it both fits with his personality and seems like a logical thing he would do. It might seem like a cop-out at first, but one then remembers he's a Technical Pacifist who doesn't like guns and never wants to fire one in his life in spite of his job.
Probably one of the most famous examples of Deus ex Machina, which I hate to go into here, is J.R.R. Tolkien's use of Manwe's Eagles to rescue Frodo and Sam from the destruction of Mount Doom. I hate it because The Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite stories ever, and I don't like to think about anything that might make it less than perfect.

However, there is an interesting debate about all of this, and TVTropes has some very interesting ideas about the subject: [SPOILER ALERT]

J.R.R. Tolkien occasionally uses Giant Eagles to whisk his heroes away from danger. These aren't just at the end of Rings, but show up in The Hobbit to rescue dwarves from burning trees that are surrounded by wolves, to tip the scales in the book's great battle, and in Rings to rescue Gandalf from the roof of the Tower of Orthanc as well. Tolkien seems to have been unable to resolve the issue of characters marooned on top of high things as well as unable to resist putting them there. Whether these are a Deus Ex Machina is often debated:

  • Tolkien called them a dangerous machine that he dared not use often with credibility. He thought them a deus ex machina, though in the books he justified them better.
  • The Eagles are Manwë's messengers, so this is a arguably a legitimate case of a true Deus Ex Machina.
  • Bored of the Rings had one of them stamped with "Deus Ex Machina Airlines."
  • Common objections: The Eagles' place in Middle-Earth's greater cosmology that's All There In The Manual, Gandalf being a wizard and getting this sort of thing as a perk, defining Deus Ex Machina to play a crucial role in the quest when, in Rings, the quest was completed on the main characters' own power and getting out of Mordor alive was no part of it.
  • What's most irritating about the Giant Eagles is that they raise serious questions about the story's foundations. Possible objections: Sauron would definitely notice and set up Nazgûl interception and/or tens of thousands of Orcs on the mountain, the Eagles weren't even at the Council of Elrond, Manwë wouldn't send his eagles on a suicide mission, God thinks that defeating evil effortlessly would eventually backfire, Mount Doom is the seat of the greatest power in Middle-Earth and it's uncertain whether anyone could toss away its embodiment there willingly, the Ring corrupts the powerful so that Galadriel and Gandalf refuse to even touch it - and you want to put the thing on Gwahir the Windlord for days on end?!
  • Exactly. The Eagles are beholden to no mortal, and it was only through Gandalf being an Istari spirit closely associated with Manwe that he had any sway over them at all. Clearly just getting Gwaihir to save him from Orthanc was a huge "favor", and its obvious he wouldn't be ordering them around regularly.
  • Tolkien's own argument was that the eagles would never allow themselves to be used as taxis by other species.
  • Speaking of eagles, they're also used at least twice in The Silmarillion: when Fingon rescues Maedhros, and when Beren and Lúthien escape from Angband. Very much deus in machina since the connection between the eagles and Manwë is much more explicit in that book.
Interesting stuff! Anyway, the point is we should all try to avoid using such tropes in our writing. If it must be done, and you've written yourself into a corner, so to speak, at least go back through your work and try to weave the logic for the plot device into the narrative in a way that makes sense. If you don't, it will look like you just pulled a rabbit out of your ass.

BTW, if you, like me, have a hard time pronouncing this phrase, it's said like: Day-oos eks MAH-kin-nuh

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bernard Pivot Blogfest

Yesterday was Nicole Ducleroir's Blogfest. I couldn't make it because of my stupid day job. I'm trying to make up for that now. Please visit Nicole's blog to find all the other entrants.

What is your favorite word? Hmm. That's tough. I love so many words. My favorite changes all the time. I think my favorite right now may be perseverance.

What is your least favorite word? That's easy. Hate.

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? Mountains. And Trees. I love those two things, especially together, like a fat guy loves a chair.

What turns you off? Religion. Not so much religion in general, as people pushing religion. I read somewhere on the internet once that religion is like a penis. When you're in public, please keep it in your pants, and when you're in private, please don't try to shove it down anyone's throat.

