Character Emotions — Part One (Encore)

In a writer’s workshop I conducted not too long ago, we spent some time discussing ways to portray the emotions of our characters. It seemed evident, to me anyway, that too many of the participating writers were satisfied with static statements and clichéd expressions. Finding ways to show a player’s feelings is much more difficult, but it’s a great deal more rewarding when readers connect with them.

In much the same way that sensory writing can give life to a story, so will the proper handling of character emotions. As with sensory words, emotional words may apply to both fiction and non-fiction. This is particularly true of memoir.

So, where does one begin? With the writing, of course. Go ahead and create the first draft; let the flow of the story dictate what goes in. If you’re feeling the emotions of your characters, feed those details in, too. The exact wording isn’t critical in the first draft; much of it will likely be revised anyway.

Nuke the clichés: Once you’ve got something to work with, start hunting for clichés. Chances are you’ve used more of them than you thought. Take the time on this first pass to get rid of them. Update those excised passages with fresher expressions. You’re a writer, so write!

Be specific: Think critically about how your character’s life has changed and focus on the details most likely to engender an emotion. Is Jody’s job grinding her down? Is Dan’s bank account empty? Will the children starve? Is there enough gas in the tank to reach safety? Why is your character wearing an over-sized blouse or platform shoes? Why is the oh-so-perfect executive letting his hair grow long? Can the musician feel the patches she’s sewn into her clothing to hide the holes?

Avoid ambiguity: Don’t be afraid to research emotions you’re uncomfortable expressing. If you can’t paint an accurate picture, readers will notice, and they’ll lose faith in your message. Rather than settle for labeling an emotion, make the effort to explore it. How does it feel to be abandoned? Lied about? Bullied? What does it feel like to realize you’re the one doing those terrible things? Unless you’re a sociopath, you’ll feel something; as a writer, it’s your job to capture those emotions and express them.

Emotional range: Characters need more than one emotion. Imagine how quickly you’d become bored reading about someone’s never-ending depression, anger, fear, jealousy, or other emotion if it tainted every aspect of his or her life. Players need more than that to become “real” in a reader’s mind.

Dig into your memory: Chances are you’ve experienced something akin to whatever it is your character is going through. Tap into those memories and expand on them. I’ve never been confronted by a sabretooth tiger, but some of my characters have. You’d better believe I relied on my recollection of facing a snarling pit bull. Was it the same thing? Hardly. The pit bull was on a heavy chain. My fictional maneater wandered around loose.

I can remember being jealous, envious, angry, exuberant, and most recently, very sad. All those emotions either have or will find expression in my writing. You can, and should, do the same.

We’ll take a closer look at some commonly experienced emotions over the next few installments. Stay tuned!

–Josh

Posted in Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Write *Something* Every Day (Encore)

Writers write. It’s as simple as that. Good writers tend to write a lot. That’s a big part of how they became “good” writers. If you aspire to become a writer, or if you’re already a writer and you want to improve your craft, the only way to ensure you’ll make progress is to put your butt in a chair and your fingers on a keyboard.

That alone isn’t a magical solution. You won’t learn proper techniques for grammar, punctuation, or anything else. But if you do some actual writing, you might just get your story out of your head and into some format that will allow you to work on it even more later. The important part — usually the hardest part — is writing down the tale that’s been needling you for the past few weeks, months or even years. The story sure as hell won’t tell itself! You have to do it. 

While this is certainly true of fiction, it’s absolutely true of memoir. You’re the only one who knows your story the way you do. As simplistic as that sounds, I’ve talked to people who are perfectly capable of telling their own story, but they complain that ghostwriters cost too much. Here’s a thought: write it yourself!

The reasons people toss off for why they aren’t writing are absolutely legion. “I’m too busy” is a great favorite. Most of the too-busy people I know, myself included, are too busy because we’re lousy at organizing our time. Find a half hour a day — morning, noon or night, it doesn’t matter — and set it aside as writing time.

Another one I just love to hear: “I’m waiting for inspiration.” Right. Like the Muse or the Goddess of Literature is going to appear to you in all their radiant glory and whack you upside the head with the inspiration stick. What a crock. Remember Thomas Edison’s take: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” (Right now I’m channeling the Muse ripping into someone’s gray matter to whisper something inspiring.)

Yet another favorite is, “I don’t have a place to write, a place all my own — a hideaway, a garret, or a cell in a monastery — where I can work undisturbed.” Seriously? How ’bout the back seat of your car, or a table for two (you and your laptop) at the nearest Starbucks? They’ll even provide free Wi-Fi, not that you’ll need it because you’ll be busy working on your masterpiece. You won’t have time for Solitaire, or Facebook, or E-mail, or Amazon, or any of the other bazillion distractions provided by the web.

