Saturday, October 31, 2015

Choice of Tools (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

In my planned NaNoWriMo novel, Roger and the Meteor Mass, one of the characters in the family known locally as "The Mass" is Jack. All of the Mass kids are unusual, and Jack is no exception. Jack's abiding interest is machines: taking them apart, putting them together again in a new way, and repairing the ones that don't function exactly the way he wants them to work.

Jack's sister Julia is the first of the Mass siblings Roger Pierce meets when he comes to town, but Jack is the first one Roger connects with. When I read the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge for this week, I knew this initial meeting would feature in my flash fiction: 

October 28, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) include a tool in a story. How can it enhance the character, tension or meaning? It can also be a story about a tool or a character’s obsession for tools. Go where the prompt leads.

In every previous encounter with boys his age, Roger has been the most knowledgeable. One of the first things Jack does is call Roger a dummy for not knowing something that seems obvious to him. It won't be the last time Jack outpaces Roger, either...

Roger “Runabout” Pierce has always been a strange boy. He blames his feelings of alienation on his family, who move to a new town each year when his dad is reassigned. But when he arrives in Meteor, a remote town smaller than any they’ve ever lived in before, he meets “The Mass,” a blended family of equally odd children and their superbly different parents. Roger has to face his own strange nature and make a momentous decision. Can he become ordinary? Does he even want to try?


Choice of Tools

From the open garage came a resounding clang, followed by a sharp whistle. Roger called from the threshold, "You okay?" 

A shock of sandy hair came into view behind a metal tower, then two wide-set blue eyes. "Hey, can you grab that hock spanner for me? I'd get it myself, but I'm kinda tied up here."

Roger shook himself. "Sure!" He dropped his bike and scanned the array of tools laid out on the workbench. "So which one is the hog spanner?"

A peal of laughter answered. "HOCK spanner, dummy. It's on the end next to the ball-peen hammer."

Friday, October 30, 2015

Cane Toads, Contraband and Comic Criminals

Review: Big Trouble by Dave Barry

I never needed Depends before, but I guess there just comes a time in one’s life…

For me, it happened without warning the first time I read Dave Barry’s excruciatingly funny Big Trouble, a romp of a story about a pocket nuclear weapon, two sub-mental crooks trying to sell it, a couple of klutzy hit men after a sniveling embezzler, and a drifter who lives in a tree. What happens when this crew of losers encounter an everyday Miami family, a pair of cops on patrol, a pretty immigrant (and a hallucinogenic toad)? 


The book (which came first for me) is not quite identical to the movie starring Tim Allen, Rene Russo and Stanley Tucci. Although it is hard to believe if you’ve seen the film, the novel is also much funnier. 

It opens (and closes) with Puggy, a hopeless vagrant whose happiest moment comes when he discovers the abandoned treehouse at the Herk house. It’s free, it’s quiet, it’s private—at least until the hit men show up looking for Arthur Herk (Stanley Tucci in the film), a self-absorbed embezzler who doesn’t deserve his lovely wife (Rene Russo) and screwball daughter.

Herk has made the major mistake of his life, borrowing and losing money from the wrong family. His life-lesson is due to come from a pair of dedicated, focused hit men who are simply not prepared for the muggy Miami nights. Their initial hit is thrown off by a simultaneous paint-ball assassination by Eliot Arnold’s son. By an unfortunate coincidence, Eliot (Tim Allen’s role) is at the Herk house apologizing for an earlier episode with his son. Herk’s single-minded nastiness, Eliot’s immediate attraction to Anna Herk, and the clueless cops who investigate the scene, are merely frosting on the hilarious goings-on behind the scenes.

See, a couple of local small-time gangsters have found this nuclear weapon. They’ve dragooned Puggy (remember Puggy?) to help them set it up for sale. Eliot’s son Mark and Anna Herk’s daughter Jenny happen to witness one of the bloodier steps in the crooks’ plans, and Jenny winds up hostage on a plane that is also carrying the bomb.

Any time things threaten to get serious, Barry rings in the psychedelic cane toad, the terror of the Herk’s dog, and the deliverer of ironic payback to at least one criminal.

So, go on, get the book—at least, rent the movie! And you might want to lay in some Depends, just in case.

Deciding to Write

Deciding to write is like deciding to go on a diet, or to stop smoking: first comes the initial declaration, and then the daily, even hourly, reaffirmation. 

Any one of those serial reaffirmations can be "No" instead of "Yes, I will." And just that simply, the process is derailed. Here's the difference. Dieters, non-smokers, they are marked by the continued reaffirmation.

Writers, on the other hand, do not become non-writers the moment they say "No."

