September 17, 2020 / 1 Comment

Around Here We Call That…

I wanted to take a minute or two to talk about a certain type of talking.

We all have our own unique voice based on where we grew up or maybe where we ended up. It’s partly accent, partly regional vocabulary. I think we’ve talked about the whole pop vs. soda vs. cola thing before, right? Plus some of you weirdos who just call everything a coke. But there are tons of little things like that. For example, does your street have a parkway, a common, an easement, or a road strip?

Everyone has their own personal vocabulary, and their own preferred words. It’s a way we can identify people (and characters). And it’s a way we can learn a little more about them.

For example… I grew up in New England (mostly Maine, but a fair amount of time in Massachusetts), and I’ve been told my accent really comes out on certain words (like drawer). Plus my particular part of Mainehas a unique term for tourists—goatropers—that my tongue still tries to fling out now and then. But at this point I’ve now spent (wow) half my life in southern California, so I’ve also picked up the odd habit of using “the” with freeway and highway numbers. And I started calling that strip of land the devil strip, just because I saw it explained that way once and fell in love with it. And my partner and I’ve been watching a lot of British gardening shows lately, so I’m pretty sure we’re using a lot of their terminology now.

And that last bit is what I wanted to talk about.

I’m betting most of you have had a job at some point with its own special vocabulary. Certain terms and phrases unique to that business. Sometimes they refer to specialized equipment, other times to certain practices or methods. If you were in retail, I bet you had to deal with a lot of terms that came down from some corporate desk, right?

And that’s another aspect of this. At that job, there were probably all the “correct” terms and phrases and names to use… and then there were the ones that actually got used on the job. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. There’s the way we get told it works, the way the people up top say it works… and there’s the way everybody down on the ground floor actually does it.

For example, again… most of you know I worked in the film industry for several years (a good chunk of that “half my life in Southern California” time). The film industry has a lot of special equipment and does a lot of things other jobs don’t, so it stands to reason there are a lot of special terms that get used. But… the terms that get used on a film set very often aren’t the ones that get taught at film school. Again and again I’d meet people who “knew” the industry, but were baffled by the actual terms used by the crew. Terms like needing a stinger, turning around, the abby singer, or the martini. And sometimes, yeah, it’s annoying but that martini gets an olive.

But it’s not like the film industry’s that rare. The military has a lot of their own terminology, and a lot of jargon that gets used in place of that terminology. So does the medical community. I’ve talked with my scientist-turned-urban-fantasy-author friend Kristi Charish numerous times about the language and phrases used in a lab. I have a bunch of friends in the game industry who’ve let jargon slide out now and then. I worked at a Walgreens through most of high school, a suit store for a year after college, and a few theaters in San Diego when I first moved to California. And all of these places had their own way of talking and referring to things. Even the samethings.

Weird as it may sound, this is why I like having beta readers with different backgrounds than me. And why I like talking with people who work in all sorts  of fields. Because so often they’ll tell me “this isn’t how Wakko would say this,” or “Dot would probably call this a…”

It’s also why I love talking to people in person (or these days, on Zoom) when I’m asking them questions about things. A lot of the time when they’re speaking (rather than writing it out), they’ll fall back on that jargon first because it’s the natural way they speak about things. And that’s what I want to know—how would my characters naturally talk about these topics. What parts of their work vocabulary leak into their day-to-day conversations?

Of course, this is all just for flavor. I don’t want to bury my dialogue in jargon for the same reason I probably don’t want to write out an extreme accent—I don’t want my readers to get lost or confused in the dialogue. Believe me, back when I was in the film industry, I brought many Thanksgiving dinners to a dead halt as I tried to explain “things that happened at work” to my family. Because these were casual, everyday terms for me, but they had noidea what I was talking about.

I want my readers to be able to flow past odd spellings or to figure out unusual terms from context. And I want the readers who know this jargon to see that I’ve done my research, for them to feel instantly familiar with the characters they should be identifying with the most. Again, just that dash of flavor that makes something perfect.

So learn those odd terms and casual phrases. Make characters talk like the people they’re supposed to be, in the jobs they’re supposed to have. Because it’ll grab your readers and pull them deeper into the story.

And personally, I like it when my writing pulls readers deeper into the story.

Next time, I thought I might go back over a few basics.

Until then, go write.

July 21, 2020

SDCC @ Home

In the before time, this would be the day I pack up and drive down to San Diego to beat the traffic. I’d crash with some friends, play some games, watch a movie, have a drink or three, and then tomorrow would begin the fun logistical nightmare that is San Diego Comic Con.

