What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listening To: October 2018

Reading:

I've just finished Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I know I'm late to the party on this one, but I hear his name thrown around a lot in fantasy circles and as it just so happens I put out a fantasy novelette this very month. 

I didn't initially set out to write a fantasy piece, but when you work in horror and sci-fi, the other two branches of spec fiction, I guess you can find yourself slipping down that road. It was only once I was collaborating with an editor when I thought the horror I'd written was nearly finished that I realized I had a dark fantasy work on my hands, and I decided to finally delve into that literary world with one of the heavy hitters. I am also looking forward to giving the adapted tv series a shot now that I've finished the book.

Now for my thoughts on the book. First, I found the ending, the main conclusion of the gods' war to be both unforeseen and satisfying. Sometimes those are hard to accomplish together, to give readers something they didn't flush out already, but have all the pieces laid along the story for it to make perfect sense. Gaiman did that very well.

Second, as I started the book I was finding the main character, Shadow, a bit dull, an empty body to which bad things were happening, but that turned out to be intentional and a necessity for the character to grow beyond. So in the end, that turned around, and I found the character more interesting. Well done.

But finally, I have to say I don't think I liked this book as much as I thought I would. The original premise was exciting and had my mind running with all the possibilities, but I guess I found the story hefty on research (and I felt it came off as exceptionally well researched) but ultimately lacking on drawing me into exciting happenings. Even the god war near the end was all but glossed over with little intimate detail what-so-ever.

 I think what I found most compelling were the little tangential stories of characters who brought certain gods to America. Maybe my trouble is that building a character on known mythology risks seeming unoriginal. Then if you don't take that character into new and exciting places, you wind up dull. The characters were no doubt twists on established mythologies, and the new gods were original ideas, but it just never reached the level of excitement for which I hungered. I still found it a good book, and will likely give it four stars on my book rating accounts, but with all the hype I thought it would be a five star read for sure.

Watching:

As of this post, I'm three episodes into the new Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, and I love every minute of it. Full disclosure, I haven't read the original Shirley Jackson novel, though I think I'm likely to do so in the near future. I was familiar with the story by word of mouth and previous adaptations, but the new spin of a family reflecting on the event of the house, after the fact, and the very contemporary personal problems each character is already dealing with at this point in the series has me enthralled. I think I'm fast becoming an S. Jackson fan as well as a fan of the series director, Mike Flanagan. Horror buffs should not miss this one.

Listing to:

Is there something to listen to in October besides the soundtrack for The Nightmare Before Christmas? Not if my kids are around, but I caught someone posting Logic's "Wu Tang Forever" on facebook. I wasn't familiar with Logic, but I was hip to the Wu Tang which is indeed forever, so I gave it a listen.

To say I was impressed would be an understatement. Logic slides right into the classic through-back to Wu Tang heyday. Excited, I gave some of the other works of this new (to me) hip-hop artist and was thoroughly confused. Confused that I'd somehow never come across him before. So now, I guess I'm a fan of Logic's too.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listening To. September 2018

Reading:

This month, I've started a couple of books but haven't finished any, not that they aren't good, so I'm sure I'll be talking about them soon. However, I've also been reading quite a bit with my son who just started Kindergarten, and he has been interested in the A Series of Unfortunate Events books, so I've read five installments in as many weeks. Therefore, this month my recent reads section will have to fall to Lemony Snicket.

This is not a consolation, I think these books are delightful, but I usually strive to talk about books which are intended for an audience as mature as that which I imagine for the books I write. That said, though these books fall under children's literature, anyone who has read one can tell you they lean mature in theme and content for the children's genre.

On a personal note, shortly after finishing college I spent about two years working in production in local news at a network affiliate in Cedar Rapids, IA. I don't recall what year it was, but at some point during my tenure, our morning anchor did a series of short live interviews with Lemony Snicket (the author in his character) via satellite. I wasn't familiar with the books, at 22-23 y/o I didn't have my thumb on the pulse of children's literature, so I don't even recall what in particular the author was promoting. By looking at the years of publication, I can suppose it was the release of one of the last two books in the series.