You can be not-writing, but still be plotting, developing characters, planning plots twists and sequellizing clues. You can tell yourself you are doing something in that halo of activities that surrounds actually writing, actually putting words together to tell your story.

Sometimes it's fear that paralyzes the writing muscle. I find this happens to me when I've finished reading a really good book. How can I hope to produce something this good? It is a reasonable fear, and self-perpetuating, if it makes me stop writing.

So I plan to start writing at the stroke of midnight November 1st, to begin as I mean to go on for the writing month. I know that I will join a huge writing community as I do so, and among them are the authors of those awe-inspiring books that will one day make me fear again that I cannot hope to measure up.

I hope one of them will be mine. One of them might be yours, but only if you decide to write it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

An Unsettling Union

Book Review: Penric's Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold Exorcist Linda Blair possession

Review: Penric's Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold

We are accustomed to thinking of demonic possession as a dire catastrophe. Cue Linda Blair in The Exorcist: Horrific powers ride a young human, warping and twisting both body and soul.

Contrast this with young Lord Penric, a rural younger-son on the way to his arranged wedding with a local cheese-maker's daughter, who stops on the road to render aid to an old woman, and thereby acquires a demon.

Nothing after his initial swoon is what we expect of demonic possession. Penric is wise (or naïve) enough to treat this internal coupling as an alternative to his arranged marriage—after all, the demon, although (perhaps) multiple, is entirely feminine. (And wholly amused by the young man's morning wood.)

Penric's Demon is a novella, barely over 100 pages in length. But Bujold has built entire worlds around novellas before this. The afterword puts this novella into its chronological order in the Chalion ("World of the Five Gods") series: after The Hallowed Hunt, followed by The Curse of Chalion and Palladin of Souls

I have the earlier novels in paperback. I suspect it is now time to reread them and set them into the universe Bujold has written for them.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Touching History (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

A few years ago, my spouse's family and some of their childhood friends planned a group trip to Washington state. Specifically, they planned to meet at Mt. Ranier Park. The wealthier members of the family would stay in the pricey lodge, while those of us with smaller budgets would camp in the park's campground.

We loaded up the "ugly truck" with a tarp canopy over the pipe-rack, an inflatable full-size bed, folding chairs, and other camping equipment, and set out to drive from Sonoma County, Califonia, to the park in Washington.

Early in our trip, we discovered the joys of Oregon's favorite treat, the Olallieberry Milkshake. Each time nature called during this section of the drive, we strove to break our journey at a place that offered them. (The olallieberry was developed at Oregon State University, a hybrid of loganberries and youngberries, which are themselves hybrids of raspberries and blackberries.) 

At last we crossed into Washington, and with that, the olallieberry milkshake signs disappeared. We regretted it, but we were close to making another planned visit, to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, site of a famous engineering failure that had featured in Mines lectures for us both. The "Galloping Gertie" behavior of the bridge as it fluttered in winds blowing down Puget Sound was the topic of a famous early newsreel movie that documented its breakup on November 7, 1940.

I was reminded of what happened as we left the highway in Tacoma on our way to visit the bridge by this week's Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge:

October 14, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that reveals or explores a moment of serendipity. How did it come about? What did it lead to? You can express a character’s view of the moment or on serendipity in general. Use the element of surprise or show how it is unexpected or accidentally good.

This incident is just another proof of the phrase that gave Ken Cumming's work-in-progress memoirs its title: "We were meant to be here."

Touching History

Up ahead, the exit from highway 16 had two signs posted. "Tacoma Narrows Bridge" sat above the "Shake Shake Shake" restaurant sign advertising "Olallieberry Milkshakes."

In line to buy our first olallieberry shake since we left Oregon, we chatted with the nice woman ahead of us, mentioning our purpose to visit Galloping Gertie next.

"You know the film of the bridge breakup? The guy running off, the last man off the bridge?"

Sure we did. It was iconic!

"Well, that man was my Dad," she said. Solemnly, my spouse and I reached out to touch her shoulder, touching history.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Needs of the One

Book Review The Martian by Andy Weir Star Trek quote Spock
Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

Mark Watney, a wise-cracking mechanical engineer/botanist, is the seventeenth human to set foot on Mars, and the sixth member of the Ares 3 crew to step down from their Mars Descent Vehicle. But when he is left behind for dead in the hasty recall of the mission, he begins chalking up a long series of firsts.

However, this novel is not a science-fiction story, any more than Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe was a sailing story. Watney's perilous position on Mars is more reminiscent of Jim Lovell's in Lost Moon. While he seems to be alone, he has NASA Mission Command, JPL, and multiple other agencies working to bring him home. 

