Wednesday, October 1, 2014

ON SALE NOW - Harris by Jonathan Hansen

You may or may not have heard by now, but... my short story HARRIS has been available for download to your various e-reader devices for a few days now... well, pre-order, but hey... why would you want to waste time, right? Beat the rush. The early bird gets the worm, as the kids say.

But now the long pre-order nightmare is finally over, kids. Today. Finally. Today you can go online, you can order my story, and you can get it, all within moments. Think of the instant gratification! You know how much you like instant gratification, right? I know I do.

And you can find it all right here.

Muy convenient, huh? You're god damn right it is. Check out my sweet cover too. Totally sweet, right? Now, some of you out there probably remember the last time I was talking about this story (remember?), back when it first came out in the local sci-fi anthology Cifiscape Vol. 2--which is still available here, btw--Well, this is the same story, almost the same. I've added some new content, nothing major, just a bit of fleshing out here and there. If pressed, I'd say it's a deeper experience... but if pressed. If you've read it before, you probably won't notice, so read it again, what are you doing that makes you so busy, huh? And if you haven't read it before now, oh boy, are you in for a treat. And let's not forget about the price? $.50 direct? $1.00 from Amazon? Come on, man! That's a bargain, baby... That's a bargain!

Also, if you love it, leave a review.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Dancing, Envy, and Character

Last night I danced to New Order’s Blue Monday at Transmission and it was a freaking blast!

Why does a 40+-year-old man get excited about dancing to New Order? Well, you have to understand, I grew up in Iowa. That doesn’t help? Okay, New Order was the kind of music that if you requested it at a high school dance A) you were lucky if the DJ knew you were talking about, B) luckier if the DJ had it, and C) and “OMG go buy a Powerball ticket right now” lucky if the DJ actually consented to play it, but then when the DJ did play it the dance floor would disintegrate into a bunch of morons staring stupidly at one another until Poison came back on.

High school was four years of wishing I was both somewhere else, and someone else. I wanted to live somewhere where I could go clubbing and dance to New Order, the Smiths, and Depeche Mode, like those characters you saw in the movies. I soooo envied them, because I was that person, despite being locked away in backwards small-town Iowa. I’m sure this was a factor – at least in part – as to why my nose was stuck in a book for most of the time I was growing up. Reading about the lives of those I envied, admired, or identified with was so much better than my own stifling sentence in purgatory.
All this has led me to wonder, what is it about character that hooks a reader? Specifically, myself. Certainly, it’s all those things I just mentioned, but those span a wide range of possibility, and why would I be drawn to those qualities more than others?

Last week Mark talked about the everyman – that guy/gal who was is just a regular old person with whom we could all at least partially identify with. That kind of character never would have kept my attention back when I was a kid. I was already too much the everyman, and I desperately wanted to be someone else. The characters I was attracted to had powers. I didn’t read comics – there was really nowhere to get them and at the rate I read we just didn’t have money for it – so it was books and movies for me, fantasies that had characters with magical powers, and the wilder the better. Man did I eat that stuff up. For me, those kind of stories had the trifecta. I envied their power, I admired their fortitude, and a completely identified with their need to affect change and right the wrongs in their world.

A few of my faves:

Elric of Melnibone – Michael Moorcock
Raistlin Majere – Weis & Hickman
Garion – David Eddings
Arthur, Merlin, & Excalibur
And of course a certain boy from Tatooine who needs no introduction:

Nowadays, the characters who tend to draw me in aren’t usually superheroes.

They are regular people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances.

These are characters whose devotion, stubbornness, anger, and pathology enable them to exceed their limitations and become something more.

To name a few:

Deena Pilgrim – Bendis and Oeming

Hawkeye – Fraction and Aja

Boyd Crowder – Justified

Roland Deschain – Stephen King

Londo Molari – J. Michael Stazcynski

Starbuck / Kara Thrace – Battlestar Galactica

Who’d I miss?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Everyman & Everywoman in Fiction

While critiquing the latest chapter of my book-in-progress, Sunlight, our writing group got into an interesting conversation (at least I thought so) about my character Laura. Laura’s a secondary character, and in the timeline of my story she’s only been around for about 24 hours. The general consensus of the group seemed to be that although Laura seems like an average/nice/likeable character, certainly with her real life problems—so far something is missing about her: Her AWESOMENESS. I tend to agree—but her lack of awesome may be OK—at least for now.