What I do recall is that the author was rude, evasive, argumentative, acted superior, and was even a bit cruel to our anchor. I imagined he was behaving in character, as I knew the author wasn't really Lemony Snicket, that it was a pen name packed with its own personality, and found it a bit funny. Our anchor tired to be a good sport, but even when the camera wasn't on, and the author was getting technical cues from our producer before, and after each interview segment, the author was rude, evasive, argumentative, and acted superior to our staff as well. It left a bad impression for me, but one I didn't give tremendous thought to as I wasn't that interested in the first place.

Fast forward ten years and Netflix adapts the books for a series starring the one and only NPH. Given my respect for the actor, and with the series continuing into a second season, I had to reconsider my casual stance against the author (his persona) and the books. Thus, I started one with my son. We are both glad I did. The books are a little difficult at times for a kindergartener but touch on subjects worth discussing. They promote children building advanced vocabulary, building strong character, and building new inventions, plus the stores are just plain entertaining. I'm thoroughly enjoying these books, and even if my son decided he wanted to stop the series, I think I'd finish it.

One confusing thing, however, is that I was expecting the narrator (Lemony Snicket) to be a terrible, insulting, and judgmental voice, just like the man we interviewed. True, the narrator, talks about dark themes and doesn't baby the reader through it, but he is empathetic towards the hardship of the characters, is matter-of-fact about their troubles, explores a bit of dry humor, but ultimately seems caring about both the characters and us the reader. In fact, the persona I saw interviewed seemed much more like the villain, Count Olaf than the narrator.

Who knows? Maybe after a long day with dozens of interviews, someone challenged Daniel Handler to do one set with the bumkins in Iowa as Olaf instead of Snicket, but no one let us in on the joke. Now my feelings are mixed, but I'm glad I'm enjoying the books. Maybe one should never judge a book by the insults it's author slings at you. (Or rather, those around you.)

Watching:

I rarely ever truly binge-watch anything. With a five-year-old and a one-year-old the opportunity to let Netflix just cruise on into another episode is pretty rare, especially in a month where MLB races come to a head and College Football Kicks off, but the closest I've come to a binge as of late was taking in the full season of Altered Carbon in under two weeks.

First of all, I love the sci-fi basis for this show. For those who haven't dabbled, Altered Carbon's narrative hinges on the existence of technology that lets people hold their consciousness in quasi-bio storage disks which can be downloaded or physically transferred into new bodies. It's like one's mind held in a thumb-drive with a seemingly endless ability to hot-swap. The idea was entirely original to me and set my imagination running in a thousand directions.

The characters are interesting, engaging, and diverse; the storyline is exciting, high-concept, and yet believable; but what the show does best is transcribe recognizable social problems (from economic inequality to gender-targeted violence to religious fanaticism) into engaging story arcs— as most good science-fiction seems to do.

I'm very excited to see this show go into another season, which leads me to my final point of praise, the show's concept of body-hopping sets the stage for an endless freshening of the cast and plot. Characters can be killed off, then return in new bodies without significant plot-holes, the cast can be swapped out seamlessly without compromising continuity. In fact, major characters could be moved into children, elderly, or opposite-gender bodies to create drama, humor, relationship issues and much more. For that matter, characters could swap each other's bodies to create compelling mystery or unsettling hilarity. Heck, the same protagonist could be moved to a different body (different lead actor) only to meet his former self (original lead actor) as an antagonist. The possibilities seem limitless.

I'm anxious to see what the future holds for Altered Carbon.

Listening to:

Just like many people do when Christmas nears, in expectation of Halloween about a month away, I lean toward mood-setting tunes. Unlike the Yuletide season, Halloween music is a bit harder to cultivate, especially if one wants to look beyond Danny Elfman scores and different versions of "The Monster Mash." I'm glaring at you Pandora. Thus, I currently find myself queuing up the 2013 Dan the Automator and Emily Wells collaborative album, Pillowfight.

The music features eerie instrumentals, dark themes, and ghostly vocals to create a scary atmosphere, not for a horror blood-letting, but more of a solo walk through the graveyard at night. Let me also add; its unobtrusiveness works wonderfully for having in the background while I'm cranking away writing a new spooky story.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listing. August 2018

Reading:

I'm just finishing Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man's Fundamentals of Delicious Living by Nick Offerman. Usually, my reading tends toward fiction, and when it doesn't, it usually involves non-fiction that related to a fiction story I'm writing. Or in other words, research. However, I'd had this book way back in my "to read" pile for years. I think the world of Nick Offerman's acting, and find him to be an exceptional humorist when out-of-character as well. I caught a part of Offerman's new reality series about crafting and was drawn back to check out this book.