“Who’s gonna watch my kids?” I dunno, maybe your spouse? Your next door neighbor? The grandparents? Check local churches for a “Mother’s Morning Out” program, even if you’re a dad. Worst case: load up the car — or a wagon, or a city bus — with kids and laptop, and cruise over to the local playground, or the schoolyard, or some other place where the little ones might be able to entertain themselves while you sneak in a half hour of creative “me” time.

What you need to be striving for is the habit. Write every day, even if what you write isn’t part of your magnum opus. It could be a blog, or a journal, or a rant to the editor of the local newspaper. It could be a letter to your dear, old Aunt Edna for that matter. Whatever. Just do some writing every day that isn’t required for your job. It must be writing that comes from inside you.

Why? Because that’s where the magic begins. That’s where the stories live. It’s your job to find a way to get them out and share them with the world.

–Josh

Posted in editing, Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Not So Simple Case of Stage Fright (Encore)

Here’s something a little different. Possibly even suitable for a younger audience. Let me know what you think.

“I’m done for,” Jack told himself.

“If I weren’t such a chicken, I’d ride my bike out on the interstate until somebody ran over me.”

“What’re you mumblin’ about, Jerko?”

”Nuthin’.”

Rotten to begin with, Jack’s day had just gotten worse with the arrival of the last person on Earth he wanted to see, Myron “the Beast” Blatnik.

“Look at me, Jerko,” the Beast said. “I want an answer.”

Jack knew what he really wanted was an excuse to punch Jack’s lights out. And any excuse would do.

“It’s nothing important.”

“So, you got my grade fixed?”

There it was, the grade thing. If only Jack hadn’t opened his mouth; if only he hadn’t claimed he knew how to change data in a spreadsheet. If only…. “Yeah, about that,” he began.

“You didn’t do it, did ya?” More statement than question, the Beast delivered his opinion with a quick shove and a dose of halitosis, both well-known Blatnik trademarks.

“The thing is, I got caught,” Jack said, trying to hold his breath long enough for the Beast’s breath to dissipate.

The Beast showed him a fist. “You better not have ratted me out to Mizz M.”

“I didn’t. Honest. I told her I was just lookin’. I wasn’t trying to change anything.”

“Did she believe you?”

Jack shrugged. Mrs. Melchior could be a mystery sometimes, especially when it came to doling out punishment. The one she’d given him was clearly over the top. Super, extra over the top.

“At least you didn’t get suspended,” opined the Beast.

“That would’ve been a lot better than what she came up with.”

“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”

“I’ve gotta play the part of Romeo in the year-end class play.”

The Beast laughed so hard Jack knew everyone in the whole school could hear him, and thanks to the magic of junior high physics, everyone would know exactly why he was laughing.

“C’mon, man. Gimme a break.”

The Beast struggled to control himself. “I heard Four Eyes is gonna be Juliet.” He doubled over once more. “Oh, that’s frickin’ awesome. I can’t wait to see you smoochin’ up 4E.”

“I don’t think that’s required,” Jack said, though he doubted his own words.

The Beast poked Jack’s sternum. “Just don’t forget to fix my grade before the end of the term.”

“You don’t think Mrs. Melchior will notice?”

“Ain’t my problem, Jerko. Do it, or else.”

~*~

Jack put in more hours than he cared to count in an effort to memorize his lines, but when it came time to recite them, he struggled. It didn’t help that most of the class had front row seats for his mortification. And smack in the middle, where Jack could smell his rank, nasty breath, sat Myron “the Beast” Blatnik, laughing harder than everyone else.

4E, on the other hand, knew every line as if she were reading from a script. It wasn’t fair by a long shot. When Mrs. Melchior finally granted him a reprieve and ended the rehearsal, Jack wasted no time following his Juliet to her locker, hoping to learn her secret.

“How do you do it?” he asked the tall, dark‑haired girl whom everyone but the teacher called 4E. “How can you remember all this stuff?”

“It’s easy. Where I come from, everyone can do it. You just have to give the words a special look.”

Jack had no idea where she came from, but he was absolutely sure it wasn’t anyplace nearby. She had a vaguely Asian look, and one of his friends pegged her as, “Cute, but not Miss Universe.” Jack hadn’t formed an opinion about her since he hadn’t quite gotten into the whole girl and guy thing yet, much to the amusement of his alleged pals.

“That’s fine for you,” he said. “But what about me?”

“I guess you’ll just have to work harder.”

“Aw geez, 4E. I’m already workin’ overtime.”

She just shrugged and walked away, leaving Jack sad and frustrated. At least she didn’t seem to care about her nickname like some kids did. He figured that was because no one, including Mrs. Melchior, knew exactly how to pronounce her real name.