In this early draft of my book, I’m still getting to know my characters (like Laura), and I know things in her back-story that are awesome but haven’t made it to the page yet. There are also challenges to come that she’ll have to face that will bring some of that out. BUT this still raises a more general question—do all characters (even secondary characters) in your story need to be awesome?

In our group discussion we never fully defined what “awesome” meant, but for me when I think of awesome characters, my mind immediately jumps to those with extraordinary, super-abilities or traits: Sherlock Holmes smart, Superman strong, Buffy’s ability to kick some vampire ass, or Dean Koontz’s well, odd and supernatural Odd Thomas—characters so full of great capabilities, contradictions and strengths (or so unusual) that they stand out, can carry their own story and are easily remembered.

So should every character in your story be awesome? I think the answer is yes and no. All well written characters should be unique, should stand out in their own way, ideally they should be flawed/troubled/complicated enough to seem real. My goal and hope as a writer is to bring characters to life that people care about, want to hang out with, spend time with maybe even think about and remember after the story is over. But I think there is a character type in literature and film that somewhat defies the idea of the “awesome” character.

The “Everyman” is a somewhat generic character that people can often easily relate to, who is taken from their own, mundane, normal world and plunged into a crazy or abnormal situation or reality. The interest in the story of the everyman usually comes down to “what would an average person do in this strange/terrible/tragic situation?” Often they end up surrounding themselves with many stronger, talented and/or more interesting characters to help them accomplish their goals.

My lead character Job in Sunlight fits the bill as Everyman. He’s a cop trying to cope with the loss of his family in a world taken over by monsters. He doesn’t have super-powers, he’s not the “chosen one,” he’s not an antihero, etc. He’s just an average guy doing the best he can in taxing and extraordinary circumstances. I do want my readers to strongly relate to him. Likewise with Job, as I develop him further in my rewrites I hope to make him seem real, unique, likeable, etc. But he’ll still be an “everyman.”

Some of my favorite fictional literary and film “everyman” characters:
• Rick Grimes, from the Walking Dead series. (And just about every lead in every zombie story starting with Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead.) I have to say, I don’t really “like” Rick, but I can always relate to him.
• Sherriff Brody from Jaws
• Arthur Dent from HitchHiker’s Guide…
• Peter Parker (when not Spider-Man)
• The Man and The Boy from McCarthy’s The Road. (Very generic but relatable characters.)
• Mario from Nintendo Games (and just about every main character from any first person-shooter game)
• Frodo, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings might qualify as an everyman, too… despite being a Hobbit, even though he’s also the chosen ring bearer. He starts the story living in a hole in the ground, afraid of adventure. Compared to his other companions in the Fellowship, his extraordinary/awesome levels aren’t that impressive. He’s got his own skills, but he’ll never face down a Balrog on his own.

More specifically the conversation in our writing group focused a bit more on women characters. Do female characters all have to be special, unique, more than just your run-of-the-mill person to be a worthwhile/interesting character? Can they be a good character without being “awesome”?

Maybe. I’d like to believe there is room in fiction writing for the “Everywoman” character, too. I tried doing a Google search on this concept, of an “everywoman” character, and I didn’t find much information at all. I did find this posting on the everywoman that I though raised some good points, especially “Why is there only “room” for “extraordinary” women?” in literature.

Images of the “average woman” from various countries, 
created from hundreds of pictures of women from all over the world.
Although I haven’t read Stephanie Meyer's vampire-romance Twilight books (and don’t intend to, it’s just not my thing—and the movies fill me with a vague sense of nausea and sadness for sparkly vampires… I can't watch them, either) from what I know of the stories, my gut instinct was that the main female character “Bella” is an “everywoman.” This post on the “everygirl,” (also nicely done), confirms this idea, and also lists some other great examples of the “everywoman” in literature.

So after thinking more about this, I do think there’s room for the Everyman or Everywoman in your story, depending on what that story is. If you are looking for a way for people to relate and sympathize with your main characters, especially if the world you’re creating is crazy/dangerous/abnormal it can be a great way to go.

