The Things We Call Ourselves

Monday, March 29, 2010

2 Chiming In
We're called things from the time we're born. Some of us are called thing before we're born. Your name is the part of you that can exist before you're legally alive, and it's what remains after you're dead. And, for a while at least, it's something we have absolutely no control over.

It's the first indication of parental dominance over their kids. All of the parents' hopes and wishes for their munchkin to be are tied up in that short (or long depending on your culture) string of letters that's somehow supposed to encompass someone's entire being.

There have been studies done on the benefit of certain names and damage done by others. (Did you know it can be potentially damaging to a kid's psyche if you name him Brandon Allen Davis? Or helpful to one if you name her Gloria Odessa Davis? The BAD and GOD come through as a subconscious tag of their self image... so say those people who are supposed to know everything.)

It's the same process a writer goes through to determine what to call his/her characters. Only writers are ahead of the game. Mom and Dad don't know what the little squirming pink or blue blanket will be. A writer has the whole life beginning to end to work with at once.

You can be original, though naming your kid for fruit is taking things a bit far. (I could tell you a funny story about a (real) boy named Fruit Stand, but it might be a little long... okay, I'll tack it onto the end) They can be unique takes on common names, like Jorja for Georgia. They can be feminized male (Leslie) names or masculine female names (Meryl). You can name someone in honor of someone else, and saddle them with the baggage that comes along with that distinction. You can have the 2,376nd Jennifer in 4th grade.

Then there are nicknames.

Everything from the embarrassing: It may have been ten years since you sat in chocolate pudding, but the resulting taunt lasted until high school...

To the celebratory: Some get to relive their moment of glory for their rest of their lives.

To the just plain weird: I knew a guy called Parrot because he looked like Ross Perot, and the person who observed this couldn't pronounce Perot correctly.

And then there are those names where you wonder if Mom was still on her delivery room meds when she filled out the forms.

(yes, these are real people)

Crystal Chantal Leer, Dusty Rhodes, Rusty Pipes, Avery Penny Counts, Huy Nguyen ("We Win", who totally blew the full effect by refusing to change his middle name from Manh to Will ;-))

(And the decidedly unreal Helen Zass ... say it fast)

No matter how the name is chosen, names are a key component of identity.

It's interesting that in current local culture, most people keep the legal name they're given at birth. In times past, and still in some places around the world, it's tradition for a kid to choose his/her own name when they reach the accepted threshold for adulthood. (Not quite the same as a Confirmation name - at least I never knew anyone who started using that as their legal name.)

Of course, those of who claim to be writers or actors or whatever can cling to the right of pseudonym either to punch up our given names, set ourselves apart, or correct some less than stellar logic on our parents' parts.

In my case, I started with Josina and dropped the "a" to make it sound more androgynous. (Believe it or not, some people out there don't like girl type people playing in their sandboxes.) The "L" is for my legal 1st name. And, personally, I like the way the two flow together. (And it's "Joe' sin", for those of you who have asked.)

So, how much thought do you put into your names? Pen names or character names? Was it an easy choice or a difficult one? Was there a particular inspiration, or did it just sound "right" to you? Was your intent to bolster your character or highlight his/her flaws?

(Wow, my posts are random the last few days. I think my brain is in "idea mode" so it's tossing out all kinds of things both interesting and confuddling.)

Okay, so for those of you who care, here's the story of the boy called Fruit Stand:

1st day of school, the kids are given name tags, and this particular child's tag read "Fruit Stand". This particular school got a lot of hippie children, so it sadly wasn't the strangest name they'd ever seen. Even sadder was the effect this weird name seemed to have on the kid - he barely even acknowledged it.

At the end of the day, when it was time to go home, the teachers asked each kid which was their bus stop so they could put them on the right bus. Again, Fruit Stand didn't answer when they spoke to him. So the teacher flipped over his tag where the parents were supposed to write in the correct stop.

It said Stephen.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

4 Chiming In
I'm a fan of Lost. Make that a HUGE fan. My geek flag flies high and proud from a do-it-yourself lightsabre. (And no I won't make you one.)

I love Lost, but lately, as it becomes clearer that some of my early assumptions about the show might actually be true, I'm a little irked.