Let me tell you. It has been a delight. Offerman addresses his youth and his journey to acting success, with many tidbits of blue-collar philosophy to boot, and every bit of it hit home with me. His growing up in rural Illinois, though a decade or two before my own formative years, does not seem to have differed much from my own rural Iowa youth. This built an immediate connection for me.

Offerman follows that with an insistence that hard work, not pan-handling to entertainment trends, and keeping his life rich with non-acting endeavors were all keys to his career success. This spoke comfortingly to my own striving toward a writing and screenwriting career on a ladder to success which I'm personally still trying climb.  Best of all, every statement of wisdom is accompanied by at least two instances of deadpan hilarity. This book was good for my spirit and for my heart.

Watching:

I finally carved out the time to watch the 2017 revival of Twin Peaks. I'm careful not to call it a "reboot," because most of the time I'm not in favor of rehashing old entertainment properties when there are plenty of original ideas waiting to see the light of day. In this case, however, the new season picks up where the original left off, addresses some of the unresolved issues left dangling (though not particularly resolving them) and features many of the original characters, with as far as I can tell, all the original actors and actress reprising their roles. Not everyone from the original Twin Peaks returns but my compliments to Lynch and Frost for writing around those characters, rather than re-casting any. It also brings an entirely new set of characters into the story, many of which are fielded by actors with whom David Lynch fans are familiar.

Perhaps a more significant distinction in my mind, between a reboot and a revival, is that I don't consider Twin Peaks to have been a major commercial property, in the first place. It had its cult following and continued to gain fans over the years out of cinephiles and film students, but altogether it's not a blockbuster property. So to me, the fresh season didn't seem to be cashing in on the fanbase but instead feeding them what they've been hungry for low these many years.

Outright, I must say, I loved this new season. Through my eyes, it was prime David Lynch. One could label what sets Lynch apart, as weirdness, abstractness, deep symbolism, what-have-you, but to me, I equate it metaphorically to salt. Just as a little salt can make manilla food a little better, a little weirdness can make an average story a little better. A bit more salt can make your average snake a delicious treat, though you might want to watch how much you eat. Likewise, a lot of weirdness can make a story a unique and enthralling treat, but it probably loses it appeal if everything you watch is that way. And to follow the metaphor to an end, salt alone does not make a supremely delectable dish, and in turn, a story which is all weirdness and abstraction without at least the vestige of a followable plot which seems to be heading somewhere coherent makes for dismal viewing. In Lynch's canon, I believe you can find all three. A few projects which flirt with weird, a few which go way too far, with more weird than plot, and many which fit deliciously in the middle. And I found the New Twin Peaks to hit that sweet spot dead center.

I'll even go farther to say, there were moments of what I'm going to call "meta-Lynch" at play. Where I felt Lynch, and let us not forget his partner Frost, gave a little more than usual in order to show the foundation that led up to some of the particular abstraction. For example, in the new season, we see a character come running down the road with a gold-painted shovel to pronounce she's "shoveling her way out of the shit." Another point, we see a woman and her young son, worried, sitting by the side of their comatose husband/father in a hospital only to have a dazed woman in a poofy cocktail dress bring in a tray of sandwiches as if they were at a party. Both of these moments sound very Lynch-esque, but where the new Twin Peaks departed is that each of these moments had a half dozen scenes laying the groundwork for why this ends up occurring, as odd as it is. It's important because it changes the effect. Where once the shoveler or the waitress may have simply appeared and the viewer would be left to ponder, "what was that? Why did that happen? Was I supposed to get that?" Instead, we received a stream of scenes where first we say "that's odd," then we build to "this is getting weird" then "is this going somewhere," only to have it reach a quintessential Lynch scene of intersection only instead of saying "that's weird" we say "ah ha, so that is where that was going." And then proceed to giggle with delight. That's why I call it "meta-Lynch" as if Lynch were poking just a bit of fun at the weird, pop-up abstractions that have been hallmarks of his career.

I stayed away from the new Twin Peaks for a while because I was worried I would be disappointed, but it was magic. If they go on to do any more, as has been rumored, I'll be eager to indulge.