Of course, I moved to San Diego, and last year I found out how much easier some aspects of SDCC are when you can just walk a few blocks and hop on the train to downtown. And now that I’ve worked out the kinks, this year should be…

Oh. Right.

While SDCC is technically not happening, the folks behind it are trying to bring a lot of it home to, well, everyone. Panels and programs are getting released online, and you can spend the next few days watching and learning. Plus a lot of side things are going on directly from vendors, publishers, and even some creative folks like me.

For example…

Friday at 4:00 (PST)on the SDCC YouTube Channel, I’m going to be on a panel with Kiersten White, Henry Herz, and Fonda Lee as we talk about creating worlds, characters, and conflicts as sci-fi and fantasy writers.

Saturday at 12:00 (PST) on Twitter, I’m going to be hosting an unofficial geekery watch party with a couple author friends and a trio of great B-movies to comment on. Krull. Constantine. Resident Evil. We’re going to watch them all, talk about why we love them, the things they do really well… and some of the thing they don’t. Plus, there’s going to be some giveaways from Audible (seriously) and tons of celebrity guests (no, not seriously… probably).

Sunday… well, normally we do some version of the Writers Coffeehouse at SDCC. As some of you know I’ve been trying to get it going again as an online Q & A/ discussion, where I ask a bunch of writer friends to help answer your questions about writing. There’s already a few episodes up on my own YouTube channel, and on Sunday I’m going to put up a lot more. So hop over there and get answers from Django Wexler, Kristi Charish, A. Lee Martinez, ML Brennan, Stephen Blackmoore, and more.

And all of this for the low, low price of absolutely free, delivered to you right there on your couch as you safely physically distance and do your part to help get Covid under control.


November 26, 2018 / 3 Comments

Cyber Monday VII: The Purchasing

            Well, it’s that time of year where some ugly truths must be addressed.  Artists only get to make art because they get paid.  Artists get paid when people buy their art.
            I’m going to talk to you about buying stuff.
            While I do one of these lists every year, I find myself in a weird place right now.  Y’see, I technically haven’t had anything new come out this year.  Which hasn’t happened in… well, about ten years.  I think the last time I didn’t have something new come out—a novel or a story in an anthology or something—was back in 2007.

            Granted, I do have things out in new formats.  Paradox Bound came out in a wonderful paperback this year.  My second novel ever—The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe—finally came out as an audiobook.  But new stuff…

            Look, next year’s going to be crazy.
            Anyway, I figured as far as my s own stuff goes… just look at last year’s list.  Or the links above.  That covers just about everything.  Plus, I’m doing my usual holiday deal/promotion with Dark Delicacies—get in touch with them in the next two weeks or so and you can order a personalized, autographed book.  If they’ve got it, you can buy it, I’ll sign it, and they’ll ship it to you.
            What I thought I’d talk about instead—sort of combining two annual posts into one—is a bunch of the other books I’ve read this year.  There’ve been one or two I didn’t like, a bunch that were really fun, and a couple that were just friggin’ amazing.
            So let me tell you about those.  Then you can go pick them up for somebody special or just add them to your own holiday wish list.

The God Gene by F. Paul Wilson is the latest book in his ICE Sequence series.  It’s a wonderfully creepy story about a missing scientist and evolution.  If you or someone you love likes sci-fi thrillers, this is a great one.  And I think the new one comes out in five or six weeks, so if you like it, there’s barely any wait ‘til the next one.

Kill All Angels is Robert Brockway’s freakin’ masterpiece conclusion to his Vicious Circuit books.  The story of an aging punk rocker and a Hollywoodstuntwoman trying to save the world from Lovecraftian cosmic entities who can unwrite your entire existence.

One of Us by Craig diLouie is a modern masterpiece.  Seriously.  It’s X-Men meets To Kill A Mockingbird, about mutant children growing up in the deep south.  It’s dark and beautiful and—unless something happens in the next four weeks—unquestionably the best book I read this year

Lipstick Voodoo by Kristi Charish is a bit of a cheat on this list.  I got to read it early for blurbs, and it’s not going to be out until early next year.  But if you like the undead, urban fantasy, a bit of naughtiness, and a bit of mystery… you might want to save a gift card for this one.
I kinda stumbled across Copperhead.  It’s a comic book/graphic novel series by Jay Faerber, Scott Godlewski, Drew Moss and it’s just magnificent.  I’ve seen “western/frontier in space” done many times and many ways, but never as well as this.  It’s fantastic visual storytelling and seriously, Netflix… what the hell?  Why aren’t we all binging this right now?

Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig is the only non-fiction book on this list.  it’s a wonderful (and very entertaining) piece about the art of storytelling.  Not writing, but the act of telling stories and narratives and so on.  Chuck says a lot of stuff about character and dialogue and structure that I’ve said here on my ranty blog, but he says it in a much more entertaining way.  It really is a must-have book if you’re interested about any form of storytelling.

The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera is about two girls with grand destinies ahead of each of them who decide to forge one together.  It’s a beautiful, truly epic story of love, demons, and women with swords.  In my top five of the year, no question.

Atomic Robo by Brian Clevenger & Scott Wegener is one of those comic series I’ve heard about for years but never read until I got a volume as a housewarming gift.  It’s about a sentient robot built by Nikolai Tesla who now carries on his creator’s work of trying to improve the world while also fighting assorted super-villains and monsters out to destroy it.  It’s ridiculously fun and something for the sci-fi/pulp lover in your life.

The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French is a fantasy novel I first heard about a year or two back (Jonathan and I have the same editor).  I’m not usually much of a fantasy guy, but the idea of this was so clever I had to check it out.  Orc gangs that ride actual hogs and patrol their territories, with all sorts of gang rivalries and politics.  It’s fun, exciting, kinda sexy, and just fantastic.

I Only Killed Him Once by Adam Christopher is yet another series ender.  The final story of Ray Electromatic, the robot detective turned hitman in 1950’s Hollywood. This time Ray’s on a case that might lead him to the secrets of his past… but first he has to get his current “client” to stay dead.

Girl Like A Bomb by Autumn Christian is another cheat.  This is a fascinating book about what it really means to be your best, mixed with a healthy dose of sex-positivism (new word?  You know what I mean…), and what it’s like to be the person with the unusual superpower that controls all of this.  Unfortunately for you, this is another “save a gift card”  one—it’s up for preorder now and on sale in the spring.

Constance Verity Saves the World by A. Lee Martinez is more fun with the woman blessed (or cursed) to have a life full of excitement and adventure who really just wants to enjoy settling in to her new condo with her accountant boyfriend.  These books are so much friggin’ fun and if there’s any justice in the world we would see them on the big screen.

            And real quick, you also can’t go wrong with Heroine’s Journey by Sarah Kuhn, Kill the Farmboy by Delilah Dawson & Kevin Hearne, Zeroes by Chuck Wendig, or any of the Sandman Slimbooks by Richard Kadrey.  And I may add to that previous sentence in the next week or two.

            And there you have it.  A bunch of my favorite things I read this year (even if they’re not available quite yet).  Please feel free to add any favorites of your own in the comments below.
            And also, despite all the reference links up above, please think about going to your local bookstore or comic shop to pick up one of these or get it ordered for you.  It may cost you a dollar or two more—and I realize dollars can add up fast this time of year—but you’re supporting local businesses and not the monolithic corporate giants.  That’s something you can humblebrag about until New Year’s Eve, easy.  “Oh yeah–I look for stuff on Amazon, but then I only buy from my neighborhood store.”
            And also-also—if this is all too much for you, financially, please don’t forget my regular Black Friday offer.
            Happy Holidays.
            Back to writing-related stuff on Thursday.
June 21, 2018 / 3 Comments

So You Want to be a Writer?

            Okay, so I’m about neck-deep in a draft right now, racing a deadline, and was a little worried I wouldn’t have time for a ranty blog post this week.
            Then, lucky for all of us, I got a message from Kristi Charish.

           I’ve mentioned Kristi twice or thrice here before.  She’s—and I’m not joking—an archeologist turned genetic engineer turned fantasy author.  No, seriously.  She’s pretty much solely responsible for making me like urban fantasy for the first time since college.  The first book in her Kincaid Strange series, The Voodoo Killings, is finally available in the US as a paperback, so you should go grab a copy.