You may or may not remember a post I made a while back concerning "but I'm not copying!!!" syndrome. This is the affliction that hits writers when something they've worked and sweated over for who knows how long gets its legs knocked out from under them by a "hit" of a similar nature.

Everyone who was shopping wizards in the 90's and vampires in the last few years is familiar with this phenomena. Outsiders don't know how much time the writer spent on their baby, so from the outside, it appears like copy-catting, or at least bandwagon dogpiling.

Why is this important? Because I think something I've been tinkering with off and on for the last few years and Lost may be based on the same principle.

Having said that, there's no island in mine, and no plane crash. It's focused on a very small group of characters and there are no creepy columns of black smoke that impersonate dead people at will. The principle I'm talking about is one of a scientific nature (pesudo-scientific, to be more precise.)

When I was 18 or 19 years old, I wrote this thing, and have improved it over the years into something that - according to one rejection - is a "solid studio concept" for a movie. It was based on two things - The Casimir Effect, and tesseracts. (Quantum physics constructs used for time travel and/or dimension hopping.)

So, what does this have to do with Lost?

You know those nifty numbers? (4,8,15,16,23,42, for those of you who don't) Well, those are key components of a tesseract. The numbers of faces/edges/verticies involve all of them except 15 (and the 23 needs to be a 32). At first, those exceptions were enough that it was a coincidence. Never mind that one visual configuration of a tesseract looks like an i-ching tile (and the Dharma logo), and that another is cross-shaped, which accounts for the missing 15 because of its ratios).

Then came "The Looking Glass", the Dharma station where Charlie died. Passing through the looking glass isn't just an allusion to Alice; it's also a quantum physics term for inter-dimensional travel. I started paying a little closer attention.

Books like Watership down and A Wrinkle in Time popped up among the other less than subtle placements of religious metaphors and physicist names (Farraday? Hawking? Seriously?) And Desmond started body hopping around his past/present/future like he was having some sort of temporal nervous tic.

Okay, time travel, no big deal. Right?

Then we see one of the Dharma initiation videos - the one no one was supposed to see where the bunnies got too close together and things start shaking. <--- this is a common assumption of paradox theory. The same matter can't exist in two places at once, which most people think means if Jimmy goes back in time and shakes his own hand, the world explodes. Aside from the fact that Jimmy at 32 isn't the same matter as Jimmy at 17, it would take a full body overlay where Jimmy's liver would have to touch his other liver for that to happen.

Another film strip explains how we got 2 bunnies with the same number stenciled on their side... The Casimir Effect.

This is where "but I had it first" syndrome starts to flare. I'm hoping they're just doing some time travel stories with it, but then we get to Jacob's lighthouse and #108 on the wheel turns out to be "Wallace"... so we're back to A Wrinkle in Time and tesseracts.

For anyone also not familiar with A Wrinkle in Time, it's a book from the 60's about a brilliant family with an especially brilliant son named Charles Wallace. Said brilliant boy wonder and his siblings go tesseract hopping to find their father in another dimension, and in the process meet CW's nemesis - The Black Thing... an amorphus black cloud of pure evil and malevolence. (I did mention that subtly wasn't one of Lost's strong points, right?)

Add in the Donkey wheel to Tunisia and the accidental ripping of a possible dimensional wall into sideways world, and I have to wonder if, when the "big reveal" comes, the island is going to be a tesseract, which is why it was chosen for the experiments with time travel.

I'm smack dab in the middle of a raging case of having something written YEARS ago that's going to come across in two months as Lost backlash. It's frustrating because there's NOTHING in the plot similar to Lost, but anyone who doesn't know better is going to see the words "tesseract" and "Casimir" and assume it came as a result of watching that show.

This doesn't mean I'm going to shelve the story, but it is a little irritating.

The only consolation at this point is knowing that if the concept is interesting enough, no one minds the science.

Red & Green

Saturday, March 27, 2010

1 Chiming In
Nothing about writing today, just a bit of a vent.

I don't have a green thumb; I have a red one. Blood red. As in the blood spilled while wrangling a supposedly harmless rose bush that decided to not only give me the porcupine treatment and leave my skin dotted with tiny puncture wounds, but also managed to carve a perfect "M" into my arm.