What is your favorite curse word? Motherfucker. Nothing is more fun to say.

What sound or noise do you hate? Alarm clock. There seem to be a preponderance of TV and radio commercials that feel they have to include this sound.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Attorney. I would love to fight for justice.

What profession would you not like to do? Police Officer.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? Can I get you a drink?

I wish I could have been on time with this, but sometimes life gets in the way!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Andrew Smith Interview

Today is the big one. This is my very first interview with a rock star of a published author.

But it's not about me. Hopefully I'm just a vessel through which as many readers as possible can discover this incredibly talented and amazingly courageous storyteller. Even if I didn't know him a little, he would still be the best young adult author I know of.

Okay. It's true, I'm not going to front. I've only read one of Andrew's novels. The Marbury Lens. And there are many other awesome young adult authors out there. But none of them write stories like Andrew. I'm not going to give anything away, but I will say this: if you don't read this tragic, heroic, inspiring, poignant, twisted and disturbing tale of Jack, Con, Seth, Griff, Ben and Marbury you're fucking missing out. Big time.

*i know i don't often swear on my blog, and least not in a hardcore punk rock kind of way, but this story truly deserves it. never have i felt so sickened by and inextricably connected to a character and a narrative as i have to this book. read it. steal it if you have to. in fact, if you're a young man, and you don't have the means to get this book for yourself, send me an email*

Now. Before I go on any longer preaching about things that don't really matter let's get down to it. This is probably going to be the best post you've ever read on this blog. It's also probably going to be the longest. Deal with it. It's worth it.

NOTE: The text in the answers below is Andrew's. Any hyper-links or other shenanigans are put there by me. He's not here to sell us anything, except maybe a love of language, and reading.

EDIT: Don't forget to visit Andrew's blog, and become a follower. I can't believe I forgot to say that the first time.

The interview:

When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer, and how long did it take for that idea to blossom into authorship?

Believe it or not, writing was something I always wanted to do, ever since I was maybe about five years old. All my life I’ve written things. When I was younger, I wrote more poetry and short stories, but I also entertained the idea of one day becoming a playwright, so I have written plays, as well. I wrote novel-length stuff (science fiction and fantasy) when I was in high school, but I never seriously considered writing anything “real” until much later on in life.

How long have you been writing seriously?

Well, I’m not sure what “seriously” means. If it means to get paid for it, my first paid job as a teenager was actually writing (I was a stringer – the lowliest of all possible writing gigs) for a local newspaper. In those days, we got paid by the inch of copy. This encouraged me to write really long sentences, which some people have complained about in my first two novels, Ghost Medicine, and In the Path of Falling Objects.

What is your favorite thing about writing?

My favorite thing, of all possible “things” is making connections with readers – people whom I’ve never met – all over the world. That’s a real kick in the pants.

As far as the “process” part is concerned, I really like it when I’m working on something and it just totally consumes every thought in my head at every moment of the day… especially when I’m lying in bed trying to sleep. That part of the process is like a trip to Marbury, I guess: it puts me in another world, and I most often have no idea what to expect when I start navigating those new territories.

What is the most difficult part?

The difficult part of the external process is all the waiting, the not hearing from people like agents and editors, the wondering if I suck or not, the realization that, to everyone in my writing universe, the bottom line is that this is a business – while to me, the stuff I put out there is a force that can’t be constrained to markets and economics. That shit makes me crazy. Ask anyone who works with me, they’ll tell you – I am completely off the deep end.

Which brings me to the internal part that’s difficult: writing makes me go insane. Really. I don’t know how people put up with me at all.

What is your favorite genre to read?

I prefer realistic fiction. That said, anything that gets into sci-fi or fantasy has to hook me by getting into the internal psychology of the actors. That’s the only thing that will allow me to suspend my filters and get into something that can’t possibly be real. This is what I was trying to do with The Marbury Lens – make people say to themselves, this can’t possibly happen, right?

If you had to meet one of your characters in a dark alley who would you last want to meet, and why?