~*~

A few more days passed, and on the eve of the dress rehearsal, Jack concluded his situation was hopeless. He had even given serious thought to running away to someplace where nobody knew him. His overwhelming gloom drove him close to tears as he stood beside his locker and contemplated various forms of pain-free suicide.

“Wow,” said 4E as she sidled up to him in the hallway, “you look like you just received a death sentence.”

“Might as well have,” he muttered. “Every time I think I’ve got my lines down pat, somebody looks at me funny, or makes a joke, or sticks their tongue out at me, and then I can’t even remember what day it is.”

4E stepped closer to him and crossed her arms. “Since you’ve been pretty nice to me, I’ll do you a favor.”

Jack gave her his full attention. “What kinda favor?”

“If you can give me some kind of sign when you need help, I can give you your lines.”

“A sign?”

“Sure. You could wink or something.”

Jack’s laugh held little mirth. “I can just imagine how everyone would react to that! They’d never stop laughing at me. Couldn’t I just rub my nose?”

“Based on the way it’s been going, you’ll rub it completely off by the time we get to the end of the first scene.”

Jack felt tears beginning to form. He had no intention of crying in front of a classmate, let alone a girl, but he had nowhere to hide.

“I’ve got a better idea,” 4E said. “At the dress rehearsal, whenever you need the next line, just start thinking of something really, really weird and specific.”

“Like Eddie Bogart’s funky ear?”

She shook her head. “Nah. It needs to be something nobody else is likely to think about.” Her lips twisted to one side as she gave it more thought. “How ‘bout pickles on ice cream?”

“What good is that supposed to do?”

“You’ll see,” she said. “Oh, and by the way, my name’s not Four Eyes.” She then uttered something that included two tongue clicks and a short, breathy whistle.

Jack decided he’d stick with 4E.

~*~

At the dress rehearsal, Jack donned his costume as if it were required for the guest of honor at a firing squad. Nervous sweat dripped from everywhere, soaking his tights and his short jacket. The only thing which stayed dry was the feather in his monumentally stupid hat.

Somehow he staggered out on the stage where 4E waited for him dressed in similar period clothing. But just as she had no problems with her lines, her costume looked great. In fact, without her big glasses, she was edging closer to Miss Universe territory, and he told her so.

Her smile made her look even prettier. “Now don’t forget what I told you to do if you forget something,” she said.

He couldn’t begin to imagine how thinking of something stupid‑‑like pickles on ice cream‑‑could possibly make any difference, but he agreed. Since he was about to perish on stage anyway, in front of everyone he knew, what difference did it make? On the plus side, by dying out there, Myron Blatnik would be deprived of his main goal in life, Jack’s torture.

Jack somehow managed the first few of his lines without difficulty, but he made the mistake of looking at the Beast squatting at the edge of the stage making faces at him. The curtain shielded Blatnik from the teacher giving him a clear line of sight to the actors. Suddenly, Jack couldn’t remember anything.

His skin grew clammy, and he began shaking and stammering. The worse he got, the more the Beast laughed. Jack stared at 4E in desperation.

She smiled and winked at him which seemed to break the spell.

He closed his eyes and concentrated on a huge bowl of fudge ripple ice cream with sliced pickles piled on top. Suddenly, he heard a voice in his head. It was her!

He opened his eyes to see if she was talking, but she was just smiling, and he could still hear her speaking his lines!

Jack looked around to see if anyone else heard her, too, but it seemed clear no one else could. Mrs. M had grown impatient; the other kids didn’t bother to try and hide their giggles, and the Beast grinned and gave him the finger.

Finally, Jack blurted out his lines, just as 4E had recited them to him.

From then on, with 4E’s help, he made it through the rest of the rehearsal. At the end, Mrs. Melchior complemented both of her star players. The other students, with the exception of the Beast, crowded around them, clapping them on the back and telling them how great they were. Jack even began to believe them.

Once everyone packed up and started leaving, Jack hurried to find and thank 4E as she stood beside her hall locker.

“How can I thank you?” he asked.

“I’m not saying another word until you call me by my proper name,” she said. “It’s–” She rattled off a few syllables punctuated with clicks and a whistle.

“I– I don’t think I–“

“Adios,” she said, turning away. She didn’t seem to notice the smattering of kids who had hung around to watch them.

“Wait,” Jack said and gave it a try.

“That’s close,” she said. “Try again.”

Despite the laughter and the noise of the other kids, Jack did give it another try. And then another. And another. Until he got it right.

“That’s it!” she said, her smile wider than ever.

Jack wiped his forehead. “Okay then. How can I really thank you?”

She didn’t hesitate. “A kiss will do.”

The gang surrounding them thought this new development was insanely funny, and they all burst out laughing, especially the Beast.