At present, it's a safe bet that said roses have brokered an alliance with the fireants and convinced them to attack on command.

Final tally: 2 rose bushes in the ground, along with about 20 tulips... most of which were lost in the great north wind offensive as they were being placed. It's a sad day for the flower bed; many casualties, including the lovely calla lillies that now rest on the ground. Only the hyacinths seem to have escaped the carnage.


Now I must go scrub compost off my feet.... blech. Writing's so much simpler. And cleaner.


Friday, March 26, 2010

1 Chiming In
I'll blame The Princess Bride. The movie, not the book.

My favorite scene in that movie, which I watch far too often, is the scene in Miracle Max's hovel where his wife bursts out of the back room while he's trying to revive Wesley.


It's the first line Carol Kane delivers, and it starts a rapid fire exchange with Billy Crystal that steals the show. Aside from the fact that I could probably narrate the film with the sound off (Seriously, who can't?), it's the inspiration for this post.

Nathan Bransford did a post a week or so ago about how writing is like lying, and yesterday, there was a long and circular discussion about why people prefer to read "fake" stories as opposed to "real" ones. (Long story, but the person in question just didn't get the appeal of fantasy fiction.)

Yes, I'm rambling, and now I'll stop to make the point I had in mind.

Writing fiction is like lying. It's more than the obvious "you're saying something that's not true" parallel. The reader accepts that you're not telling them real facts and suspends their disbelief to participate in the experience. So, fiction isn't lying at all... :-)

The thing to remember in lying and story writing is that the details will screw you up every time.

Lying is a craft. It's hanging a falsehood on the skeleton of truth so it appears different that it really is. Bad liars weight that camouflage down with too many details so that it pulls away and you can see it doesn't belong there. They over compensate by adding things that no one needs or cares to know because they think it makes the lie more believable.

Here's an example:

The Truth: Sonny Boy was late coming home and didn't call because "that place he's not supposed to go" has no cell service, and that's where he was.

A "good" story to tell would be: I'm sorry I was late. I tried to call, but couldn't get service, so I had a friend drive me home.

A "bad story to tell would be: I'm sorry I was late, but I got to studying and the chapter was so long, it took forever. I would have called, but my battery died. Then I couldn't call anyone to pick me up because I didn't have any money for a pay phone, and even if I had, I couldn't find one.

3 unnecessary details that make no sense, and serve no purpose in the story. It's easy enough for mom and dad to know that the library isn't open that late, to check the phone's battery, and to know that the library, were it open, would allow a kid to call home for a ride if he was in a bind.

Fiction writing is the same way. It's a matter of crafting a fine balance in the details needed to sell the story without weighing it down so heavy you choke the narrative. If the reader finds something in the last 3rd of the book that doesn't make sense with the first 3rd (like a character allergic to citrus eating key lime pie), it'll click. You'll be just as busted as that kid who couldn't tell a lie to save his life or driving privileges. (<--- that's a hint right there. If the kid had driving privileges, he would have been able to drive himself home.)

Check, and double check, your details. Make sure that they match beginning to end. Make sure that your characters' actions fit with their personalities. Your readers already know you're lying to them. Your job is to make them forget it.

Teaser Thursday

Thursday, March 25, 2010

1 Chiming In
Meh, for anyone who reads this blog, sorry I haven't been posting much the last week or so, but I've felt sort of... well, meh. Hopefully the posts will pick up in a day or so when the weather evens out. (Texas or not, going from 70 to snow to rain and back a few times in a week is NOT normal!)


This is from another WIP, not YA this time. It's a reality anchored fantasy about what happens after this scene - which may or may not be in the final book because it's only the inciting incident.

James Crowne walked through the Emergency Room doors of Methodist Hospital at 1:07 am on a Tuesday. The neon blue of the cross and flame caught his attention and made his decision an easy one. There weren't any lights on County.

No one looked up when the automatic slide engaged on the glass panels. He didn't say anything to anyone. James just made his way through the waiting area until he stood in front of the nurse's booth. His ID hit the counter with a snap of plastic against metal.