Listening:

Let's just call my music taste eclectic. Some years ago reggae crept up on this small town mid-westerner as my favorite genre, Steely Dan is my all-time favorite group, and I'm just as likely to groove to the Mamas and Papas as Childish Gambino (even though This is America was both catchy and profound). My taste encompasses just about anything except electronic and country, but what's playing on my iTunes as a craft this post is Cardi B's "Invasion of Privacy."

A few things I like about it. First, it is catchy. Several tracks have different toe-tapping beats, Ms. B's vocals are pleasing and pretty tight. I don't listen to rap all the time, but some, and there is a list of rappers I love to which I'm not necessarily adding Cardy B.

One weakness for me is the all-to-common boastful self-aggrandizing present in the lyrics, but once you look past that, Cardi B has a compelling story spanning the tracks of the album. Her personal story as a stripper turned successful rapper, doesn't necessarily deviate far from all the drug-dealer turned rapper stories we've seen before, but it definitely has a new flavor and one unique to the female perspective in her work.

What I like most, is the presence of a consistent and interlocking theme to the album as a whole. Every track ties into the others and weaves a story across songs. It seems rare to see that sort of cohesion in the age of surfing the latest hit singles on shuffle mode, so it is pleasing to stumble onto it once in a while.

Good. Now anyone googling "David Lynch and Cardi B" finally has a result to pull up. You're Welcome, internet.
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What Makes for a Good In-Person Promotion? (Authors)


Have any other authors out there ever been invited to or heard about an author event somewhere within driving distance, which boasts there will be five, ten, maybe twenty authors at an indie bookstore or some such place, so you signed up. You watched as the event posted dozens of times on Facebook, you shared all the posts with your own followers (as if they didn’t have your books already) you loaded up your book stock, drove over, and then spent most of the day chatting with other authors while everyone collectively sold an average of half a book per person?

I’ve only published one book (although I have two new novelettes coming in May), and I still have lots to learn about book promoting, but I’ve tried a lot in the way of live appearances. I’ve self organized book signings at book stores and once in a coffee shop, I’ve participated in a small bookstore’s “author day” with several authors. I’ve been to a special author event featuring more than 50 authors in the fourth largest city in the country, and yet in my experience, as an essentially unknown author, results have been less-than-encouraging.

Now, maybe you’re thinking, I don’t have the personality to generate interest and sales, that I’m too introverted, not engaging people. However, I’ve also tried my hand at pop-culture events such as comic-cons, places most attendees aren’t coming to find authors and books, and at some of these events, I’ve sold boxes of my novel. I’d even go as far as to say that I can turn about one in five people who slow down long enough to be spoken to into a sale at such events - not a bad batting average in my opinion.

So I have to ask, why do I have such poor results with book events, and so much better results at events where books are at best one small part of a much bigger focus on pop-culture and entertainment? Is it simply a number’s game? Perhaps. The author event with 50 of us word crafters only drew in 300 people, even in a huge city, while a comic-con, in a city less than half the size can pull in 30,000. Is success dependent merely on the quantity of foot traffic?

My intuition leads me to think the attendees of a specific book event come ready to purchase several books, while most the comic-con-goers, as I mentioned before, weren’t even expecting to see authors peddling their works when they showed up in their costumes. I suppose you can’t account for the quality of the product, at least not until you go buy and read my novel (wink, wink) but I wonder if the issue is more one of how routine and avid readers behave in the first place?

Reading is more solitary and less flashing than the other kinds of entertainment out there. Is merely speaking to authors and seeing a bunch of them sitting around waiting to sign books not enough of an event to get readers out of the house? Do we need to start including live bands, acrobats, or celebrities in our author gatherings in order to elevate them to event status?

Another difference maker I’ve noticed is that at comic-con sort of events I’m usually able to sit in on or host some sort of short discussion or panel. I get to stand in front of a few people and talk, either about my material or about general genre topics. This activity has translated to a handful of readers heading over to find me and buy my book afterwards. However, I’ve also gone to a huge book festival which held a tight schedule of 15 minute talks by authors in blocks of four hours straight over the entire weekend, and then watched as one after the other authors stood and gave talks to a dozen empty chairs, or maybe to eleven empty chairs and the next author in line who was waiting their turn.