Jack merely hitched up his tights, cleared his throat and said, “That’s fine with me, Juliet.” Then he kissed her full on the lips.

It was a long kiss.

Some of the boys continued to giggle, but the girls in the crowd elbowed them into silence.

By the time they finished that one, long kiss, Jack’s world had expanded exponentially.

~*~

With his confidence restored and his fear under control, Jack managed to play his role quite convincingly to a girl he now realized he adored. As a result, they both turned in performances that could only be described as masterful, even for junior high schoolers.

Afterward, at the cast party, the Beast pushed his way between Jack and 4E’s newly found admirers. “Hey, Jerko. You finished with our other project yet?”

With 4E holding his hand, Jack didn’t flinch as he looked the Beast square in the eye. “Before I answer, I’ve got a question for you.”

“Yeah?”

“Do you like ice cream? I mean, as big as you are, you probably eat a lot of it.”

The Beast seemed to expand right where he stood. “So what?”

“What’s your favorite flavor?”

“Vanilla. What of it?”

“Stay with me now,” Jack said, ready to launch into the tactic 4E suggested before the show. She had seen the effect the Beast had on him. He stared hard at Blatnik. “Try thinking of that big ol’ bowl of vanilla ice cream just smothered in pickles.”

Pickles?

“Yeah. Give it a shot,” Jack said. “Unless, of course, you’re afraid.”

The Beast actually growled at him. “Yer in for it now.”

“Oh, puh-leeze. Just take two seconds to think about that ice cream with lovely green pickle slices sliding down on all sides. C’mon. Give it a try.”

4E squeezed Jack’s hand as she smiled, not saying a word.

Suddenly, the Beast looked nervous, and his face reflected a growing fear. He glanced from side to side as if seeking an exist.

4E continued to smile, while Jack held his ground and then, at the appropriate moment, cracked his knuckles.

With that, Myron “the Beast” Blatnik reached the breaking point and pushed his way back out of the small crowd.

“Catch ya later,” Jack called out after him.

The Beast didn’t respond.

~*~

Jack walked 4E home a short while later. On the way he couldn’t help but comment, “I still don’t understand what you did to him.”

She chuckled. “Once you got him to focus on something odd, I was able to put a suggestion in his mind.”

“What kinda suggestion?”

“He now believes you’ve got a black belt in karate and could break his arms and legs as easily as you destroy pine boards.”

“No kidding? I don’t know anything about karate.”

“You might want to look into it,” she said. “Just in case.”

Jack realized he’d been holding her hand the entire time they’d been walking, and when they reached her house, he was reluctant to let go. “This whole thing has been amazing. And I still don’t know how you were able to memorize your lines so well.”

“It’s easy,” she said. “Where I come from, everyone can do it.”

Her response sounded familiar, and Jack squinted at her. “Just where, exactly, do you come from?”

“Promise you won’t tell?”

He nodded.

“I come from the fourth planet orbiting the star Earth people call Alpha Centauri.”

Jack laughed. “No, really, where do you come from?”

4E wasn’t laughing. “That is where I come from.”

“Right,” Jack said, still trying to make light of it. “I thought all you space aliens were supposed to be green or look like reptiles or something.”

“Only in the movies,” she said. “Although we do have one thing that humans don’t have.” She pulled the hair back from her forehead to reveal a third eye. “Any time I need to remember something forever, I give it a special look.”

~End~

Posted in short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Tag! He (or she) is it! (Encore)

Blah - Speech Bubble BackgroundAs mentioned before, good dialog isn’t real, it just sounds that way. But for reasons that will probably remain a mystery forever, many still learning the craft of writing insist on loading up their dialog with crap, by which I mean adverbs, adjectives, unneeded identifiers, and an endless array of substitutes for the word “said.”

Let’s get the modifier thing out of the way first, ’cause it’s the worst of the offenses. The only time you need to use an adverb or an adjective in dialog (and pretty much everything else you write) is when you’ve exhausted every possibility for finding an action verb to do the job. Then, it’s probably okay. But as my Mom used to say, “Don’t make it a habit.”

Modifiers tell readers how something is said or done; action verbs show them. It’s that simple. Mary whispered something is way better than Mary said something softly. They get the same idea across, but one paints a picture; the other doesn’t. You want readers to *see* your dialog as if it were being acted out in front of them. Modifiers replace actors with stage directions. Who wants that?

Wur unwantedWuz unwantedSo, what’s an action verb? For me it’s pretty much any verb other than “was,” and “were.” The other forms of “to be” are suspect, but the real offenders are these two. Avoid them when and if you can.