            Anyway, because we live in different countries with a sizable chunk of North America between us, it was a special treat to get to hang out with Kristi in person at Phoenix Comic Fest last month.  There were many drinks and meals, and much talk about writing and publishing.  Including one very interesting discussion about teaching, fueled by her much more academic viewpoint.
            And then a few days ago, as I was wondering if this’d be a skip week for the ranty blog, Kristi got in touch with me and asked if I’d be interested in that discussion as a guest post…
            So here’s Ms. Charish with her informed thoughts on writing, higher education, and success (with a bunch of random links from me to semi-related posts I’ve made here)
            Maybe you’ve always dreamt of being an author, or perhaps you’ve recently begun to dabble in prose on your off time. Maybe you’ve entertained fantasies of seeing your name on your book as you pass by the window of your favorite bookstore? Or, better yet, coming across the fruit of your imagination while surfing on Netflix.
            Fantastic! We like dreamers. Welcome to a profession that attracts a damnably eccentric mix of eclecticism!
            But you’re new to the game, and like the studious person the western schooling system has honed you to be, you feel compelled to expand your education, broaden that nebulous toolbox of literary-like writing and story-telling skills the critics, pros, and amateur spectators alike keep going on about.
            You’re considering courses, a workshop – maybe even – gasp – an outright, all in, financially crippling, higher degree!
           Do I encourage pursuit of the full-fledged-degree-kind in the pursuit of writerly knowledge? Absolutely. By all means, pursue a higher education. Do a degree, ANY degree.
            …Whatever you do don’t make it an MFA in creative writing, and here’s why. 
The World’s Bestest Heart Surgeon
           Imagine you are the head of a prestigious medical school and you are a great heart surgeon – one of the world’s best. You’re so good at being a heart surgeon, you think you know the secret to training them. So much so you decide that over the next four years, you’re going to concentrate all your resources on proving you can.
            You meet with the rest of the staff (well, mostly the four other heart surgeons…) and all of you agree producing the world’s best heart surgeons is a worthy pursuit. It’s your duty as patrons of the heart surgeon caste to make more heart surgeons. You cut back on all the nonsense and distractions – pediatrics, infectious diseases, family medicine, dermatology – anything that doesn’t pertain to becoming an awesome, world’s bestest heart surgeon until the courses are all about heart health and surgery.
            500 students, a staff on board, a university endowment, plus all that tuition? It’s a bet you can’t lose! Heart Surgeon World Awards, here we come!
            Time travel four years and, low and behold, you have in your graduating class two of the world’s most up and coming heart surgeons! Everyone is gushing over their surgery technique and breathlessly anticipating the next research article. As an institution you have achieved world acclaim – Success!
            …At least until everyone starts asking what happened to the 498 other students…you know, the ones who didn’t make the World’s Best Heart Surgeon cut?
            Six other students had a natural aptitude for heart surgery. Not world’s best, but they go on to productive if not lucrative careers. Another ten aren’t cut out for surgery – the stress, hand eye coordination, can’t stand 7 hours without taking a pee – but they can teach. A couple get jobs at instructors at other universities.
            …that leaves 482 students. Students who were talented, clever, and industrious enough to get into medical school but for one reason or another didn’t make the heart surgeon cut. A lot of them would have made fantastic dermatologists, pediatricians, family physicians, nephrologists, epidemic specialists, etc, but, well, after four years listening to their professors go on about how this was the best medial school because it only trained heart surgeons, and how heart surgery was the only surgery worth performing, any other pursuit of medicine is a waste of time and meant you were second rate…Eventually they drink the Kool-Aid. Most never pick up a medical tool or book ever again, and the few who might have?
            Shame they can’t since they’ve had no other medical training whatsoever.
            But… you know… two World’s Best Heart Surgeons/500 students. Sometimes you need to sacrifice a cow…or was it an army?
            Look, we’re going to need your entire student body. Don’t ask why, just trust us it’s for the greater artistic good…
            If the Greatest Heart Surgeon Medical School was real it would be considered a resounding failure. Any program – history, life science, biology, forestry- run that way would be shut down – fast – because everyone grasps that there is more to medicine and a robust medical community than heart surgery and wasting 80% of your student body trying to mold the best isn’t just wrong, it’s stupid, idiotic, asinine, the work of a delusional heart surgery megalomaniac.
            Yet that’s what the majority of MFA creative writing programs do.
            Writing is an important communication and entertainment medium. It’s a way to discuss ideas, cultural shifts, politics – you name it – in ways that can’t be done with YouTube and FB articles. It’s storytelling. And just as in medicine where many disciplines are necessary to get the full picture, many kinds of writers and media make for a healthy and entertaining writing community. There’s no one right way or right type of novel to produce.
            Yet what I described above for the World’s Best Heart Surgery School isn’t too far off from how the majority of MFA programs are run. Damn the rest of the writing and entertainment world – we produce literary geniuses here! There’s a history there that Peter touched on in a previous post but it boils down to this: The inception of the Creative Writing MFA program wasn’t catalyzed by a desire or need for more novelists. They were invented as a Post-World War 2 tuition grab – a student holding cell. It’s morphed a bit over the last 80 years but the essential building blocks remain.
            Creative Writing Programs claim to be a pursuit of excellence in literature (FYI – probably not the kinds of book I, Peter, or anyone else who’s ever guested on this blog writes). But, funny thing, when you ask how well the writing careers are going for the majority of alumni (not the two or three prodigy examples they trot out), they tend to waffle on about how a degree in creative writing is about personal growth, not vocational training (AKA: tuition/student holding cell). 
           Well, I call bull…

