Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Excerpt from Virgin Unknown

Some would question how much that video I mentioned in my previous post could help contribute to a story.  Below is an excerpt from my historical fantasy Virgin Unknown, set in ancient Greece.  


     Orestes’ lower back twinged as he ascended the slope to the Areopagus, so he signaled with his hand to stop.  It wasn’t so much the upward climb as it was the slippery nature of the marble steps -- if one of his heels suddenly slid to the side, it jarred him right where his back connected to his hips.  The pain had usually been just an ache at the edge of his mind, but now it was jabbing at him, right when he had to reach the top of this rock for judgment.
     Of all the hills of Athens, the Areopagus was the one that essentially looked like a smooth marble rock.  Perhaps thirty or so paces high, many cities would be glad to have such a natural hub of authority as a seat for their leaders.  But Orestes turned on the step he had paused on to look back at the true center of Athens.
      Taller and broader than the Areopagus was the Acropolis, dominating the city in the midday sun.  Orestes saw nothing smooth about this tallest of the Athenian hills, composed of a series of huge, irregular marble crags whose pockmarked sides shone in the unclouded sunlight.  He forgot the pain in his back as he noted the sheer and inhospitable nature of those hillsides, stirring up visions in his mind’s eye of how in generations past the Athenians had used the Acropolis to defend themselves from their enemies.  For Orestes knew the original inhabitants had been a much smaller population, using sword and arrow to keep their dwelling at the top of that rough cragginess that commanded the plain between the two rivers.  There they had dwelt in security, relying on the natural protection of their marble fortress, until . . .
     Until they came down.  The Athenians had advanced far enough in prosperity and military might to expand their city onto the plain.  Then they wrested brick from mud, timber from forests to build themselves houses, shops, and military barracks -- the rectangular buildings that filled the plain beneath Orestes’ field of vision, where once it had just been a place for wandering sheep and goats.  Although a small flock of sheep was being driven through the irregular streets right at the moment, his nose told him the city did not have enough smells wafting upward to be simply a pasture dotted with shacks.  As the population had grown, the herds of cattle, sheep, and goats had increased, and now wandered further and further out from the city to graze as Athens continued to expand.
     To his right he could see sparkling water in the distance, and he recalled the excellent harbors the Athenians maintained on the sea.  Orestes looked with a keen eye at the sails that filled or folded in the stray gusts of wind, wondering which ones were ships of Athenian design.  The shipments of grain were so critical, the Athenians experimented with new designs of penteconters -- those fearsome warships with fifty rowers -- to protect their shipments on the wine-dark sea.  

Friday, March 18, 2011

Vicious Half-Truth #1: Write What You Know

To make a story vivid and compelling, to make it real, write what you know.  Relive your family dramas, the life goals you achieved through tears and self-sacrifice, or your romances that flowered or never were.  Visualize fields you’ve run through, ocean vistas that overwhelmed you, or quiet fireplaces with a cat or dog curled up. 

But what if you run out of what you know after just a couple stories? 

Well then, fake it. 

James Rollins once told of how he researched on the internet a particular village in Latin America to include in his story.  After the book was published, someone called him up, saying he had visited that same village a few years ago, and wondering when Rollins had been there.  Research these detailed accounts of famous and obscure locations, including amateur videos -- like this panoramic view from the Areopagus in Athens, which starts with the Acropolis. 

Read to your weaknesses.  Use the popular-level magazines with articles by experts.  Afraid of guns?  Read a copy of Soldier of Fortune, cover to cover.  Think psychology is bunk?  Pick up an issue of Psychology Today.  Even better, participate.  If you wonder if sexy CSI workers really use those nifty techniques you see on TV, catch a writers’ conference with a CSI speaker -- it’s eye-opening and disturbing at the same time. 

Eat in fast food joints to hear everyday dialogue.  Listen to cliques of teenage girls in malls.  If you don’t know what workmen sound like, watch Dirty Jobs with Mike Rove.  If you need to add some elitist language, watch one of those reality modeling or fancy cooking shows. 

Are your plots recognizable and your characters feel like stereotypes?  Join the club.  In how many Bruce Willis movies does a villain pop up in the second to last scene?  When you saw Inception right after seeing Alice in Wonderland, didn’t the characters seem familiar?  Or even copied?  Add fresh plot twists and personality quirks to fake it with the best of them. 

Read widely.  Fake boldly.  Never let them see you guessing.  

Monday, March 14, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles

Battle: Los Angeles completely blew me away. As the government realizes certain meteors falling near major coastal cities aren't really meteors, the Marines are sent in to stop alien forces from colonizing our populated areas.

  
The movie focuses on a small unit of Marines as they have to battle their way through the streets of Los Angeles to rescue some civilians that may or may not be holed up at a police station. We see them experience the fog of war -- sometimes literal lack of visibility, other times the confusion that comes when they don't know who is firing on them or where all their unit has gone.
 
No communication is possible with the aliens. They simply want to take our water, with no discussion or negotiations. (Although, if they ever tasted the water in Los Angeles, they might have decided they picked the wrong planet.) Their attack is so overwhelming, the military response will be to annihilate by massive bombing the coastal strip the aliens have occupied. Will the small unit of Marines reach the civilians they were tasked to find, then evacuate in time?


photo by Gage Skidmore 
Michelle Rodriguez, 
director Jonathan Liebesman, Aaron Eckhart

The level of realism is astonishing. During production, they had three Marine sergeants on set who advised the actors on how to speak and act. A friend of mine whose son recently joined the Marines said they correctly captured their mentality. It's so intense, Aaron Eckhart, who plays Sergeant Nantz, broke his arm during filming. The detail of their weaponry and combat melded with the alien special effects realistically -- I didn't see any moment that looked fake.
 