Angie Gersh reached for the card with one hand and her clipboard with the other, but he didn't take it when she held it out.

"Mr. Crowne," she said, checking the name beside his photo. "You have to fill out the forms. If you need help just ask."

But he didn't.

James didn't do anything else ever again.

His eyes closed, and those close enough to him would swear later that they felt something or saw something or heard something. None of them could really describe it, but they all said it came from the odd man in the baseball cap and denim jacket.

A smile was on his lips when the lights flickered overhead and a black out rolled the power grid for more than twenty blocks. Angie's computer blew up in her face, and when the generators kicked in, that smile was still there. But James was on the floor.

There was a blankness about him, like something great had fled the room.

Angie shouted, and covered her face with her hands. An alarm sounded. Lights flashed. People screamed from the power surge and the instinctual human fear of the dark. The whole room was chaos. And the last thing anybody was thinking about was a little girl in pink pajamas.

She crouched beside James' body, patting his cheek like her mother would do to wake her up in the morning, and she was the only one to hear the words everyone swore he never spoke.

"Come and find me, Mandy."

(copyright -- Josin L. McQuein; 2010)

But when will I need this in the real world?

Monday, March 22, 2010

0 Chiming In
The battle cry of study resistant highschoolers across the globe.

"I'm going to be a lawyer. Why do I need differential calculus?"
"I'm going to throw clay pots for a living. Why do I need to know how to diagram a sentence?"
"I'm an artist. Why do I need to memorize the chemical weight of Boron?(And you can't fool me, Krypton is where Superman came from, so there, Mr. Hoffman! ;-) )
"I'm going to be a writer. What use is rope climbing to a writer?"
"I'm going to be be a teacher. Aren't all the answers in the back of the book? No? Well, fine, then I'll teach 2nd grade. That's easy."

In my case, I hated poetry in English with a passion that most poets would covet for inspiration. I found most of it dense, pretentious, too in love with the rhythm of its own being, etc. And yet, our teachers seemed to think it was the essence of life itself.

The original career path was supposed to be genetic engineering. There's nothing particularly poetic about genotypes and recombinant DNA. (And so help me, if one of you mentions the poetic beauty of life itself, I will find a way to upload myself into the next post and smack you through the screen.) I didn't need poetry; it didn't need me. The world spun happily on its axis and mitosis continued.

Then, due to a string of things I'm not getting into, genetic engineering stayed at the school I left and I came back from Cambridge to take care of a couple of family members. Since getting out of the house wasn't really an option, I started writing again - this time as more than a hobby/pass time.

So what's that got to do with poetry?

You may or may not remember the haiku I dug out of a recently discovered floppy disk and posted here a while back. (I found all kinds of interesting things on those old disks. Some of it vaguely terrifying...) Well, that deceptively short three lines of solid platinum Sophomore effort actually found its way into my WIP. I needed a reason for a certain activity in the story, and it occurred to me that the MC was issued an assignment to write a poem. And since this particular piece was a bit dark, and the WIP involved birds that may or may not be human part of the time, it fit perfectly.

I still hate it. But at least now, I'm less convinced that those weeks were totally wasted time.

Last Place Rocks

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

6 Chiming In
You know that kid who was always picked last at sports in school? That was me.

Seriously - just under five feet tall, way too close to 150 lbs, and a year with a brace on my ankle - I wasn't first pick when it came to choosing teams in P.E.

People usually don't believe me when I say this, but I have no problem telling anyone that. It's not embarrassing to me or a reason to regret that status. In fact, I loved it.

No, I'm not joking. I really loved getting picked last for basketball and softball. I loved watching the "captains" go through the guys first and then the girls they thought might not screw up their scores. "Why?" you may ask, did this scene - played out every semester - not leave me a puddle of lost confidence on the gym floor? It's simple: I was good and I knew it.