You Really Don’t Need an MFA to be a Serious Novelist
            Back to the World’s Bestest Heart Surgery School, the university president has stopped by to scream about the incredibly poor vocational success of, well, most of your graduates. Like always, you hold up your two gifts to heart surgery Godhood (full disclosure: I don’t think the MFA success rate is anywhere near that high)…
            And find out that the History, Biology, and Marine Biology departments have all also produced three equally gifted heart surgeons who are outcompeting yours.
            It’s incredibly unlikely that a History program would produce a heart surgeon– there are very specific things you need to learn like heart anatomy and how to cut someone open without killing them.
            But creative writing is weird. You can learn to write almost anywhere. Law school, journalism, real medical school. Not only can these vocations inspire you, but unlike and MFA, which purports to teach you how to be literary, these other disciplines are trying to teach you something else entirely – they’re trying to teach you how to communicate the ideas you learn to the outside world. That’s priceless. That’s called perspective, and it’s what makes the writer and writing interesting, engaging.
            A great example is Carl Hiaasen, who was a journalist in Florida for many a year before he became a NYTbest-selling satire novelist. What does he write about? Corrupt politicians making scuzzy land deals in Florida, the war being waged on the beautiful everglades, and the very few and far between honest people who are trying to save his beloved state. It’s captivating, its relatable, he knows his material well and he communicates in a way that makes millions of readers care too.
            Much like the World’s Best Heart Surgery School doesn’t see the point in pediatricians, I worry that most MFA programs don’t see the merit and value of a Carl Hiaasen book.
           And he’s not the only example. Would Michael Crichton have written such a captivating novel about a deadly extraterrestrial virus or bringing dinosaurs back to life if he’d done an MFA over medical school? Diana Gabaldon of Outlander fame holds three degrees in science, including marine biology, and it shows in all the science she trickles through her novels.
>            It’s a distinct possibility that my alma matter’s Department of Science has produced more successful novelists in the last ten years than MFA Writing Program…
            Claiming to teach literary artistry is all fine and well but there has to be some kind of tangible real-world, quantifiable measurement of success, otherwise it becomes a nebulous black box, a dark corner…. And nebulous boxes and dark corners are where things from 80s horror movies and Peter’s books hide, so if that’s the only reason you decide to skip the MFA so be it.
            The point is you (and your bank account) really don’t need an MFA to be a great writer. 

But I really want to improve my writing, and, you know…writing rules.
            Sigh. Let it be said that you can teach yourself writing by reading and lots of practice. There is no reason for you to spend money to become an author.
            Disclaimer aside, if you are hell bent on burning money or feel you really need the support, these are some options I can recommend.
            Cheapest/ Best Value: Writing groups/coffee house meet-ups. Free for the price of a coffee. Google your area but I hear The Writer’s Coffeehouse is popular.
            Cheap/ Good Value: Community Centers/Library writing programs. Average 6 weeks to 2 months a couple nights a week and range Free -$100. Often run by a published author vetted by the community center.
            Medium priced/ Still Good Value: Community College Writing Classes. Evening or afternoon classes that run roughly six to eight weeks and cost anywhere from $120-200. Bonus: Instructors often have teaching credentials.

            Expensive/Questionable value/not recommended: All Star/Celebrity/NYT Bestselling/Intensive Author Workshop and/or Cruise. They range from two to six weeks, cost upwards of four grand, and often boast a rotating roster of world class authors as instructors. You do get one on one time with the authors as advertised and that might be incentive enough for the odd superfan. I don’t recommend them. The instructors might be star studded novelists but that doesn’t mean they can teach and their alumni track records leave much to be desired. In comparison, self-driven, free writer’s groups have a staggering publication success rate. A new laptop and a trip to a remote cabin to write is arguably a much better return

on a four thousand dollar investment.