Friday, November 26, 2010

Conflict: Man vs. Winter

News flash: it’s winter out there. At least where I live. According to the official calendar, winter doesn’t start until December 21st—but here in Minnesota it’s on.

Not to get all Keillor-y on you, but we Minnesotan’s deal with Man vs. Nature (or Woman vs. Nature, or Child vs. Nature) all winter long, every year. It’s the reason we’re a hardy lot. It’s why during the civil war the Union regiments from places like Maine and Minnesota were good at kicking some butt. When you spend six months out of the year with nature trying to kill you, you have to toughen up—or at least plan ahead. Forget your boots? Lost your hat? It just might kill you.

It’s not that other season’s won’t try to kill you—they will—they just take their time. Summer has been trying to kill me through harsh sunburns and excessive beer for years. To summer I say—bring it on—now!

But Winter, unlike the other seasons, has the teeth to do you in and do you quick. I don’t mean to make light of this—it’s just true. During this season you can fall through the ice, freeze to death walking back from the bar or slide off the icy road into a moose. None of it pretty, none of it anything I wish on you or anyone else. All thanks to winter.

Now that you know you know how I feel about winter, it should be no surprise to you that in my first novel there is a major storm taking place. Not just any storm BUT a snowstorm, a blizzard. Not only are my main characters trying to find a missing child while battling a swarm of nasty demons—but they get to do it in a snowstorm. Nature become bad-guy.

Including winter in my book has come with a few challenges. Maybe the toughest has been trying to find new and interesting ways to describe it. Snow—despite what your weatherman friends may tell you—is not always that interesting. It’s white like a blank page. A really big blizzard obscures everything from view. So how to describe it enough without losing the reader in a complete whiteout of description? Or too little to where the reader starts to wonder—oh, has the storm let up? I guess that has become my own war with winter: How to bring this chilly season to the page.

Here is an example of how I’m trying to incorporate wintriness into my book.

BLACKHEART (by Mark Teats - Chapter 20 excerpt)

Blackheart stripped off the unconscious ice fisherman’s boots, jeans and flannel shirt and got dressed. The boots were one piece, slip-on jobs with liners that scratched at his feet. He also put on a pair of extra-large, black snow pants with suspenders that he’d found on a hook near the door of the icehouse. The clothes weren’t a perfect fit but they’d offer great protection from the cold.

Blackheart grabbed the spear-like ice-spud and stepped outside.

The cold hit him immediately. The night was black; snow fell in big, dime-sized flakes. Out across the white expanse that was the frozen river the sound of a racing car engine and a pair of headlights cutting through the night grabbed his attention. It was maybe 100 yards away and closing. The car fishtailed recklessly, straightened out and aimed directly at him and the icehouse, going close to fifty miles per hour.

Blackheart took a few steps away from the cluster of icehouses on the frozen river’s surface toward the speeding car. He hefted the ice spud in his right hand, lifted it back, and prepared to launch it blade first. His left arm pointed straight in front of him for balance and aim. Throwing such weapons was something he was innately good at. Muscle memory was a wonderful thing. Idaeus had been a master of the thrown spear and javelin; all these years later that skill stayed with him.

The night and storm obscured any meaningful details of the oncoming car. Maybe the Lesser up to their tricks? Its interior was pitch black, the snow and ice-caked windshield revealing nothing of the driver. As the car zoomed closer Blackheart ran forward a few steps as if to meet it, cocked back the rough spear, and prepared to let it fly.

His aim was expert; he would easily kill whoever was behind the wheel. Just as he was about to release the shaft there was a wall of sound, a voice, no a chorus, shouting to him:

NO! Do not let fly your lance!

The Hafaza? In his head? What? How—

He felt momentarily blind, disoriented, but he listened to the voices, trusted them, and changed the aim of the ice spud as he released it. The spear barely missed the car and drove itself to stick at a 45-degree angle in the thick river ice.

