Thursday, November 24, 2011


If I have to say more than that, then I'm afraid I don't even know who you are anymore...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

November Ain't Just About Facial Hair

Current Reading: Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain

Inspirational Quote: "Adoption is not about finding children for families, it's about finding families for children." -- Joyce Maguire Pavao

November is National Adoption Month.

I'm an adoptive dad. Telemachus and Aeneas (obviously not their real names) are biological brothers we adopted when they were nine and six. That was 8 years ago.

What's it been like?

Here's the truth of it: it hasn't been pretty, it hasn't been easy, and it's going to get worse as they get older.

But, as I've tried to tell them so often, nothing worth doing has ever been easy.

Is it worthwhile?


It's hard, and some days all I've got as a buffer between me and despair is the knowledge that no matter how much I screw up, I'm still better than what they had before (which was nothing). Sure, there's likely someone out there who could do a better job than I.

But they're not here. I am.

Adopting older children is tough. The damage has been done, and no force on earth can undo it. You have to live with kids who bear so many scars it's a wonder they're still kids. You can't make yesterday better. All you can do is make today the best you can and give them some hope that tomorrow will be brighter.

That's your job.

The day doesn't go by when I don't screw something up. But I'm there. Every day. I'm there in the morning, and I'm there at night and I do my best to make our home a safe place.

That alone makes me the best father these children have ever had. Because of me, they have a shot at a good life.

Consider adoption. You could be the greatest thing to ever happen to a kid.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Book Report: The Hobbit, by Some Guy With a Lot of Initials.

I've always loved The Hobbit. In fact, it got me reading fantasy. It was one of the first books we were supposed to read back in Grade 9 English class, and one of the only ones I remember finishing. As such, it holds a special place in my heart, and as such, it bears re-reading because my reaction to it at 13 (in 1979) is unlikely to be the same as my reaction to it now at 45.

And this is true.

Popular history has that the Hobbit was originally composed as a bedtime story (or, more likely, a series of stories) for Tolkien's son Christopher. Whether this is fact or apocrypha seems to be a matter of debate. I don't know what bedtime stories were like in the years between the two World Wars, but this book is altogether more erudite and literary than anything I've ever tried to read my daughter. It's also a lot more violent and suspenseful. It reads more like a story out of Boy's Own Adventures than something to be read before bed, which tells me that the children of the 1930s were likely a considerably more rough-and-ready bunch than the screen-potatoes of the Internet age.

It's a rambling tale, with diversions and digressions that occasionally go deep into Middle-Earth History (Quick: who was Bolg, and why is knowing this important?), and when you read it you hear the voice of the narrator taking you one step away from the action. I picture Gandalf, using Ian McKellan's voice, reciting the story while sitting by the fire with his feet up. He speaks directly to the reader, occasionally referring to "you," as he plumbs the depths of Bilbo's plight.

I wondered many times, while reading this, what a modern writer would do with the material. John Scalzi has reinterpreted H. Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy, and so I wonder what someone like Jay Lake or Neil Gaiman would do with the material if they were given a chance.

It be an interesting read.

Bottom line: It's a book out of time, a classic, and although I'm no longer 13, I find things to appreciate about it that never entered the head of the teenager I was.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this, and will probably read it again in twenty years.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Ulysses Plot Peeves: Pass the Idiot Ball!

Current Reading: Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain

Inspirational Quote: "Genius may have its limitations, but stupidity is not thus handicapped." -- Elbert Hubbard

I've mentioned this before. I'll mention it again. And probably again. And again. Because if repetition causes just one writer to avoid this pitfall, my time on this Earth will have been justified.

Plot-Induced Stupidity occurs when the characters in a story do something that no thinking being in their right mind would ever do simply because the author has decided that the needs of the plot outweigh the needs of common sense. Characters will forget what resources are available to them and ignore previous experiences, all so that the author can move from point A to point B on the plot diagram.

Here's a perfect example: The Fellowship of the Ring. Earlier in the story, Gandalf summons Gwahir to save him from his imprisonment atop Orthanc. But then the wise wizard drops a bucket of I.Q. points and decides that a perilous walk into the enemy's stronghold is the best way to bring an end to the peril facing Middle Earth.

Idiot. That flash of brainlessness got hundreds killed, including himself (even though he got better).

I'd love to present an example from Massive Zombie Death Parade, but really I think I'd have to work way too hard to improve on Tolkien's fine example. And it just ain't worth the effort.

So, if you're a writer, please do your readers (and me) a favor. Remember the Principle of Maximum Character Effort: Every character wants something, and if it's important enough to be in the story, it's important enough for them to hold nothing back in their efforts to achieve it.

If you've got a situation where your plot says a character must act in a certain way, but that character's intelligence and resources make it more likely they'll act in some other way, then you've got a problem.

The problem is either you've got the wrong character for your plot, or you've got the wrong plot for your character. Say Redd Meat used to be a special forces weapons expert, but your story requires him to be unable to shoot an approaching zombie because he's not sure how to fire a pistol.

Yeah. I'm done reading now. You've pretty much trashed my suspension of disbelief, and honestly, I'm a little insulted.

This isn't to say you can't handicap your characters in order to make their stupidity believable. Robert Ludlum elevates this to an art when he gives super assassin Jason Bourne amnesia on the very first page of Bourne's very first book.

I'll let you get away with it if you're as good as Ludlum. Otherwise, I'm closing the covers and we're done.

Maybe Redd's been partly blinded by some chemical the Military dropped on the city in hopes of dissolving the undead. In that case, a weapons expert with a bogus aim makes perfect sense.

There is always room for extenuating circumstances.

Sometimes, when you're writing, you've got to trust your instincts about the character. If they wouldn't take action A, which is called for by your sense of plot direction, what would they do? The answer to that kind of question can often lead to some very interesting places, sometimes more interesting places than action A was going to take you.

On the other hand, if action A is really cool, maybe there's a better character you could use to run your plot. Instead of a weapons specialist, make Redd a cross-eyed hairdresser, or an Imperial Stormtrooper, neither of which are known for their facility with weapons.

This doesn't take into account stories where the character is actually meant to be an idiot. Maximum Character Effort means maximum for that character. If Redd's color blind, he's going to have some trouble jump-starting a car with red and green wires. If Redd's a moron, he's as likely to shoot himself as the approaching zombie, which makes me wonder how he got this far, so you've got to be careful.

So, summing up: Dumb character acting dumb for plot's sake, okay. Smart character acting dumb for plot's sake, not okay.

Next up: who knows? I'll go read some more. I'm sure something will occur to me.
Or not.
Life's a crap-shoot.