So I ask, what makes for a good live appearance? Is it a must that some other, crowd-drawing activity be included? Is it a must that we authors are given time to speak, at least in panels? Does every author event simply need big name author signings, so we lesser-known authors can hope to draw a few sales as the under-card? Or is it out of our hands, where how the event promotes itself is the real difference?
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Classic Review: The Great God Pan

I came across the short story, The Great God Pan as I was preparing a few of my own horror shorts for submission to publishers. I'd also seen it recommended in an article by Steven King. Thus, I picked up a copy to give it a read. I was not disappointed.

The story was disjoint, following several different characters in a few different places and jumping time. I found the tell of the story similar to Bram Stoker's Dracula, drawing from several sources to compile one story line, though it that story isn't given to us readers sequentially. I enjoyed the book, and as is needed for such a disjoint presentation, all the parts came together in the end to a satisfying conclusion. The characters were interesting, though I'll note the characters we follow were not particularly diverse.

My only issue with the novel would be the clarity of characters. In fact, I was thoroughly confused by the last chapter, as to what character we had returned too, and I couldn't grasp the story climax without knowing. I read it twice and ended up having to go look up online which character was narrating the last chapter. What I found was the last chapter had three distinct sections, each with its own narrator, each a return to a previous character. With that knowledge, It all made since.

I was satisfied with the end, and the copy I got of the story was many times removed from the story's original publication. I suspect, the story has aged to public domain, and I believe the publisher took some short cuts to get the story on fewer pages. Thus, I don't know if a better-formatted edition might not have left me confused on that last chapter. As a result, I don't feel right to rate the story lower because of this narrator confusion issue. You get the benefit of the doubt Mr. Machen, five stars.
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Classic Book Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Given the reach and influence The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has had into pop culture, along with the admiration many of my friends have had for the series since we were young teens, I expected this book to be well suited to my taste and a pleasure to read. Unfortunately, perhaps my expectations were too high.

While there were a few gems of imagination and pure oddity which rightfully belong in the larger pop-culture and literary canon of references, there were so many details which were weird, seemingly just for the sake of being weird, that the actual plot was drug to a glacial pace. 

Furthermore, I found that the non-sequiturs humor, which I admit is perfectly in line with many great works of entertainment from the same era of UK humor, rarely landed for me, and again the jokes were so numerous they proved a huge distraction from the plot. One caveat I'll add, however, is that I can see where I might have found the rambling humor and saturation of visual oddity, a bit more appealing if I were 13 years old.

I had planned to read the entire series, and in fact, I bought all five books, but now I'm don't feel what I got out of this book warrants putting its successors at the top of my reading list.
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How Long Did It Take You to Write?


Though my first novel has been out for only a year, I’ve already noticed there are a few questions that seem to arise over and over again from the prospective readers I meet while promoting the book. “Where’d you get the idea?” “Is it a series?” “Where is it set?” All are straightforward questions which are easy enough to answer. I believe, going forward as an author, I should expect to answer those same questions every time I step out into the world intending to push my stories onto the public. But then there’s another frequent question: “How long did it take you to write,” which isn’t quite so straightforward to answer. If you’re an author, is this one you hear often?

It’s not that I can’t remember when I first sat down and opened that new Word file which would become my manuscript, or that I can’t calculate the length of time between then and when the book came out. That’s simple. The difficulty in answering is in the implication the question gives of the asker. It is almost certain that they have an idea they’ve been harboring for their own novel, but have actually written little or nothing of it, and they’re trying to gain perspective on the work ahead of them if they move forward with it. Like a person standing at the bottom of a big hill, shouting to another who’s standing on top: “How far is it up?”

Knowing that a mountain of work lies ahead when one undertakes writing a novel, I feel obligated not to mislead a prospective writer, nor do I want to dissuade them. Writing a novel is likely to be measured in months and years, not days and weeks. On top of that, for a first time author, after they’ve finished they’ll likely spend more months, if not over a year hunting for a publisher, and should they find one, their publisher will likely spend months, if not a year, preparing the material and the book’s marketing before it is finally released.

That said, not all months are created equal. One author might spend 18 months writing their novel, but still be working a day-job at the same time, while another author might spend 6 months writing their novel, working on the book full-time. Sometimes the writing process involves waiting time. An author might finish a draft and have to put it down for a few weeks, or a few months, to return to it with fresh eyes. An author might also be using the services of an editor or a critiquing group between drafts, and be subject to weeks or a month, waiting for those notes, before digging in on the next draft.