The Hafaza, giving him a message? That could only mean—

“Noel.” He said as the car bore down on him, sliding, trying to brake.

He sidestepped and it slid past, narrowly missing him, going into a series of slow, circular spins. It was the same unmarked police car that belonged to the meddling detective, Clay. The rear passenger side was busted out and he watched it as the momentum of the last 360-degree spin took out a row of three dark and empty icehouses, knocking them akimbo as it came to a stop.

Blackheart retrieved the ice spud and ran toward the idling car.

The airbags had gone off, and the driver thrashed against the white mound. A driver with girl’s hands and short, mussed up red and black hair. He opened the car door.

“Missed me,” Blackheart said, his breath white on the crisp night air.

“I should have ran you over,” she said, pushing the airbag aside to look at him with teary eyes.

“Maybe you would have done us both a favor.” He said.

“Maybe,” she said. “Don’t just stand there, help me out.”

He did. When she was free she threw her arms around him. For once he returned her hug. She felt too thin, wasted. This had been hard on her. Too hard. Afraid to break her, he let her go.

“Good to see you, Kid.”

She nodded. Then started laughing, pointing at him, nearly doubling over. Blackheart looked at her quizzically.

“Nice snow pants,” she snorted. “You look like a dork.”

“Better than freezing my ass off.”

Thanks for reading. A couple links to help you fend off winter:

Stay Safe

Fight Winter Blues

Don’t Break Your Arm

Just for the heck of it: Minnesota Perspective on Civil War

Friday, November 19, 2010

Philosophy of Art 1.1: Quiz #1 revealed

In my last post, I closed with a quiz.

Jon and Mark quickly answered that this uber-craftsperson who can create everything that grows and lives, and heaven and earth, and the gods and everything in Hades is...


But before we get to that concept in the Platonic Dialogue, we get an amazing image of a person holding a mirror up to the world. Here's Plato from The Republic:

"Perhaps the quickest way of all [i.e. to make the whole of reality] would be to take a mirror, and turn it round in every direction. You will not be long in making the sun and the heavenly bodies, nor in making the earth, nor in making yourself, and every other living thing, and all inanimate objects, and plants, and everything that we mentioned just now."

I love this image: me, the writer, turning slowly with a nice big mirror in my hands, arms outstretched, a penetrating stare, and a sheen of sweat on my brow (think Sally Field in Norma Rae). "Look! World! I present yourselves to you!"

Clearly, the idea that art is like a mirror of reality has been around a long time--at least since around 380 BCE.

But before you get all high and mighty, you writers out there reading this--I'm the creator of the world! I rule all I see! I destroy, I make live! I am a god(dess) among mere mortals!--yeah, before you go there with your spunky, I-am-a-writer dance: read on. Plato didn't think that only good art is like a mirror, he thought that all art is like a mirror, and because of that? All art is bad art.

Wait--all art is bad art?

Yup, Scribblerati and all fans of fiction: it is all BAD! Because it's only an imitation. But that's not the worst of it; not only is art fake, art can only ever be a fake representation of a shadowy, unreal world: it's double-fake. The real world is made up only of ideas (of couches and tables and...). The physical, not-so-real world contains physical couches and tables which are couches and tables because they conform closely enough to the ideal of couches and tables (the ideas of them). They are like shadows of the real thing. So not only do artists create fake couches when we draw or describe them in words, we create a fake of a fake. A double-fake. I'm a double-fake faker!

Last quote and it's a doozy. Hang it near your work space all you artists, for a wee dose of humility:

"The art of imitation is the inferior mistress of an inferior friend and the parent of an inferior progeny."

This double-fake faker is signing off. If you need me, I'll be snuggling with my cruddy, misbegotten child of a novel, bemoaning my crummy, defective nature.

Friday, November 12, 2010


Hi-ho, Jon here!