Mitch, from In the Path of Falling Objects, is a completely soulless and self-centered psychopath who has absolutely no capacity to experience compassion. He’s one terrible and frightening person.

And which character would you want there with you for protection?

For protection, Conner Kirk, from The Marbury Lens, or Tommy Buller, from Ghost Medicine. These guys are not necessarily fearless, but they’d fight to the death for their friends.

Do you stick to any kind of concrete writing schedule? If so how many hours a day do you write?

I begin every day with exercise, coffee, and writing. At 3:00 a.m. Seriously. When I’m writing something new (and, God help me, I haven’t NOT been writing something new since 2009, when I wrote Stick, which will be coming out this fall), I will write between 4 and 8 hours per day. But that writing time is all spread out between the hours of 3 in the morning and 5 in the afternoon, which is when I’ll usually quit for the day.

Do you prefer writing novels or short stories?

At the moment, I have a hard time keeping anything under novel length. So, I guess that means my preference at the moment is to write novels. I have been contracted to write a YA short story for an upcoming anthology, though.

Do you write poetry? Do you read it? Do you have a favorite poet?

This is kind of a tricky question. To be honest, the first three lines of most of the chapters in In the Path of Falling Objects are verse. There are going to be a lot of people who’ll say that parts of Stick are written in verse, too – but they are not. But people will use the “v” word about that novel.

And I think all my books have verse-like passages in them, and definitely verse-like sentences.

I am very picky about reading poetry. I do enjoy it very much, but it’s so easy to write (and publish) bad poetry. Sorry to say that. My favorite poet is Octavio Paz.

Do you outline, or is the plot all in your head? If you do outline how far you deviate from it?

Plots are generally all in my head. I know what is going to happen in the long run, but I usually don’t know every detail of the roadmap to that destination until the words come out on the page. Unfortunately, this method means that I will very often cut out thousands of words of the journey if I think a character has taken a detour that goes against the “big picture” of what I need him to do (ugh… this just happened to me yesterday in the novel I’m writing now). I keep scratch folders of all the stuff I cut out, though… and sometimes those passages will be used in other works.

The only kind of outline I keep is right at the end of what I’m writing. I’ll make a numbered list of what I want to happen. Usually that list will be about 15 points in length, and each point will only have 3 to 10 words about the “next thing” that’s going to happen.

How many novels have you written?

My fourth novel, Stick, will be published in fall 2011. I have three other completed novels sitting on my amazing editor’s desk, and I am working on my eighth novel right now, which I’m planning on finishing by April 22.

Do you have any that you’ve shelved or slipped into a drawer for good?

Only ones I wrote as a teenager. Goofing around stuff. Embarrassingly bad.

What is your biggest strength as a writer? Your biggest weakness?

I think my biggest strength is I make all deadlines my bitch. Everyone I work with knows that when they ask me to have something by a certain date, I always come through well in advance of the deadline. And what I give them is good, too.

My biggest weakness is that I take everything exceedingly personally. Everything hurts. Writing a book always feels like it’s going to kill me. One of these days, I think it really will.

Who is the best author you have only discovered in the last year?

Joe Lunievicz. Seriously. Joe contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in reading his forthcoming debut, Open Wounds. I totally love that book. It’s heroic, moving, and exciting. I can’t wait to see it in print.

I read somewhere that you coach a rugby team. How did you end up getting into that?

I was the first child in my family born in the USA (anchor baby). I spent a lot of years growing up with my family in Italy, where my cousin played rugby for a team in Trieste (hooray for Rugby Trieste). I fell in love with the sport. I also started coaching it when my kids were young and played it here in the states. I started playing more at that time, too. I still love the sport and believe it’s the greatest, most honorable sport ever created by human beings.

Are the All Blacks the greatest dynasty in that sport?

Eh… what can I say to that? I admire them tremendously. In terms of style, I like very much the way that Argentina plays the sport, and I just love to watch Ireland play, too.

I read somewhere else that you’re a fan of Cormac McCarthy. I’ve only read two of his novels so far, but I’ve never seen anything like his writing, and had no idea that simple prose English could be so beautiful. How do you feel about breaking “writing rules” and going off the deep end when it comes to formatting, grammar and punctuation?