Once they realize he has survived, that is.
I got my undergrad degree at the University of Chicago. Half the people who studied botany were hippies who thought they could return to some natural world system. ... They spent most of their time working out better ways to grow pot.

There are any number of plot gimmicks in the novel, starting with Watney himself having the personality and knowledge to survive and stay sane in isolation on Mars. He just happens to have a number of potatoes that were not sterilized and flash-frozen, available to eke out his rations.

We don't care, though, because the story becomes a MacGyver-like trip through surviving in extreme circumstances. As David Brin put it, it is competence porn.
This frigid desert has been my home for a year and a half. ... I’ve done a little of everything here, because I’m the only one around to do it.

It isn't only Watney who displays extreme competence and inventiveness. For example, there is the "glorified Fotomat attendant" Mindy Sue who discovers Watney is still alive, when she notices in her satellite imagery that things have been moved at the "abandoned" mission site. Rich Purnell is responsible for calculating orbital course dynamics. In the end, his lateral thinking supplies the answer to the problem of getting Watney home before his food runs out. 

Most impressive, though, is the way that the space programs across the globe kick in with the resources to rescue this one man. Because Spock was ultimately wrong, and Kirk was right:
Because the needs of the one... outweigh the needs of the many. 

More Prep for The Stranger Child

NaNoWriMo 2015 Research for YA Novel Roger and the Lightyear Mass in Tonopah NV Mine Headframe
With just over 1000 miles on the car, plus two stressed-out kitties left alone at home, we finished a several-day trip into the Nevada desert to gather background information, scenes, and atmosphere for my NaNoWriMo novel this year, Roger and the Lightyear Mass.

Thanks to a Spreecast webinar set up by the NaNoWriMo folks, I have a better idea how to plot my novel, which I am trying for the first time this year.

I've been following the useful Prep Calendar guide (with some modifications to accommodate the trip to the desert) and it has also been helpful. As a result, I now have the opening scene, the denouement, and the "hinge" or "mirror moment" middle scene of the novel outlined in detail, I have completed a sweeping outline for the entire story, and have written character sheets for several major characters. 

There are seven major characters, all in their teens or late pre-teens. Today I will finish the MC character sheets, and begin fleshing out character sheets for several minor characters.

"The Stranger Child" was the tentative title for this novel when I was considering it for NaNoWriMo last year, and I have been using it as a label to collect notes under for almost a year now. Despite changing the title to Roger and the Lightyear Mass, I still really like The Stranger Child. I may change it back.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Clown Bread at the Clown Motel

NaNoWriMo 2015 Research for YA Novel Roger and the Lightyear Mass in Tonopah NV Clown Motel
My grandmother had a treat she offered to good grandchildren as a reward for completing a chore. She called it clown bread.

Grandma made clown bread the same way her own British grandmother had made it, with cornmeal, red and black currants, and coriander seeds, and sweetened it with molasses.

My mother made her clown bread for school bake sales and church-social platters. Mom swapped two colors of raisins for the original currants, and substituted poppy seeds for the coriander kind. Her cornbread base was sweetened with ordinary white sugar in the time I lived at home. (I heard from younger siblings that her recipe had used Splenda in later years.)

Knowing that we planned to be at the Clown Motel in Nevada this last weekend, I made a big tray of clown bread to take along as journey fare, and to share at the campfire in the Berlin Ichthyosaur Park. Mine was sweetened with sage honey, and boasted cran-raisins and amaranth seeds from our "farm." The amaranth and sage honey gave the clown bread a noticeably floral aroma. 

I use amaranth seeds wherever a recipe calls for poppy seeds, so I knew they would work well. I wasn't prepared for the pronounced scent, though, nor the definite "crumb-y" texture they gave the clown bread. This did delight the pigeon flock at one picnic ground we stopped at on our way into Tonopah!

We shared clown bread for breakfast with the hotel staff (Pam and her cleaning buddy), and split between us some jalepeño baked potatoes with cheese as a side dish. The potatoes also came from our farm, the last burgeoning of the plants under the taller flowers. 

Thieving Words (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

Barely back from a research trip into the desert, I had a doggerel bit of prose nagging me all the way home. Fortunately, a little warp-age was all I needed to fit it into this week's Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge:

October 7, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a thief or a theft. Consider motives and repercussions. Is the act a matter of perception? Is it a daring maneuver or a desperate bid for survival? Think about different instances of stealing.

The picture, by the way, is my favorite amongst the hundreds of clowns in the lobby of the Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nevada, where we stayed one night during our trip. This required a 200-mile diversion from our path to the Berlin Ichthyosaur Park, but it was definitely worth it!