But--don’t be afraid to bring the awesome. If it’s there in your character, let it out on the page.


(Source for the "Average Woman" photo article linked above)

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Peck of Villains

As you may know from previous posts, I spent my winter and spring reading the novels and stories from Le Guin's Hainish World. I made sure to request later editions from the library so I could read the introductions. Written by Le Guin well after she wrote the pieces themselves, they are full of her later thoughts on each piece, as well as her ruminations on writing.

In her introduction to City of Illusions she touched on something that I find I'm struggling with in my own WIP.


Le Guin's thoughts:
Real villains are rare; and they never, I believe, occur in flocks. Herds of Bad Guys are the death of a novel. Whether they're labelled politically, racially, sexually, by creed, species, or whatever, they just don't work. The Shing are the least convincing lot of people I ever wrote.
In the series of integrated stories I am finishing up, I've got some baddies that I'm just not all that satisfied with. They are called Thority (a "what if" spinning out of a world in which the transit authority ends up as the sole organization, and having access to resources they can wield quite a bit of power.)

Mostly these baddies are in the background, just another feature of a world that has newly fallen apart, one of the many defining features of the new environments within which my characters must make their decisions about how best to live their lives. That's probably one piece of why I'm dissatisfied with them: there are no unique Thority members as a characters, so they are all just a grey wash of badness.

As the stories have evolved, I've found myself needing to explain why they are bad. I didn't want it to just be because Power Corrupts. Maybe that impulse was a good one, a step away from the grey wash and the Herds of Bad Guys that Le Guin regrets in her own writing. If you give the bad guys a story, rather than just having them fit a category, maybe they will be more interesting. More real.

But the story I have told has explained away their moral culpability. They've got soft-wiring that's gone glitchy. And right now it feels again that I'm taking a step back toward category-badness. I didn't set out to write a zombie story, but in way I think Thority have ended up fitting into that trope.

Which has gotten me thinking about the Zombie trope itself. Given that it has been so popular, it seems that many folks are convinced by the mass-bad-guy. Or is it that zombies work as background, but never as real characters in a story? The real enemies are ourselves, and other folks just like ourselves: unique individuals with individual histories, wants, and needs. Individuals who all must interact with one another within the environments they find themselves (which may contain zombies like Jon's Gunslingers or zombie/vampires like Mark's Sunlight or as in my story cycle: radiation, strange new diseases, the reemergence of old diseases, self-aware plant/animal trains, and zombie-like Thority-figures...).

So maybe Thority really aren't the villains in my stories. Maybe no-one in them is. Maybe all my characters are each doing the best they can with what they have, even if that best sometimes results in a whole lot of pain.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Getting back to it

Recently I broke my computer.

This is not to be confused with the time my computer died. That time was the laptop's fault. It was old and slow and not meant for this world anymore. But this time? This time it was my fault. I went to open the cover and instead of doing that, I just kind of pushed it off the table. Luckily, I had paid for Tech Support previously and the various replacement doo-dads and what-nots were not too expensive. Plus, it turns out I really am blessed with wisdom of the very Gods, because I had thought to put my Microsoft Office download code in an obvious place, the first place I looked even. I barely had to tear up the attic. I hardly swore up a blue streak at all. In the end, it wasn't too much hassle. I took the whole experience as a Teaching Moment: Don't push your computer onto the floor. You might want to write that down.

Or, maybe that's obvious to you.

Anyway, the crisis has been averted, we got greens across the board, people. We're in the pipe, 5 by 5. The laptop is fixed. But you know how it goes, right? You think you've handled one problem, only to find yourself facing another...

I was working on a story when my computer took the Big Leap. A novel, maybe. A book, possibly. A story. My Work in Progress. I was in the middle of it, trucking along and then... boom... break time. It's hard to get back into things when that happens, as they sometimes do. So what do you do?

What am I doing?

Jon's Handy-Dandy Suggestions for getting back into your shit, yo

I've talked about stuff like this before...