You can only break the rules if you know them, otherwise, as my incredible managing editor and friend, Dave Barrett would say, “Sometimes a mistake is just a mistake.”

That said, I think there are some writers who are willing to experiment with their own interpretations of grammar and formatting. You will see this in my next novel, Stick, which was a very challenging book when it came to the copy-editing and set-up phase.

Do you believe novels can affect social change?

Hmm… no. I’m probably wrong, but I don’t believe they can. I don’t even think they should attempt to. I am definitely someone who bristles at prescriptive preachiness from any source. I think what novels do, though, is hold a mirror up to ourselves and society… and that sometimes they can make us aware of certain ugly blemishes which need our attention. However, the actual attention these blemishes are given is a real crapshoot, and the novel itself has nothing to do with it.

What it is like interacting directly with the young men and women who read your books and are your audience?

Well, as I said above, this is really one of the best parts of being a writer. I think that a lot of times, kids and readers in general feel a natural kind of reticence about sending a letter or email, or any other kind of communication, to an author. And I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, but it totally makes my day when I turn on the email and see I’ve got some message from a reader somewhere out there on the planet who made a connection to something I wrote.

It just doesn’t get better than that. And I answer every one I get, too.

In this day and age, the hand-written, on paper, letters are rare… but I have gotten some of those, too, and I have kept every single one of them. There really is nothing like getting a pencil-scrawled note from a kid I’ve never seen in my life, who lives a life that I’ve never had the slightest peek into, but who’s taken the time to reach out and make a connection with some guy who wrote some words that ended up in his hands and head.

And now we have a few questions from my readers:

Raquel Byrnes asked: Why did you choose the era you did for In the Path of Falling Objects? Why the Vietnam War for the brother’s setting?

Okay. A couple things about that book. First of all, and sadly enough, I’ve known a couple kids who’ve gone over to Iraq and Afghanistan for us – for the love of our country – and have sacrificed themselves. I was very small during the Vietnam War, but my eldest brother served in the Army there, and it made a lasting (and horrible) impression on me. I had horrible terrors at night, thinking I’d never see him again. So I wanted to write something about that experience, and something about brothers (there were only boys in my family) for the kids who have family members serving in the military. But I didn’t want to make the book about Afghanistan or Iraq because I don’t think we’ve all absorbed our lessons from that experience yet.

Also, the letters in the novel written between Matthew and Jonah were based very closely on the letters my own brother wrote home from Vietnam. I still have all those letters, by the way.

Marsha Sigman asked: (paraphrasing here) How long after deciding to pursue writing professionally did you manage to become published?

Well… it was a first-out-of-the-gate thing. But it’s a long story, too. I have a dear friend I went to high school with, Kelly Milner Halls, who is quite a successful author of nonfiction for young readers. Anyway, I think it was around 2004 or so, and Kelly was bugging me, saying, “Why haven’t you ever tried to publish a novel? You’re such a talented writer…” and blah, blah, blah…

So I told her, fine, that I actually was working on a novel (and I was… it was called Ghost Medicine), and that when I finished it, I’d try to get an agent and see what happens. So, I think around 2006 I started looking for an agent, and I was signed by the most incredible Laura Rennert of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. She sold the manuscript at auction, and it was published in 2008.

Keep in mind, though, that I always had plans to be a writer. I studied writing, and actually worked in what I thought I wanted to do at the time – journalism. I didn’t like the profession, though. There was something about being assigned to write obituaries or do traffic reports on the radio that I found to be very dissatisfying. So I quit those jobs and wandered around the world and through all kinds of equally unfulfilling and dissatisfying occupations. But I never stopped writing, either.

And if it wasn’t for Kelly, I’d still be writing, but only for myself and my hard drive.

I honestly never once thought about getting published or being a “professional” until Kelly dared me into it.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) asked: What is a typical day like for you as it pertains to writing?