That scene always happened in PE, but it only ever happened once a semester when the classes were mixed up and no one knew anyone else. When everyone's assumptions were based solely on appearance and not on ability. When no one had proven anything other than their ability to change into shorts and socks in five minutes flat. And if you've never seen the look on the face of a 6'2" Senior guy when a 4'10", overweight, Freshman girl wipes the floor with him in basketball, you haven't really lived. ;-)

The same goes for softball - "my" game. Sure I was, and am, small, but I batted clean-up from the time I was 6. And the first time all those smug faces shouts for the outfield to come in right behind the infield, and you get to watch them crane their necks as the ball sails over their heads, is priceless. It's hard not to walk the bases instead of running them.

Now, I didn't go into all of this just to point out that I was a good ball player. My point was that I've come to the conclusion that writing is similar to those days where the new class would choose sides.

When you send out a query, you're putting yourself in the line to be picked for a team. And when you watch people you know from writing circles and crit groups or online sites where writers gather snag contracts with agents, and then book deals with publishers, it can be tempting to feel like that kid who stands there all nervous while the captains choose everyone but him.

It seems like all they do is pick out your flaws and highlight them for all to see. Every presumption and assumption from what little of you an agent knows at the end of your query can make you want to tell the nurse you have cramps and can't do PE that day.


If you're good, and you know it,

If you know that all it takes is one shot or one solid hit,

If you know that feeling of watching those slack jawed faces turn and follow the ball they expected to roll ten feet fly fifty yards behind them...

... last place can totally rock.

All you have to do is hang in there, and the next time someone's choosing teams, they'll still probably start with their best friends, but once round one is over, they'll point at you first. When you come up to bat, they'll back up (which, of course, is when you bunt ;-) ), and when you get the ball, you find that it's the best players on the other team following you down the court.

They may not expect much of you at first, but they'll remember you by the time you're finished.

I Write Freaks

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

2 Chiming In
No, really, I do. Strange hair colors, odd piercings, things that can only be described as "unique". It keeps happening, and I'm not sure why. And almost to the last one, the freaks are always my favorite characters.

I came to this realization a while ago when considering the appearance of a particular character (whom I LOVE). I can see her clearly, owing partially to the fact that she was one of my rare "came to me in a dream" characters. This particular social outcast has hair that looks like it should be a flag for some obscure nation no one's ever heard of. (You know the ones I mean - the smaller the country, the more ornate their flag).

Elodie (who dropped the "M" because she wasn't "feeling it") has crocheted hair. It's sage green on the bottom, followed by a layer of black, a layer of red, and the bulk of it is cream colored. Straight across the top there's a streak of lime, scarlet, and violet.

I can see her as plain as day, and the appearance really does fit her character. She's destiny, and well, destiny has her own ways about her.

This wasn't an intentional writing quirk, but I've seen it crop up again and again in different WIP. One MC has dyed her hair cherry red (for a plot reason: she's in hiding and the dye makes sure people don't notice her face). In another, hair dye is a supernatural deterrent because the smell puts off the beasties that would like to make the people snack foods. And in another, the MC's hair is pink because she's trying to make herself look like an anime character. (don't ask...)

That's not to say it's always dye - one character has almost clear hair which is a result of something akin to albinism - but still, it's a weird and, well freakish common thread.

The usual mode of "I'm teh speshul" in books is those dreaded purple eyes, but I scrapped that one a long time ago. One charrie does have red eyes, but again, that's biology not anything mystical and speshul making ;-)

I'll also say that the appearance is one component of the characterization. They all have personalities. Pinkie's brash, as is Miss Destiny, but others are painfully shy or awkward, and so far no one who's read excerpts seems to think that the odd appearance thing is a big deal. (Most of them LOVE Pinky - no, that's not her name. Heck, I love Pinky. She's the biggest unintentional troublemaker in the world.) But put up, side-by-side, it's disturbing.

Anyone else have a quirk they didn't realize they had? Do you go with it or give into the urge to alter your WIP?

Queries and Other Torture Devices for Fun and Recreation

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

5 Chiming In
I hate queries.

You hate queries.

All writers hate queries.

If you don't, then I demand you turn in your writer card right now because you're an imposter.

However, queries are a necessary maybe not quite "evil", but close. I think most of us have heard the reasons they're needed:

*For writers, they're a foot in the door with agents.
*For agents, they're a first taste of a writer's skill and voice, as well as an introduction to the story. (They're also a 1st line of defense against those who simply can't be bothered to follow directions and/or learn their craft.)