I can't help but notice, on this fine and overcast morning, the near constant tittering blurts of "TGIF!" echoing up and down the long gray rows of cubicles here at the day prison, the gasping voices tinged with equal parts desperation and a sickly relief, and that can only mean one thing... it's Friday! Yay! Which also means... it's New Blog Day! Double yay! Not only that, but the spinning bottle has finally wobbled its way down to a slow stop and it's pointing right at me again, so strap yourself in, you lucky ducks, because you're about to spend seven minutes in heaven with yours truly, no ifs, ands, or buts about it...


The bad news is, I wrote something up just the other day on my own personal blog: This is Mine, mostly concerning the status of my current projects, so I'm a bit tapped out. Consternation, folks. Consternation has nearly been on my mind for almost the last day or so... what shall I blog about...

And then... inspiration struck! Suddenly, I recalled the little conversation the Gentleman Scribblerati had at the end of our last meet! We talked and we chatted, mostly concerning the status, level, consistency, and quality of our group in general (In short: Good!) and the effort that we've all put into obtaining that level, (in short: A lot!) and that put me in mind of a blog posted by Sci-fi writer and longtime blogger Jon Scalzi.

He put this up a few months back and it stirred some muck up and down the internet for a bit. It was funny watching the camps square off. One side agreed with him, the other most vehemently did not, offering a litany of excuses as to why, and in the end, somehow missed the irony, while a third side complained about the swearing. I fell in with the formers, as Scalzi's stance is really just a longer version of what I've decided, after taking various classes, meeting multiple authors, and reading countless blogs, is actually the only real, practical, and applicable piece of writing advice out there, the only real way to "become" a writer, which is...

The only way to "become" a writer
as learned by Jonathan Hansen

1. Sit down
2. Shut up
3. Pen to paper
4. Repeat

Everything else seems to be details which may or may not apply to your own personal situation. It seems like every author has started differently, they've learned differently, they've written differently, and they've edited differently. It seems like every one of them advises you to follow the querying guidelines and yet, it also seems like every one of them has specifically NOT followed those guidelines on occasion. Every person you talk to, every account you read, it's all different, except for one thing.

1. Sit down
2. Shut up
3. Pen to paper
4. Repeat

In short: If you don't have a product, no one's going to buy.

Here's Scalzi's blog. It's good and funny and profane and insightful, like most of his stuff. Go check it out, if for no other reason that he is current SFWA president. If you don't regularly read his blog or his books, you should.. I recommend Old Man's War, which has one of the best opening lines ever:

"I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife's grave. Then I joined the army."

Nice. Anyway, here's the link.

Until next time, kids,

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hump Day Surprise - Villans Part 2

Yes, I am shamelessly jumping onto the villains bandwagon AND I DON'T CARE!

(Mostly, it's just that I haven't done a Hump Day Surprise in a long time and I thought what better way to get back on that horse then by stealing someone else's idea. Clever, eh?)

So here it is, as promised in my comment to Claudia's original post, the fourth type of villain:

I don't know what you would call this particular category of villain, but The One Ring most certainly is a villain. It does all the things a good villain should do: it propels the story, creates conflict, and is a real Bad Ass!

And since were on the subject of an inanimate antagonists (Hey, is that my category name?), what do you think about this one?

I don't know that you can really call The Dark Tower a villain. It's not evil, like The One Ring, but I think one could certainly make the argument that Roland hated The Dark Tower every bit as much as he desired it.

So what's everyone think?  Good villains?

Saturday, November 6, 2010


I love villains. I always have. I blame Disney.
As a child, I was always much more compelled by the Disney baddies than the insipid trilling protagonists. The villains always had the wittiest lines, the best costumes: the most fun. Remember when the queen from Snow White discovers the skeleton she’d left in the dungeon, forever stretching for a water pitcher just out of reach – and she laughs, asks, “Thirsty?” and kicks the pitcher at the skeleton, breaking the bones into pieces? “Have a drink!” she cackles. Ah, yes. Horrifying sadism, even after the poor soul is dead, plus killer bon mots. Meanwhile, Snow White is ululating about singing bees and wedding bells, and praying that her prince will come.

Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty was my favorite. Don’t get me wrong, she scared the crap out of me too, but man she cast an impressive figure in her sweeping purple robes and giant horns. Plus – pet crow. Plus – demon minions. Plus – can turn into a dragon. Let’s face it, those evil broads also had all the power, all the confidence, and in the case of Ursula the Sea Witch, a great rack.
I think my love of villains has also been supported by the fact that, most of my life, I’ve rather looked like one – when I was acting I’d always be cast as the murderer, the vampire, or at least the man-stealing bitch. An excellent ‘curse’ – not only are villains more fun to watch, they’re more fun to play.

I was pondering how one would categorize baddies, and came up with three general types, at least in the realm of sci fi/fantasy.
  1. Villain as monster/ mindless horde. Arachnophobia. Alien. Jaws. The Reavers from Firefly. And as fellow blogger Jon Hansen would tell you, best of all: zombies. These villains don’t think, have no ethical considerations, really no motivation, they just want to kill, kill, kill. They are unstoppable because of their supernatural powers and/or their sheer numbers.
  2. Villain as nigh on invincible, devil-like symbol of pure evil. Sauron from Lord of the Rings. Voldemort from Harry Potter. The Emperor from Star Wars. I think I’d also include Big Brother from 1984, and other governments/corporations. There usually is only one very specific, very difficult way to kill these nasties, and they often loom over the book or books, more as a feeling of dread than an actual person. Co-blogger Mark has created one of these devilish (in his book, quite literally) villains, but also many demons who fit into category #1.
  3. Villain as complex human. Saruman from Lord of the Rings. Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. Our own Lisa’s villains in her book fall into this category (a bully of a schoolgirl, a power-hungry, censoring schoolmaster), although you could argue that the real villain is the human race, in which case: category #2. Some of Shawn’s villains are deliciously human, but Shawn also has the horde of beasties AND the insurmountable lurking evil. All three evils! Well done Shawn! This is doubtless one of the reasons his story is going to take 3 books to tell.
In mulling this over, this villain classification, I realized that the only kind of villain I get emotional about is #3. Don’t get me wrong, I love the first two types, but…as a reader, for instance, I don’t hate Voldemort. I don’t hate Sauron, and I don’t hate zombies. You know who I hate? Dolores Umbridge. The more relatable a villain is, the more human they are, the more detestable they are. Voldemort, as mentioned earlier, is an inhuman, super powered, looming super villain. (Okay, for the most part. The more we learn about his humanity as the books go on, the more relatable he becomes, and therefore the more loathsome, and serial-killer like – but also, we start to see him as someone who could actually be defeated.) Dolores Umbridge, for those who haven’t read the Harry Potter books, is a petty bureaucrat, a censoring, controlling, power-hungry, child-abusing sadist. Oh, man, do you end up hating her. I mean, really hating her.

So then, it’s interesting, as a writer, to ponder the use of the different kinds of villains, and how the different types can affect the psyche of your reader in different ways. The horde and the godlike villain – it’s hard to envision ever surmounting the odds, or the sheer numbers, to obtain victory over them. The human villain, we can picture them going down, but more than that, we really, really can’t wait for it.
Since my book is a murder mystery, it’s tricky. My readers don’t know whodunit until near the end (unless, of course, they suss it out for themselves). My baddie definitely falls into the #3, Villain-as-Complex-Human category, but their villain-ocity is not revealed until long after all character development has occurred. They’re hiding their true nature… and it’s a tricky balancing act. Because once they are unveiled, and their true evilness is revealed, I really want my audience to say “OH! That’s a surprise, but it also makes sense.” It’s up to me to plant little clues to the person’s snaky nature throughout the book, without giving the goods away.
I think, next book, I’m going to create a less complex villain. Perhaps a giant blob, or fog, or herd of rabid bunnies. But then again, blobs rarely have delicious one-liners.*
So then: Who are your favorite villains?

*Although the occasionally have awesome theme songs.