Like I said, I start writing every day at around 3 a.m. After I write some “stuff,” I’ll go out for a run. Then, throughout the day, I’ll keep coming back to my computer from time to time and crank out more “stuff” until about 5 p.m. Sometimes, my sitting stretches into very long periods, and other times I’ll need to get out and move around.

I like to get about 1,000 to 1,500 “keeper” words per day. For me, “keeper” words have usually been written and re-written on the average of ten times. Maybe more.

Without giving too much away ... Emily White asked: What kind of world did the blue lens in The Marbury Lens lead to?

Okay… the blue lenses are mentioned just a couple times at the end of The Marbury Lens. Seth leaves them for Jack and the boys at the end, because they are going to need them in order to not get trapped in Marbury. Unfortunately, the blue lenses fuck things up really bad.

Oops. I don’t think I was supposed to say that.

Monday, February 14, 2011

J.M. Leotti Interview

It seems like this week is interview week here on The QQQE. Today I'm interviewing J.M. Leotti, and tomorrow I've got Andrew Smith. You guys remember Janice, right? She interviewed me last month. Anyway, today it's her turn, or my turn, depending on how you want to look at it.

These posts can get long, so let's just get right to it:

When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer?

I’ve been addicted to writing and painting since I was in kindergarten. I used to make books, write them and then illustrate them.

How long have you been writing seriously?

I didn’t take my writing seriously at all until I studied fiction at The Writers Studio in New York City in the late ‘90s. I was working as an assistant editor for a new company, and quit both my job and school about a year or so after the attacks of 9/11. It was a really scary time, and I remember the acrid smell of smoke during my classes. I published two short stories in literary magazines, but was unsure about the direction I wanted my life to take. I started sculpting and painting fairy subjects to make money, but continued to write novels and short stories in my spare time. I never finished them, though, and ended up with folder upon folder of unfinished writing on my desktop. A couple of years later I met up with a writing buddy I’d lost touch with, and the spark ignited again. This time, I intend to see it through.

What is your favorite thing about writing?

How words play against each other. I love the sounds of certain words like icicles and flurries and butter cream. They are notes, and sentences are measures of music. I like crafting sentences that give an image or make a sound. I love a story that leaves me thinking about it long after I’ve read it. This is something I strive for.

What is the most difficult part?

For me it’s figuring out how to pace a longer work. I tend to write everything quickly and then go back in and do surgery. Pacing, making sure scenes are balanced and interesting, that to me is tough stuff. I never know if I’m going too fast or too slow. At this stage, I have only my taste to rely on. Eventually, I’ll let others read my novel, but I would never bore them with a rough draft. Except my husband. He hears everything, poor man.

Have you completed any novels, even if only in draft form?

No. I have half of a middle grade novel that I started a couple of years ago, half a YA that I started years before that, and an adult novel that is almost complete. This is the one I’m working on now. Finally, I’m dedicated to finishing something! There will be hoopla and pilsners for all when I’m done. I’m actually looking forward to editing it. I like rewriting. I feel that’s when I construct my best sentences.

What is your favorite genre to read?

Literary fiction, fantasy and poetry. I also love books of facts, symbols and quotes. I’m a big fan of the Idiot’s Guide books. I tend to read everything, even YA and picture books. There is a lot of wisdom in some children’s literature.

If you had to meet one of your characters in a dark alley who would you last want to meet, and why?

Draven, one of my villain’s henchmen. He is completely devoid of compassion, charming and deft with a halberd—to me the deadliest of combinations.

And which character would you want there with you for protection?

Interestingly, not my main character. She is troubled and doesn’t always make the right decisions. I would have to say Pup, who is brave and loyal and has a knack for cutting through bullshit.

Do you stick to any kind of concrete writing schedule? If so how many hours a day do you write?

*She mumbles an answer into her hand.* Um, no. I’m trying to be better about that. I try to write at least one page a day in my novel. Sometimes this doesn’t happen. On my days off, though, I write a lot, sometimes ten pages or more. When I can afford it, I spend the whole day writing. I love those days, but they are few and far between. The days I don’t write at all tend to be days spent making money at other things.

Do you prefer writing novels or short stories and flash fiction?