Standout moments: Sergeant Nantz carrying a child and yelling for an evacuation helicopter to wait. Michelle Rodriguez's character winning a shootout with an alien, then kicking its dead body, yelling, "That hurt!" The alien equivalent of a truck with automatic weapons -- a joy to behold, even though they're the bad guys.
 
A clue for those of you who like the review site "Rotten Tomatoes": When you see that only 32% of the critics liked a movie, but 67% of the normal moviegoers liked it, there's something funny going on.

Friday, March 11, 2011

100 Word Writing Contest


Literary agent Janet Reid, over at her blog, is having a writing contest that ends tonight. Entries must be short stories of 100 words or less that include the following words: sushi heater squibs tingo firefly. Below is my entry. How'd I do?
____________________________________

The three fairies swooped down in a daring line attack, a firefly trapped in each bonnet for illumination. Tingo glanced back once to indicate she was ready, her goggled eyes showing no expression. Then in she dove, using the purloined spark-heater to set off the squibs. The barb flew straight and true, burying itself with a clang in the hideous metal leg. Then the three flew round and round, wrapping all three legs with their silver cord. The Martian war machine tripped and fell into the water, like a child’s top in its last spin.

“Eat sushi!” cried Tingo.

Possible Agent!

An influential agency in the science fiction/fantasy field asked for the first 50-75 pages of one of my novels! Below is the query letter that intrigued them. I can only wait and hope.
_______________________________

Dear (influential agency):

I have heard strong recommendations for your agency at different Worldcons, and I would be delighted if you would consider representing my young adult science fiction novel Tica Manus: Ensign Extraordinaire.

Tica Manus and her posse at the Academy have a perfect record -- they've never been caught at their pranks, whether it's hauling a toilet onto a dorm ledge or hacking into a campus monitor to watch live transmissions from the Fleet. Eager to leave Earth and join the Fleet to tour the colonized worlds, Tica can't wait to initiate their final eye-catching pranks at graduation. But when graduation day does come, Tica and their whole civilization are horrified by a broadcast of nuclear weapons destroying their outermost colony.

Thrust into a Fleet that is suddenly more serious, Tica has to catch up fast when she finds factions onboard her ship, vying for power and ready to undercut the captain. When a faction tries to recruit her, she realizes they're grown-up versions of the posses back in school, only more serious -- determining the glide path of one's career in the Fleet. Though she was warned to leave her prankster past behind, Tica's trickster nature may be the key to smacking down the posses that are fracturing the ship.

Tica Manus: Ensign Extraordinaire is complete and the word count is 69,456.

Miley Sucks, Kinect Rocks

(Originally published 11/18/10)

The Microsoft Store opened in Bellevue Square today! To kick it off, the first three thousand people would get free tickets to a Miley Cyrus concert. (I know. What’s the connection?)
I figured if I got there early enough, I could score tickets and become a hero to a couple families I know with teenage daughters. But when I got there . . .

We love Miley!

That’s right, the end of the line had teenage girls camped out there for who knows how long. What burns me up is that Minneapolis also had a Microsoft Store open, and they were giving out Kelly Clarkson tickets! I would have gone there really early for that!

I missed the moment they opened the doors, though. Why? Because of my adventure with Microsoft Kinect.


This is their answer to the Nintendo Wii. They had booths set up for anyone walking by to go in and try it out. The woman above is part of the Microsoft staff and a great dancer, and she showed off the dance program that invites the user to match the moves of the animated figures.

I am not a great dancer.

But as a writer, I should try new things to help m
y creativity. Even if it involves public humiliation. (The young adult writer Veronica Roth blogs about this, although her motive is somewhat different.) So I went into the Kinect booth and danced to “Funky Town.” Nope, no pictures of me to share. But I did it.

Afterwards, as I sat down to write elsewhere in the mall, drops of sweat fell onto the page I was on. I was perspiring that hard, either from the exertion or the public humiliation.

When I did go into the Microsoft Store, it turns out the upper half of each wall is a series of computer screens. They wrap around the entire store. Kazo
wie.


What’s funny is a couple of spaces down inside Bellevue Square is the Apple Store.


All they had to announce is you can now buy songs from these four long-haired guys from their store. Kind of a let-down.

But better than Miley Cyrus.

Athena Query

Below is the query letter for my historical fantasy novel.
___________________________________________


Athena yearns to fight alongside the father she’s never known, to use her strength to fight the forces of chaos with sword and spear. But who is she? Why is she so much stronger than the men who have trained her for battle? And why won’t her mother tell her who her father is?

Her desire to serve her absent father will take her past the servants who spar with her, to the glittering palaces of Mount Olympus whose inhabitants are cruel and indifferent, and to the deserts of Libya, where she must compete against another young woman for a place among the Olympians. Along the way, she must decide whether her competitor is a hostile, vile person who tells lies about the cunning nature of their immortal relatives, or is possibly a friend she can rely on.

Athena: Ready to Fight is the story of a young Athena who learns cruel wisdom as she comes to grips with the world around her and the immortals who reign over it. Athena and her Olympian relatives resemble superheroes in their ability to fly and hurl boulders, but she quickly finds she is not part of a family of do-gooders. They are also known as daimonion, and the lesson learned over the years by mortals is, “The daimonion are cruel.” Despite her misgivings, Athena competes for the last throne on Mount Olympus, learning more about who she is along the way.

__________________________________________


Although I did not meet with Joanna Stampfel-Volpe at the Surrey Conference that I attended in October 2010, she gave this blog advice on what agents' want in a query letter: "Introduce us to the characters, state the conflict, show tone, and how do the stakes get raised? That’s it in a nutshell."

How'd I do?

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