Next, trust your readers to know who’s saying what to whom. If there’s any doubt, then stick in a speech tag. Something like “Joe said” works well. Try to avoid sticking Joe’s name inside a quote, because it’s just lame, and almost nobody talks that way. F’rinstance, the following is bad form; don’t do it:

“You’re kidding, Rupert! I didn’t know that. And get this, Rupert, that liver transplant I had? Well, Rupert ol’ pal, it turns out I didn’t need it after all. You may not believe this, Rupert, but someone just unplugged my brain. Who knew?”

This is even worse:

“You’re kidding,” Joe said to Rupert, blissfully. “And that liver transplant I had?” Joe laughed hysterically. “It turns out I didn’t need it after all.” Joe scratched his head vigorously. “You may not believe it, but someone just unplugged my brain,” Joe said. “Who knew?”

Even if you nuke the three modifiers (blissfully, hysterically, and vigorously) the line still sucks. I’d go with something like:

“You’re kidding,” Joe said. “By the way, you remember that emergency liver transplant I had? Huge mistake. I should’ve gone to a real doctor.”

MoronThe idea of dialog has been around forever. It was old news when the Greeks pumped it into their plays. Socrates employed dialogs to persuade the ancients to see things his way. But the main idea behind dialog is two-way conversation. Yes, you can have a dialog involving more than two speakers, but in most cases, you’ll only have two. If only one character talks, it’s a monologue. Tune into any late night TV show with a host, and you’ll get an example. But, since you’re unlikely to get a job writing monologues for a network comic, let’s focus on character dialog, and let’s practice by using two voices.

There are a host of ways to differentiate those voices. Dialect is a good one, provided it isn’t overdone. Toss in an odd pronunciation, a bit of slang, maybe a foreign word or two, and you’ll lock in the identification without a speech tag or an action tag. [Note: we’re talking seasoning here, not poisoning. Keep it light; all you want is flavor.]

“Yo, Tex! Whut’re you doin’ here in the hood?”
“Had to buy me a new shootin’ iron, podnuh.”

Watch out for pronouns, especially if the speakers are of the same sex. Use both action tags and speech tags, but only when necessary.

“It’s getting late,” Missy said.
Suzie checked her watch and sighed. “You’re right.”
“Of course I am,” she said. “What else is new?”

Break long passages into smaller ones. Use incomplete sentences now and then. Er, uh, and uhm are perfectly natural, as are lines truncated by the response of the other party.

“I was dating Mary back then, and–“
Mary? The one everyone called ‘The Nun?’ That Mary?”
Joe blinked. “The Nun? Who called her that?”
“Well, uhm– It’s, uh– Actually, everyone did.”

If you’re more concerned with the content of the dialog then the format, focus on that first, then go back and make it entertaining.

I’ve written books about this stuff. Hey! Maybe you should get one. Look: here.

–Josh

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Does your hero have hay fever? (Encore)

Huh? Why would that make a difference? Why would someone even ask such a question?

Bear with me. This all goes back to an article in The British Journal of Homeopathy, Volume 29, published in 1872. It included the following observation:

“Hay fever is said to be an aristocratic disease, and there can be no doubt that, if it is not almost wholly confined to the upper classes of society, it is rarely, if ever, met with but among the educated.”

So, what does this have to do with heroes? Only everything!

The reason the upper crust in Merrie Olde England were more prone to having hay fever, along with a host of other ills, is that they weren’t exposed to as many bugs and viruses as afflicted the common weal and therefore had built up little immunity. The rich typically came from smaller families, which also limited their exposure to germs introduced by siblings. Remember, the riff-raff had a much lower standard of hygiene. The rich even washed their hands from time to time! All of which led to a weaker immune system among the upper crust.

Now, think of the hero or heroine in your current work in progress, but do so in terms of the human immune system. The more germs, microbes, and viruses they encounter, the stronger their immune system will be, assuming said germs don’t kill them. Likewise, the more adversity they face, and the more foes they encounter, the more likely they’ll be to survive the ultimate crisis. It’s as simple as that.

If you constantly hose your character down with the fictional equivalent of antibacterial soap, he or she won’t stand a chance when the fertilizer hits the proverbial mixmaster. It would be like doing your children’s math homework for them. They’ll look great right up until they have to perform an equation in class, most likely on a test that’ll mangle their grade point average, and crush your dream of having a successful-looking kid, like a car smasher at a junkyard.

A hundred-plus years after the article cited above, another popped up on the same subject. This one focused on “Hay Fever, Hygiene, and Household Size.” The study examined the incidence of hay fever among 17,414 kids born in the spring of 1958.

Of 16 variables explored, the “most striking” was a comparison between a child’s likelihood of developing hay fever and the number of his or her siblings. It was an inverse proportion; the more brothers and sisters a child had, the less likely he or she was to get the allergy.