Hard to say since I haven’t yet finished a novel. However, I’m really enjoying the process of working on something longer. To be involved in a story for over a year now has been a great joy. Flash fiction to me is the closest to poetry. Since I will probably never be a poet, I’d have to say I love flash fiction. The building of images to create a story in a short space is a fascinating process to me.

Do you outline, or is the plot all in your head? If you do outline how far you deviate from it?

I outline and change as I go. Sometimes something better comes along after the outline is done, so I just go with the flow.

What is your biggest strength as a writer? Your biggest weakness?

Not sure. I was told in writing class that I was good with dialog and description, so I’ll go with that. My weakness is getting my ass in the chair, and choosing titles for my stories. It’s just baffling to me. What the fuck do I call this thing?

Who is the best author you have only discovered in the last year?

Should I be embarrassed by this answer? Elizabeth Hand. She’s AMAZING!

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Many thanks Matthew, for this interview. It was really fun, and I love your questions. Best of luck with all your writing endeavors!

Fun Random Questions for The End (I stole this interview idea from Jen at Unedited, though I made my own questions up). Which would you rather be?

Painting a landscape or a portrait?

Portrait. My husband is a landscape painter, and I could never do what he does!

A Vampire or a Werewolf?

Vampire all the way. Who wants all that hair on their legs? Vampires are sexier. (Although I loved Oz in Buffy. He was cool.)

Drinking a nice Chianti or a smooth Merlot?

Ah! Don’t say the words ‘nice Chianti’ around me! Totally freaked out by Hannibal Lecter. Merlot, merlot, merlot!

A rich and famous author or a poor but critically acclaimed one?

I think there are a lot of spaces in between being a rich and famous author and being a good writer. Hmmm. Jonathan Franzen or JK Rowling? Both good minds, both good writers (in their own ways) neither is starving (well at least we know Rowling isn’t)... I have my fantasies like everyone else, but the reality is I have no idea if I’ve got the ‘it’ factor. I’m hoping to be good enough to make a living from writing. Paying the monthly bills on time would suffice.

Partying with some Dryads or relaxing with some Nereids?

Tough choice. I love trees, but Dryads don’t seem much like the partying type. Some are shy, can’t leave their trees, you know, rooted to the spot. Maybe I’d like to share some ‘tales of old’ with Dryads, maybe some wisdom, but for partying I might have to go with Nereids. Maybe they can get me a backstage pass to a Poseidon ball!

Reading an e-book, a hardcover, or a paperback?

You evil man. How can you make me choose? However, if I must, there is nothing like a classic hardcover.

Great answers! If you would like to know more about Janice, be sure to visit her blog, but you can also read the flash fiction piece, through which I discovered her, here at The Alchemy of Writing.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Upcoming Interview with Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith, author of In the Path of Falling Objects, Ghost Medicine, The Marbury Lens, and the upcoming novel, Stick, has agreed to be interviewed on my blog next week.  Of course I'm very excited, and I have some excellent questions for him, but I would also like to open it up to all of you. If there is something you would like to ask Andrew, please leave your question in the comments and I will try to put a few of them to him.


Half and Half

When it comes to blogging I'm pretty much half and half. Meaning that sometimes I plan ahead for posts. I even occasionally write them ahead of time, especially when I have a guest, but usually I sit down and write my posts just before I publish them.

That can be great sometimes. I wrote yesterday's post that way, and it was pretty good. I also spoke loudly and said goodbye to NB that way, and people seemed to like those thoughts. Other times though, like today, it sucks. I've essentially got nothing to say, and that's an odd feeling for a gas bag like me.

I'm thinking about the people in Egypt, and worrying about them. I'm also wondering how deluded Mubarak must be in order to convince himself that his current behavior is going to work. But I'm not going to blog about that. It's too political, too complicated, and too important of a topic.

Other than that I'm a little anxious about next week. I have to go to my company's cross town location for training for my new position, and it's going to be a pain in the ass. Especially the driving. Oh well, I really can't complain. Having a job at all in this economy is a blessing.