Not only was the scenery (in the lobby and outside the hotel gazing over the Old Tonopah Cemetery next door) worth a visit, but the bed was the most comfortable I have ever slept in, in a motel! It definitely beat the beds at the Nevada campground cabins.

Thieving Words

Wanting love, I steal your heart.
Loving life, I steal your time.
Tiptoe-quiet, I steal inside:
Silent movement is no crime.

I take the spotlight on the stage.
Gesturing, I steal the show.
Time is a thief and so am I:
I steal away, and thus I go.

I take the cake, and eat it too.
Needing some help, I take advice.
Shopping, I do a double-take:
Daylight robbery, that price!

Passing a window, I steal a peek,
And stolen kisses meet my eyes.
I take a risk, I take a shot:
My photo'd kiss, it took first prize!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Cover for 2015 NaNoWriMo Novel

NaNoWriMo 2015 Prospective YA Novel Cover Roger and the Lightyear Mass
In between teaching a Senior Driving Safety course and planning a trip into the desert, I'm struggling with the preparation involved in being a plotter for this year's NaNoWriMo novel.

I'm not really comfortable with half-measures, so I will actually be outlining the novel. By the time November 1st rolls around, I'll know exactly what happens to the stranger child who is my teenage protagonist.

All that will be left—a huge all—will be to write the 50,000 or more words to fill out that outline!

Roger is an easy reach for me to create: an extremely bright youngster who finds it hard to relate to the ordinary people who surround him. The original concept may have been sparked by the task of co-writing the memoirs of Kenneth Cummings, who was an extremely bright youngster finding it hard to relate, etc.

Despite their blended nature, the unordinary family Roger encounters (the "Lightyear Mass") are definitely inspired by my own childhood family. Growing up as the oldest of eleven children in a small town in Colorado provided me with a wealth of unusual experiences to draw upon in my writing.

Before I get to November 1st, though, some research is called for. In a chat with friend Mitch in the Chick-fil-A last week about the abstruse data I needed to wrap my mind around for the planned novel, he clued us in to the existence of the Berlin Ichthyosaur Park in central Nevada. We decided to make a two-day trip to visit it. Originally, we had thought of staying in the campground at the park, but I'm not so fond any more of camping after an 8-hour drive. 

Instead, we'll driving south from Fallon, NV, stay overnight in the Clown Motel in Tonopah, NV, and wave at Christopher Sebela, who is committed to stay the month of Halloween in the motel adjacent to the old graveyard there, and write a book about it.

Then we can have most of a morning to explore the park!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Prepping for the Stranger Child

amwriting Writing Setup at Chick-fil-A for NaNoWriMo 2015 Prospective YA Novel Roger and the Lightyear Mass
This October marks a first in my writing life. I'm experimenting with being a plotter instead of a pantser for NaNoWriMo this year.

Armed with my Chromebook, a cup of free WiFi at Chick-fil-A (refilled as needed by the friendly team of chicken-sandwich pushers here), and the helpful Prep Calendar from Skye Phillips (which I got via a tweet by Michael Stern), I am ready to start plotting!

The other essential: my handy-dandy doorknob-hanger from last year's NaNo goodies, which boldly announces that I am a novelist at work, even while it marginally authorizes all kinds of interruptions. No doorknob here to hang it from, so I drape it around the neck of the flower vase that sits on the table.

Today's ikebana is hyacinth bean flowers and pods from our "farm," brilliantly (or accidentally) arranged by my spouse.

In the run-up to last November, I debated writing another in the Fateful Weather series or a YA novel that was competing for time and writing-space in my brain. The decision was a close one, but Indigo won. I wrote a third supernatural thriller set in that small town, following the seat-of-the-pants method I had used for the previous two. 

The YA novel idea didn't go away, though. It kept percolating at the back of my head, clamoring for an outlet. And since I don't already have a "world" written for this novel, plotting it before November begins makes sense.

I got some motivation and assistance from James Scott Bell, whose Write Your Novel from the Middle now resides on my Kindle. I have also been stock-piling writing tips from my Google+ circles. October is the time allotted to read through these articles and sort out which are useful and which are best ignored.

So far, the premise is simple. Roger is a strange boy:
He blames his feelings of alienation on his family, who move to a new town each year when his dad is reassigned. But when he arrives in Lightyear, a remote town smaller than any they’ve ever lived in before, he meets “The Mass,” a blended family of equally odd children and their superbly different parents. Roger has to face his own strange nature and make a momentous decision. Can he become ordinary? Does he even want to try?