Simply put, those extra siblings provided more exposure. Does that mean your hero must constantly battle family members? Maybe, if the setting of your story features a single household. In stories with a slightly larger scope, those siblings are symbolic of the stumbling blocks you must provide for your protagonist in their quest to reach a goal.

For immune systems, it’s probably best if the ongoing exposure doesn’t escalate, though in nature, there’s certainly no guarantee of that. In fiction, however, the opposite should be the norm. The threat level and/or the degree of difficulty should constantly be on the rise. Problems should only get harder, and the villains more despicable as the tale progresses. If you’re unable to find suitable bad guys, there’s always nature, government, and the shortcomings and foibles of your hero to focus on. The point is, things should only get harder, the prize more worthy, and the perils more dire. That’s the way to grow a hero.

Now, lay off the anti-microbial, anti-septic, anti-germ hand soaps. Sneeze once in a while. It might be good for ya!

–Josh

Posted in novel writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Aw. Not again! We interrupt this program….

My bride and I are finally able to spend some time with a couple grandkids we haven’t seen since the start of the pan-damn-demic. So, I haven’t gotten much writing done in the past few days. None, in fact, and I don’t feel the least bit guilty.

I do have an announcement, however. It’s been a tad over six years since I added a new book to the Little Primitive series. I worked on other stuff, sure, but I’ve largely neglected my two-foot-tall hero, Mato, and all his full-size pals (to say nothing of a cast of bad guys that still keep me up at night).

So, it gives me great pleasure to announce that book four in the series will be available soon. I don’t have an exact date, but it’ll likely be in about a month. All I can provide at this juncture, is a peek at the cover:

P4 Cover concept 1 A Primitive in Peril, features the ensemble cast from the first three books and a new player from Mato’s clan who’s sure to capture your heart… sooner or later.

In addition to the usual evil-doers who populate Mato’s world, this tale features two previously unexplored terrors–the weather and social media, either of which could spell doom for the little folk.

Like the first three books in the series, A Primitive in Peril is a fun read full of oddball characters and twisty plot stuff. What’s new is a wilderness setting that will chill you right down to your toes (among other things).

If you’d like to get a head start on the series, which will undoubtedly fill gaps I’ve left in the new book, you can any or all of the first three books right here.

Unfortunately, the Amazon photo of the covers for the series isn’t very clear. So, here’s the cover lineup for books one through three:

Prim covers 1-3

You can get a great deal on the series in Kindle format right now. (Use the link above.)

In the mean time, I’m gonna go back and play with my grandkids!

–Josh

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Why we watch the Olympics (Encore)

Some version of the Olympics are staged every two years (unless a pandemic gets in the way). And I use the word “staged” in all its many shades of meaning. Just why do so many of us drop everything and focus our attention on athletics, even when, for the majority of watchers, changing TV channels without a remote is the toughest physical workout we get? **

The answer is obvious: the Olympics are a gigantic short story collection. Most of these stories fall into the triumph over adversity scenario, even for those who don’t medal, and they represent the great majority. Just getting to the games is a triumph in itself. A far greater number, including some amazingly talented athletes, never even get close.

We watch because such stories intrigue us. Some astound us. Some befuddle us. And a few, better left unpublicized, simply embarrass us.

In days past, one’s Olympic viewing time was limited to the number of prime-time hours a network could schedule. Now, the broadcasts are never-ending. During rare breaks in the competition, profiles of the athletes and/or venues are broadcast, but it seems for all the world like more time is reserved for commercials than anything else. Even sadder, there seems to be a limited variety of commercials available, so we end up seeing the same ones over and over again. [It’s a potential nightmare: “Yes, yes, I’ll buy your toilet bowl cleaner; just stop running the ad!” But it keeps on running, no matter how many cases of Tidy Bowl fill the garage.]

Why couldn’t some of that time be devoted to lesser-known stories? Granted, such things may not be as appealing to our national pride as watching a celebrated athlete climb onto the awards podium to receive a disk of some rare metal. But still, some of those stories are worth telling. Some, in fact, absolutely demand telling!

Back in the day, and I’m talking way-way back in the day, the Olympics featured more earthy forms of competition, although some of it would be welcomed in our current high-tech world. In fact, a combination of some old and new sports might spark a vast, new wave of interest.

F’rinstance, Tug-o’-War was a big-time Olympic event from 1900 to 1920. Back then, winning was simple: just drag the opposing team across a dividing line. Little has changed in the interim. But what if the dividing line were made more interesting? What if a fire pit were covered with a thin layer of support which would collapse when all or most of a team put their weight on it? What if each team was composed of used car salesmen, lawyers, or politicians (and I’ll be the first to admit telling these species apart is damned difficult).

Both croquet and dueling were also part of the early Olympics. While croquet doesn’t do much for me, I was fascinated to learn about dueling. These guys, and presumably gals, too, would fire wax bullets at each other. Is that cool, or what?