I've got to get more done on the re-write of my novel. So far this year I have been working on it steadily, but I've only managed probably an average of two pages per weekday. I would like to get that closer to five.

So what's up with you all? Where is your writing at? How is your life?

I've got to get to work here, but have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 10, 2011


I got an email from the marketing department the other day. My blog had apparently somehow appeared on their radar and they wanted to know whether I would be interested in offering my readers a discount by providing a link to their website. The terms were pretty vague but the gist was that they would somehow drive traffic to my blog in some nebulous way if I would put the link (and probably a nice graphic) to their site on my sidebar.

I had to think about it. I mean I have shopped there before. For guys it's actually a great place to shop for your wife or girlfriend because if you have a joint account and she notices the debit for the Shane Company website that package on the doorstep the next day suddenly won't be much of a surprise. Overstock is not bad as websites go.

But that's not the point.

I told them no thank you because the point is that's not what this blog is about. That's not what I want it to be about at least. My dream is to have this be a forum for writing. A place for writers helping writers. I know publishing is a hard industry to break into, and it often feels very exclusionary, but I truly believe that almost anyone can write a decent book if they work hard to learn the craft and never give up.

I believe that if we work together we can affect change. We can increase the number of great books being written, and therefore increase the number of great books being published. We can prove that boys and young men DO READ, and that they will buy books if we write the kind of stories they can lose themselves in. My friend Andrew Smith has already proved that bit, actually. We can show the industry that girls will buy, read and love books about magic, dragons, spaceships, and mystery not just love and high school. Not that there is anything wrong with books about love and high school. Then, just maybe, we can encourage publishers to take more chances on new writers, risk less investment up front on advances, and focus more on nourishing a novel and an author over time.

I used to be in a labor union and I can promise you that the power of solidarity cannot be dismissed.

But I'm no fool. I know I'm talking about BIG things, and this is just the stupid little blog of one dorky dad and novice writer. Everything starts somewhere.

So please do me a favor. If you're an experienced writer, or even an agented or published author, lend a hand to a writer who knows less than you today. I know most of you already do so on a daily basis, but pay it forward one more extra time for me. And if you're a less experienced writer? A novice? A journeyman? Ask someone you look up to for advice. Push through your fear, you might be surprised how helpful people can be.

The book that you improve may be one you end up reading.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Authenticity: How Much Is Too Much? Part II

Yesterday I promised to give a real world example of what I meant from my own writing. The best example I have is from my current WIP: WARRIOR-MONKS. If you aren't already a little familiar with it you can read the query above.

I'm not going to go into a whole lot of setup, but it should hopefully suffice to say that I have a character who speaks a rough version of Jamaican Patois in my novel. Jamaican Patois, also known as Jamaican Creole is an English Dialect heavily influenced by French, Spanish and several West African languages. It is very similar to, but not to be confused with, Jamaican English and Rastafari use of English.

Actually the character's accent is also influenced by Rasta Vocabulary, but that's not the point.

I've known some people in my life whose accents were quite similar, and have also been a long time fan of music like Reggae, Dancehall, Ragga-Jungle, and Dub, so I would like to think that I can write the accent with authenticity. That is also not the point.

The point is finding a balance that works for the level of realism and accuracy you as the writer want to convey while also not tripping the reader up, or drawing them out of the story. This can be an extremely difficult balance to achieve because each reader is different. Someone who is familiar with Patois or is at least curious about Jamaican or Rasta culture might be more drawn into a story with extremely accurate representation of the accents and vocabulary associated with it, but most other readers would not.

I'm now going to share a very small excerpt from my novel, giving you a clear example of what I mean. Then I will try to explain. Here is a moment when the character introduces himself, as it was written in the first draft:

“I an I name issa Jammy. Jammish Kerins fee real ceptah all man calls me Jammy K or a Jammy just fee shot, seen?”

This is probably a bad example because  the accent is not that thick here and the vocabulary not that strange, but it will have to do. Here is what the same lines would look like translated into pure English:

"My name is Jammy. Jammy Kerins for real but everyone calls me Jammy K or Jammy just for short, got it?