I am personally working away on my next novel, with the intent of working on it full-time, but I find that having another book already out means organizing and traveling to personal appearances every few weeks, interviews, blogging and keeping up with social media to cultivate my audience, plus reading and reviewing fellow authors, which all take time. Thus, even full-time writing only allows for a part-time schedule of actually composing the words on the pages of my next manuscript. All of this makes telling that eager but inexperienced writer “a year,” “eighteen months,” “two years,” at best incomplete answers.

“How long did it take you to write?” Recently, I’ve stumbled on a relatively simple way to answer which fellow authors might find helpful to respond effectively, and which might truly impart accurate perspective to the asker. Measure the effort in hours.

I spent about 1,500 hours on my first novel, from page one of my first draft through the end of the polished manuscript that actually found me a publisher. (Though that is not the end of the process, mind you.)

Of course every author and every project are different, but now the prospective author can calculate a realistic approximation. If they can spend 40 hours a week on their manuscript, they might expect about 8 or 9 months for writing a novel similar in length to mine. If they can spend 50 or 60 hours a week, they might cut that down. If they work full-time elsewhere and raise a family, and can only spare 10 hours a week, they might realistically expect the project to take 3 years. In any case, hopefully the process will streamline with successive books.

To all you prospective authors, it’s a lot of work. I hope this helps. Good luck.

To all you established authors, how do you answer this question?

Originally Posted on "Marilyn's Musings" blog, March, 2015.
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The Seed of a Story


It’s a none-to-uncommon question for authors, “where did you get the idea for your book?” But it’s not always an easy question to answer. I wonder if we can do a little better?
For me, I have many ideas swimming around in my head. Sometimes it’s a character, but I’m not sure where I’ll use them. Other times it’s a setting, a plot twist, or just a moment of intensity all without corresponding context. Once in a while, with a little luck, a bunch of these ideas come together and form something bigger, a foundation. Who’s to say which of that cluster was first, or even where it came from?
With my recently released novel, “Until the Sun Rises – One Night in Drake Mansion,” I similarly can’t put my figure on any single element as having spawned the rest of my tangled web. However, I can recall the very first scene from the story I began developing.
The majority of the novel is set in the present, but a portion takes place in the past. The first past section involves a mysterious, secret, and very thematically dark magic show which adds to the mystery set in the present with a parallel mystery to unfold in the past. Essentially, it’s a tangential story line, a secondary mystery that draws the reader to learn about certain characters pertaining to the primary mystery and plot. It adds character depth, intrigue, and plot layers. Of course the two plotlines intersect explosively, but it’s interesting in retrospect for the secondary plotline to have been the genesis of the main story, converse to what one might expect.
This magic show moment and its characters were first. From there, I created scenes to give readers background on the characters, to get you acquainted. Next, I developed plot that puts the characters into that moment. After that, I developed additional scenes to give that moment direct consequence, and more to show readers what those characters do after that moment, how it impacted them.  With this thread woven, I stepped back and asked, “how can I make this even deeper, even more consequential, intriguing, captivating?” The answer came with adding what eventually became the primary plotline, which underwent it’s own similar development.
Returning to the question, “where did you get the idea?” It feels like I just had that first moment in my head. Did I see a weird magic show that made it dawn on me? Not that I recall? Did I base the characters on something I saw, read, or heard? I don’t think so. In fact, I believe I invented the scene and the character specifically because I’d never seen anything like that scene before. The rest was created to give others a chance to find it as interesting as I did.
Perhaps in the future I’ll read an article and it will directly inspire a new story. Certainly that occurs with non-fiction, and I can imagine the same for fiction - where a real life story inspires a similar, but even more intriguing scenario. That just hasn’t been my experience. In the mean time, perhaps a better go-to question for authors is, “what part of your story did you explore first?” This might cut to the desired incite into the creative process even faster.
Authors, what part of your story did you explore first?
Originally Posted at the "Omni Mystery Blog,"  June, 2015.
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My First Vonnegut Experience, Though Likely Not My Last.