I've also found that queries can be a valuable tool when starting a new story. (I know... I'm as shocked as you are.)

When starting a new story, after you get the basics down, try and write a query for it. Seriously. Do it right now. (No, I don't care that you don't have a new project in the works, I said move it! :-P )

It may sound counter-intuitive, but starting with the query can not only help you map out the major plot and main characters of your new project, but it can also help you dodge plot problems before they wriggle their way into your MS and have to be surgically removed. It spotlights those nasty cliches that you can't pick up on when they look shiny and new in your head.

And the single biggest advantage of the query before writing method? You find out in advance if you know your story.

If you can't explain it concisely from the beginning - before all the juicy details are added - then you most likely don't have a handle on the essence of the story yet. You are, in essence, trying to build a house without a foundation, and that's never a good idea. (Neither is using "essence" twice in two sentences, but it's a repetitive day... just go look at Nathan Bransford's blog post.)

DayQuil and Star Trek

Sunday, March 7, 2010

2 Chiming In
The title about sums it up, and from what I can tell, taking the former makes the later especially awesome. Not sure why.

I was one of those who expected this movie to be awful - most TV to big screen films are. This was mainly based on the promos of Kirk on an ice planet. (Kirk on Hoth did not compute in my nerdy nerd brain.) I was also one who immediately regretted that assessment.

Sure they rewrote some stuff, but it worked. And they sidestepped the biggest mistake that most TV-to-bigscreen endeavors make. They didn't try to copy the tone of the original. Had they tried to out camp Star Trek, this movie would have flopped before the Kelvin went Ka-blooey.

Now, if you'll excuse me, Scotty's just come on screen, and he's my favorite. :-)

The Saga of Greene Newbie -- pt. 7

Monday, March 1, 2010

1 Chiming In
I'm not a writer, but I play one on TV

After a few more days, Friendly Writerman came back to check on Greene's mental state. He hadn't heard anything in a while, and he was worried that the over-eager writer to be had somehow found a way to digitize himself and was presently trapped in some agent's spam filter waiting to be let out. Oh, the horror if the agent hit delete instead...

When he opened the door, he found Greene hunched over a pad of paper scribbling furiously.

'Aha! He's figured out the next step on his own, and is working on another book to distract himself,' Friendly thought.

But, alas, this was not the case. Greene was drawing increasingly abstract stick-man armies with too many arms and various lettering options for his novel's title.

"What are you doing?" Friendly asked.

"Designing my cover art," Greene said.

"Oh!" Friendly laughed, a bit relieved. "I did that with my first book, too. Sort of a celebration of completing the thing. It was fun."

"I just want to be ready."

Greene ripped another page off and tossed it blind into the trash can. From the amount of paper, it looked like he was on his third or forth sketch pad.

"Ready for what?"

"When it gets published. When I get my agent, I want to be ready to go."


Friendly was concerned again. Greene sounded like he'd inhaled too much toner.

"I'll have the cover all ready so they won't have to wait for it after the agent sells my book."

His previous fits of laughter hadn't gone over well, so Friendly restrained himself this time.

"You think you have to do the cover?"

This wasn't what he'd done at all. His cover had just been something to blow off steam... and it still looked better than the stick dog in a cape Greene was drawing.

"Of course," Greene said. "I'm a serious writer. When the publisher makes an appointment for me to come in and design the cover, I'll have samples ready and he can pick the one he likes best."

"When the editor...." The battle to not laugh was lost. "... appointment... meeting... designed..." Whatever toner Greene was using, Friendly wanted a case.

Greene was angry that his friend didn't think he was a serious writer. He'd seen how things worked on TV. The editor calls the writer in over lunch, they sit down, and together they design the cover to make sure it's what they both want.

So he was VERY upset when Friendly told him that - not only does the publisher get to pick the cover on their own - they get to pick the title, so the one that Greene was taking such pains with might not be the final title. In fact, it was pretty well a certainty that something whose title was identical to another one on the shelves already would have to be changed. And no, it didn't matter that he had the idea for the title before the other book was published.

Greene took his sketchbooks and threw them into the trash. He was never cut out to be an artist anyway.