1. Start from the beginning

Every time I sit down to do some work on whatever story I'm working on, I usually start off by re-reading/editing the last part I worked on. It's kind of like warming up the engines and taxing down the runway. Doing this helps me get back into the rhythm of the piece. It helps me to re-ground myself in the work. Where am I? What am I doing? What's the next step? I find that it's all much easier once you get the juices flowing. this is a good habit to get into, I think. It not only helps to maintain a consistent direction, but it can also alert you to the fact that you might need to adjust that direct. Story-awareness, my friends. Story awareness.

2. Work on a side project

Sometimes it helps to step away for awhile. Some people suggest doing chores or something like that, but... yeah, fuck that. Chores... pphhbbtt. Whatever. Anyway, I suggest working on other projects. You have other projects, right? Things on the back-burner, maybe some other stories in various states of readiness, yeah? During my forced break I was not only pondering my current WIP, but two others I have in limbo. The one upside to my unplanned writing hiatus was the hatching of a couple of ideas. I thought I would jot those down quick before getting back to the heavy-lifting that is the current WIP. Think of it like stretching before a workout. Of course, this can be a tricky thing. You want to be careful you don't get sucked so far into a new project that you end up abandoning your old one. You'll never get anything done that way, so stay vigilant, friends.

3. Blog

Okay, maybe the temptation of those shiny new and unblemished story ideas is too much, especially when compared to your more worn and lived-in WIP. Maybe you don't think you're strong enough. That is understandable. If this is you, then I suggest other types of writing to warm-up with. Blogging is the amuse-bouche of the creative process after all, so indulge. Talk about your Writing Process. Write some flash fiction or a book review, gush about your favorite TV show, fill out a survey, or maybe recommend some comics... sometimes several comics. Be a smart ass. Whatever. It doesn't matter. In the end, the only thing that does is that you shut up and write.

And that's the most important take-away from this bit of nonsense, kids: Shut up and write.

At least, that's what I plan on doing...

Until next time,

Saturday, May 31, 2014

On Not Taking Short Cuts

I'm just returning from Wiscon and am on a writing spree. All I want to do is write - for hours and hours. I have to tell myself to stop so I can get all the other necessaries done. And then I don't listen and keep on writing over the growling of my stomach.

So, for me the conference was a success. The panels, the readings, the conversations about reading and writing all helped re-awaken those creative muscles. (Plus, it doesn't hurt that the semester is over and my reservoir of ideas isn't being tapped by planning classes.)

One of my "conference sparks" flashed during the writing workshop. I got good feedback on the story I'd submitted, but some of the conversation surrounding another participant's story has, so far, helped me the most.

In that workshop Kat Köhler offered her view that she's personally tired of reading stories about abused women. Because her comment wasn't in reference to my own story, I wasn't taking notes, but this is some of what I remember of her thinking: Abused-woman is a very common theme that has been overdone (making it seem as though this is what women have to accept as the reality of their future lives.) Also, it is often not done well because the healing from the abuse is too easy and/or unrealistic (quick fixes like finding a new partner.)

And I realized I'd done exactly that in the story I'm currently revising.

So, I thought I'd try something different to see what might happen to the story. And in the process of re-visioning, I realized that the abused-woman side-story (at least in my own story) was just a short cut, a cheat. I wanted a quick way to bond Cecily and Zamzam, and what better way (I thought) than to have Zamzam be instrumental in Cecily's getting away from an abusive boyfriend. It was all quick-quick, and no thought. Because woman-as-abused is a cliché, you feel as though you can just fall back on it without inviting or offering any real exploration. (And of course, when I say "you," I am really meaning "I"!)

Rather than offering a clear vision of a unique life or inviting the reader to think/feel deeply, that device, it seems to me, merely offers up to the reader an empty box. A place-holder. A throwaway. And it feels now that this might be the heart of the matter: who wants their words to be empty boxes? Writing isn't about taking the easy way out. That's the very opposite of creativity. Creativity is meant to offer something new to the world.

I've been having fun exploring how to rewrite the scene. I think it is better. I know I understand my characters better. I also know it became more personal: rather than using an empty box to stand in for real writing, I wrote out of my own experiences.