I've always been familiar with Vonnegut's name but not particularly versed in his material. I'd seen the movie based on his novel Mother Night, but outside of knowing a few titles, seeing his cameo in Back to School, and of course his connection with the University of Iowa, that was the extent of my familiarity. However, recently I'd encountered an intriguing, simple and playful, yet deep quote from Cat's Cradle. I felt it was time I gave Vonnegut a read and I was not disappointed.

The voice with which the book is authored is often playful, lighthearted, and downright fun, but the story itself bare quite biting criticism of many of society's driving forces - government and religion to name a few. Vonnegut eases into his opinions backhandedly and with an essentially neutral protagonist who is merely a victim of happenstance, landing readers on yet another drawback of such institutions before you know it.

The story of the book, my personal litmus test, starts with a very average seeming Joe. He's a writer and I suspect not-so-dissimilar to Vonnegut himself, conducting research for a novel. Along the way he encounters other seemingly unimportant characters, though by the end the narrator and almost every character along the way end up playing a role in what is essentially the end of the world. A master class is "raising the stakes" if every there was one. Undoubtedly Vonnegut's criticisms would not have been so palatable without the playful and surprising vehicle of this intriguing plot.

My only woe with Cat Cradle is that I didn't read it sooner.
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Repetition of Story (It's Christmas)


Christmas is nearly here and with all of it’s activities, I find it also a unique time to analyze the repeating, or perhaps recycling of stories.  Of course story ideas are recycled all the time not just at Christmas, however as a lover or originality I find myself more forgiving this time of year, and I must wonder why.
Simply take a look at TV programing schedules around the holiday and you’ll see what I mean. Be it reshowing of holiday classics, like A Christmas Story (1983) being shown for 24 hours straight; remaking holiday classics, like A Christmas Carol every few years; or recycling a narrow field of storylines into new, slightly parodied, stories, like your standard made-for-TV Hallmark holiday movie, everywhere you look you stand to see the repletion of a story.
One could argue that most stories released, be they movie, book, or other, are derivative of earlier stories in some way, but to me, at Christmas time it is far more prevalent, and far more transparent than the rest of the year.
Christmas is a time when those of us who observe the holiday tend towards that which is familiar. We like to see the same plays, the same ballet, and yes the same movies as we have for years, decades even. Perhaps it is our desire to relive our childhood, to relive and recreate memorable moments from our lives that makes us, or at least me, particularly receptive to the rehashing of a familiar story.
It’s also a time when we’re short on time. After the presents are opened and when we have an hour to kill before heading off to Grandma’s, we flip on the TV, and there we find that oh-so-familiar story. Maybe we missed the first half hour, and maybe we’ll have to leave before it’s over, but that won’t matter. We know the story so well; we’ll enjoy it just the same.
While they’re arguably not high cinema, I must admit to taking in a holiday-esque, overindulgent sized portion of them. They’re perfect for throwing on while engaging in other Christmas perpetrations – baking cookies, decorating the tree, wrapping presents, addressing holiday cards, or if you’re like me and my family, assembling our Lego holiday village for prominent display.  
When it comes to story, they’re typically very simple. That’s what makes them perfect for uniting with other activities. They set the mood, but if you have to walk out of the room a dozen times, you still never fall behind in the story. I personally praise originality to a fault, and strive for originality in every nook of my own work but this observation comes without an ounce of criticism, that is honestly and truly why I like them.
It may be true that the storylines lack on variety. In my estimation, holiday films generally fall into about five basic storylines. With the most popular being the main character has lost the Christmas spirit due to prioritizing their high-power career, sales at a store, or simply making money, over family, friends, and Christmas, (e.g. A Christmas Carol) only to have a twist of fate, and often a new romance restore their priorities and their Christmas spirit. Also popular is the main character’s loss of a loved one having soured their Christmas spirit, but through a twist of fate and yes, a new romance, their Christmas spirit is revived. (Note, I’ll admit that the more basically you describe a story, naturally, the easier it is to group a wider range of stories together.)
Our familiarity as viewers with the core storyline is in fact what allows us to so easily digest the stories, even when only casually paying attention, which I mentioned before is paramount to the enjoyment.
Is it fine cinema? No. But tree shaped sugar cookies aren’t fine cuisine and I’m still going to eat a few dozen before the New Year. So to shall I indulge in recycled Christmas tales, and worry about my mental-waistline in January.
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