This version is not only dry and boring, but also completely out of character for this guy. I've haven't decided exactly how stuff like this will end up in the final draft, and I'm hoping for some help from my CPs, but I will probably write this piece, which again, is a bad example because there isn't that much difference, like this:

"I and I name is Jammy. Jammish Kerins for real but all man calls me Jammy K or Jammy just fee shot, seen?"

I'm not going to go into all the details here, but I and I is a Rastafarian religious concept and often replaces me, I, we and sometimes even other pronouns in Patois. Seen is a statement or interrogatory which is often used at the end of explanations to confirm understanding.

So that's it. I'm sorry this was such a poor example but I'm hoping you see my point. I'm a huge proponent of authenticity, and I'm a total detail nerd who can really go off the deep end if I let myself, but you always have to remember your reader, and try your best to allow as many of them to connect to your story as possible.

For further reading about Patois and Jamaican culture:

There is an awesome blogger named Sebastian, who does not blog very often, but when he does he sometimes writes poetry in Patois. You can read an example, his poem Maga Dawg, at his blog.

Two other great resources where you can read about Patois can be found here and here.

You can listen to some audio samples of how it sounds when spoken, here.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Authenticity: How Much Is Too Much?

Have you ever gotten bogged down in research? Or gotten stuck while inventing an entire language for a fictional race in your novel? Yeah, me either, but I do still wonder sometimes how truly accurate you have to be to sell you ideas to your reader.

Today I'm going to write about authenticity in written fiction, and how important it is to be accurate, without bogging your novel down in any way. When I read, I love to see the details, and know that the author has done their due diligence to make sure that they are correct. Sometimes this is less important than others.

For example when I just read Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men, he went into occasional detail about the caliber and functioning of certain types of guns and their ammunitions. Because of the type of story he was telling it felt important that he get those details right. Now I'm no gun nut, so he certainly could have fooled me, but I get the feeling that a man like Cormac with the success of the novels he writes, probably got it right.

If he hadn't gotten those details right, or had he gone too deeply into their nuances McCarthy could have ruined his novel. The thing about authentic details is that there is a fine line between too little and too much. Too much detail can ruin pacing, or even bog the entire plot down by worrying about things that don't really matter. It's all about balance.

In a novel like Beth Revis' Across The Universe, or Alex J. Cavanaugh's CassaStar, things work a little differently. Being Science-Fiction novels these books don't necessarily have to have details which are authentic to the real world, but the rules and technology they set forth must be consistent within the narrative.

If a Cosbolt is capable of certain physics in the beginning, it must be capable of the same maneuvers at the end. If the Solar Lamp aboard the Godspeed is great for hydroponic tomatoes but not so much for corn grown in actual soil, that can't suddenly change without a plausible explanation that allows the reader's suspension of disbelief to remain intact.

* * *

I'm still working through an unpredictable schedule here at work, but I hope to be able to put up some real world examples from my own writing tomorrow.

In the meantime how have you all been and where do you stand on authenticity?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Hiatus Video 4

This one isn't funny either, really this time. This one is just cool as hell. The reverse video may start to get old toward the end, but it's a tribute to the original music video. Probably none of you will like this as much as I do.

That's it! Hopefully I can get back to normal blogging next week. Have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Hiatus Video 3

This one isn't even that funny, it's just awesome. This dude is so cool. I mean imagine having the courage to make this video, having that much fun with it, and then post it to youtube. This video has over 12 MILLION views. You've probably already seen it, but you need to see it again. It's that fun.

Work sucks. They came and installed this really stupid telescoping arm on my desk to hold up my monitors. It's like 10 times worse than it used to be.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hiatus Video 2

These guys are awesome. Their understanding of American pop culture is unequaled. You also have to give them credit for their unflappable loyalty to their boy Yao Ming. Enjoy!

Things are going okay at work. I haven't died yet.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Hiatus Video 1

Okay guys just a little something to make you smile while I'm away. You've probably already seen this, so don't get mad at me. I know it's pretty stupid, but I can't help smiling along with this beautiful music.

I hope to be back next week. Peace.