Here's a taste of the before:

Zamzam wasn't fooled by my lies about bumping into the cabinets. Twenty years younger than me, but twenty years wiser. She hauled me to the self-defense class she led for Somali women.  
I stood out, the only one in the room without a hijab. At first they kept their scarfs on because of me, but eventually they must have decided I was alright, and they'd take them off for the rough and tumble.  
It wasn't what I learned in that class that gave me what I needed to end that eight year on-off with Nicky. It was knowing I wouldn't be able to look into Zamzam's clean brown eyes if I ended up sporting another bruise. Nicky came at me for the last time and I crushed his cheekbone, put him in the hospital.  
Never saw him again. 
By the time he would've gotten out, the restraining orders were in place and we'd moved away.
And now that scene after the revision:
One evening when Nicky was out late with friends, Zamzam invited me for dinner. I remember we ate Somali tostadas that first night. Urbano in the kitchen making the flat bread they called canjeelo. It became a regular ritual: Urbano cooking, while Zamzam and I got in his way, picking at his ingredients, the two of us chattering away, laughing.
But Zamzam saw through the brightness of my smiles, my joking complaints about Nicky. She teased me years later that it was the way I watched her and her husband; always the scientist, compelled to explore the unknown.  
And I did watch Zamzam and Urbano. I noticed the way a smile would creep into her whole body whenever he entered the room, I took in how when he would put a hand on her hip or the small of her back, needing her to move out of the way of his chopping, and she would lose the train of her words. I heard the subtle vibrations in their voices as they so casually called to each other from across the apartment: Amor de me vida. Gacaliso. Amorcito. Habibi. I heeded those observations; the world was trying to tell me something. Being with them, that’s when I first saw a truer color of love. One that might flow between two people and fill a room, reeling anyone paying attention into its embrace. 
Thirty years younger than me, but forty years wiser, Zamzam hauled me to the yoga class she led for orthodox Somali women. I stood out, the only student without a hijab. At first they kept their scarfs on because of me, but eventually they must have decided I was alright, and they’d take them off for the vinyasas.   
It wasn’t really what I learned in that class that gave me the centering I needed to end that thirteen year on-off with Nicky. It was knowing I wouldn’t be able to look into Zamzam’s clean brown eyes if I explained one more time how Nicky was not so argumentative, was less dismissive when it was just the two of us. How things were good enough for me. Good enough for now. 
So I called it quits and I found myself gathered up into a more true family. The Telarañas: Zamzam, Urbano, and me. 
Some closing thoughts. Writing empty boxes is quick: they really are short cuts! The new version is much longer. And, as Mark nicely reminded me at Scribblerati's last critique session, even short stories need to be mindful of word count. I haven't really done that kind of trimming work since I started focusing on short stories.

May I find that balance between the real and the compact.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster was one of the first movies I ever went to. I was about eight years old, and not to date myself too much, but this was the era when parents didn’t seem to worry about their kids. My friend Brian (also eight-years old) and I were dropped off by my mom at the local theatre with enough money to buy some tickets and a pack of Milk Duds. The audience was filled with elementary school kids just like us, there to see the Lizard King up on the big screen. Godzilla (and the Smog Monster, Hedora) delivered exactly what we wanted. There were explosions, mutated monsters stomping buildings, monsters punching the crud out of each other (with the Smog Monster you can take that literally). We were in heaven.

Now, more years later than I’d like to admit later, Godzilla is once again on the big screen—for the 29th (?!) time. In my family the apple doesn’t fall far from the Kaiju tree, apparently. Last weekend my son chose to take a group of his friends to see Godzilla for his belated 11th birthday party. You guessed it, there were explosions, mutated monsters stomping buildings and monsters punching the crud out of each other. When the movie was over, I asked the kids how they would describe Godzilla (the movie or the monster) in one or a few words. Here’s what they had to say:

Godzilla is:
The best
Hard to kill
A protector

When asked to rate the new movie on a scale of 1 to 10, my son’s response was:

What did I think of the movie? I’m usually happy to give away some spoilers, but I have plans to see Godzilla again with some friends next weekend, so I’ll let you discover the movie for yourself. I do recommend it and agree with the kids’ assessment(s) above.

For me the Godzilla movie delivered. It has some good effects and a few surprisingly human moments for a kaiju film. Godzilla the monster kicked butt. What would I give it on a scale of 1 to 10?

My inner 11-year old says: Infinity.

~ Mark