Imagine combining that with the modern biathlon. Competitors would ski up, down, over, and around hills of varying size, then stop and fire paintball guns at each other. The winners would be determined, in part, based on how many times they were hit.

Alas, we may have to satisfy ourselves with the antics of Olympic spectators, which, considering the bizarre array of costuming involved–combined with a little imagination–could easily become a competitive event in itself. Scoring, however, might be a bit of a problem, but with the rapid development of artificial intelligence, I anticipate a viable breakthrough would quickly occur.

Yours, for even better games,

–Josh

** Late thought: Nowadays, is it even possible to change channels without a remote? No wonder we all weigh too much!

 

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Lament from the Lake (Encore)

Subtitle: How writing has ruined my reading….

We’ve spent an idyllic weekend at a lake resort with our grandkids, and we’ve had a wonderful time. I even brought a book along to read. Sad to say, I didn’t get far. You’ll soon find out why. There was a brief sighting that stirred my artist’s soul—I thought I’d seen a young lady entranced by one of my books. Alas, the thought was fleeting.

bikini beach reader

This is the lass I mentioned. [sigh] The giveaway? My books aren’t available in hard cover. However, several of my readers do like hats. That should count for something.

My reading problem didn’t evolve overnight or as the result of my proximity to a body of water. The condition sneaked up on me like a disease, a sort of literary high blood pressure. I had no idea the conversion was under way, but over the course of some amount of time—thirty years, give or take—my ability to read for enjoyment took a monumental hit. Call it readaplegia, which ought to be a real condition if it isn’t already. I’ll even give it a definition: it’s a noun meaning the inability to read for pleasure because the reader is so keen on words and structure that he or she can’t escape the need to either admire or criticize the content.

“Whoa—this is really intense,” I mumble, ignorant of my affliction. “What an astonishing choice of verbs. Damn. I really wish I’d thought of that. I should probably make a note of it so I can steal it later. What’re the chances that ______ [name of actually talented writer] will ever read my stuff?”

fat guy

Here’s a guy who literally devoured my book. Seriously! Cover and all. He washed it down with a six-pack of Corona Light.

[Full disclosure: I often employ the word “stuff” when referring to my own work. Some folks don’t react well to “shit,” especially mine.]

I can easily remember a time, mostly prior to discovering The Once and Future King as a college student, when I could read for pure pleasure. I gobbled novels the way I imagine Rosanne Barr destroys bonbons. Okay, maybe not quite like that, ’cause it takes a little more effort to zip through a 500-page tome like Watership Down or Zombie Cheerleaders from Mars (another fave which most people think was only a movie. Pflibbbbbt! Illiterati).

zzz-zombie-cheerleaders

Sorry! I couldn’t find the cover for the sequel, so this will have to do.

The disease has progressed slowly, as I mentioned. I didn’t recognize it at all when working on my journalism degree, though I suspect my professors may have suffered from it. God knows they had to wade through a Congressional Library’s worth of monstrously awful “news” items and “features.” Poor slobs.

I have no idea how long ago my affliction began to manifest itself, and even today I can recall a time or two when what I read actually transported me to some fictional time and place. It’s the sort of journey I desperately want to provide for my own readers. But the process requires that I constantly scratch the itch my disease has unleashed. It’s a vicious, bloody circle, and there’s no escape. Kinda like the traffic rings in Boston and parts of civilized Wales—God help you if you get stuck on an inside lane!

One reads; one reacts. The normal reader gets a scene of profound relevance. Something moving has happened; they smile, or frown, or weep. On the other hand, I get that the author has misused a semi-colon, or that the passage drips with adjectives, or that the rhythm sucks, or the whole thing would work better as a series of shorter, punchier clauses with a kind of staccato punctuation, as if T.S. Elliot were doing an action scene. Think: e e cummings in [gasp!] upper and lower case, with punctuation.

HieroglyphicsI hope you can imagine how annoying this is. The temptation to correct spelling and grammar would make a sixth grade language arts instructor shudder. [And who the hell decided that Language Arts was a better way to say “Writing?” I’ll bet it wasn’t a writer.]

Anyway, that’s my rant for the week. I love writing. I used to love reading. I’ve done this to myself; I have no one else to blame. And even with all that said, I will still read, because I know there are writers out there, somewhere—geez, there’s gotta be!—who can still transport me to a fictional time and place.

I just hope that once I get there, I’ll ignore the urge to figure out how the hell they did it.

–Josh

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An Unusual Encounter

This week’s post will, of necessity, be brief. My bride and I are traveling, and my writing time is limited. HOWEVER, something has occurred quite recently that I feel compelled to mention; I’ve met someone whose very existence challenges my concept of reality.

Over the past decade I’ve written four novels* which feature a race of people who, on average, stand about two feet tall. Their technology is essentially Stone Age, and yet they live in contemporary times and must compete for survival in the world you and I occupy. (*Book four will be published in the next month or so.)

But before you ask, let me assure you it’s not one of the players from my Little Primitive tales who has suddenly popped into my life. It’s someone–prepare yourself–much smaller.

I firmly believe that stature should never be the measure of a person. And yet, stature in its extremes is, well, difficult to ignore. There’s no doubt that someone measuring eight feet tall is going to garner second looks. Now imagine the reverse. Would you not take a second look at someone who tops out at around four or five inches?

I certainly couldn’t!

Perhaps the hardest part to believe, for me anyway, is that the little fellow whom I’ve recently befriended, has many of the characteristics I once attributed strictly to fantasy. My new friend, you see, is a gnome.

It came as a complete shock to discover that he not only exists, but that he’s not alone–by a long shot. My little community, tucked away in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, plays host to quite a few of these tiny yet intelligent and skillful individuals.

For the time being, he’s asked that I not photograph him or any of the locations where his kind live. As a result, I’ve no alternative but to rely on a common sort of rendering, which while cartoonish, isn’t really all that wide of the mark.

Alas, I don’t have time, here and now, to discuss this further. I promise, however, that once I’ve had the opportunity to get to know my new friend better, I’ll reveal more. And, assuming he gives me permission, I’ll delve deeply into his story.

For now, please bear with me.

–Josh

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The Power of Dialog (Encore)

It’s unfair to highlight one aspect of writing, whether non-fiction or fiction (in any of its many flavors) when there are so many such factors to choose from. But one thing is certain, bad dialog can derail an otherwise good story. A great plot won’t save it, nor will superbly drawn characters. At least, not these days. Examples of crappy dialog by well-known authors abound, but most of them achieved their fame a long time ago. Today’s market isn’t as forgiving, especially for those whose books don’t occupy an all but hereditary spot on the bestseller lists.

So, what makes dialog good, and why is it a powerful tool? If done right, dialog can go a long way in helping a writer in the “show, don’t tell” game. What characters think, do and say shapes them in a reader’s mind. How they say things is just as important.

“Good” dialog is nothing like real-world dialog. For one thing, it tends to be smarter and sassier with few, if any, uhms and uhs. It rarely incorporates a listener’s name in a verbal statement, and it takes full advantage of action tags which will also help to portray a character’s outlook, proclivities, and mood. (Full disclosure: I had a proclivity once, but I had it removed.)

Rather than continue to preach, I’ll simply provide a modest exchange between two people who meet in a bar. The original version of this arrived in my email one day and consisted of about ten short paragraphs leading to a punch line. I’ve revised it to include all the issues mentioned above.

Male Logic

“So,” Wanda said over a glass of Burgundy, “you like beer?”

Jake nodded, yes.

“How many beers a day?” she asked.

“Usually about three,” he said. “Sometimes more, sometimes less. It depends.”

“On what?”

“On how I feel. Sometimes I’m really thirsty, sometimes I’m not.”

“That’s reasonable,” she said. “And how much do you pay, per beer?”

“Here? In this bar?”

“Yeah.”

“Five bucks, but that includes a tip. I appreciate good service.” He winked at their waitress.

“That’s commendable,” Wanda said. “And how long would you say you’ve been doing all this beer drinking?”

Jake tilted his head, stretched, and let out a sigh. “About 20 years, I guess.”

Wanda whipped out a pen and did a quick calculation on a napkin. “If a beer costs $5 and you have three a day, that puts your spending each month at $450.” She scribbled through another short equation and smiled at the answer. “In one year you spend about $5400 on beer. Does that sound right?”

“I suppose,” Jake said. “I don’t see anything wrong with your math.”

Wanda worked through one last problem then sat back, feeling satisfied. “If you spend $5400 a year on beer — not accounting for inflation — you’ve spent something like $108,000 over the past two decades.”

Jake shrugged. “If you say so.”

“Do you realize that if you didn’t drink so much beer, you could have put that money in an interest-bearing savings account. And, taking into consideration compound interest for the past twenty years, you could have gone out today and bought an airplane?”

Jake thought about that for a moment and then drained his glass. “Do you drink beer?”

“Why, no. I don’t,” Wanda said.

Jake smiled. “So, where’s your airplane?”

~*~

Notice there’s a mix of long and short paragraphs, as well as long and short sentences. The first half is strictly dialog, then the action tags kick in. This helps to keep dialog from sounding sing-song and stilted. Characters react, both orally and visually, which keeps the scene moving.

Just for practice, the next time someone sends you a joke or some other cute bit of dialog, see if you can improve it to publication standards.

–Josh

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